History as Law and Gospel – I
Jaroslav Pelikan

Where is human history headed and what does it mean? This question is forcing itself upon sensitive minds everywhere as a result of the course which history has been following in the past fifty years.

It is symptomatic of this situation that two of the most popular books on the non-fiction list in recent years should have been entitled Human Destiny and A Study of History. Nor is it accidental that Marxian Communism, which has laid increasing claim upon the hearts and minds of men in the past three decades, should concern itself with the problem of the meaning of history. Man's attempt to solve the riddle of his own existence is intimately bound up with his desire to understand the two factors which have made him what he is, namely, nature and history. Having discovered that an understanding of the world of nature is insufficient for an explication of the contradiction in which he finds himself, that, if anything, such an understanding merely deepens the contradiction, he turns to history in the hope of finding there the answers with which science refuse! to provide him.

But philosophies of history vary as widely as do philosophies of science. The erudition of a historian is no guarantee of the validity of his understanding of historical process, nor does the study of historical data as such supply the explanation of those data. Unlike the firefly, history is not self-illuminating. The problem of the meaning of history is; therefore, not primarily a historical problem. Because the question is part of the problem of the meaning of human existence as such, and therefore of my existence, an inquiry into the nature and destiny of history is necessarily an existential and intensely personal investigation, far removed from the vaunted objectives with which the historian claims to be able to view the course of human events. Precisely because a consideration of the meaning of history is so closely linked to my understanding of my own life, I cannot attempt to carry on such a consideration apart from the convictions and commitments by which my life is directed. For the Christian, the meaning of life, hence of history, is "hid with Christ in God."

According to the declaration of the Christian faith, God's disclosure of His will for human life is twofold: it comes as Law and as Gospel, as judgment and as redemption. Similarly, the meaning of historical process, when viewed with Christian eyes, appears as Law and as Gospel. Without a clear delineation of this twofold character of history, an attempt to articulate the Christian philosophy of history will lose itself in the same errors which have attended every theology in which the Law and the Gospel were confused and mingled.


History as Law


In the framework of Christian ought, the Law is that revelation of the purpose and will of God by which He sets down what He expects and demands of men. Since man is what he is and lives as he does, however, that revelation is simultaneously an announcement of divine wrath and judgment. In opposition to the Kantian formula, "You should, therefore you can," Christianity asserts that man is inevitably involved in intentions and decisions that run contrary to God's Law. And thus the Law becomes a voice of threatening and destruction.

History is conceived of as Law whenever its development demonstrates the inability of men and civilizations to redeem themselves or to live up to the ideals and goals which they set for themselves. This is something quite different from the "laws of history" which men profess to find within the stream of historical events. The elaborate schematizations of a Toynbee, for example, are neither convincing as history nor incisive as philosophy. Though none can deny Toynbee's scholarship or his acquaintance with many forgotten crannies of history, his entire scheme bears the marks of a preconceived notion which must now be superimposed upon history without regard for those parts which may not fit the mold. And while his theory of "time of troubles" bears some affinity to our understanding of history as Law, he seems to us to short-circuit the dynamics implicit in that theory by the calm assurances with which he foresees and foretells history's ultimate redemption.

Nowhere in the course of his ponderous book does Toynbee come seriously to terms with the judgment which historical study pronounces upon all pat theories, such as his own, that claim to rise above history in order to understand history. So painfully aware was the late Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) of that judgment that he made of it an entire philosophy of history. The historicism or historical relativism of Troeltsch and his followers on both sides of the Atlantic is rooted in the realization of the conditionedness of every historical utterance and event. This does not mean only that every man must be understood in the light of his times, and that every great movement or idea is a product of the historical environment in which it arose and grew. It means rather that even when I am sure of the fact that what I think and say is conditioned by the historical situation in which I stand, I cannot escape that historical situation. Like the Nemesis of the ancients, it avenges itself upon me whether I like it or not.

But not even the splendid synthetic gift of Ernst Troeltsch was able to draw the consequences of this view. In his posthumously published work on historicism, Troeltsch expressed the conviction that "we must overcome history with history." On the basis of this work, no less a figure than Adolf von Harnack called Troeltsch the greatest philosopher of history Germany had produced since Hegel. Neither Troeltsch nor Harnack, however, realized the implications of the judgment which each in his own way pronounced upon historical dogmatism and absolutism.


The Preacher First


For historicism, like every other preaching of the Law, must first be addressed to the preacher himself. Otherwise, it can itself become—as indeed it did become in both Troeltsch and Harnack—a vehicle for dogmatic pride. What Troeltsch and Harnack both failed to do was to discover that their own realization of historical conditionedness was itself conditioned by the temper of their times. With an unseemly ease that appears to be an occupational disease of historians, these scholars pointed out how ancient Christian thought came under the influence of Hellenism, how medieval social ideals were drawn from feudalism, how early Protestant theology and ethics were shaped by the "spirit of capitalism." They were able to do all this without penitently acknowledging that their own method and approach were inspired by the historical consciousness of the late nineteenth century and were informed ay the relativism and skepticism which pervaded not only the social sciences and history, but ethics, theology, and philosophy as well.

Thus historicism ends in its own dissolution; or, in Marx's terms, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. It fails to explain history satisfactorily, not because, as might seem at first glance, it is too radical, but because it is not radical enough. It is not nearly as radical as is a Christian view of history as Law, which acknowledges humbly and penitently that its own judgment upon history is subject to the judgment of God; "He that judgeth me," said St. Paul, "is the Lord." Historicism does not even approach the penetration of the Old Testament prophets into the infinite possibilities for self-deception which the preaching of the Law offers to the preacher.

Another reason for historicism's failure to do justice to history is the fact that it does not take the paradox of historical development seriously enough. As we shall see in our discussion of history as Gospel, the phenomenon of development within history has been [the means by which more than one philosopher of history was led astray. The paradox involved in the concept of development is that while there is development and movement within the historical process, every step forward involves a new set of opportunities for the corruption of the very impetus that first propelled that step.

That paradox cannot be resolved by a theory which sometimes passes for the Christian understanding of history. Usually beginning with the cliché "Human nature does not change," this naive view denies all meaning to historical development. It conceives of history as something static and of historical events and ages as insignificant. Far from being the Christian philosophy of history, such a conception sells the Christian worldview short by refusing to deal seriously with time. It owes much more to the Greek than to the Christian idea of history; for one of the distinguishing marks of the latter in contrast to the former is the earnestness with which it considers the Kairos, the age. Greek thought, on the other hand, thought of both nature and history in static terms. And yet there are many circles in which the theory of the changelessness of history, almost blasphemy in view of the Christian picture of God, parades under the Christian name.

Modern secular thought has sought to do away with the paradox of historical development by resorting to another device. It has deliberately blinded itself to the possibilities for corruption that are present on each level of historical development, and has naïvely equated development and progress. We shall have more to say about the Marxist and the bourgeois theories of progress in the second part of this essay. But in this context, this device is important as an illustration of man's attempt to rationalize the condemnation which the Law, whether in the Bible or in history, calls down upon him. By affirming the infinite perfectibility of man, the theory of progress has managed to overlook the fact that every development within history presents man with the chance to destroy the very genius which has made that development possible.

This is just another way of saying that man's capacity for rising beyond himself and beyond history can become the means by which he defies the divine purpose in history. In Reinhold Niebuhr's words, "The fact that man can transcend himself in infinite regression and cannot find the end of life except in God is the mark of his creativity and uniqueness; closely related to this capacity is his inclination to transmute his partial and finite self and his partial and finite values into the infinite good. Therein lies his sin."


Myth and Atom


A realization of this inclination on man's part to suppose himself to be more than he actually is can come through empirical observation. Thus the Greeks were wont to speak of Hybris, man's refusal to content himself with his place in nature—the Christian would add, in history—and his attempt to scale the heights of divinity. The myth of Prometheus, when profoundly understood, signified for the Greeks the fact that an improvement in man's creative capacity and his control over nature does not necessarily bring with it a proportionate increase in man's wisdom in the use of his newly found powers. Much the same realization has come upon modern men as a result of scientific development. The fact that man can harness the power of the atom does not yet mean that he can harness himself and his demonic inclination to use the power of the atom for evil rather than for good.

Heartening as it may be that this realization is beginning to dawn on modern man, this does not mean that he has discovered the Christian understanding of history as Law. Søren Kierkegaard's distinction between a sense of guilt and a sense of sin is applicable in this situation. The awareness of the possibility for evil on every level of historical development must be rooted in he Christian doctrine of God as Creator and Lord before the meaning of history as Law becomes apparent. It is only when I know that history, like nature, is ultimately subject to the lordship of God that I can measure the magnitude and depth of the guilt which I have empirically discovered. Then I realize that history, which was intended as the arena for service to God, has become instead the battleground between God and the devil, and that I am involved in that conflict. The Christian view of history as Law is, then, dualistic in that it sees the historical process as the stage for the drama of God's battle with the devil.

That conflict-theme underlies the best that Christian thought has had to say about the meaning of history. As we shall see, it is the basis of the Christian idea of history as Gospel; but it is that because it is first the framework of the Christian view of history as Law. Whenever man tries to act like God, he acts like the devil. The very creative acts by which man seeks to assert his lordship over the forces of nature and history are the instruments by which he sells himself into the service of the demonic. His declaration of independence from God is his oath of fealty to the devil. This is the Christian dialectic of history, that God and the devil are at war in history; and history is understood as Law whenever it becomes apparent that the devil has won a victory in that war, and that a particular historical phenomenon is therefore under the judgment and wrath of God.

The radical claim of the Christian view of history is that the conflict between God and the devil is settled in Christ, and that history's inability to redeem itself is itself redeemed in the entrance of God into history in the person and work of Christ. That is the Christian idea of history as Gospel, which will concern us in the second part of this essay.


(To be continued)

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