History as Law and Gospel – II
Jaroslav Pelikan

The last word that history can say of itself and for itself is a word of Law. A careful and sensitive study of the historical process, accompanied by introspection and reflection, can lead me to the conclusion that my thinking and believing are conditioned by the times in which I live. Such an examination can also show that regardless of the place I or my society may occupy in the continuing stream of history, I use the results of historical development and technological advancement in the service of evil rather than of good.

In a word, history is corrupted and in need of redemption—this much I can know of myself. I can learn to know history as Law. But the central message of the Christian faith is its assertion that the Law is not God's last word to men, but that His final self-disclosure is the Gospel of salvation. This salvation was historically wrought and can be historically realized. It is God's pardon for history, and history's only hope.

Not Self-Redemptive

If history's pardon and history's hope are rooted in God, then any view of history which sees it as self-redemptive is ruled out. As the announcement of the giveness of God in and for history, the Gospel is also the denunciation and renunciation of all human efforts to save history and of all trust in human ability to redeem historical process.

That divine stricture applies with equal force to all such efforts, regardless of their origin. It directs itself with equal vigor against the bourgeois and the Marxist theory of progress, as against any other construction that would seek to rob God of primacy and lordship in the achievement of human redemption.

What we term the "bourgeois theory of progress" is the naive faith in the infinite improvability of man that characterized many of the founding fathers of the United States and that was largely produced by the capitalist revolution in European history. The development of finance capitalism in the early modern era made it possible for men to go from rags to riches in a short time. The impression thus created of infinite possibilities for expansion and improvement was substantiated when men grew rich in the trading days of the seventeenth century. But nowhere was this myth of progress more widespread than in the early United States.

Students of colonial history will recall that America was a land of economic opportunity to those who came here from various parts of Europe. On the frontier the individual was pitted against the forces of nature. If those forces were victorious, he died. But if he managed to overcome them by brain or brawn or a combination of the two, he could make a life for himself and for his family in what had previously been a wilderness. With the industrial revolution there came additional support for the theory of progress. For all a man needed was inventive genius, cleverness, and a little luck to achieve great things in the field of manufacturing and business.

Regardless of the economic and social value of the movement just sketched—an interesting and important problem, but not directly related to our question—the fact remains that the development of the middle class as the most aggressive economic and political unit in modern society brought with it an ideology of progress and of man's function in history that runs counter to some of the basic affirmations of Christian faith. When a man could, by the manipulation and use of this or that natural resource, acquire wealth, prominence, and power over his fellowmen, it was very easy to make him believe that there was no limit on his opportunity and that the course of history is forward. Thus it was that the older form of "liberalism" developed its philosophy of history.

And Marxism Concurs

Although both would object violently to the comparison, there is much affinity between this philosophy of history and the Marxist view. The theory of history which Marx propounded a century ago is, to be sure, a dynamic one in contrast to the static conception underlying the theory of progress. But it shares with the theory of progress a naive faith in history's power to redeem itself.

"The history of all hitherto existing society," says the Communist Manifesto of 1848, "is the history of class struggle." Before history began, however, this was not true. The Marxist philosophy of history envisions a prehistoric golden age, in which there was economic harmony. But this harmony was disrupted by catastrophe when, for the first time, a man exploited the labor of another man. Ever since then history has been the arena for a struggle between those who labor and those who use the labor of others for their own aggrandizement; first one, then another class has come out on top. But history is working its way out of this struggle. It has produced a new class, the proletariat, to which the future of history belongs. One day this class will unite to destroy its oppressors, and then the primitive golden age will be restored. Despite the many parallels between this view and the Christian understanding of history, the Marxist theory significantly rules out the redemptive and creative activity of God as the ruling force in human history.

This is, indeed, the fundamental heresy in both the theory of progress and the Marxist philosophy of history. The theory of progress believes that history will move toward its goal by a steady rise; Marxism believes that history will achieve that goal by revolution. But both mistakenly believe that this will be history's own doing, and both are opposed to God's revolution in Christ—the bourgeois theory because it is a revolution, the Marxist theory because it is God's. The pride of achievement in the former and the pride of ambition in the latter make it impossible for either to accept the Christian claim that in Christ God has turned history upside down.

History an Arena

And yet that is the core of the Christian understanding of history as Gospel. Like Marx, the Christian sees history as the arena of a struggle, not between social classes, but between God and Satan. The Christian also looks backward to a primitive state of innocence, a golden age, in which harmony prevailed. He also believes that this golden age was destroyed by the selfishness of man, not by a sin against another man, but by a sin against the Almighty. He also believes that history will be redeemed by a cataclysmic event, not by a revolution from below, but by a revolution from above. The Christian faith in God's redemption of history centers in the Cross. The Cross is, characteristically, the symbol of history as Law (men failed to realize that they were crucifying their King) and the symbol of history as Gospel (by the crucifixion God became the King). Hidden in the Cross is God's Word to history and His promise of redemption. For by the Cross God broke into history and shattered the power of those who ruled history. The "Prince of this age" held men captive, and those who served him lived for this age. But in His Son, God established a new age and set into motion a new aeon.

Because of the Cross, the Christian sees history as the bearer of the divine activity. He knows better than does anyone else that history cannot be counted upon to work out its own salvation. For history as it moves on is part of the old aeon, of the aeon that passeth away. It is only by the radical intrusion of the new aeon in Christ that men can begin to live again. This is the "eternal life" of the New Testament, the life of the (new) age, hid with Christ in God. But that life begins in the here and now, and so the Christian view of history takes time very seriously. In contrast to the Greek view that time was unimportant and only eternity mattered, Christianity bade men to understand that the Word had become flesh, had entered history. As we mentioned in the first part of this essay, the Christian interpretation of the Kairos, the appointed time, is part of this general attitude toward history and time.

No materialist, dialetical or otherwise, is more pessimistic than is the Christian of history's chances to redeem itself. But no idealist, bourgeois or otherwise, is more optimistic in his assertion that history can be redeemed— but by God! The Cross is both the denunciation of all human attempts at self-redemption and the annunciation of God's redemption in Christ.

Because the Christian philosophy of history takes time seriously, the Christian doctrine of the Church is an integral part of that philosophy. The Church is, in New Testament terms, the body of Christ, whose Head is its redeeming Lord. Whatever may be its state in the world, it is to the Church that the future of history belongs. "All things are yours, and ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's" is the Pauline description. The Church is the company of those who acknowledge Christ as Lord and who have entered into the new aeon in Christ. It is the visible exhibit of God's condescension to men disclosure of the power and will which governs history, both life and history had found their previously partly hidden and partly revealed meaning."

If what we have sketched here is a description of the Christian view of history, then this view is a part of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith and not by works. That doctrine, abused and misunderstood, means no more and no less than this: that man cannot become what he should become except by the act of God in Christ. All human efforts are thereby declared useless, but man is called into fellowship with God by God Himself. The love and favor of God are bestowed, not because man is lovable, but because God is loving. So it is with history. History comes as Law whenever its movement demonstrates that man cannot achieve his own salvation. But it comes as Gospel when, in the Cross of Christ, it brings the message of God's favor and abiding love. This is the ultimate meaning of history and the last, best hope of earth.

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy