Christianity and History

By Graf, Friedrich Wilhelm | UNESCO Courier, March 1990 | Go to article overview

Christianity and History


Graf, Friedrich Wilhelm, UNESCO Courier


THE relationship between the Christian faith and history is the central problem of modern theology. Ever since the Enlightenment theologians have tried to reconcile Christianity's longstanding claim to be the truth with modern knowledge about the historical relativity of all human experience and thought.

This enterprise has proved increasingly difficult. In the eighteenth century, Gotthold Lessing, a leading figure of the German Aufkldrung Enlightenment), spoke of the wide and horrendous gulf" that lies between modern man and Christianity in its original form. In the following century this gulf became even wider. Philosophers, theologians and historians understood that all historical reality is specific and relative and that in history there are no absolute norms valid for all individuals and for all periods. But does not Christianity say that jesus Christ occupies an absolute position in history? Should it not claim to be absolutely true and necessary for everyone, irrespective of place and time? The more thinking that has been done about the essence of the Christian faith and the specific nature of historical reality, the wider the gap between faith and history has become.

Central to the Christian faith, as to all religions, is the worship of God. In the traditional language of Western philosophy and theology, strongly marked by the world view of the ancient Greeks and particularly by Aristotelian metaphysics, God 's also referred to as "the

I Absolute". He is thought of as a boundless creative power, conditioned by nothing and eternal, the Creator of the cosmos and then of man, who is a creature of a higher order. God the Creator is seen as the possessor of unlimited sovereignty; He is infinitely superior to His creatures. In Western metaphysics the opposition between God and the world, between transcendence and immanence, between eternity and time, is fundamental. The Absolute is absolute precisely because the finite, the world and humanity do not impinge upon it. Conversely, this created world, the historical world of the finite and the relative, is envisioned as permanently dependent on the Absolute and as deriving its consistency from God alone.

The more God is portrayed as transcendent, as superior to the world, the more faith is regarded as a withdrawal from the relative, as a drawing away from history. For mankind, faith thus consists in placing one's trust in the Absolute. But as the Absolute is timeless, eternal, turning to God is tantamount to turning away from the world and setting oneself at a distance from the finite realm.

The Christian mystics in particular believed that when people pray they are immersed in eternity and withdraw from history, thereby becoming aware of their true, eternal purpose. Viewed in this light, Christian piety always implies a devaluation of history, of the world of relative values.

The concept of history

in the early Church It was from this standpoint that the theologians of the early Church considered the history of humanity and Church history. They reformulated various conceptions of God's sovereignty over world history as found in the jewish tradition (the Old Testament of the Christians) and in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament.

The apostle Paul thus gave a theological interpretation to history according to which there is a close link between the creation of the world and the redemption of humanity. In this scheme of things jesus Christ has a central position: He is the absolute centre of the history of the world, giving meaning and purpose to all human action. Universal history began with the creative act of God. But sin upset the divine order and the world slid into chaos, as demonstrated in particular by the historical disasters visited upon the people of Israel and described in the Old Testament. In

Jesus Christ, a new age of salvation began. Paul

describes this salvation in historical images: it

means the abolition of natural conflict between

man and woman, the end of enmity between peoples,

liberation of slaves from servitude to

their masters and the rebirth of all human beings,

truly freed at last. …

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