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Can Christians be Effective Historians?

In his essay, Claims of Theory, historian Geoffrey Elton writes,

All forms of religious belief threaten the historian’s ability to think for himself and to investigate the reality of the past. The historian, it seems, if he values his integrity, must be a professional skeptic.[1]

According to Elton, religious beliefs demand that history fit into a pre-formed outline, and thus necessarily distort and destroy all historical meaning. Such a strong claim is daunting to the Christian historian who steps up the plate of academia. Given the theology of time, it appears that Christianity is antithetical to good historiography, for it presupposes that the sacred is “the primary and specific element in history…that is, the succession of the wonderful works of God through the efficacy of the world and the sacraments.”[2] This essay explores the apparent tension between Elton’s claim and the theology of history. It will begin by explaining the Christian theology of history according to Charles Danielou and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and discuss why it seems to conflict with Elton’s expectations for historians. Next it will explore the consequences that Christ’s entrance into time has on any particular moment. Finally, it will explain why, though Christianity affirms a sacred narrative, it still implements the same methodology that Elton’s skeptic would require.

The conflict between Christianity and the objective history Elton advocates for arises from a theology of time discernable in the Christian narrative. As the One by whom all things were made, and the One who restores all things, Christ is the foundation and the fulfillment of time. When St. Paul writes to the Galatians that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman,” the word “fullness” has been understood to mean the fulfillment of time—His Incarnation and life thus become the focal point of history.[3] Yet as von Balthasar points out, “as the fulfillment, [Christ] is also the foundation of the Promise, the archetype by which and towards which all types are drawn.” [4] Christ is the fulfillment of existence, but he is also the very possibility for existence; it is through Christ that all things are made, but it is also His being for which all of time is made. In his explanation of how Christ is subject to time and time subject to Christ, von Balthasar writes,

The life of the Son is related to the whole of history as the world of ideas which gives it its norms and its meaning. Indeed, in the eyes of the Father, his life, though it does not cause is nevertheless the very condition for the possibility of there being a fall, and so of there being a Paradise…the world itself must have been framed in Christ Incarnate.[5]

Thus the theology of history claims that Christ is in a sense the entirety of history. No part of time can be said to be separate from Him; all events and people are types of Christ, and all meaning lies ultimately in Him.

Already one can begin to see how this theology clashes with Elton’s desire for a history devoid of narrative. Christianity claims that history is inseparable from the theological concept that all things are tied to the one progressive narrative of salvation. Danielou draws out the implications of this Christologically-centered theology,  arguing that the history of Christ and His Church is intrinsic to all history.[6] Historical events are typological: they are shadows and they have meaning only insofar as they participate in the meaning of the fullness of history—i.e. only insofar as they reflect Christ’s life, Passion, and Resurrection. The examples Danielou discusses are biblical historical events, yet the implication of the theology is that no historical event has a meaning outside of Christ.

In a sense, Christians are worse historians than even Elton describes. Not only do they read history as one sacramental and eschatological movement, they even go so far as to claim that all of history is caught up in the life of one man, so much so that the meaning of any historical event is only as real as the shadow of a person is real. Therefore, all of history can be understood as a dim reflection of Christ. If this is indeed so, then it seems that the Christian historian is in fact doomed to twist history to fit the box he has made for it. Like the child who attempts to fit his circle into a square-shaped hole, the Christian historian will read the past without any regard for what it says; he will assume he knows the meaning.

Elton’s critique, however, misunderstands the implications of the theology of history, and does not take into account how Christians understand Christ’s presence in each moment. While all historical meaning is caught up in the person of Christ and thus reflects Him, this does not mean that history is to be read with assumptions about its involvement in Christ. For, the theology of history understands that Christ enters in to time, even as He is its fulfillment. Von Balthasar writes that in the story of Christ walking with the disciples to Emmaus after His resurrection, we see “the eternal allowing itself to be drawn into time and going along with it in genuine companionship.”[7] The story of Emmaus reveals that Christ enters into the present. He is the fulfillment precisely because He is present in each moment. By entering into time, Christ reveals that the particulars of each moment are what make it a reflection of Him. Thus we need to reconsider what von Balthasar means when he says, “[Christ] performs, here within history, an act which involves both the end of history and its totality: for as the end of history, the eschaton, he is present at its center, revealing in this one particular Kairos, this, historical moment, the meaning of every Kairos that can ever be.”[8] The implication is twofold:  Christ illuminates each historical moment, but every historical moment, understood fully, also has a revelatory quality to it. Each historical moment points to Christ, but this does not mean that beginning an inquiry into a historical event with such knowledge can allow the historian to read the event correctly. Indeed, such presuppositions, as Elton points out, can be detrimental to understanding the history well. It is only when a historical event is understood in its own context that it can be understood as a participation in Christ, precisely because Christ enters every particular moment.

Thus, the Christian theology of history need not conflict with the sort of methodology for which Elton’s objectivity calls. It remains the job of the historian to put away his preconceived notions and attempt to engage with the event in its own context; then and only then can the Christian historian begin to see how Christ is made present in each particular Kairos. To be faithful to the Christian theology of time is therefore to be faithful to Elton’s methodology, not because the Christian does not believe that Christ is the fulfillment of any historical event, but because he recognizes that the meaning of the event in its own context is not in conflict with its typological significance. There is no discrepancy—the one meaning is its typological meaning. The theology of history does not change historical method; it simply reveals Christ as the ever-present historical fulfillment—even if it does not explain how one comes to see these typologies.

 

Notes:
[1] Geoffrey Elton, “Claims of Theory,” in Return to Essentials: Some Reflects on the Present State of Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23.. .
[2] Jean Danielou, The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History, trans. Nigel Abercrombie (London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1958), 16.
[3] Galatians 4:4-5.
[4] Hans von Balthasar, A Theology of History (London: Sheed and Ward, 1963), 52.
[5] Hans von Balthasar, A Theology of History, 61.
[6] Danielou, The Lord of History, 12.
[7] Von Balthasar, A Theology of History, 83.
[8] Ibid., 86.

 

References:
Danielou, Jean. The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History. Translation by Nigel Abercrombie. London: Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1958.
Elton, Geoffrey. “The Claims of Theory.” In Return to Essentials: Some Reflects on the Present State of Historical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Von Balthasar, Hans. A Theology of History. London: Sheed and Ward, 1963.