omnibus omnia

Why Christians should study history

In Catholicism, Christendom, Christianity, Faith, God, History, Jesus, Religion, Salvation, Theology, Thoughts on June 9, 2008 at 23:37

In an essay reprinted on God on the Dock, Neochristian apologist C.S. Lewis noted that many people are skeptical of the Gospels for their historical element; that is, they doubt the relevance to modern life of something that happened 2,000 years ago. This attitude seems to be quite common nowadays, a legacy of the breakdown of the old humanist tradition, the modern cult of novelty, and the dominance of the “bourgeois” mindset (as distinguished from the “baroque” orientation, a dichotomy explained in Christopher Dawson‘s fascinating Dynamics of World History) but it’s not something a Christian should share.

For every Christian is by necessity a historian, a student and transmitter of history, for her Faith is at heart, a historical religion. At its core lies the affirmation that the eternal, trans-historical God, the Maker and Sustainer of human history, became a part of that history, a human being named Jesus, Son of Miryam, in a specific place and time within a particular socio-cultural milieu: 1st century Palestine, with its syncretism of Hebraist, Persian, and Graeco-Hellenistic elements within the political framework of Roman clientship, Herodian dynasticism, and the Hebraic Church.

Christianity therefore calls her to believe not merely in a series of abstract intellectual principles and moral precepts (the existence of God, human dignity and freedom, the demand for justice), but in a constellation of historical assertions, centering on Christ, but extending to preceding Jewish and Gentile history and to the subsequent history of the Church, the community of Christian believers that Christ Himself founded to continue His work. One can be a Buddhist and know nothing of the revered Gautama save that he affirmed the Noble Truths; once can be feminist and affirm only the abstract distinction between sex and gender and its ramifications; but one cannot be Christian and not at the same time care about the historical context of salvation. Christ after all, was incarnated “in the fullness of time”.

We must make the distinctions clear: history’s not so much vital as beneficial to a believer. For so long as there is an unreserved “obedience of the understanding”, a knowledge of salvation history is not deemed absolutely essential to salvation itself, save as to the central facts of the life of Christ. However, belief in every article of the Creed, obedience of every commandment, the conduct of every act of worship, is rooted in that history and contains an implicit affirmation of its truth; and so every explanation, defense, or deepening of the Christian heritage requires, at some point, a return to the historical foundations of Christianity.

God bless us all.

P.S., I recommend to all a reading a panoramic overview of Dawson’s historical perspective at Touchstone. Not something new or deep–it is just an overview–, but I think it’s nice to have all of history in a single webpage:) Also, the article linked above on the “bourgeois” mentality has a more readable version here.

BTW, This is adapted from part of our previous post, History as Christian Vocation. You may also read our other history-related posts: The Crisis of Modern Theology (a historical overview), The lost years of Jesus: where did He go?, When the Crescent conquered Byzantium (a fragment), Saint Charles Borromeo, bishop and confessor, and Of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Which is the true Church?. God bless us all.

  1. Thank you for this. I will be quoting you in a class I am teaching at church, on why study history?

  2. To Shane: You’re very welcome, and I hope it helps your class understand the historicity of our God-given Faith in Christ.

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