How Christianity Transformed Our Understanding of History

This post is adapted from Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service by John Bolt.

Christianity’s Most Significant Mark on Culture

According to Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), a Dutch Reformed theologian and pastor, the very understanding of history itself was transformed by Christianity. In fact, it was, above all, in the changed perception of history that Christianity left its most significant mark on culture.

Bavinck highlights the difference between the Greek view of history found in writers such as Herodotus—whom Bavinck says is rightfully “called the father of history”—and the Christian view of history, and he uses a brilliant rhetorical strategy to point out the distinction and its warrant. For confirmation of this he appeals not to an established Christian source but to a source that even secular people in the Dutch Senate would have to acknowledge as informed and impartial, the German litterateur/philosopher Rudolf Christian Eucken (1846–1926), the father of “practical idealism” or “activism.”

According to Eucken, “history meant far more to Christianity than it did to the Ancient World” because of the incarnation: “It was the Christian conviction that the divine had appeared in the domain of time, not as a pale reflection but in the fullness of its glory; hence as the dominating central force of the whole it must relate the whole past to itself and unfold the whole future out of itself.”

Christ could not come again and yet again to let himself be crucified; hence as the countless historical cycles of the Ancient World disappeared, there was no longer the old eternal recurrence of things. History ceased to be a uniform rhythmic repetition and became a comprehensive whole, a single drama.

Actors and Agents

Life was now much more dramatic, even “tense,” because human beings themselves were now responsible for developing and transforming nature, whereas before “man had merely to unfold an already existing nature.” As a result, Christianity brought forth “a higher valuation of history and of temporal life in general.”[1]

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