The Idea of, Factors of, and Central Position of Religion in History

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AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

The Idea of History

The object of this General Introduction is, to obtain a clear view of the nature and purpose of Church History, and thus to gain the proper position for the contemplation of its details. A perfect understanding of it can be attained, indeed, only at the close of the historical course; for the best definition of any science is the thing itself. But some preliminary explanation is indispensable, to give us, at least, a general idea of church history, and to serve as a directory for the study of the whole and its parts. Our best method will be, to resolve the compound conception into its two constituents, and to inquire into the nature, first of history, secondly of the church, thirdly of church history: with a fourth chapter on the progress of Church History as a science. Thus, the introduction will be, at the same time, a sort of philosophy of church history.

By history in the objective sense, we understand the sum of what has happened, or, more precisely, of all that pertains to the outward or inward life of humanity and enters essentially into its social, political, intellectual, moral, and religious progress and development. It comprehends the thoughts, words, and deeds, and the prosperous and adverse events, which constitute the past, and which have produced the existing state of civilized society. Hence barbarians have no history of their own, and figure in that of the world merely as rude material, or as blind forces operating, as it were, from without.

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History in the subjective sense is the science of events or the apprehension and representation in language of what has thus taken place in the course of time. Its value depends altogether on its faithfulness as a copy of the objective history; and requires that the historian surrender himself wholly to his object—be it the history of the world at large, or any portion of it—reproduce it in a living way in his own mind, and thus become a conscientious organ, a faithful mirror of the past, making the representation exactly answerable to the actual occurrence.

History in the objective sense, with which we are here mainly concerned, is either secular or sacred. The former comprehends the natural life of humanity, and those actions and events, which relate primarily to temporal existence in its external and internal aspect, under the general guidance of divine providence. The latter has to do with the special revelation of the triune God for the salvation of men, with the process of redemption, and the fortunes of regenerate humanity. Here again, we must distinguish sacred history in the proper and narrow sense of the term, that is, the history of the revelation of God as deposited in an authoritative and infallible form in the books of the Old and New Testaments, from church history. The latter is the continuation of the former, though in perpetual contact with secular history, and more or less disturbed by it.

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The general relation, then, between secular or profane, and sacred history (including church history), is substantially the same as that between nature and grace, reason and revelation, time and eternity. The former constitutes the natural basis and preparation for the latter. The “Father draweth to the Son” (John 6:44). All history before Christ prepared the way for the incarnation; all history since Christ must ultimately, either directly or indirectly, serve to glorify his name and extend his everlasting kingdom. Sacred history, on the other hand, exerts a regenerating and sanctifying influence upon secular, or, as it is frequently called, the world’s history. It is the leaven, which is gradually to leaven the whole lump (Matt. 13:33). Both departments, however, are in continual conflict. The world, as far as it is under the influence of sin and error, still hates and persecutes the church, as it hated and persecuted Christ and his Apostles. But the final issue of the conflict, according to the infallible word of prophecy, will be the complete triumph of the kingdom of Christ over the dominions and powers of this world, so that he shall reign King of nations, as he now reigns King of saints. A representation of all history, both sacred and secular, making the fact of the incarnation the center and turning point of the whole would be Universal History in the widest sense. It is evident, that, as the life of the human race is a unit, and as, therefore the different departments of history have an intimate relation, no one branch can be fully understood, or satisfactorily presented, without reference to the whole.

For history, under any aspect, is not, as is frequently supposed even by a certain class of so-called historians, a mere aggregate of names, dates, and deeds, more or less accidental, without fixed plan or sure purpose. It is a living organism, whose parts have an inward, vital connection, each requiring and completing the rest. All nations form but one family, having one origin and one destiny; and all periods are but the several stages of its life, which, though constantly changing its form, is always substantially one and the same. History, moreover, while it involves, indeed, the freedom and accountability of man, is yet, as already intimated, even in its secular departments, under the guidance of divine providence; it proceeds on an eternal, unchangeable plan of infinite wisdom, and tends, therefore, as by an irresistible necessity, to a definite end. This end is the same as that of the creation at large, the glorifying of God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of the world, through the free worship of his intelligent creatures, who, at the same time, in this worship attain their highest happiness.

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The Factors of History

History is thus to be viewed as always, the product of two factors or agencies. The first and highest factor is God himself, in whom we “live and move and have our being,” who turns the hearts of men “as the rivers of water,” who works in the good “both to will and to do,” and rules the wrath of the wicked to his own praise, yea, makes Satan himself tributary to his will. In this view, history may be styled a self-evolution of God in time—in distinction from nature, which is a revelation of the Creator in space—a continuous exhibition of his omnipotence and wisdom, and more particularly of his moral attributes, justice, holiness, patience, long-suffering, love, and mercy. A history, which leaves this out of sight, and makes God an idle spectator of the actions and fortunes of men, is deistic, rationalistic, and ultimately atheistic, and thus in reality without spirit, without life, without interest, without consolation. Such a history must be at best a cold statue, without a beaming eye or beating heart.

God works in history, however, not, as in nature, through blind laws, but through living persons, whom he has created after his own image and endowed with reason and will. By these endowments he has assigned to men a certain sphere of conscious, free activity, for which he holds them responsible; intending not to force them to his worship, but to form them to a moral communion, the fellowship of love, with himself. Thus men form a relative, secondary factor of history, receiving the reward of their words and deeds, whether they be good or evil. To deny such subjective causality and make men mere passive channels or machines of the divine activity, is to go to the opposite extreme of pantheism and fatalism, abolishing, of course, all human accountability, nay, in the end, all distinction between good and evil, virtue and vice.

These two causes, the divine and the human, the objective and the subjective, the absolute and the relative, are to be conceived, not in a mere abstract, mechanical way, as operating collaterally or independently, but as working in and through one another. With our present knowledge, which, though ever on the advance, must still be imperfect till we shall “see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:9–12), we may not be able to draw the line clearly between the finite and the infinite causes; yet the general recognition of both is the first condition of any just conception of history. And it is this, that makes history a lofty, unbroken anthem of praise to divine wisdom and love; a humbling mirror of human weakness and guilt; and in either view the richest repository of instruction, encouragement, and edification. As the biography of humanity, which unfolds its relations to itself, to nature, and to God, it must of course embrace all that deserves to be known, all that is beautiful, great, noble, and glorious in the course of the world’s life. In it are treasured all the outward and inward experiences of our race, all its thoughts, feelings, views, wishes, endeavors, and achievements, all its sorrows and all its joys. Divine revelation itself belongs to history. It forms the very marrow of its life, the golden thread, which runs through all its leaves. Thus, in the nature of the case, there can be no study more comprehensive, more instructive, and more entertaining, than the study of history in the wide sense. Of the two wonders, which filled the mind of the philosopher Kant, according to his own confession, with ever-growing reverence and delight, “the starry heavens above us” and “the moral law within us” the latter is certainly the greater. And the study of history, or of the progressive unfolding of this moral law, and of all the intellectual powers of man, is as far above the study of the natural sciences in importance and interest, as the immortal mind is above matter, its perishing abode; as man formed in the image of God is superior to nature, his servant.

This co-operation of two factors holds good in secular or profane history, as well as in sacred: but with a twofold difference. In the first the human agency is most prominent; in the second the divine takes the lead, and makes its presence felt at every step. Then again both the factors appear under different characters. There God acts as Creator, Preserver, and Ruler of the world, and man, in his natural, fallen state; here God manifests himself as the Savior and Sanctifier of the world, and man comes into view as an object of redeeming love, and as a member of the kingdom of grace. Secular history is the theatre of Elohim, or God under his general character, as the Father of Gentiles as well as Jews. Sacred history and its continuation, church history, is the sanctuary of Jehovah, the God of the covenant, the Lord of a chosen people.

The Central Position of Religion in History

Universal history, like the life of humanity itself, comes before us, of course, in various departments, which, however, are all more or less connected, and form each the complement of the rest. There is a history of government, of trade, of social life, of the different sciences and arts, of morality, and of religion. Of these, the last is plainly the deepest, most central, and most interesting. For religion, or the relation of man to God; the principle, which ennobles man’s earthly existence; the bond, which binds him to the fountain of all life and peace, to the invisible world of spirits, and to a blissful eternity, is the most sacred element of his nature, the source of his loftiest thoughts, his mightiest deeds, his sweetest and purest enjoyments. It is his sabbath, his glory, his crown, in the consciousness of all nations. It is the region of eternal truth and rest, where, as it is expressed by a profound German philosopher, all mysteries of the world are solved, all contradictions of the spirit reconciled, all painful feelings hushed. It is an ether, in which all sorrow, all care is lost, either in the present feeling of devotion or in a hope, which transforms the darkest clouds of earthly tribulation into the radiance of heavenly wisdom and mercy. It cannot be expected that every man should be a scholar or an artist, a statesman or a warrior; but everyone must be moral and pious, or his life will end in a failure. It is only by piety, without which there can be no pure morality, that man fulfills the end of his being, and actually shows himself the image of God. Without it he can neither be truly happy in time nor blessed in eternity; and, unless he secures the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, it was better for him, if he had never been born. Religion, communion with God, is the morning, noon, and evening of history; the paradise, from which it starts; the haven of peace, into which, after a course of many thousand years on the storm-lashed ocean of time, it shall, at last, be conducted, to rest forever from its labors, where God shall be “all in all.” Even the other departments of history become most luminous and attractive only in the celestial light of religion.

All this, however, is properly applicable only to Christianity, the absolutely true and perfect religion, which is destined to absorb all others. As the world of nature looks to man, its head and crown, its prophet and king; so man is originally made for Christ, and his heart is restless until it rests in Him. Jesus Christ, the Godman, the Savior of the world, has brought humanity to its perfection in himself, reconciled it to God, and raised it to a permanent vital union with Him. Take Christ away,—and the human race is without a ruling head, without a beating heart, without an animating soul, without a certain end,—an inexplicable enigma. He, the great founder of Christianity, is the vital principle and the guide, the center and turning point, and at the same time the key, of all history, as well as of every individual human life. His entrance into the world forms the boundary between the old and the new. From Him, the Light and the Life of the world, light, and life flow back into the night of Paganism and the twilight of Judaism, and forward in the channel of his church through all after ages. Even in ancient history, what is most remarkable and significant is the preparation for Christianity by the divine revelation in Israel, and by the longings of the benighted heathen. As to all later history, Christianity is the very pulse of its life, its heart’s blood, its central stream. This is most clearly visible in the Middle Ages, when all science and art, all social culture, and the greatest political and national movements received their impulse from the church and were guided and ruled by her spirit, however imperfect the form may have been, under which Christianity then existed. But the history of the last three centuries also, in all its branches, rests throughout upon the great religious movements of the sixteenth century; and in the process of its development, we ourselves are still involved. From this, we may readily see the comprehensive import of church history.

by Philip Schaff

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