God and History, Lecture 5 (Johannes Zachhuber)

The following is the fifth lecture in an eight-lecture series.  The most recent one can be found here.

The existentialist approach you heard about last week emphasized the individual aspect of human interaction with God: the reality of God is impressed upon the individual person when they reflect upon their lives and their boundaries. Yet in the biblical tradition, there is another important form of interaction between God and humanity, and this is history. Indeed, one of the major unifying bonds between the Old and the New Testament is the narrative of a covenant between God and his people, and this covenant is acted out in history.

The historical dimension is perhaps difficult to ignore in the Old Testament where large parts are historical in character, but in the New Testament the same idea is equally strongly rooted. It is given, however, a particular twist in that the historical outlook prevalent in New Testament authors is largely eschatological. History then is interpreted in the light of its end. Is this then still history? The answer is that it might not have been, but then the envisaged apocalyptic final act did not occur after all, and this fact in itself became one of the first major stimulants of Christian theology.

It needed explaining in what sense the Incarnation and, specifically, the resurrection could be an eschatological event while history still seemed to progress as it had ever done. It seemed, but in reality it had changed, or so Christians maintained. This precisely is the origin of Christian theology of history: a sustained effort at proving that God’s eschatological intervention in the Incarnation had qualified the time in between that event and the second coming of Christ in a particular way. History thus became salvation history, a series of events capable but also in need of theological interpretation.

Two questions need to be addressed at this stage. First, what is the relation between this theology of history and thinking about God? Second, in what sense is it specifically a response to modern theology?

Answers to these two questions are related. If theology takes seriously the assumption that history has theological significance, this must have consequences for our understanding of God. To put it radically – if God is the Lord of history, then he must himself be, at least in some sense, historical. Of course, not historical in the way his creation is historical, but he must be in such a way as to make an interaction with history meaningful.

This of course is a line of thought suggested already by reflection on the Incarnation – God’s own becoming part of history. Yet it is important to see that its significance extends way beyond the mere possibility of his sharing for a space of 30 years the confines of human existence.

This is the question – the relationship between God and history; and this very question resonates quite strongly with some of the modern challenges to which thinking about God has responded over the past 200 years. The reason is that one of the most decisive paradigm shifts in modernity has been the rise of historicism that is the increasing awareness of historicity as a category for human existence quite generally.

It became clear from the late 18th century onwards that everything in our culture is at least in some sense historical – language, art, and philosophy no less than political systems, law or religion. They all are to some extent a product of their own time and, as their own time is a product of the preceding time and influences its future, they are part of the historical development of humanity. I called it a paradigm shift as this insight gave birth academically to a plethora of new disciplines, as everything from grammar to political science to philosophy and theology could and should now be studied in the light of this new insight.

From its very beginning, this new development has been Janus faced. We often tend to associate with the term historicism the word relativism, and of course it has had this tendency. For theology, in particular, it has been said that the history of doctrine is at the same time its critique, which was meant to express the uneasiness created by the recognition that teachings that seemed to derive at least part of their justification from their quasi ahistorical constancy were inevitably shattered by the recognition that they had, in fact, been substantially changed over the centuries. Equally, historical study of the Bible has undoubtedly shaken the naïve assumption that things simply happened the way they were (supposedly) reported in those stories.

Yet it would be utterly wrong to see the attraction of historical thinking only or primarily in this negative, destructive, critical aspect. Rather, the latter was I think a side-effect of a much more positive hope and expectation which fueled scholarly and general interest in history in its various forms. The major motivation for the new, intense interest in history from the late 18th century was the expectation that from historical study exciting and important insights could be gleaned into the ways of human affairs in general. Historical study seemed to unlock hidden treasures that seemed to have been buried in dusty archives kept for utterly different purposes.

Yet these treasures fascinated not only in their variety, but also in their potential interrelatedness. There seemed to be a possibility of deciphering some deeply hidden mysteries of human nature by finding the rules underlying its historical development. This optimism of course was not utterly new, but was inherited in many ways from theologies of history that had been developed for centuries in an attempt (as I said a little earlier) to understand God’s intention with the world in its historical dimension.

It is here where modern historicism and theological interest in human history intersect; in fact, it has often been argued by the critics of the great philosophies of history from Hegel via Marx to Auguste Comte that they betray the stamp of their theological origin much more than they are willing to admit. In other words, the argument is that secular attempts to explain the meaning of history as a development towards a particular goal such as the total realization of freedom or a society of equals is merely a secularised version of Christian theological interpretations of history leading towards the eschatological goal of the Kingdom of God.

This argument has sometimes been used to criticize any attempt at understanding history in such a way (in other words the theological background of those philosophical theories has been used to delegitimate them). However, the theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, probably the most influential late 20th century representative of theology of history, uses this observation in a very different way. He claims that modernity depends so heavily on the assumption that there is meaning in history that it must take seriously the theological roots of this idea. Thus, once again, we arrive at a theological model that is a conscious response to the challenges of modernity and again – as in the case of Tillich – it is meant to be apologetic.

Let us take a closer look at Pannenberg’s view of the relationship of theology and history. For him, there is an important convergence between modern developments and biblical teaching. In modernity, he sees a general reinterpretation of the doctrine of revelation. Eighteenth century philosophical and historical insights make the older notion of revelation as revelation of particular truths essentially implausible – we can think here, again, of Kant, but historical criticism played a role as well.

Instead, Pannenberg argues, there emerges a growing consensus that revelation strictly speaking means nothing other than God’s own self-revelation. All the debates about relevance and limits of revelation that have existed since that time, he claims, have been predicated already on the underlying identification of revelation in this particular sense. (And certainly, this is true for perhaps the most notorious proponent of revelation in modern theology, Karl Barth.)

So, the question is where does this self-revelation take place? One important strand of modern theology, not least Karl Barth but not only he, identifies this place with the word of God. In Barth this word is ultimately Jesus Christ himself, but generally it is fair to say that the idea of God’s revelation through his word has been popular with Protestants not least because it seemed to chime with their Biblicism.

Yet Pannenberg begs to differ. He thinks that the Bible tells a different story. According to him, God’s self-revelation happens not directly through any ‘word,’ but indirectly through his historical actions. These historical actions are not isolated events in the history of humankind, such as miracles, but they are ultimately identical with the entirety of human history. Thus, Pannenberg’s thesis is that God’s revelation is the whole of human history. Consequently, God can be known only from the end point of this history, but at the same time it would be true that, once this point has been reached, we would know him fully.

At this point, one could be forgiven for asking what the gain for theology from such a theory could possibly be. Someone might argue that, granted even that we accept the premise that God will be fully revealed at the end of history, what help is this given that we are not yet there?

This is where Pannenberg plays what arguably is his trump card. For his claim is that for Christian theology, the resurrection of Christ is nothing other than an anticipation of the actual end of time. It therefore offers the theologian an opportunity to look at history as if he or she were already standing at its end; and it is in precisely this sense that we can call it in a qualified sense God’s revelation. God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ insofar as he has, in him, anticipated the end of time and thus, offered an opportunity, but also created a challenge for Christian theology to decipher his own full revelation in the fullness of time.

There are a number of obvious gains from that interpretation. Pannenberg is able to see God’s revelation in Christ in relation to his involvement in and commitment to human history before and after him, but he is still able to maintain a unique importance for the Christ event.

Further, Pannenberg feels he can at take up one of the most influential challenges to traditional religion, historicism. His view allows him to, on the one hand, take historical insights seriously (after all history is God’s revelation), and, on the other hand, to critique secular interpretations of historicism. His argument, rather, is that if modernity takes its own historicism seriously, it must understand that it needs a theological foundation to make it work in the first place.

Yet we must not overlook that this involves a challenge for theology too. For Pannenberg’s theologian who works on the basis of the assumption that in Christ the end of history has been anticipated will still constantly need to correct his own findings in the light of new developments. Theology, thus, becomes very much a kind of work-in-progress – as it has indeed been understood for much of the past two centuries; Pannenberg could thus claim that his theology offers an explanation and a justification for a practice that is current anyway.

Third, he seems to have found a strong answer to the perennial dilemma of Christian eschatology – how can we relate the eschatological interpretation of the Christ event to the ongoing history of the world around us. Pannenberg appears to be able to give equal weight to both these facts by calling history in its entirety God’s full revelation, the Christ event its anticipation.

Once again, before looking at the downsides, let’s consider two more influential (and in some ways very different) versions of the same type. One is the French philosopher-cum-theologian Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). He was one of the principal exponents of Thomism in the 20th century and an influential interpreter of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

During his study of philosophy and the natural sciences in Paris, Maritain was influenced first by Spinoza, then by H. Bergson. In 1901, he met the Russian-Ukrainian Raissa Oumansoff. They both felt the lack of spirituality in French society and decided to commit suicide within a year unless they discovered some way out of that malaise. From the fact that they got married in 1904 it is clear how that experiment ended.

From the beginning of WWII, Maritain stayed in America, first at Toronto, then at Princeton and Columbia (until 1960 when he eventually returned to France). He was instrumental in drawing up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the UN (1948) and served for his country as ambassador to the Vatican (1945-48).

Fundamentally, Maritain approached history as a philosopher. He was, however, critical of philosophies of history that are non- or even anti-Christian (Hegel; Comte). For him, Christian theology provides vital clues for an appropriate interpretation of history. The major starting points are:

  • the theological distinctions between the various ‘states’ of human nature (‘pure nature’; ‘fallen nature’; ‘redeemed nature’) of which the first is, according to him, no empirical fact.
  • the theological notion of various ‘states’ in human development. These are, on the basis of Pauline thought, ‘state of nature’; ‘state of the Ancient Law’; ‘state of the New Law.’

For Maritain, this effectively means that the Bible furnishes us with a framework for an understanding of the world as developing towards an established goal. According to him there are four ‘laws’ determining human development:

  • Passage from ‘magical’ to ‘rational’: according to Maritain, it is evident and necessary for humankind to move from a stage where consciousness is dominated by imagination to one dominated by reason. But this does not mean that the ‘religious’ insights of the earlier phase are altogether irrelevant and to be abandoned (as, e.g., Comte thinks). Rather, we should understand that human nature remains the same while it passes through these states. The ‘science’ of the ‘primitive’ man is a kind of science, just different from ours. Similarly, his religion is just less developed than ours, but not something categorically different.
  • Development of moral consciousness. Maritain sees this as in many ways the most obvious ‘law’ of historical development. He stresses that this is not tantamount to seeing a development in moral behavior – he is far from claiming any such thing. But it is clear, according to him, that things are now no longer acceptable (even though they may still happen) which used to be (torture, e.g.).
  • Passage from ‘sacral’ to ‘secular’ societies. Maritain clearly subscribes to the secularization thesis. He sees this as a necessary process (in line with the theological stages!), and only complains that in the process of Western secularization God has been altogether abandoned which resulted in totalitarianism (Russia). Interestingly, he raises the question of similar developments in other religions, notably Islam.[1]
  • Finally, in a way strikingly similar to Bonhoeffer, he describes and affirms the ‘coming of age of the people’ as a ‘universal law.’ This makes him view the spread of democracy as a phenomenon essentially in line with Christianity. While it can be said to happen according to the ‘order of nature,’ it actually happened only ‘under the action of the Gospel leaven and by virtue of the Christian inspiration making its way in the depths of secular consciousness.’[2]

In a sense, Maritain’s argument is much more straightforward than Pannenberg’s, and arguably helps us see the problems with this entire tendency more clearly. For Maritain seems to offer little more than the liberal idea of human progressivism on the basis of theological insights. In other words, he reiterates a narrative that has often been claimed, but equally been rejected, over the last two or three hundred years, and his major concern is that the Christian foundation of this narrative should not be overlooked.

The question, however, is whether this narrative does continue to convince and, if so, whether it is true that Christianity is as much needed for it as Maritain claims. For, could one not argue that the very possibility that this narrative could be offered without any reference to the Christian roots of these ideas proves him wrong? Of course, not in the sense that he may be right historically, but it would seem much more important for his argument that he is also able to show that today this programme needs its theological underpinning in order to convince and to work. Yet this is rather doubtful. It seems at this point possible to perceive a more fundamental problem of this kind of approach to theology.

I think that both Pannenberg and Maritain share in a particular ambiguity that makes their theological apologetics quite possibly less effective than they would want them to be. The problem is that if it is claimed that Christianity supports a particular view of history and that this view is also rational, then there seems little justification for denying a secular interpretation of these insights. It may still be true that Christianity has historically speaking unlocked the book of history, but this historical fact becomes increasingly irrelevant if it is also true that it now lies open for all to read. If historians do not heed Pannenberg’s claim that they have to be theologians in order to understand their own claims, is there an umpire to which he can appeal for unfair play?

What he needed, surely, would be evidence that neglect of his insights has disastrous consequences within the secular study of history or culture more generally. Yet very little of this has been forthcoming. Perhaps the underlying crux is that while both Pannenberg and Maritain stress the importance of theological input in the interpretation of history, one could argue (and certainly, in a lecture such as ours this is apposite) that ultimately their focus on history as a topic for theology leads them simply back to where they started. Does history really reveal something about God or, indeed, God? Or does not the claim ultimately move very easily from the notion that revelation is history to the deceptively similar one that history is revelation?

Let me briefly (thought this succinctness is slightly unfair) touch at this point on a further variation of our theme, which has however some notable differences. This is liberation theology. Gustavo Guttierez’ seminal book has a special section entitled ‘History is one’ in which he too argues, as the heading suggests, for a theological interpretation of history. His starting point, however, is markedly different from both Pannenberg and Maritain.

Once again, the section heading may be a useful guidance. History is one – this is said against a tendency Gutierrez observes in traditional theology to separate secular history and salvation history. This separation, he thinks, has led to the Church’s neglect for the worldly aspects of the Christian message, notably the twin themes of justice and liberation:

[We] affirm that, in fact, there are not two histories, one profane and one sacred, “juxtaposed” or “closely linked.” Rather there is only one human destiny, irreversibly assumed by Christ, the Lord of history. His redemptive work embraces all the dimensions of existence and brings them to their fullness.[3]

The thrust of Gutierrez’ argument then is directed against the assumption that developments in human history are neutral to theological interpretation – this is where he agrees with the two authors we have looked at earlier. Yet his interest is not a justification of historical developments in the light of divine providence nor a historical theodicy proving that history ultimately gives evidence for the greatness of God’s plan with his world, but to sharpen the eyes of the Church to the reality of ungodliness, of injustice, of bondage in the world around it and to impress upon Christians the task to make themselves part of those forces that work to change it. Hence his concept of a ‘theology of liberation.’

Or to express the same idea in more abstract language, the goal of his argument is not in the realm of theory or speculation, but in the realm of human practice; the theologian is not interest in history in order to offer his own reading of it, but in order to become engaged and commit himself to its transformation into the Kingdom of God.

The difference then is precisely the famous transformation from theory into practice which Marx called for as the perfection of Hegelian philosophy – the philosopher’s task, in his view, was not to be seen in an ever more perfect interpretation of the world, but in its practical transformation. Pannenberg and Maritain are not Hegel, and Guttierez is not Marx, but there is in principle the same difference underlying both these disjunctions.

How then is Guttierez’ version of a theology of history, which we may call a practical theology of history then a way of thinking about God? The answer to this question leads us, once again, back to Kant who had argued that while theoretical knowledge and philosophical speculation could not lead us to any substantial notion of God, we would become aware of him while we engage in the right kind of practice. For Kant this was ethical practice, life according to the categorical imperative. For Marx it is revolutionary praxis. For Guttierez it is neither one nor the other simply speaking though Christian practice may embrace both of those at times. Ultimately, Christians are called to make themselves part of God’s liberating plan with humanity, and it is in this way – and only in this way – that they can hope to find out who He is.

It is well known how the Catholic Church has responded to liberation theology. In a nutshell, it has been rejected on the grounds that, while the Christian message naturally implied the goals propagated by liberation theologians, it must not be reduced to it. The Kingdom of God ultimately is not brought about by human action but by God’s own intervention in the course of history.

The observer cannot fail to marvel at the self-righteousness implied in this judgment coming as it does from of an institution that has, in Latin America, rather consistently and notoriously failed to emphasise this conjunction and been content to condone or actively support a social and economic order based on extreme injustice.

Still, the question that is raised here is pertinent, and it is in many ways the same question that we raised with regard to the two other versions of theology of history: how can such an identification of divine revelation with history, in whatever intention it is undertaken, be prevented from making God once again a mere projection of one’s own ideas and ideals – however worthy these may be? How can it, at the same time, be prevented from the danger of “baptizing” certain historical developments by giving them a theological interpretation, while it may be more appropriate to argue for their relative justifications and failures in a secular context?

Ultimately, Christians cannot avoid seeing history as the unfolding of God’s plan, but they should guard themselves against reducing God’s plan to whatever they understand of their own histories.

Johannes Zachhuber is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of Trinity College. He earned his DPhil from Oxford in 1998 and obtained a habilitation in systematic theology at Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2011. His areas of specialisation include the history of Christian thought in late antiquity and the nineteenth century; secularization theories; and religion and politics. He has authored or co-authored five books and edited or co-edited nine. He has written many articles and book chapters in all his research specializations.


[1] McIntire, 256.

[2] Ibid., 258.

[3] GG, A Theology of Liberation, 86.

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