How Christianity Transformed Our Understanding of History

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]

Bavinck on the Christian Life

John Bolt

Highlighting the practical nature of his theology and lessons from his approach to the Christian life, this book about influential theologian Herman Bavinck will help modern believers obey Christ and find joy in the gospel.

Not only did Christianity place a higher value on history and life in the world; the changed attitude also produced historical actors and agents. Christians accepted responsibility to shape history, to redirect it, to fashion it in ways that they believed were more God-honoring and glorifying. Bavinck begins his ninth Stone Lecture, “Revelation and Culture,” with a reference to the famous saying from Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805–1880) that “man must be twice converted, first from the natural to the spiritual life, and then from the spiritual to the natural.” Bavinck affirms the “truth” in Blumhardt’s “somewhat paradoxical language, a truth which is confirmed by the religious experience of every Christian and by the history of Christian piety in all ages.”[2]

The first and highest desire and duty of human beings is to be in fellowship with God. We were created for fellowship with God, for Sabbath, and being reconciled with God and personally assured of our salvation is the first order of business for every living person on earth. But the truth that once we are reconciled with God, our “work begins then in dead earnest” and we “become co-workers with God” is broadened when we call attention to history and culture.

We are now thinking of work not merely in terms of basic survival but also in terms of taking responsibility for history, accepting a cultural, civilizing obligation with our work.

[1] Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt, trans. Harry Boonstra and Gerrit Sheeres (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 96–97; Bavinck is citing Rudolf Eucken, Geistige Strömungen der Gegenwart (Leipzig, 1904), 190.
[2] The Philosophy of Revelation: The Stone Lectures for 1908–1909, Princeton Theological Seminary (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1909), 242.

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

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