Christopher Dawson: Do You Know Why We Date History B.C. and A.D.?

Feast of Sts John and Symeon the Holy Fool for Christ

Dawson_Square_3.jpegIT IS VERY difficult, perhaps even impossible, to explain the Christian view of history to a non-Christian, since it is necessary to accept the Christian faith in order to understand the Christian view of history, and those who reject the idea of a divine revelation are necessarily obliged to reject the Christian view of history as well. And even those who are prepared to accept in theory the principle of divine revelation – of the manifestation of a religious truth which surpasses human reason – may still find it hard to face the enormous paradoxes of Christianity.

That God should have chosen an obscure Palestinian tribe – not a particularly civilized or attractive tribe either – to be the vehicle of His universal purpose for humanity, is difficult to believe. But that this purpose should have been finally realized in the person of a Galilean peasant executed under Tiberius, and that this event was the turning point in the life of mankind and the key to the meaning of history – all this is so hard for the human mind to accept that even the Jews themselves were scandalized, while to the Greek philosophers and the secular historians it seemed sheer folly.

Nevertheless, these are the foundations of the Christian view of history, and if we cannot accept them it is useless to elaborate idealistic theories and call them a Christian philosophy of history, as has often been done in the past.

For the Christian view of history is not merely a belief in the direction of history by divine providence, it is a belief in the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place. The doctrine of the Incarnation which is the central doctrine of the Christian faith is also the center of history, and thus it is a natural and appropriate that our traditional Christian history is framed in a chronological system which takes the year of the Incarnation as its point of reference and reckons its annals backwards and forwards from this fixed center.

No doubt it may be said that the idea of divine incarnation is not peculiar to Christianity. But if we look at the typical examples of these non-Christian theories of divine incarnation, such as the orthodox Hindu expression of it in the Bhagavad-gita, we shall see that it has no such significance for history as the Christian doctrine possesses. It is not only that the divine figure of Khrishna is mythical and unhistorical, it is that no divine incarnation is regarded as unique but as an example of a recurrent process which repeats itself again and again ad infinitum in the eternal recurrence of the cosmic cycle.

It was against such ideas as represented by the Gnostic theosophy that St. Irenaeus asserted the uniqueness of the Christian revelation and the necessary relation between the divine unity and the unity of history – “that there is one Father the creator of Man and one Son who fulfills the Father’s will and one human race in which the mysteries of God are worked out so that the creature conformed and incorporated with His Son is brought to perfection.”

For the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is not simply a theophany – a revelation of God to Man; it is a new creation – the introduction of a new spiritual principle which gradually leavens and transforms human nature into something new. The history of the human race hinges on this unique divine event which gives spiritual unity to the whole historic process. First there is the history of the Old Dispensation which is the story of the providential preparation of mankind for the Incarnation when “the fulness of time,” to use St. Paul’s expression, had come. Secondly there is the New Dispensation which  is the working out of the Incarnation in the life of the Christian Church. And finally there is the realization of the divine purpose in the future: in the final establishment of the Kingdom of God when the harvest of the world is reaped. Thus the Christian conception of history is essentially unitary. It has a beginning, a center, and an end. This beginning, this center, and this end transcend history; they are not historical events in the ordinary sense of the word, but acts of divine creation to which the whole process of history is subordinate. For the Christian view of history is a vision of history sub specie aeternitatis [under the form of eternity], and interpretation of time in terms of eternity and of human events in the light of divine revelation. And thus Christian history is inevitably apocalyptic, and the apocalypse is the Christian substitute for the secular philosophies of history.

~Christopher Dawson, “The Christian View of History” in Dynamics of World History


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