Fr Georges Florovsky: Did You Realize You Have an Intrinsic Duty to Study History?

Feast of St Christina the Great Martyr of Tyre and of St Athenagoras the Apologist

Florovsky_Square_10.jpegCHRISTIANITY is a religion of historians” (cf. Mark Bloch, The Historian’s Craft). It is a strong phrase, but the statement is correct. Christianity is basically a vigorous appeal to history, a witness of faith to certain particular events in the past, to certain particular data of history. These events are acknowledged by faith as truly eventful. These historic moments, or instants, are recognized as utterly momentous. In brief, they are identified by faith as “mighty deeds” of God, Magnalia Dei. The “scandal of particularity,” to use the phrase of Gerhard Kittel, belongs to the very essence of the Christian message. The Christian Creed itself is intrinsically historic. It comprises the whole of existence, in a single historical scheme as one “History of Salvation,” from Creation to Consummation, to the Last Judgment and the End of history. Emphasis is put on the ultimate cruciality of certain historic events, namely, of the Incarnation, of the Coming of the Messiah, and of His Cross and Resurrection. Accordingly, it may be justly contended that “the Christian religion is a daily invitation to the study of history” (cf. F. M. Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History).

Now, it is at this point that the major difficulties arise. An average believer, of any denomination or tradition, is scarcely aware of his intrinsic duty to study history. The historical pattern of the Christian message is obvious. But people are interested rather in the “eternal truth” of this message, than in what they are inclined to regard as “accidents” of history, even when they are discussing the facts of the Biblical history or of the history of the Church. Does not the message itself point out beyond history, to the “life of the Age to come”? There is a persistent tendency to interpret the facts of history as images or symbols, as typical cases or examples, and to transform the “history of salvation” into a kind of edifying parable. We can trace this tendency back to the early centuries of Christian history. In our own days we find ourselves in the midst of an intense controversy precisely about this very matter.

On the one hand, the essential historicity of Christian religion has been rediscovered and re-emphasized, precisely during the past few decades, and a fresh impact of this reawakened historical insight is strongly felt now in all fields of contemporary theological research – in Biblical exegesis, in the study of Christian history and liturgics, in certain modern attempts at the “reconstruction of belief,” and even in the modern ecumenical dialogue. On the other hand, the recent plea for a radical demythologizing of the Christian message is an ominous sign of a continuing anti-historical attitude in certain quarters. For to demythologize Christianity means in practice precisely to de-historicize it, despite the real difference between myth and history. In fact, the modern plea is but a new form of that theological liberalism, which, at least from the Age of the Enlightenment, persistently attempted to disentangle Christianity from its historical context and involvement, to detect its perennial “essence”, and to discard the historical shells. Paradoxically, the Rationalists of the Enlightenment and the devout Pietists of various description, and also the dreamy mystics, were actually working toward the same purpose. The impact of German Idealism, in spite of its historical appearance, was ultimately to the same effect. The emphasis was shifted from the “outward” facts of history to the “inward” experience of the believers. Christianity, in this interpretation, became a “religion of experience,” mystical, ethical, or even intellectual. History was felt to be simply irrelevant. The historicity of Christianity was reduced to the acknowledgement of a permanent “historical significance” of certain ideas and principles, which originated under particular conditions of time and space, but were in no sense intrinsically linked with them. The person of Christ Jesus lost its cruciality in this interpretation, even if His message has been, to a certain extent, kept and maintained.

~Fr. Georges Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian Historian”


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