Christianity is sometimes referred to as a “historical” religion – its beliefs are specifically tied to events which have taken place in space and time. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are events which have taken place in space and time or Christianity is not true. No matter how noble or inspirational its teachings – the space-time reality of Christ’s death and resurrection are fundamental to the faith. Those who deny that reality have departed from the traditional confession of the Christian faith.
I offer this short confession of faith in order to allow myself to write with some care about time and history and the Christian faith – without – I trust – causing others to stumble.
There was a Russian proverb during the Soviet period: “History is hard to predict.” The re-writing of history was a common political action – enough to provoke the proverb. Students of history are doubtless well-aware that re-writing is the constant task of the modern academic world. The account of American and World History which I learned (beginning school in the 1950’s) differs greatly from the histories my children have learned. Some of the re-writing was long overdue – while other projects have been more dubious.
Of course re-writing is not a recent phenomenon. Virgil’s Aeneid was an effort to re-write history, giving Rome a story to rival Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Reformation became a debate not only about doctrine but also about the interpretation of history and the Church.
The rise of historical studies in the modern period, which questioned long-held beliefs about the historical veracity of the Scriptures, gave rise to an anxiety within modern Christianity. Many of the debates that permeate Christianity at the present time turn on questions of history and historical interpretation. As the debates rage, history becomes increasingly harder to predict.
I would suggest that it is a mistake to describe Christianity as a “historical” religion, despite the space-time reality of its central events. It is more correct to describe Christianity as an “eschatological” religion – a belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence. To put it in the simple terms of the Gospel: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
There has been a tendency in some forms of Christian doctrine to draw abstractions from the concrete events of the Gospel. Thus atonement theory often speaks in forensic terms that primarily describe God’s own acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, whether as payment or punishment fulfilled, etc. In a manner, the event verges on being reduced to modern symbol (something which stands for something else) the abstractions and theories carrying most of the weight of significance.
For this same reason (I suspect) most modern Christians overlook the Scriptural doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hades: it does not fit within the atonement theories put forward in many circles. Even the Resurrection is diminished by many atonement theories – serving as a mere proof of Christ’s divinity for some – or a dramatic reassurance of forgiveness for others.
Thus, though these historical events are considered to be important in their historical reality – few articulate precisely how this is so.
I would agree that history alone is insufficient for an understanding and interpretation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christ is crucified on a particular day and hour in a particular place. But the Scriptures also teach us that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth,” making Christ’s sacrifice something that also exists outside of space and time. His Crucifixion is an intersection of time and eternity, of heaven and earth. It is a manifestation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In like manner His Resurrection has elements both of history and of something that utterly transcends history. The Kingdom of God is made manifest.
This is the very heart of the Christian faith – not simply that events happened about which we now theologize. Rather, the events are the in-breaking of reality itself – earth fulfilled by heaven. We glorify Christ’s Resurrection – but we also know it, because though it is a historical event, it is also an event of the Kingdom. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection because these events, though historical, are accessible to us in the mysteries of the Church.
The Orthodox faith is not what it is because it is simply the oldest, etc. Such concepts become entangled in the typical give and take of historical argument. The faith is what it is because it lives within the Kingdom of God throughout history. If it is not a way of life that incorporates us into the Kingdom – then it would be of mere historical interest. As it is, the Church constantly invites us into a way of life that is life in the Kingdom, despite the historical nature of our existence.
When the Orthodox faith is described as “mystical,” it is this very real proclamation that is being referenced. In Christ, the Kingdom of God is come and nothing will ever be same. What came into the world in Christ, abides in the world with us, and in that reality we are changed – earth united to heaven – creation to the Uncreated – man to God.