History, when it is not being distorted to fit some progressive political narrative, is otherwise dying of slow neglect among the people. For Americans more interested in futuristic technologies than understanding their own culture, history is in grave danger of becoming the forgotten subject in both our educational system and our national consciousness. And since historians, unlike their “techie” colleagues don’t make the six figure salaries, there seems to be little economic incentive for pursuing history as a profession.
That’s too bad, because the value of history lies in its ability to provide a verifiable framework upon which to understand and hopefully direct not only social policies but one’s own personal life with true wisdom. Absent history we are attempting to fly our star-ship without a navigator ~ or even a decent map. That is not to suggest that history provides an infallible template for the future, because history is a highly interpretative science. It is a mountain of facts that must be combed through and studied in order to draw conclusions.
This fact alone means that any good sophist can cherry pick the facts that fit a desired narrative and construct some plausible theme from the selected facts. One could portray George Washington, for instance, as either an oppressive slaveholder or an enlightened liberator depending upon which biographical details one chooses to emphasize. But let us consider history on a much grander scale, the sweep of entire eras over centuries and even millenia. The thrust of history has been interpreted in many different ways by various historians over the centuries. Consider Mr. H.G. Wells whose Outline of History presented the previous 1,900 years or so in a light rather antagonistic to Christianity. As an agnostic and a Fabian Socialist Mr. Wells’ less than objective interpretation of history should not surprise us. Many modern historians have taken the Hegelian or evolutionary view of history which necessarily results in undying faith in the “inevitability of progress.”
That may be fine for hopeful agnostics but how should a Christian view history and rightly understand it? If one truly believe that Christ is the Lord of History that title strongly implies that his Church is inseparable from that history and, in fact, his Church is directly a product of history. History then should hold a strong fascination for the committed Christian because it is His Story. In fact, for the believer all history becomes an integral part of an overarching and all-encompassing Salvation History. The goal of all history is the salvation of those countless millions who populate its pages. That is why when educators secularizes history it also looses value and interest for the masses, because they have removed the very object which gives it any real meaning.
When God came into the world as a man, he entered history in a concrete way thus giving it a whole new meaning. Deny the Incarnation and history is reduced to just an interesting litany of deeds and misdeeds devoid of any redemptive value. It may be salacious but it is hardly salvific, therefore any lens under which it is viewed may be considered just as good as another. But if the true purpose of history is our eternal salvation suddenly every man, woman, and child has a vested interest in it. Many times Christians themselves get it wrong by thinking of Salvation History as merely a subset of world history. The truth is just the opposite. World history, national, and even ethnic histories are in reality all subsets of Salvation History. If one is willing to accept that as a starting premise, the history of our world can be interpreted in a whole new and far more promising light.
Leaving ancient history aside for this reflection, I would like to consider, in very broad outline, what I would call modern history or what Christians refer to as the latter stages of history also known as the “end times.” Don’t be deceived by terminology. The end times and have been in progress for the past 2,000 years or so. That may sound like a long time for the “end” to be transpiring but in historical perspective it is really a rather short period. Anthropologists now estimate that modern man known as homo sapiens sapiens came on the scene somewhere around 50,000 years ago. If their figures are correct that means that some 2,000 generations have come and gone since Adam and Eve walked in the garden. 40,000 years, give or take transpired before the so-called Neo-lithic revolution introduced stable agrarian and urban culture, corresponding in time to the retreat of the last ice age (incidentally about the same time of those great floods remembered not only in the Bible but by many other cultures as well). Once the ice disappeared civilization seems to have really gotten a toehold.
It took another 5,000 years before any scant records of history began appearing in a few places like Egypt and Babylon. But oral traditions seem to have been strong enough to maintain the memory of catastrophic events such as the great floods which geologists now confirm affected large parts of the globe. Finally, about 2,000 years ago the same God who had been overseeing all those countless eons of now-forgotten human history himself entered into the story as a human being. Remember that 48,000 years, representing 1,900 generations or more, of history had already transpired. And what better reason did God himself have join the human race but to redeem it, including all those people who had come before as well as the ones who were yet to be born. Using such a time perspective it is easy to realize how even 2,000 years can be considered as merely the final chapter in a very long story.
God came in his Incarnate form at that particular time in history for a specific reason and therefore his coming should also be seen as the fulcrum of history. Since the entire history of mankind revolves around this work of divine salvation it is only right that all of history, recorded and unrecorded alike, is viewed as being a part of Salvation history, the modern part being that which is at the short end of the fulcrum, namely these same “end times.”
This post-Incarnational side of history is divided into eight historical periods, but there is also one period which actually preceded the birth of Christ which ought to be included as “modern” history because it was a period of intense preparation that led up to and “set the stage” for the Incarnation and Christ’s subsequent work of salvation. Altogether that makes nine periods which I like to divide into three historical eras containing three periods each.
The first era revolves around Rome: its rise, consolidation of power, and decline into chaos. The Roman Republic was founded in 508 B.C. only a few years after the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, magnanimously ended the Babylonian exile and allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem where they eventually rebuilt the ruined temple. There is great symbolism in this act of clemency by the gentile monarch because it foreshadows the restoration of the whole human race to grace through the actions of the great king Jesus Christ who rebuilds a new temple,his body, at the Resurrection and also restores the New Jerusalem which is his Church.
In order for that to happen however, God required a new civil order which might provide a suitable culture in which that Church would be able to grow. That civil order was Rome which would eventually provide a worldly stability through her laws and the Pax Romana. Of course in the 6th century B.C. nobody in the civilized world knew that Rome even existed. Another culture would also rise up about this time that would eventually provide the ideas that would enable the infant Church to grow and develop intellectually. That culture was the Hellenic, or Greek world which, in 480 B.C., miraculously defeated the world’s greatest power, Persia, in order to throw off the yoke of Oriental mysticism and create a truly Western school of thought: the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Over the next 500 years Rome would provide the political unity and Greece the intellectual unity that would provide a fertile seedbed for the New Jerusalem that Christ intended to establish.
The second period of history, and the first in the new order which began with the founding of Christianity, lasted until about the year 476 A.D. This was the period of Rome’s greatest power and yes, her eventual decline in the West. But even as Rome was corrupting from within, the new Christian religion which she nurtured, even in spite of frequent persecutions, grew and blossomed. All was not love and peace even within the Church however. Serious heresies originating in the East and also Africa threatened her very existence early on. Arians, Donatists, Pelagians, Nestorians, and Monophysites all attacked key doctrines which orthodox bishops vigorously defended. These great Church Fathers of the Patristic age ~ Gregory, Basil, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine ~ eventually prevailed and in the process codified and explained the essential central doctrines for future generations of Christians.
The third period of history is rightly called the “Dark Ages” lasting from 476 to about 800 A.D., the year Charlemagne was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor. A period of invasions, political instability, and most of all the rise and spread of Islam during the 7th century, virtually annihilated Christianity in North Africa and much of Spain and Portugal. The tireless and successful efforts of Charlemagne ushered in a Carolingian Renaissance north of the Alps. The first era of modern history was complete and the second era commenced which we know as the Middle Ages.
The early Middle Ages begin with Charlemagne’s unification of Europe’s center. It is an age of feudalism and serfdom. Towards the end of this period a new evangelizing push brings the Slavic lands and eventually the barbarian Nordic, Viking, and Danes into the fold of Christendom. The Normans successfully invade England and forever change the culture of the British Isles. The early Middle Ages end with the call for the First Crusade in 1096.
The Crusades are a hallmark of the High Middle Ages but they hardly define what became a period of great innovation and thought. This was the time of monastic reform, the founding of the mendicant orders, Franciscan and Dominican, the building of soaring Gothic Cathedrals, and founding of universities. Theological thought and development was raised to new highs by teachers like Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. The philosophy of Aristotle is synthesized with Christian doctrines. It is the age of chivalry and St. Louis IX, the pious king of France. Free peasants begin to replace serfs as population and crop production increases. Trade and towns abound in a period of magnifying prosperity. The senseless invasion of Christian Constantinople by Latin Crusaders in 1204 only weakens Europe’s Byzantine bulwark against Islam, precipitating its eventual fall to the Turks.
The late Middle Ages begins with the French king Philip the Fair initiating the Avignon Papacy which greatly weakens the authority of the Church. After nearly 70 years of this “Babylonian exile” the popes finally return to Rome only to have a great schism rend the Church even further. The Black Death ravages Europe during the mid 14th century reducing the population by a third. Meanwhile the heresies of the English Wycliffe and Jan Hus in Bohemia portend a greater rebellion against the Church authorities a century down the road. A new Renaissance is springing up in the cities of Italy and even Paris based upon “humanism,” i.e. placing man at the center of his world. Feudalism is being supplanted by more unified nation states particularly in England and France. Spain too is unified in her last push to expel the Moors, accomplished in 1492, the same year that she finances the discovery of an entirely New World across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Middle Ages and the middle epoch of modern history will end abruptly in 1517 with the protests of an Augustinian German monk named Martin Luther. The third era has begun and this is an age of revolutions: political, social, and ecclesial. The Protestant revolt begun by Luther spreads quickly across Europe north of the Alps. A dispute between the pope and Henry VIII leads Catholic England to eventually join the rebellion. Horrific persecutions and wars break out culminating in the Thirty Years War which ravages central Europe and cements a permanent break between Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Colonization of the New World by Spain and Portugal extends the Catholic sphere to the new continents, mitigating many of the Church’s losses in Europe. Protestant England nonetheless gains a strategic toehold on the east coast of North America.
The second period in the Age of Revolutions begins with a new revolution in science and philosophy. The Enlightenment is a direct result of the new empirical methods. Great discoveries and improved technologies create a new kind of industrial wealth. An increasingly secular bourgeois class grows in the expanding cities, desiring more political power. Trade competition drives England, France, and Spain into wars over colonies and control of trade routes. African slavery grows exponentially. A localized rebellion in the American English colonies sets the stage for a far bigger explosion in France which topples the monarchy. The period ends with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte who remakes the map of Europe and oversees the demise of the 1,000 year old Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne.
The final and ninth age in the “end times” has continued from the demise of Bonaparte to the present day, exactly 200 years later. This has been an age of unceasing revolution: industrial, social, economic, cultural, political, and spiritual. In fact the very idea of revolution has been so ingrained in the modern psyche that we can hardly imagine what social or even intellectual stability actually means. Even the family unit has been torn apart and re-defined. In two years it will have been 500 years since the era of revolutions began in Martin Luther’s Germany. Of course, as Christians, we know and believe that Christ is still the Lord of history and that what we are witnessing, regardless of how bizarre or unsettling, is meant to play some part in that history.
What we do know is that at the end of the ages there will be a great apostacy and perhaps we are seeing signs of that apostacy even now. It is good always to remember, even as the early Christians understood, that we are living in the end times, whatever their duration. It is not for us to know the exact hour but only to remain faithful to the one and true Lord of History, Jesus Christ. That is the correct interpretation of history and the only one that will shed any light on whatever may come down the pike. We simply have to choose which side of history we want to be on, the sensational side or the true side.
God is always preparing this world for a great harvest of souls. Over the past century we have seen bits of that harvest through two horrific world wars, terrible revolutions in Russia, China, and currently in the persecutions ravaging the Middle East. Even in our own country we have witnessed nearly 60 million innocent souls harvested from their mother’s own wombs with hardly a whimper from our “leaders.” History teaches us that there is no escape from death nor any escape from truth in the end. Our job is simply to be prepared. If so, we will have learned the lessons of history well and the Lord of History himself will recognize us as friends on the great day of harvest. Deo Gratias!
Francis J. Pierson