Posted: 31 Jan 2011 11:00 PM PST
HISTORY LOOKS DIFFERENT IN different cultures. I do not simply mean that different cultures interpret the same past differently (though that is often the case), but that the understanding of what history is may vary from culture to culture. Indeed, even within one culture there are often competing notions as to what history is.
This issue has become ever more complex during the past several decades, owing to the advance of postmodernism and its innovative ideas about what history is. As important as that debate is, I do not wish to explore it here. At the moment I am painting on a larger canvas.
Many ancient Greeks thought that history went around in circles. This does not mean that each cycle repeats itself exactly, but that there is an unending repetition of patterns, with no end, no ultimate climax, no telos. A great deal of contemporary naturalism thinks that our sun will finally burn out, and life on earth will come to an end. Some hold that the universe itself will eventually settle into a more or less even distribution of energy, and die; others think that somehow it will rejuvenate itself by collapsing and exploding again to repeat a cycle something like the present one. By contrast, in university history departments events on such a scale are irrelevant. History—whether this refers to what happened, or to our reconstruction of it—covers the period of human writing. Everything before that is "prehistoric."
The Bible has its own perspectives on history, and some of them are nonnegotiable: if we lose sight of them or deny them, we can no longer understand the Bible on its own terms. Certainly the Bible sometimes retells "what happened" in parabolic categories (compare 2 Sam. 11 and 12), or in highly selective condensations (e.g., Acts 7), or in poetic form (Ps. 78). But more importantly, we cannot rightly understand the Bible unless we grasp several key elements of its sequence. On the largest scale, history begins at Creation and ends at the supreme telos, the final judgment and the new heaven and new earth. We are not simply going around in circles. In Galatians 3 (see vol. 1, meditation for September 27), Paul's argument turns on the fact that the Mosaic Law came after the promises to Abraham. Somewhat similarly here (Romans 4), Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness before he was circumcised, so circumcision cannot be made a condition of righteousness. Under Semitic notions of sonship, Abraham becomes the father of all who believe, circumcised or not (Rom. 4:1–12). Something similar can be said of Abraham's relation to the Law of Moses (Rom. 4:13–17). The sequence of the biblical history is critical.
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