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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Christ Unfurled: The First 500 Years of Jesus’s Life” by Fr. David Meconi, SJ

Published Wednesday, June 30, 2021 By Joshua Schendel

“And Greater Works Than These You Will Do”

I have just finished reading the recent little early history of the church by Fr. David Meconi, SJ., entitled Christ Unfurled: The First 500 years of Jesus’s Life. As the title suggests, the story is told as the fulfillment of Jesus’s words recorded in John 14:12, where Jesus makes the striking assertion that his disciples would do his works and even greater works than his. Jesus made such an assertion, Fr. Meconi argues, because “every baptism is an unfolding of Bethlehem, every sacrifice is the Passion continued, each consecrated ‘yes’ continues Mary’s ‘let it be done to me according to your word,’ every feeding of the hungry is to minister to Christ, every pope is an echo of Peter’s confession, every woman whose  dignity is restored in Christ is another Mary Magdalen, every chalice really is the Holy Grail” (3-4). In other words, the story of the first 500 years of the Christian church is the story of “Christ’s unfurling himself into and as the church…” (2, emphasis original).

Aiming to reveal this meaning of the first five centuries of church history, Fr. Meconi structures his book multifacetedly. Each of the chapters takes as its central theme a pronouncement concerning Jesus found in the Gospel accounts. Thus, each chapter ties the historical happenings detailed in the chapter to a significant theme in the life of Christ on earth. He also incorporates the first four ecumenical councils into the framework of the latter four chapters (Nicaea through Chalcedon), charting the major ecclesiastical developments along that Gospel grid. This book is less an engagement with current scholarship—though he often points to current scholarship in the footnotes—and more a reading of those centuries through the eyes of the Patristic writings. In all, this book is an informative and engaging narrative, infused with Patristic sources, and theologically framed.

For Protestant readers, this book will poke from time to time (as when he cites the, frankly, tired Newman quip that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant” (14), or quasi-historical—and quite contestable—statements like: “Leo’s pontificate made it clear to the world that the see of Rome must be held supreme in safeguarding the purity of the Faith” (223), and others of the like). Setting these aside for the moment, however, Fr. Meconi’s book raises two important questions.

The first question is a theological question. It has to do with claim that Christ and the church “really are one.” Anyone who reads the New Testament will take Fr. Meconi’s claim seriously; Christ prays for this kind of unity, Paul proclaims it. How one explains that Christ and the church really are one, however, will bring up issues of dispute. For Fr. Meconi, the “really are one” means at least a couple of things: first, that the historical church—the church accessible to the material senses of human creatures—just is identical with the church that is the body of Christ. But this will strike many Protestants as having muddled the very important distinction between the visible and invisible church. Second, that the historical developments of those first five centuries just are, and inevitably, the developments of the Roman Catholic church. Protestants, Orthodox, and a good many others quite contest this.

Be that as it may, Fr. Meconi takes his cue from the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, and says so explicitly: “This is a work of both Church history and Catholic ecclesiology…” (5). Rather than simply being dismissive, I think we Protestants ought to pause here. The mystery of the unity of Christ and the church, as his own body, is for Catholics dogma.[1] And this raises the intriguing second question: what role should dogma play in the construction of historical narrative? Or, to put it a bit more broadly, is theology the queen of the historical discipline?

What Hath Theology To Do With History?

Fr. Meconi writes, “To flip rightly through the pages of the first five hundred years of the Church, then, is to assume a posture of faith that the Church and Christ really are one” (2). And so, “While some see the history of the Church as the simple chronicling of events or the reporting of dates and deeds, this book understands Church history as the story of how Christ brings cultures and civilizations to a fuller understanding of the Truth that alone sets us free” (5).

And so, we ask, what hath theology to do with history?

R. G. Collingwood’s classic, Idea of History, charts in great detail the historical development of the very notion of history. Whether he gets all the details right, I’ll let the historians debate. In general terms, his recounting of the development seems just about right. He notes in particular two Christian ideas that influenced the way history was thought about and written. First, it was recognized that human actions and the events that unfolded from them were not merely on account of human intellect and aim. Often they were driven by unruly desires, what Christians called original sin. Second, “the plans which are realized by human action…come about not because men have devised means to execute them, but because men, doing from time to time what at the moment they wanted to do, have executed the purposes of God.” This Collingwood called ‘the conception of grace’ (46-47). So, in other words, to record history properly within this Christian framework, the historian needs to account not just for what men said they intended to do, but for the unruly desires that may be lurking underneath those intentions. And, further, the historian needs to account for the overarching purposive governance of God in history.

This conception of history was kept largely intact, according to Collingwood, throughout the medieval period but underwent some considerable remodeling in the enlightenment period. As a more ‘scientific’ approach was sought, in which “genuine history has no room for the merely probable or merely possible; all it permits the historian to assert is what the evidence before him obliges him to assert” (204). That is, gathering the data, the historian is not to fill in gaps or engage in speculations which move beyond the strict boundaries of ‘the evidence.’ But then, inference to a transcendent, purposive, divine governance seemed to many to violate this strictly scientific approach.

The attempt to model the study of history after a scientific approach was not all bad, I want to be clear. As Marc Bloch has said, the scientific approach has “taught us to analyze more profoundly, to grasp our problems more firmly, and even, I dare say, to think less shoddily” (12-13). But the desire to produce histories as though written from ‘a view from nowhere,’ has not only made for boring histories, it has seriously misshapen the expectations of its pupils. History is not just chronologically ordered ‘facts.’ In the first place, there is doubt whether such a thing as a mere chronologically ordered set of facts can even be. Following Hegel’s insight, Collingwood notes, “For history, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought [meaning] expressed in it. After the historian has ascertained the facts, there is no further process of inquiring into their causes. When he knows what happened, he already knows why it happened” (214). That is, to understand ‘what happened’ is already to have it narrated, is already to understand the relations of its constitutive parts, is already to understand its causes.

Secondly, and more significant, a mere chronologically ordered set of facts is called into question because of the relation that past events have to our intellects. As Bloch notes: “The nature of our intelligence is such that it is stimulated far less by the will to know than by the will to understand, and, from this, it results that the only sciences which it admits to be authentic are those which succeed in establishing explanatory relationships between phenomena” (8-9). As humans, we seek to understand. And when it comes to history, we are after the facts, yes; but we are after more: we want to understand the meaning of those facts.

This point can be taken in various directions. It is commonplace today to argue that history creates meaning. As Udo Schnelle has written: “The writing of history involves much more than a mere relationship to the past. It is a way of establishing and shaping meaning…” (2). But I think this is not quite right. It certainly is the case that historians can, and do, create and establish meaning in their writings. Sometimes this is a good thing; sometimes it is a bad thing. But the historian can do something more than establish or shape meaning; the historian, insofar as he seeks to raise the minds of his readers to understanding, can uncover the meaning of the historical happening and reveal it to the reader. In this way the historian functions as kind of apocalyptic seer, himself understanding that the meaning of the past—as with the present—is layered, and goes a long way down, and attempting to take the reader on the journey down through those layers.

If this is so, then we need to ask about the organ of sight in the historian. Historians see by their natural reason. And by their natural reason they attempt to uncover the meaning that is found within and under the events they study. So, why cannot the eyes of faith also lend sight? By the eyes of faith the historian may be able to see further layers, to uncover deeper meaning.

In saying this, of course, one runs the risk of being charged with methodological suicide. I’m here inviting all history to be molded into the procrustean bed of dogma, say, where the conclusions of the historical enterprise can be predicted from the outset. This is a risk, I admit. But not a necessity.

For all the critique of Phillip Schaff’s historical methodology, falling prey to certain nineteenth century problems as it does, he seems to me to be instructive on this point. On the one hand he can say that the historian “must reproduce the history itself, making it live again in his representation. His highest and only aim should be, like a witness, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and, like a judge, to do full justice to every person and event which comes under his review.” (History of the Christian Church, 1:22)

Yet, he advises, the Christian church historian must always remember “that history has a soul as well as a body, and that the ruling ideas and general principles must be represented no less than the outward facts and dates.” The ruling ideas and general principles are derived from an understanding of the source and end of the created realm, the biblical storyline which begins with God’s creation and moves to the consummation of the Kingdom (3-4). Hence, the Christian church historian “should be filled with universal Christian sympathy. The motto [of the church historian is]… Christianus sum, nihil Christiani a me alienum puto” (25).

Perhaps we could gesture toward an answer to our question—what has theology to do with history?—like this: theology functions with respect to history in the way that supernatural theology functions to natural, not by circumventing or contravening it, but by bringing it to its perfection. That is, by the eyes of faith the Christian church historian is able to see with and beyond the light of nature, not merely into the ordering of events, nor, still further, merely into the interplay of human intentions and desires and their ramifications for political, economic, social, and ecological developments. With the eyes of faith, the historian may be able to detect something of the end of those orderings, something of the transcendent meaning of those developments.

Justo Gonzáles, in his The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, comments on the seeming lack of an ending to Luke’s Acts of the Apostles: “What this means for those who share in Luke’s faith is that the history of the church, while showing all the characteristics of human history, is much more than the history of an institution or movement. It is a history of the deeds of the Spirit in and through the men and women who have gone before them in the faith” (2).

Perhaps, then, theology ought still to be counted as queen of the historical discipline.

[1] See, for example, Catechism of the Catholic Church, ch.3,art. 9, para. 1, 770-771 and Lumen Gentium, I.7

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine and an author at Conciliar Post. He lives with his beloved wife, Bethanne, and three children in Southern California.

  • Joshua Schendel

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