Theologies of history have, at least, two functions:
1. They provide a thematic layout of general history.
2. They provide an interpretive framework for specific events in history.
We term them “theologies” because there are a number of various theological approaches to history. Examples are Augustine’s Two City Theology and Dispensationalism.
Some Terminological Clarifications
Vs. Historical Theology
Theology of history is, of course, certainly not historical theology; that may not need to be mentioned, except for clarification of terminologies. Historical theology is the name of a discipline that studies the historical development of theology. On the contrary, theology of history theologically approaches history with theories and interpretations. For example, historical theology studies issues like how the doctrine of Trinity developed in history. Theology of history, on the other hand, addresses issues like what the Bible says about why postmodernism came to be or whether wars are going to cease.
Vs. Philosophy of History
A further distinction needs to be made between theology of history and philosophy of history. While a theology of history approaches history from the vantage point of the Bible; however, philosophy of history (e.g. the dialectical theory of Hegel or Marxist philosophy of history) approaches history from the perspective of a philosophical tradition. A philosophical bias towards history, for instance in the secular humanist approach to history, will usually demythologize ancient historical accounts recorded from a theological perspective.
Vs. Non-Biblical Theology
There are also non-biblical theologies of history like, for instance, the Cyclical Theory of History and the Theory of the Four Yugas. The beginning points of these theologies are in non-biblical sources. They fall under “theology” since the sources are claimed to have a sacred origin.
While prophecy relates to the future, theology of history encompasses the entire time-spectrum and also provides the framework for the interpretation of prophecy (but not without the hermeneutical circle—the reading of prophecy does also influence the development of a theology of history, provided the view and approach towards biblical interpretation – e.g. literal or allegorical).
Relationship with Cosmology, Soteriology, and Eschatology
Theology of history certainly involves discussions of cosmology, soteriology, and eschatology; however, these are viewed as parts of its own grand story. These narratives are parts of the metanarrative, which is meta not only in the sense of being the bigger story, but also in the sense of providing the theological vantage point from which these events derive theological significance.
Important Characteristics of Theologies of History
A few important characteristics of theologies of history may be pointed out as follows:
1. They are normative, not descriptive. Theologies of history prescribe the blueprint for an understanding of history.
2. They are interpretive. Theologies of history attempt to theologically interpret general and specific events in history in light of the theological metanarrative.
Few Theologies of History
1. Augustine’s The City of God. Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths who inflicted on it barbaric destruction. In the aftermath, critics assailed Christianity for being the reason of Rome’s fall. One challenge of history that Christianity faced was, “How could Rome as strong as it was crumble down after turning to Christianity?” Augustine wrote The City of God in response to this question. His theology of history was actually an apologetic that provided a theological framework for an understanding of the Sack of Rome in light of God’s metanarrative of history. To Augustine, there are ultimately only two cities: the City of the World and the City of God. The book is, in essence, a commentary on history from the vantage point of this view of the two cities and the conflict between them.
2. Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism was systematized by John Darby (1800-82) and was popularized by C.I.Scofield through his Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensationalism divides the history of the world into various ages which provides also a hermeneutic normative for interpretation of Biblical history and God’s dealings with the nations. Some dispensationalists consider the ages to only be three (Law, Grace, and Kingdom), while others opt for four, seven, or more (e.g. Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Law, Grace…). Further, there are also differences with regard to the division a particular age; for instance, whether the tribulation would follow or precede the rapture. Dispensationalists theology of history also tries to identify the present status of Israel and the nations in the plan of God.
3. Dominionism. Dominion theology or dominionism has variants in movements such as Christian Reconstructionism and the Kingdom Now theology and looks to the triumph of Christ on the Cross over principalities and powers as the ground for Christian dominionism. While there are disagreements between various theological perspectives in this camp, there is a general agreement on postmillennialism (that the reign of Christ began with Christ’s triumph on the Cross). The view, thus, prescribes Christians to become actively involved in politics, arts, education, and economics, in order to transform history.
Any reading of the Scriptures will need a theology of history to relate the events to each other. A theology of history becomes necessary not only for an understanding of God’s dealings with humans at different times, but also in order to understand, for instance, why a particular divine commandment is not binding at other times. Thus, theology of history also sheds light on biblical politics and ethics. More significantly, it helps us in the understanding of contemporary history and its trends and in being able to predict where all this is leading towards.
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