Philosophy is derived from the mind of man while Christianity comes from the mind of God. Although faith is different than reason, Christians have the most rightly guided reason because of faith. History is the entirety of written events that have occurred in connection with the life of mankind on earth as overseen by God. I believe that history is linear with repeating patterns, but every Christian must develop a philosophy of history regarding the impact of time, social studies, and man’s actions.
Historians have debated the philosophy of time for centuries, including the classical cyclical, medieval linear, and combination views. Ancient Greek historians and philosophers held to a cyclical view of time which logically denied that history had purpose or importance, and they did not believe that events in the past affected the present. The Greeks contributed significantly to historical thinking because their cyclical view sorted truth from falsehood. The accomplishments of the Greek historians provided a model for all future written histories.
The medieval linear view began with the idea of Roman continuation and Augustine’s belief in historical decline. When the Roman Empire came to power, historians believed history should be united so there was a serious look at history and an attempt to analyze it in order to explain events. Virgil introduced the belief that because of Rome all history changed, an idea which spurred the advance of “eternal Rome.” Historians embraced a linear view and wrote in a manner showing they understood that history is a commentary on the past, description of the present, and expectation for the future.
At the end of the Roman Empire, Augustine developed his own Christian philosophy of history based on a belief that history was in decline. After watching Rome decay, he proposed that decline started even before Christ was born. The Middle Ages adopted Augustine’s theories in their own view of history which said time was linear because of three key events: creation, Christ’s life, and Christ’s return. The medieval Augustinian view of history prevailed until the beginning of humanism in the fourteenth century.
Renaissance historians developed a new explanation for history because Augustine’s theory of decline failed to account for the Renaissance, and many historians returned to a semi-cyclical view with an emphasis on progress and recurring empires. These new historians developed a critical attitude about texts, searched for new evidences of truth, and delved into the philosophy of reason. Renaissance philosophers incorporated progress into historical cycles by seeing the ancient world as a high point, the middle ages as a low point, and the renaissance as a new high.
I believe in a combination of linear history with an emphasis on patterns. Time still extends from creation to Christ’s return, but patterns, like the rise and fall of empires, exist. Historians impose patterns on history by merely giving names to specific events like the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Historians cannot deny that linear history does contain political, economic, social, and cultural patterns.
Not only has philosophy shaped history, but it also impacted the social studies of philology, archeology, and historical writing. Philology, the science of verifying and authenticating old manuscripts, dominated the Renaissance. Historians analyzed the urban chronicles and annals from the Middle Ages to determine if they were the original manuscripts or artful copies from palace schools. Through one of these searches, Lorenzo Valla famously uncovered the forgery of “The Donation of Constantine.” The desire for primary sources drove historians to search old monasteries and libraries for primary documents, and they discovered old histories that could be incorporated into a new universal history.
Archeology also profited from the new philosophers such as Petrarch and Biondo. Petrarch inspected the ruins of the Roman forum to draw conclusions about history, and he used the unearthed remains to understand the past. Biondo also inspected the ruins of the Roman forums, but he just wanted to know what happened. His book, Rome Restored, was a concise history of Rome based on his findings with a particular interest in the historical context in which Roman law developed.
Philosophers also changed the purpose of historical writing. Medieval histories of individual states developed like Henry of Huntington’s History of the English and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Historians also wrote for entertainment, and they deviated from the hard facts of history to tell stories about people. Overall, Renaissance historians still believed that the best history came from eyewitnesses so they named their authorities and documented their sources. They realized that a good narrative history must include the significant details for each individual story.
Philosophy also directly impacted the theories on the governance of man’s actions regarding fate, fortune, law, and free choice. The ancient Greeks embraced the idea of fate—the idea that since everything in the past is unchangeable, the future also is predestined. Boethius attacked the idea of fate by comparing fate to providence, and he concluded that providence is the divine reason to which fate is subordinate. Another philosopher, Machiavelli, promoted the idea of fortune, which refers to chance, luck, or probability. After outlining the affects fortune can have upon the governance of man’s actions, Machiavelli postulates that man must look to the future to prepare for the random variations of fortune.  Other philosophers, rejecting fate and fortune, turned to natural law to explain history. Aquinas stated that natural law could determine human actions in history, but he concluded that in reality eternal law governed all human affairs.
Eventually, the overarching philosophical debate moved to the discussion of free choice in regard to governing man’s actions. Aquinas and Boethius both examined free will and concluded that it was a gift from God given to men so they could choose their own actions, thus determining the course of history. Berdyaev pointed out that Christian Providence was synonymous with freedom and not fatality because the freedom to choose good was rooted in the will and not in reason. Like Vico, I believe that God gave man free choice, so history is not bound to fate, fortune, or law.
In the end, the knowledge of God’s activity in history as revealed in Scripture is required to understand the ultimate meaning of history. Modern historians must consider the impact of historical philosophy on time, social studies, and man’s actions. Philosophy and Christianity are often presented as a paradox in the modern world, but I think that each Christian historian bears the responsibility of determining his own philosophical view of history because God gave us the reasoning ability to understand history.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Shirley Case. The Christian Philosophy of History. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1943), v-vi.
C. Gregg Singer. Christian Approaches to Philosophy and to History. (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1978), 26.
Mark Gilderhus. History and Historians, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 15.
Michael Stanford. An Introduction to the Philosophy of History. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 78.
William Dray. Philosophy of History, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993), 116.
“Boethius: A Consolation of Philosophy.” Fordham University. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/con-phil.asp (accessed February 28, 2013).
David Burr. “Aquinas on Law.” Fordham University. 1996. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/aquinas2.asp (accessed February 28, 2013).
Nicolas Berdyaev. The Meaning of History. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), 111.