21. The Purpose of History

This picture takes place at the Vatican in Rom and shows the progression of history in western civilization

Revelation occurs at the interface between God’s transcendence and His immanence.

With the Abrahamic Covenant, God’s revelation burst forth into human history in an unprecedented manner. This was monumental because it not only changed history, but, at least for the Hebrews, it changed their conception of what history even is.

The paradox is that the eternal God is the God of history. He is at the same time above history as a transcendent being and intimately involved with history as an immanent being. 

Natural Revelation

God also revealed Himself through the natural created order. This is how the ancient cultures encountered him. St. Paul states in Acts 14: 

“In past generations, he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” 

The ancient cultures encountered God through the cycles of the seasons that produced bountiful harvests and they counted on “the gods” for success.1 Despite the fact that they were polytheists, ancient cultures like Ur, the hometown of Abraham, saw dimly the transcendence and immanence of God as they observed the world around them.  

It was especially in the heavens that they saw the transcendence of God –  its beauty, majesty, order, and predictability. By these patterns, they constructed their temples and developed their rites so as to tap into this power through which their earthly existence could be sustained (via bountiful harvests and fertility). The transcendent heavens did affect, in an immanent way, their earthly existence. 

Their lives were centered around predictable patterns such as planting, cultivating, and harvesting. For the Egyptians, this revolved around the annual flooding and recession of the Nile. Since their lives depended on the annual inundation, the Egyptians personified the annual flooding by the god Hapi.2 Hymns were composed in his honor and offerings were cast into the rising waters of the Nile.

Every culture had its own unique way of realizing these patterns. These same rhythms were felt even more acutely on the family level with the cycle of birth, growth, decline, and death. Matriarchs and patriarchs grew old and died and their sons and daughters took their places. Infants were continually being brought into the world to perpetuate the cycle.

Along with the other rhythms of life such as buying, selling, and trading, there was the succession of rulers, kings, and queens, who in many cases were seen as divine.3 Because of their importance, the more sophisticated ancient cultures, like Ur, had an oral and written record of the succession of their kings.4 But just because they kept a written record of kings does not mean that they saw history as a linear progression. From their perspective, history was cyclical, comprising a series of repeatable events.5  There was no sense of the movement of history toward a certain point or end goal. The modern concept of progress was not a part of their psyche.  

History Repeats Itself

In the sixth century, B.C., Presocratic philosophers in Ionia were the first to seek naturalistic explanations or causes for things without denying divine involvement. The beneficiary of these new ideas was Herodotus, who is considered “the Father of History.”6 Unlike mythological accounts of history, he was the first one to look for human causes behind events. He invented the literary genre of history when he wrote an account of the Greco-Persian Wars entitled The Histories.

Like most ancient cultures, the Greeks at that time, Herodotus believed that history repeated itself, so he cataloged the human causes of past historical events in order to better understand the present.7 Note the following quote from the New World Encyclopedia:

“Most ancient cultures held a mythical conception of history and time that was not linear. They believed that history was cyclical with alternating Dark and Golden Ages.”8

Later writers, such as the Roman historian Livy, would also catalog past historical events, but with a moral purpose.9 He tried to communicate not just what happened, but what people ought to do based on past events. 

The fourth century Greek philosopher Aristotle built upon his predecessors – the Presocratic philosophers, Socrates, and Plato – and further developed this idea of causation.10 He talked about four causes to everything: formal, material, efficient, and final. He termed the final cause telos, which means “end” or “goal.” Everything, he said, has a telosa purpose for existing, and that purpose is innate to the object. He said that we can better make sense of our world if we can understand the telos of ourselves and the things around us. This applied to everything from the simple to the complex. 

The purpose of Aristotle’s god, which he termed the “unmoved mover,” was to provide motion to everything so that everything could move toward its telos.11 The unmoved mover does not determine the telos of anything, for that is innate to the object. Neither did the unmoved provide the efficient cause to bring things about. The efficient or first cause is what brings the universe into existence. Since the efficient cause of the universe was an enigma to the Greeks, they viewed the world as eternal. The unmoved mover was there simply to draw everything towards its telos.

“Such a mover could not act as an efficient cause, because that would involve a change in itself, but it can act as a final cause—an object of love—because being loved does not involve any change in the beloved.”12

The Telos of History

That brings us back to the concept of history. Aristotle understood that there was a telos to everything, but he did not see an overall telos to history. He, like everyone else, saw history as circular, a series of repeatable events. He thought, like Herodotus, that the purpose of history was to explain what happened. It was up to the poets to tell us what we ought to do based on what happened.13 For that reason, he thought poets more important than historians. 

With as much as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle accomplished, their reason could only take them so far. Without revelation, it is impossible to see the big picture. It is impossible to understand the telos of history. If the Deity did not provide a master plan, then a master plan was nowhere to be found. 

This is where the ancient Hebrews come into the picture. When God made His covenant with Abraham, He did something radical. He revealed to Abraham that history was to move forward in a linear fashion and that history did indeed have an end or a telos

The only way that the cyclical perspective of history can be overcome is if someone outside of history breaks into history to reveal its telos. This can only be done by a rational being that is transcendent – outside of history. Aristotle’s god was transcendent, but not rational.14

If we are driving in an unfamiliar area, it is literally impossible to reach our goal without GPS. GPS gives us the view from above where we can see the beginning, middle, and end of our journey. That is what God gave to Abraham, the telos of history, which was the gathering of people from all nations into one people with a divine king to rule over them. 

A telos of history is very powerful. It enabled the Jews to endure much affliction in the Old Testament and survive. It also energized the Christian Church to evangelize the world and to continue to do so while at the same time enduring many hardships. Christians know that history is moving somewhere. 

In summary, there are two legitimate ways to look at history: the Greek way and the Hebrew way. The Greek way sees things causally and the Hebrew way teleologically.15 The Greek way allows us to look at the past in order to understand our present situation and even gain some wisdom on how to respond. The Hebrew way looks at the future end goal and orders the present circumstances accordingly. The Greek way is more static and the Hebrew more dynamic. In the Greek way, history is an idea, where in the Hebrew way, history is a person. The Greek way is circular and can be pessimistic, while the Hebrew way is linear and optimistic.  

These two perspectives of looking at history should be kept separate. They both have their function. When they are combined, both are corrupted and this causes problems. This has happened twice in history with disastrous results, when people have misinterpreted the facts of history and created an artificial historical telos from that. This has occurred with Hegelianism and evolutionism.16

Hegelianism eventually led to Marxism and communism. Hegel envisioned a spiritual telos, but Marx turned it into a materialistic one, and his followers violently imposed that upon the world.

In the same way, evolutionism eventually led to eugenics in the United States which led to genocide in places like Nazi Germany.17 Eugenics in the United States was the basis for infanticide, the biggest purveyance of mass murder in history. If man invents a historical telos, then man alone is responsible to implement it. If God is not involved, then force and violence are the only alternatives. 

Both Hegelianism and evolutionism sought not to simply learn from the past, but to take historical facts and construct a scientific telos based on those facts to move humanity forward. This scientific telos is opposed to God’s spiritual telos and therein lies the problem.

When people are energized with the telos of history for the wrong reasons, the energy unleashed can lead to much death and destruction. A telos of history is a very powerful motivator. People will sacrifice and die for it.

In our present time, this manifests itself in an oppressive technocracy and the rise of Neo-Marxism.18 This will continue until the Church in the West wakes up out of her slumber and participates again in the true telos of history – the one that started with the Abrahamic Covenant and continues to this day with the preaching of the Gospel to the nations. Part of preaching the Gospel includes taking a stand against the false historic telos and opposing all its evils. 

Ephesians 1:10 sums up the telos of history:

“God set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

On the hand, Vladimir Lenin stated:

“Give me just one generation of youth, and I will transform the whole world.”

Finally, consider the following question:

Do you think that the Marxist telos of history is destroying or revitalizing the West. Please leave a comment below. Thank you!

Footnotes:  

  1. Spar, Ira, “The Gods and Goddesses of Canaan,” Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, April, 2009, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cana/hd_cana.htm
  2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Hapi”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Feb. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hapi.
  3. Brisch, Nicole, “Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond,” The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago, 2007, https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/symposia/religion-and-power-divine-kingship-ancient-world-and-beyond-0#:~:text=or%20sacred%20kingship.-,Mesopotamia,was%20Naram%2DSin%20of%20Akkad.&text=After%20Naram%2DSin%20no%20ruler,of%20self%2Ddeification%20once%20more.
  4. Puhvel, Jaan. “Epigraphy”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 16 Jan. 2015, https://www.britannica.com/topic/epigraphy
  5. Smart, John Jamieson Carswell , Toynbee, Arnold Joseph and Markowitz, William. “time”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 May. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/science/time. (See the section entitled “Cyclical View of Time.”
  6. Vandiver Ph.D., Elizabeth, Herodotus: the Father of History, Lecture 5, The Ionian Enlightenment, pp. 27-32, from the Great Courses Series, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia, 2002
  7. Alonso-Núñez, José Miguel. “Herodotus’ Ideas about World Empires,” Ancient Society, vol. 19, 1988, pp. 125–133, especially page 133; Immerwahr, Henry R. “Supplementary Paper: Aspects of Historical Causation in Herodotus.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 87, 1956, pp. 241–280. JSTOR; Richard Faure, Emmanuel Golfin, Elsa Grasso. Time and its categories in Classical Greek: Language and thought. Journal of Interdisciplinary Methodologies and Issues in Science, Journal of Interdisciplinary Methodologies and Issues in Science, 2019, The Time Era, https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02276221/document
  8. “Philosophy of History,” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Philosophy_of_history
  9. Stem, Rex. “The Exemplary Lessons of Livy’s Romulus.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), vol. 137, no. 2, 2007, pp. 435–471. JSTOR
  10. Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/aristotle-causality
  11. Amadio, Anselm H. and Kenny, Anthony J.P.. “Aristotle”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Philosophy of History,” New World Encyclopedia
  14. See the “Unmoved Mover” section in Amadio, Anselm H. and Kenny, Anthony J.P.. “Aristotle”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle
  15. Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, pp. 168-171, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1960; Cushman, Robert E. “Greek and Christian Views of Time.” The Journal of Religion, vol. 33, no. 4, 1953, pp. 254–265. JSTOR
  16. Ibid.
  17. For a great book that explains the connection between American eugenics and Nazi atrocities, see Black, Edwin, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, expanded ed., Dialog Press, Highland Park, Michigan, 2012
  18. Laqueur, Walter. “The Many Faces of Neo-Marxism.” The National Interest, no. 125, 2013, pp. 88–96. JSTOR

Bibliography and Sources:

Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1960

Collins, Phillip Darrell and Collins, Paul David, The Ascendancy of the Scientific Dictatorship, iUniverse, Inc., New York, 2004

Dawson, Christopher, The Dynamics of World History, public domain

Dawson, Christopher, Progress & Religion, An Historical Inquiry, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1929, 2001

Duchesne, Ricardo, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, Brill Publishers, Leiden, 2011

Eliade, Mircea, A History of Religious Ideas, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, translated by Willard R Trask, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981

Hollis, Christopher, Noble Castle, Longmans, Green, and Co., New York, 1941

Vandiver Ph.D., Elizabeth, Herodotus: the Father of History, from the Great Courses Series, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, Virginia, 2002

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

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