The Catholic Church is the longest-enduring institution in
the world, and her historical character is integral to her identity. The
earliest Christians claimed to be witnesses to the life, death, and
Resurrection of Jesus, thereby making Christianity a historical religion,
emanating from a Judaism that was itself a historical religion.
Christianity staked its claim to truth on certain events, notably that at a
precise moment in history the Son of God came to earth. The Gospels have a ring
of historical authenticity partly because of the numerous concrete details they
contain, the care with which they record the times and places of Jesus’ life.
While there is no purely historical argument that could convince skeptics that
Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples, His Resurrection can
scarcely be excluded from any historical account. Marc Bloch, the great
medievalist who was a secular-minded Jew (he perished in a German prison camp),
observed that the real question concerning the history of Christianity is why
so many people fervently believed that Jesus rose from the dead, a belief of
such power and duration as to be hardly explicable in purely human terms. 
But an awareness of the historical character of the Church carries with it the
danger that she will be seen as only a product of history, without a
transcendent divine character. While Christians can never be indifferent to the
reliability of historical claims, since to discredit the historical basis of
the Gospel would be to discredit the entire faith, they must be aware of their
The modern “historical-critical method” has provided valuable help in
understanding Scriptureexplicating the precise meaning of words, recovering
the social and cultural milieu in which Jesus lived, situating particular
passages in the context of the entire Bible. But it understands the Bible
primarily in terms of the times in which it was written and can affirm no
Also, modern scholarship itself is bound by its own times, and the
historical-critical method has a history of its own that can also be
relativized. Some scholars cultivate a spirit of skepticism about almost
everything in Scripture, including its antiquity and the accuracy of its
accounts. A major fallacy of this skepticism is the assumption that, while
religious believers are fatally biased, skeptics are objective and
disinterested. Some practitioners of the historical-critical method take a far
more suspicious view of Christian origins than most historians take toward
other aspects of ancient history. (Far more is known about Jesus than about
many of the Roman emperors.)
Then there are the attempts of some historians to make Jesus a modern manthe
claim that He “liberated” women in the feminist sense or that He was the leader
of a political movement. Such claims necessarily assume that from the very
beginning the leaders of the Church systematically falsified the record,
concealing the fact that women were among the Twelve, for example.
The distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” was
formulated by certain modern theologians as part of the effort to
“demythologize” Jesus as the Son of God and Redeemer of the universe,
dismissing that belief as a theological construct only loosely connected, if at
all, to the actual, historical Jesus.
A fundamental flaw of the historical-critical method is that, while at various
times it has called virtually all traditional beliefs into question, it offers
no sure replacement, merely many competing theories.
If the babel of scholarly voices is taken at face value, it forces the
conclusion that there is no reliable knowledge of Jesus. But Christians can
scarcely think that God gave the Bible to man as a revelation of Himself but
did so in such a way as to render it endlessly problematical, or that for many
centuries its true meaning was obscured and only came to light in modern times.
Thus, while making use of scholarship, Christians must ultimately read
Scripture with the eyes of faith. Its central messagesalvation through Jesus
Christis incomprehensible to those who treat it as a merely human document.
The most influential recent attempt to discredit the historicity of the New
Testament is the rediscovery of certain “Gnostic gospels” (all written later
than the New Testament itself) upon which popular works such as The Da Vinci
Code are based. These “gospels” are
accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings allegedly written by Mary Magdalen, Judas
Iscariot, and the Apostles Philip and Thomas.
Gnosticism (see Chapter Two below, pp. 3639) was the only heretical movement
in the history of the Church that considered it unimportant whether the Gospel
narratives were historically true. The Gnostics rejected the historical
accounts in the New Testament not in order to propose a different history but
in order to turn the faith into a myth that stood outside time. For them, the
historicity of the New Testament was an embarrassment, since the wholly
spiritual God could not have entered into the world of matter and time.
The most lasting division in the history of Christianity was the Protestant
Reformation of the sixteenth century, but even then, both Catholics and
Protestants agreed on the ultimate authority of the New Testament and the early
creeds, a core of faith that was normative. Now, however, proponents of the
Gnostic gospels, including even some professed Christians, seek to reopen
questions that had been settled since at least the fourth century.
By excluding in principle the very possibility of divine revelation, they
imprison Christianity entirely within the movement of history, essentially
reducing questions of faith to factional struggles within the Church. If
orthodox Christianity does not represent revealed truth, it must be seen as
merely the triumph of one party over another, making it possible to cancel
seventeen centuries of history in order to redefine the very foundations of the
Modern feminism has much to do with this effort, because the Gnostic “gospels”
can be used to claim that the New Testament was actually a kind of masculine
conspiracy to conceal the role of women in the early Church, despite the fact
that Gnosticism by no means respected women in the sense that feminists understand
respect. Gnosticism also has a certain modern appeal because it offers
“spirituality” divorced from dogma, its “gospels” treated as interesting and
possibly inspiring myths to be read in the same way the myths of other
religions can be read, embodying no final and binding truth.
The historical character of the Church is embodied above all in her affirmation
of Traditionthe handing on of the faith from generation to generation, guided
by the Holy Spirit. The attempt to appeal to the Scripture against Tradition is
a denial of that historicity. The question of the historical character of the
Church does not cease with her biblical roots but has relevance to her entire
history. A great deal turns on one of the most basic (and most disputed)
questions of the Church’s historythe development of doctrine. As with the
truth of the Bible, it is a question that ultimately cannot be settled by
history itself but only by faith.
Quite early, Christians realized that the Gospel did not provide a detailed
exposition of every aspect of their faith. Rather, it was an embryo or seed,
containing the whole of divine revelation but awaiting a gradual unfolding.
Thus fidelity to Tradition is a paradox that has been at the heart of virtually
all theological issues over the centuriesthe faith must be handed on intact,
but the Church’s understanding of that faith develops in ways that could not
have been anticipated in earlier times. The development of doctrine is a
progressive widening and deepening of the meaning of the original truth, and
heresy can be either false innovation or a rigid adherence to older teachings.
(Some heretics rejected the decrees of the Council of Nicaea as innovations.)
Dogma is seldom officially defined unless it has first been questioned, and
heresy perhaps serves the divine purpose of forcing the Church to reflect more
deeply on her beliefs, to understand them in ever more comprehensive and
As in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, there have been repeated moves
to “purify” the faith by removing its “accretions”. But such a process violates
the historical nature of the Church, which does not allow for the nullification
of teachings that have become part of the core of belief. The movement of
history is irreversible. Unlike classical Protestantism, modern attempts to
find “authentic” Christianity is driven less by the desire to recover the
original Gospel than by the desire to be free of dogma of any kind. But those
who think that doctrinal orthodoxy is unimportant, even a distortion of the
Gospel, must recognize that this “error” was perpetrated very early in the
history of the Church, again raising the insoluble conundrum of how God could
have given men the Gospel, then allowed it to be distorted almost immediately,
only to be recovered many centuries later.
After the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics, in the name of “objectivity”,
in effect surrendered their right to have their own history. But at precisely
that moment, the legitimacy, even indeed the inevitability, of “committed”
scholarship was being urged with respect to racial or ethnic history, women’s
history, and numerous other subjects, all of which demand a sympathetic, even
apologetic, approach to their subjects.
Rather than historical “objectivity”, which implies personal detachment on the
part of the scholar, the historian’s ideal ought to be honestyan approach that
is committed but strives to use evidence with scrupulous fairness. A temptation
for all committed scholars (by no means only Christians) is that of deducing
historical reality from dogmatic principles instead of studying the evidence.
Believing historians must avoid the trap of nostalgia, whereby the Middle Ages,
for example, are presented as the highpoint of history, from which everything
since has been a declinean approach that proves embarrassing when neglected
inconvenient information surfaces. (Modern social history requires a more
complex understanding of the “ages of faith”, for example, by showing that
there was often a wide gap between official Church teaching and popular
To idealize a past age is actually heretical from a Christian perspective,
implying as it does that the age was without sin, that the redemption of
mankind was completed at some point. On the contrary, with their knowledge of
the subtleties of the sinful heart, Christians should be especially sensitive
to the ways in which good is often perverted even by righteous men.
One of the Catholic elements that throughout history has been a stumbling block
to some are the sacred rituals that have always been integral to the life of
the Church. A recurring heresy is an excessively “spiritual” concept of the
faith. The Church is sacramental, in that, invisible grace is ordinarily
transmitted through visible means something that is fitting, even necessary,
because of the Incarnation itself: the eternal God took flesh, even becoming
subject to death, and the Church must therefore also be incarnate in the world.
The divine and human realities of the Church came together, for example, in
some of the general councils, which were marked not only by often ruthless
maneuvering but even sometimes by violence. The odium theologicum (“theological hatred”) wells up over and over again,
precisely because theological questions are the most important of allnot only
of life and death but of eternal salvation and the very order of the universe.
Passion is appropriate but always in need of being tempered by charity. The
Church believes that, despite such human frailties, the Holy Spirit protects her
from fundamental error and that good is brought out of evil.
While in every age the Church demonstrates her power to transform the world,
the moral weaknesses of both her leaders and her members are at the same time
both a scandal and an ironic witness to her divine charactermere men could
never have accomplished the good that the Church has achieved over two
millennia. Left entirely to men, the Church ought to have perished at many
points in her long history.
Some modern Catholics, under the influence of the prevailing cultural
relativism, are preoccupied with “inculturation”the ways in which the Gospel
is incarnated in particular cultures. But although the term itself is new, the
entire history of the Church is really the history of inculturation, which
occurs continuously, whether or not consciously. This must occur in order to
make the Gospel meaningful, even though it carries the risk of betraying the
Gospel. Modern skepticism (including that of some professed Catholics) treats
all change as self-validating, all forms of inculturation as legitimate. But
inculturation has perhaps occurred most authentically whenever the faith has
been young and vigorous, confident of its ability to absorb elements of a pagan
culture and transform them for its own purposes. When the Church is in a
spiritually weakened condition, the reverse often happensthe Gospel is used
for alien purposes.
Beginning with the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the Gospel has always had a
disruptive effect on cultures. If it did not, it would not be the Gospel, which
requires fundamental conversion on the part of its hearers, does not allow them
to remain part of their culture unchanged, and ultimately requires the
transformation of the culture itself. The Christian understanding of history is
intimately bound up with one of the most perplexing of all doctrinesdivine
providence. Blessed John Henry Newman said that human experience seems to force
the conclusion that mankind was implicated in some “primordial catastrophe”.
History offers believers no knowledge of the exact nature of that catastrophe,
but faith informs them that it occurred. Even on a purely human level, history
cannot be understood apart from the reality of sin, especially of universal
selfishness. Rooted in universal human nature, sin is a constant in man’s
affairs, although its character and intensity vary with time and place. Those
who deny that a tendency toward evil is basic to human nature cannot make sense
of history, which becomes merely endless, incomprehensible tragedy.
Divine revelation reveals little about the inner nature of God but much about
His actions in history. The Incarnation itself validates history, as the
eternal descends into the temporal, and men have no way of working out their
salvation except in this life.
But one of the greatest temptations for Christians is to deduce the specific
manifestations in history from a general belief in divine providence. Whole
theologies of history have been based on this, but each has finally failed as a
comprehensive explanation of historical events. In particular, the belief that
specific catastrophes are direct divine punishment for sin dies hard, and for
obvious reasonsthe laudable desire to make sense of events and the less
laudable desire to see one’s enemies punished.
Edifying stories of devout people saved from danger by divine intervention (a
city spared the plague, an angelic visitor steering a child away from a
precipice) leave unanswered the question why countless other people, even more
pious and innocent, have been allowed to perish. Christians can readily
understand this on the individual level suffering is redemptive, and God takes
His servants when He wants them. But it is far more difficult to explain the
fate of whole societies, the mystery with which Israel was forced to wrestle
Christianity played a crucial role in the development of man’s understanding of
history itself, vanquishing the cyclical view of endless repetition that
expressed a kind of despair, the sense that men were trapped in a process they
could not control. Christianity gave history an eschaton, a goal toward which
it relentlessly moves and which for the first time allowed that movement to
have meaning. But the Christian approach to history is also not completely
linear; it revolves around a particular momentthe coming of Christfrom which
time is reckoned both forward and backward.
The Hebrews’ sense of history was driven by their urgent need to find a
comprehensible purpose in the repeated catastrophes that they suffered, even as
their faithless enemies repeatedly triumphed over God’s chosen people. Making
moral sense of history has preoccupied men ever since, since the story of
mankind is to a great extent the story of good betrayed and turned into evil.
If history were solely the story of the saints, it would already be infinitely
valuable, but its value lies also in the story of sinners, of the entire great
drama of human life. The dichotomy of time and eternity is nowhere more evident
than in the fact that justice often does not triumph in this world. The study
of history confirms that evil men often flourish and the good are often
defeated, with no reversal or vindication in this life.
But how then can men be held to account for their wickedness? It is a question
that often leads to the use of history for moral judgment. Contemporary secular
historiography is awash with this kind of moralism, as the past is continuously
ransacked for examples of alleged injustices to select peoples (by no means
everyone), and appropriate condemnation is pronounced.
Such moralism is perhaps inevitable to Secular Liberalism, which is almost
required to assume man’s goodness, is sympathetic with everything it deems to
be “progressive”, and can only salvage meaning from the wreckage of man’s
dreams by pronouncing condemnations on those who appear responsible. But a
basic flaw in such moralism is that it can no longer have any effectthe
perpetrators have passed into God’s hands.
The Christian recognition of man’s freedom is the only resolution of the
mystery of evilsince men can and do make responsible decisions, to understand
all is not to forgive all. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares teaches
that good and evil exist together in the world, and the reality of human
freedom provides the only satisfactory explanation of moral evilGod’s
mysterious willingness to grant that freedom and permit its full exercise, even
when it is used to thwart His divine plan. Brutus was free not to assassinate
Caesar, but then in what sense did God will the death of Caesar? His death was
not a preordained script that had to be played out as written.
The Protestant historian Herbert Butterfield saw the action of God in history
as like a composer masterfully revising his music to overcome the inadequacies
of the orchestra that plays it.  There is a constant double movement, both
upward and downward, and the work of redemption proceeds only slowly, against
the inertia of human resistance. Men are surprised by each new turn of the
pages of the book of history.
 Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (New York: Vintage Books, 1954), 32.
 Herbert Butterfield, History and Human Relations (New York: MacMillan, 1952), pp. 1314.