The Fullness of Time

Week of Monday, December 31, 2001

First Sunday After Christmas

Lectionary Readings
Isaiah 61:10–62:3
Galatians 3:23–25; 4:4–7
John 1:1–18
Psalm 147

The turn of the year marks the passage of time with poignant reminders of the last twelve months. The birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, a high school graduation, a lost job, a new house. All of these and more are reminders that, as the cliche goes, “time waits for no one.” History, both personal and cosmic, marches forward. I always experience the new year with a mixed sense of ambivalence about the past and hope about the future.

With its intensified sense of the passage of time, the turn of the new year provokes an important question. Is our human history going anywhere? Can we discern in the flow of history or in key events like September 11 anything like a transcendent meaning, significance, or direction, such that one could say human history has some purpose, some design or goal? This is the question of the philosophy of history. Broadly speaking, when trying to discover a pattern or direction in human history, one can appeal to three basic possibilities (sometimes mixed and matched): the linear, the cyclical and chaotic views of history. The cyclical views of Greece, Rome and modern Asia find little attraction today in the west.

In their secular versions two linear views of history deserve special mention. During the Enlightenment, people like Voltaire, Condorcet and Lessing believed that history was moving from the darkness of ignorance, superstition and religious authoritarianism to the light of objective, rational inquiry. This optimism in human reason lead to enormous faith in human progress and perfectibility; it finds its modern equivalent in unbridled faith in science and technology to solve many if not all of our modern problems. But two world wars, a depression and the critical query of postmodernism have cast doubt on the Enlightenment's innate optimism about human progress. We now realize, too, that science and technology are ambivalent. They not only lead to modern medicine but to biological warfare, nuclear bombs, genetic engineering and human cloning. Whatever is scientifically and technologically possible is clearly not always morally desirable for human history and progress.

In his Communist Manifesto Karl Marx wrote that “the history of all society hitherto is the history of class struggle.” Marx's view was strictly materialistic; he categorically denied the notion that any Mind or Spirit guided history. Rather, the primary component that drives history is humanity's economic struggle. In his Critique of Political Economy he argued that “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and mental life-process in general. It is not the consciousness of human beings which determines their being, but it is, on the contrary, their social being which determines their consciousness.” Marxist history envisioned a classless, stateless society, but resulted in just the opposite. After more than 100 million deaths “liberating” the two largest Marxist countries (China and the former Soviet Union), today the lone holdouts for this discredited vision of history are Cuba and North Korea.

Postmodernism offers a chaotic view of history. It spurns the Enlightenment project, for as Jurgen Habermas wrote, “Proponents of the Enlightenment...still held the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would further not only the control of the forces of nature but also the understanding of self and the world, moral progress, justice in social institutions, and even human happiness.”1 For the postmodernist, all human knowledge is a social construction, often an oppressive power ploy, and radically relative. This is why Stanford's Richard Rorty argues that we should give up our search for truth, for all knowledge is but interpretation. In this scheme, Enlightenment optimism gives way to an unveiled pessimism (at least regarding the Enlightenment's definition of progress) and, some have argued, even nihilism. In the postmodern scenario there can be no Grand Narrative; history is only a series of events, without beginning, end or meaning. “Simplifying to the extreme,” wrote Jean-Francois Lyotard, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarrative.”2

The most famous Christian view of history comes from St. Augustine (354–430). In his City of God, written to refute the charges that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome in 410, he understood human history as a struggle between two communities, each with its own loves: the heavenly City of Jerusalem with its love of God, and the earthly City of Babylon characterized by the love of self (the two represented but not identified with the church and state). Our personal human histories and even cosmic history are fraught with meaning and significance, says Augustine, because through faith in God's revelation we believe that the Heavenly City will ultimately triumph. Significant aspects of this victory occur “in” normal human history (for example, the events of Calvary and its consequences), but its final triumph comes “after” or “beyond” history as we now experience it.

All of this brings us to the lectionary text from the epistles, which this week contains one of the most beautiful verses in all of Scripture. “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father! (Galatians 4:4–6).’”

In the Christian view, our human history is not determined solely by economic class struggle or unaided human reason. Nor is it a chaotic juggernaut or an endless cycle (although we can recognize elements of all four of these in our history). Rather, we believe that the coming of Jesus revealed the fullness of history, that a loving, almighty Father providentially guides human affairs. When you think of all the human conceptions of God throughout the ages, from the violent, passionate gods of Greek and Rome to the Aztec deities that demanded human sacrifice or the Absentee Landlord of Deism, the Christian notion that the transcendent God is a Loving Father is startling. But that is what Christians believe.

Although not without its reasons, this belief is an article of faith. We cannot prove it, and to modern secular ears it must sound terribly naive. Nor do we claim to be able to delineate the contours of exactly how, when and where His providence transparently superintends history. Jesus himself warned that it is not for us to know “the days and hours” (Matthew 24:36). But as we begin a new year, we do so believing that Jesus, like us “born of a woman” with all the historical contingencies that entails, embodies the “fullness of time” and history. He calls us to follow Him in a filial relationship with a God who leads, guides and loves us with a fatherly compassion.

  1. Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” in Charles Jencks, ed., The Post-Modern Reader (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp. 162–163. Cited by Stan Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 3.
  2. Cited by Grenz, p. 46.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.