Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theology of History is a short, yet dense book that highlights the theological significance of Jesus Christ’s work in history. He portrays Christ as the archetype and centerpiece around which both sacred and secular history revolve. Despite the book being a theological powerhouse regarding the incarnation, A Theology of History says very little about the historical profession. The book’s orientation is so christological that it provides few recommendations for the theological interpretation of more “mundane” historical events. However, en route to von Balthasar’s larger point involving Israel’s role in world history, he makes an interesting and profound statement:
“Are not all these “nations” traced back to the name and kindred of Abraham; and is not world history still, in Abraham, despite all estrangement, a family history? And indeed, as Saint Paul emphasizes, is it not a family history in which visible and invisible believers exist side by side?”
For Christian historians, van Balthasar’s words have strong implications. All history, no matter the topic, is a family history. Whether the contents be ugly or worthy of boasting, it all reveals to us a piece of our past. We are cut from the same cloth. In this sense, history takes on extra meaning. It is not only “history” or “a history,” but more importantly, “YOUR history.”
Perhaps historians, particularly those who teach at Christian colleges, would find higher student engagement when history is presented in this way. When history becomes personal, it suddenly becomes important. It is no wonder that family history websites have such high viewership. People want to discover who they are.
This is where good history leads. It is why people are drawn to both Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler – both the heroes and villains. It is because we see – perhaps faintly – an aspect of these characters in our hearts. The roots of good and evil are there.
Historical study causes us to conclude that not only is the world in need of redemption, but so too are we.