MHT: The Rise of Modern History

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Lord Acton

Lord Acton

This was first great Modern shift in historical thinking, coming to recognize that human existence exists within changing space and time.[11] While this fact was first the product of Biblical and Humanistic scholarship, Enlightenment thinking soon became the “intellectual movement under whose aegis this recognition of the fact of change came to be widely, if not universally shared.”[12] This growing preoccupation with history engaged the changes and developments in certain Christian dogmas throughout the ages. Studies which demonstrated problems with the Church’s claims to timeless continuity eventually helped foster secularization, where Christian religion lost authority over social institutions and the sciences—including history—began to reign supreme.

The second great Modern shift in historical thinking involved the realization that the field of history not only involved the past, but also the manner in which the past was conceived. Leopold von Ranke, for example, emphasized a positivist history—history “as it actually happened.” This viewpoint is also represented in R. G. Collingwood, who recognized the necessity of scientific procedures in the study of history and its assumptions, interpretation, and limits of evidence.[13] Lord John Acton, too, conceived of his historical position as possible of objectivity by focusing on abiding issues which transcended the temporary.[14]

The third major shift brought about by Modernist conceptions of history revolved around the idea of progress, where the effects of history continually improve and march forward toward the better. According to Karl Lowith and Thomas Howard, post-Enlightenment historical thinking—oriented toward the future and seeking solutions to historical problems—effectively follows Judeo-Christian conceptions of history as eschatological and messianic.[15] This progressive view of history comes across clearly in the writings of Lord Acton. In particular, Acton found the principles of liberalism and freedom far superior to the ideals of the past, and in light of those ideals, he called for judgment of the failures of the past and the propagation of those concepts in the future.[16] The rise of historical consciousness during the Modern period, then, was one of shifting understandings. These shifts included claims objectivity, recognitions of change, and the rise of progressivism, all of which influenced the shape of Modern historiography.


 

[11] B. A. Gerrish, “Theology and Historical Consciousness,” in Revisioning the Past, eds. M. P. Engel and W. E. Wyman (Minnapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 282.

[12] Jaroslav Pelikan, Historical Theology: Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (New York: Corpus, 1971), 43-7.

[13] R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Revised Edition; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 10-11, 279-81.

[14] Acton, Lecture, 26.

[15] Howard, 22.

[16] John Acton, “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History [1895],” in Essays on Freedom and Power, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (New York: Meridian, 1956), 40-1.

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