The Theology of History

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent in Year C of the lectionary cycle. Yesterday’s post completed the commentary on the coming gospel and noted the coming Messiah “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16). The Sunday gospel emphasizes John the Baptist but also points forward to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is one of many passages that are taken together to consider what has become known as the “Theology of History”. St. Bonaventure wrote about it in the 13th century and it was the topic of Pope Benedict’s doctoral dissertation.

It is interesting to note that Luke relates no encounter between Jesus and John. In fact, before we are told about Jesus’ baptism, we are informed that John has been put in prison! A traditional way of understanding this order of events is that Luke (the rhetorical historian) divides history into three separate and distinct eras. The first is the time of the prophets, which includes John the Baptist. That era ends with the imprisonment of John. John will no longer be in the picture. After that, the time of Jesus begins with a statement in our text about: (1) the opening of the heavens, (2) the coming down of the Holy Spirit in a visible form (dove); and (3) heavenly speech. This era of Jesus ends with his ascension — related only in Luke and Acts. Jesus will no longer be in the picture. After that, the time of the Holy Spirit (or the Church) begins with a statement in Acts 2:1-4 about (1) something coming “from heaven,” (2) the coming down of the Holy Spirit in a visible form (tongues of fire), and (3) heavenly speech.

For Luke, the movement from an old era into a new one required a break from the old – John is put in prison – Jesus ascends into heaven. Yet, at the same time, there are common elements in all three periods, such as the fulfillment of promises/prophecies and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The fact that we are living in the third era sometimes needs to be emphasized. There are those whose faith is so centered on the historical Jesus, that they can’t live their lives in the new period under the power of the Holy Spirit. If all we do is talk about the historical Jesus, e.g., arguing about the virgin birth, the miracles, the physical resurrection – we may be making faith nothing more than believing historical events really happened, i.e., a history lesson. While such teachings are certainly part of our Christian confession of faith, for the early believers in the Book of Acts, faith was relying on the power of the Holy Spirit for life today. They recognized that Jesus had left this earth. In order for the ministry of Jesus to continue, it would have to be done by all the believers who had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – not by Jesus nor by particular Spirit-filled people, i.e., the prophets.

…and that is a glimpse into the Theology of History.

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