Growing up, I was surrounded by the Left Behind series and the popular Christian assumption of dispensationalism. It was never officially taught to me, but between the books and movies that were popular in my area, it was simply assumed. Going to college and majoring in religion, I suddenly became ‘enlightened’ and cast off my earlier understandings in favor of the amillennialism of the larger Christian tradition. I had serious biblical and theological concerns about dispensationalism and its interpretation of scripture and current events. However, as time wore on, this simple rejection left me unsatisfied. How was I to understand the present? How did I see God at work in larger spheres than my personal life or the life of my congregation? I could not accept dispensationalism, but the amillennialism I was taught felt more like a-historicism. I began to lament that, at the very least, dispensationalism was an interpretation of history. I needed a positive vision for understanding God’s work in history.
Enter Hendrikus Berkhof’s Christ the Meaning of History. Turns out I wasn’t the first to ask this question. With an integrated and interdisciplinary approach rooted in the biblical text, Berkhof lays out a Christocentric vision of the nature of history. With God’s work in the Exodus, history as a goal-directed understanding of reality was born. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s work in history and his defeat of the powers that resist him moves history forward. In Christ’s coming, he brings the world into crisis. Through encountering Christ, the powers that resist God’s rule show their true strength and humanity is divided. The Kingdom of heaven has come near. This culminates in Christ’s death and resurrection, which serves as the positive and negative manifestations of the kingdom in history. The missionary work of the church serves to bring history forward, but that history still bears the character of Christ. The cross is in the forefront (suffering), but the resurrection is present (signs of the kingdom). Whatever Christ experienced, Christ’s body in history should expect to experience in one way or another. Suffering, growth, opposition, victory. Berkhof concludes by navigating the relationship between the present world and the renewed creation and then offer a few suggestions on interpreting the present. In his whole presentation, Berkhof holds to his key insight that history participates in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Berkhof writes well and is fairly easy to read. A few times, he hangs some substantial arguments on the nuances between german words, but his attention to the sweep of the biblical text more than makes up for it. Chapters 6 and 7 are where his argument really shines. He manages to present a positive vision of history without painting too rosy a picture. Christ is the center and meaning of history, which means suffering in the church or resistance (from without and within) should not surprise us. Jesus experienced this. However, Christ is risen, so evidence of the kingdom inside and outside of the church should not surprise us either. The powers and principalities resist Christ, but he is also overcoming them. Both realities – cross and resurrection – are part of our present. Only when Christ comes again will we see the resurrection fully in the forefront of history. Berkhof’s framework not only makes sense of the present, but allows him to gain important insight into both the biblical texts (particularly Acts, Romans, and Revelation) and the worldview of the early church. They understood themselves as participating in Christ’s death and resurrection and so should the church today. Berkhof’s guidelines on interpreting the present are understandably cautious. Overconfidence and silence are twin evils for Christian engagement with history. However in my opinion, Berkhof over-reacts to those who closely equate the work of the kingdom of God with the church. At times, with all the emphasis on the larger work of God in history and even the continuing role of Israel, it was unclear to me what role the church played. Outside of the missionary work of the church, the church’s role was often unclear.
Overall, Christ the Meaning of History is a fantastic book that only continues to grow in relevance. I highly recommend it for those interested in living as faithful Christians in the world of history.