Historical Fact Or Symbol? The Philosophies Of History Of Paul Tillich And Reinhold Niebuhr -- By: John W. Sanderson, Jr.

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 20:2 (May 1958)
Article: Historical Fact Or Symbol? The Philosophies Of History Of Paul Tillich And Reinhold Niebuhr
Author: John W. Sanderson, Jr.


Historical Fact Or Symbol?
The Philosophies Of History Of Paul Tillich And Reinhold Niebuhr*

John W. Sanderson, Jr.

[* This article is composed of the text of two addresses delivered as Harry A. Worcester Lectures on February 28 and March 5, 1957 at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.]

THE problem which the philosophy of history seeks to solve can be set for us by a quotation from Oswald Spengler—“Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the causal and incalculable elements of separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms—social, spiritual and political—which we see so clearly? Are not these actualities indeed secondary or derived from that something? Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions? And if so, what are the limits to which reasoning from such premises may be pushed?”1

And again, “Hitherto the possibility of solving a problem so far-reaching has evidently never been envisaged, and even if it had been so, the means of dealing with it were altogether unsuspected or, at best, inadequately used”.2

Spengler has the feeling of being a pioneer in the wilderness of the philosophy of history. In feeling this way he is only partially right. The Greeks had a view of history—they saw life as a cycle to be repeated infinitely. What is has been, and would some day be again. And just because this was so, history was relegated to a secondary place in much of the philosophy of the Greeks. History however came into greater prominence when Christianity spread over the world of that day. For Christianity gave to history a purpose, and this purpose made each event unique, never to be repeated again. History lost its cyclical character and became linear.

Christians became not only interested in history, but Augustine for one found it necessary to develop a philosophy of history in his defense of the gospel against paganism. It may be true that the Bishop of Hippo did not have an abundance of facts at his disposal, but it is also true that what he had he put to good use and saw behind the events of history the sure hand of a loving and just God.

Yet Spengler is certainly correct when he says that much of the study of history has been plagued by a pertain provincialism, no doubt caused by the paucity of sources, but, also, because the horizon of the historian himself was limited. Even so, there were phil...

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