“Our self-consciously historical time accepts the limitations of the historical point of view with a sense of constraint and an air of resignation. In this situation, however, we do well to remind ourselves that the Christian community has usually–and particularly in times of its greatest vigor–used an historical method. Apparently it felt that to speak in confessional terms about the events that had happened to it in its history was not a burdensome necessity but rather an advantage and that the acceptance of an historical point of view was not confining but liberating. The preaching of the early Christian church was not an argument for the existence of God nor an admonition to follow the dictates of some common human conscience, unhistorical and super-social in character. It was primarily a simple recital of the great events connected with the historical appearance of Jesus Christ and a confession of what had happened to the community of disciples. Whatever it was that the church meant to say, whatever was revealed or manifested to it, could be indicated only in connection with an historical person and events in the life of his community. The confession referred to history and was consciously made in history…
The sermons of Peter and Stephen as reported or reconstructed in the book of Acts were recitals of the great events in Christian and Israelite history. Christian evangelism in general, as indicated by the preservation of its material in the synoptic Gospels, began directly with Jesus and told in more or less narrative fashion about those things ‘which are most surely believed among us of all that Jesus began both to do and to teach.’ We may remind ourselves also of the fact that despite many efforts to set forth Christian faith in metaphysical and ethical terms of great generality the only creed which has been able to maintain itself in the church with any approach to universality consists for the most part of statements about events.
We can imagine that early preachers were often asked to explain what they meant with their talk about God, salvation, and revelation, and when they were hard pressed, when all their parables or references to the unknown God and to the Logos had succeeded only in confusing their hearers, they turned at last to the story of their life, saying, ‘What we mean is this event which happened among us and to us.’ They followed in this respect the prophets who had spoken of God before them and the Jewish community which had also talked of revelation. These, too, always spoke of history, of what had happened to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of a deliverance from Egypt, of the covenant of Sinai, of mighty acts of God. Even their private visions were dated, as ‘in the year that King Uzziah died,’ even the moral law was anchored to an historical event, and even God was defined less by his metaphysical and moral character than by his historical relations, as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….Yet what prompted Christians in the past to confess their faith by telling the story of their life was more than a need for vivid illustration or for analogical reasoning. Their story was not a parable which could be replaced by another; it was irreplaceable and untranslatable. An internal compulsion rather than free choice led them to speak of what they knew by telling about Jesus Christ and their relation to God through him.
Today we think and speak under the same compulsion. We find that we must travel the road which has been taken by our predecessors in the Christian community, though our recognition of the fact is first of all only a consequence of the obstruction of all other ways. We must do what has been done because we have discovered with Professor Whitehead that ‘religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in dogmas. The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion.’ Whether this be true of other faiths than Christianity we may not be sure, but it seems very true of our faith. Metaphysical systems have not been able to maintain the intellectual life of our community and abstract systems of morality have not conveyed devotion and the power of obedience with their ideals and imperatives. Idealistic and realistic metaphysics, perfectionistic and hedonistic ethics have been poor substitutes for the New Testament, and churches which feed on such nourishment seem subject to spiritual rickets. Yet it is not the necessity of staying alive which forces our community to speak in historical terms. It is not a self-evident truth that the church ought to live; neither the historical nor the confessional standpoint can accept self-preservation as the first law of life, since in history we know that death is the law of even the best life and in faith we understand that to seek life is to lose it. The church’s compulsion arises out of its need–since it is a living church–to say truly what it stands for, and out of its inability to do so otherwise than by telling the story of its life.
The preachers and theologians of the modern church must do what New Testament evangelists did because their situation permits no other method…We are in history as the fish is in water and what we mean by the revelation of God can be indicated only as we point through the medium in which we live…Religious experience and moral sense are to be found in many different settings and can be interpreted from many different points of view. The sense of the numinous accompanies many strange acts of worship; it may have been far stronger when human sacrifice was offered to pagan deities than it has ever been in Christianity. High moral devotion and a keen sense of duty point many men today to domestic and tribal gods. What the unconquerable movements of the human heart toward worship and devotion really mean, how their errors may be distinguished from their truths and how they are to be checked, cannot be known save as they are experienced and disciplined in a community with a history. Obedience to moral imperatives, worship, and prayer are indispensable from the listening for God’s word. But what they mean, what their content must be, and to what ends they ought to be directed we cannot understand save as we bring to bear upon them our remembrance of an obedience unto death, of the imperatives which have come to us through history, of the Lord’s prayers in the garden and on the mount, and of a worship in a temple whose inner sanctuary was empty. Religious and moral experience are always in some history and in some social setting that derives from the past. They also offer us no way of avoiding the use of our history in saying what we mean…Christian faith cannot escape partnership with history, however many other partners it may choose. With this it has been mated and to this its loyalty belongs; the union is as indestructible as that of reason and sense experience in the natural sciences.” (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, pp. 43ff)