Fr Georges Florovsky (d. 1979) has the following to say on the meaning of history:
Even in the history of the Church ‘the hand of Providence’ is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy — a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. (Quoted in Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers, 91; italics original)
This resonates with St Augustine in City of God and clashes with Orosius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But I believe it is the right approach, speaking as a Christian and as a historian.
Part of learning what I call ‘Classic Christianity’ as a means towards rejuvenating your spiritual life is discovering not only the theology and worship and devotional practices of the past but also learning the story of Christian history. A few months ago, I was struck by how much of it there is, and why, therefore, this is an important field of study and reflection for the thoughtful Christian.
It all started with Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle. At one point he stops to take count of the time since various events, such as from Creation, Abraham, Jesus, that sort of thing. And the time from Abraham to the Incarnation of the Lord is about 2000 years.
Most of the Old Testament, except for the very beginning of Genesis, takes place in those 2000 years. And all of it was written in those 2000 years. The Old Testament is the telling of the faithfulness of God towards his chosen people and the revealing of his character through his interaction with human history, whether through prophets, poets, priests, or kings.
We are now 2000 years the other side of Jesus Christ. We and Abraham, who is the beginning of the Covenant, are the same distance from the Saviour temporally. This is worth thinking about if you believe that the God of Christianity who is present here today is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
We have 2000 years of the history of God with his people up to the coming of Christ. He has not abandoned that people. And if he is the same sort of God, who made himself known from Abraham to the Apostles, he will probably be acting in the same sort of ways (unless you’re a specific type of Dispensationalist, I guess).
This means that Christian history is not simply the record of A-Z, how we got from Jesus to Pope Francis and Billy Graham. While the writing of it is not Scripture and therefore not revelatory in the same way, it is still the story of God’s faithfulness to his people.
A careful, reasonable, yet prayerful reading of Christian history is a way of accessing the story of God and His people. Learning the stories of the saints and theologians and councils and heretics and attempts at reform and monastic foundations and so on and so forth is a way of learning how God has acted and still acts today.
I hope, therefore, that you will take an interest in the stories of the Church, from the martyrs like Sts Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna to the mystics like Sts Hildegard von Bingen and Gregory Palamas, to the reformers like Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer, to missionaries like St Patrick and Bruchko (Bruce Olsen). Their stories will show us the living God who is still here, who has always been here, who will stay with us forever.