O'Donovan Against Historicism

By: Gregory S. Neal

According to Oliver O’Donovan, historicism is the mode of philosophical thought which understands all of creation as being collapsed into history.  There is nothing outside of the flow of time, outside of the stream of history.  All that is is because of its existence within the matrix of time.  Because of this fundamental concept, nothing is “transhistorical,” or beyond history, and, therefore, all ordering must be derived from the flow of history itself.  Therefore, all the structures and orders in creation are not in existence because of some exterior ordering force or prototype; rather, all orders and structures are derived from the historical contingencies which ante-date them.  As O’Donovan puts it, “the heart of historicism can be expressed in the thesis that all teleology is historical teleology” (p. 58).  Rather then there being a “natural teleology” (or ordering toward an end), all ends are defined by history. Or, in other words, instead of orders and structures, things and beings, existing for the purposes indigenous to them, they exist only serve the ends of history.

The essential thing to observe about the difference between natural and historical teleology is that natural ends are generic, historical ends particular.  In created order one is destined to some fulfillment because it is the most appropriate fulfillment for beings of one’s own kind; but historical destining is a unique and unrepeatable destining of events to a single goal. (p. 59)

O’Donovan is clear in opposing this understanding of the ordering of creation because it, more than anything else, confuses the true meaning of history.  He says that when history is made the totality of everything, there is nothing else – nothing beyond the history – for the history to speak about:  “A story [history] has to be a story about something; but when everything is story there is nothing for the story to be about" (p. 60).

From this understanding, O’Donovan states two clear criticisms of historicism.  Firstly, the very nature of historicism requires that creation be incomplete.  If there is nothing outside of the flow of past time – history – then creation must be incomplete.  And yet, according to O’Donovan, “that which most distinguishes the concept of creation is that it is complete” (p. 60).  His point is that creation is complete, not incomplete.  History occurs within creation, but it doesn’t determine it, as historicism posits.  This implies that creation is an event, one that is definable by history, and not a gift from God.  Because of this subordination of creation to history, the structures and orders of creation are confused and all that is is viewed as being only the “stuff” which will be “transformed” into that which is to come.  In this way, both good and evil are subjectivised to the future, which is the goal of history.  In other words, they are reinterpreted from the standpoint of the process of unfolding history, from imperfect past toward the supposedly “superior” future, and forced to serve those goals.

Secondly, and related to the first point, O’Donovan indicates that historicism removes from the teleology the mystery of God, breaking in on creation.  Historicism would have the end toward which creation is moving dictated by its past – from within, rather than from “without” (from God).  Historicism, therefore, removes the “Christian view of history as ‘eschatological’”, replacing it with an end determined by the cold realities of historical process (p.64).  It removes the relevance of Christ’s death and resurrection as the redeeming force over all creation, since history is not interested in reconciliation, but, rather, in moving forwards toward a completion it has dictated.


O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics.  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; (1986).


© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1990 for a Course in Christian Ethics which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.