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Jesus Christ, No 'Great Man' of History but the 'Middle of Time' Itself

Napoleon Bonaparte’s spectre no doubt still hung over Europe in 1940, when Thomas Carlyle wrote his ‘On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.’  Yet he built his case that great men create history with reference not only to Napoleon but also to Oliver Cromwell, to the Norse hero, Odin, to Mohammed, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Knox, and to men of letters like Johnson, Rousseau, and Burns.  Wrote he,

For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.[1]

Carlyle’s theory remains, even if we might prefer an alternative roster of heroes and villains to make the point.  Intriguingly, he mentions ‘Mahomet’ 106 times and Jesus not once.  Yet, I should happily add my list to his of persons who created history, whether for good or ill, and so support his view, albeit not without demur by argument’s end.  So, for the present, let us add the names of some who, by virtue of who they were themselves, were the shapers of history in the twentieth century, whether those who sent countless to their deaths and wreaked havoc upon the lives of millions, such as Stalin, Hitler, Musellini, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot,  Karadžić, and  Milošević, or those who stayed the hand of terror, such as Winston Churchill.

Let us accept Carlyle’s theory: great men make history.  Still, we would be wrong to suggest that history is not also made by others and in other ways.  We might point to policies that project a people along a predictable trajectory, no matter who leads when events unravel.  While key figures wielding power make foolish decisions and so help matters along, there are times when a great horror, such as the First World War, cannot simply be laid at the feet of a single individual or two.  Moreover, the threads of a culture’s intricate weave will also often incubate historical events more than the person of a single leader.  Is this not the case with Empires or the clash of cultures or the wars of religions?  Of a certainty, great men make history, but so do policies, cultures, religions, and the narratives of the nations.

So, we return to Carlyle’s omission of Jesus in his argument.  His oblique reference to Him suggests something far less than taught by Christians, as though Jesus was the embodiment of an eternal and great principle, a hero worthy, as all heroes are, so he argues, of worship in some degree:

The greatest of all Heroes is One—whom we do not name here! Let sacred silence meditate that sacred matter; you will find it the ultimate perfection of a principle extant throughout man's whole history on earth.[2]

Such was the mind of a 19th-century European intellectual, were he or she not otherwise swayed by the atheism of a Voltaire.  Let Jesus be honoured, the likes of Carlyle might say, as a hero, a great teacher, the embodiment of grand principles that a culture might worship in some reduced sense of the word; but leave off the unenlightened notion of the Church that He was more than this, God made man come to tabernacle among us that we, through Him, might be restored to fellowship with Him.

Yet Carlyle was right to keep Jesus from his list of men who made history because Jesus did not make history by being another great man.  He was ‘Immanuel,’ God with us, the Saviour of the world.  And he was right to omit Jesus because it was not by human greatness that Jesus stood among us.  Just here is a greater truth than Carlyle’s thesis on history and greatness: the Son of God came in humble circumstance, was derided and despised, and ended his days upon a cruel cross of torture and shame. 

Average humans standing outside the circle of divine revelation would mock his beginning as that of a bastard birth rather than the miracle of divine doing that it was, the virgin birth.  They would frown upon his being born not in a palace but in a stable, for there was not even space in the spare room of the house where his parents boarded.  Driven first as refugees to Egypt, his parents later found a home in a minor town of a lesser district, in Nazareth of Galilee.  Excluded by those with whom he grew up—almost killed on charges of blasphemy—he found acceptance in a small fishing village in the border region of Galilee.  He wandered the hills, where the poor, sick, and demon-possessed found him--the 'untouchables' of a society that confused holiness with separation from those in need of mercy.  His disciples were no schooled rabbis but fishermen, corrupt tax collectors, filthy prostitutes, and untouchable lepers whose lives were radically transformed by His grace, power, and teaching, and eventually by His atoning death.

His challenge to every man was to see in Him one who, despite all appearances, was the Son of God sent by God the Father.  Here was no Great Man of history but the Lamb of God who, by His sacrificial death, would take away the sins of the whole world.  Here was He who, beaten, spat upon, hanging upon a cross and bleeding, would bear our guilt and shame, remove our sins, and restore us to God Most Holy, cleansed, washed, and made righteous if only we believe in Him.  Here was no Great Man, for He was, as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 53), despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  Here was one who carried our sorrows, even though we regarded Him to be stricken and afflicted by God.  Yet He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and upon Him fell the chastisement that brought us peace. Here was He who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45).  Here was no Great Man of history, for he was purposely neither great in human eyes nor was He just another figure who influenced history.  Rather, He was, as one scholar has put it, the middle of time itself--the purpose and fulfillment of history.[3].




[1] Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, (1840); online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1091/1091-h/1091-h.htm.  Accessed 11 December, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Hans Conzelmann, Der Mitte der Zeit: Studien zur Theologie des Lukas (Tübingen, 1954).  To be sure, Conzelmann had a rather particular argument about Luke's Gospel with the phrase, 'middle of time.'  My purpose is only to borrow the phrase.