As Constantin Fasolt notes, however, this fundamental separation of the past and present is a human making. In his words, “We place that distinction [between past and present] into the uninterrupted flow of time. We assert ourselves and thereby we transform the world. We claim a place for ourselves in the here-and-now and hold it in opposition to the there-and-then. We draw a fence around a part of reality, call that the past, and mine it for the knowledge in which historians specialize. That is the founding act of history.” Fasolt is describing our inability to distinguish a break between the past and present in our ordinary experience. To be sure, we can name my previous sentence as “past,” but the point is that we never experience an interruption in our experience of time. Everything occurs to us in a kind of simultaneous flowing present. It’s also important to note that sources are so important for historians, because they give evidence of what is gone and passed away, the mystery of what was, the past. In sum, by drawing a line in our experience of time and using sources to mark and reinforce this distinction, historians get their needed object of study, the past; and this past is separated from the present and should not be polluted by the present or the future; if it is, then we can accuse the practitioner of the history’s sin of sins. And most of us know that much of early Church exegesis and writing succumbs to this putative sin. If figural exegesis is ever going to be revived, even in a renewed or different way, we must reckon with the development and historical ban on anachronism.
As I’ve been alluding to historians who preceded modernity studied the past and made historical claims as well. But, it was conceived of quite differently. A reading of the Venerable Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time and his Ecclesiastical History, for example, displays his theological understanding of time and history. For example, the six ages of the world that Bede borrows from the preceding tradition “follows in all respects” the actual creation of the world according to Genesis. In fact, the six world ages take place within the week of creation.
The age we inhabit now is the sixth age, the age of the Lord and his Incarnation, which began with Christ’s incarnation and lasts through the persecution of the anti-Christ. Chronicling the historical content of the sixth age, Bede narrates in detail generations and leaders of the West from Christ up to the 8th century English people. This is significant because Bede does care about historical detail, as any cursory reading of his Ecclesiastical History reveals which is why many historians today respect him, while simultaneously and theologically placing the events in the larger arena of God’s providence in history understood in relation to Christ. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (and all his historical writings) must read in this way for it to be properly understood.