The older terminology for dividing time was AD and BC, the one meaning anno domini (in the year of our Lord) and the other meaning “before Christ.” All time in the western world has been looked at through this lens. It is a distinctively Christian view of things. In the last few years, some Christian scholars (and several non-Christian writers) have begun to use CE and BCE, which refer to the “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” respectively. Such a perspective is not necessarily hostile to the Christian faith. Rather, it simply does not affirm the explicitly Christian demarcations for time.
What are we to make of these things? First, it should be observed that AD/BC did not come into vogue until well into the fifteenth century, though by the ninth century AD was fairly popular (without an accompanying BC). As early as the sixteenth century, “AD,” “Christian era,” “common era,” and “Dionysian era” were all used interchangeably. Thus, it is hardly new to use “common era” for “AD.” In AD 525 (or 525 CE), Dionysius Exiguus invented the anno Domini nomenclature. Two hundred years later, in 731, the Venerable Bede was the first to utilize both AD and BC.
Before AD/BC were used, Christian scribes either marked time from creation (or the birth of Adam or even Abraham) or from the ruling powers. Of course, if their assessment as to the beginning of creation was wrong, then that dating scheme is skewed. And reckoning time from the reign of a sovereign lacked universality. Even if the ruler was an emperor, the calendar would typically start over with the next ruler.
When AD and BC began to become popular, their advantages became obvious to all. Now, finally, there was one clear demarcation that had universal applicability. Only one period in history was the starting point. Everything that was prior to this time started counting from this point as ground zero. This had the obvious advantage of being more open-ended concerning the beginning of the created world. In addition, it had sufficient flexibility for seeing a much earlier date for creation, as well as the beginnings of the universe. To be sure, this was not on the minds of those who promoted the new terminology. But today, when even evangelical Christians are all over the map regarding the origins of mankind (let alone the universe!), using “BC” has a great advantage over a scheme which begins with the creation of Adam!
As for “AD,” the great advantage here is that the focal point of all history is centered in the incarnation of Christ. Jesus Christ is surely infinitely more significant than either Adam or any emperor—or all the emperors who have ever lived. One German scholar wrote a commentary on Luke called Die Mitte der Zeit (“the center of time”). That says it well: Jesus Christ is the fulcrum of all of life and all of history. All chronology is split by whether it is before Christ or after Christ.
Why, then, should any evangelical use CE and BCE? There are at least three reasons for this. First, this nomenclature distinguishes our western tradition from biblical authority. None of the apostles ever used BC and AD. The terminology, as we have noted, was not invented for hundreds of years, and it took nearly a millennium after that before its usage became popular. As important as the concept of BC and AD are to believers, the terminology is not on the same level. All of the apostles conceived of time from the incarnation of the theanthropic person (or, more properly, from his death and resurrection), but they registered time in the same way that everyone else in their society did: from the reign of the current emperor. When evangelicals insist that others should use BC and AD, because to do otherwise is not Christian, they are inadvertently elevating tradition to the level of biblical authority. Second, in our pluralistic society, more and more people don’t even know what BC and AD mean! And it’s only going to get worse. Should an evangelical today be faulted for utilizing societal conventions which aid in communication? That is partially what is at issue in this debate. Third, the reasons I use CE and BCE are simply that I tend to write to a broad readership. Many of them are already offended at the Christian message. There is no need to put more stumbling blocks in their path. Rather, I want folks to wrestle with the real arguments and the real substance of what I’m talking about. If using CE and BCE will open the doors for even one unbeliever in the real discussion, while using AD and BC would so prejudice him from the start that he cannot see the arguments, then I will use CE and BCE. After all, if anything in our message should be a stumbling block it should be Jesus Christ himself, not the symbols of our implicit belief in him.
As an imperfect analogy, consider this: There are some good Christian southerners who are proud of the Confederate flag. In the deep south, many of them prominently fly that flag over their homes. To them, the Confederate flag symbolizes a fierce independence, a highly defined cultural ethos, a regional pride. But to others who are not from the south, it symbolizes racism, slavery, prejudice, hate. Indeed, the Confederate flag symbolizes this to many, if not most, African-American southerners. I have yet to see any black man hoist a Confederate flag on his front lawn! The sad thing is that there are many good Christian southerners who have no racial prejudice—and yet they fly the flag. The question I have for them is this: If you are trying to reach your black neighbors for Christ, don’t you think putting up the flag is an unnecessary roadblock? How can they possibly see this flag as representing anything but racial prejudice?
Now, admittedly, that’s a very imperfect analogy. Using “BC” and “AD” is directly related to our convictions of Jesus Christ as the most significant figure in all of human history. The message is clear; the symbol itself points to him as the stumbling block. In these respects, BC/AD is unlike the symbol of the Confederate flag. At the same time, there is an attractiveness, a winsomeness, about wooing someone to Christ without having to parade our convictions before them. In short, I have no problem with those who use BC and AD, but in my writings that are intended for a broader audience, I prefer to use the less offensive BCE and CE. People will get offended enough by the content of what I have to say (if they don’t, I’m not doing my job!), but I see no need in offending them with the symbols.