Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

History Is Messy

William Edgar


By William Edgar

June 23, 2014

Or so many historians tell us. In his fascinating book The Lost History of Christianity (Harper/Collins, 2009), Philip Jenkins explores one of the mysteries of church history-- why churches die. He describes how the church in Europe and the Middle East, once thriving, basically withered. Jenkins argues that persecution is one of the main factors in the decline of a Christian presence in a particular area, as is a weak government. But we cannot always know. And there are surprises. As the European church became virtually ineffective in the twentieth century, the Christian faith witnessed tremendous growth in places such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Trends and patterns are not always easy to trace. One frequent fallacy in how we interpret history is “providentialism.” In Victorian Religious Revivals (Oxford University Press, 2012), David Bebbington warns against over-zealously identifying the finger of God. Often associated with J. Edwin Orr’s assessment of revivals, providentialism claims that only by acknowledging God’s providence can we identify a revival as healthy or unhealthy. But surely, says Bebbington, “bad” revivals are as much the work of divine providence as good ones. In a similar vein, Carl Trueman takes note of several providentialist arguments for the attacks of 9/11 and finds them inadequate. In his Histories and Fallacies (Crossway, 2010), Trueman devotes a chapter to “A Fistful of Fallacies,” including attempts to identify this or that event with God’s special purposes. He says that if the Twin Towers had not been attacked that day it still would have been providential. 

None of these authors deny the role of providence. They simply plead that it not be brought in as a way to see through the visible world with access to invisible purposes, a sort of x-ray vision into God’s rationale. Instead, the historian’s task is to identify secondary causes rather than trying too hard to discern God’s intentions behind every event. Nor do any of them deny the possibility of objectivity in doing such work. They are not relativists, but they question grand schemes, such as Hesiod’s “five ages of man,” or Nayef Al-Rodhan’s “sustainable history,” or Hegel’s dialectics.

What about the grand scheme of the conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman inaugurated in the early history of mankind, with its promise of the triumph of good over evil? (Genesis 3:15) Certainly a Christian historian would want to affirm this dynamic, instituted by God, for history’s direction and its outcome. But does that mean we can always know where the conflict is and who is winning or losing? It is true that the Lord at times clearly does identify his own purposes, sometimes quite specifically, in the events of sacred history-- Job’s suffering was related to a challenge in the invisible world, the exile was the result of divine judgment. Indeed, a prophet’s main calling was to explain present circumstances in terms of obedience or disobedience to God’s will.

Such direct communication telling us how to interpret events ceases when we enter post-biblical times. Not that we may never know of divine approval or disapproval for various events. We are told that there is joy in heaven when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7). May we not therefore assume when someone comes to faith that there is gladness in the courts above? When, after praying, a friend is healed of cancer, is this not the work of God’s hand? Is there not an element of divine judgment in wars and other calamities? The Book of Revelation tells us to expect various outpourings of wrath.

Yes, but this is very different from specifically identifying events with God’s providence.  Of course, everything is ultimately in God’s hands, but so often the word “providence” is used to signify a measurably good or fair outcome, which clearly cannot always be done. What if the friend is not healed? What if peacetime occurs? In fact, we are warned not to reduce every event to mechanical causes connected with God’s will. Remember the man born blind, and Jesus’ rebuke of those who tried to connect his blindness with specific sin (John 9:1-7). Perhaps the clearest of such warnings is the New Testament teaching on the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). Again, we could be not only looking for a measurably good or fair outcome, but forcefully trying to make it happen. We are reminded of Stalin or Hitler, who in effect usurped God’s governance with their own brutal tactics.

One day it will become clear what God has been doing. Right now, however, things appear messy. Moral imperatives are not. The call to embrace the gospel is not. History often is.

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”