Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Historiography and Providence

Don't we all cringe when Pat Robertson or some other televangelist comes on and declares that Katrina or 9/11 are expressions of God's judgment for our nations moral decay? Or worse, when the connect tsunami's or earthquakes in third world countries with God's wrath. I do.

But why?

I was just reading yesterday about evangelical involvement in the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Both in America and in Britain, opponents of the slave trade viewed it as a moral stain on their respective nations. It was not uncommon for clergy who opposed the slave trade to warn of God's impending judgment unless the nation repented of wickedness. John Newton, the captain of a slave ship turned pastor (and friend of William Wilberforce, and author of Amazing Grace) did not think it proper of clergyman to interfere directly in politics, but still affirmed "it is Righteousness that exalteth a nation; and Wickedness is the present reproach, and will sooner or later, unless repentance intervene, prove the ruin of any people" (from John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, pg 198). Others, like James Stephen (Wilberforce's brother in law) looked to the Bible and picked up on themes like the plagues on Egypt, the exile of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, etc. and warned, "severe chastisement for the guilt of the Slave Trade, have already been felt, and that still severer are approaching" (ibid, pg. 198). Similarly, Wilberforce, when fighting to emancipate slaves in the West Indies urged his countrymen not to "presume too far on the forbearance of the Almighty."

Is it still proper to warn of impending judgment on a nation for its sin? Does God still hold whole nations accountable for corporate sins? Some may want to argue that the Bible shows pictures of God judging Israel as his people and that no nation can be said to hold the same unique position as God's chosen nation/people today. True. However, God's discipline/judgment wasn't reserved for his people Israel. He uses his people to judge the sin of the Canaanites (Gen 15:16). He warns Nineveh (Assyria) through the reluctant prophet Jonah of his impending judgment unless they repent. He prophesies doom on Babylon (Habakkuk 2:6) and many others (see, for example, Amos 1:9, 11, 13). So, is it just that God was more active back then? Or, does God still 'rebuke the nations' (Psalm 9:5)?

I'm sure God still judges nations, but honestly, I have more questions here than answers. When you look at the New Testament, there doesn't seem to be warnings issued to nations - at least not like those that come from the prophets in the Old Testament. What does that mean? Nations are clearly in view in the book of Revelation, especially Rome (Babylon), so there seems to be some continuity with the OT prophets on this. On the other hand, most of the 'warnings' of the NT are directed to sinful individuals, more specifically, sinful Christian individual. Yet, the idea of 'corporate sin' is still present in the NT. For example, certain churches are guilty of sins (see Revelation 2-3) and are in danger of judgment. As mentioned earlier, Babylon (Rome and by extension the whole world order opposed to God and the church) in the book of Revelation is guilty of sin as a corporate entity and will be judged corporately.

I guess I'm wondering: if we should warn God's impending judgment for sin, should we not also, as those early evangelicals, look at calamity as expressions of God's judgment. Or, to put it another way, what role should providence play in our telling of history (historiography)?

Not too long ago even Presidents felt free (maybe compelled) to make such connections. Lincoln didn't shy away from this understanding of history. In his second inaugural address he states, "The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Steven Keillor is one of the few who have thoughtfully and boldly declared that God's judgment should play a prevalent role in a Christian telling of history (historiography). In the Introduction to his book God's Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, he writes, "In essence, this book began as an attempt to answer Andree Seu's call for a 'theology of fullness of truth' about the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, rather than the 'kind of gag rule' by which evangelicals, especially, were restricted to saying 'we cannot know what God is doing and why.' Specifically, God's judgments were the subtext: we cannot know that God is judging the nation. Yet, September 11th is only the starting point..." In this book, which is still sitting unread on my shelf (a theme of recent), Keillor goes on to explore what the Bible, both OT and NT say about God's judgment, the meaning of History, the burning of Washington as punishment, the civil war as an expression of judgment for slavery and more. (If that interests you, pick up Keillor's other book This Rebellious House - an interpretation of American history from a Christian perspective).

Anyway, I think more thought should be given to how we include biblical concepts of providence, blessing, curse, judgment, etc., into our view of history - not just distant history, but current history too.

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