Although Christian historians may disagree among themselves regarding the precise nature or extent of God’s providence, all affirm its reality and importance as those who trust in the God who has decisively revealed himself through Christ in his authoritative Word and who is at work throughout history.
And yet there is a debate about how providence should be used in the writing of history, especially before the academy.
On the one hand, the area of contention has to do with epistemological confidence: can a historian read providence from events as an interpretive tool of historiography?
It also has to do with contextualization: is a Christian historian writing for a secular audience obligated to convey all that he believes?
If you’re new to this debate, here is a summary of some of the arguments and presuppositions from several Christian historians.
Tom Nettles (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, emeritus) provides a vigorous defense of providential historiography. He critiques the new evangelical historiographers as “cautious evangelical historians who discipline their writing by the conviction that their final product must be profane, not in the sense of aggressive blasphemy, but in the sense of being defined by non-religious purposes.” Nettles believes that “A theist who tries to write history as if there were no God, performs as, and presents the world as, an atheist.” Providence is key for Nettles: “If the factor of providence . . . may be as easily excluded with no loss of coherence in argument, does this not qualify as an argument for atheism?” “A theist who tries to write history as if there were no God, performs as, and presents the world as, an atheist.” Nettles suggests that the Christian faith involved “a kind of connectedness with history that expands the possible explanatory framework of empirical data” and that Christian experience involves “an expansion of awareness which operates both subjectively and objectively in the historiographical process.”
Fellow Calvinist Carl Trueman (Westminster Theological Seminary) objects to this use of providence. He is not responding to Nettles below but simply offering his two primary reasons for not using providence as a tool of historical interpretation.
First, providential readings of history “attempt to explain particulars in terms of a universal, which is remarkably unhelpful in its limitations.” Trueman gives the illustration of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Saying that the Twin Towers fell because of providence says little more than saying they fell because of gravity. “To claim the latter is to speak truth, but it is also to explain nothing about what really happened that day.” The provenance of the historian is found in the particulars, but providence is a universal, since God causes all things. According to Trueman, “universal causes are of no great use in particular explanations.”
Second, Trueman judges that providential readings of history “claim to read God’s will off the surface of historical events in a glib and easy manner.” The problem, Trueman avers, is that the claim is unfalsifiable. “Once the ‘God’s providence’ card is played, the argument is over.” Furthermore, the providence pronouncement entails a “gnostic connection to which others have no access.”
In summary, according to Trueman, “providence may well be a sound theological doctrine, but it really has no place in the toolbox of the historian because it pushes the historian beyond the realms of what is and is not verifiable according to the canons of evidence and interpretation.”
John Fea (Messiah College) shares this perspective. “Providence,” he writes, “is a theological idea that is directly related to the character and behavior of God. History, however, is a discipline that seeks to explain the character and behavior of humans as they lived through time.” According to Fea, “providence is an unhelpful category in the interpretation of the past.” It belongs in the toolbox of the theologian but not that of the historian.
Fea builds his case theologically. God’s providence is an inscrutable mystery, and human interpreters are finite and fallible. Therefore, “Christian historians would do better to approach their task with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand the Almighty’s plans for the nations.”
Fea’s plea is that writers of providential history “resist the temptation to bow to the gods of modernity—gods who want to scientifically decipher the workings of the divine and claim to know, with a degree of Enlightenment certainty, the will of a sovereign God who created the modern world and will end it when he sees fit. Until then, we see through a glass darkly.”
Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College) writes academic history using “methodological naturalism.” He insists that “This is not, as is often said or at least implied, a mere pandering to the secular academy, a refusal to say all that I know or ought to know as a believer in order to gain outside recognition.”
Nor does Larsen, who is theologically charismatic, deny that Christians can have access to a divine perspective on contemporary events.
What he objects to is the assumption that the act of historical research generates such insights. This is to confuse the work of an academic historian with the ministry of the prophet. Events by themselves are too ambiguous—good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to faithful people—to identify definitively any such cause-and-effect chain by natural means. To declare that an earthquake is a divine judgment and not just a tragedy to be endured is to speak for God; and more, to the point, to declare ‘thus saith the Lord’ without being inspired by the Holy Spirit is a foolish, dangerous, and indeed sinful, act. Larsen reminds us that a major theme of both the Bible and the Christian tradition (not least Reformed thought) is that God’s ways are often inscrutable.
Harry Stout (Yale University) frames his discussion by identifying three levels of history, each of which is proper within its sphere and improper when applied outside of it: (1) temporal or mundane history, (2) providential history, and (3) divine or inspired history.
Temporal or mundane history has to do with “natural or secondary causes; the social, political, economic, and intellectual history that all historians, whatever their personal beliefs, practice by observing the rules of evidence and adhering to a common pursuit of truth that all can agree upon.”
Providential history is “seen through the lens of supernatural faith.” This is what makes Christian historians different from non-Christian historians. The former believe and assert that “the ultimate force in history, lying behind and above all secondary causes, is the God of Scripture.” The non-Christian historians might ascribe finality to this or that mundane force or factor, but Christians see God’s sovereign hand not only in Scripture but also in the ongoing history of the church. The Christian historian should affirm God’s grand providence, a perspective distinct from both non-Christian historians (who assign determination and sovereignty to the mundane) and fellow Christians (who are tempted to assign definitive finality to their own interpretation of providence).
Divine or inspired history is confined to a small company: “God and to those ancient biblical chroniclers who wrote through direct, divine inspiration.” As a Protestant, Stout believes that Scripture is the only text of divine and sacred history. “There is no other inspired history anytime, anywhere . . . it must be read and received as sui generis.”
Whereas Stout critiques non-Christian historians for confusing the first and second levels of interpretation (mundane history and providential history), he critiques some of his fellow Protestants for failing to make the necessary distinctions between the second and third levels (providential history and divine history). He admires and commends the deep faith of people like the Puritans or those who debate whether American is a “chosen nation,” while disagreeing with their “conviction bordering on biblical certainty.” They might affirm the uniqueness of the Bible, but their writing can read like another chapter added to the Holy Scriptures. Stout argues that if the interpretive layers are not kept within their proper spheres, the result is a problem of “massive propositions,” namely, that of “horribly distorted legacies.”
David Bebbington (University of Stirling) argues that “Divine interventions seem to be a necessary element in a Christian view of history.” The Christian historian “can write in conformity with his convictions that God is guiding the whole historical process. . . . He can say, for instance, that when good surprisingly emerges from evil, God is evidently at work. . . . The historian should take providence into account.”
Bebbington even sees the danger of not recognizing divine providence in history: “If a Christian historian tries to write without a thought for providence, he is likely to succumb to some alternative view or blend of views that happen to be in fashion.” But providence is something a Christian cannot plausibly deny given what he has experienced: “The Christian . . . is aware of divine activity not only in the world but also in his own life. Personal experience of the intervention of God inclines him to discern it in the world as well.”
At the same time, Bebbington sounds a note of warning: the Christian historian “remains a fallible human being who can speak only with diffidence beyond his own experience. He will be cautious about identifying the divine interventions that he believes to take place in the historical process. He does not so much see them as glimpse them. The perception of particular providences, however real they may be, is no straightforward matter.”
In the next post, I’ll explore what this means for confessing historians who want to write both for the church and for the academy.
Tom J. Nettles, “Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: A Review Article,” The Baptist Review of Theology/La Révue Baptiste de Théologie 6 (Spring 1996): 67-79.
Carl R. Trueman, History and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 166-67.
Timothy Larsen, “Evangelicals, the Academy, and the Discipline of History,” in Beyond Integration? Inter/Disciplinary Possibilities for the Future of Christian Higher Education, ed. Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and David L. Riggs (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2012), 105-21.
Harry S. Stout, “Biography as Battleground: The Competing Legacies of the Religious Historian,” Books & Culture 2 (July/August 1996): 9-10.
David Bebbington, Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought, reprint ed. (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Press, 1990), 172-186.