Volume 15 - Issue 3

Responding to the God of history

By Christopher J.H. Wright

Fact is stranger than fiction. 1984 came and went with all its Orwellian fantasies unfulfilled, though the prophets of doom at the time gave us lurid countdowns on how close we were to the fiction becoming fact. The winter of 1989–90, on the other hand, is already being hailed by historians as likely to rank along with dates like 1689–90 in England, 1776 in America, 1789 in France and even 1917 in Russia, in the world-changing events it has brought. The collapse of communist domination in eastern Europe and the voluntary renunciation of constitutional right to rule by the Communist Party in Moscow, coming at the same time as major steps in South Africa towards the ending of racial injustice there, have left us gasping in astonishment at events we would have deemed almost unthinkable a short time ago. Some theological reflections suggest themselves.

A major effect of the convulsions in Europe, noted even by secular commentators, has been the dissolving of the popular territorial image of good and evil. The Iron Curtain had for a generation symbolized not merely the political reality of a divided Europe, but also a convenient moral and spiritual frontier for those who coloured the west angelic and the east diabolic, which was certainly the mythology purveyed by countless spy movies and novels. Without denying whatever relative truth the myth may have embodied (as myths usually do), it needs to be said that Christians can never succumb to a territorial (or racial) definition of good or evil. Just as the kingdom of God is not territorially defined, neither is the kingdom of darkness. There always has been an ‘evil empire’, but it was never confined to a single continent, as the simplistic Star Wars mentality (in its cinematic or its militarist form) would have us think. Jesus taught us that the wheat and the weeds grow side by side in the field of the world, and the task of distinguishing them is ultimately a task for angels (the real ones) and reserved for the final judgment. Meanwhile we do well to follow Paul’s advice to ‘judge nothing before the time’. It may have been a bad year for the devil. But it hasn’t been so good for the confident prophets of doom either, with their assured scenarios of satanic communism’s world domination heralding apocalyptic tribulations.

We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Hard enough to do in personal relationships, and even more difficult in the world of international affairs, where one segment of humanity’s rejoicing may become another’s weeping. Who could fail to rejoice at the sight of ecstatic Germans celebrating the collapse of the Berlin Wall, with all the related prospects for political freedoms and economic opportunities which are opening up to almost all of eastern Europe? But who will pay for those economic opportunities? It is a complacent self-delusion to think that western economic power and affluence is a simple direct result of the west’s own effort or merely the proof of the superiority of market capitalism over state communism. The wealth of the west is as dependent now in its maintenance as it ever was in its development upon the unfair and exploitative world economic system which loads all the dice against the poorer nations of the south. However, in spite of the system (or, in fact, as part of it), the western north has at least endeavoured to contribute to what it calls development in other parts of the world through various kinds of aid. The motives are rarely altruistic, but at least it happens. The question arises now, in the light of so much promised aid to eastern Europe and democratizing Russia, how will the rest of the world fare? If the First World embraces the Second World, who cares for the Third World then? Mammon will always prove a more enduring rival to the living God than Marxism. It would be ironic and tragic if the white and northern segment of humanity hugged its ‘blessings’ ever closer to its continental chests while the south grew even more excluded in its poverty and oppression. And for how long would the south tolerate such ever starker global disparity? Our biblical theology and ethic must compel us to face such questions if we take seriously our commitment to humanity as a whole in interpreting the flow of contemporary history.

Lecturing on Isaiah 40–55 during some of the most astonishing of these recent events prompts another reflection, namely the speed and surprise of the way God acts in history. What the exiles in Babylon had longed for for a generation began to happen so suddenly that they could not take it in, and indeed appear to have objected to the way God was answering their hopes. Similarly today, walls long thought and declared impregnable simply crumbled. Dictators boasting their security one day were fleeing the next.

He brings princes to naught

and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

No sooner are they planted, …

than he blows on them and they wither (Is. 40:23f.).

Thus spoke the prophet about the transience of human power before the sovereignty of Israel’s God. And who had done it? The insistent question in Isaiah 40–55 is answered on a human level by Cyrus, before whom the nations of the world trembled and tried to strengthen their own and each other’s idolatries (41:5–7). But behind him stood God himself. Indeed, the prophet affirms, God had raised him up for that very purpose and was the giver of all his success, victories and progress. It was too much then for some devout Jews to accept that the God of Israel should use a pagan king for his saving purpose. It is doubtless astonishing for many who have prayed to God for generations to be delivered from the grip of atheistic or racist persecution that God should choose to use the very head of the oppressive system as the agent of changes that have turned the world upside down. Yet the biblically alert believer should not baulk at this. For why should the God who used Nebuchadnezzar ‘my servant’ (Je. 27:6) and Cyrus ‘my anointed’ (Is. 45:1) not also use a Gorbachev (whose first name ironically means ‘Who is like God?’) or a de Klerk? The fact that it is said explicitly that Cyrus did not acknowledge Yahweh (45:4f.) shows us that God needs no acknowledgment on the part of those he chooses to carry out his purpose in history (as Pharaoh might now be willing to agree). Equally, the fact that Nebuchadnezzar was eventually brought to some degree of conversion and submission to the God of Heaven (Dn. 4) shows us the importance both of faithful prayer for rulers (Je. 29:7; 1 Tim. 2:1–4) and of courageous witness to them at the opportune moment (Dn. 4:27).

But Isaiah 40–55 presents to us another figure than Cyrus, the political and military agent of his historical will for Israel at that time, and that is the mysterious Servant of Yahweh. He is identified with Israel and yet has a mission to Israel. Then, by God’s calling and commission he is entrusted with a mission to be a ‘light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth’ (49:6). The work of Cyrus on the level of world politics was like a catalyst enabling the ongoing fulfilment of God’s wider redemptive purpose for humanity through his servant people. And such is the mission of those who share the identity, election and calling of God’s Servant, as we do through baptism into Christ. In fact it was this very verse (Is. 49:6) which Paul used as the theological undergirding of his own mission to the nations in Acts 13:47. So as we look at world events, our task is not merely to marvel at God’s sovereign control of leaders and nations but also to face the resulting challenges and opportunities for mission that such events lay before us. And, as for OT Israel, that needs to begin with a radical repentance for the moral and spiritual failure and ineffectiveness that all but disqualifies us to be his servant at all. The appeal of Isaiah 40–55 was not merely that Israel should regain her freedom, but that she should regain her identity and mission as the people of God for the sake of the rest of the world. A Cyrus could send them back to Jerusalem. Only the Servant could bring them back to God.

But where is repentance to be found? A final reflection on the events of recent months was stirred within me by the Soviet response to events in Czechoslovakia. I well remember the sense of moral outrage, worsened by impotence, when Warsaw Pact troops squashed the hopes of the Prague Spring in 1968—coupled with the sense of déjà vu from my childhood memories of the news of Hungary in 1956. It was therefore all the more moving to read that Russia formally renounced that action as having been not merely a mistake but fundamentally and morally wrong at the bar of human rights. It may not fit some definitions, but I would class that as repentance. And the amazing thing was who was doing it! Has such a formal renunciation of past sins or massive violations of human rights been forthcoming from any of the ‘Christian’ powers, past or present? But once again I wonder why I should be so surprised. The Bible gives us plenty of examples of the repentance of the unquestionably wicked (from Nineveh and Manasseh to the prostitutes and tax-collectors of Jesus’ day), while warning us of the awesome, impervious capacity for self-congratulation and self-vindication on the part of the ‘righteous’, which has not been without illustration in recent events either.

What, then, is our duty in response to such facts and reflections? First, to be humble. Our God is mightily unpredictable and a master of surprise. How tawdry now must all neatly worked-out schemes appear which some so confidently devise for the divine rubber stamp? Second, to be discerning. The realities of good and evil are so intertwined in our world that we need more than Solomonic wisdom to disentangle them. Simplistic categorizing of nations or ideologies is naïve and unbiblical. Third, to be self-critical and aware of the desperate need for repentance and change in so many areas of our own corporate life, in church and society. Fourth, to be prayerful for Christians and churches caught up in the floods of such torrential change in some parts of the world, that they may not only stay firm on the Rock who controls history, but through their witness bring others to the same security (Is. 44:8).

This issue of Themelios contains an index of all articles in Volumes 1–15 and of book reviews in Volumes 11–15. The last index was published in issue 10.3. Readers will also be interested to know about a thematically arranged index of Themelios articles. This will be particularly useful to students wanting to find relevant articles in Themelios on specific subjects they are studying. Copies of it are available from The RTSF Secretary, 38 De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GP. Please send a cheque or postal order for £1.00. We are most grateful to Andy Williamson, a former RTSF Executive Committee member, for his initiative and hard work in preparing this topical index.

The index shows the wealth of material available in back issues. Most past issues are still available but achieve nothing on shelves in a store. Recent subscribers may like to top up their valuable collection of Themelios by purchasing back issues. These are available in complete volumes at the current subscription rates (see inside front cover). For more than one volume or multiple copies of any volume the following discounts are available: 2 or 3 volumes—30%; 4 or more volumes—50%. A list of contents of previous issues may be obtained from the RTSF Secretary.

Finally, it is a pleasure to announce that, through an arrangement with the Evangelical Literature Trust, we are now able to offer a special reduced subscription rate to residents in the Two-Thirds World. This will be £1.75 (plus postage) per volume (three issues, which will be sent together when each volume is complete, to save postage). Orders for subscriptions at this subsidized rate should be sent directly to the Secretary of ELT at The Church House, Stoke Park Drive, Ipswich, Suffolk, England, IP2 9TH. Similarly, back issues may be ordered by Two-Thirds World residents at the reduced rate of £0.50 per volume from ELT. We are most grateful to ELT for facilitating in this way the wider spread of the ministry of Themelios in other parts of the world.

Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware