In my church history classes, I often ask students why the early church grew so rapidly. And we discuss non-theological factors like the pax Romana, a shared language, established trade routes, and the charitable endeavors of the early church.
Then someone inevitably asks, “What about God?” Surely God wanted the church to grow and the gospel to spread. So we can look back on history and see God at work making sure those things happened in the first few centuries of the church.
After listening for a few minutes, I ask the students to consider the near elimination of the church in North Africa and Asia Minor after the rise of Islam. What do you do with that? If God wants the church to grow and the gospel to spread, why did that happen? How do you find God at work in those historical events?
What about the Crusades? The holocaust? The Rwandan genocide?
How do you discern God at work in history? That’s really the question. How can we speak so confidently about God at work in growing the early church and then just stammer awkwardly when asked about more tragic realities of the past?
What is the relationship between divine providence and the study of history?
That’s the question John Fea wants us to wrestle with in his Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013). As he points out, “For Christians who believe in divine providence, the study of history certainly presents a conundrum” (p. 78). And that’s because we’re fond of identifying how God has been at work in our own lives: “We often look back on our lives and reflect on the way the Lord has led us” (p. 80). But then we realize how complicated that discernment becomes when we apply to it to the larger narrative of human history.
What do we do with this?
Fea argues that although we should affirm God’s sovereignty over the events of human history, we should be very careful about suggesting that we know how God is at work in any particular event. Looking to Augustine for guidance, he says,
We can be confident, from what the Scriptures teach us, in the hope of Christ’s return and final judgment. History will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God. But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history. We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible, because our understanding is so limited. As Augustine writes, ‘There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one. Thus, the judgments of God safe all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.’ (80)
And he quotes Martin Luther to make a similar point:
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. (80-81)
For Fea, then, the confidence that God is at work in history does not correlate to an equally strong confidence that we can know precisely how God is at work. Those are two very different issues. One is more an affirmation of hope, the other an expression of hubris.
And Fea argues that this should shape how Christians approach history as a whole. We seek to understand what happened, without an overweening confidence that we know why God allowed it to happen:
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. (81)
I think Fea is right that we need to be careful about thinking that since God is in control we should be able to discern precisely what God is doing in any particular event, or even in a broad swath of events. We all know that God works in weird ways. We see that in the Bible, we all see it in our own lives, and we definitely see it in history. So we all should live in the humility of knowing that we can’t be certain we have correctly discerned what God is doing unless he has told us in his own Word