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?