As we came back from Spring Break last week, students in Senior Seminar continued their reading in John Fea’s Why Study History? They overwhelmingly agreed with Fea’s argument that Christian historians ought to be leery of engaging in what’s often called “providential history” — that is, claiming to be able to discern God’s purposes or judgments within history as legitimate categories of historical interpretation. (An approach that is often coupled with a use of Scripture or other kinds of special revelation as evidence.) Here Paul Flowers (’14) offers his response to the question, “Is providential history possible?”
Christian historians have a unique position within the academic community, but at the same time we are standing on the edge of a knife. We are called by a higher authority to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, and at the same time be unbiased in our work and telling of history. So how are we to reconcile the providential work of God, which we, as Christian historians, can see at points in history, with our work in academia? Can (or should) we even attempt to write a providential history?
As Christians and as historians we can naturally see the hand of God at work in the timeline of history. For the word history itself, if broken down into its parts, makes two separate, but intimately intertwined words — His Story. But the knowledge that God is at work in the flow of history gives historians the grave responsibility to report the truth of God as it is revealed in history. However, at the same time it is also our responsibility to report what we know unbiasedly to academia so the whole of the historical community is edified and enlightened. How then do we reconcile the hand of God and the need for unbiased opinions?
The way to do this is through simply telling the story as it is. No frills. No games. If the story, as God intended it to be, is already providential — it is his story — then all we have to do is tell it as it is. We are merely the mouthpieces of a greater narrator who will get his message across no matter the instrument used — from undergraduate college student to tenured college professor.
So, armed with this knowledge should we attempt to write a providential history? The answer, I believe, is no. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. // For as the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9, ESV)
In trying to divine the Divine, we are attempting to read and interpret the mind of God, who as the prophet Isaiah said is unknowable. When we try to say what is and what isn’t divine providence, in the flow of history, we are no longer being the mouthpieces of God, by truthfully retelling what we see in the narrative, but rather we are becoming something more insidious — we are trying to be God. This is a slippery slope to fall down. When we attempt to play God by saying what is divine providence in history, and by omission what isn’t, we are stripping the Gospel of its power. We are in essence rewriting the story of God with our finite, sinful minds; we are creating a fallacy in which to wallow and causing people to go astray.
But, while this is may seem a bleak outlook, we also have a beacon of hope. The idea of divine providence in history is already there — the interjection of Jesus into our mortal frame of reference and his promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us. Therefore, our work is already done for us, we just need to tell the story as it exists and attempt to not change or doctor it up. If we leave history to its own devices and tell it as it is, divine providence will look after itself. After all, we have a God who is above all others in majesty, power, wisdom, and might.
– Paul Flowers