12 June 2005 - Sunday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, III


As an evangelical Christian studying history, I can think of no Christian doctrine easier to document than that of original sin. The feeling that there is something not quite right with the world -- that humanity itself is, as Kant put it, "crooked timber from which no straight thing was ever made" -- is difficult to shake off as I review the records of human activity.

This situation tends to frustrate attempts at writing providential history. Christianity has a highly developed consciousness of the past; our doctrine centers not on a free-floating ethical code but on a person and a set of events surrounding that person. Significantly, we believe this person represents "the Word made flesh" -- specific revelation from God. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection represent the reversal of this world's corruption; Christ lived the first perfect life, died the first undeserved death, and rose again to defy the natural order as we know it. In a key respect, this account illustrates the difficulty any historian will have in understanding what God is up to.

Without specific instruction, no evangelical historian would dare suggest that the death of the Son of God was a good thing. True, the death of Christ was overturned three days later, but even so, it would be unthinkable to say that the crucifixion itself was God's will. Yet that is precisely what the Christian doctrines surrounding atonement say; the crucifixion was part of God's plan for redemption. The very murder of God was the centerpiece of his work in human experience. In this case, at least, the only way to get providential history right is to have that history written by Providence.

Desire for certainty of providential workings in other areas of history can likewise lead us astray. Often our accounts of God's work (e.g., the view of the USA as a Christian city-on-a-hill in some American evangelical circles) become esoteric rather than universal. We pick easy explanations, emphasizing the successes because we cannot imagine that God would take the field without emerging the visible victor. We must have evidence, and apparent failure cannot possibly be evidence. Perhaps we forget that the New Testament itself promises adversity rather than prosperity.

When providential history becomes that insular, limited to the historical hothouses that allow visible triumphs, it loses its claim to authority altogether. Both from the perspective of the Bible and from the increasingly global perspective of modern humanity, it has very limited credibility.

In any case, I think we should remember that the divine revelation of God's purposes given in the Bible is important to us precisely because it is extraordinary. It is a very rare, precious certainty, the sort we corrupt humans simply don't get in our own narratives.

Georges Florovsky, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," in God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 438:

Even in the history of the Church "the hand of Providence" is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy—a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. He will insist on the comprehensiveness of our conception of man, as a prerequisite of our understanding of his existence, of his exploits, of his destiny, which is actually wrought in his history.
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