Contemporary History Writing and the Question of the Providence of God

Greg Strand – January 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Kevin Flatt, associate professor of history and Director of Research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, highlights some of the problems/concerns of contemporary historians and the writing of history: Lessons for an Amnesiac Society

One of those problems is that historians are hard-pressed to acknowledge any lessons learned for our contemporary day. This falls under the claim of some contemporary Evangelical historians that one cannot speak about past events in the category of God’s providence because it cannot be known. That God is working out his providential plan according to his sovereign, good and wise plan is true. Even though we cannot claim with absolute certainly that something was “of God,” that does not entail that we cannot make humble observations about God’s providential workings. If one affirms God’s sovereignty and providence, there really is nothing that can be excluded or exempted. And even though we cannot claim with certainly the reason for which God did or allowed something, and we must remain humbly cautious about making strong causal connections,  it does not mean we can say nothing about it. We are compelled to do so, and we have good biblical warrant for doing so.

A second problem Flatt identifies with much of contemporary history writing is that as the present-day writers look back on history, they do so through their own contemporary lens and end up confirming their contemporary preferences and prejudices. This may not be full-blown historical revisionism, i.e. rewriting history with an agenda to make it different or deny what it was. But this approach is highly selective of the material chosen and observed through the author’s preconceived, subjective and personal interpretive lens to affirm what the historian already knows and believes. Thus, history becomes a means of supporting my thoughts, ideas and agendas.

The juxtaposition of these two highlights of some of contemporary approaches to history is quite ironic. On the one hand, lessons cannot be gained or learned from the past. On the other hand, history can be gleaned to support one’s own preferences and prejudices. The lessons some contemporary historians learn from history is an exercise in self-justification. Added to this is the fear that no one wants to be on the “wrong side of history,” a phrase used (misused!) to advance a progressive or enlightened agenda.

I am grateful to the Lord for historians who desire to write history while seeking to be faithful to provide a humble yet accurate narrative of the wondrous works of God in and through history, and while being sensitive to the historical setting, context and culture of the original historical events, in order to provide some lessons from that history so that we may learn and live more faithfully today.  

History is His-story. God began time (Gen. 1:1) and God will bring all things to an end (Rev. 21-22). And everything in between is governed by his sovereign providence. This truth lies behind the reference to him as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). It is not that he is there at the beginning and then again at the end. He is that and everything else in between. This means that it would be unwise for us not to discern humbly God’s good providence through history (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11).  

Testifying to God’s providential and sovereign work personally and corporately, locally and globally is important and may be one of the ways God ensures his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14).

I close with the words of William Cowper’s hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way. Although there is much to say about this hymn, I withhold that for another day. Today as we ponder God’s sovereignty and providence, I encourage you to sing or read these words meditatively and worshipfully.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

 

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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