Posts Tagged ‘history’

Von Rad on God and Providence

January 18, 2010

To tell the truth, I don’t always get on well with Gerhard von Rad, the famous 20th-century German Old Testament Theologian. I suspect that he separates “Salvation-History” (Heilsgeschichte) from actual history in a very damaging way. But, like Luther, I’ll take a nugget of gold from anyone. I came across this the other day – talking about the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50):

“Only at the very end, when God has resolved everything for good, does one learn that God has held the reins in his hand all along and has directed everything … But how? No miracle ever occurred. Rather, God’s leading has worked in secret, in the plans and thoughts of men’s hearts, who have savagely gone about their own business. Thus the field for divine providence is the human heart. One would ask in vain how God intervened here. The immanently causal connection of the events was as tight as possible; there was no gap, no hollow spot set aside for human intervention. God did his work in the decisions of men.”
Gerhard von Rad, God at Work in Israel (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1980), pp.143-144.

Often we think of God’s involvement in history as passive, except when he intervenes by a miracle. God intervenes by parting the Red Sea and sending fire upon Elijah’s altar, but not in the civil war under David, or in Solomon’s building the Temple. This is not the faith of Israel – instead, every event of history is superintended by divine providence. God is in control of everything, operating in the choices made by human beings just as much as he is operative in the miraculous.

What does this mean for us? The same God is still in control today. And so we can say that all of history – past, current and that yet to occur, is under his control and working to his desired end. Furthermore, we know that the end will be a good one – as Paul says in a well-known verse, “we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). And as Joseph was able to say in hindsight: “You [his brothers] intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Is this right? Can we really say that the brutal, seemingly senseless course of history is working out for good in the end? Even the horrors of the past century – the trenches, the gas chambers, the gulags and the killing fields? I suspect that the good that is to come is only fully revealed in hindsight. When this present age is over, when Christ returns to consummate history and usher in the new creation such things will make sense. On the personal level, our struggles and seeming lack of success, our apparent setbacks and experienced failures too are ordained by God for good – however invisible that good is to us now. This seems a poor justification of the events of history, doesn’t it? A giant, cosmic “what did Asquith say?” Yet this is the one that the story of Joseph offers us, and one that is thoroughly biblical from Pharoah to Paul, from Cyrus to Christ. And it is one that can give hope.

Oh for the faith properly to believe this!

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Farewell to the Noughties!

December 31, 2009

I’ve been indulging a bit of nostalgia and reading some of the news coverage of the previous ten years – the “noughties”. Never mind the silly name, nor the collective counting mistake that makes us think a decade ends in a year ending in 9 rather than 0 (there was, after all, no “year zero”…) – I for one enjoyed reading through what various people had put as memorable or significant events, people, ideas, songs, videos etc.

I’m quite historically minded. In fact, I was originally studying for a degree in German & History at Nottingham before switching to do Theology. So my eye’s naturally been drawn to discussions of what the most significant events of the Noughties were.

Few people would dispute the significance of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I think most of us can still remember first hearing about them – the confusion, rumours, fear, incredulity… And not only were they significant in terms of the horror of the events themselves, but also for the reprecussions that followed in their wake. 

One of those is that Britain has been involved in two major wars this decade – both difficult, and unresolved. We remain at war in Afghanistan, and the United States remains at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s too early to make the call on the outcome of those conflicts, but many people are pessimistic about them.

Terrorism has become a common and pervasive fear – perhaps even out of proportion to its actual danger to us. Yet the danger, even if overstated, is not absent – this Christmas saw an apparently botched attempt to destroy an aeroplane full of civilian passengers near Detroit. The effects of terrorism have reached us all – who knew in 2000 what the words “al-Qaeda”, “dirty bomb” or “liquid explosives” meant? Civil liberties have drastically altered in the UK – a change in fact largely accepted by most people. As an illustration, in 2000 a web page containing these words which claimed it would set off all sorts of secret service red flags would have seemed crazy – tinfoil hat crazy. In 2009, few internet users doubt that various agencies monitor internet communication under anti-terrorism legislation. From a legal perspective, this could turn out to be hugely significant.

The way we use the internet has also changed – blogs, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, mobile broadband, WiFi… Actually, when I say “we”, I don’t think I even knew what the Internet was until 2001/2 ish! At which time I was still in school doing Year 9 SATs… remember those? Some current university students were doing their Year 6 SATs. Wow.

Education has changed – top-up fees, more university places, some entirely new courses. I’ve got no idea about the long-term significance of the new fees settlement in terms of changing the social mix or financial situation of Universities, but I suspect it’s going to be financially significant for students like me who have large student debts. When I (hopefully) graduate in 2010, I’m going to owe the government about £30,000. Wow. Good job I didn’t decide to study Medicine or Architecture!

The trouble though, is that, so soon after all these things, it is really hard to evaluate their significance. In a way, that’s the problem with all historical writing – you cannot know the future, ultimate significance of anything. Something which seems like a big deal today might turn out to be a ripple, whereas a hidden, unnoticed event may alter the current of history in much bigger ways. Unless you’re God, you can only make provisional judgements about the ultimate significance of events.

Though, I’ve been thinking – something that we’ve been told is a big deal is the Church. In the big, cosmic sense. It’s a prime example of one of those unnoticed things – it looks weak, but has the gospel, which is the power of God for saving the world. It looks foolish, but has the mind of Christ. Its normal, unglamorous work of preaching the gospel looks like a very inefficient farmer sowing (Mark 4:1-20). Sometimes the fruit comes very slowly indeed – and we’re tempted to think we’re doing it wrong. But slowly, person by person, God has continued to build his Church – investing his eternal significance into every single one who he welcomes into this community. This decade, through the witness of ordinary Christians, millions and millions of people have become Christians – which is surely worth rejoicing over! And I was one of them.