I am not sure where I heard this first, but I know that at least one of my Biola professors talked about History being His story. That is– above all–history is the story of God’s interaction with the earth. At the time, I gobbled this right up and didn’t really stop to think about it. I know it sat in the back of my mind for a while, I even remember thinking about how to include this idea in one of my introductory lessons (as a hopeful teacher, I often think about lesson plans).
Cut to Oxford.
First scene: the history students sit down to have their introductory meeting and the professor says (in more words): “Have you ever heard this idea? The author we just read (and myself) believe it is a bunch of rubbish.”
It was then that I critically examined this idea, and I have come away with the same conclusion. Who are we, as mortals, to make assertions of God’s interactions with humanity? Certainly we can say that God is involved, and that he is moving, but to make statements about God’s specific involvement is foolish and there are several reasons why.
The first is that the subject of history (like the sciences) deals with observable evidence and facts. If something cannot be proved even to exist, then how can you assert that it is a cause or even influencer on an event in any way? Even more so, who gets to accurately claim what God is influencing and what he is not? When the mega-church paster points out how God is about to turn a disaster “which satan meant for evil” into good, that sounds good, but what about the paster of the fringe church that claims that God is the one causing 9/11 to pass judgement on America? I think Christians everywhere would do everyone a favor if they stopped trying to assert their ability to identify the influence of God in any way.
Furthermore, as a historian, I can comfortably say that God is involved in his creation, but beyond that, I think I have to say that I must be an agnostic to know how and to what capacity is his causing the individual and specific events of our daily lives (that will inevitably become history).
You see, claiming God’s involvement in history can get Christians in to more trouble than leaving him out. I have three examples.
The first is that a favorite historian of mine (Dan Carlin) likes to quote another historian who said “History is the autobiography of a madman.” Indeed the more you delve into the complicated tale of humanity, this seems to be perhaps the most true thing ever said about history. Not only is history full of crazy people and the incredible things they do, but it is also full of random events that are truly random: see the assignation of Franz Ferdinand or Theodosius’ horse. So if you want to say that God is providentially behind all of the events of the past, then you are basically saying that God is a madman.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that God is involved in the story of humanity and that he is working “behind the scenes” in his greater redemption story. But once again, what that work behind the scenes looks like is beyond unknowable to us as humans.
Second, to claim God’s involvement in something shrinks God down. To give a spiritual explanation for something that can be, at any later point, explained by natural means reduces the influence of our Creator. Every time that someone can explain way God, in any way, He is lessened in the minds of those listening. I actually heard a great example of this over the summer as I was listening to a podcast about crime. The particular episode was about a girl who was said to demon possessed, but then science later revealed that she had an advanced form of psychopathy that may have been aggravated by her family and church treating it like demonic possession. Think about every time someone hears that story. The reality of the spiritual realm becomes smaller and smaller in their mind as things that are claimed to be spiritual are retroactively shown to be explainable.
Finally, if one claims the providence of God as moving toward any good end, they also have to account for the flip side, and this becomes very tricky. If you want to declare God’s influence on any specific event, you have be prepared to give justification for God’s involvement in all events. That is just a monumental task that is too far beyond human capacity.
I think this is one area where people should be more comfortable saying “I don’t know.” History is not the story of God. The Bible is the story of God. History is the story of humans. They interact, but we ought not be the ones to claim how and where they intersect.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.