Although Christian historians may disagree among themselves regarding the precise nature or extent of God’s providence, all affirm its reality and importance as those who trust in the God who has decisively revealed himself through Christ in his authoritative Word and who is at work throughout history.
And yet there is a debate about how providence should be used in the writing of history, especially before the academy.
On the one hand, the area of contention has to do with epistemological confidence: can a historian read providence from events as an interpretive tool of historiography?
It also has to do with contextualization: is a Christian historian writing for a secular audience obligated to convey all that he believes?
If you’re new to this debate, here is a summary of some of the arguments and presuppositions from several Christian historians.
Tom Nettles (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, emeritus) provides a vigorous defense of providential historiography. He critiques the new evangelical historiographers as “cautious evangelical historians who discipline their writing by the conviction that their final product must be profane, not in the sense of aggressive blasphemy, but in the sense of being defined by non-religious purposes.” Nettles believes that “A theist who tries to write history as if there were no God, performs as, and presents the world as, an atheist.” Providence is key for Nettles: “If the factor of providence . . . may be as easily excluded with no loss of coherence in argument, does this not qualify as an argument for atheism?” “A theist who tries to write history as if there were no God, performs as, and presents the world as, an atheist.” Nettles suggests that the Christian faith involved “a kind of connectedness with history that expands the possible explanatory framework of empirical data” and that Christian experience involves “an expansion of awareness which operates both subjectively and objectively in the historiographical process.”
Fellow Calvinist Carl Trueman (Westminster Theological Seminary) objects to this use of providence. He is not responding to Nettles below but simply offering his two primary reasons for not using providence as a tool of historical interpretation.
First, providential readings of history “attempt to explain particulars in terms of a universal, which is remarkably unhelpful in its limitations.” Trueman gives the illustration of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Saying that the Twin Towers fell because of providence says little more than saying they fell because of gravity. “To claim the latter is to speak truth, but it is also to explain nothing about what really happened that day.” The provenance of the historian is found in the particulars, but providence is a universal, since God causes all things. According to Trueman, “universal causes are of no great use in particular explanations.”
Second, Trueman judges that providential readings of history “claim to read God’s will off the surface of historical events in a glib and easy manner.” The problem, Trueman avers, is that the claim is unfalsifiable. “Once the ‘God’s providence’ card is played, the argument is over.” Furthermore, the providence pronouncement entails a “gnostic connection to which others have no access.”
In summary, according to Trueman, “providence may well be a sound theological doctrine, but it really has no place in the toolbox of the historian because it pushes the historian beyond the realms of what is and is not verifiable according to the canons of evidence and interpretation.”
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SOURCE: The Gospel Coalition