Providence reconsidered

In the most recent issue of Books & Culture, Brad S. Gregory reviews the new book on divine providence by Steven J. Keillor titled, God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith. The thesis of Keillor’s book is suspiciously ambitious: because the Scriptures describe certain events as divine judgment against sinful people, we are able on this biblical basis to discern certain historical events in the present also as God’s judgment against sin and evil. Keillor’s book is thus a sustained argument against the modern, scholarly discipline of history that discards the categories of divine judgment and divine providence from any interpretation of historical events. Modern historical scholarship forces historians to examine world events “as if they were deists or atheists, even if they believe that God acts in history.” Keillor sets out to reject through historical arguments this modern a priori repudiation of the traditional, Christian view of history in which God is the acting agent in contemporary events.

According to the reviewer, Keillor repeatedly denounces the “Christian worldview” mentality that is prevalent among Christian fundamentalists, such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. Keillor rejects this on the basis that it erects a quasi-philosophical system on the basis of the biblical text through which all reality can be interpreted exactly. Keillor is not quite so ambitious. But he nevertheless wishes to establish a median between philosophical exactness and modern practical atheism. Keillor seeks “to correlate known causes of the event with known categories of divine holiness and judgment” and thereby to identify certain events as caused by God as judgment against sinful people. Gregory summarizes Keillor’s position in the following way: “if God’s purposes are such and such, then certain events are plausibly understood as his judgments in the flow of human history.” As quoted by Gregory, Keillor writes in his book:
We must beware of presumption in claiming to know the mind of God. But the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, where the inability to know for sure morphs into a refusal to ask questions that cannot be known with certainty and then into a dismissal of the category of divine judgment.
This is certainly an ambitious and subversive book, but I am also deeply afraid of what Keillor is trying to accomplish here. God’s Judgments may be both one of the most interesting and one of the most dangerous titles to be released in a long time. I wish to briefly identify where I think Keillor’s proposal (on the basis of the review, not having read the book myself) is likely to be most problematic. My own thesis, in short, is that Keillor’s book wades into theological territory far too complicated and messy for a biblically-literate historian to successfully navigate. And since Keillor seems to be unaware of the theological issues at stake, this makes his proposal dangerous in that it obscures and/or ignores the theological positions he takes in the book without realizing it. In what follows I highlight areas that demand more careful theological attention.

1. What do we mean by “divine judgment”?

This is a serious question that requires careful theological investigation. Based on the book’s table of contents and Gregory’s review, it seems that Keillor views judgment as divine condemnation—the figurative “lightning bolt” from heaven. Judgment is apparently something that God does in history to curb sin and punish evil. The massive problem with this thesis is that it fails to think christologically. According to the New Testament, divine judgment is radically redefined in terms of the cross, in which sin was definitively judged. As Barth says, Jesus Christ is the Judge who was judged in our place and on our behalf. If we do not consider judgment from this vantage point, we will miss the point of divine judgment: to bring life and peace to the world. Divine judgment is not simply a No; it is also and more importantly God’s sovereign Yes.

To be fair, Keillor does attempt to think christologically. The sixth chapter of the book is auspiciously entitled, “History’s Meaning: The Son of Man in His Descent, Ascent and Return.” According to Gregory, Keillor identifies the Hebrew concept of mishpat, so that divine judgment is now a christological reality. With this, I agree wholeheartedly. But Gregory then summarizes Keillor’s view in the following way: “Beginning with the incarnation, God’s winnowing purposes in history are identical with Christ’s: those who believe in him and his gospel will be saved, those who reject him will be judged. This applies to nations as well as individuals, an idea nowhere rejected in the New Testament.” If this is an accurate reading of Keillor’s thesis, then I must reject it for two important reasons: (1) I know of no NT support for the notion that God judges unbelief in history, in addition to after the end of history; (2) divine judgment in both history and eternity must be identified with the judgment borne by Christ on the cross, and thus we cannot posit forms of divine justice which do not take Christ’s sacrifice ‘for us and our salvation’ into account. Regarding the judgment of nations, see my next point.

2. Judgment against nations but not individuals?

Gregory writes the following about Keillor’s book:
In three densely exegetical and theological chapters, Keillor develops his interpretive foundation. Central is the notion, pervasive in the Old Testament prophets, that God judges not only individuals, but nations—all nations, not only ancient Israel and its neighboring kingdoms—as part of his action in history. Keillor distinguishes clearly between divine judgments of individuals and nations; his book addresses only the latter, sensibly mindful of the implications of Luke 13:1-5.
I am very skeptical of the position being taken here. While Job and Luke 13 may cast doubt upon the notion of divine judgment of individuals, what is a nation other than an aggregate of individuals? It seems that Keillor’s argument depends on the reification of the abstract concept of “nation,” thus turning nation-states into objects of divine judgment abstracted from the individuals that actually constitute the nations. How can God judge nations without judging individuals? Furthermore, the move from ancient nations to modern nations seems quite problematic. We have no biblical calculus that will allow us to extrapolate from ancient nations to modern nation-states. More on this in the next section.

Moreover, I am not entirely sure that Keillor has really examined the biblical evidence. In the episode recorded in Luke 13, Jesus denies the assumption that the Galileans killed by Pilate had sinned more than others. He says instead (twice for emphasis), “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. ... No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Lk. 13:3, 5). The point of the passage seems to be twofold: (1) God does not judge certain individuals more than others, and (2) God judges everyone equally because sin is universal. The point is not that God does not judge individuals, but that God judges all individuals. As Paul writes in Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:23, 6:23). Furthermore, in John 9:1-5, there is another important episode with a blind man. The disciples ask Jesus who sinned, this man or his parents, but Jesus denies that sin has anything to do with his blindness. Instead, he says that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It seems to me that if divine judgment is anything, it is God’s sovereign determination to reveal God’s glory in the world—a revelation uniquely constituted by Jesus Christ. To limit divine judgment to a crude punishment for sin is to miss the bigger picture: God judges in order to bring glory to God, and this is true of the blind man even though sin is not the basis for this judgment. As in Luke 13, the point is that no person’s sin is greater than any other’s, but what John 9 shows is that God still works in the lives of individuals.

Keillor’s problem is that he views judgment purely in the punitive sense, and therefore to avoid the problems associated with individual sin, he turns to abstraction and applies judgment to nations. But we need to remember that divine judgment affects people on an individual basis, and the definitive judgment executed in Christ is not judgment in the abstract but rather personal, concrete, and effective for each person.

3. Does the Bible provide principles for divine action?

While Keillor realizes that we cannot circumvent Christ in our understanding of divine judgment, his proposal requires that he go beyond the biblical testimony in order to speak about God’s activity in the present. The Bible’s witness to what God has done is not enough; the Bible must also be able to inform what God is doing. In order to accomplish this, Keillor seeks to derive from the biblical testimony certain basic principles for how God acts in the present. The problem is that we cannot deduce principles for divine action. God cannot be reduced to certain patterns without replacing a personal deity with abstract concepts. Granted, Keillor tries to avoid creating a philosophical system or “worldview” from the Bible, but I am not convinced on the basis of the review that he is free from criticism on this point.

Keillor’s continual problem seems to be a turn to abstraction in order to solve theological problems. In this case, he avoids the concreteness and historical situatedness of Scripture by finding principles and patterns of divine action that he can apply to any situation. The problem is that patterns and principles are not themselves revelation; they do not give access into the mind of God. Certainly, we must affirm that God acts according to God’s self-determined character, but God’s self-determination is identified with a person, not a principle, and the person of Christ is a concrete reality who has one particular concrete story. Moreover, the ascended Christ does not accomplish a different kind of judgment here and now (or in the eschaton) than the one he bore upon himself at Golgotha. So unless Keillor wishes to understand the judgment carried out in Jesus Christ as a judgment against those who do not believe in him, I believe we are led to strongly question his account of divine judgment.

Keillor advocates what he calls the “scriptural view,” which is basically a soft version of the “biblical worldview” thinking that he disparages (and rightly so). His criticism of others is therefore just a self-indictment. While he may phrase his conclusions much more cautiously, he remains bound to the same method of moving from text to history, from biblical past to historical present. As I have tried to show here, his thesis depends upon major theological and exegetical presuppositions (e.g., punitive divine judgment of nations, emphasis upon OT narratives, Christ not as the judge judged in our place but as the one who judges unbelief), and if he is going to be confident enough to call his position the “scriptural view” then he better be able to back it up. Gregory’s main criticism is on this very point—particularly the perspicuity of Scripture that Keillor takes for granted (for him, at least)—so I will not repeat what he has already said very well.

4. An arbitrary God?

One of the biggest problems with Keillor’s account is a problem that Schleiermacher and a number of other modern theologians have had with certain conceptions of God—viz. the view of God as an aloof observer of history who only occasionally acts to intervene when things are not going right. While this is the view that seems to be held by most of the writers of the biblical text, it is nevertheless a view that needs to be greatly qualified if not discarded in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Two of the biggest problems include (1) an arbitrary God who acts for some but not for others, and (2) a God who is not in control of all creation but must instead intervene. Keillor, I think, is liable to these criticisms, among others. God in his account observes history but is not continually involved in creaturely reality. There is no doctrine of concursus dei, as far as I can tell, and this is a major oversight. God is simply a transcendent deity who, like the cosmic watchmaker, simply creates the universe and then lets it go undisturbed until a nation commits enough atrocities to deserve God’s wrath in the form of other historical events.

Keillor seeks to avoid the notion of God working through absolutely supernatural events, but his God is still just as arbitrary and aloof, even though God works through historical events. Why is God to be found in certain events but not others? Why is God involved in the attacks of 9/11 but not in the “terroristic guerrilla units against the Soviets” which Keillor says is a possible reason for 9/11? If God was involved in 9/11, is God also involved in the Iraq War? Certainly, God is not to be identified with evil, but there is no historical event that is wholly good or wholly evil. Even if we grant that some events are more in conformity with God’s character than other events, we are theologically misguided to assume that God is not involved in each and every event as the God who accompanies all human action in order to bring creaturely reality into conformity with the covenant of grace.

Along these lines, Gregory’s comments are right on target:
In addition, difficulties seem to arise when one endeavors to understand God’s judgments in a broader context of large-scale human suffering and sinfulness. According to Keillor, Scripture testifies that God judges sinful nations in the course of historical processes, which in American history can be discerned in major, tragic events such as the Civil War and 9/11. But it does not seem to follow (a) that all large-scale, calamitous sufferings of a nation or people can be convincingly interpreted as God’s judgment, or (b) that egregious, widespread sinfulness in a nation predictably provokes God’s judgment in any obvious way, or (c) that the absence of major, tragic events at any given time implies God’s favor toward a nation rather than his wrath.

As examples of each, consider (a) the suffering endured for decades by citizens of African nations brutalized by postcolonial dictators, despite the simultaneous, rapid growth of African Christianity; (b) the treatment of southern blacks by whites in the United States, which remained atrocious for a century after the abolition of slavery, despite the lack of any cataclysm seemingly condign to the sinfulness; and (c) idolatrous American consumerism and immorality, which were no less rampant in the late 1990s than they were on September 11, 2001, yet the lack of any calamity in the 1990s cannot have implied (if Keillor’s interpretation is correct) that up until that day God was smiling on the United States.
5. Number idolatry

Following the previous quote, why must judgment be found only in “major, tragic events”? Keillor’s book assumes that God can only be identified with national/global events that involve many, many lives. I call this “number idolatry” and it is an idolatry that plagues our world today. This problem also goes back to the issue of God judging nations but not individuals. Why is God involved only when thousands of lives are at stake, but not when just one life is on the line? We see number idolatry whenever we have a major natural disaster. People around the world ask where God was in the tsunami, but they do not ask where God was when the teenager in Philadelphia was shot by the local gang or when the Californian family lost their father in a car accident. Why do ten thousand lives implicate God, but not one life?

6. Conclusion

Why do we need this book? If Keillor realizes the dangers of a system that informs us exactly where God is involved, then why are his cautious identifications of historical events with divine judgment at all helpful? What are we supposed to gain from the association of certain major events with God’s wrath? If we are supposed to gain a more potent awareness of our own guilt, then it seems that this can and should be gained without recourse to God. Are we incapable of seeing our own sinfulness unless we identify some tragic event as God’s judgment of our prior actions? Is this book simply an attempt to demonstrate how current events are similar to biblical events, as if to say, “Look, we are not any different than they”?

In the end, I fail to see what this book accomplishes except to mislead people on major doctrinal, theological, and exegetical issues. Keillor’s book is brazen and bold, but in the final analysis, only a “major, tragic event.”


Chuck said…
Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.
Steve Martin said…
Hi D.W.
I have deduced that you must be independently wealthy. No other conclusion can reasonably explain how you have the time to crank out so many thoughtful and thought provoking posts.

On Divine action: I like this Charles Hodge quote:

"The fact of this universal providence of God is all the Bible teaches. It nowhere attempts to inform us how it is that God governs all things, or how his effectual control is to be reconciled with the efficiency of second causes. All the attempts of philosophers and theologians to explain that point, may be pronounced failures, and worse than failures, for they not only raise more difficulties than they solve, but in almost all instances they include principles or lead to conclusions inconsistent with the plain teachings of the word of God".
Hi Steve,

Thanks for the great quote by Hodge! I could not have said it better myself. And while I am most definitely not independently wealthy, my wife sure wishes I were! She has been supporting my gluttony for academic punishment for a couple years now, and with a PhD program coming up in a year, I still have many more years to go. :)