My quest for a theology of history

In last week’s blog post, I talked about three sermons I’ve heard recently that have challenged my thinking about hope.  These same three sermons, especially that by Allie Hoffman, also challenged me on the question of my theology of history.  What is a theology of history?  It’s a set of beliefs about the relationship between God and history and what we can say about history theologically, that is, from a religious (and in my case Christian) standpoint.

I have to admit since becoming disillusioned with a lot of modernity’s narratives of progress, I’ve been a bit agnostic about my theology of history.  I would affirm that God is involved in history somehow, but when asked how I thought God might be involved, I would say something like, “Well, we’re just limited humans, and it’s really hard to say what God might be doing in history.  I’m sure God’s up to good things, though, even if I have no idea what those might be.”

Listening to Allie’s sermon convicted me that this is an inadequate position for me as a Christian and especially as a Christian who is also a professional historian.  Amazingly, I have not found all of the answers in the month and a half I have been thinking about this (hah!), but I have identified four positions I would like to reject and four that I think require further investigation.

Positions to I would like to reject:
1. God is uninvolved with history (what might be called a Deist view)

I find this position unappealing for several reasons.  First, I think it presents a weak view of God.  A God who is not involved in history is not involved in human affairs and thus is not very useful to humans.  Granted, the point of God isn’t to be useful to humans, but I really think such a view leads to a God that can be ignored.  Sure, some believe that God created inherent moral laws in the universe before he stepped away from the clockwork, but the evidence for such laws is sketchy, and I don’t think it makes this position any more appealing.

Second, I think this position devalues history.  If God is uninvolved with history, then God can’t care about history that much.  And since God is the ultimate source of value, if God doesn’t care about history, then history’s not worth much.

Finally, such a view seems to go against the Biblical witness.  I like the Bible, and if the Bible presents to me a God that’s involved in history, then that’s the type of God I’m going to believe in.

2. God controls everything in history (what might be called a Panglossian view)

This position also fails for several reasons, mainly related to an insufficient view of evil.  First, it seems to make God the author of evil.  We could radically revise our notions of evil and say the things that seem evil to us are really part of a broader, overall good, probably one that we’re unable to see.  But this seems to do away with any significance to the terms good and evil and go against how humans actually experience life.

Second, this view baptizes unjust structures by making them part of God’s will for the world.  This deprives Christians of a basis to work against economic, racial, gender, political, environmental, and other forms of injustice.  God must be outside of history and not fully identified with history so that the word of God can break into history to critique history.

Finally, this view also seems to go against the Biblical record, where although God is sometimes in control, there are also plenty of people doing things against God’s will.

3. History is just a place for individuals to have their souls saved (what might be called a fundamentalist view)

I will agree that history is the arena in which individuals experience salvation, but I reject the notion that history is only a place for individual souls to be saved.  Such a view, while in many ways at the opposite side of the theological spectrum from the Deist view, also seems to devalue history.  In this view, what happens in history per se doesn’t matter.  All that matters is what happens between individuals and Jesus.

Such a position is unappealing to me for two reasons.  First, I like to think about salvation in more wholistic terms that includes forgiveness of sins, but also restoration of right relationship with God, other humans, and the world around us.  Other humans and the world around us are part of history.  Second, history is part of the world and thus part of God’s creation, which God has termed good.  Thus, history must have some positive value.

4. History is building toward the actual coming of the Kingdom of God on earth (what might be called a modern/social gospel view)

I ragged on modern notions of progress in last week’s post, so I’m not going to completely rehash those arguments.  Suffice it to say that the Kingdom of God has not yet completely come on earth and the amount of sin and suffering left in the world suggest that if the Kingdom of God is to arrive by any gradual process of amelioration of the world, it’s not going to get here any time soon.  This view, then, also seems not to take evil seriously enough.

What’s left, then?  How can we talk about God’s relationship to history that affirms that God is involved with history, affirms the value of history, and takes evil seriously?

Positions that I think require further thought:
1. History is progressing in some way, just not in the ways modernity talked about so far

It seems like it might be possible to tell a story about history as progress that avoids some of the pitfalls of the sorts of progress stories that modernity tells.  One example of such a story comes from the field of missiology, where people talk about history as the progressive spread of Christianity to all nations and races (not that everyone will become Christian, but that some people from all racial and ethnic groups will become Christian).  Such a pattern does actually seem to be happening.  It might also be possible to tell a story of the progress of the interconnectedness of human society, if you thought God was into that sort of thing.

2. History is a process of growth and decay (perhaps repeated many times) before eventually new birth

It is also possible to believe that history has an ultimate telos or goal but that it won’t be a process of continued progress toward that goal.  Instead, history may be a process of decay, or growth and then decay, or cycles of growth and decay before ultimately reaching the end of history.  I think Christians can be optimistic that this eventual telos is a good destination (God’s new creation), but I don’t think we must be optimistic about the path to get there.

3. History is open, but influenced by a loving God in certain directions

This is a process theology view of history.  God doesn’t know where history is going, but God is influencing history in certain directions – toward love and justice, for instance.  I’m not a huge fan of process theology, but such a position would allow one to talk about God’s involvement in history without having to come to any conclusions about the telos of history.  It may, however, still suppose notions of progress that may be problematic.

4. History matters to God because it contains (and is) God’s creation, not because history is heading any particular place, even if God does eventually intend an end to history and a new creation

In such a view, God cares about history and is involved with history because God cares about humans and the rest of God’s creation, which exist within history.  A useful analogy here would be an individual life.  We wouldn’t necessarily say the point of life is to die.  (Even if you think the point of life is to go to heaven after you die, that’s different than saying the point of life is to die.)  I would affirm that God cares about us and is present with us throughout our life.  The value of a human life is not determined by death, but by God’s valuation of life.  Perhaps in a similar way, the value of history is not determined by its end, but because God values creation.  God is involved with history because God loves God’s creation.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that history won’t come to an end or God won’t make a new creation, but the value of history derives not from God’s establishment of the new creation, but from God’s establishment of this creation.

I’m not yet ready to hang my hat on any of these four positions, but I’d be interested to hear others’ assessments of these positions or others I may not have thought of yet.


Nancy Hale posted on March 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Great post, David! I have to wonder if, when Christianity replaced a [pagan] cyclical view of time with a more strictly linear understanding of time, it didn’t miss out on an important aspect of God’s relationship with the world.

Rebekah Phillips posted on March 12, 2011 at 8:00 am

I really enjoyed this week’s post! Do you mind if I quote yoa line or so in my blog?

Maya posted on March 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Do you think its possible that material, human history is but an imperfect reflection of what God created, and therefore not the embodiment of truth? I am thinking here that in the second chapter of Genesis, Adam never awoke from his dream. Maybe a true theory of the universe is a spiritual, rather than a material one. Perhaps the only events and ideas that are truly real in human history are those that point us towards our spiritual identities as made in God’s image, governed by Divine Principle. That it isn’t linear, but rather vertical? Is there some reason to believe that God did not create perfectly and complete from the outset? If we aren’t seeing that in our experience, is that about being still in the Adam dream? Just a thought. I don’t think we have to accept what our senses present as fact necessarily.

Scott Haile posted on June 18, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Great post–I look forward to seeing where you end up on all this.

Number 2 seems to fit pretty well with a lot of apocalyptic texts, which I always find interesting. The idea there is that the powerful in the world always think they’ve got things under control, but that God’s divine agent needs to show up to reveal to the author that God has other plans–even if God isn’t going to bring those plans about just yet.

Think of the Roman emperors from Augustus believing they’re issuing in a great era of peace, while they end up trying to kill baby Jesus (through Herod the Great), indeed killing grown-up Jesus (through Pilate), killing Peter and Paul (Nero), and destroying the Temple (Vespasian). The emperors would have boasted that they were making great progress in the word–and in certain ways I’m sure they were. Yet as you note, when the powerful become more powerful (as in the 20th century), the bad tends to increase with the good.

A key claim of many apocalypses is that things will get to be their worst before God breaks in and fixes things. I’m not one to take the predictions literally or to try to guess when the end will come. But since Jesus seems to have been rather apocalyptic himself, we shouldn’t be shocked if this is how things go. Perhaps the arrogant (perhaps including myself) will continue to believe they/we are making progress, and perhaps in God’s eyes it will actually amount to a growth in wickedness until God has seen enough. A scary thought.

David Wm. Scott posted on June 19, 2011 at 10:36 am

Scott, I didn’t have apocalyptic worldviews in mind when I wrote #2 on my list of possibilities, but you’re very right. And you’re right that apocalyptic is this interesting combination of scary and reassuring – reassuring that God is ultimately in control, but rather scary in thinking about the things that might happen between now and God’s ultimate victory.

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