I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Our countdown to the holiday is over, but I’m not quite ready to move on yet. Before doing so I want to share one more lesson that I think we might learn from the Pilgrims—in this case, specifically the long-term governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. Bradford was both a man of deep, persevering faith in Christ and a remarkable historian. In the reflections below, I share what Bradford can teach us about a particular approach to the past called providential history.
“Where is God in history?” is a question that many Christians yearn to explore. Many of the believers I have talked with doubt that a historical interpretation can be truly Christian without answering it. Implicitly, they advocate what academic historians call “providential history.” The providential approach to the past views history as an arena in which to trace God’s unfolding plan for humanity. It assumes that the Christian historian, through the ordinary analysis of historical evidence, can discern the Lord’s handiwork on earth. It constantly asks of the past, “Where is God and what is He doing?”
I sympathize with this desire for providential history, but I believe that the reasoning that under girds it is faulty. Let’s begin with the doctrine of providence itself. This crucial church teaching instructs us that God’s sovereignty is exhaustive, that the Lord is working “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11b). In the words of the Westminster Confession, God “doth “uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things . . . by His most wise and holy providence.”
Although it may trouble us to hear it, the more seriously we take the doctrine of providence, the less useful it becomes to us for explaining the past. Think for a minute. If we were to apply the principle consistently, the explanation for every event in world history would be reduced to the same three-word conclusion: “God willed it.” (Granted, this would make exams a lot less stressful.) This is why Christian historians think of historical explanation as the identification of secondary causes, of those means that God employs in effecting His will.
For similar reasons, they reject as illogical the temptation to apply providential explanations selectively, to concentrate on secondary means ordinarily and reserve appeals to divine causation for key turning points or particularly momentous events. As Christian historian Jonathan Boyd puts it, “if God’s rule extends over all and his providence comprises all events . . . it makes little sense to name some events as more providential than others.”
In reality, however, for most of us the question “Where is God in history?” is less about divine action than divine purpose. What we really want to know, in other words, is not whether God was at work in a specific historical context but why, that is, how did particular historical events relate to God’s larger divine plan? Here, however, Deuteronomy 29:29 sounds the alarm: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” that passage warns us. Only “those things which are revealed belong to us.”
The sweeping historical narratives of the Old Testament repeatedly tell us God’s intentions in acting—why He granted victory in this instance or brought sickness in that one—but we must never forget that the history that comes to us from the Bible is divinely inspired, literally “God-breathed,” as II Timothy 3:16 tells us. To speak bluntly, when we view the Old Testament as authorizing present-day historians to write providential history, we implicitly denigrate the difference that divine inspiration makes in discerning divine purpose. Unwittingly, providential history reflects a low view of Scripture.
The Bible itself makes clear that, in the absence of divine inspiration, God’s purposes in human affairs are easily misunderstood. Part of the problem is our own myopia. As theologian N. T. Wright points out, God’s prophetic messengers are repeatedly saying to His people, “This is what God is doing in your midst. Why are you so blind?” Part of the challenge, to paraphrase Isaiah 55:8, is that “God’s ways are not our ways.” He doesn’t handle things as we would. Thus we are constantly running into surprises in Scripture, what Notre Dame historian Mark Noll calls “strange reversals . . . in the Christian story. The Christ is crucified. Good appears to fail. The monuments of historical goodness—Roman order, Jewish morality—conspire to do unspeakable evil. Good things come out of hopeless situations.”
Countless other gleanings from Scripture frustrate our efforts to reduce God’s ways in history to a simple formula. Blessing is sometimes a sign of divine favor, but not always; God causes the rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just (Matthew 5:45), and He allows the wicked to prosper, if only for a time (Psalm 73:3). Suffering may be an expression of divine judgment, but not always; Jesus’ teaching about the man born blind and the Galileans killed by Pontius Pilate makes this clear (John 9:1-3, Luke 13:1-2). This is why theologian J. I. Packer argues emphatically that “no historical event,” in and of itself, “can make God known to anyone unless God Himself discloses its meaning and place in His plan.”
In sum, while we can be confident that God is constantly at work in human history, both for His glory and for our good, it is not ours to know God’s specific intentions for any particular historical occurrence not explained in Scripture.
Does this mean that we simply dismiss the question “Where is God in history?” No, but when we encounter dogmatic answers to the question, we must recognize them for what they are—prophetic declarations, not historical conclusions. If a pastor feels called to assume the prophet’s mantle and pronounce from the pulpit God’s intent in a particular historical event, we may choose to give him a respectful hearing. But when a historian claims to know God’s purposes in that same event—not from special revelation, but on the basis of ordinary analysis of historical evidence—then we rightfully dismiss that claim as presumptuous.
When we approach the past both Christianly and historically, the most that we can ever do with regard to God’s intention in a particular event is to speculate, and when we speculate we should be explicit that we are doing so. As Wright points out, the apostle Paul modeled this for us when writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul conjectured that “perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave” but as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 15-16a). Perhaps is the key word here; it is a mark of what Wright calls “the necessary reticence of faith.” With exemplary humility, Paul combines an unshakeable confidence that God is at work with an awareness of his inability to read God’s mind. His modest perhaps invites God to say of Paul’s claim, “Well, actually, no.”
For a more recent illustration of this marriage of confidence and humility, I can think of no better work to commend than William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. On the one hand, Bradford interpreted the unfolding of events around him as a glove on the hand of Jehovah. The Maker Bradford adores is “not a God afar off,” to quote the prophet Jeremiah, but “a God near at hand” (Jeremiah 23:23).
Although the Pilgrim governor regularly alluded to what we’ve called secondary causes, he never hesitated to link them to the Lord’s overarching decrees. When John Howland fell overboard amidst a violent storm, he didn’t drown, Bradford explained, because “it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards.” The Pilgrims’ first landing party survived the attack by the Nausets because it had “pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance.” The “general sickness” of that gruesome first winter occurred because “it pleased God to visit” them “with death”; the death toll ended only when “it pleased God” for “the mortality . . . to cease.” When Squanto showed up he was “sent of God.” When rain relieved their drought-parched crops, it was because the Lord had brought “seasonable showers” as a “gracious and speedy answer to their prayer.” Finally, when many of the Mayflower’s passengers ultimately lived to an unusually old age, the cause, Bradford knew, lay in “the marvelous providence of God!”
And yet Bradford paired this deep conviction that God was “near at hand” with a resistance to proclaiming God’s specific purposes in any given circumstance. God was in control and God was good—this much was certain, God had revealed that—and so Bradford did not hesitate to interpret the Lord’s providential oversight of the Pilgrims as an expression of His love for them. Beyond this he would not go, however, and Bradford’s history contains not a hint of special knowledge concerning the particulars of the divine plan. God’s specific will was simply too difficult to discern. Bradford took pains to show that the congregation at Leiden was divided as to the wisdom of migrating to America, and at no place in his history did he declare the decision to relocate as indisputably the will of God. The plan was “lawful” and its objectives “honourable”—that was all that could be said.
Bradford’s reticence is all the more remarkable when we remind ourselves that he was writing well after the events he was describing. From hindsight, he knew that the Pilgrims not only had survived unimaginable hardships but that their colony had grown and flourished materially. What is more, thousands more Puritans were flocking to New England, building on the Pilgrims’ “small beginning” to shine a light to the entire English nation. Could we blame Bradford had he concluded that God had indeed preserved the Pilgrims for a very special purpose?
And yet he did not. The Pilgrims’ story was just too ambiguous; in his heart, Bradford knew that it intertwined increasing prosperity with declining purity. In reviewing their history, furthermore, the truth of Romans 11:33 regularly constrained him. “God’s judgments are unsearchable,” the governor noted, echoing Paul, “neither dare I be bold therewith.” We would do well to follow the Pilgrim governor’s example, not because Bradford’s stature as an honorary “Founder” gives him moral authority over our lives, but because his modest, yet literally “faith-full” approach to the past resonates with the precepts of Scripture.