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Sunday, November 27, 2011


The following is the first of two instalments of a helpful article by Maurice Roberts, Editor, in the August-September, 1989, issue of the Banner of Truth Journal (which was a lecture given earlier, April 1989, at the Leicester Minister's Conderence). Apologies for the length of the two instalments (of equal length) but it is helpful to see an Interpretation of the Times some twenty years ago, evaluate it in the light of the present situation and draw out some observations. The article follows herewith:

'And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, And thou he that troubleth Israel? And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim' [1 Kings 18:17-18]

The occurrence of the word 'interpretation' in the title of this paper informs us at once that we are in the realm of applied, rather than theoretical or abstract theology. All sciences have their theoretical and their applied aspects. This is true of theology, which, in better days, was regarded as the 'queen of the sciences'. What follows, therefore, is not so much a statement as an argument, or a case. It is an attempt to develop an interpretation of God's providence in history which is true to the scriptures and practically relevant to the pastoral needs of God's people in the times through which we are passing.

The general theme of providence is that of God's sovereign and perfect control of all events. There is a natural division of the subject into two aspects: the providence of God in the lives of individuals, and God's providence over nations and over civilisation as a whole. Perhaps it would be convenient to give descriptive terms to these two distinct, thought related, ways of studying God's providence. We could speak of micro-providence as that which concerns the individual, and macro-
providence as that which relates to the larger units of mankind in history. It is with the latter that we are concerned here, and especially with the Christian church in the Anglo-Saxon world.

It needs to be said that the literature which deals with this subject is at one and the same time vast and yet sparse. Whilst all works of history and biography have some tangential connection with the theme, yet books which deal directly and specifically with this subject are, to our knowledge, few in number. That is not altogether surprising because the exercise of interpreting providence is essentially a religious and spiritual, rather than a purely historical, one. It is a task which we can only begin with any degree of realism, once we have accepted the great (and nowadays highly unpopular) postulate, that God is truly known only in the Christian scriptures and that history has ethical and spiritual meaning because it is the unfolding of a divine purpose.

Such a great spiritual classic as Flavel's treatise on Providence, therefore, will not help us greatly, because it deals with the more individual aspect of this theme. Indeed, most treatments of providence naturally tend to look at it from the point of view of the individual, especially that of the Christian believer. This is not true of a recent valuable study entitled The Providence of God by Benjamin Wirt Farley, a contemporary American scholar, who teaches at the Union Theological Seminary, Virginia. Professor Farley's book provides us with a very thorough historical survey of providence. That is to say he works his way comprehensively, first through the views of providence held by the great thinkers of Greece and Rome, then by the early Church Fathers, and then by the Schoolmen, the Reformers and so on, up to the present day. It is a book to which one will turn again and again for information about the opinions of writers through the ages. But it does not set out to address itself directly to the type of application of the theme which forms the title of this paper. Rather than beginning with the books, therefore, it will be better to take our point of departure from the Word of God itself.

In the chapter of the Bible which was read to us this evening, we have the great discourse of the Lord Jesus Christ on the subject of the Last Things. There our Lord is informing his people of the most notable and significant events which would occur in the course of human history right up to the very end. More particularly, Christ predicts the fall of Jerusalem, which occurred in A.D. 70, and also the destruction of the whole world at the Second Coming. From our standpoint today, one event is in the past and the other in the future. And with regard to both these momentous events, Christ says that we are to 'watch' (v. 42). Clearly, the implication is that Christians are to be awake to major events in this world and they are to attempt to understand them, at least to some extent.

Failure to 'watch' and to be awake to what God is doing in the course of history is, according to Christ's warning, both foolish and dangerous. This is supremely true of the unbelieving world. But it is also true of God's own people. If we do not 'watch', then we are likely to become either complacent or, alternatively, discouraged. Events in the external world are integrally related to the words of holy scripture. To be ignorant of scripture is to be unprepared for what God is doing in history. To be unprepared at the end, when Christ returns, is to lose our soul eternally.

Furthermore, the view we take of events between our own day and the end of the world will inevitably have a considerable effect upon our whole state of mind as Christians. If we look for nothing in the future but gloom and declension, then we shall be pessimistic as to the degree of success which preaching and missionary endeavour will have on earth. But if we have an optimistic eschatology, we shall be correspondingly affected in our outlook and in our expectation of coming blessing. This is particularly true of the way in which we interpret the passage in Romans 11, respecting the 'mystery' of Israel. Admittedly, it may amount to no more than our state of mind as we set to work in the task of proclaiming the gospel and praying for its success. But our morale is very important. The overall view of providence which we adopt will have a close bearing on our morale and our degree of expectation in God's work.


The short passage of scripture from 1 Kings 18, which is provided at the head of this article, appears to be of considerable significance for the subject in hand. It consists of a snatch of conversation between the great prophet Elijah and the infamous King Ahab. There had been a serious state of drought in the kingdom for three and a half years. Each man, interestingly enough, blamed the other for the troubles, evidently for exactly reverse reasons.

Ahab's point of view was that Elijah had interrupted the peace and happiness of the land by praying down God's judgement. Elijah's opinion of the matter was that Ahab's idolatry had been the real cause of ruin to the land. It is an instructive exchange between a man of God and a man of the world. To the worldly man, it is the 'sour churchman' who spoils life. To the man of God, it is the reckless sinner who ruins the world by bringing God's curse upon a land. In Ahab's opinion, Israel was his kingdom and Elijah was a nuisance. In Elijah's judgement. Israel was God's theocratic kingdom and Ahab was a thorn in its flesh. It is a notable case of two opposing interpretations of providence.

There is a point of major importance to be noticed in this exchange between Ahab and Elijah. A man's theology always determines his view of providence. It must be so and it cannot be otherwise. What we think of God must determine our interpretation of what we see all around us, both in the church and in the world. This principle is to be found everywhere in the Bible. If we apply the principle to our modem situation, especially in Britain, we shall see that the principle is both a true and a useful one. Who, it might be asked, are the 'troublers of Israel' in Britain today? Every man answers instinctively in terms of his own theology. The Ecumenical finds the 'troublers of Israel' in those who will not lay aside every doctrinal difference and 'heal the wounds in the body of Christ'. The Charismatic blames the church's troubles on those who decline to seek the 'gifts'. The theologically liberal trace the modern church's malady to the presence still on earth of an 'antediluvian confessionalism'. The Evangelical and the Calvinist diagnose the church's ills as the judgment of God upon theological unfaithfulness and departure from Scripture.

This principle holds good also in its reverse form. The way a man interprets providence proves his real theology. This is illustrated interestingly by a recently published book, entitled Defending and Declaring the Faith. From the title, one would expect to find that the orthodox creed of evangelical religion was being set forth and defended. The author looks at the life and thoughts of eight well known Scottish theologians and preachers between 1860 and 1920. It is valuable as a summary of thought of such men as Kennedy of Dingwall. John Caird, A. B. Bruce and James Denney. But what is surprising to the evangelical reader is a comparison between the title of the book and the foreword, the author of which admires and praises John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, and Edward Irving. Yet all three of these men, far from defending the faith, were disciplined for unorthodoxy by the nineteenth century Scottish church to which they belonged. It is a remarkable instance of hiatus between the title of a book and its message. What today is being called the church's remedy was, in better days, treated as heresy.

This brings us to a further point in the church's duty in a time of judgment and declension - to enquire after the real cause of the trouble. A generation which makes a false diagnosis of the church's ills may land the church in apostasy. 'Whom God will destroy he first makes mad'. There are repeated warnings in the prophets against the folly of either not heeding, or else misinterpreting, the omens of providence. (Cf Isa. 22:12-14; Jer. 23:16-17; Ezek. 22:28-30). This is what Ezekiel caustically terms 'daubing the wall with untempered mortar' [Ezek. 22:28], which he defines as 'seeing false burdens and causes of banishment' [Lam. 2:14]. In the New Testament, Christ refers to this same sin as a culpable failure to 'discern the signs of the times' [Matt. 16:3].

Whatever be the true causes of the church's steep decline in Britain in our generation, there is no denying that the decline is there. There is a worm at the root of the tree which threatens not the leaf or the blossom only, but the very existence of the tree itself. Britain has no patent rights to the gospel of Christ. The church of Christ as such cannot be lost. But national churches can be lost. The Jewish church in Palestine was lost for hundreds of years after A.D. 70. Much the same happened to North Africa and Turkey at later periods in history. We had better diagnose the cause of our modem ills correctly. Failure to do so might plunge our nation into darkness for centuries. If we see the cause. there is hope that we may repent in time. But who will repent of unrecognised sin? The fearful possibility is that we may already be past hope, because God has given our church leaders over to a reprobate mind. God forbid that it should be so. But the situation is urgent. And it is made all the more urgent in that key concepts of God's providence are out of favour.


In the modern church, there are a number of concepts relating to providence which are in danger of being lost for one reason or another. They are concepts which are to be found in the Word of God and which were cherished in better ages of the church. Their loss in the modern church has made us spiritually weaker and less able to wrestle with God for a return of his favour. We may look briefly at four such lost concepts.

1. The concept of a 'model age'. Not in an absolute sense, certainly, but in a limited sense, there are 'model ages' of the church. By that, we mean that, in some ages, God is powerfully and wonderfully at work on earth in sending revival, reformation and influential preachers of the gospel. At other ages there is a dryness and a deadness, even on good and orthodox men. It is true, of course, that the church in apostolic times is the only 'model' church in an absolute sense. There we have the inspired men and the blueprint of what the gospel and the church ought to be. But if we see all subsequent church history as nothing more than monotonous shades of grey, we have a false idea of church history. The fact is that some ages have been rich in spiritual greatness while others have been lifeless and dead. It is possibly the influence of Brethrenism which has led to a disparaging attitude towards such golden ages of the church as the Reformation, the Covenanting and Puritan era and the period of the Evangelical Awakening. Such ages do come. If we do not believe in them, how can we begin to pray for such an age to dawn on our country again?

2. The idea that God must be glorified on earth. That God is to be glorified is a belief common to all Christians. But that God is to be glorified on earth, by our obedience and faithfulness, is by no means the common creed of all believers as it should be. The point is well illustrated in an anecdote which has come down to us from Scottish Covenanting times. A conforming Christian put the question to a Covenanter as to why he should suffer such 'unnecessary' trials. 'Because', as he put it, 'I shall have heaven as a Christian and you will get no more'. To this the godly non-conformist replied, 'Yes, we shall have more. We shall have God glorified on earth There is both great theology and also great heroism in these words.

The practical outworking of the point is that carelessness in our walk, worship and witness not only forfeits God's blessing but robs him of his declarative glory on earth - an incalculable loss. Universal obedience to God's written Word becomes, in the light of this, more essential than life itself. It is an aspect of the truth which needs to be recovered.

3. It belongs to the biblical portrait of God's church on earth that its history is like a wave, periodically rising and falling. This is the view of providence implicit in such passages, for instance, as Psalms 44, 78, 106 and 126. Christ himself made it clear that this pattern would continue to the end of the world. There would be times in history 'when the bridegroom' would be 'taken away' from God's people, so that believers would 'fast in those days' [Mark 2:20]. Again, the Lord speaks of times in the history of the New Testament church when believers would desire to see 'one of the days of the Son of man, and should not see it [Luke 17:22]. Periods of revival and declension, to use modern terms, will alternate in the life of Christ's church till the very end.

It is of great importance to believers to be thoroughly convinced of this aspect of God's providence. It kindles afresh our flagging hopes to realise that, however low the cause of Christ may fall, God is able to revive it again, even in a very short time, in answer to believing prayer. The wave that falls to its trough is destined to rise up again to another peak. This concept is essential to us if we are not to sink into despair in such a day as this.

4. The fourth aspect of God's providence which is in danger of being lost is the distinctive concept of the church's history which emerged at the Protestant Reformation. According to this view, there are three clearly-defined periods of the church's history: the early period, the medieval period and the modern period.

This three-fold view of church history is a more important part of our Protestant heritage than might at first appear. It serves to remind us that for a thousand years the church in the West wandered into darkness and superstition. This is not to deny that there were good and great men in the Middle Ages. But it helps us to see the immense debt of gratitude we owe to God for the Reformers and their work. We must never allow this view of history to be blurred in our minds. The Reformers not only gave us a new principle of exegesis and a new systematic theology but also a new way of looking at church history. This view of history is to be found implicitly in the three Reformation treatises of Luther written in 1520. It is also found more explicitly in the Fourth Book of Calvin's Institutes and in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, as it is popularly called.

There are today powerful influences at work tending to obscure this attitude to church history, which was once the commonplace view of Protestants. The Oxford Movement of the 1830s seriously challenged this view of providence which we are referring to. But, more recently, it has been blurred in people's minds by the misguided statements of some Protestant leaders, who are suggesting that the Reformation was something of a tragedy or, at least, an unfortunate mistake.

If the Reformation comes to be looked on as a tragedy, then Protestants will have ceased to be the real spiritual heirs of the Reformers. To give ground on a point of history is, in effect, to concede to a new theology. There are many who do not appear to see that this is the case. But it must be so. To recover out of the present state of decline, therefore, means that Protestants must go back to the older view of history which looked at the Reformation as a return from darkness to light. Post tenebras lux is more than a slogan. It is an interpretation of providence. Indeed, it implies a vital creed.

To be continued.

Sam Drucker

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