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Wednesday, November 30, 2011


This is the second and final instalment of Maurice Robert's article in the August - September 1989 issue of the Banner of Truth Journal. I thought the second instalment would be much shorter than the first. Not so! Consequently, my observations/comments will have to appear over the coming weekend.


From what we have said, it follows that the way we interpret providence will determine the way we evaluate history, especially church history. And that, in turn, will determine the way we look at the great figures of church history and those who write about them.

It needs briefly to be said that providence and history are the same thing looked at from two different points of view. Both terms refer to the contents of God's eternal purpose or decree as that unfolds in this world. 'History' is the term we use to refer to the events of God's plan on earth when looked at from the standpoint of mankind. 'Providence' is the term we use when we are looking at the same thing from a theological point of view. Of course, many do not choose to accept that there is such a thing as providence. But that does not concern us here. Christians, at any rate, are committed to a belief in providence, which is just history, as God has ordained it and watches over it.

It is important to remember that a man cannot really understand history if he has no true concept of God's providence. It is true that he may be an expert in some details and therefore may be worthy of great respect for his erudition. But to be an authority in the details is not the same as to be competent to understand the overall significance of a period of history. An expert may, strange to say, 'miss the wood for the trees'.

One of the most remarkable examples of this is to be seen in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is justly regarded as an historical masterpiece. But as an overall explanation of the subject with which it deals, it is unsatisfactory. Gibbon attributes the fall of Rome to its abandonment of paganism and its conversion to Christianity! He was simply reiterating an old pagan view, advanced by such ancient enemies of the gospel as Celsus. Augustine long ago answered their case conclusively in the twenty-two books of his polemical work, The City of God. The pagan view had virtually disappeared till Gibbon revived it in late eighteenth-century England. It is a classic case of a timeless work of history marred by a false view of providence. In that case, there was no very great damage done to Christian faith. But in other cases, great damage can be done to men's faith.

Religious and philosophical assumptions always lie at the heart of the way men write history. This point is brought out very clearly in a helpful book by Dr David Bebbington of Stirling University, entitled Patterns in History. He shows that history has been viewed from various standpoints over the centuries. He mentions several of these views: the cyclical outlook of oriental writers; the traditional Christian view, which considers history to be a straight line; the idea of progress; the theory of historicism, and that of Marxism. Perhaps we today would need to include a further view, that of historical relativism. But the essential point which is made by Dr Bebbington's study is that there are not only the 'brute facts' of history. There is also the deeper question of how we understand and interpret those facts. If those who write about history do not have a biblical view of providence, they will scarcely be able to see the events they write about in their true light.

It is very interesting to evangelical Christians to note that historians who may not share their view of divine providence are nonetheless concerned about the interpretation of history. Sir Arnold Toynbee, for instance, in his monumental work A Study of History, speaks about 'metahistory'. He is evidently quoting from the historian, Christopher Dawson, who had earlier used the word, on an analogy with the familiar term metaphysics'. Toynbee explains the word in this way:

'Metahistory is concerned with the nature of history, the meaning of history and the cause and significance of historical change. It arises out of the study of history, and is akin to metaphysics and theology. The metahistorian seeks to integrate his study of reality in some higher dimension than that of human affairs as these present themselves to him phenomenally.'

At first sight it may not seem a very important matter how one interprets the events of the past or even of the present. But no one who takes the Christian faith seriously could adopt such an attitude of indifference to the providence of God and its meaning. It is the duty of the church to explain history. The Lord Jesus Christ laid it as a sin upon the Jewish leaders that they had failed to discern the voice of providence in their day: '0 ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?' [Matt. 16:3].

Events, especially events in which the hand of God is manifest, have a meaning which we ignore only to our loss or at our peril. Admittedly, there are vast areas of providence which we are not qualified to interpret. But that does not excuse men for their failure to interpret crucial periods of history, such as the life of Christ and the early church, correctly.

The question might well be asked, do we have a key in the Bible by which to interpret events in our day? We believe that we do. The great 'benchmark', so to speak, of modern church history is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles and its inspired account of what God did on and after the Day of Pentecost. In that narrative, along with the other apostolic writings of the New Testament, we have a golden key to the meaning of all subsequent events in the history of the church - and, to some extent, even of the world. The New Testament writings show us what real Christianity is, what the church should be, and therefore what we may confidently expect God to bless and to favour on earth.

Consequently, where, in history, we find that same doctrine taught and those same church ordinances practised, there we may be certain that we see the approval of God in his providence. Conversely, where, in history, we see serious departure from New Testament doctrine and practice, there we know we see God's wrath and curse. It seems impossible to escape from this view of the matter, if we grant the premise that the scriptures are the inerrant Word of God.

The application of the principle here stated drives us towards the conviction that the religion of the Middle Ages was a grave departure from God and that the Reformation was a glorious returning to God. So much is surely clear, whatever else in providence may not be clear. But to be convinced of that is essential and it is enough. It is enough to glorify God by and enough to be saved by, if we are brought in this way to believe in the Christ of the New Testament and of the Reformation.

It is precisely this interpretation of history, however, which is under attack in the western world in the twentieth century. The classic Protestant historians, whose names were once a household word in Christian circles, are now sometimes referred to, even by evangelicals, as biased and untrustworthy writers. This is the new Protestant judgment upon historians such as Knox, Calderwood, Wodrow and McCrie for Scotland, and Foxe, Burnet, D'Augibne and Wylie, who chronicled the events of the Protestant Reformation in England and on the continent of Europe.

The argument is used that a writer like John Knox, in his book The History of the Reformation in Scotland (and the same argument would apply equally to writers like him, some of whom we have named above), is guilty of prejudice. He identifies his own cause with the cause of God. What favours his cause is praised by him as the work of God and what hinders his cause is reported as that work of God's enemies. That, according to modern writers, is not good history. It is said to be too subjective a view of God's cause and it is thought to vitiate the canons of objectivity required in a reliable writer of history.

The objection sounds plausible enough. But it seems to us to leave the most crucial factor of all out of the reckoning. It fails to do justice to the New Testament scriptures. If that religion which the New Testament presents as the truth happens also to be the religion of Knox, then it is justifiable to identify it as the work of God, and its opponents as the enemies of God. The only way to invalidate this conclusion, surely, is to demonstrate that Knox's message and the message of the New Testament were not substantially the same. Knox believed that they were the same. Hence the explanation for his confidence.

The real reason why modern Protestants apologise for Knox's manner of writing history, we strongly suspect, is that they are no longer in sympathy with the theology which he held. It looks very much like being 'ashamed of the gospel' [Rom. 1:16], albeit in a sophisticated way.

There is a corollary to the claim made by early Protestants that the Reformation was a glorious work of God's providence. It is this, that God's blessing must be expected to rest on nations embracing the Reformation teachings and his displeasure to follow nations which turn from those teachings.

Whatever view one holds of the rights and wrongs of British Rule (and both were there) in the days when this country was in its prime, it cannot be denied that the collapse of our national power went hand in hand with the collapse of our Protestant religion. Sir Arnold Toynbee, to whom we have referred, lived to witness both the high water-mark of British power in 1897 and its decline by the year 1972, just seventy-five years later. The dates are significant in that they correspond closely with the decline of the British pulpit. This fact surely illustrates the proverb: 'Righteousness exalteth a nation; sin is a reproach to any people' [Prov. 14:24]. The curse has not come without a cause. Do we need to look any further afield for our metahistory of the period?


Generally speaking, it would appear to be true to say that the backsliding of Britain (and probably of America and some other Anglo Saxon countries belonging to the Protestant family) has taken place in two Stages. As a nation, we rejected the theology of the Reformation about the time of the First World War, and the morality of the Reformation at, or just after, the Second World War. The New Morality and the 'permissive society' appeared in the early 1960s at about the same time. Since then, there has been a marked shift downwards in this country. That is not to deny that there has been, more recently, a recovery of the Reformed faith. But the impact of this movement, intensely promising as it is, is as yet only very small. The point we make here is that society as a whole, and the church as a whole, has sunk Steadily further from righteousness and from God. And, until God sends upon us the blessing of true revival, we can only continue to sink still further.

Of the many contributory causes to this state of national decline, we may here mention just three. We believe one to be the secularisation of our national school system after the passing of the Education Acts of 1870 (England and Wales) and 1872 (Scotland). After the implementation of these Acts, our day schools, many of which had before been in the hands of the churches and had taught the catechisms as well as the Bible, steadily moved towards a position of religious 'neutrality'. After the two World Wars, the pace of secularisation became accelerated. This has meant, not simply that religious education in the traditional sense is now only haphazardly taught, but also that the content of the history syllabus has become chronically anaemic in its treatment of the great spiritual conflict which raged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

So far do some educators today resent the New History, as it is called, that a society or movement has been started with the name 'The Campaign for Real Education'! No doubt they are dissatisfied with the modem approach to teaching other subjects too. But the new approach to teaching history is singled out in their very first pamphlet as desperately in need of improvement and modification. 'The pursuit of truth has been replaced by what is called "the form of knowledge approach", which means in practice that pupils are encouraged to arrive at confident judgments.. .while being dismissive of "facts".... That, like so much else in the New History, is wilfully perverse'. So writes the author of this pamphlet on behalf of this new society, which has the support of MPs, members of the House of Lords and other academics.

A second more powerful and harmful influence upon our land has come from eminent literary men and women, especially in the period since the First World War. Today we have almost come to accept that eminent literary persons must be irreligious. There are, of course. notable exceptions, such as C. S. Lewis. But this appears to have been the main direction taken by men and women of letters in the past sixty years.

A notable assault on Christian standards of behaviour was made about the time of the First War by the Bloomsbury Group. This was a brilliant set of young Cambridge graduates, including Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and Bertrand Russell. They were later followed by D. H, Lawrence and others. These all had a profound influence on the country. The private morality of many of them was a shameless denial of earlier British standards of behaviour and morality. To read Michael Holroyd's biography of Strachey is to see how advanced practical ungodliness had become at that comparatively early date among some of our influential English intellectuals. It was a significant turning-point in the ethical history of this land in modern times. What we see today is not much more than the widespread adoption of their ideals and practices by persons of all sorts. But the lead was taken by these influential figures those many years ago.

The third factor which we may mention as a contributory cause of the present low ebb in our country is the rise of Roman Catholicism to a position of importance and influence unparalleled since the Reformation. This influence extends not only to many aspects of our national life but also to the life of churches and denominations. It is a sobering thought that many of the crucial discussions and heart searchings we face as Protestant churches in this country at this hour have something or other to do with our attitude to the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. That is so whether one belongs to a church which is Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist or of some other denomination. It is a subject which we could ponder for a long time. But the fact is there and it must surely strike us as significant.

Our subject required of us that we should attempt to interpret the providence of God in history. Is there any one great practical issue which such a survey draws particular attention to? We believe that there is. The most urgent question of all for the present-day churches, in our considered opinion, is this: Were the old Protestant historians and theologians right to regard the Roman Catholic Church as no true church and to identify the Papacy with the Antichrist? Let us remember
that they were, for the most part, men of profound erudition and spirituality - men such as Calvin, Owen, Turrettine, Edwards, Cunningham and Charles Hodge. Let us further bear in mind that they claimed that their view of Rome was drawn from Holy Scripture.

Our reason for singling out this one issue is easily stated The twentieth-century Protestant church clung, by and large, to the anti-papal clauses in its creed. The present-day churches have, by and large, discarded them. This change in attitude appears to have begun somewhere around the First World War. The way Protestant churches view union with Rome is going to be momentously important from now on.

If the Catholic Church is not the Antichrist of Scripture as the old Protestant writers affirmed it to be, then there is ultimately no reason in principle why our Protestant churches should not return and reunite - if not this century, at least at some time in the future. But if the Reformers were right, then union with Rome is apostasy.

Precisely how and why Protestantism in this century came to hold a more relaxed attitude to Catholicism is one of the most intriguing, not to say burning, questions raised by the subject we have looked at.

It would make a good theme for research. Indeed, it ought to compel the attention of every Protestant who takes seriously the events of this hour."

Comments in a few days.

Sam Drucker

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