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Brad S. Gregory

The Lord Shall Judge

Providence reconsidered.

A common narrative of the history of Western historical writing runs something like this: pre-modern chroniclers interpreted events through a biblical lens in which a providential God acted in history. They saw the world as God's creation, events as his judgments on nations and individuals prior to an eventual Last Judgment, when the risen Christ would return to separate sheep from goats forever (Matt. 25:31-46). Then in the Enlightenment, chastened by religious wars and cosmopolitanized by discoveries of new continents and new peoples, progressive Westerners embraced reason and science. They rejected the traditional Christian view of history as culturally conditioned, superstitious mythology. The modern, scholarly discipline of history that emerged in the 19th century presupposes this rejection. Claims of divine providence and divine judgment are at a minimum empirically unverifiable, if not also naive, irresponsible, and dangerous. Therefore modern historians who are also Christians must work according to critical, disciplinary canons that include writing as if they were deists or atheists, even if they believe that God acts in history. This expectation dovetails with the American constitutional separation of church and state, the idea that religion is a personal, private, subjective affair, and the de facto secularism of the academy. After all, how could the claim that God acts in history be argued seriously among professional historians?

It is Steven Keillor's objective to do just that. His book will not convince everyone, but only a closed-minded dogmatist could dismiss it tout court. Gauging his likely audience as evangelicals, Keillor writes that "[s]ecularists of the left, center and right are very unlikely to read this book." This might well be true; if so, it would be a pity. Keillor's book is so original, so radically subversive of widespread and mostly unquestioned intellectual assumptions in the secular academy, and yet so carefully written and trenchantly argued, that it might shake up and broaden the discourse of graduate seminars in American history at our universities. It is at once a bold argument about the interpretation of major events in American history, a contribution to Christian theology as chiefly an understanding of history rather than a quasi-philosophical worldview, and a penetrating analysis of the current political, social, and cultural situation in the United States.

Those of us skeptical of Keillor's aim need not accept his premises in order to see the force of his arguments. His claim that the Bible offers a divinely revealed understanding of history can be tested (albeit never proved) by its analytical power in interpreting major historical events. Keillor seeks "to correlate known causes of the event with known categories of divine holiness and judgment" as disclosed in Scripture, well aware that such interpretations can be perilous and are often abused:

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.

In short: if God's purposes are such and such, then certain events are plausibly understood as his judgments in the flow of human history.

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.

The ancient Hebrew idea of mishpat, a gradual, long-term "sifting-out" by an all-holy God as the one who saves and judges sinful human beings within his creation, provides Keillor with his key hermeneutic tool. Unlike modern conceptions in which divine action and natural causality are assumed to be mutually exclusive, Keillor follows Scripture and traditional Christianity in seeing God's action in and through ordinary historical processes; without making it explicit, Keillor seems to operate with a Thomistic framework of divine causality, at one point stating that "Visible means and observable (secondary) causes do not remove an invisible actor." In Jesus mishpat was not superseded but rather denationalized and concentrated: he became its focal agent as the Son of Man, "very God descending to a criminal's cross and ascending to God's right hand as Lord of the universe," a sinless servant atoning for the sins of humanity. 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. Although Scripture does not explain exactly how the risen Christ exercises his power in history prior to his "curtain-dropping" Last Judgment on the nations, "[w]idespread acceptance of the gospel can contribute to peace and order in a society and thus slow the pace of history (major, tragic events)." Conversely, sinful rejection of the gospel on a large scale invites divine retribution, as God "uses historical events to punish collective, national evil."

This framework can be tested by its ability to make sense of major events in American history. Clearly unafraid of controversy, Keillor opens his book by inquiring whether the terrorist bombings of 9/11 might be understood in this way. He first considers secular and Christian reactions to 9/11 across a wide spectrum, showing how particular commitments yielded predictable readings, from Susan Sontag to Jerry Falwell. As a hedge against bias, Keillor's method is to identify overlap between "major actions or features of the United States and the West that anger radical Islamists the most and then to see if any might also anger a holy God." After patiently considering multiple possibilities, he concludes with a "cautious, cause-restricted interpretation of September 11 as possibly God's judgment on us for our materialism, our cultural exports seducing others into immorality and our use of terroristic guerrilla units against the Soviets" in the 1980s in Afghanistan. Turning to the 19th century, Keillor shows how the British invasion of Washington in 1814 might be seen as God's judgment against a self-satisfied, deistic political elite out of touch with its citizenry, many of whom were beginning to embrace the gospel in the Second Great Awakening. Vastly more cataclysmic was the Civil War, which Keillor—like Lincoln in his second inaugural address, but in great detail—interprets as the culmination of God's punishing mishpat on the nation for its failure to end slavery before the advent of Whitney's cotton gin made the peculiar institution integral to the southern economy and hence to the nation's politics. All three cases are developed with a professional historian's judicious combination of evidence and interpretation. All three cases carefully delineate pervasive, sinful human behavior when judged according to the gospel.

Keillor is no less trenchant as a social critic than as a historian. He considers the prospects of human genetic engineering in light of his paradigm, as well as the complex relationships among legalized abortion, the polarization of national politics, and the burgeoning national debt over the past three decades. Moreover, running throughout his book is a penetrating critique of philosophy-based "worldview thinking" among evangelicals.

A book as ambitious as God's Judgment is bound to have some problems. Keillor's conclusions are certain to provoke Christians and secularists across the board. This suggests that he is not following his own political agenda, but rather what he indeed regards as "the scriptural view" regarding God's actions and judgments in history. But is it "the scriptural view" in fact? In an important sense, his entire scheme turns on this. Leaving aside specific exegetical and theological objections that might be made, the prima facie case against Keillor's claim seems significant. Were Scripture really as perspicuous as he seems to imply, one suspects that many more earnest, serious Christians would already know "the scriptural view," rendering Keillor's book passe rather than remarkable. Western Christians who rejected the Roman church were exegetically and therefore doctrinally and therefore ecclesially divided among themselves already in the 1520s and have been so ever since; Keillor's distinction between "the church" and "denominations" seems an ecclesiological slight of hand when the latter were (and in many cases remain) the social expression of incompatible views of Scripture. (It is unclear from start to finish what Keillor means by "the church.") Throughout his book Keillor argues with contemporary Christian writers, many of them evangelicals, who have arrived at different readings of Scripture. Indeed, by Keillor's reckoning the vast majority of evangelicals seem to have been seduced by "worldview thinking" in ways that contravene God's Word. Are they really all mistaken, and he alone correct? If so, how clear can Scripture be in the first place?

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.

Keillor might well concur with these points, emphasizing that his aim is to "find some answers" and "not a worldview answering everything." God acts according to his own plan and timetable, his ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8), and we cannot predict how the calculus of divine mercy and justice will play out in the exercise of God's judgments in history. But if this is so, it at least restricts, seems to dilute, and perhaps even undermines Keillor's scheme. Christians acquainted with the human past and present the world over might well argue that notwithstanding the numbers of those who believe in Christ, there is always more than enough human sin in a given nation to warrant God's judgment (else we are falsely presumptuous), just as there is always more than enough divine mercy to forestall it (else we falsely limit God's infinite mercy). There remains a mysterious core to God's providence, whatever the seeming intelligibility of his mishpat. However impressive Keillor's framework may be for establishing a plausible fit between a given scriptural view and certain historical events, it is not a scheme for categorizing all major, tragic events, or for predicting the actions or inferring the favor of the God for whom "one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Pet. 3:8).

Human realities and their complexities guarantee that God's actions in the world will remain always in part mysterious and hidden. Keillor's accomplishment in God's Judgments is to have shown that we should not leave it at that. His book is rare in its potential to rouse multiple dozing audiences from their respective dogmatic slumbers. It should be read, pondered, and debated—not only by evangelicals and other Christians but also by secularists, not only by theologians but also by historians and social critics.

Brad S. Gregory is Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.

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