This semester I am teaching a course called “Religion and the American Founding.” While the course is rooted in the discipline of history, it also includes a significant amount of theological discussion and debate. My students are history majors, but they are also Christians. In this class I have given them freedom to use their faith convictions to think about America’s longstanding belief in God’s providence.
Last week I asked my students if they might be willing to post some of their reflections about the seminar on this blog. The first such reflection comes from Melinda Maslin, a junior history major. Melinda reflects, using the Old Testament book of Job, on providence, Christianity, and the study of the past. I appreciate the way she, as a woman of Christian faith, displays a sense of humility about what we can really “know” about God.
Can we see God working through history to prove that America was founded as a Christian nation?
By Melinda Maslin
I am an aspiring history teacher and the question of providential history has important implications for my future studies. I have learned by looking at primary sources that it is difficult to judge things providentially. For example, during the Revolutionary War, each side believed they were in the right. Whether God providentially supported the colonies, I cannot say. The Bible says “the kings of the world belong to God” (Psalms 47:9). No kingdom will rise or fall without His knowledge. However, this does not necessarily mean God had a plan for America, though He very well might have.
Looking back through history and claiming God’s providence when we cannot know for sure what God was doing seems to be putting ourselves in the place of those who were divinely inspired to write the Scriptures. The Bible essentially tells the story of God’s providence in the world. But if there is any one thing we can take from the Bible, it is that God’s actions cannot be easily understood by human beings. I can see through people’s actions that God was active in their lives, but I do not know to what extent He planned the events in our history. It is easy to see from Biblical examples that bad things happen to good people. God allowed noble Job to lose everything, he gave the nation of Israel over to the Romans, and early Christians were killed in gladiator rings. The most extreme example was Jesus, who was crucified at the hands of his own people.
The “good” side does not always win, so to look at history and point to God as being on the winner’s side goes completely against Biblical teaching. If one looks closely at America’s history, they will see that good people, as well as corrupt people, helped to found America. God certainly does not condone the actions of slave masters, exploitive factory owners, those who used Manifest Destiny at the expense of Native Americans, and KKK members, to name a few. In the book of Job, God does not explain his actions to Job. Instead, he humbles Job by proclaiming His greatness and exclaiming the incomprehensibility of His actions for human beings. We can take a lot from this passage of Scripture. Though we are made in the image of God, we are imperfect beings with very limited knowledge. We cannot know or understand what God’s actions have been in the past, save for what we read in the Bible. Claiming to know what God is doing, or has done, seems to assume that we can easily understand God.
We can know and understand what we read in the Bible about history, but we cannot make conclusions about God’s actions in our contemporary world. The Old Testament is full of stories that show how hard God’s actions are to understand, even when explained. God is definitely a God of action and is present in history. But as finite, not all knowing human beings, we cannot claim to understand what God has been doing. One thing we can know for sure, God will have justice in the end and the Scriptures will be fulfilled. But it is dangerous to prophecy about things that may or may not be happening. In Job, God rebukes him for speaking “words without knowledge” after Job questions God’s actions. We must be careful to not do the same thing as Job and those who claimed to know why he was being punished.