The question of thinking like a Christian is an important topic and one close to my heart. We discuss this very question each fall in the Historical Theology orientation course. We read and discuss a roundtable discussion published some years ago in Christianity Today in which several leading evangelical historians and scholars considered the question of whether we can interpret the providence of God in history and whether there is a distinctly “Christian” way of doing history.
In seminary I was taught that there is a distinctively Christian way of viewing everything. In a sense I suppose that’s true but here’s how my mind has changed on this issue. There is no question whether Christ is Lord of everything. The Apostle John teaches that nothing came into being except that which came into being through the Word. Jesus is the Word. As Creator he is Lord of all. The question that remains, however, is how he is Lord of all.
We often assume that he exercises his Lordship in precisely the same way in every sphere of life. This is an assumption that should be challenged. There is good biblical evidence to suggest that we are to understand that Christ administers his sovereign Lordship in distinct ways in different spheres or kingdoms. For example, he has made promises to the visible, institutional church that he has not made to the civil kingdom. He has not promised “Lo I will be with you alway” to any visible political entity, but he has made that promise to the visible church.
Thus, it is helpful to the distinguish the way he operates in creation (nature) and providence from the way he operates in grace and redemption. We confess that he sovereignly upholds and governs all things, as it were, by his hand. Nothing comes to pass except by his sovereign decree and will. When we reckon with the providence of God relative to creation and common life, however, we must see that Christians and non-Christians experience the same sorts of providences. Christians are not exempt from floods or cancer or the common blessings that attend human life. As Christians we understand these things differently. We understand that they are not the product of blind chance or fate. They are not random.
The Christian explanation of the ultimate meaning of an event in providence and history is different than the non-Christian explanation of the ultimate meaning of an event. We interpret everything that happens as evidence of his sovereign control of all things. The non-Christian may interpret everything that happens as evidence that the world is ultimately random, chaotic, and meaningless.
When it comes to analyzing proximate issues, however, I don’t see that Christians have a great advantage over non-Christians. When the flood waters hit New Orleans, Christians couldn’t say, “Aha, this means that God is displeased with New Orleans, therefore he sent a great flood.” Jesus warns us against this very thing in John 9. We don’t know exactly why God sent or allowed the flood in New Orleans. We don’t know, as Christians, any more than non-Christians about the physical reasons for the flood either. Christians know that the flood was included in his decree and providence and that he has his good and perfect reasons for all he does, but now we’re back to ultimate questions not penultimate.
So, yes, we must think “Christianly” about the ultimate meaning of providential events, but I have lost confidence that I know what it means to think “Christianly” about the proximate meaning of historical events. I doubt that there is a distinctly “Christian” interpretation of the Thirty-Years War. There are interpretations that account for the facts more completely than other interpretations but I don’t see how Christians can claim unique or special insight into the political, economic, social, and theological (proximate) causes of the Thirty-Years War.
Does this mean that I’m “privatizing” the faith? No. Our faith confesses that the same God who redeemed us has also revealed himself to everyone, in all times and places (Rom 2) in nature, in creation so that in public discourse, on proximate issues, I can and should appeal to the existence of “nature.”
I don’t think the resurrection, however, has great public policy implications or even implications for how we do science. That wasn’t the point of any of the great redemptive miracles. Nevertheless, as Christians we should insist that the resurrection is a public, historical fact and it should be preached as such. Paul appealed to it in his defense of the faith at Mars Hill, but he didn’t claim that he had peculiarly Christian insights into art or sculpture (other than to imply that idolatry is sin!) or as to exactly how the resurrection worked. He only claimed that it had happened . Was Paul guilty of privatizing the faith at Mars Hill? No, he was distinguishing two kingdoms. As an Apostle, he was representing the kingdom of God. Doubtless he had opinions about the best way to make tents. I’m sure he had preferred fabrics and techniques but did he claim the warrant of the faith for those opinions? I doubt it. This is the sort of leveraging of common, creational questions to which I object and to which non-Christians rightly object. Why should they listen to our proclamation about the resurrection if we use the same language about common, creational, even cultural issues? How can they tell the difference if we don’t bother to make a distinction? We don’t need “redemption” as a category to oppose abortion and defend the right to life. We can do that on the basis of creation. We first encounter the doctrine of humans as image-bearers in creation, not redemption. Indeed, the modern refusal (in Barth and many evangelical and Reformed writers) to distinguish creation and redemption has led to a great deal of mischief in modern theology.
My eldest daughter and I were discussing this late last night. To return to Mars Hill, I was arguing that to the Epicureans (at Harvard; see Rusty Reno’s recent essay), who were skeptics, we have to preach the law, we have to preach the existence of created boundaries and limits and fixed truths. We live in an Epicurean age. Many late moderns (including many evangelicals) no longer believe that there is a “nature” of things to which we’re all obligated.
To the Stoics (right wing American moralists?) we must preach the gospel. They believed that they could find tranquility by bringing themselves into harmony with the nature of things. These people are in bondage to the law (stoicheia). They need to know that Christ has fulfilled the law and that there is redemption from the curse and futility (for sinners) of the law.
This isn’t privatization but neither is it an over-reaching attempt to make the grace something that it isn’t: a special charter for Christians and warrant to think that we have been given revelatory insight into the proximate meaning of matters common to all image-bearers. We haven’t. I agree heartily that the pietistic privatization of the faith was a huge mistake. I agree that, on some level, the faith speaks ot everything, but we need to distinguish clearly how that is and in what ways. If we’re to be heard by non-Christians in this suspicious age we must be very clear what we’re claiming and what we’re not claiming lest in our zeal to make the faith “relevant” to everything we ultimately and unintentionally make it irrelevant to anything.