Interpreting the Bible

Tommie Kidd and Gerald McDermott try to salvage providential history. Of course, such an exercise is dangerous:

Over-readings of God’s providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards’ kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45’s statement that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them.

But we lose something without it:

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God’s economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God’s sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation’s suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

We didn’t already have those assertions from simply reading the Bible? And if we read the Bible and cogitated on its status as God’s word, we might notice that God is the one who interprets history, which is what happens in the pages of Holy Writ — something happens, and we learn its meaning from the apostles and prophets. When things happen and God doesn’t interpret, why would we ever think we have the capacity to fill the void?

Even so, Kidd will not relent:

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God’s historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous “credit default swaps.” At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Well, knowing that you reap what you sow is something that farmers understand without the aid of providential history. The challenge for arguments like Kidd’s is the dark side of providential history (and the fall more generally). If God let the nation reap what the banks had sown, isn’t it also the case that God let the banks sow?

Are providentialists really up to tackling the problem of evil? I don’t think so.

6 thoughts on “Interpreting the Bible

  1. Why are people always so set on discovering God’s purpose in everything, and so confident when we think we have? Contentment, anyone?


  2. So much great stuff here DG. Especially the review over at OPC.

    It’s a little funny that Kidd cites Lincoln’s providential reading of the Civil War. Are you allowed to providentially interpret events that you bring about? Could Bernanke have said the bailout was grace (or judgment depending your economic stripe)?

    It also begs the question how big does some event have to be to warrant an interpretation? To tie it all together, could I tell my roommate when he runs out of toilet paper that it’s God’s judgment even though I neglected to put on a new roll?


  3. Dr. Renihan’s favorite example of how problematic the providential reading of history is, is the Great Fire of London (1666). Protestants said it was God’s judgement on them for not dealing with Roman Catholics and Roman Catholics claimed the same for opposite reasons.


  4. DG: Well, knowing that you reap what you sow is something that farmers understand without the aid of providential history.

    Don’t you love the Lord way to uses these things to explain and illustrate to us. I do.
    As Charles Stanley says: We reap what we sow, more than we sow, and later than we sow. A farmer understands this. He also knows he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully (2 Cor 9:6); and that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24), and etc. on what a farmer knows.

    sorry for the somewhat-digress, appreciate the post – also love the book of Job and the Lord’s soliquy -chapters 38- 41…then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind….


  5. George Eliot describing an old school preacher— Let him be ardent and imaginative on the coming advent of Christ, but cold and cautious toward every other infringement of the status quo. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on those who regularly attend the means of grace, let him use his spiritualizing alembic…Pleasant to the clerical flesh under such circumstances is the arrival of Sunday! Somewhat at a disadvantage during the week, in the presence of working-day interests , on Sunday the preacher becomes the cynosure of a thousand eyes, and predominates at once over those with whom he dines.He has an immense advantage over all other public speakers. The platform orator is subject to the criticism of hisses and groans. Counsel for the plaintiff expects the retort of counsel for the defendant. The honorable gentleman on one side of the House is liable to have his facts and figures shown up by his honorable friend on the opposite side. Even the scientific or literary lecturer, if he is dull or incompetent, may see the best part of his audience quietly slip out one by one. But the preacher is completely master of the situation: no one may hiss, no one may depart.

    Like the writer of imaginary conversations, he may put what imbecilities he pleases into the mouths of his antagonists, and swell with triumph when he has refuted them. He may riot in gratuitous assertions, confident that no man will contradict him; he may invent illustrative experience; he may give an evangelical edition of history with the inconvenient facts omitted:–all this he may do with impunity, certain that those of his hearers who are not sympathizing are not listening…. We feel ourselves in company with a voluble retail talker, whose language is exuberant but not exact, and to whom we should never think of referring for precise information or for well-digested thought. ”

    Theodore D. Bozeman, “Inductive and Deductive Polities”, 1977— Old School contributions to social analysis may be viewed as a sustained attempt to defend the inherited social structure…The General Assembly found it necessary to lament the practice of those who ‘question and unsettle practice which have received the enlightened sanction of centuries’… Social naturalists assumed that the laws of society were not merely true, that is, given in the scheme of nature. They bore too the humbling force of prescription; they demanded compliance. The desire was to draw the ought out of the is…to make facts serve a normative purpose.”


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