Week 2 – Bible and History

In the second week we think more about the prophets – Why? Because they were trying to see where God was in the world, and what God was calling people to do. How is God at work in history? What is judgement, and is God merciful? What about other people?

As people deep in prayer they were given insights, pictures, understanding including glimpses of what God would do in the future. For the God of then had a plan for the ‘then’ and the future, to bring in his Kingdom, on the Day of the Lord.

And we too live in the real world of ‘now’ but have faith in and hope for the Kingdom which is to come, not as passive spectators, but active in the world today.

Wednesday 2.3 –  God of History / God in History

This may get a bit nerdy, but please bear with me.

In a famous book, ‘Christ and Culture’, Richard Niebuhr explored how God is perceived in culture.

He explored a number of ways in which theologians have explained the presence of God in the various cultures.

Two extreme approaches are

1) God is found in all cultures, and all cultures offer a way to God – after all, God has made us this way hasn’t he?

2) God is counter to all cultures – cultures are human constructs, and however good they might be, God calls us all to turn and come to Christ. Salvation requires us to turn and change, from the kingdoms of the earth to seek the Kingdom of Heaven.

A middle ground suggests that there is good in all cultures and there are things that were not / are not good. In the good we can be drawn towards God, and in confronting the bad, we are exercised by the desire for God’s justice. Even the good cannot be embraced completely and even in the bad, we can see something of who God is, possibly because it is absent. Christ is in but beyond culture.

At the moment we have big and troubled arguments about the legacy of slavery and Empire, about memory and what should be remembered and how. Should we remember and keep statues to those “great” leaders of the past, like Francis Drake, or the cotton barons of Manchester, when Drake was involved in slave-trading and so many of the cotton firms either expropriated labour, and / or got involved in selling opium. Our “heroes” are not perfect, some did good things and bad, or used ill-earned wealth for philanthropy ..

We can immediately see that how we tell our history is particular and is incomplete. The narratives in the Old Testament and even the Gospel narratives are not pure history, but they are seeking to place God in history and to give some indication of how God views human or national actions, and how we should live therefore.

In the Books of Samuel and Kings, David is portrayed as complex, with many faults. In the later account that we find in Chronicles, David is much more the ideal King. Written later, they look back and describe what a real King should be, a bit like we might idolise Alfred the Great or even King Arthur. It shows us what should be, what we long for.

Was it God’s will that such and such happened, or did God ensure the election of Donald Trump, or the fall of the Berlin Wall? There is a strand which says God made Pharaoh stubborn, or raised up Gideon, or appointed and anointed David to be King, and chose Cyrus to change the policy of the Persian Empire. What God permits, allows, or does not prevent, is not the same as what God desires or would hope societies would do.

What is fairly consistent throughout the Scriptures is that God wants justice in this world, that he cares for this world, though in many ways, God does not get obviously involved; and also that there will be a time when history becomes God’s new world, with a radical new life, free from the tears and pain and suffering, the evil and its effects; St Paul says that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”.

Life can only be understood backwards,

but it must be lived forwards’

This is a quote from the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. We can look back and see where the hand of God or finger of God may have prompted or guided, though we seldom see it at the time.

We do not opt out of living and being involved. Dag Hammarskjöld, the former head of the UN, a committed Christian and world politician said: 

In our age, the road to holiness necessarily

passes through the world of action

The medieval mystic Teresa of Avila said:

Christ has no body now but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands

through which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours. The symphony has a crescendo where God, in Christ is fully “in” history, but as the ‘crucified God’ not the crusading God, as servant, not King. Maybe that says everything about how to discern God in the world.