Can Christians discern God’s will through history? Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, an Anglican, said no, while his contemporary, Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield, a Methodist who wrote about providence, said yes. I agree with the latter. It is important for Christians to have confidence that God superintends and reveals Himself through human events. Secular ideologies and other religions offer their own historical narrative, past, present, and future. Christians should offer their unique historical interpretation, with hope and confidence, mediated by modesty and discernment.
Lewis wrote an essay, “Historicism,” in 1950 in which he rejected any philosophy of history, whether secular as through Hegel and Marx, or as a providentialist, such as Augustine and Dante. Of course, Lewis admitted that history is a “story written by the finger of God,” but he said mortals have too little information and insight to interpret how God works through history.
Rightly, Lewis chided historicists who confidently claim to know the “hidden meaning” of history through their own insights. They extract metaphysical or theological purpose from history to advance their own agenda. Lewis especially criticized claims of divine judgment in history, which he thought more pagan than Hebraic. The Hebrews warned that suffering could result from other reasons, Lewis noted. And Jesus was tormented although innocent. But Lewis warned that even the pagans avoided deifying history itself. He admitted that Christians see forward purpose in history, unlike the ancient Greeks, who saw history as cyclical. But Lewis recalled the Romans and other pagans also saw purpose in historical movement.
Lewis saw Augustine as a Christian historicist who rebutted pagan historicism, but in so doing had chosen ground “chosen by the enemy.” Christians might align with historicists by granting that all events occur by divine will or at least permission. But Lewis disputed that humans have sufficient information for constructive interpretation. For Lewis, history is a perspective, not a revelation. No total history is available from which to offer definitive conclusion. And nobody ever knows where he or she is standing in relation to the unfolding story, whether the start, the middle, or towards the end. Lewis saw history as too fragmentary, too often based on shards of parchment and pottery. We rely on past historians whose perspective was not necessarily God’s and who focus on “great” people when God might have more powerfully used unknown people.
Not only do we have too little data for grand historical interpretations, but the presumption feeds megalomaniacs like Mussolini, with countless others, Lewis warned, who believe history has uniquely deployed them, when actually their motivation is ego. In the wake of World War II and totalitarianism, Lewis understandably was weary of grand claims about history. Lewis admitted there are certain great events, such as the early creeds, that reveal God’s hand plainly, at least to the extent we can bear. More plausibly, Christians can discern God’s will through every moment they personally live, which they experience firsthand. Lewis asked: “Where, except in the present, can the Eternal be met?” These lived moments are far better understood than the fragments of fragments that randomly survived from the past, he concluded.
Butterfield had a more robust confidence in seeing God through history than did Lewis’s fragments of fragments. In his 1958 essay “God in History,” Butterfield complained that the idea of an “absentee God,” even “outside history itself,” has damaged religion. If God is not active in history, then humans cannot have “very real relationships with him.” Butterfield insisted:
Nothing is more important for the cause of religion at the present day than that we should recover the sense and consciousness of the Providence of God–a providence that acts not merely by a species of remote control but as a living thing, operating in all the details of life–working at every moment, visible in every event. Without this you cannot have any serious religion, any real walking with God, any genuine prayer, any authentic fervour and faith.
Butterfield warned that the claims of science had made God seem remote. But St Paul told Athens that God “is not far from every one of us.” Consequently “all Nature and History lie in the providence of God.” Butterfield suggested that historical events can be understood three ways that are not contradictory: persons make free choices, persons are subject to historical forces, and God wills or works through events. Providence bestows free will, Providence creates a world with “regularities and laws,” continuing his work of creation. So too was Providence at work in the downfall of Nazism, and in judgments on the British Empire for its sins, and in the prosperity of the United States, Butterfield wrote. So we must ask: “What sins did we commit as a nation to merit this response from God and from history?”
For Butterfield, there are “only two alternative views about life or about history…. Either you trace everything back in the long run to sheer blind Chance, or you trace everything to God.” He insisted Christians must affirm free will in history and also the limits of circumstances and historical forces upon all people, which entails holding people responsible for their choices but also sympathizing with their predicament. These free choices by persons and the wider forces than constrain them are both under Providence.
Butterfield suggested persons reflect on how God works through individual lives and “then expand this onto the scale of the nation…to the scale of mankind.” Some people consider their sufferings a chastisement from God, a preparation by Him, or a testing. This view can expand onto “national misfortunes,” thereby “adopting the biblical interpretation of history.” Butterfield recalled that the ancient Hebrews, as a small nation surrounded by empires, suffered more than others. But their interpretation of that suffering as from God was their “chief contribution to the development of civilization.”
Just as the ancient Hebrews interpreted history through the promise of God’s redemption, Butterfield said, so Christians must “regard history as based finally on the Promise–it is never permittee to a Christian to despair of Providence.” The Hebrews saw divine judgment everywhere but never saw it as canceling His Promise. “If God judged the nation it was only in order to save it,” Butterfield noted, “for God is Love and it is always dangerous to think of the power of God without also thinking of his love.” The Hebrews’ “anguish and defeat” was their greatest legacy. Their greatest prophets understood that Israel’s losses and redemption were part of its mission to reveal God to the world, Butterfield observed. “For the greatest triumph of spirt over matter is when people can turn even their defeats and distresses into a creative moment…”
God’s judgements through disaster, as the ancient Hebrews understood, perhaps is the “only way in which on occasion the world in general can be induced to rise higher,” Butterfield concluded, citing the Jewish exiles, Rome’s collapse, and the Norman Conquest of England. “We must imagine Providence as doing the best that the willfulness of men allows it to do. For all of us History is the Promise and we need never despair–but it is a Promise punctuated by acts of Judgement.”
Presumably C.S. Lewis, if he read Butterfield, thought his stress on discerning God’s judgment and Promise through world events, past and present, presumptuous nonsense. Lewis was certainly right to warn against sweeping claims to know God’s will in the unfolding events of humanity. But Butterfield is right that to keep God out of this story is to minimize Him and ultimately to reduce our reliance on Him. Lewis stressed knowing God as we live individually moment by moment. Butterfield almost certainly would join Lewis in warning against dogmatic historical interpretations. But to avoid all attempt at interpretation is almost to deny altogether the power of Divine Providence over the world.
Lewis was a storyteller who experienced a profound Christian conversion that led him to Christian apologetics, whose impact on the devotional lives of millions of people has been profound. Butterfield was arguably less personally devout than Lewis, having not recorded a dramatic conversion. He abandoned Methodist lay preaching while still young, perhaps influenced by his marital infidelity. But unlike Lewis, Butterfield was a brilliant historian who saw Providence alive in the fragments of the past. Butterfield did not offer us Christian apologetics, but he did offer a Christian understanding of history far more appealing than Lewis’s dismissal of the project.
(These essays by Lewis and Butterfield can be found here.)