God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith

Stephen Keillor IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL January 24, 2007
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A formidable thesis, not provable, but plausible, that God currently acts in judgment—a sifting-out activity—against the nations who violate His commandments, is presented by historian Keillor, adjunct professor at Bethel University (St. Paul) and a fellow of the MacLaurin Institute. This work begins with the backdrop of September 11, 2001, and evangelical hesitance (except for media evangelists) in pronouncing God’s judgments on America too rapidly (chap. 1). The author attributes this reticence to what he calls worldview thinking, “better suited to the predictable regularities of science or to our intentional choices than to unique, unpredictable events” (p. 15), a view grounded in philosophy rather than the New Testament. The Hebrew word for judgment, fP;v]mi (“sifting out”), “is not only a final, curtain-dropping event but also a lengthy process with God as an active investigator testing people’s hearts, giving the wicked a chance to repent and the righteous to fall away” (p. 17). “God gives governments the sword, but he holds them accountable for their use of it” (p. 59).

The chapter-long complaint that worldview thinking is agnostic on God’s judgments in history (chap. 3) is simply not integral to his argument. It is not worldview thinking as such, but a kind of worldview thinking that wears secular, cultural lenses at which he should take aim. Indeed, he does it, but the unfortunate lumping of it all under the same rubric supposes that he does not wear any such lens. The critical issue is which worldview is biblically justifiable. He admits that “to be fair, some thinkers merely use worldview to mean that every one starts with presuppositions” (p. 51), and that psycho-mental reality is what the author cannot deny.

Keillor’s strongest hermeneutical work comes in his discussion of God’s judgments in the Old Testament. Arguing from the Old Testament prophetic oracles against the nations, he states that “God is not afraid of revealing himself as a God who uses historical events to punish collective, national evil” (p. 71). God’s judgment works in the present processes of history. He notes that “this does not mean that all calamities in history are God’s judgments on particular sins, much less that God always reveals to us the reasons for them” (p. 72).

His work on the New Testament treatment of national judgment is more tenuous. He presents arguments from silence, that Jesus’ “remarks [in Luke 4:18–19 and 10:10–14] addressed the specific historical situation and did not announce a new philosophy that God no longer personally, actually judges evil” (p. 77). He denies “that the New Testament reverses or makes obsolete the Old Testament teaching about God judging the nations” (p. 83). And of course “the apostles issued no OAN [oracle against the nations]” (p. 84). The discussion about whether an Old Testament position is still in place unless renounced or repeated in the New Testament applies here. The alternate position, of course, is that God’s common grace sustains all nations—a nonsalvific benefit of the Atonement—since all retributive judgment was poured out on Jesus on the cross. That changes the world’s enmity status before God (Col. 1:20). Such an understanding should keep Christians from hastily generalizing or jumping to conclusions by connecting horrific events to God’s judgment. Also the Cross keeps God from being immediately vindictive toward human sin; otherwise no nation (including America) would presently exist. The New Testament removes the sharp edge from the more difficult and more easily arguable connections between the Old Testament and God’s judgment on noncovenantal nations. In the New Testament all seemingly retributive judgment would become potentially redemptive to the nonbeliever and rehabilitative to the believer. Salvation is available to all who put their trust in Jesus Christ. Perhaps the only clear and absolute version of eventual retributive judgment on nations in the New Testament comes from a “rejection of a gospel far superior to the limited light Israel had offered to the Gentiles” (p. 86).

The theological prowess of the author shines in his treatment of “History’s Meaning: The Son of Man in His Descent, Ascent and Return” (chap. 6). “For a judge to be sentenced, for a ruler to be mocked as powerless, is especially humiliating. For a rightful judge and ruler to submit to it out of obedience to his Father and love to us is glorious” (p. 93). Today His followers proclaim judgment and salvation and warn that the Son of Man will judge the nations at His return.

The next three chapters on historical events of national proportion—the Burning of Washington in 1814 and the Civil War as “God’s judgment for slavery” (two chapters), carry an interpretive tone that is more tentative in connecting moral cause with consequence. For example “Does that mean that the burning of Washington was God’s judgment on this elite? This case is harder to assess than September 11 in many ways. We have a long-term cause—elite disdain for Christian faith—that could provoke God’s judgment” (p. 117). Or throughout the Civil War “Christians warned of God’s judgment in our narrow sense of final, negative consequences, but the entire process was God’s mishpat [‘judgment’]. One caveat is that the sifting out was not to save one good group and judge the bad one—the entire nation was judged” (p. 122). “If you assume [God] does not act in history, then how did such a deeply entrenched, profitable institution end, when there was no other actor powerful enough to end it and willing to end it?” (p. 133). Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address strongly implied that God caused the war, though both pro- and anti-slavery parties tried to avoid it. Slavery was “somehow, the cause of the war . . . a deadly war far more protracted than expected” (p. 153).

Moving into political discourse Keillor perceptively treats why Lincoln’s biblical language of judgment has become incomprehensible today (chap. 10). Keillor squarely attributes this blindness to five factors: (1) the rise of democracy as an ideology. Employing Koyzis’s distinction, a democracy as structure (rules for voting, campaigning, and legislating) has turned into a democracy of creed—where the voice of the people has literally and idolatrously become the voice of God; (2) the dilution and drift of judgment-talk brought about by church-state separation and denominationalism; (3) the enhancing of human agency and the minimizing of divine agency in mastering the affairs of existence by science, technology, and the market economy; (4) the therapeutic worldview of popular psychology buttressed by academic research; and (5) a loud silence by evangelical apologetics, which identifies the opponent’s incoherence rather than presenting God’s judgment. This reviewer agrees that the judgment of God should never be taken “off the table as an unknowable concept” (p. 17). However, a cleaner distinction between man-made and natural disasters, with natural disasters discriminating between the ordinary faithful and the arrogant elite, would have been more convincing. That precise sifting between the sheep and goats yet awaits Christ’s coming.

The ethical dimension of “fate-effecting deeds” is nowhere more applicable in the contemporary world than in human re-engineering schemes (chap. 11). The author draws from his hermeneutical, theological, and political studies to provide an ethical critique in the ominous scientific rede-sign of human beings. “Scientific prestige, enormous profits, and military applications create strong motives to add to the long-standing modern motive of using science to escape the biblical narrative once for all” and to defeat “the biblical view of humanity for good” (p. 175). He concedes some key strengths to this worldview, but he warns the church against minimizing the concept of judgment in worldview argumentation. “Presenting Christianity as one worldview among many may be justified in certain contexts, for limited occasions” (p. 185), but believers ought not surrender the truth of Jesus’ triumph as the foundation for the objective moral order.

Chapter 12 addresses the present generation’s impending crisis—its inability to warn of judgment in public. The moral bankruptcy and fiscal bankruptcy of the United States are connected with both major political parties, who are blameworthy for their own priorities and practices.

The author concludes that September 11, 2001, “forces us to choose either to humble ourselves under God’s hand or to exalt ourselves by denying God could be judging us” (p. 200). Believers should offer the present generation  “not an impersonal but [an] objective worldview or a personal but relativistic reading but a trustworthy Savior from judgment. Of course, we shall not deny the objective, fixed judgment yet to come upon all systems and structures, nations and governments that comprise the history and geography of the human race” (pp. 203–4).

Christians ought to retain a strong subjunctive mood in connecting judgment based on unrighteous behavior (a theological fatalism) so that they do not directly and immediately attribute noncovenantal national prosperity to the behavior of the righteous.

Only in eternity will believers fully understand circumstantial conditions and connections. God’s servants may warn nations of divine judgment before but not after difficult national situations.

—Ramesh P. Richard

January 1, 2010
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2010 vol. 167 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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