The Lord of (natural) history

It’s a fundamental fact of classical Christian (and before that, Jewish) theology that Yahweh is the Lord of human history. It is arguably that perspective that gave the west its concept of time as a linear trajectory, rather than as the endless series of cycles in other cultural traditions. Let me demonstrate with a few biblical examples.

In the patriarchal narratives, the very call of Abram in Genesis 12 is orientated towards a future that God controls: he will not only make Abram a great nation, but will ensure that through him, all nations will be blessed. In chapter 15, in the mysterious account of God’s making his promise to Abram into a binding covenant, he foretells the four-century captivity of Israel, the Exodus and the punishment of the Canaanite tribes at their hands.

In Moses’ time, of course, this begins to be fulfilled, but again its completion depends on God’s continuing control of the events leading to the conquest of the land of promise.

The prophetic tradition continues this assumption of God’s oversight of history. Isaiah is the greatest exemplar of this, as he relays Yahweh’s words about the awesome events unfolding in Israel’s life:

I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man [Cyrus] to fulfil my purpose. (Isa 46 10-11)

As the climax of their ministries, the prophets unite in the prediction of the coming of Messiah, including his sufferings (eg Isa 53), his new covenant with, and rule of, Israel (eg Jer 31.31ff) and his final rule over the nations (eg Zech 9.9ff).

The apocalyptic tradition too has as its fundamental basis the mysterious government of God over the sometimes cataclysmic and always confusing events of history. There is a large body of such writing outside the canon, but it is also represented in parts of Isaiah, a large portion of Zechariah and, most notably, in the book of Daniel. In the New Testament it comprises the Book of Revelation (from which the term “apocalypse” comes), but there are apocalyptic motifs throughout, particularly, in Jesus’s own words about the future of Jerusalem in the synoptic gospels.

The Lordship of Yahweh over history, despite the captivity of Israel in Babylon, is the big theme of Daniel, in its narratives (such as the madness of Nebuchadnezzar until he acknowledges that it is God who appoints and dismisses rulers), in the visions of strange beasts representing future empires, and in the final set of visions in which the coming of Messiah is placed in a firm, if visionary and symbolic, historical context.

One aspect of apocalyptic is that the events of history, though often humanly awful, are seen as necessary in God’s fully-worked out plan. In some cases their purpose is vaguely indicated – for example, the description of events in Revelation under the rubric of “seven trumpets” indicates their function as warnings.

Often, though, the reasons are left hidden in God’s secret wisdom, the simple fact of necessity being stressed. So, for example, Jesus himself teaches the disciples:

“When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” (Luke 21.9)

And the reason for such delays and complications? Not the indeterminancy of history, but the secret wisdom of God. Jesus again:

“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt 24.36)

Such divine foreknowledge is precise, and is taken for granted in the New Testament. So in Acts 1, the disciples ask Jesus whether now was the time for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. He replies:

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1.7)

He may or may not be endorsing their assumption of Israel’s restoration, but his reply shows that not only the events, but even their dates and times, are set by God’s authority. Indeed, he goes on to lay out the intervening history in terms of their spreading of the gospel “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Failure is not even a consideration.

Later, In Acts 4.27ff, the truth of the prophetic promises is assumed by the apostles as they ascribe the wicked conspiracy of Jews and Gentiles to destroy Jesus to the foreordaining power and will of God. More generally, Paul in addressing the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17 says of every human people:

“…he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

What is most fascinating in all of this is that Scripture has relatively little to say about the processes and means by which God controls history. Events are sometimes shown to be unfolding by cause and effect, but in other cases, as we also experience in daily life, events take completely unexpected turns. These are attributed to God, but not explained. Instead, the overall emphasis of Scripture is on God’s ends – his telos, for history.

It’s not so much that God pushes events forward by some historical law, or even by supernatural intervention, but that once he has decided his desired outcomes, history gravitates towards them like a moth towards a flame.

Let’s turn now to the world of nature. One of the reasons for critiquing evolutionary theory as science is that it sits very loose to any kind of scientific laws, and is really only a description of a highly contingent natural history. Mutation and natural selection might be genuine principles, just as Machiavelli’s writings describe principles working within political history. But neither the Darwinist nor the Machiavellian can predict their respective varieties of history with even minimal confidence.

Stephen J Gould, as is well known, argued for an evolution that would pan out completely differently if re-run. His successor (in terms of studying the Cambrian explosion, at least), Stuart Conway Morris, a Christian of course, argues strongly for convergent evolution. But even his proposed principles are imprecise and contingent. There may be (he speculates) unknown constraints built into life itself. But a major factor is that there are only limited ways in which ecological niches can be filled, and evolution is bound to rediscover them repeatedly. It’s analogous to the way that, in all societies, most houses will tend to end up circular or rectangular, even though any shape is conceivable.

So for Morris, intelligence will arise (and has arisen, in a general sense) repeatedly. To that extent mankind only “happens” to be descended from primates. If the KT asteroid had missed, God might have placed his image on rational dinosaurs, or even octopi.

This outlook explains why most modern theistic evolutionists see evolution, and even the emergence of mankind, as a largely contingent processes. Neodarwinian evolution simply lacks the causal mechanisms to produce specific outcomes. To ensure the creation of man as he actually is, they say, God would have to intervene supernaturally, which would render the natural causes largely irrelevant: surely a God who plans properly shouldn’t need to interfere with his creation?

Such arguments make the initial assumption that evolution is not a repeatable, lawlike process, but a contingent, historical one – an assumption that is quite modern, in that Darwin’s original writing assumed an objective goal of perfection towards which natural selection tended. It may then be that their theological scruples do actually point out the shortcomings of the scientific theory.

But I believe it is, at root, the non-reproducibility of evolution, as currently understood, that leads TEs to make a virtue of necessity and buy into the theology of “free creation” against which I’ve written so much here and at BioLogos (and in reasoned defence of which TEs have made so little reply either there or here, despite even recent challenges to do so .

“We don’t see how God could design natural mechanisms into creation that would inevitably lead, by cause and effect, to (say) mankind. And evolution appears in practice to be full of contingency. Therefore God never intended to produce man, as such – and the best conclusion is that he awaited the evolution of some rational species (which we believe probably is inevitable, given natural selection), and accepted nature’s gift of a dialogue partner with joy and gratitude.” That seems to be the train of reasoning, as far as one can guess.

It is obvious from this whole piece that I consider this an unwarranted import of methodological naturalism into theology – and particularly into the theology of history, which as I’ve shown is absolutely central to the Christian picture of God.

There is absolutely no reason, that I can think of, why God should be the Lord of human history, but not of natural history. If the outworking of his goals applies to the first, then surely it must to the second also. If human events tend (by whatever processes belonging to God’s revealed or secret counsel) towards the telos God has determined, then how much more do all the events of irrational, non-volitional creatures, also tend towards his aims?

It’s as unthinkable that God would “see how evolution panned out” as that the Bible would countenance his reacting to, rather than overseeing, human history. And so maybe TEs (and others too, perhaps) would do well to think of Christ less as the designer of evolutionary  causes, and more as the end of natural history, just as he is the end of human history.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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