Like many eighteenth-century Reformed pastors, Jonathan Edwards was confident in his ability to discern God's purposes in earthly events. For example, during a 1736 drought, he explained that God was chastising New Englanders for the "corruption in our hearts." Similarly, during a plague of crop-destroying worms in the 1740s, he suggested that the people's neglect of the poor had precipitated the infestation.
This kind of assurance about God's intentions has become passé among most conservative Christians today. But not everyone across the American religious and political spectrum has given up on such close providential readings. I was reminded of this fact recently when I became a minor player in a kerfuffle with radio host Glenn Beck over presidential politics. Beck is a Mormon, an ardent supporter of Ted Cruz, and an opponent of Donald Trump. He said recently that evangelicals who support Trump are not "listening to their God." God has made it clear, Beck says, that Cruz is the chosen man for this election.
Asked to comment on this story by Breitbart News, I replied that "the Bible certainly offers principles on how to think about government and politics. The Bible does not, however, tell us which individual candidates to vote for...There are many reasons why devout Christians should hesitate to vote for Donald Trump, but God has not revealed Ted Cruz as the divinely anointed alternative, either." In reply, Beck said on his radio program "To you, Dr. Kidd. To you. To you God hasn't revealed Cruz as divinely anointed." But Beck believes that "Ted Cruz actually was anointed for this time."
In the midst of this brouhaha, I happened also to read Gerald McDermott's fascinating book chapter "Jonathan Edwards and the National Covenant: Was He Right?" In that piece, McDermott examines Edwards' confident readings of worms, droughts, and other instances of how earthly events reflected God's disciplining hand. Today we associate such prophetic readings with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and now Beck, who may have a more natural openness to the idea of God's ongoing revelations because of his Mormonism. Whatever their individual merits or personal beliefs, contemporary figures like these have nothing like the theological or intellectual chops of Edwards. What has changed? Why has the interpretation of God's purposes in current events become theologically marginal, in a way that it was not in the eighteenth century? Have we lost courage in explaining God's ways to man?
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.
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.
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.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln interpreted the Civil War as God's judgment on both North and South for their sinful complicity in slavery. In his greatest speech, the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln asked that if God "gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense [slavery] came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?" Moreover, "if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" Lincoln, who was influenced by his parents' Calvinism even though he never joined a church, used a providential reading of the Civil War to call the nation to humility, and to enjoin all Americans to accept the destruction of slavery.
In this life we see "through a glass darkly" [I Cor. 13:12], so we should always be modest about interpreting current events. We should be quick to say that "perhaps" God is showing us something in today's struggles, because we hardly have all the information that our Father does. We should be slow to say "thus saith the Lord," except about those matters explicitly revealed in Scripture. Thus, we might say in this year's election that, weighed on the balance of scriptural principles, we tend to prefer candidate A's positions over candidate B's. But declaring a candidate God's "anointed" one is presumptuous, at best.
Again, we may not be as prepared as Edwards to explicate God's message in a drought, but we do need to remember that God remains sovereign over that drought. We may not grasp His immediate purposes, but God's judgments have not ceased.
Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including George Whitefield: America's Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).