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God's Judgments? A Review Article
God's Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, by Steven J. Keillor. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007, 223 pages, $18.00, paper.
Was 9/11 an instance of divine judgment upon the United States? This is a question that Stephen Keillor, an independent historian and fellow at the MacLaurin Institute, thinks has tremendous significance, even if Protestants of all stripes are reluctant to answer in the affirmative. It is obviously important to the way that Christian historians, like Keillor himself, interpret America's past. But whether historians are capable of discerning God's designs in history is small potatoes compared to what assessments of 9/11 may reveal about the current fecklessness of American Christians. Unless they can say that events like the attack on the World Trade Center are instances of God's judgment on the nations, Keillor argues, Christians do not take God's righteous designs seriously.
Keillor himself is coy about whether 9/11 itself was a manifestation of divine judgment. He writes that it was "possibly God's judgment on us for our materialism, for our cultural exports seducing others into immorality, and our use of terrorist guerrilla units against the Soviets" (59). But the meaning of 9/11 itself is less consequential to Keillor than his contention that the idea of judgment itself has largely disappeared from American Christians' understanding of God and salvation. He believes that the predominance of world-view thinking among evangelicals, the idea of understanding Christianity as an intellectually coherent way of looking at the world, has put a gag-rule on interpreting events like 9/11 as judgments of God. (This is one of many contentious claims in a self-consciously contentious book, a claim that could have been eliminated if only to stay on point about divine judgment and the believer's ability to discern it.)
Keillor spends several chapters developing the idea of judgment in Scripture and showing how the divine sifting out of good and evil (mishpat) pervades the Old Testament. He deduces from the experience of the Israelites that "God is an active judge," not only of Israel and her foreign rivals but also of nations today. Keillor even believes that God put "nineteenth-century democratic, liberal nationalism through its paces to find out what it was made of, morally" (74). This is no less true despite his concession that the New Testament is largely silent on instances of divine judgment. Jesus himself resisted rendering judgments against the nations of his day, Keillor rationalizes, because such verdicts would have heightened improper expectations of his work as Messiah. Neither did the apostles offer judgments the way Old Testament prophets did, according to the author, because their message was to small groups and individuals. But New Testament silence about national judgment does not invalidate the pattern established in the Old Testament. Keillor argues that Christ himself is the ultimate judge of the nations as revealed in the New Testament. In effect, the New Testament only heightens the reality of God judging the nations. To the extent that nations, states, and rulers do not bend the knee in submission to the Savior, they will ultimately be condemned. Those rulers who especially set themselves up as rivals to Christ's lordship, Keillor warns, commit idolatry and will be judged.
The Bible's teaching on judgment is the wedge by which Keillor himself tries to show that God found nineteenth-century America morally wanting. The British invasion of the United States and burning of the capital in 1814 could likely have been instances of judgment upon the nation's elites' disdain for Christianity. But the revivals of the Second Great Awakening showed sufficient faithfulness among Americans and enabled the nation to survive. So, too, the Civil War was a judgment on America for the evil of slavery. Keillor is not so crude to assert a one-to-one correlation between these military skirmishes and God's righteous intentions. "An omniscient God can use the same war," he writes, "for an almost infinite number of purposes." "Varying, contradictory notions of God's purposes point to the danger of assessing God's will during a crisis, from a partisan stance or with false certainty" (151).
Squaring Keillor's nuance with the fact that he wrote this book is exceedingly difficult for me and will likely challenge most readers. If God can use a political crisis or war to sift out nations, peoples, families, persons, for purposes he only knows, then why would Keillor attempt to make sense of 9/11 or the Civil War as an instance of divine judgment on America? By insisting on the pervasiveness of divine judgment, Keillor does try relatively admirably to introduce a subject—God's condemnation of sin and unbelief with destruction and death—that many evangelicals would too easily ignore, not simply in political or historical analysis but also in Lord's Day sermonizing. But by admitting that God's judgments remain hidden, Keillor appears to be as guilty of the agnosticism that he detects and condemns among evangelical intellectuals when writing about events like 9/11.
This inconsistency is all the more glaring when Keillor turns to contemporary affairs that call for sober responses from Christians. Human genetic engineering, he believes, is "the most serious challenge for the church this century" (171). But rather than invoking the threat of divine judgment, Keillor faults evangelical pundits and pastors for letting modern political conventions such as liberal individualism, democracy, church-state separation, and free-markets mute their properly prophetic voices. What the church needs to say and what the modern West needs to hear is that God judges humanity collectively and individually and that the only hope of escaping it is by trusting in Christ, the one who bore that judgment on the cross. This truth will be a corrective to what Keillor finds lacking in contemporary evangelical political activism. It will wean evangelicals from the idolatry of partisan politics, of making the left, right, or center the basis for a believer's political participation. It will prevent Christians from thinking that politics can avert disasters or crises. And it will protect the church from thinking that she is immune from judgment. Even ignorance of the details of divine judgment will not change Keillor's "fundamental message" to American democracy:
It must decrease and (Christ) must increase, sooner or later. It can choose voluntarily to decrease by exalting him as history's meaning and thus secure for itself decades of humble blessings as the best current system for making mundane decisions. Or it can rebel and be forced to decrease as its self-referential, self-idolizing discourse leads it to exalt itself as history's goal and humanity's last, best hope and leads to its fiscal and moral bankruptcy. Either way, it decreases (201).
Why Keillor's prophetic voice is any more biblical than say Randall Terry, who condemns the United States for abortion, or Jim Wallis who inveighs against America for wealth and privilege, is not a question that Keillor answers.
Even so, he should be highly commended for making such a theologically courageous argument. At the same time, he may need to give more careful consideration to his theology of judgment. On the one hand, Keillor does not do justice to the New Testament's silence on God's verdict against the nations. He presumes to do what he admits Jesus and the apostles did not attempt—interpret contemporary events in the light of God's righteous demands. Even trying to do what the Old Testament prophets did when invoking divine judgment is a problem for contemporary Christians because the canon is closed: we do not have access to on-going divine revelation to make sense of events in Indonesia, the Middle East, or North America. Keillor concedes this problem but will not let it curtail his efforts to retrieve judgment as a category for 9/11. Consequently, he won't consider that silence about divine judgment in contemporary events for some Protestants stems not from too little theology but from too much—from understanding the sufficiency of Scripture, and from recognizing the limits of what God has revealed in his word.
On the other hand, Keillor is not successful in attempting to transcend partisan politics and arrive at a truly Christian approach. In point of fact, his analysis is too political. He wants to invoke the category of divine judgment to interpret aspects of U.S. political history, like the heterodox statesmen who founded the nation, or to condemn social institutions and practices, like slavery and cloning. These examples suggest that Keillor's mind runs too much in the direction of the affairs of this world. One could argue on the basis of Scripture that idolatry, that is worshiping false gods or worshiping the true God blasphemously, is one of the most heinous sins that God punishes throughout the Bible. Why then wouldn't Keillor regard the practice of Mormonism or Roman Catholicism in the U.S. as instances of wickedness that deserve God's judgment? Or to raise the stakes, what about the revivals of the Second Great Awakening that tainted American Protestantism with an Arminian understanding of salvation and sanctioned the widespread use of the altar call? By looking only at the effects of unbelief on the political order of the United States, instead of examining the conditions of the nation's churches, Keillor suggests that politics matters more than worship.
These objections, while serious, should not detract from the unusual and thought-provoking argument that Keillor produces in God's Judgments. It is a book well worth reading by anyone who has pondered the meaning of history or the place of divine judgment in the affairs of principalities and powers. It certainly does not include a number of considerations that need to inform a contentious topic like this. Nor does it always say clearly the points that Keillor tries to make. But if we stopped reading imperfect books we would be left with reading only the Bible. To find a flawed book that raises theological challenges about provocative subjects is a rarity and a good reason for recommending Keillor's book.
Darryl Hart, a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serves at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant, May 2008.