Confession and History: The Westminster Confession & the God of History

The chapters on God and his relation to his creation in the Westminster Confession of Faith (I have in mind here chapters 2-7, but in reality the whole confession is about this) reveal to us a Triune God who actively rules this universe and interacts with his creatures. To put it another way, God is the Lord of history. Truly, though perhaps also tritely, history is his story! Historians for the longest time have reduced history to the motives and actions of human beings, thus defining God out of existence. History is our domain and God is like a child standing outside a candy shop staring through a window wishing he had access to all the sweet goodies.

Sometimes even Christian historians fall into this trap of researching and writing as if God was not involved with his creation through the passage of time. Scholars have a name for this: methodological naturalism. This esoteric erudite expression simply means that there are to be no supernatural causes sought for in seeking to understand and explain historical events, movements, and individuals. There is no doubt that we can learn much from historians who concentrate on social, political, religious, and economic factors in history. We even have learned much about these factors in understanding the circumstances surrounding the calling of the Westminster Assembly by the British parliament in the midst of the 17th century civil war. It is fascinating indeed to learn about the political intrigue in the court of Charles I and his relation to his nobility and the need to raise taxes so he could fight his wars and do all the other things monarchs do.

But the Westminster Confession of Faith is not exhaustively explained by such anthropocentric handling of history. God is not, in fact, really like the little boy staring through the candy shop window. The Westminster Confession itself explains that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass. Yet he does so in such a way that he is neither the author of sin nor does he obliterate the reality of secondary causes (WCF 3.1).

What I am saying is that we should not act as if we are practical atheists while studying and writing history, especially, say, the history surrounding the formulation of a historic Christian creed and then decide to bring God in at the end when we want to talk theology. Historians, Christian or otherwise, are theologians whether they know it or not. The question is whether Christian historians, especially those who affirm a historic Christian creed like the Westminster Confession of Faith, will conduct their work with God in view at the beginning, middle, and end of the history research and writing process.

God is sovereign over all history. Not just the religious parts. Redemptive history and post-biblical history are a subset of universal history. Understanding how economics, religion, politics, and social movements (like educational reform) operate in God’s world does not rule his existence and activity out of order. We never really could do that anyway. We attempt to do that but we do not succeed nor should we want to.  God works through means to achieve his ends. History is the theater for God’s glorious providential and redemptive activity. God works throughout history as we learn from Scripture and should understand from such confessions as found among the Westminster Standards. History concentrates on the ordinary ways God works in the world, but it can also deal with his extraordinary miraculous activity too. Only if we stipulate at the beginning that history can only deal with natural cause and effect relations is God kept out of the picture. However, like the mole, God has a habit of poking his head above ground and spoiling our neat natural historical models.

As we seek to understand history, we need not rush to fanciful explanations. Often God is operating quietly in the background as he did in the book of Esther. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that God is only at work in his miraculous activity. That is perfect nonsense. Admittedly, historians of church history sometimes advert to unusual speculation in order to uphold God’s activity in the world. Biblical restraint is needed. After all, in the Bible, miracles did not happen every day but during the high points of redemptive history such as the calling of Abraham and Moses, the giving of the Law at Sinai, the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, in the prophetic era, and in the coming of Christ and the apostolic age. God was busily upholding his creation throughout the universe and in all four corners of this orb.

Let us remember that God is Lord of history even in the mundane affairs of this world. The Triune God of Scripture is the Lord of the history surrounding the events, which led to the calling and actions and influence of the Westminster Assembly just as he was Lord at the giving of the Law through Moses and the calling of the first NT church council in Acts 15. God is Lord of all history all the time.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington