Hope in the face of hopeless history.
Making sense of tragedy, providence, and the invisible things of God.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
It is, I think, the height of presumption to relegate the early church to some sort of primitive mode of theology. We often do that, though, whipping around our fine-tuned hermeneutical treatises and doxological diatribes (with a heavy dose of ecclesiastical arrogance). I don’t mean to sound so snippy, but I almost can’t help myself when the overriding framework, which shapes much of our modern theologies, is born out of the assumption that we don’t need much in the way of patristic assistance.
There’s treasure trove of grace and faith ready to be mined in the labor known as “theological retrieval.” Delving into the early fathers and proponents of the church opens us up to a world of theology that’s “Jesus adjacent.” That is, only a few generations removed from Jesus’s very existence. For example, the writings of Polycarp, Melito, and Augustine come to mind as robustly cruciform. Reckoning such theologies as “primitive” is as nonsensical as regarding modern theology as the realized apex of God’s kingdom on earth.
One way in which this is very self-evident is to examine the manner in which the early church engaged in the proclamation of the gospel. Open the Book of Acts and you’ll see what I mean. From the outset, the apostles and teachers of the early church demonstrate a robust understanding and belief in the providence of God as the arbiter of their days. This is brilliantly articulated in St. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and his subsequent discourses when he relays the appalling events which led to his Master’s execution (Acts 2:22; 3:14–15; 4:26; 5:30). But as he recounts those awful details, he astoundingly does so while affirming God’s redemptive intent likewise being fulfilled in their midst. “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree,” Peter declares. “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31–32; cf. 2:23–24, 32–33; 3:13–16; 4:27–28).
These words from Peter are the embodiment of a faith the likes of which I pray to have — a faith that’s dauntless, that finds its moorings on the pedestals of revelation and hope in the face of abject suffering, doubt, and pain. Indeed, the apostolic premise appears to be an overriding confidence in the hope that’s found in the confession that Jesus of Nazareth was/is God’s Son, “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36; 3:20; 4:10–12). Which is just another way of saying that apostolic framework of expositional thought was conceived in the definitive declaration of eschatological hope in the face of circumstances that were anything but hopeful.
An essential quality of the early church, therefore, was an abiding belief in the fact that there are two distinct threads of history that are ever and always being interwoven as our days march ever onward. There is the thread that we see, the visible, tangible thread of what’s apparent. At the same time, however, there is another unseen thread that is constantly being crisscrossed in and over our days — the invisible thread of providence that we can only believe in (2 Cor. 5:7). The former is the one that gets all the attention, that fills news headlines and permeates our conversations. The latter is much more difficult to ascertain but is, I’d say, the one that endures as the wellspring of hope.
In a recent post, entitled, “Life in the Fog of the World,” Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman examines these threads of history in a remarkable way, showing, quite adequately I might add, that those in the church, “properly speaking,” don’t believe in history. Indeed, our hope lies in something much truer than all that. I’ll let him take it from here:
How do we tell the story of history? The thing we call “history” is not a record of past events. It is a narrative, a story, that seeks to make sense of the events that have occurred. It is the “story” that we use to shape (and choose) the events we relate that is the thing called “history.” Properly speaking, Christians do not believe in “history.”
The Christian faith professes belief in “providence,” that is, that the events that unfold through time are guided by God Himself towards His desired end. If there is a “Christian history,” then it is the telling of events in terms of the story God is speaking. The Christian “story,” is utterly and completely one of divine providence. The Christian story is that the single point of history, indeed, the single point of all things, is found in the death and resurrection of Christ . . . And though the death and resurrection of Christ occurs at a measurable, definable, moment in history (roughly 33 A.D.), it is also correct to describe it as both the beginning and ending of history.
What Freeman draws on, here, is an exceptionally hopeful truth. Namely, that we don’t necessarily have to “make sense” of the things we see so long as we keep our gaze fixed on the cross. The eponymous words of the writer to the Hebrews comes to mind, reminding those who are running that only way in which runners succeed is by having eyes that are transfixed on the cross, that place where he who spoke all things into being “endured such contradiction of sinners against himself” (Heb. 12:2–3). The place of the cross is the place of God’s beloved contradiction, wherein what looked like defeat was actually deliverance working in and through death. The cross is the concurrent apex of God’s revelation and of human history. It’s the stage upon which the Creator of all things is chiefly seen and known. It’s the point at which all history converges. It’s the thread of God’s sovereignty which he’s masterfully woven throughout the course of human history, coloring each page in a wonderful crimson hue. It’s the annunciation of his bare word of promise, of grace so amazing and so free.
This is all reminiscent of that helpful schema found in Luther’s theology known as the conflict between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross. “Theologians of glory,” writes Lutheran scholar and preacher Gerhard Forde, “are always driven to seek transcendent meaning, to try to see into the invisible things of God, to get a line on the logic of God” (76). This is often done through elaborate systematic theologies that have “explaining the invisible things of God” as their fundamental reason for existing. And, don’t get me wrong, there’s some benefit to be had there. But reasoning with the cross is nothing compared to just considering that it is. The cross and all its splinters and blood-soaked materials doesn’t need our reasons. Likewise, history doesn’t need our explanations.
The gift of both is faith in a providence that works (and is working) despite appearances to the contrary. “When the wash is all in and the dust settles,” Dale Ralph Davis writes, “there will not be anything that God has not used to shape us to the likeness of his Son” (152). That’s a hard reality to accept if all you have to go on is history itself. It’s difficult even if you have the cross, I’ll admit. But it is only in and at the cross that hopelessness is transfigured into hope. It’s only at the foot of that despicably beautiful tree where what is seen is most glaringly not what is, or what will be. It’s the place where history’s defeat is camouflaged as eternal victory. It’s the site of the Lord’s providential fulfillment and prodigal reconciliation of all things to himself.
Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007).
Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).