Chapter 6: Bible and the Historical Problem of Our Time
‘History’, said Mr. Henry Ford, ‘is bunk’, blurting out, with a refreshing candour, what many people no doubt think. It is however a significant fact that those movements of our time which have shown the greatest power to inspire men to action on the grand scale, for good or evil, have taken the form of interpretations of history.
German National Socialism, for example, based itself on an interpretation of history through the conceptions of race and Volkstum (‘nationality’-- but the meaning of the German word is both wider and narrower). The Nazi creed is now discredited, but the wide and compelling influence which it exerted is a portent we ought not to forget -- especially since there are kindred doctrines abroad in other countries which may yet raise their head. What was there in this wild and monstrous creed, which made it sweep like a prairie fire through the German people? What was there in it to impel them to action upon a scale which has proved catastrophic to the whole of Europe? There are no doubt more answers than one to that question. National Socialism was a complex phenomenon. But one side of its appeal at least could not be overlooked by anyone who happened to be in touch with Germans during the years between the Weimar revolution and Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933. It offered them a task defined by an understanding of their history.
A whole generation of young Germans had emerged from the last war humiliated, despairing and cynical. There seemed nothing to live for. Life had no meaning. Then Hitler and his followers told them that on the contrary they were living in the crucial moment of the historic destiny of the German people. The vast and turbulent centuries of European history, since the days when Arminius defeated the legions of Augustus in the Teutobürgerwald, were filled with the story of the shaping and growth of the German Volk; their training and discipline, through victory and disaster, to be the ultimate Herrenvolk. And now the moment had come. Hitler boasted that his achievement would determine the course of history for a thousand years; and they believed him. In understanding (as they thought) the meaning of their national history, and linking their own action to its agelong movement, they found their lives dignified by being absorbed in a larger purpose. They were convinced that they were making history -- and they very nearly did make it to their own pattern. At least, there was here an interpretation of history which proved itself dynamic.
On the other hand, we have the Marxist interpretation of history as a ‘dialectical’ process, determined by economic factors; a process which takes form in our time as the final class-war between bourgeoisie and proletariate with their respective ‘ideologies’. The Marxist treatment of past history is bold and imaginative, and even if it is one-sided, it brought into clear light factors which all historians now acknowledge to have been of real importance. But to the devout Marxist this interpretation of the past is no mere academic theory. It provides the one sufficient key to the understanding of the present, and assures the future; for upon Marxist premises the victory of the proletariate is a foregone conclusion. This interpretation of history has given to large numbers of people a quite new sense of meaning in their own lives, and stirred them to action under the conviction that their action is along the line of vast historical forces moving irresistibly to a goal. That this conviction is an effective one for good or ill is proved by the immense advance of Communism in our time.
In both these contemporary movements we observe that the driving force is not simply the idea as such, but the persuasion that the idea embodies itself in history as a concrete, living process. The Marxist, like the Nazi, is persuaded that he knows what the historical process is ‘up to’. In his communist ‘cell’, like the Nazi in his ‘storm-troop’, he feels himself to be in the place where history is being made, and he makes it -- to whatever ultimate effect.
It can scarcely be said that the ‘Western democracies’ have anything comparable. (Perhaps the nearest thing to a democratic ‘ideology’ was the ‘philosophic radicalism’ of the nineteenth century, combined with the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history; but it has no contemporary significance.) They have some vaguely conceived principles on the one hand, and on the other hand some clearly defined, immediate, practical objectives; but there is no general sense that these principles and objectives are of the essential stuff of history. Recently the veteran Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce has offered us a possible basis for an historical ‘ideology’ in his dictum that history is the history of liberty. But that remains on the academic level.
The fact is that in this country at least we cherish the deepest suspicion of all large historical generalizations. A recent historian, the late H. A. L. Fisher, summed up his view of history in these words: ‘Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave; only one great fact, with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations; only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.’ (History of Europe, preface, p.5)
Such a view is undoubtedly congenial to our British temper. Did I say we had no ‘ideology’? Possibly the interpretation of history as ‘one emergency following upon another’ is in fact the ‘ideology’ corresponding to our favourite practice of ‘muddling through’ -- sometimes dignified by the name of ‘practical opportunism’.
But I do not believe we can afford to leave the matter there. In these last years history has burst into our private lives with devastating effect. The violence of the impact is bewildering to anyone who does not understand that the forces of contemporary history have behind them the accumulated weight of a long past, which we can no longer ignore. There is no escape. It is now clear to every thinking man that his own life and death depend on historical factors operating on the large scale.
The problem of history has become the most urgent problem of our time. We stand at the end of an era. How are our lives to be directed so that the new shape of things may be a worth-while enterprise of the spirit of man, and not a drift or a collapse? What is the meaning that history holds, to which our lives are to conform? The ‘ideologies’ give their answers; for Marxism and National Socialism alike are interpretations of history which seek to give significance to contemporary life. I believe that we have in the Bible an interpretation of history which goes deeper than either, and comprehends important and relevant facts which both of them ignore. How then does the biblical view of history interpret our contemporary situation?
In order to help us to put the question rightly -- for in any field of thought, to put the question rightly is to go a long way towards the right answer -- I shall start from a recent work which discusses the problem of history with exceptional breadth and penetration: Professor Arnold Toynbee’s monumental Study of History, of which six volumes out of a probable ten have so far appeared.
Professor Toynbee starts with the fact of civilization as a given and observable phenomenon. Under the general concept are included some nineteen distinct civilizations -- ranging, literally, ‘from China to Peru’, and going back to the earliest ages of which we have any knowledge. He first poses the question, How is the rise of civilization -- or concretely, of civilizations -- to be accounted for? and he works towards an answer by an inductive study of the rise of various civilizations so far as they are known to us.
He reviews several possible causes which have been alleged by various thinkers as sufficient to account for the phenomena. He concludes that the geographical and biological factors comprehended under the headings of ‘race’ and ‘environment’, though important, do not in themselves disclose a sufficient cause for the process by which civilizations arose. The process itself he shows to have had in each case the form of ‘challenge and response’. The challenge may be delivered through physical conditions of race and environment, but the degree and nature of the human response cannot be fully accounted for without in some way going behind these factors. He concludes that the process may best be represented in terms of ‘an encounter between two superhuman personalities’. Such an encounter, he shows, is ‘the plot of some of the greatest stories and dramas that the human imagination has conceived’. Among these he includes the Old Testament story of Paradise Lost, which is the story of an encounter between God and the devil, and the story of the Passion of Christ in the Gospels, which, he says, portrays ‘a second encounter between the same antagonists’. (A Study of History, vol. 1, pp. 271-2) We are thus referred to the Bible (among other literature) for a clue to the historical problem of the rise of civilization.
I now pass on to some observations of Professor Toynbee’s on the decline of civilizations. These observations touch us closely; for after a detailed analysis of the causes and symptoms of the decline of numerous civilizations which have decayed, he shows that many of these symptoms are unmistakably present in our own civilization at the time of writing -- which was before the outbreak of the late war. The inference is that our Western civilization is well advanced in the process of decline. I do not think that this conclusion can well be shaken. Certainly no argument against it can be based upon the fact that every year we are able to move faster from one point to another, and to destroy more human lives with less expenditure of time and trouble. Observe, however, that our author does not say, as many do say, that our civilization is ‘doomed’. (Op. cit. vol.4, pp7-39) His philosophy, unlike that of Spengler and others who have written about ‘the decline of the West’, is not determinist. The condition of decline is itself a challenge, to which it should be possible to find an appropriate response.
He asks, therefore, what lines of action are open to people who are aware of living in a declining civilization, such as our own. He distinguishes four possible principles on which action may be based, enumerating them under catch-titles as follows: (Op. cit. vol. 6, pp. 49-175)
1. ‘Archaism.’ By this he means that, in disgust of the sordid present, we may idealize the ‘good old times’, and aim at restoring them as a cure for our present ills. Thus Fascist Italy dreamed itself back to the Roman Empire, and Nazi Germany glorified the heroic age of the German race, before it was corrupted by the ‘Jewish’ doctrines of Christianity. Similarly there are some in this country who hanker after the lost paradise of a mediaeval Merry England. If ‘Archaism’ is put into practice, it tends to develop into violent political reaction.
2. ‘Futurism.’ This is much the same thing as what is often called ‘revolutionary Utopianism’. It means that disgust of the present breeds fantasies of a new order of things, unrelated (except by sheer antagonism) to anything in the existing order, which must be swept away before Utopia can be realized. Put into practice, ‘Futurism’ leads to a revolution of destruction.
3. ‘Detachment.’ This means that those who feel that the time is out of joint simply throw up the sponge and contract out of all responsibility for a situation too far gone for mending. This withdrawal may take the most diverse forms, from an ignoble ‘escapism’ (for which our age has, significantly, invented such a rich apparatus) to a life of elegant or sublime contemplation (and again it is significant that mystical or pseudo-mystical cults have an astonishing vogue nowadays). (One of these cults happened to be in session at an English country house towards the end of August 1939. The session was abruptly terminated by a government notice to vacate the premises within twelve hours. The bewildered adepts came out into a strange world. They had had their thoughts so concentrated upon higher realities [one of them explained to me] that they had no idea that things had reached such a pass.) This principle is barren of action. Yet Toynbee holds that there may be (as there have been in the past) situations so desperate that the only thing a person with high standards can do is to withdraw from them, and that such detachment is then the necessary preliminary to effective action on the fourth principle, to which we now pass.
4. ‘Transfiguration.’ This means that instead of attempting to move from the unsatisfactory present into a fantastic Golden Age in past or future time, or withdrawing altogether into the timeless world of the mystics, we bring the total situation, as we ourselves partake in it, into a larger context, which gives it new meaning. Transfiguration does involve a movement of detachment, but this movement is now only one element in a complex rhythm of ‘withdrawal and return ‘This way’, writes Professor Toynbee, ‘of taking our departure from the City of Destruction is not an act of truancy; it is a "withdrawal according to plan"; and the plan. . . is not to save ourselves by escaping from a dangerous and painful mundane entanglement, but to seize the initiative in order, at our own peril, to save the City of Destruction from its doom.’ (Op. cit. vol. 6, p. 131)
The larger context through which our total situation may be transfigured is best conceived in terms of Civitas Dei, or the Kingdom of God, ‘which is not in Time at all -- either present, future or past -- and which differs from all temporal mundane states in the radical way of being in a different spiritual dimension, but which, just by virtue of this difference of dimension, is able to penetrate our mundane life and, in penetrating, to transfigure it’. (Op. cit. vol. 6. p. 131.) The classical account of ‘Transfiguration’ he finds in the New Testament, which has for its theme the coming of the Kingdom of God, and he illustrates his thesis in detail both from the story in the Gospels and from the account of the Christian way of life as it appears all through.
Of these four possible responses, ‘Archaism’ and ‘Futurism’ are self-destructive, as Professor Toynbee argues from a wealth of instances. ‘Detachment’ by itself is self-stultifying. Only ‘Transfiguration’, with its rhythm of withdrawal and return, is creative. It issues in ‘Palingenesia’, or rebirth.
Thus far Professor Toynbee. This meagre paraphrase of a long, elaborate and richly documented argument can, of course, do no sort of justice to his thought, though I hope it has not seriously misrepresented him. My object here, however, is not to expound or criticize the Toynbeian philosophy of history, but to secure a point of view from which to approach the theme of this chapter: the bearing of the Bible upon the historical problem of our time. Our question, it now appears, might be put in this way: How may a study of the Bible help us towards the ‘transfiguration’ of our present historical situation?
Certain broad principles for the interpretation of history we may set down at once.
1. God is sovereign over history, which serves His will and works out His purpose. This is presupposed all through.
2. On the other hand, the Bible lends no support to any theory which demands that the course of history should be fixed beforehand.
This needs some consideration, because there is a widespread misconception that the prophetical books are a kind of glorified ‘Old Moore’s Almanac’, plotting out the future in cryptograms. Ingenious persons devote time and trouble, which they might well have spent on cross-word puzzles, to the attempt to discover the ‘key to prophecy’, just as others try to predict coming events from the measurements of the Great Pyramid. All such attempts presuppose that the course of events is so fixed that the apparent influence of human choice is an illusion. It is impossible to attribute such a view to the biblical writers.
The prophets certainly did forecast coming events. What, then, did they intend by such forecasts? They were primarily concerned with the immediate situation which faced them. In this situation they distinguished two elements: the constant element, which was the purpose of God, and the variable element, which was human action. They insisted that God must be thought of as a perfectly self-consistent Being, whose action in history discloses the immutable principles of Justice, mercy and truth. To enforce this view, they dwelt much upon the ‘mighty works’ of God in the past. They then applied the lessons of the past to the understanding of the present. In doing so, they frequently formed ‘intelligent anticipations’ of the immediate consequences of actions then in process.
It must be observed that such anticipations are conditional (whether the condition is expressed or not). Prophetic predictions in general fall within such a formula as ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish’ (Luke 13:5). In the tale of Jonah there is a vivid picture of a prophet’s chagrin when his prediction fell through because people did repent. (Jonah 3-4) It may have been drawn from life. A prophet may on occasion have forgotten that his forecasts were conditional, and imagined himself a soothsayer. But the true intention of prophetic predictions is not to unveil an inevitable future, but to alter the variable element in the present situation -- the action of men -- in relation to the constant element -- the will of God -- and so to alter the resultant situation.
Such predictions are ordinarily at short range. The prophets do not write imaginary history covering centuries of the future, like Mr. Shaw in Back to Methuselah, or Mr. Wells in his scientific and philosophical romances. Their interest in the remoter future is confined to the one certainty of the ultimate triumph of the purpose of God. This triumph they may exhibit in dramatic form -- a gathering of nations in the Valley of Decision, or a Battle of Armageddon. But they have no interest in ‘dim aeonian periods’ which may intervene. By a characteristic ‘foreshortening’, the End is always ‘round the corner’. The certainty of the divine Event is translated into imminence in time.
Thus the biblical interpretation of history conforms to H. A. L. Fisher’s ‘one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen’.
3. This is because the Bible contemplates man as morally responsible within the framework of the divine purpose. ‘See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil. . . . Therefore choose!’ (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19) That the choice is real, and has real consequences in history, is a biblical postulate.
Thus the Bible, while it affirms with complete confidence that history fulfills the purpose of God, encourages a sober agnosticism about the actual unfolding of that purpose in the future course of events.
If therefore we are looking to the Bible for guidance towards an understanding of our own place in history, we shall not expect anything in the way of prediction. We are not to know how things are going to turn out. There is no promise of security, or plenty, or peace in our time, or the victory of this programme or that; any more than there is certainty that the ‘end of the world’, or of our civilization, is inevitably impending. ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath set within His own authority.’ (Acts 1:7)
But what we may learn is the meaning of our present situation; that is, what God is saying to us in it. We have recognized in the Bible a passage of history punctuated by a series of crises in which the Word of God came to men, and visibly altered the course of events. Through this series of crises a meaning gradually emerged, which made sense of the whole. This meaning was ultimately clarified and confirmed by a final event in which ‘the Word was made flesh’, that is, was completely embodied in a Person and in His relations with the total historical situation. Looking backwards, we can see in the earlier crises ‘foreshadowings’ of the final event, in the sense that the emergent meaning was partially expressed in them, to be ‘fulfilled’ when the climax of the series was reached. In a somewhat similar sense, subsequent crises in history, including that of our own time, may be seen as ‘after-shadowings’ of the crisis provoked and shaped by the coming of Jesus Christ in the first century. So regarded, the events of our time will fall within the series in which the Word of God is spoken to men, and they will disclose their meaning to us. There are whole tracts of history which seem to us to be almost entirely meaningless. It is a possibility which cannot be excluded that the events of our time may end in a similar meaningless chaos. Even so, we may continue to trust that divine providence is over all history -- as the author of the Book of Daniel believed that ‘the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men’, (Daniel 4:17, 25.) at a time when all the facts seemed against such a belief. But historically the belief established itself only where a sufficient number of those who participated in the course of events heard God speaking in it and responded. (A ‘sufficient number’ in this sense may be a small minority. In Israel in the eighth century B.C. it was a mere ‘remnant’; in the first century A.D. it was even smaller. But it sufficed.) Only upon the same terms is history likely to disclose its meaning to us now.
How then are we to read the Word of God in the complex realities of our present situation? I would not for a moment suggest that a faith instructed by the Bible is any substitute for a knowledge of the facts of economics, politics, history, psychology and the natural sciences which enter into the total situation -- in any case as much of such knowledge as we can get. There is no substitute for honest thinking about the facts. But the specious facts (of the order I have indicated) do not exhaust the total reality with which we have to deal. The impact of these facts upon our minds, with the resultant meaning they bear for us, depends upon our response to more fundamental realities which are intermingled with the ostensible factors (of politics, economics and the rest) but are never fully covered by them. It is to our apprehension of these deeper realities that the Bible speaks.
We may best discover what it says about the present crisis in history by trying to trace in our present situation the pattern which we have discerned in the creative crises of the past, and particularly in the crisis of the Gospels. For the Word of God, while it is adapted to different historical levels, and did not come in exactly the same terms to Abraham and Moses, to Jeremiah and to the first Christians, is nevertheless found always to conform to one general pattern. In this pattern we have distinguished two complementary aspects; one negative, the other positive.
1. The impact of the Word of God upon an historical situation, as represented in the Bible, has, first, the negative effect of denying false values expressed in the situation as it has developed historically. The biblical term for this negative effect is ‘judgement’. Judgement is often embodied outwardly in the form of historical disasters, which are the consequences of wrong attitudes, policies and actions. No doubt such disasters always have causes which can be expressed in terms of biological, political, or economic factors. But the Bible isolates for emphasis the factor of morale, in the largest sense.
Take for example the story of the Fall of the Kingdom of Judah before the advance of Babylon. It could be told as the tragic last stand of a little nation, foredoomed by its geographical position, slowly ground down under the pressure of two great empires, and finally brought to utter ruin by superior military strength. But as the long-drawn struggle emerges from the pages of prophecy, it discloses a squalid collapse of morale, the issue of a spiritual process of degeneration. This degeneration came about through repeated refusals of a moral challenge offered by the prophets. That is the central motive of the story. The disastrous events of the Babylonian conquest appear as a dramatization of the deeper disaster of spiritual and moral collapse. This is the manner of God’s Word of judgement. It is a denial of the values which people had pursued in opposition to the truth as it was set before them.
Still clearer is the manner of divine judgement in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which is the theme of the Gospels. It has sometimes been told in modern times as an episode in the struggle between Roman imperialism and Jewish nationalism; or between the cosmopolitan, secular ‘ideology’ of Graeco-Roman civilization and the religious isolationism of the Jews. It has been told, alternatively, as an episode in the emergence of the ‘proletariate’ of ancient society and its collision with the ruling class. If some such interpretation is adopted, then the various actors in the tragedy may claim more or less justification for their actions. So indeed they can, upon that level; for there is a real measure of truth in such renderings of the story. But confronted with the Gospels, these interpretations are seen to be superficial. The central issue is Jesus Christ’s offer of a moral challenge, and its refusal by His contemporaries. That is why the story comes to have the aspect of a judgement-scene,’ in which sentence is passed upon a series of typical figures, not unlike ourselves. It is passed, not chiefly in words, but by the part which individuals take in the action of the drama. The moral choices made by Pilate, Caiaphas and the priests, the scribes and Pharisees, the mob, Judas the traitor and the wellmeaning but unstable disciples, are quite clear-cut, and are seen to be organically related to the tragic dénouement. History pillories them.
Thus an approach from the biblical standpoint to our present situation will discern in it the factor of morale in the largest sense. Outwardly, we face the collapse of the social order over a large part of what was the civilized world -- a collapse which involves all of us more or less. Inwardly, it is the collapse of the moral standards of Christendom. Just as in Israel spiritual decline was intimately related to persistent recalcitrance to the moral and spiritual ideals of the prophets, so our generation has suffered from appreciating high ideals and then denying them in practice. Probably there has never been a period when moral idealism in the political sphere touched a higher level, or commanded more intelligence in planning, or achieved more effective publicity. Yet the events --or in other words the corporate actions and reactions of the European nations -- have denied such ideal values with a disastrous thoroughness. It seems to be a rule that ideals once enunciated, and accepted on the level of sentiment, become destructive if they are not put into action. To have seen the better and embraced the worse does not leave one in the same position as at first; it means moral decline; and that is the story of the European community in recent times. No doubt other explanations of our calamities may be adduced, with some measure of truth in most of them. But in comparison with the biblical explanation they are superficial. Fundamentally, the meaning of our present predicament is God’s judgement upon our way of life.
History has been defined as a record of the crimes, vices and follies of mankind. We are in no position to quarrel with the definition. But if there is no more to be said, then history remains a meaningless chaos. If, however, it is clear that God, who stands above history, and yet communicates with us in history, passes judgement upon the situation, then there is introduced into the chaos an element of moral valuation.. It makes us responsible, and to accept responsibility is the first step to a cure.
To accept responsibility, I say. It is easy to put responsibility upon other people: to stage trials of our former enemies, or to condemn them in our own minds. But that is not to take the matter with full seriousness. We shall get at the truth of our present situation only by exposing ourselves to the judgement of God in it.’ A clear-sighted self-criticism is called for. I am not referring to the practice of self-examination, or introspection, as it is commonly recommended: a practice which is often extremely salutary and may also be harmful. I mean an effort to recognize our own behaviour as contributory to the corporate actions and reactions which have brought us to this pass, and to assess it by given moral standards.
For the standards are given, not thought up out of our own minds (always exposed as they are to prejudice in our own cause). In the Old Testament the prophets do not simply denounce the conduct of their people. They define with precision the particular tendencies in corporate life which are leading to disaster, because they are an affront to the Law of God -- to the principles upon which the moral structure of the universe rests. These definitions are a series of shots, all hitting the target, and coming nearer and nearer to the centre. The New Testament finally hits the mark. An intelligent reading of the Gospels leaves us in no possible doubt what are the precise values which lie under condemnation as having a direct relation to the catastrophe of the crucifixion. It requires no inordinate effort of the imagination to see ourselves in the place of Pilate, Caiaphas, the Pharisees, the mob, the traitor and the unfaithful disciples; and such an effort is an effective way towards self-criticism of the kind which is most relevant. I will leave it at that, only observing that the severest condemnation falls, paradoxically enough, upon those who, as individuals, were probably the most virtuous and intelligent of the lot: those who ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. (Luke 18:9)
2. We turn from the negative to the positive. Beyond judgement lies renewal. Indeed judgement, as we have seen, is properly no more than a secondary effect of the Word of God, which in its first intention is creative. In God the highest degree of creativity is combined with the highest degree of benevolence, or goodwill, towards all His creatures. Encountering evil in human life, His Word necessarily reacts in judgement; but not as though that were the goal of His intervention in the process. The evil once recognized and judged becomes a point of departure for some new and original kind of good. Consequently, it is just when all seems irreparably lost that the renewing power of God makes itself felt. The hopeless calamity of the crucifixion was reversed in the resurrection of Christ; as when Israel was completely broken, and not only broken but discredited, a new stage in its history began, like a resurrection from the dead. God ‘calls the things that are not as if they were’, (Romans 4:17) and always in the service of an endless goodwill.
This is what is meant by the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is not simply a device for easing the burdened conscience (though it has that effect). It is more like ‘an inexhaustible capacity for new growth, embedded in the plastic foundations of the universe’. (I owe this quotation, if my memory serves me aright, to Mr. Winston Churchill -- I mean, of course, the other Winston Churchill, the American novelist.) Or rather, it is a creative act of the living God, which does not simply pass over the wreckage of past failures, but transforms and utilizes it. If we may put it so, the very wickedness of men gives God a new chance of creation. (That is why evil is bound to be overcome in the end, because its worst efforts call forth a more than countervailing power creative of good.) Forgiveness, then, is the power for a fresh start at the moment of deepest despair, ‘according to the energy of the might of His strength, which He put into effect in Christ when He raised Him from the dead’. (Ephesians 1:19-20. Paul puts in every word he can think of that means effectual power.) Nor is it a purely individual matter, though it becomes real in becoming personal. It is an active force in history.
In our present situation, therefore, we have this ground of hope: that over and above all the ostensible factors at work there is an overruling factor which is the Creative goodwill of God; and to this we cannot assign any necessary limits. When we survey the immanent possibilities of the situation, we must confess that the outlook is not promising. Much is said about the ‘new world’ for which we must plan, but the genuinely new factors upon which any plan must depend are not obvious. The more clear-sighted speak with a notable lack of assurance about what lies ahead. But we are not confined to the immanent possibilities of the situation. There is a further possibility; that creative energies from beyond history may enter into it and alter the whole prospect. God creates by His Word, ‘calling the things that are not as if they were’. In our present crisis, it may be, He is calling to something which does not yet exist in us, but will come into existence at His Word.
Here is something that we cannot plan. The initiative lies with God, who is speaking in the circumstances of our time to those who can hear. His Word awaits a response. The only admissible response from man to his Maker is obedience. The line of behaviour called for by obedience to God in the present circumstances, in its particulars, is left to our conscience, fortified by all the knowledge of relevant facts that we can get, and by honest thinking about them. But our thinking must be directed, and our conscience informed, upon principles which are given in God’s self-revelation in Christ, and in the relation between God and man there set up. The Gospels are our guide.
To take one particular example, consider the significance of the Gospel precepts about forgiveness for the historical problem of our time. If our one ground of hope is God’s forgiveness of the evil resident in the present situation, then it follows by inexorable logic that our response must include forgiveness of our enemies. By forgiveness I do not mean a warm sentimentality that muffles real wrongs. God’s forgiveness, we have seen, is creative action for the renewal of human life wasted by evil, in full view of the reality of the evil, but with steady goodwill towards those who have done the evil. Human forgiveness is an attempt to imitate the divine, within our human limitations. That is, it is constructive action, based upon persistent goodwill, and directed towards ‘overcoming evil with good’. (Romans 12:21) It is difficult, but it need not be either complicated or abstruse. ‘If thine enemy hunger, feed him’ (Romans 12:20) is not a bad beginning. However difficult, the demand is clear. ‘If you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your misdeeds.’ (Matthew 6:15). This is no arbitrary ruling. It lies in the nature of the case. The creative goodwill of God, which means the possibility of a fresh start out of this fearful mess, becomes effective as it meets with the right response from men and finds expression in their action.
Here then is the basis of the ‘transfiguration’ of the situation which is called for by the present crisis. It is, let me repeat, a real concrete possibility here and now. The place where history is made is the place of encounter between God and man, where the Word of God is heard and man responds in obedience. Such is the purport of the whole biblical history. That history is alive in the Church, which was brought into being by it, and continually witnesses to it. In our time history is being made in the Church.
Not many years ago such a statement would have been met with a smile of incredulity. At this moment anyone who should dismiss the claim out of hand would show himself ignorant of what has been happening during the dark years all over Europe. The Church has been in many countries the sole effective custodian of values that were in danger of perishing from the earth. Divided as it is, the Church has spoken with one voice upon certain ultimate principles, whether the voice was that of an Orthodox metropolitan of Athens, a cardinal archbishop of Munich, or a Lutheran primate of Norway; an Anglican archbishop or a Roman Pope -- or of many less conspicuous but not less faithful witnesses, some of whom paid dearly for their witness. There was no other voice that spoke with the like clarity and consistency.
Not only so, there was, in many countries, no other available centre for a community-life independent of perverted ‘ideologies’, and having promise for the future; and this corporate life expressed itself in common action. Most people know something of the part played in Norway by Bishop Berggrav and his clergy, and the school-teachers who followed his lead. In Holland the Church inflexibly resisted orders of the usurping government which were contrary to the Law of God. In France an unheard-of unity of witness between catholics and protestants gave inspiration to a bewildered people. In Germany there was a similar agreement of the two communions, unprecedented since the Reformation, in protest against iniquities and in succour of the oppressed. Since the close of the war we have learnt unsuspected facts about the persistence and weight of the ‘church-opposition’ in Germany -- the only effective opposition there was, by general admission, even though it largely failed of immediate results. (Recently it has been reported that a representative body of the German Evangelical Church has made a courageous statement acknowledging not only Germany’s guilt, but also the Church’s own share in that guilt, despite its efforts and its loyal witness to the truth.)
Whether these and similar activities of the Church in many countries will lead (as they might well do) to a new orientation of affairs we do not yet know. But in such actions we see the biblical history coming alive, with its perpetually recurrent themes: the recognition and acceptance of a divine judgement upon our common sin; the acknowledgement of a power to re-make human life; and the characteristic response, after the pattern of Christ and His apostles: ‘we ought to obey God rather than men’. (Acts 5:29) We have, therefore, grounds for believing that history is being made in the Church. If so, it is not because the Church has a superior plan for reconstruction; or because its clergy speak with authority upon political or economic questions; or because its members are exceptionally virtuous or intelligent. It is because the Church, however low it falls, bears the indelible marks of its origin. It cannot help itself. It is bound to repeat in its services words and actions which recall the great divine Event out of which it arose; and these have proved their power, even in its worst periods, to shake men with the sense that they are confronted by God in His judgement and His mercy, and to drive them to a decision.
Through seeing the process at work in a concrete institution we understand how contemporary history falls into the context of the history which is revelation. We have been too ‘subjective’ and individualist in our understanding of the Christian faith. The Bible deals all through with the conception of a people of God, which is the point of application of God’s creative Word, and the place where history is made through man’s response to it. Read in the light of that conception, and in the context of an actual community playing its part in the drama of our time, it becomes acutely relevant to our contemporary problem.