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The Meaning of History, Part Five

“Such are the facts of history.  The reader will make his own comments upon them.” —Bishop John Wordsworth

“An Act of God.” —The official cause of a fire in an abortion clinic.

The Judgment of God?

Arius, the arch-heretic condemned at Nicea, stood before the Emperor and swore that his beliefs were now orthodox.  Constantine accepted his oath, though with a warning, and ordered the bishop of Constantinople, one Alexander, to receive Arius into communion.  But Alexander didn’t believe Arius’s confession, and so, prostrate on the church floor, he cried out to God:

If Arius comes tomorrow to the church, take me away, and let me not perish with the guilty.  But if Thou pitiest Thy Church, as Thou dost pity it, take Arius away, lest when he enters heresy enter with him.

Later that day or perhaps the next morning, Arius, surrounded by his supporters and a crowd of agitated and curious on-lookers, headed toward the church building.  Suddenly the old man was seized by gastric pains and quickly ducked into a public latrine behind the Forum.  After waiting a long time for Arius to reappear, his attendants went to check on him.  To their horror, they found him dead on the latrine floor in a pool of his own gore and excrement.  His bowels had exploded.  The orthodox immediately spoke of divine judgment and pointed out the parallel between Arius and Judas Iscariot, who also “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

Did God Do This?

The Church historians closest to the Emperor and to Arius didn’t pass on this story.  And many modern historians are skeptical of the event and its significance.  One writer, Norvelle Sharpe, spoke of Arius’s death as “a strange coincidence.”  Sharpe’s article, the transcript of a lecture, appeared under the title “Athanasius the Copt, and His Times” in Bibliotheca Sacra in 1915.  Sharpe was a surgeon and a medical author, and he suggests three different ways we might instead interpret the incident.  First, perhaps the old heretic’s death was the work of an assassin who poisoned Arius “to the greater glory of God.”  Second, we might consider this “an instance of the illy-defined field commonly spoke of as a ‘visitation of God’; in other words, a divine judgment.” Third, the cause of death might have been “some pathological condition, unrecognized by current medical knowledge….”

There is some odd confusion in Sharpe’s observations.  The words “strange coincidence” suggest that God had no particular reason for having Arius die when and how he did; or that such things are outside of God’s providence altogether.  Then he turns around and raises the possibility of “divine visitation,” but only as one of three distinct possible explanations.  That is, Sharpe admits that divine judgment is one explanation we might consider, but he doesn’t seem to consider that God might use an assassin’s poison or an unknown medical condition to bring about that judgment.

Sharpe is clear about one thing, however:  Arius was certainly not worthy of God’s special and immediate judgment.

It is idle to assume that Arius was a monster of iniquity worthy of the damnation the ecclesiastical historians have allotted him.  The impartial student of history views with approval the dictum that had this ascetic not drifted into heresy he would, in all probability, have been reckoned a saint….

The impartial student of history, he says.  And yet Sharpe makes judgments about Arius’s moral character, his soul, his eternal destiny, and his future in an alternate timeline.  He reckons Arius’s willful and intelligent attack on the gospel as a mere drift into heresy, and he sees no connection between one’s doctrine and one’s character.  Furthermore, he implies that the bulk of the Church’s historians have been self-righteous and narrow-minded.  Yet Dr. Sharpe wrote 1500 years after the fact.

The Interpretation of History

There are no brute facts, only interpreted facts.  Every man approaches the facts from a set of presuppositions that make up the bedrock of his worldview and define for him the nature of reality.  For the Christian, the facts are what they are because of the decree and providence of the Triune God of Scripture.  All facts are God-created, God-ordained facts.  The Christian historian has no desire to be impartial, only honest.  He comes to the historical records—the documents, the artifacts, the secondary sources—with the understanding that whatever has happened in the past has happened by God’s own providence and for the advancement of His gospel and kingdom.  Holy Scripture provides the basic theological and historical framework and many of the background facts for interpreting history.

Basic to Scripture’s perspective is the Protoevangelium, the first promise of the gospel, in Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

Not only does God promise to act in history: He promises to save and redeem His people.  More specifically, God promises that the Seed of the woman, Jesus Christ, will act in history to destroy the works of the devil, to overturn his kingdom, and to save and sanctify His Church (cf. 1 Jn. 3:8; Dan. 2:42; Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Cor. 15:25).  And so, as the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus has received all power in heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18); that is, the Father has placed the providential government of the universe in His hands so that all of history comes from, through, and in Him (Eph. 1:22; Col 1:16-20; Rev. 21:5).  He reigns to save His Church and destroy His enemies.

Making the Application

But does Christ really judge His enemies here and now?  Don’t such things belong to the eras of special revelation, before the close of the New Testament canon?  There are many in the Church who think so.  They insist in so many words that Christ must play by the rules of Newtonian cause and effect or by the broad guidelines of common grace and common curse.  What shall we say to these things?

First, we must affirm the testimony of Scripture.  Consider, for example, what the Psalmist says of Messiah’s reign:

Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.  Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.  Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little (Ps. 2:10-12).

The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.  He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries (Ps. 110:5-6).

Clearly, we are to expect that Christ will destroy His enemies not only at the end of history, but within history.  The picture the Psalmist paints is not a kind or gentle one.

Second, we must avoid any sort of Christianized deism.  God’s promise of providential regularity (Gen. 8:22) doesn’t keep Him from acting within creation how and when He pleases.  The Westminster Confession (1646) tells us that “God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure” (V: iii).  Notice the word “is.” The Confession is describing an on-going reality.  Could God have killed Arius by an assassin’s poison?  Yes.  Could he have used a pre-existing medical condition?  Yes.  Could He have struck him dead on the spot “without, above, or against” such means if He pleased?  Yes.

Third, we must understand that God’s vision for history is greater than we can possibly imagine.  His story is complex, and He isn’t in a hurry to reveal it completely.  He is far more concerned with the salvation and sanctification of His people than He is with their immediate ecclesiastical, political, or cultural success—let alone their immediate happiness.  Many saints spend their lives in poverty and pain.  Many godly ministries reap a feeble harvest.  The wicked seem to prosper, spreading themselves “like a green bay tree,” yet they pass away (Ps. 37).  As Augustine observes in his City of God, God doesn’t settle all scores here and now, but He does settle many so that men might learn to fear His justice and seek His grace.  Not all judgments from God are dramatic. Not all are fearful. Not all are sudden.  But some are all three.

Some Rules for Judging Judgment

In Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), itself a record of God’s amazing providences in Puritan New England, Cotton Mather discusses at great length the nature of God’s judgments in history and what use we are to make of them.  He lays down a number of rules that ought to govern our thinking in such matters.  Under The First Rule, he writes this:

There is one thing in the “judgments of God” whereof we should always be afraid; that is, lest we do make an injudicious interpretation of them…..  The judgments of God are those things whereof ‘tis said, “Whoso is wise will observe those things;” but then we must be careful to proceed wisely in our observing of them.  ‘Tis a dangerous thing for us to indulge our own passion, in making of glosses upon the “judgments of God:”  God will not hold the man guiltless who shall so take his name in vain.  Very sad things may befall the “people of God”…. The sovereign God has made a cross to be necessary for all the disciples of Him who dy’d upon the cross… (383)

We should remember the case of Job or the sufferings of the apostle Paul.  The godly may suffer greatly and in striking ways.  So Mather reminds us that we should only speak of the judgment of God where real and great sin is apparent—and not always then.  When may it be proper to point out a surprising providence as the judgment of God?  Mather offers this advice:

There must be something in the time of it, or in the place of it, or in its resemblance to the fault for which it comes, or in the confession of the person chastised, that shall make the conscience to say, there are the plain signatures of a judgment for some sin in the stroke now given by God! (384)

But What of Arius?

Still, these broad principles don’t answer all of our questions about every historical event.  Was Arius’s death, for example, really an instance of immediate divine judgment?

Of course, for Arius himself, the answer is simple.  Yes.  Upon his death, Arius immediately found himself in the presence of Jesus Christ, there to receive judgment from the consubstantial God he had spend most of his career denying.  Life and death are always in God’s hands, and death always means final judgment for the one who dies (Heb. 9:27).

For the rest of us, it certainly looks like an immediate judgment from God, whether by means or above them.  Arius was, arguably, the gospel’s greatest enemy in the first five centuries of the Christian era.  His recantations and professions, such as they were, weren’t remotely appropriate for the sort of damage he had done during the bulk of his career.  His horrible death was a stinging reproof to his friends and disciples.  The circumstances of his death were especially disgusting and humiliating, and they did look an awful lot like those that befell Judas Iscariot.  Given all this, it’s hard to see why we wouldn’t label Arius’s end a judgment from God—not if we take God’s holiness and wrath seriously… not if we believe in a God who judges in the Earth.

For Further Reading:

Augustine of Hippo, City of God.

Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America [Magnalia Christi Americana] (Edinburgh:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979 [1702, 1853]).

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