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Under what circumstances could it be said that this or that event in history is the result of divine intervention? If such an event can be explained satisfactorily in mundane terms, without appeal to divine agency, is there any need to posit a remainder? Is it then redundant to invoke the deity in order to explain that event? The ramblings that follow were provoked by a well-argued seminar paper last Friday by Greg Dawes, who revisited Ernst Troeltsch’s seminal essay on historical and dogmatic method in theology. While Dawes (and everyone else in the room) was primarily interested in the question of whether or not, and under what circumstances supernatural agency can reasonably be invoked in order to explain a given event in history, I am more interested in the genealogy of the question. I am less interested in whether some god or other is acting in history than in why some people feel it necessary to suppose that such a god might be so acting. Why do some theologians, historians, and philosophers feel it appropriate, necessary, or at least not implausible to suppose that a deity (generally a deity that bears more than a passing resemblance to the god of Christian orthodoxy, whether or not this is admitted) has acted in history? As a biblical scholar, and a rather aberrant one at that, I am getting used to asking questions that no-one else is really interested in, but let me proceed anyway.

The answer, I suspect, has nothing much to do with proper historical method at all, though in framing the answer thus I am begging a range of questions: what is proper about a particular construal of “historical method”? Is “historical method” an oxymoron, that is, is the study of history necessarily something that can be reduced to a “method”? It has to do with the application, whether acknowledged or not, of an entire epistemic framework that specifies in advance the basis on which explanatory adequacy is to be judged. Even if this epistemic framework is not invoked in the process of explanation, its ghost continues to work between the lines, so that “God” crops up as a plausible agent in the explanation, even if all the other elements in the explanation fall into the category one might loosely and inadequately term “secular.”

The origins of this framework of explanation lie, I would argue, in the process of explaining, in theological terms, how belief in the justice, power, and knowledge of the just and compassionate god of Israel’s tradition (Exodus 34:6-7; Jonah 4:2) could be maintained in light of the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE. This is an event that can be explained without any obvious remainder in mundane, geopolitical terms: the puppet king of Judah, Zedekiah, rebelled against his Babylonian master and received in his body the due penalty for his error. Blinded and in chains, he was taken captive and his erstwhile capital, Jerusalem, with the temple of its god Yahweh, was reduced to rubble, its inhabitants reduced, according to the book of Lamentations, to boiling their own children in order to survive (Lamentations 4:10), obliterating in the process the children who would tend their parents in their dotage, the hope for future descendants to continue the heritage of Judah, and arguably the humanity of both the parents and the children as well.

Outside the framework provided by the sacred traditions of early sixth-century BCE Judah there is no reason to suppose any other factors than the logic of human warfare and empire building were involved. Indeed, the Nachleben and Wirkung of this framework have highlighted its dangers in the ethical sphere. This is already evident in the voice of daughter Zion in the book of Lamentations (see, e.g., the works of Tod Linafelt and Carleen Mandolfo), but is arguably evident in the use of the analogy of 586 to explain, in theological terms, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 CE (see 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch), and is surely evident in the attempt by some to use the analogy of 586 to explain the Shoah, as divine retribution for assimilation on the part of some Jews to the wider secular/Christian norms of post-Enlightenment European culture. The ethical inadequacy of the analogy lies behind both Emmanuel Levinas’s reflections on “useless suffering” and Richard Rubenstein’s controversial rejection of covenant theology.

The fact is, though, that to a sixth-century BCE Jew confronted with the events of 586, to interpret history in non-theological terms would have made no sense because God had not yet disappeared, and was in no danger of dying. He (i.e. Yahweh) may have been hiding, or less powerful than Marduk, or angry with his people; or she (i.e. the Queen of Heaven – see Jeremiah 44) may have been upset that she had not received any libations recently. The “Yahweh is angry with his people” option is the one that won, as the many layers of the Deuteronomistic History, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel amply attest. There was nothing inevitable about this victory of deuteronomic orthodoxy as, again, the many layers of the works just listed (esp. Jeremiah and Ezekiel) also amply attest. This, too, can be explained in mundane terms: male, Yahwistic, deuteronomically-inclined scribes saturated in the theology of covenant inscribed in the texts that would control the future development of post-exilic Jewish theology their own interpretation of the events of 586 BCE.

Two points need to be made. First, in terms of the Hebrew Bible, the scribes responsible for works deemed scriptural in Judaism and Christianity also preserved and transmitted the works that point to the deconstruction of the dominant, theodic interpretation of the events of 586 BCE (see Job and the counter-voices within Lamentations, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and some of the Twelve, esp. Jonah, Habakkuk, and Malachi): the Hebrew Bible is dialogic, not monologic, and reflects a critical theological conversation around the meaning of history. The whole conversation may well be redundant, but that is another matter. Second, it makes little sense, and is of little interest, to invoke supernatural involvement in any historical event without a pre-existing theological framework within which such involvement can be explained. Such explanation can only meaningfully take place in relation to such a framework, not in relation to the methods of historical criticism. What is at stake is not the explanatory value of theistic explanation in relation to non-theistic explanation, but the cogency of the entire prior theological framework that makes the former possible.

What, in biblical terms, is this framework? Well, that are a number of possible construals, but I would argue that the construal that best represents the biblical evidence, supported by the dominant voices in the Hebrew Bible (albeit undermined by the counter-voices in Job, Lamentations, and the Latter Prophets) emerges from the imposition of the treaty model on divine-human relations within Israel, classically defined in Deuteronomy. It invokes a particular construal of divine retribution: observe Yahweh’s commands and be blessed, or disobey those commands and be cursed. This construal of divine retribution is, furthermore, bound up with a particular construal of valid prophecy: a prophet is true if he or she speaks in the name of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 13:1-5) and if what he (e.g. Jeremiah) or she (e.g. Huldah) says comes true (Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Jeremiah 27-29). This then lays a great deal of authority on the linguistic-rhetorical ingenuity of the prophet who wants his words to be deemed true: make them non-falsifiable (thus Jeremiah), not open to disconfirmation (thus Hananiah, more a victim of prophetic ineptitude than pseudo-prophetic mendacity). It makes perfect sense to construct a prophecy that no-one will live to see literally fulfilled, but that future generations will re-interpret (Daniel 9) and re-interpret again. All of this assumes a particular understanding of time, to which the deity is somehow bound. Time is linear, and the observance of the terms of the treaty, together with the fulfilment of prophecy, are constrained by the arrow of linear time.

This framework sets the terms by which a theistic explanation of a particular event in history might be regarded as valid. More strongly, it establishes under what terms an explanation of an event affecting the people of the covenant could be considered adequate. This is why communal laments such as Psalm 44 and Psalm 80 work: the god of the covenant must exist in some relation to events affecting the covenant people, otherwise the entire theological edifice crumbles.

My point, I think, is that in an intellectual context shaped, at whatever remove, by the effects of traditions such as we find in the Deuteronomistic History, to invoke God as an essential element in an adequate explanation of an event does not simply raise the question of whether a theistic explanation is adequate, necessary, or even possible. It raises the question of whether an entire string of theological presuppositions and implications can be admitted as elements bearing on the adequacy of the explanation. Now I have been to some extent reductionist in focusing so squarely on the events of 586 BCE, but I have done this not because these events are the only analogy that could be drawn on in constructing a theistic explanation of an event, but because these events, or rather one canonically sanctioned construal of their theological significance, provides the generative analogy that even makes possible subsequent theistic explanations for historical events in contexts influenced by the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity.

There are other possible points of departure. In a confessing Christian context it would surely be essential to ask the question, “What might it mean – I can hear Will Sweetman’s teeth grinding from here – to construct a theistic explanation for a historical event in light of the incarnation, or the descent of the Holy Spirit, or the ascension of Christ, or the divinely-bestowed mission of the Church, or the Christian hope of resurrection?” These are compelling questions that I don’t yet want to get into, for two reasons, both of which would require an acre of exploration. First, it seems to me that the Christian inheritance of the sacred texts of pre-Christian Judaism means that even to ask, in a Christian context, how God is involved in history is ultimately to exhibit one’s dependence on the generative analogy of 586. Second, and in tension with this, there are properly theological issues to be dealt with. How is the question of divine involvement in history to be located dogmatically? Is it a question primarily of the possibility of divine revelation, of the authority of Scripture, of the doctrine of God, or of the implications of the incarnation? Is it a question primarily of epistemology (how can we know that God is involved in this event?) or of ethics (is it ethically defensible to posit God’s involvement in this event?)? Reflections on these questions will have to wait.


Levinas, Emmanuel. “Useless Suffering.” Pages 450-454 in Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust. Edited by S. T. Katz, S. Biderman, and G. Greenberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Repr. from The Provocation of Levinas. Edited by R. Bernasconi and D. Wood. London: Routledge, 1988.

Linafelt, Tod. Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Mandolfo, Carleen. Daughter Zion talks back to the Prophets: A Dialogic Theology of the Book of Lamentations. Semeia Studies 58. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Rubenstein, Richard L. After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism. 2d ed. Johns Hopkins Jewish Studies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Troeltsch, Ernst. “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology.” Pages 729-753 in Religion in History: Ernst Troeltsch. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991. German: Troeltsch, Gesammelte Schriften. Tübingen: Mohr, 1913. Originally published 1898.