Berkouwer on Divine Providence
The distinction between observation and faith is important for theological reflection concerning divine providence if theology is to avoid reaching misguided conclusions.
Warning against "the danger of going outside the sphere of faith into the area of observation", Berkouwer disputes "the legitimacy of interpreting the ways of Providence on the basis of facts" (The Providence of God (PG), pp. 164-165).
He aims to guard against the possibility that "everyone according to his own prejudice and subjective whim (can) canonize a certain event or national rise as a special act of God in which He reveals and demonstrates His favour" (PG, p. 164).
Acutely aware that "the interpretation of an historical event as a special revelation of Providence too easily becomes a piously disguised form of self-justification" (PG, p. 166), Berkouwer insists that "no event speaks so clearly that we may conclude from it a certain disposition of God - as long as God Himself does not reveal that His disposition comes to expression in the given event" (PG, p. 170).
Concerning events in the history of Israel which are recorded in Scripture, Berkouwer writes, "The Divine disposition is, indeed, revealed in these events. But it is the word of revelation which explains them" (PG, p. 171, emphasis mine).
Concerning the interpretation of contemporary events, he warns, "we have not been given a norm for explaining the facts of history ... in the absence of a norm only an untrustworthy plausibility remains" (PG, p. 171).
Using insightful exegesis of Scripture, Berkouwer warns against a misguided interpretation of contemporary events. Commenting on the words, "Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?" (Amos 9:7), he writes, "the fact of the exodus may not be used as basis, isolated from revelation and seen by itself from which to draw selfish conclusions about God's disposition ... AS a mere historical fact, the exodus puts Israel on the same level with other nations. But accompanied by a proper faith in God, it constitutes a challenge and, given the proper response, further blessing" (PG, p. 176, emphasis original).
Neither Christendom nor Communism has a right to point to the failures of the other while remaining oblivious to its own inadequacies. Both are challenged to self-examination by their own professed ideals.
Commenting on the advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39), Berkouwer cites A. Kuyper: "It is not true that God the Lord destroys forthwith that which is not from Him and crowns with success every endeavor of His believers" (PG, p.173 - from Revisie der revisie-legende, 1879).
A comparison of societies may not be used to vindicate a particular world-view since worldly success does not necessarily imply truth.
Berkouwer develops a Christocentric approach to divine providence: "It is possible to speak correctly about God's Providence only on the basis of the blood of the cross. Otherwise we will certainly fall into one of many possible arbitrary interpretations of history ... All events are embraced in the one work of God, which is explained for all time by His Word. Thus, there can be no proceeding from facts or events isolated from that revelation" (PG, p. 178).
This Christocentric doctrine of providence may not be identified with the Marxist conception of religion as "the opium of the people" (Karl Marx: Selected Writings on Sociology and Social Philosophy, edited by Bottomore and Rubel, p. 41)since it is grounded in the Christ who "tells us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33); which is to say that the peace of mind that the Gospel gives does not allow us to decline into the superficialities of comfortable bourgeois living" (PG, p. 181).
When Berkouwer writes, "He who sees things this way will never succumb to the temptation to identify prosperity with blessing and adversity with curse. In faith, however, one can accept prosperity as the gift of God, and adversity as God's hand graciously leading him to greater faith" (PG,p. 179), he is far removed from a hypocritical attitude which is devoid of social concern.