What Is the River of History?
God’s providence may not unfitly be compared to a large and long river, having innumerable branches beginning in different regions, and at a great distance one from another, and all conspiring to one common issue. After their very diverse and contrary courses which they hold for a while, yet all gathering more and more together the nearer they come to their common end, and all at length discharging themselves at one mouth into the same ocean.
The different streams of this river are ready to look like mere jumble and confusion to us because of the limitedness of our sight, whereby we can’t see from one branch to another and can’t see the whole at once, so as to see how all are united in one. A man that sees but one or two streams at a time can’t tell what their course tends to. Their course seems very crooked, and the different streams seem to run for a while different and contrary ways.
And if we view things at a distance, there seem to be innumerable obstacles and impediments in the way to hinder their ever uniting and coming to the ocean, as rocks and mountains and the like. But yet if we trace them they all unite at last and all come to the same issue, disgorging themselves into one and the same great ocean. Not one of the streams fail of coming hither at last (“A History of the Work of Redemption,” 520, paragraphing mine) .
Here are three points on this river of history:
The Two Motifs
First, this quotation confirms the two motifs in Edwards’ view of history: the cyclical and the progressive. Sometimes, the river of history looks chaotic, like it’s aimless and wandering nobody knows where, that there’s no ultimate direction. But there is an ultimate direction; all of the streams and branches and tributaries are making their way inexorably to the ocean.
The Contrary Ways
Second, the river may run off in a crooked direction, heading northwest when the ocean is southeast. At times like these, we can wonder whether the ocean is truly the final destination. “If the sea is that way, why is the river running this way?” “If God is good and he rules and reigns, why does it appear that evil is so often winning?”
Edwards’s analogy allows us to affirm two key truths about evil in history. First, evil really is evil; at that point, the river really is running northwest. But second, it will not always run northwest; the banks will turn and it will head toward the sea again. In the end nothing can stop God from guiding history to its glorious conclusion.
Everything Is Coming to a Point
Finally, while the branches of the river may begin far apart, as time goes on, they come to a point, moving nearer to their appointed consummation. This sentiment is related to one that C. S. Lewis describes through Dimble in That Hideous Strength
Have you ever noticed that the universe, and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point? . . . If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family — anything you like — at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous.
Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder (283, paragraphing mine).
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.
Recent posts from "Jonathan Edwards: Images of Divine Things" —
- Two Tensions in Edwards's View of History
- Five Purposes of God in the Work of Redemption
- Three Points on Edwards's History of Redemption
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