The Hand of the LORD in National Catastrophe

By Benjamin P. Glaser - Posted at Mountains and Magnolias:

“If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?” — Amos 3:6

Great Fire of New York - Image from Wikipedia

In his sermon responding to the Great Fire of 1835 in New York City Reformed Presbyterian minister James R. Willson speaks at great length as to the reasons why there was such a wanton destruction of both material and buildings, even noting the way that the freezing of the water lines inhibited the fighting of the fire, and how Christians should respond to this tragedy. There is much to take from this work including his jeremiads against the violence done to abolitionists, the danger of preaching false gospels, and the sins of the United States government, all of which Willson speaks about at length in other sermons and letters. However what I would like to focus on in this post is something dealing not with the content of the sermon (which I highly recommend you read), but one of the theological underpinnings of Willson’s writings, that being the role of our sovereign and holy God in the calamity of the fire. Throughout the sermon he makes some statements that would cause most 21st Century Christians to image Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and I want to examine for the believer why, despite the inelegant and wrongheaded manner in which men like Robertson and Falwell often went about their condemnations, the spirit of their motions were correct, and in keeping with a long-held understanding of God’s continued hand in the world and its conflagrations.

There has always been an impulse to speak to ones congregation about major events happening in and around the church (see the myriads of sermons preached after the Great Fire of London in 1666), which we have seen in recent years after events like 9/11 and more recently the Supreme Court decisions. My personal practice is not to deviate from already organized services as I find the breadth of Holy Scripture to be sufficient to work in applications to happenings in wider society regardless of the passage. That being said a topical sermon devoted to extraordinary thanksgivings and other more negative events are certainly in keeping with the strictures of WCF 21 and our Reformed heritage. So there is no trouble, historically or confessionally, with this practice. Going back to the larger question at hand what right does a Reformed minister have in speaking to God’s specific destruction for national sin, whether before or after, and His hand in these things? There is certainly a more recent school of thought in Reformed circles that to speak at all about God’s role in anything but a generic sense is to be not just presumptuous, but confusing the theology of the cross with a theology of glory. Part of the reason for this is the absence in our systematic theology of an understanding of nations as nations being moral persons. In other words we all confess the truth that people, as individuals, owe obedience to God and will be held accountable for their decisions in accordance with revealed truth. However, what is absent from our day is the long held awareness in Reformed theology of a corporate aspect to this obedience in not just the Church, but in society as well. Here is a link to some quotes that illustrate the way in which this thought permeated Reformed thinkers across the centuries.

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