August 26, 2020

What Governs History?

Stephen Nichols
What Governs History?

What guides the direction of history? Fate? Random chance? On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols evaluates how one Princetonian scholar went about answering this age-old question.


What governs history? There have been various answers to this throughout history. Some have said, “Nothing governs history. Everything is just open to chance. Who knows even how today is going to end?” Others have said, “Fate determines all things.” We have to go back to Greek and Roman mythology to understand fate. We find this concept in the writings of Homer and Hesiod.

The Fates were the three daughters of the goddess Nyx. She was the goddess of the night. One of the Fates would simply spin thread from a spindle. That’s all she would do: just spin thread from a spindle. The second sister would measure out a given piece of thread, and that given piece of thread signified the length of a life. And the third sister would cut the thread, and that signified death. In Greek, her name literally means “the inevitable.” In ancient mythology, even mighty Zeus had to bow to the Fates. They were independent. They were arbitrary. They were capricious, and they governed all events of human history and all events of a single life.

This idea of the Fates carried on into the early Roman philosophers, who would talk about causality as a determining factor of all that happened in history and in a given life.

What is the Christian response to these two answers of “nothing governs history” or “the Fates govern history”? We find a fascinating answer in Archibald Alexander. He was one of the old Princetonian scholars, and he lectured on theology at Princeton. One of his students was Charles Hodge. And Charles Hodge was a very diligent student who he took careful notes (in cursive handwriting) of Archibald Alexander’s lectures.

So we have preserved for us today in book form Archibald Alexander’s talk about the doctrine of providence. He sets it up by talking about fate, and he explores how various Roman thinkers talked about fate. He talks about how Cicero spoke of the order or series of causes that governed all things. He talks about how Seneca, according to Alexander, makes cause and fate an “irrevocable necessity, controlling the course of both human and divine affairs,” so that the supreme ruler is even governed by fate and continually obeys the Fates and the causes.

None of this is something Archibald Alexander wants us to believe in. In fact, he says, “Ought Christians to retain and use the word fate?” He answers, categorically, no, because this is very inconsistent with the truth. So what does govern history? Archibald Alexander says Providence does. He says, “Does providence extend to all things, small as well as great?” That is to say, does providence govern human history and does it govern the events of my life? He answers, “Yes, because God created all things and therefore he cares for all.”

Archibald Alexander goes on to reference Nehemiah 9:6: “You, even you, are Lord alone. You’ve made heaven and the heavens of heavens and all their hosts. You’ve made the earth and all things that are in it and the sea and all that is in it. You preserve them all.” He then draws attention to such passages as Luke 12:7, Matthew 10:29, Matthew 6:28, and Psalm 147:9. We put all of that biblical material together, and what do we find? Even the hairs of our heads are said to be numbered. The fowls of the air, the lilies of the field, and even the insects are under the care of God.

So what governs history? First we could ask, Who governs history? And the answer is, God does. And then we can ask, What? And we say, “His providence.” God’s providence governs all things and moves all things to the fruition and the fulfillment of His perfect, good, and wise will. That’s providence.