Eschatology and Advent (4) “Already and Not Yet”

Continuing our sketch of eschatology in recent NT studies in doing so telling the story of ‘eschatology’s come back’ to a (rightly) central place in NT theology.

A couple of key figures here are Werner Georg Kümmel (Germany) and Oscar Cullmann (Switzerland).

Focusing first on Jesus but later extending analysis to Paul and John, Kümmel argued the first Christians believed in Jesus, the bearer of salvation of the end time “already now as the heavenly Lord rules his eschatological community” and believers in that community are “already experiencing together the reality of the final salvation that is promised to them.”[1]

It was Oscar Cullmann who developed a famous eschatological image of the overlap of the ages [2]. See the map for a clue

What’s D-Day got to do with eschatology? Cullmann’s point was that D-Day marked the decisive turning point in the war. After the Allied invasion it was only a matter of time until final victory (V-Day). So it is with the first and second coming of Jesus.

Christians now live in the inbetween times of the first and second coming. This is the eschatological tension of an “already fulfilled” and “not yet consummated” aspects that exist within a redemptive-historical framework. Christ has come in history and will do so again.

The Christian faith is determinedly historical, awaiting that which has not yet happened in the light of that which has. The future is really future. New events are yet to happen: the parousia, the resurrection and the new creation. Eschatology is not an existential abstract concept, it talks of events still to unfold within a temporal framework … this integration of the present reality of the kingdom (Dodd) and a future expectation awaiting consummation (Weiss-Schweitzer) was also reflected in various ways in scholars like Joachim Jeremias, Günther Bornkamm, G. E. Ladd, and George R. Beasley-Murray.

(Mitchel, The State of New Testament Studies)

You can see how Cullmann’s heilsgeschichtliche (salvation history) theology confronts Bultmann’s de-eschatologizing and de-historizing of the New Testament as well as Weiss-Schweitzer’s conclusion that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.

Cullmann roots eschatology in the real world, and he argued that this reflects the “innermost character” of New Testament faith.

This takes the faith of the first Christians, as expressed in the NT, seriously, and has been hugely influential in NT Studies ever since. That is not to say, of course, that the Wredestrasse is not still well travelled, or that the actual historical events of resurrection past (Jesus) and future (general for all) are accepted as ‘real facts’ by much academic scholarship. But it does mean that eschatology is now front and centre in understanding the experience, theology and hopes of the Christians who wrote the New Testament.

The idea of the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ or ‘inaugurated eschatology’ of the kingdom come and yet to be fulfilled in the future is, I think it fair to say, a widely accepted paradigm among scholars and in the church for understanding the eschatology of the New Testament.

And if so, then Christians live in the overlaps of two co-existing ages. BOTH ages mesh with each other. The old age that is passing away (Gal 1:4) and the new age that has arrived in the present.

And this makes sense of the ethical imperatives of Jesus, Paul, John, Peter and elsewhere in the NT – to live according the age to come (kingdom, Spirit, new creation, eternal life) and not according to the age that is temporary and will be judged (sin, evil, flesh, the powers).

If you are a Christian, your mission (if you choose to accept it) is ‘be who you already are in Christ’. Live now according to your true identity and purpose as a citizen of God’s kingdom, right here in the present.


[1] W. G. Kümmel, The Theology of the New Testament According to its Major Witnesses – Jesus – Paul – John, (trans. John E. Steely: London: SCM Press, 1976), 330-31.

[2] Two works stand out. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: the primitive Christian conception of time and history, (trans. Floyd V. Filson: London: SCM Press, 1951); Salvation in History, (trans. Sidney G. Sowers: London: SCM Press, 1967).

Eschatology and Advent (3) hope as a little child

Continuing to think about eschatology and advent leading up to Christmas, but taking a pause from sketching the story of NT eschatology. How about this for a quote written 20 years ago about the nature of hope in the dark and uncertain times in which we live?

For too long the modern ideology of progress has pictured hope as grown-up, as the triumph of humanity come of age, taking its destiny into its own hands and creating the future for itself. More recently this vision has turned against hope, as supposedly mature humanity has come to seem more like a barbarous army, marching with aggressive determination to conquer the future, trampling everything in its path, progressive only in its mastery of ever more powerful and sophisticated means of destruction. Can the modern enterprise of hope be redeemed from despair?

Bauckham and Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology in Contemporary Context. 1999. p. 212.

It is this context that the authors refer to a theological poem by Charles Peguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (1911) in which hope is pictured as a little girl swinging between her elder sisters faith and love (charity). Tiny as she is compared to them, she looks like she is being carried, but in truth she is carrying them.

Hope does not grow up. In an age of fading and lost hopes, this is, so to speak, the hope for hope. Hope must always be born anew: “the little girl hope is she who forever begins.” (Peguy, The Portal, p.23).

Bauckham and Hart, Hope Against Hope, p.212.

Hope as a young child confronting darkness …. there’s eschatology and advent in action.

The Message of Love – interview

Last Monday I was interviewed by Paul Caffrey on ‘God Talk’, a half-hour show on local Dublin radio Near FM 90.3 that he hosts weekly with Anthony Brabazon.

Thanks to Paul for his hospitality and probing questions. If you are interested you can listen to it here. It lasts about 25 minutes.

Advent and Eschatology (2) The future absorbed into the present

We’re continuing with a series of posts on eschatology and Advent. The first couple or so are telling the story of the recovery of eschatology within NT studies within the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Existential Eschatology (Bultmann)

We’re picking up the story with Rudolf Bultmann.

He drove down the Schweitzerstrasse in that he was committed to the ‘otherness’ of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. As a good existentialist, Bultmann believed that the preaching of the Kingdom of God presents us with a momentous decision; response to the kerygma of the Kingdom means that God’s future breaks into our present, freeing us from our inauthentic past.

This is a continual process of living an authentic faith. But it reduced eschatology to an abstract principle of value to Christians as they live life in the present. For Bultmann eschatology is reduced to metaphor and symbol, which, while powerfully transformative in the here and now, are not to be believed as speaking of actual realities.

Hence his programme of ‘demythologization’ – the actual return of Jesus, judgement, new creation and so on are mythological, to be relevant in a modern world they need to be demythologised.

And of course once you start down the route of deciding which bits of the NT are ‘myth’ and should be put aside, you may end up with some helpful ethical principles, but the result will be a very long way away from the faith of the NT writers.

Bultmann’s emphasis on the present life effectively swallows up eschatology in the present.

If by a very different routes, Bultmann, like Wrede and like Schweitzer, also ended up with a version of ‘this-worldly’ Christian faith rather than a future-orientated faith.

Realized Eschatology (C H Dodd)

Over in Britain, Charles Harold Dodd, rejected the Schweitzerstrasse in his attempt to harmonise the future and the present within his programme of ‘realized eschatology’ as developed in The Parables of the Kingdom (1935).

Dodd, like Bultmann, but for different reasons, also reinterpreted Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God in terms of the present. He (rightly) saw how Jesus’ parables challenged listeners to respond to the presence of the kingdom of God in the life and teaching of Jesus; now was the time of both judgment and salvation. Those that respond with faith have eternal life now.

“This world has become the scene of a divine drama, in which the eternal issues are laid bare. It is the hour of decision. It is realized eschatology.”[1]

While Dodd acknowledged that the Kingdom is not merely present, he was reluctant to describe it as a future reality awaiting consummation, his emphasis was on its impact in the present. Apparently, later Dodd did make more space for real future events. So while his realized eschatology failed to carry the day, he did pave the way for ‘eschatology’s come back’.

We will turn to that come back in the next post(s).

All this continues to raise a question for day to day Christian life.

How does future hope shape your life in the present?

Is that future hope merely an abstract idea or example that helps us live significant lives in the present? (Bultmann, Dodd – and also in different ways Wrede, Weiss and Schweitzer).

Or is it talking of real events in God’s timetable of one day putting everything right?


[1] Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 198.

Eschatology and Advent (1)

Due to a couple of writing assignments I’ve been thinking and researching quite a bit about eschatology. The word comes from the Greek eschatos (‘last’) hence eschatology = theology of the last things.

This is the first of a few posts on the intersection of future hope and the Christian life in the present.

One reason for this series is as a form of preparation for Advent, so it will take us up to Christmas.

While concentration in most churches during Advent tends to be on the first coming of Jesus, Advent, like many OT prophecies, has a double focus on the present as well as the indeterminate future.

So Advent celebrates the First Coming as told in the Gospel narratives of the incarnation and birth of the Messiah AND the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the judge, king and risen Lord. As we will get to later, within church tradition going back centuries it is the second coming that is a major focus of Advent, not primarily the baby Jesus lying in a crib in Bethlehem.

So, let’s get going and see where we get to.

These aren’t going to be devotional posts. It is going to be a mixture of theological discussion of eschatology within New Testament studies along with exposition of some key Advent themes.

At the beginning we’ll engage a bit with my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies (SNTS) as well, later on, with Fleming Rutledge’s book of collected sermons Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

In the first few posts, we are going to sketch of the recent ‘fortune’ of eschatology within New Testaments studies and theology.

It’s fair to say that eschatology has made a major come-back since the mid-twentieth century, and this was in no small part due to the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who famously said that ‘Christianity is eschatology’.

Eschatology’s Come Back

It’s worth putting that famous saying in fuller context. It comes from his Theology of Hope (1964), a revolutionary book within theology if ever there was one.

“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.” (Theology of Hope (16)

Back when I was in theological college we did an entire term on Moltmann. Like a lot of things in life as you get older, looking back now I think I would get a lot more out of those classes now than I did at the time! Youth wasted on the young and all that …

He isn’t an easy writer to pin down, he talks in big picture abstractions and imagery that is often not clearly rooted exegetically, but he is often inspiring and here on eschatology he was dead right – take eschatology out of Christianity and there is virtually nothing recognisably Christian left in terms of NT belief.

The revolutionary impact of Moltmann is hard to imagine now over 50 years later. It needs to be set in context of social unrest of the time and in reaction against the long marginalisation of eschatology in New Testament study.

This relegation of eschatology was evident in classic liberalism, but also, I argue, was also present, if in a very different way, in critical responses to liberalism’s discomfort with Jesus the apocalyptic prophet of God’s kingdom come.

Classic Liberalism – the Wredestrasse

The trajectory of classic liberalism (eg Wilhelm Wrede, Albrecht Ritchshl) was to marginalise eschatology – or perhaps more accurately, to reinterpret it only within the horizon of the present.

This has been called the Wredestrasse (a metaphor first used by T W Manson, taken up by Norman Perrin and then later by N T Wright) – a road directed into a very ‘this-worldly’ future. Christianity is reduced to being only about the present.

Albrecht Ritschl was the classic voice of a nineteenth-century German Lutheran liberalism in which the kingdom of God was typically an inward, spiritual, and already present reality, largely detached from contemporary Judaism and its apocalyptic eschatological hopes. Its motive was to demonstrate that the essential nature of Christian thought is focused on this world and current religious experience rather than some vague future realm. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.228)

Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer – the Schweitzerstrasse

Two men threw grenades and basically blew up the Wredestrasse – or at least left a crater in it the size of a truck. In probably the most famous book ever published in Jesus studies, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), Albert Schweitzer, closely following Johannes Weiss, called the bluff of liberalism.

Weiss followed an exegetical path that led him to believe in “the completely apocalyptic and eschatological character of Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom.” Similarly Schweitzer said that we may think we have Jesus neatly defined as “one of us”

“But He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to his own.”[1]

For Schweitzer, Jesus’s entire life and thought are shaped by eschatological thought. But for both Weiss and Schweitzer, Jesus the apocalyptic prophet died a mistaken failure.

For Weiss:

Jesus’s task was to proclaim the imminent kingdom, not establish it. When the mission of the twelve failed to persuade many of the impending arrival of kingdom, Jesus decided to atone for the people’s guilt by his own death. He hoped to return, after death, in messianic glory, revealed at last to be the Danielic Son of Man at the coming of the kingdom. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.228)

Schweitzer saw it this way – Jesus’ apocalyptic mission led to

his heroic, yet doomed, attempt to force the hand of history through his own human agency. Schweitzer’s Jesus journeys to Jerusalem to die, giving his life as an atonement to facilitate the kingdom’s coming. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.229)

The irony was that for both Weiss and Schweitzer, their version of Jesus the failed apocalyptic prophet also marginalises eschatology: the eschaton did not arrive with the death of the Messiah. 

This meant that, despite Weiss and Schweitzer’s emphasis, eschatology was, in effect, “buried” with Jesus. For both men it was only a human Jesus who died on the cross. His actions are only significant in how they model courageous world-renouncing faith. Their view of Jesus resulted in a ‘present’ orientated ethical version of Christianity not very far from the liberalism they were criticising.

In the next post we will sketch how the Wredestrasse and Schweitzerstrasse continue to be followed right up to today. There are plenty of people travelling on both roads still … (Moltmann is solidly a Schweitzer guy in his reclaiming of the central place of eschatology in Christian theology – as N. T. Wright if in a very different way).

So, how about you? What place does eschatology have in your theology of hope? How does the future shape your life and priorities in the present? Which Strasse are you walking down?


[1] Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus, 397.

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (5) a dual approach to the state (long read)

So how does a kingdom-shaped approach to the world work out in the political sphere?

To try to answer this, I’m continuing to engage with John Nugent’s The Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the Church.

The third part of his book deals with applied theology – what does a kingdom-centred view look like in practice across themes like discipleship, leadership, fellowship, family, friendship, vocation (work), mission and politics.

So we are only engaging with the last of these, and again I’d recommend the book if you want to read about the others

1. To Recap

Within the kingdom of God, the church is called to be the better place within the world rather than, mistakenly, to attempt to make the world a better place. The church is a ‘showcase’ for justice (p. 166) rather than an organisation that demands justice from the world.

This calling is a gift, it is God’s initiative all the way down.

“Our job is to embrace the gift, display it, and proclaim its availability to others.” p. 166.

This where Anabaptism gets accused of quietism, an inward-looking withdrawal from the injustice and pain of the world. (As far I can see Nugent never uses the word ‘Anabaptist’ in the book, but it is clear where he is coming from).

It is a vision of world-involvement – just not one that believes it is the job of the church to attempt to shape society to its beliefs, even if it could. It is not about trying to pull levers of power in order to protect or advance the kingdom.

2. The Temptation of Christendom

In the modern period, the state has become humanity’s most potent form of organisational control. It governs the affairs of a particular group of people within a national boundary. It commands the right to use force to do so. It has at its disposal the ability to tax its citizens, and has forces like the law, the police, the army to rule and (hopefully) protect its citizens.  These are considerable powers – there are no greater human powers in our world. It is for good reason that many states are feared by their citizens when such power is misused.

So there is good reason why we are obsessed with the drama that is Brexit – it has sucked in the most powerful national institutions of the UK, Ireland and Europe into a morass from which, three years in, only promises to deepen in the years ahead – whatever Boris Johnston says about ‘getting it done’.

The great Christendom temptation for the church was to look upon such power and believe that if the right people (Christians, the church, politicians sharing some Christian values) were in power, then that power could be used to do significant good.

And so the church moved into partnership with the state – a marriage of convenience in which the state also benefitted from having ‘God on our side’ to legitimise and validate the state and its policies.

That way lies corruption of the church. It naively imagines that Christians, who are fallen human beings, will somehow be able to harness the power of the state for ‘pure’ ends. In Ireland we don’t have to look far to see how well that’s worked out.

3. The Kingdom of God versus the State

The Christendom temptation can’t be squared with the New Testament. Nugent has a compelling series of contrasts between the kingdom of God in the NT and the state. These are just some of them and I have organised them in table form. (The wording are quotes from Nugent pp. 184-85).

KINGDOM OF GOD THE STATE
God’s kingdom takes precedence over all other loyalties The state asks for allegiance and a willingness to kill and die for it
God’s kingdom flees from and repents of immorality The state tolerates most forms of immorality that don’t immediately hurt others
God’s kingdom shows equality to all people The state discriminates against citizens of other states, especially those with significantly different political philosophies
God’s kingdom loves without partiality The state favors the wealthy and influential
God’s kingdom seeks peace in all circumstances The state wages war whenever it’s politically and economically expedient
God’s kingdom welcomes the undeserving and unexpected The state considers them a problem to be dealt with and protected against
God’s kingdom assimilates the poor more easily than the wealthy The state esteems the accumulation of wealth and property as one of the highest ideals
God’s kingdom infiltrates the entire world The state is concerned primarily with its own territory and invests elsewhere only where positive returns are foreseeable
God’s kingdom is guided by God’s Spirit The state does not understand God’s Spirit and is guided by the power of the air and the spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:2)
God’s kingdom triumphs over persecution, bondage, suffering and death The state perpetrates these atrocities when individuals and groups stand in its way
God’s kingdom raises people to eternal life The state focuses exclusively on this life
God’s kingdom entails a restoration of this earth The state exploits the earth’s resources as much as public opinion will allow
God’s kingdom judges all powers and personalities counter to God’s kingdom The state is one of these powers and is destined for divine judgment

I haven’t put in all Nugent’s contrasts and I am sure nuances of some can be debated. Nor does this mean that the state does not have many positive functions. But the overall point, I think, is unassailable: God’s kingdom is of a fundamentally different character and nature to that of the state.

Jesus said that disciples are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.  This saying can be paralleled with his statement that disciples cannot serve both God and money. Both examples illustrate that disciples have one master to whom they are to be exclusively committed.

The Bible has a word for when God’s people commit their allegiance to anything alongside or above God – idolatry.

4. What then is a Christian attitude to the state?

Distance and Belonging

Now this may all sound like I’m advocating a hostile rejection of the state. Things are not so simple.

Maybe this image will help. In my book on evangelicalism and politics in Northern Ireland, I used the idea of ‘Distance and Belonging’ to describe a Christian attitude to the culture in which they live. This was developed from Miroslav Volf’s brilliant Exclusion and Embrace. It captures how Christians are to have a dual approach to their culture – of which the state is one expression.

BELONGING

The state has valuable God-given role, if one that is temporary and belonging to an old order which is passing away. The state is about ‘this world’, and a healthy state does a good job in organising practical aspects of life for its citizens – healthcare, local government, infrastructure, providing stability and justice and so on.

In this sense Christians ‘belong’ to the particular state in which they happen to live and recognise its God-given role. They should be praying for the state, especially that its considerable power is used for the good of all its citizens and not twisted to serve the agendas of the powerful.

At a local level, churches will be positively impacting wider society through good citizenship. This is influencing the world from the ‘bottom up’ rather than trying to control it from the ‘top down’. Nugent gives some examples:

  • Helping those in need within and around the local church. It was in meeting such needs rather than waiting for the state that the church was instrumental in starting hospitals and schools.
  • Keeping fellow citizens of the kingdom financially afloat and being less of a drain on the state
  • Being good citizens and employees in paying taxes, working, helping others and generally contributing to the common good.
  • In this sense the church exists for the world’s sake.

“This is part of what it means to be salt, light and leaven. We do what we do because God has called us to it. We serve with the bottom-up power that Christ has infused in us, and we trust in God to grow the seeds that we plant.” (p. 189).

DISTANCE

But, as I read the NT, its emphasis is more on ‘distance’ than belonging. Nugent calls this ‘respectful disentanglement’ (p. 186).

‘Distance’ is required in that, as we have just unpacked, the depth of the differences should mean that Christians have a profound caution about the state, especially the Christendom temptation to use the power and resources of the state to advance the kingdom of God.

Distance means that Christians are simply not convinced by the false promises of the state to deliver a future utopia. They belong to a different narrative – the unfolding story of God’s kingdom with Jesus as ruling King. It creates a different community to that of the state, organised by different values and shaped by a different eschatological goal.

We see distance at work in the NT in its overwhelming disregard for the power and relevance of the Roman empire.

For example, New Testament scholar John Barclay has convincingly argued that what is remarkable is just how insignificant the Roman Empire is in the thinking of Paul (Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews, 2016). For the first Christians, the might of Rome was simply not relevant to kingdom life within the community of the people of God. The politics of Empire pale into insignificance compared to presence of God made manifest in the world through his Son Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit who forms the new community of the king.

We see this in 1 Peter which most explicitly describes the pilgrim, exilic calling of the church in the world.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

In this vein Scot McKnight argues that the church is to be an ‘alternative politic’ to the politics of the world by being ‘a witness to the world of a new worship, a new law, a new king, a new social order, a new peace, a new justice, a new economics, and a new way of life’ (Kingdom Conspiracy, p. 101).

This means that the church’s calling is not to get entangled in the ‘top-down’ power politics of the world, as if it is the key to making this world a better place. Creating ‘distance’ means that Christians can bear witness from the ‘bottom up’ to a different kingdom that is present here and now within the world, and which will, one day, come in full.

It also means, the church should expect opposition from the state when there is a clash of kingdoms. After all, Christians follow a Messiah who was crucified by the state.

5. Back to Brexit

So this brings us (finally!) back to Brexit.

How are those who belong to a different kingdom to respond to the political dramas, Machiavellian plots, lies, fears, power-plays and complexity motives behind Brexit?

Here are some thoughts shaped around distance and belonging .. and these are very much an ongoing thought experiment, so please to feel welcome to add your own to the conversation.

DISTANCE

‘Distance’ means a healthy detachment and scepticism about the rhetoric and promises of Brexit. It means to trust in a very different kingdom.

1. Disbelief in empty promises

The power centres of Westminster, Dublin, Brussels (and Washington, Bejing or Moscow for that matter) are not where the future of the world will be decided. That future is already decided in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is the risen Lord.

Politicians like Boris Johnston, Leo Varadkar, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean Claude Juncker et al do not rule the world – thank God! If Brexit has shown us anything, it has revealed the powerlessness of politicians to deliver on grand promises of making the world a better place. I have lost count of the number of empty promises made about Brexit.

Those in power tend to believe their own hype that history revolves around them. It does not. As Nugent comments, this does not mean their rule is a complete sham, “but they control a diminishing realm with little future” (p. 190). Political power is on loan from God, it has limited power for a limited time.

2. Humble confidence rather than apocalyptic fears

Brexit has also been surrounded by apocalyptic language of a dark future.

On the pro-Brexit side, the future of the British state rests on a great reversal; liberation from the clutches of the EU that would lead to a utopian future in which control of borders would be regained, true British identity ‘restored’ and economic sovereignty reclaimed. This is a sort of ‘salvation narrative’ and would be a source of amusement if it was not so passionately believed. It is doomed to failure – even if a ‘clean’ Brexit were achieved it will never deliver what its proponents dream of.

On the anti-Brexit side, Brexit itself presages a xenophobic future of ethnic tension, narrow nationalism and economic stagnation. Defeating it becomes a mission of decisive significance.

Both visions come wrapped in fear and use language of ultimate purpose. Both talk in apocalyptic terms of what will happen if Brexit goes the wrong way. Both seek to mobilise their supporters to give their all for the cause.

This means what side you are on becomes a matter of great significance. Families are divided and friendships are destroyed.  

Citizens of the kingdom of God are called not be captured by such narratives of fear.

Their trust is in someone else, regardless of what European politics gets up to. I don’t say that glibly. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Major political instability may well lead to the break-up of the UK and Northern Ireland could easily erupt in violence.

But the church has always had to negotiate a precarious path of faith in Jesus within a violent and unjust world. Stability, security, comfort and certainty are hardly descriptions of the life of first Christians. Perhaps we have become so used to life within a stable Western democracy that we are especially shocked when our unexamined assumptions are suddenly challenged.

In such a climate of fear where politics becomes a game of ultimate significance, the Church needs to be preaching and teaching its message of hope, trust and humble confidence in God’s future.

I don’t know about you, but it is so easy to fall into the trap of ‘Brexit fear’ – you know those dinner table conversations that descend into gloomy incredulity about the stupidity and unnecessary destructiveness of British politics around Brexit. But fretting about the actions of politicians, their false promises and threats that may or may not materialise is not consistent with faith in a risen Messiah who holds the keys to all our futures.

Belonging: an alternative kingdom within the world

More positively, it seems to me that the calling of the church regarding Brexit looks more like this:

  • The church cannot and should not try to control or influence Brexit. It is not the church’s remit. Nor is it simple to say Leave or Remain is ‘the’ Christian position. As I said in the first post in this series, whether you agree with them or not Christian arguments can be made both ways for Leave and Remain.
  • The church’s calling is to be a new humanity in the midst of the old order, especially in how the kingdom of God is for all people, regardless of what ethnicity, passport or qualifications they have.
  • To reflect something of God’s radical impartiality for all, just as Israel was to love and care for the alien and the stranger in her midst because YHWH her God loved them first (Deut 10:18-19). The church recognises no national borders in who can enter the kingdom of God.
  • To be a place of unity in Christ where political affiliation and national identity is of relatively little importance.
  • To be kingdom communities that are not primarily concerned for ourselves (our own economic well-being, our own political self-determination, our own security, our own comfort) but in which love ‘spills over’ into our local communities.
  • To have a global perspective rather than obsessing over Brexit, borders and national identity by praying for, helping and learning from brothers and sisters across the world who are facing far greater threats and fears than we do.

So what do you think?

How useful or convincing to you find this Anabaptist framework for thinking about faith and politics? (And it may be worth looking back at post 2 at Anabaptist Core Convictions).

Do you see how it is distinct from a ‘world-centred’ perspective that tends to widen the church’s remit to be a better place into a general mission to transform this world?

What issues and questions are not being addressed?

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (4) towards a kingdom-centred approach to politics

If you have been reading these posts on an Anabaptist view of Brexit and might be thinking – cut to the chase, you’ve spent time pointing to shortcomings of other views, what is an Anabaptist kingdom-centred view?

So, in brief, here goes. And I am going to use John Nugent’s nuanced and well-made argument but not nearly do it justice …. I’d warmly recommend reading his book in full.

  • Christians are given no mandate in Scripture to make this world a better place
  • There is no ‘cultural commission’ for the church to reform fallen cultures and create new ones.
  • Within the biblical narrative, God’s people are never commissioned or given power and authority to manage or rule the world.
  • Within the OT and NT, human powers are given delegated authority by God to govern in a way that facilitates human flourishing. The great temptation and trap for the people of God is to become like the powers – to seek political power for themselves.
  • It is God alone who will, one day, step in and make this world a better place.
  • He does this in and through the incarnation, ministry and mission of his Son. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, which is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes, “the reign of God over his people on behalf of all creation.” (p.67)
  • The kingdom is God’s new world order. It is not entirely future, it has begun now. It is not ‘other-worldly’, it is this-worldly.
  • The kingdom has come, it is God’s gift. Citizens of the kingdom are followers of the King and Lord Jesus Christ. Members of kingdom have:
    • Entered in a new era in world history
    • Entered a new world / new creation within the old world
    • Entered new life
    • Entered a new social reality, a new community / new set of relationships
    • Entered a new way of life
    • Entered a new status / identity
    • Entered God’s abundant blessings
  • The people of God have a unique missional task – to be God’s better place in the world.
  • And a core way they are to do this is through LOVE.

Nugent is spot on the money here. As was highlighted for me in writing The Message of Love, there is just not very much at all in the Bible about love for the world or love for others outside the community of the people of God. We may find this surprising or awkward, but it is a fact. Nugent quotes Gerhard Lohfink

“In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament – it we abstract from Jesus’ saying about love of enemy – interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one’s brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else about the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.” (90)

In similar vein, after a survey of biblical material on poor and oppressed, widows and orphans etc, Nugent concludes this

“The disturbing bottom line is that, in the New Testament, love and service are reserved especially for fellow believers. This is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s not what I want my Bible to say. If God cares so much about this world, why doesn’t he give his people an important role in fixing it? Why teach us how to live properly in this world if God doesn’t want us to infiltrate its structures and wield our superior knowledge to get them on the right track? Why not help all people everywhere? Isn’t it selfish to dedicate our time, energy, and resources primarily to the church family?” (101)

The twist here, is that the mission and calling of the church is to be the church – to be a light to the nations, to be a community of love and justice for the world’s sake.

It is a calling to reflect the love and beauty of God

“Since loving one another is God’s plan, it must become our highest priority. No more embarrassment. No more second guessing. No more imitating worldly strategies for making this world a better place.” (102).

And this embodying of God’s kingdom – the better place – is to be accompanied by proclamation of the gospel. Words and deeds. Not via political power. Not by political lobbying. Not by imagining that we can change the world through access to the levers of power.

[An aside – a lot of American evangelical Christianity today desperately needs to hear and respond to this message. The word ‘evangelical’ has become debased because of its links to political power.]

The mission of the church is not to partner with the powers in order to make this world a better place. Lessons of church history (and Irish experience is a sobering reminder) show that the church not only loses focus on its God-given mission, but also becomes corrupted by power when it achieves it.    

Nugent wisely comments that all this likely is making readers feel uncomfortable and uneasy. What does all this mean in practice?

Should Christians have nothing to do with organisations which seek to help those in need?

Is it back to the old caricature of saving ‘souls’ and having little or no concern for people’s physical and social needs?

Is this retreat from society into a sectarian holy huddle? [I know some friends who have lived in Christian communities cut-off from the outside world and they have not tended to end well].

You may have guessed that the answer to these questions is ‘No’.

Since we started these reflections talking about Brexit, what then does a kingdom-centred view of political engagement look like? Since this post is long enough already, you’re welcome back to the next post for more discussion on this.