The vast hoards of readers of this blog will know that during Lent earlier this year, we read our way, one day at a time, through Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
I don’t do end of year lists, but I can say that it is easily the best book I read this year – in fact in quite a few years.
So I’ve been looking forward to reading her Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (2018). Of disappointment there has been none.
The introduction to thinking theologically about Advent is excellent. Most of the rest of the book consists of sermons preached over the last 30 or so years organised loosely into various themes. The next few posts in this series are going to give just a flavour.
So let’s get going.
What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
Rutledge quotes the Swiss pipe-smoker early on because his words encapsulate her overall argument – all Christians live in eschatological times between the ages. The kingdom of God has arrived, but we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
The world in which we live is riven by innumerable horrors – war, famine, disease, abuse, injustice, environmental destruction, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, industrial levels of abortion …
This is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, the heart of darkness. And Advent looks unflinchingly into that darkness and names it for what it is.
It does not do so nihilistically. Advent awaits a transformed world; it looks forward in hope to a future consummation of the kingdom because of the victory of God in Jesus Christ over Sin, Death and the Powers.
In this sense, the Christian faith has a threefold dynamic that Rutledge puts this way (p.7):
The past: God’s initiative towards the world in Christ (Christmas)
The future: God’s coming victory in Christ (second coming or Parousia, made present in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost)
The Present: a cruciform (cross-shaped) life of love for the world in the present time (Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week)
The surprising twist that she traces is that historically Advent is NOT orientated primarily towards preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Rather, it is primarily a time of reflection on, and preparation for, the second coming of Christ.
If you’ve followed this series, you can appreciate why focus on the second coming has been neglected in the church. In the modern period it was either dismissed as mistaken, mythological, symbolic or scientifically untenable. Rutledge tells the story of, as a young woman, being told we don’t believe that sort of thing nowadays.
If you are in a church community, how much is the second coming talked about? Is it preached on? If so, how? Or is it quietly ignored – with such silence speaking a thousand words?
Another way of putting this is, how honest is our theology in facing up to the darkness? What has Christianity to say to those suffering, to the sick, to the trafficked, the abused, the poor and those without hope?
What has our theology to say to those who use others for their own ends, who exploit, abuse, hate, kill and bully? To systemic evil? What do we say about final judgement and the reality of hell?
As we have seen in this series, Christianity is eschatology – is future hope. So what Barth means is that Advent describes living within the tension of the now and not yet while patiently awaiting a transformed future.
Rutledge puts it this way
… the Christian disciple finds his or her vocation precisely here: in the collision of the ages where the struggle of the Enemy against God continues, making space for the conquering love of God for the world. (16)
Advent requires the courage to name the darkness of the now and that judgement is something to be hoped for. (She’s good here noting how ‘justice’ is a popular word but ‘judgement’ is equated with ‘judgemental’ which is ‘bad’). Yet God’s judgement is a putting all things right.
Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgement of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world. (22)
Honesty requires that this truth is acknowledged and faced. Christianity is not sentimental or trivial – God in Christ has confronted the darkness of evil and death at the cross.
Faith and hope means trusting in God amidst the confusion, pain and transitoriness of life in the now. Much that happens in this world now is not God’s good intent. In fact he is waging a war against powers and principalities opposed to his good will.
All this has the flavour of apocalyptic theology – we’ll summarise how Rutledge defines this in the next post.
This post finishes our sketch of the recovery of eschatology within contemporary New Testament studies. To bring the story up to date I’m going to look at one of the main voices in NT studies and in eschatology – that of N T Wright.
From this foundation, some follow on posts will dip into Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous preached eschatology within her book of sermons on Advent.
Doing things this way will highlight how eschatology is no Cinderella doctrine tacked on to the end of Christian thought and life. It is key to understanding and interpreting the gospels, Paul and all the other writers of the NT
Switching focus from eschatology in modern theology to Rutledge on Advent, is deliberate. Not only is eschatology central to Christian theology, it preaches! We’ll look at examples of how.
N. T. Wright
Wright’s eschatology is central to most of his work. And it is most certainly not a fluffy, sentimental, vague hope. Indeed, Wright has spent a lifetime battling against what he sees as popular Christianity’s platonized eschatology – a form of dualism that wants to escape the world and get to heaven.
At times, so much has his emphasis been on realised eschatology along with a historically realist interpretation of the gospels, that when Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) came out in 1996 some reviewers wondered if Wright had abandoned the ‘not yet’ altogether.
An example is Wright’s reading of Mark 13 and the Olivet Discourse. This is a clip – see the whole chapter.
20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
Rather than read this as futurist end of age language, Wright’s reads it as Jewish apocalyptic language, referencing Daniel 7:13, referring to the vindication of the Son of Man within history (namely the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and not as a literal description of Jesus’ second coming in the clouds with power and glory.
Wright self-consciously travels the Schweitzerstrasse in his reconstruction of Jesus within history coming to understand himself, through reading of Israel’s scriptures, as the embodiment of an Israel in exile awaiting YHWH’s return to his elect people.
Acting in faith, Jesus the Messiah acts courageously in himself to confront evil in and through his sin-atoning and representative death. His coming simultaneously enacts divine judgement on Israel’s rejection of her true king and his gospel of the kingdom come.
But Wright departs from Weiss and Schweitzer in seeing Jesus’ death not as a failure of mistaken hopes, but God’s paradoxical victory over sin and death, witnessed in the vindication of the resurrection Christ.
Since JVG, his inaugurated “already and not yet” eschatology has become clearer and more fully worked out.
Jesus is an eschatological and apocalyptic prophet in and through whom the kingdom comes. This world has been changed as a result and, because of Jesus’ resurrection, will be fully transformed in the future.
Thus, Wright says for Paul
“this hope both had been fulfilled through Jesus, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection, and the life-transforming spirit, and would yet be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus and in the work of the same spirit to raise all of the Messiah’s people from the dead.”
And from my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies
The nature of that transformation is holistic; it embraces the spiritual, political and social within a renewed creation. A consistent Wrightian theme is that the emphatically “earthy” nature of that future hope has social implications for the praxis of Christian ethics in the “here and now”.
Wright loves the big picture. Some say he pushes this too far in ways that the evidence does not support. But the story he tells is that Paul, the Synoptics, John and other New Testament authors all, in distinct ways, articulate a recognisably consistent eschatological hope in light of the story of Jesus Christ.
Wright summarises Paul this way
“The belief in a now and not yet inaugurated kingdom through the exaltation of the human being Jesus, Israel’s messiah, was not then a piece of clever apologetic invented in the late first century let alone the mid-twentieth century. It was part of the earliest apostolic gospel itself.”
And for the Gospels
“John has his own ways of saying the same thing, but it is the same thing [as the Synoptics]. The gospels do not contain apocalyptic; in the first century sense they are apocalyptic. They are describing how the revelation, the unveiling, the visible coming of God took place.”
God has disrupted the world in Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to become reigning Lord.
A new revelation (apokalypsis) has unfolded. Reality will never be the same again.
The victory of God has been won, the long promised Spirit has been poured out, we live now in the overlap of the ages, the present evil age is passing away, the new age has dawned, flesh against Spirit, Spirit against the powers, God versus his enemies – all until the final consummation of the Kingdom when God will be all in all.
This is how the NT sees things.
And it means that the Christian life within the community of the people of God, is eschatological through and through.
We live in an age of sin and death that is under the power of spiritual powers opposed to God and his kingdom. Unless Christians grasp this, and face the darkness head on, they will be ill-equipped for the battle.
Christmassy sentimental religious feel-goodism just does not cut it. The world is too broken. Injustice is too brutal. Sickness and suffering is too painful.
And this is where Fleming Rutledge comes in.
Few preachers have seen the challenge more clearly and how Advent is NOT primarily a time for preparing to celebrate the incarnation and birth of baby Jesus.
Rather it is a time to look into the heart of darkness with hope in the future coming of Jesus Christ as Lord and judge to overthrow Sin, Death and the Devil and establish his kingdom of light.
The next few posts this Advent will be in her company. You are welcome to join us.
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’.
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 trajectory of classic liberalism (eg Wilhelm Wrede, Albrecht Ritschl) 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.”
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.
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
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?
 Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus, 397.
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.
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
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.
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
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’.
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
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
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
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
The state tolerates most forms of
immorality that don’t immediately hurt others
God’s kingdom shows equality to all
The state discriminates against
citizens of other states, especially those with significantly different
God’s kingdom loves without partiality
The state favors the wealthy and
God’s kingdom seeks peace in all
The state wages war whenever it’s
politically and economically expedient
God’s kingdom welcomes the undeserving
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
The state is concerned primarily with
its own territory and invests elsewhere only where positive returns are
God’s kingdom is guided by God’s
The state does not understand God’s
Spirit and is guided by the power of the air and the spirit of disobedience
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
The state focuses exclusively on this
God’s kingdom entails a restoration of
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.
fellow citizens of the kingdom financially afloat and being less of a drain on
good citizens and employees in paying taxes, working, helping others and
generally contributing to the common good.
this sense the church exists for the
“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).
But, as I
read the NT, its emphasis is more on ‘distance’
than belonging. Nugent calls this ‘respectful disentanglement’ (p. 186).
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.
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
brings us (finally!) back to Brexit.
those who belong to a different kingdom to respond to the political dramas, Machiavellian
plots, lies, fears, power-plays and complexity motives behind Brexit?
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
‘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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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)
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)
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
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.]
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.
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.
In the last
post we left off with John Nugent’s description of a ‘world-centred’ approach
to Christian action and witness. It should sound familiar – it encompasses
people like N T Wright (Surprised by Hope)
and Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a
Jesus has inaugurated
a new creation in which God’s people are called to participate as image
bearers, acting to bring God’s future world into this present one wherever and
whenever possible (Nugent, p. 13). We cannot redeem the world, but our action
in the present will point to and be ‘folded into God’s ultimate global
redemption.’ (p. 13).
church itself is to be a foretaste of that new creation.
This all sounds good and right does it not? What’s not to like?
If you had
asked me a few years ago, I would have unhesitatingly affirmed this
world-centred framework. It avoids the undue optimism of the human-centred view
(that humans can transform the world along the lines of God’s kingdom) or the
anti-worldly and often dualistic theology of a heaven-centred theology.
However, researching and writing The Message of Love reinforced something that I had felt but not fully worked out – that there is remarkably little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. And there is next to nothing about God’s people being called to transform the world.
But there is
an overwhelming emphasis on the people of God living up to their calling to be
a community of love and justice in
It is this unique
ecclesiological calling that tends to be blurred within the world-centred view.
I use the word ‘blurred’ deliberately, because ‘loss of focus’ describes well
what is going on.
task and calling of the church to be the church is subtly widened to include
making the world a place that better aligns with the kingdom of God. This
happens when biblical commands aimed at the people of God are misinterpreted to
become general endorsements to transform the world.
OT prophetic denouncements of Israelite social injustices such as the rich exploiting the poor (Amos) is broadened into a mandate to denounce and fight against all injustices everywhere.
Mary’s Magnificat celebrating God’s rejection of the proud and powerful and choice of a humble peasant girl becomes an endorsement for political action to liberate the marginalised and oppressed in general.
Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community shifts to become a basis for political action to end global poverty (and we could add in Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ in Galatians 2:10 here).
could be given but you see the pattern: the mission of the church, and
Christians within it, becomes heavily invested in political activism. ‘Kingdom-work’
gets broadened to include all sorts of activity that loosely connects to themes
of justice or social improvement.
Focus is lost on how, in both the OT and the NT, attention is on the integrity and communal life of the people of God. In the NT, it is the Spirit-formed body of Christ that is now being renewed and which represents God’s new-creation in the world.
it this way;
“… the world centered approach risks putting the cart before the horse. Even though the New Testament presumes and proclaims God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all things, it gives primacy to the new thing that has already begun among God’s people. What Christ has begun to do in the church is the core of what will be folded into his ultimate renovation of all things. The order of priority is first Christ, then his renewed people, and finally the redemption of our bodies and then of non-human creation.” (p. 18)
conclusion is that
“God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns.” (p.20)
Quite radical implications follow
and social activism to make the world a better place becomes primary, then
Nugent argues that this oversteps the church’s mission, eclipses part of the gospel
and leads to neglect of believers’ true calling.
This challenges disciples to ask where are our energies, time and resources focused? Are they detached from the church into community and political activism?
Are all our energies and time and money invested in seeking to make the world a better place – whether in political lobbying, environmental protection, business development, social justice activism and so on?
Do we see ‘kingdom-work’ being engaged in any activity that is somehow making the world a better place?
And, returning to Brexit, are our emotions, worries, time and energies focused on the political drama unfolding in Westminster? If they are – what does this say about where we see real powers in the world at work? Are we obsessed with Brexit because we believe that human political power is where things are really at?
Rather than understanding that the future of the world lies elsewhere and that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to the one true God(Isaiah 40:15)
is not a call for pietistic retreat. It is not a heaven-centred ‘washing of
hands’ concerning desperate needs within this broken world and a dualistic
desire to ‘get out of here’.
kingdom-centred approach to life within the world is where we will go in the
“Among the core convictions and commitments important to many of us are:
1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
3. Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
4. The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted.
5. Churches are called to be committed communities for discipleship and mission, places of friendship, mutual accountability and multi-voiced worship that sustain hope as we seek God’s kingdom together. We are committed to nurturing and developing such churches, in which young and old are valued, leadership is consultative, roles are related to gifts rather than gender, and baptism is for believers.
6. Spirituality and economics are inter-connected. In an individualist and consumerist culture and in a world where economic injustice is rife, we are committed to finding ways of living simply, sharing generously, caring for creation and working for justice.
7. Peace is at the heart of the gospel. As followers of Jesus in a divided and violent world we are committed to finding non-violent alternatives and to learning how to make peace between individuals, within and among churches, in society and between nations.”
If you have
read this blog over the years, you will see why I say I’m an Anabaptist at
heart. It seems to me that these convictions are deeply, biblically right: Jesus-directed discipleship,
kingdom-centred life, church as an alternative body politic to the state, a
kingdom community that is wary of power, money and hierarchy, roles related to
giftedness not gender, and a commitment to non-violence.
But how do such values work out in
terms of engaging faith and politics? With Brexit as our case study.
Let’s drill down into kingdom /
church and state a bit more in terms of answering our main question.
A way in to
this is to using a recent book by John Nugent, Endangered Gospel: how fixing the world is killing the church.
Nugent is an OT scholar (Politics of
Yahweh) and also editor of the Yoder
for Everyone series (although now personally discredited, Yoder was a giant
of 20th century Anabaptism).
Nugent’s argument takes up central Anabaptist themes arguing for a kingdom-centred framework as opposed to what he calls heaven-centred, human-centred, or world-centred approaches to Christian life within the world.
three need brief definition because what framework we use will profoundly shape
our approach to faith and politics.
asking yourself which one most closely fits where you are at – whether you have
worked that theological framework out consciously or whether it is more a case
of instinctive feelings and gut assumptions.
The main ethos here is rescuing people from the world. The church is a recruiting organisation, mission is about deliverance from the world and the Christian life is mainly about preparation for the future better-place of heaven. There is, consequently, little theological motive to get too involved in the world, and certainly not the fallen world of politics.
comment here – this is what Anabaptism is often accused of, namely a pietistic
spiritual withdrawal from the corrupt world into a community of holy pilgrims
on the way to a better heavenly place. But such a charge is little more than
caricature. I would argue that Anabaptism at its best is precisely the opposite
– it is deeply engaged with the world, often at great cost (but we’ll come back
to this in a moment).]
political and religious views fit in here.
atheists are often deeply concerned for world-betterment – after all this world
is all there is so we’d better do our best to look after it. Since God is an
illusion, we are the only hope of the world.
change activism is obviously passionate about world-betterment – time is
running out and humanity is its own (and the entire global ecosystem’s) worst
enemy. Radical action is urgently required to save the world. Obviously there
are many Christians involved in climate justice – as well as about protecting
the natural world, it is an issue of justice for the poor. But the point I’m
making is that within this view, the key to making the world a better place is
human political action.
Christians within this framework tend towards the view that the church’s job is to advance God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus has shown what radical social and economic justice looks like in practice, and the task of disciples today is to is to enact and apply Jesus’ kingdom-vision to contemporary social and political structures.
A critical theological move here is
how Jesus’ focus on discipleship within the kingdom-community is widened out to
become a blueprint for life within the world in general. This can lead, I suggest, to the
elevation of the political – everything is political and the political is
There is a lot going for the world-centred view.
rightly affirms God’s care for the world and his plan to redeem and renew it
(not destroy it);
sees how the trajectory of the Bible story is about the union of heaven and
earth, not humanity’s escape from the world;
is realistic to acknowledge that humans cannot bring about God’s kingdom come –
only God can; it is shaped by a ‘now and not yet’ inaugurated kingdom theology
where, since the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus,
God is now actively at work in the world making this world a better place in
emphasises that our role in the world is to work for justice – to be active in seeking
to make this world a little bit more in line with the kingdom of God. God’s
people are called to participate with him in kingdom work, as a foretaste of
the future consummated kingdom to come.
All of this
is persuasive and makes the world-centred view increasingly popular as a more
compelling framework that the human or heaven-centred views.
But, Nugent argues, and I agree with him, that the world centred approach has a fatal weakness. And this is critically important in shaping a theology of faith and politics.
So in the next post, we will consider his criticisms of the world-centred approach and what his articulation of what a kingdom-centred theology of faith and political action looks like.
In a further post or two, we will discuss what a kingdom-centred Anabaptist theological framework looks like when it comes to Brexit.