Having just read Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelicalism, I thought I ought to take a look at David Fitch’s more solidly analytical, and much less succinctly titled, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions).
The leading argument of the book is that the narrowly focused conversionism characteristic of much modern evangelicalism has produced an empty and duplicitous “politic”, or political stance, in the world. Fitch gives lots of sordid examples, from Hal Lindsey to Bernie Ebbers. The critique is Žižekian, but the remedy will have to go beyond Žižek. So Fitch will argue that our defining doctrines of i) the authority of scripture, ii) the gospel, and iii) mission need to be re-grounded “in the core of our life together: Jesus the incarnate Christ, as sent from the Father, extended in the Spirit” (130). This will give us instead a “politic of fullness”, arising out of the fulness of Christ.
First, then, he constructs an argument from Barth, von Balthasar, Vanhoozer and Wright which he thinks will “push evangelicals to see Scripture’s authority as derived directly from the incarnate Christ via participation in his mission in the world” (137).
A similar argument is made, secondly, for the gospel, using another gang of heavy-hitting theologians: “Wright, Gorman, and Milbank then lead us to a gospel that births a politic of fullness in Christ for God’s mission in the world” (150). So, on the one hand, justification is not not so much about pardon from personal guilt as about “entering into membership in the covenantal people of God in whom God is at work”. On the other, righteousness “concerns God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel to make all things right in the world” (142). Add these two thoughts together and we get the thesis that salvation is all about us engaging corporately in what God is doing to fix the world.
The gospel is that God is at work already in Christ making the world right, and we are invited personally to participate in this transformation. (142)
Thirdly, a rather improbable alliance of the Anabaptist Yoder and the Catholic theologians de Lubac and Cavanaugh leads us ‘in a way of speaking about and practicing “the church in the world” that breeds “a politic of fullness” ’. The church is seen as “the social body of His Lordship (His Reign) incarnating Christ in the world for God’s mission” (166, italics removed).
Fitch’s analysis is an interesting one, I like a lot of what he has to say in the book, and I want to find a way to make constructive use of it. But I keep running up against a couple of problems.
I have some reservations about the incarnational model for mission, having to do with how it fits the biblical story. Fitch is arguing for a theological model, and I don’t think that theological models generally do justice to the narrative-historical shape of the New Testament. As with Viola’s book, there are odd references to the biblical narrative, but the actual events that make up that narrative, whether past or future, remembered or anticipated, do not count for much. Everything hangs on incarnation as a universal principle.
I also want to ask: How does incarnation work as an explanation of the church’s mission when the incarnate Christ was sent only to Israel and now reigns at the right hand of God? I know we like to think of the church as an extension of Christ’s body on earth and as the locus of God’s presence, but I suspect this may be at odds with the dominant New Testament motif of Christ’s exaltation and heavenly reign as Lord. Why don’t we have an exaltational model of mission? Or for that matter, a pneumatological model of mission since the exalted Christ gave gifts to his church (Eph. 4:7-11).
But the main question I want to highlight here is: Where do we get this idea from that the missio Dei is all about putting the world to rights? The thought runs right through the book. God is at work in the world ahead of the church, setting things right. We are, therefore, “converted into a salvation that is bigger than us”; we become “participants in God’s work of reconciling the whole world to Himself”; and we “invite others to join with us in entering the salvation begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the whole world”. This strong missional direction ‘shapes us into a genuine integrity with the triune God’s life in the sending of his Son incarnationally to live, die, defeat death, and sit at the right hand wherein he is “making all things right” ’ (173).
At the heart of the making-everything-right agenda is reconciliation. This is what distinguishes a Christian politic from a Žižekian politic: “the Christian life in community is driven by reconciliation, not conflict” (124). We see a “politic of reconciliation and peace offered in and through the Incarnate Son” (125). That looks good, but where does it come from?
I noticed a couple of key biblical reference points for the argument. One is the motif of the righteousness of God. I don’t have Wright’s book on justification to hand, but I’m not sure how well Fitch represents his views when he says that righteousness “concerns God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel to make all things right in the world”. Did the covenant with Israel entail making all things right in the world? Does YHWH ask Israel to get involved in his mission in the world? There are some indications that God is interested in the nations in their own right, but the driving narrative is entirely centred on the place of Israel amongst the nations—to the extent that it is through the salvation and restoration of Israel that the nations come to acknowledge the rightness of Israel’s God.
It seems to me that God justifies himself—that is, shows himself to be righteous—with respect to the world not by putting the world as we know it to rights but by making, and when necessary remaking, alternative worlds: first, the microcosm of the family of Abraham, preserved in the midst of the nations, which will not be defeated even by satan and death; and secondly, the radically new world which John sees, an ontological novelty from which satan and death have been forcibly removed and destroyed.
In the New Testament God justifies himself with respect to his people by judging them (wrath against the Jew) for their ingrained disobedience and restoring them to fulness of life under a new covenant. God justifies himself with respect to the hostile idolatrous nations by judging them (wrath against the Greek) and putting them under the feet of Jesus. Perhaps this could be understood as making things right in the ancient world, but not in the sense that Fitch seems to want to construe it, not least because it puts the restored covenant people at the centre of this self-justifying act of God.
The other New Testament passage frequently alluded to is 2 Corinthians 5:19: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”. What this presumably refers to is the reconciliation first of rebellious Jews (such as Paul) and then of pagan Corinthians to the God of Israel. I don’t think it can be interpreted to mean that God was at work putting the world to right apart from the church, in such a manner that the church had to join in with it.
Socio-political reconciliation may be something that happens in practice at the boundaries of the church, when “we fellowship with the poor, the mentally unhealthy, and the broken in our neighbourhoods (in which God can work his reconciliation and renewal incarnationally)” (120). But then, does this really amount to making the world right, the ‘restoration of all things “in Christ” ’ (146)?
What does Fitch mean when he says that “Reconciliation with God is inseparable from the reconciliation God is working among all people and creation”? What does this reconciliation that God is doing “among all people and creation” look like if it is somehow inseparable from but not the same as the reconciliation which is the welcoming of individuals into God’s kingdom (174)? And where does this reconciliation outside and apart from the covenant people show up in the biblical story?
Have I simply over-read what Fitch means by “making the world right”? Does he in fact only have in mind the by-products of the church’s political existence in the world, its politic of fulness? I’m not sure. There is a lot going on in this book, and at a number of points he is careful to resist attempts to marginalize the church. But I would be more inclined to say, as a matter of biblical interpretation at least, that God makes his own new creation people right in anticipation of a final making new of all things. The making new of this people certainly should lead to a “politic of fullness”, which should make a political impact in the world. Fitch’s book has much to teach us at this point. But I am not persuaded, either biblically or empirically, that this impact amounts to making the world right.