I referred a couple of days back to an old interview done by James M. Hamilton with Justin Hardin (seemingly now tutor in New Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) in which Hardin discusses the extent to which Paul was consciously engaging with the Roman imperial cult. I want to go back to it because the final question that is put to Hardin highlights what I think is a central and critical issue for understanding how New Testament theology works.
Hardin is asked what he thinks about John Barclay’s criticism of the prominence that N.T. Wright gives Roman ideology in his reading of Paul—that it makes Paul’s theology too worldly and diminishes the proper “Christian perspective”, which has to do with advancing the gospel and the kingdom of Christ:
Barclay asserts that by giving Rome such a central place in the interpretation of Paul’s letters, Wright is “reading reality kata sarka [according to the flesh] and not kata Christon [according to Christ].” In other words, being impressed with Rome and insisting on its obvious importance might make sense from a worldly perspective, but the Christian perspective is to see that Rome is nothing more than a member of the “undifferentiated crowd,” that what truly matters is the advance of the gospel and the Kingdom of Christ. What do you think?
Hardin agrees with Barclay here:
According to Paul, the proper Christian perspective is indeed not to focus on the things of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by seeing things from God’s perspective in Christ.
It is important to understand the historical context of Paul’s message, he argues, but only in order to observe more clearly how
Paul’s Gospel brought about a new and radical existence in which the things of this world were simply part of the ‘present evil age’ (Gal 1.4), from which God’s people had been redeemed through the transforming power of God’s Spirit, to the glory of God.
So the Roman imperial context in the end is merely incidental. Paul’s gospel deals basically in the two existential domains of darkness and light, the “present evil age” and the sphere of the kingdom of Christ.
My view is that this existential dichotomy is better understood as the background to a narrative that otherwise has very worldly and political ramifications, and that neither Paul’s “gospel” nor the “kingdom of Christ” can be properly understood if the sort of disjunction that Barclay posits is allowed to stand. The following points respond briefly to the arguments put forward in the interview.
1. The New Testament texts that are most likely to have an immediate oppressive pagan power in view also speak quite emphatically of a decisive judgment upon that power in which Jesus is centrally involved (eg. 2 Thess. 2:1-12; Rev. 18-19). It is hard to reduce Rome to ‘nothing more than a member of the “undifferentiated crowd” ’ when judgment on it is depicted in such strongly christological terms. I will simply restate my view here that this judgment constitutes the main telos, the end-point, of New Testament eschatology, driven largely by concerns about persecution. It is preceded by a judgment on Israel; beyond it there is a faintly adumbrated hope that all creation will ultimately be renewed. But the pressing historical concern for Paul and for others was the survival of the people of God and the vindication of YHWH that would be practically achieved through their victory over Greek-Roman paganism.
2. The antithesis between “flesh” and “spirit” or “Christ” should not be used to enforce an absolute distinction between that which is worldly and that which is properly Christian and somehow otherworldly. When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), he does not mean that he has no interest in political realities; rather he means that overbearing political realities will be confronted through means other than the sword. At the heart of scripture is the story of a people, and the story of a people is always a political story. Only under certain conditions—perhaps the conditions of late modernity, for example—can it be plausibly spiritualized, and then only temporarily. I think that we have now to abandon that naïve, unhistorical, unrealistic and ultimately unsustainable perspective and recover the powerful narrative-historical dynamics that are at work in the New Testament and which, fundamentally, determine the shape of our own existence.
3. The phrase “present evil age” in Galatians 1:4 does not characterize all human existence as “evil”—that is another question. It describes a particular period of eschatological disorder which the churches of the oikoumenē would have to endure. The issue is not to the fore in Galatians, but the “present evil age” equates with the “wrath” of God against Jew and Greek in Romans and with the coming “wrath” of the present evil days in Ephesians 5:6, 16, to survive which the church must be filled with the Spirit (5:17-21), pursue orderly social relationships (5:22-6:9), and put on the whole armour of God by which they will be able to stand firm “in the evil day” (6:13).
4. Hardin uses two phrases (“not to focus on the things of this world” and “be transformed by the renewing of our minds”) in order to differentiate the “proper Christian perspective” from the worldly focus on Rome. I think that in both cases he has over-spiritualized Paul’s argument by taking the phrases out of context. Both, in fact, presuppose an apocalyptic narrative background: if the churches are to survive the coming wrath, the present evil days, they need to set their minds on Christ, who as the Son of man suffered and was vindicated and was raised to the right hand of God (cf. Col. 3:1-4); they need to be transformed in their thinking in order to endure suffering and persecution as “living sacrifices” (cf. Rom. 12:1-2). Again, the issue here is not that Christians really have nothing to do with such worldly matters as empire but that they must deal with such contingent realities by emulating Jesus in his obedience even to the point of death.
5. Hardin’s assertion that “Paul’s Gospel brought about a new and radical existence” is correct but it does not do justice to the force of the language of kingdom and sovereignty that frame’s the existential transition. I argued in this post, for example, that Paul draws on notions of divine kingship with respect to the nations that cannot simply be de-historicized to the extent that we may suppose he has no more than a passing interest in Rome as an antagonist. Rome threatened, and would continue to threaten, the very existence of Israel according to the flesh and Israel according to Christ. The overcoming of that threat through the faithfulness of the believing community even in the face of death is in the end what it meant for the kingdom of the world to become the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). It is a central component of Paul’s gospel, therefore, that through Christ YHWH will have sovereignty over the nations.
The general point for understanding New Testament theology is that it is, in the first place, an engagement with the political-religious realities of its context, not in any sense a departure or escape from them. Terms such as “gospel”, “kingdom”, “wrath”, and “justification” are all determinative of that narrative of concrete engagement. They certainly have personal spiritual significance, but in a secondary or derivative sense, as people find their place within the story.