Eschatology, Anabaptism, and the end of Christendom

Read time: 20 minutes

I have recently had a very interesting conversation by email with Jonas Lundström, who for a Swede writes remarkably good English, and Graham Old (Leaving Munster). It is partly about the substance of The Coming of the Son of Man and Re: Mission, and partly about the broader question of how the church in the West should respond to the collapse of Christendom – if, indeed, Christendom has collapsed. Jonas and Graham have given me permission to write up the conversation, with only some minor editing, as a post on Open Source Theology.

It begins with some comments that Jonas originally wrote to Graham after reading The Coming of the Son of Man.

I have now read Perriman’s book. Ok, I confess that I skipped a few pages on Revelation, you have to be a real enthusiast to put up with still another new perspective on “the two witnesses” etc. (and I thought you already knew that Melchior Hoffman was one of the witnesses…). Anyway, here is my response.

1. I need to put this perspective in the waiting hall, even if it was an alternative for me. I need to see how this theology is lived out by groups of people, before I can evaluate it. Does it lead to a life more in line with the teachings of Jesus? I also need to understand better the connection to other dogmas and convictions, especially if it is possible to connect this theology to a non-constantinian reading of church history. I fear that this theology could lead in the direction of Eusebius, viewing the established church as the ushering in of the kingdom in it’s fullness. As I read church history, the parting of the ways and the growth of established christianity/christendom, beginning maybe with Ignatius and culminating in the fall of the church in the 4th century, is exactly the opposite of the vindication from God of God’s people and the way of Jesus. No victory to see there… If God’s kingdom has come, I still think it is too bleak a kingdom.

2. I still have issues with the question of resurrection and life in heaven. Perriman takes for granted and doesn’t even argue for a “resurrection” that doesn’t have to involve the transformation of the body. I think Wright has argued well in “The resurrection of the Son of God” that “resurrection” used in its Jewish context does have to involve the body. I think it is remarkable that Perriman doesn’t even connect to this issue. It seems to be obvious to him, but this makes it suspect. Maybe Perriman has taken the established churches’ teaching of life in heaven too much for granted, even despite the fact that all of his effort is about avoiding an escapist mood.

3. Perriman also presupposes a certain type of exegetics. He spends a lot of time figuring out what was in the author’s “mind”, writing these texts. I think postmodernism has made this kind of exegetics (rightly) suspect, but Perriman takes it for granted. Especially in this case, this weakens the argument seriously. In fact, the case can never even come close to being solved if “the author’s minds” settles the matter, since the allusions to the coming/parousia/establishing of the kingdom are so diffuse that it would be impossible to say if historical events after the texts fits the description.

4. I also have some doubts about the handling of the authorships of the books. Perriman seems to have a very conservative view of pauline and petrine authorship, but he is at the same time arguing for a very non-conservative view. This is confusing to me, and it seems that Perriman has established a dogma and then confront the questions of time and authorship of the NT-books in a way that has to support the dogma.

Graham responded:

Obviously, Hoffman was one of the two witnesses. Such things go without saying!

Reading your points below, it seems like either I’m misunderstanding you, or you’re misunderstanding Perriman! (I’ll pass your email onto Andrew and he can then respond if he so wishes.) As an example, he certainly believes in a future resurrection. In my opinion, he makes too much of a distinction between the first and second resurrection in Rev. 20. He would see us as still waiting for the second (physical) resurrection and the arrival of the new heavens and earth.

On this latter point, he would be pretty close to Wright and almost identical to J. S. Russell, Milton Terry and E. Hampden-Cook. Have another look at chapter 10.

I’ve just finished reading his Re:mission, which is easily his best book so far. You might find it much clearer on this point; in fact you could say that working towards a new creation is the whole point of the new book. If you get a chance, check it out.

Yes, Perriman’s approach to scripture might seem strange in this book. In fact, it may seem especially strange because he is far from fundamentalist. If one was to take a chapter or two of the book in isolation from the rest, it could certainly seem that he was no different from your average evangelical proof-texter. However, the flow of the book is one of narrative and I would say that what Andrew is doing is simply demonstrating the compelling nature of the narrative.

It may be that the publisher of the book (a fairly conservative one over here, but far from close-minded) influenced Perriman’s approach. Or, it may simply be that he felt the non-traditional conclusions he comes to require more evidence than a repetition of party lines.

Nevertheless, even though we may prefer a more ‘progressive’ handling of scripture - within a communal setting and with an eye to discipleship and application - I’m sure you’ll agree that Andrew’s exegesis and general position is pretty persuasive. I have some questions about it and there are times when I wish he travelled even further from tradition (whereas you’re no doubt pleased he didn’t). However, on the whole, I don’t know of any work which has come close to refuting the general position advocated here, aside from screaming loyalty to the Creeds.

This is my response to some of the detailed issues raised by Jonas:

Gentlemen, thanks for letting me in on this. I’ll try to respond to the particular points that Jonas has raised.

Does it lead to a life more in line with the teachings of Jesus?

I would question the assumption that the overriding aim is to live in line with the teachings of Jesus. My argument (this is brought out more clearly in Re: Mission) is that the story of Jesus fits inside a larger story about the calling of a people to be ‘new creation’. So my question would be: Does it lead to a life more in line with this calling? This is a question not about individual behaviour modelled on the individual person of Jesus but about corporate or social behaviour based on the whole narrative. I think that the model of Jesus (his teaching and actions) is too closely tied to the story of the Son of man (the suffering and vindication of the faithful community during a period of decisive eschatological transition) to function properly as a universal pattern for discipleship. That is not to say that we cannot learn from the Gospels or benefit from imitating him, but if we restrict discipleship to that, we are likely, on the one hand, to misread the Gospels, and on the other, to restrict the scope of the mission of God.

I fear that this theology could lead in the direction of Eusebius, viewing the established church as the ushering in of the kingdom in it’s fullness.

There is a potential problem here, I agree. A few points are worth making. First, I think it helps to keep in mind that New Testament eschatology is constructed looking forward from the situation of the early community in order to address their dominant hopes and fears, not looking backwards from a late- or post-Christendom perspective. The vindication of Jesus and his followers expressed in the Son of man motif responded to the central challenges facing the community: was God really in this radical departure from Judaism? would this movement of the Spirit survive the coming collapse of Judaism? would it overcome the supreme antagonist of YHWH, the satanically inspired figure of a divine emperor? In historical terms Constantine represented the eventual victory of the faithful community over Roman paganism, but what followed was another matter.

Secondly, I would now see the whole Christendom period as one attempt to construct an alternative human society, a new creation, under Christ as Lord. Ironically the church adopted the model which was nearest at hand and seemed best to embody the conviction that God is sovereign over the whole earth - and indeed that Christ and not Caesar is Lord. I don’t think we need to regard Christendom quite as negatively as you seem to, but I do think that we are now looking for a new post-Christendom and post-modern model or paradigm or template around which to reconstruct our identity as God’s new creation. How much of our theology is tied up in the Christendom paradigm and needs to be fundamentally rethought I don’t know. But the starting point in the process, I think, is imaginatively to recover a sense of how the biblical narrative works.

Thirdly, I think we rather misconstrue the concept of the ‘kingdom of God’ - in particular, we tend to idealize it. I would say that for Jesus and the early church the coming of the reign of God was a historically ‘real’ event. What they foresaw was régime change, when Jesus would be installed and confirmed and vindicated as king in place of the corrupt Jewish leadership and the satanic imperial system.

I still have issues with the question of resurrection and life in heaven.

That’s a fair comment about resurrection and needs a bit of thought, but perhaps the reason it was ‘obvious’ to me was that the forerunner of this ‘resurrection and life in heaven’ at the right hand of the Father was Jesus himself. If Jesus was the Son of man who called a community of disciples to be faithful to YHWH and suffer with him, it was naturally his resurrection and exaltation and reign at the right hand of God that provided the template for his ‘brethren’, those who would be conformed to his image, those who would imitate him. Is it a problem that the martyrs (one presumes) weren’t visibly raised after the manner of Jesus’ resurrection when the church was publically vindicated in the Roman world? I’m not sure. Again, my concern is primarily with the story being told rather than with how we make sense of its subsequent ‘fulfilment’. Perhaps it was the visibility of Jesus’ resurrection that was the anomaly.

In response to Graham’s point and indeed to Jonas’ ennui regarding Revelation, if I have made too much of the first/second resurrection motif, it is because I found it such a precise and elegant way of summing up the much more complex argument of the rest of the New Testament.

Perriman also presupposes a certain type of exegetics…

I’m not sure I understand what this is getting at. My intention, as Graham has suggested, was primarily to demonstrate how the New Testament eschatological material can be credibly organized around a coherent narrative having to do with the suffering of the early church and their hope of vindication, captured most clearly in the story of the Son of man. I’m happy to allow for the fact that ‘what was in the author’s “mind” ’ is itself a literary construct, in effect part of the narrative that the church tells about itself. This is also true for the historical part of the argument. So one of the underlying questions, which I think is a postmodern one, is: How does the church self-consciously tell a story about itself out of this collection of texts? This is also why I wasn’t too concerned with questions about authorship and why the book appears very conservative in its handling of the text.

As for whether the case can be solved, I’m afraid all I was looking for was a strong measure of coherence between the New Testament texts, the Old Testament narratives that seem to have so profoundly shaped the minds of the ‘authors’ of those texts (including Jesus), and, as best as one can reconstruct it imaginatively, the foreseen future of the early church and the real challenges that they faced.

I hope this at least clarifies how I approached the subject.

Jonas wrote back with a number of further questions to which I have directly attached my answers, though the conversation is beginning to get a little convoluted at this point:

1. Would you than think that Jesus’ instructions to the disciples in Matthew 28 (teach them to obey…), is irrelevant for us? (I know that your answer is “no”, of course, but please explain.) I read the sermon on the mount as very much teachings for groups of people living together, so I agree that we need to develop an alternative way of life that includes corporate and social behaviour (I am influenced for example by early hutterites and bruderhof and other anabaptist and neo-anabaptists). But what does “based on the whole story” mean? Doesn’t the story have a central twist in the appearance of Jesus and his teaching and example? If Jesus teachings are not central, won’t we be swallowed up by norms that happens to be fancy in the rest of society?

I would now read the sermon on the mount (this argument is in Re: Mission) as in he first place teaching for a community that must survive the upheaval of the end of the age. So at the beginning the beatitudes have a distinctive eschatological orientation; and at the end the little parable of the flood echoes OT passages about judgment on Israel: it is the community founded on Jesus’ word that will have the resources to stand firm when the storms of eschatological chaos hit.

The problem with going back to this teaching in order to define an alternative way of life for the church now is that it was designed to address the needs of a community facing a particular type of eschatological transition. The people of God never get away from the fact that it is the crucified one who is Lord and king, but I would suggest that we need to take our communal and ethical and missional bearings from the ‘new creation’ motif - certainly not from society’s norms. Or to put it another way, what we face now (and what the people of God was originally called to address) is not the specific eschatological crisis of judgment on Israel and Rome and the emergence of a renewed community but a broader creational crisis.

2. Ok. Here we have apparently different convictions. I couldn’t survive as a follower of Jesus if I had to abandon the conviction that constantinianism turned the way of Jesus on its head. If the established churches are the carrier of God’s kingdom, the salt and light of the world, I see no attractive reasons to be a christian.

Well, yes, I take your point. I think that the anabaptist and dissenting traditions remain valid, but I’m not sure that we need to see Christendom as apostate or fallen Christianity. But that’s a whole different subject, and in any case, to my mind, we are beyond Christendom.

3. This is why I have a hard time believing that the fall of Jerusalem, etc., was God’s kingdom. I long for a time where God will be visibly ruler of this world, through Jesus, and where every enemy is overthrown. (as you seems to believe to?)

I would say that the kingdom language is relevant only under the circumstance that sovereignty over God’s people is contested by the enemies of YHWH, including ultimately death. I would point to i) the fact that in 1 Corinthians 15:24 Jesus hands back the kingdom to the Father; and ii) the fact that in Revelation 21 the kingdom language has disappeared. The final vision is not of an established kingdom but of a renewed creation in which there is no more suffering and death. I don’t see any basis for believing that at some point in the future God will be visibly ruler of this world. It takes a new heavens and new earth for the final enemy to be overcome.

4. Have you read Wrights The resurrection of the son of God? He argues that “resurrection” in its historical context had to include the body.

Yes, see my synopsis. I agree that resurrection is bodily because it is a corollary of the renewal of creation. The thing is, Jesus was raised in advance of the renewal of creation and the final defeat of death, so he remains in heaven as Lord throughout the ages to come until the holy city descends to be part of the new creation. My argument is simply that the New Testament held out the same prospect for those who would suffer as Christ suffered, the community of the Son of man who would share in the first resurrection.

Jonas then addressed a rather personal paragraph in the first place to Graham:

I am usually against people calling themselves names that separates christians from each other. But for clarity’s sake, I have to sin. I am an anabaptist. Maybe this is a bad thing, but the profound changes I have done in my lifestyle and theology over the last five years have come through the means of the anabaptist tradition. I would have to become a fundamentally changed person to leave this behind. And frankly, after Andrew’s clarifications, my conclusion is that this kind of preterism is incompatible with the anabaptist tradition, at least if it is defined by its particular history and not some idea of what it might become in the future. The separation from the established churches in the rejection of infant baptism, hierarchy and violence, and the developing of a common, alternative lifestyle in line with the teachings of Jesus, especially in the sermon on the mount, is at the core of historical anabaptism, and all of the surviving streams of this tradition. This tradition has had a profound impact on me, and I think this tradition has a historical weight that is not easily dismissed. So, if I wanted to accept Perriman’s (and your?) perspective, this for me would mean leaving the anabaptist tradition behind. And this I cannot easily do. I respect the “preterist” stance, and maybe it is fruitful, history will tell. But for my part, I have to wait for this fruit to appear. Until then, I stick with the radical-reformation stream and anabaptism as the tradition that to me seems to be closest to the heart of Jesus.

My response was as follows:

Jonas, I fully respect your position, and if it was simply a matter of knowing how best to live with and respond to the dominant reality of Christendom, I might well jump in the anabaptist river with you. However, I think in the big scheme of things we are moving beyond Christendom, so rather than look for a new ‘paradigm’ in a movement that was essentially defined as a critical response to Christendom (a ‘radical-reformation’ movement), I think we need to go back to the New Testament narrative in its engagement both with the trajectory of the Old Testament and with its historical context and on that basis imaginatively reconstruct our identity and purpose.

This is not to say that anabaptism can’t help us in this; nor is it to say that my argument in The Coming of the Son of Man and Re: Mission is necessarily correct. But to be honest, I find it rather short-sighted under the present circumstances to think that anabaptism has sufficient resources in itself to provide the answers that we are looking for. I think we have to disentangle ourselves from the Christendom mindset and reimagine new ways of being God’s new creation in Christ as far as possible outside the structures of its various perennial conflicts.

Jonas added one last paragraph in response to my comments:

I also definitely think you put to much emphasis and hope in the post-christendom situation. Christendom still holds the western world in its grips as for example the american situation proves. In Sweden 75 belong to the state church. And we have exported this paradigm everywhere across the world and now large parts of “the third world” in Africa, Korea and South America are beginning to struggle with the same situation, the church being a dominant power and all of that. I think it is absolutely impossible to think our way out of this situation that has flowed through our story as humanity for thousands of years. We need to make a visible break with the (crumbling, I agree) practises, structures and ideology of christendom. That is why I think we need a (loving) separatist stance, and why I think anabaptism is still relevant in many parts of the world. Christendom will not loose its grips lightly, we have tried to move beyond this paradigm for 500 years now, without succeeding (except, of course, to a certain degree separatist christian groups).

I pointed out briefly in response to this that it was an Anabaptist writer, Stuart Murray, who really put me on to this whole post-Christendom argument (Post Christendom and Church After Christendom). Graham also replied to Jonas’ strongly confessional statement:

I think it would be a mistake to reject the whole of Andrew’s argument on the basis of your anabaptist commitments. I say this because it is my own commitment to anabaptist values that lead me to adopt a position similar to Andrew’s.

Initially, this was the result of paying special attention to the words of Christ, on his perception of the future. The fact that a fallen Church and institutional Creeds spoke of a future age to come, return of Christ and general resurrection means little to me compared to how seriously I am compelled to take Jesus’ words that everything spoken of in the Olivet discourse would take place before that generation passed away.

However, it was my commitment to a non-violent eschatology that revived my recent interest in preteristic interpretations of scripture. The same seems to be true for a number of contemporary Mennonite scholars, such as Denny Weaver.

Nevertheless, none of that should be taken to mean that I agree with everything Andrew has written. (I doubt that even he does!) Specifically, I am troubled by what appears to be a tendency to position Jesus as a character in the story of Israel, albeit a climatic one. That’s about as far from my understanding of Christ as one could get! However, I don’t see why my disagreement with that aspect of his argument should lead me to reject his overall view.

Similarly, Andrew seems to do more than excuse the Constantinian marriage of Church and State (an adulterous affair, if ever there was one!). He actually sees it as a positive fulfillment of prophecy. I, on the other hand, am not shy about being an “old school” anabaptist and seeing such a debacle as the “fall” of the Church. (However, I would understand such language metaphorically, akin to the “fall of man”.) I tend to see Andrew’s exegesis on the victory of the Church over Rome (sic), as seriously misguided, historically inaccurate and theologically disastrous.

Yet, none of that means that his insights cannot exist within a broader anabaptist position. After all, there are anabaptist premillennialists, amillennialists and postmillennialists, as well as fundamentalists, Liberals and so on. Walter Klassen has written a fair amount on early anabaptist eschatologies and summarises the views of many - after Munster - by saying:

The kingdom of God began with Christ’s first coming, not with a future millennium. The kingdom is not a literal physical kingdom but a spiritual one which people can now enter. Christ’s rule is here and now and it concerns peace and justice, not power and materialism.

However, within the broader anabaptist movement there has never been one official view. There has, however, been plenty of experimentation, free-thought and - let’s be honest - nonsensical beliefs regarding the end-times! So, it seems to me that there are a wide variety of views available to us, as long as they are consistent with a Christocentric, community-formed hermeneutic of discipleship. One such particular model, that takes seriously the words and ministry of Christ and values a non-violent eschatology could possibly look a lot like Andrew’s.

I will join you in sticking with the radical reformation and anabaptist tradition. And it is that very tradition - and the values expressed within it - that leads me to trust and follow the Christ who has come, who sits on David’s throne and whose peaceful government will never end.

A final thought…

I would hope at some point to address Graham’s view that my ‘exegesis on the victory of the Church over Rome’ is ‘seriously misguided, historically inaccurate and theologically disastrous’. Briefly though, I do not regard the ‘Constantinian marriage of Church and State’ as a fulfilment of New Testament prophecy. The New Testament, in my view, in keeping with several biblical prophetic templates predicts victory over pagan Rome but nothing beyond that. I regard Christendom somewhat benevolently as the church’s attempt to come to terms constructively with the consequences of that victory. But it seems to me more problematic theologically to speak of a ‘fall’ of the church at this point. I hope Graham will continue this discussion.