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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Christendom and the victory of God

This post started out as a quick response to some good questions raised by Daniel in relation to my reconstruction of the story-line of the divine meta-comedy, but as sometimes happens, it grew too big and needs repotting.

I appreciate that the phenomenon of Western Christendom has been extremely problematic and something of an embarrassment for the modern church; and it’s only in some limited respects that I would venture to defend it. I am certainly happy that the Christendom paradigm has now collapsed—though not everyone is aware of the fact—and that we are in a position to reconsider the possible outcomes of the biblical narrative under very different circumstances.

But let me make a number of points in response to the basic objection that Christendom was a disaster and can hardly be seen as the victorious climax to the biblical narrative.

1. There is a big difference between our disillusioned post-Christendom perspective and the pre-Christendom perspective of the early church. Exegesis has to discount what Christianity became after Constantine.

2. The clash with unjust, idolatrous, pagan imperialism is a much more significant part of the biblical narrative than is apparent from our modern perspective—from Babel to Egypt to Assyria to Babylon to Antiochus Epiphanes to Rome. Every major event in the history of the biblical people of God, including the death of Jesus, is determined by the clash with pagan empire. It does not seem remarkable, therefore, that the “climax” to Israel’s story is similarly conceived as victory over pagan empire and the confession that the one God of Israel has given the kingdom to his Son, who in some sense will rule the nations.

3. European rationalism, from the neo-Platonists onwards, has bequeathed us such spiritualized and privatized notions of salvation that we have a hard time recognizing the essentially corporate and political nature of the biblical narrative. Jesus’ death and resurrection effected a massive transformation in the existence of the people of God, but it remained a people, a political entity.

4. The people of God cannot exist solely as a negative prophetic movement, critiquing from the sidelines. We are called to be “new creation”—to embody the social and religious fulness of being restored humanity centred on the Creator. The witness of the Old Testament prophets cannot be separated from Israel’s existence as a nation. The Anabaptists may have the moral high-ground, just as the prophets had the moral high-ground—but the prophets always called wayward Israel back to its proper national existence.  The challenge that the church faces now is to find new modes of social and religious existence after the failure of the Christendom-modern paradigm—the emerging church understands this; modern evangelicalism and the neo-Reformed movement do not.

5. A narrative-historical hermeneutic has to take account of the continuation of the story. We cannot pursue a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament and not recognize that the same historical narrative keeps moving forwards.

6. Christianity existed for 1700 years more or less in the imperial mode. I know we would prefer to regard the various reformist and dissident movements within Christian empire as authentically Christian, but again we tend to idealize these alternatives. The people of God remains subject to sin. I’m not sure it makes so much of a difference whether we sin on a personal basis or sin big-time on an imperial basis. And who’s to say now whether the sins of omission of the global evangelical movement are less serious than the sins of commission of the imperial church?

7. I’m not a historian, but I suspect that the enlightenment and modern secularism have left us with a less than objective view of European Christendom. There was more to it than corrupt popes and the crusades.

8. So can we treat Christendom as a victory? I think we have to recognize that the ending of persecution by Rome and the “conversion” of the pagan world to the worship of Israel’s God counted as the climax to core eschatological hopes expressed in the New Testament. This is the final outworking of the Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic narrative. Unsurprisingly it came to be superseded by the incommensurate rationalist categories of Greek thought, but exegesis must pretend that never happened. The writers of the New Testament constructed their future narratively, and I think that the clash between the renewed, charismatic people of God and pagan empire was the central story-line in that narrative.

9. Would Paul have seen in Christendom the victory that he hope for? That’s a very good question. I don’t know.

10. Finally, the New Testament story is told from a limited geographical perspective—that is the nature of history. It is dominated by Paul and his determination to preach the gospel from Jerusalem to Spain. The sphere of the clash with empire stretched at most from Persia to Western Europe, and even Persia is probably to be seen more as an instrument of judgment against Rome than as a place in which the gospel was to be proclaimed. The New Testament has a very European focus—wrath against the Jew followed by wrath against the Greek. Everything else (early missions to Asia and the Far East) is simply outside of it purview. I would stress the point that by far the largest part of modern global Christianity has descended from European Christendom and, presumably, still carries much of its genetic identity.

Comments

Thanks for such a thorough followup.  I appreciate the effort and thought you put into following up questions on here.

It makes sense to me that a canon picked by a Roman church would focus on the activity that happened within it’s borders.  And because we are decendents of that tradition that is the lens we view all of this from.

I do think that the post-christendom world we are in gives us a chance to see the world as larger than that though.  It feels like it’s worthwhile to try to zoom our lens out and see the Roman Empire in the context of it being one of two super powers(Persian Empire being the other).  I think it makes the story of the early church coming from Israel(between the two empires) and into both empires more compelling.  But I can fully acknowledge that that work is extra-biblical and outside the work of building a narrative theology from the New Testament.

Thanks for keeping me thinking!

Daniel,

I wonder about the idea that “the canon was picked by Rome”.  It sounds like a person or a small group lined up all the writings that were floating around, and one day simply sat down and pulled a few together and said, “That’s it - that’s the Canon!”

From all I have read, it didn’t happen that way.  At first there wasn’t even a push to have any other scriptures than the OT.  As time went on, the Christian community found value in certain writings, but it wasn’t until 300 or so years after Pentecost that anything came near to being finalized.  And it wasn’t in Rome, it was in Constantinople, with most of the bishops of the church present, and no Pope or Magisterium telling them what to do.  (Andrew and I might have slightly different views of Constantine, but that’s not my point.)  I suppose you could call it “roman” in the sense that the Byzantines believed they were continuing as the true (christianized) Roman Empire - they even called themselves, and were known by the name, “Rum”.

Part of seeing the larger world, both where we are now and in terms of history, is having more of an awareness of the Eastern Church.  Until the last few years, I was pretty ignorant of it.  There is a vast amount there that is quite different than our legacy in the west; not that all things east are good and all things west are bad - that’s bald oversimplification.  But there is still quite a lot of ignorance among western Christians of the riches of the Eastern Church.

Disclosure:  I was received into Eastern Orthodoxy two years ago, largely because it was not that big a step from N.T. Wright’s view of things to Orthodoxy’s view of things :)

Dana

The final canon was set during a council.  We know there was some debate about books that were or were not included.  I’m just asserting that the context of those making that descision will have affected their choice.  There were not representatives from the Church of the East there, so there was Roman/Byzantine empire centric context.  Other groups from other contexts would have(and did) chosen slightly different set of books.  Doesn’t mean their choices were bad, just means they were their choices.

Traditional catholic teaching about the mission/death of the 12 apostles has 6(Matthew, Matthias, Thomas, Bartholomew, Jude, and Simon the Zealot) of them going east into the Persian Empire for at least some of their mission.  That should tell us that for the early church the Persian Empire and beyond was a big deal.  I’m just trying to highlight a neglected part of church history.

Sure the context had something to do with it.  All I’m saying is that what the Council of Carthage affirmed is what the greater church had already affirmed, by virtue of those documents having been considered by that time to have been expressions, developed over time, of what the church believed “always, everywhere and at all times” -except for possibly Revelation, which is to this day never read in the worship context in Orthodoxy.  (This is the O. church’s way of saying “We don’t develop any doctrine from this book.”)

I’m all for highlighting neglected parts of church history ;)

Dana

 

Hi Andrew,

Even though I would put the accents in different places  this is an excellent post.  I take a more critical view of Christendom than you do.  The awful cost of Christendom was evident from the beginning. Many of jewels of that imperial era flow from dissent (e.g. monasticism). 

I don’t want to rehash why Christendom was a bad idea.  I am interested that you associate post-christendom with disilllusionment.  Sooner or later we are going to need to move on from a Post-Everything stance to positively drawn new paradigm.  I said as much in two recent posts http://radref.blogspot.com/2011/05/re-formation-after-christendom.html and http://radref.blogspot.com/2011/05/slow-church-coming.html  Even in the absence of that pardigm the opportunities are thrilling.  Shalom,  phil

 

Phil, of course you’re more critical of Christendom than I am. You’re an Anabaptist, and somewhere in my past I used to be an Anglican. But I doubt we differ over very much. The disillusionment was with the whole Christendom-modern paradigm rather than a general post-Christendom malaise. I am eager to move beyond that. I think we are moving beyond that, just in a very piecemeal, spasmodic fashion.

And thanks for the links. I will make a point of reading the articles when I get the chance.

This seems like too narrow a view of what “victory” means. Narratively, even, how can you limit victory to the church being acceptable to Rome? Maybe Emperors being Christians, but that hardly meets the standard that the “Empire of this world has become the Empire of our Lord and his messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11). This doesn’t sound like “who will in some sense rule the nations.” This sounds like absolute rule - eventually. Yet the notion of the ascension seems to fill in the rest of the time - Christ enthroned above the powers. It seems very opposite the role of the church to claim the authority of those powers (instead, to be a witness to them, as in Eph 3), instead being a witness to Christ’s already enthroned position.

In other words, from a narrative perspective victory over pagan empires is essential, but it seems that it is a total victory - not the partial victory of Constantine. That’s not to say Christendom is wrong, but that it is not the climax of anything.

And I think while you’re criticizing the Anabaptist high ground you’re forgetting they’re not just dreamy idealists - Anabaptists (including John Howard Yoder!) go around creating local communities of witness. They may not effectively bring victory over large pagan empires, and maybe they’re too sectarian at times, but that seems to be closer to the biblical vision of the church than much of what passes for Christianity these days.

The victory was not that the church became acceptable to Rome. The victory was that Rome confessed Christ as Lord, repudiating all the ancient pagan gods. Becoming “acceptable” suggests the martyr church compromised in order to gain favour. I don’t think that’s the case.

I agree that it is not easy to match historical outcomes with prophetic or apocalyptic expectations. But it still seems to me that the New Testament draws on very concrete, realistic Old Testament expectations regarding the status of Israel amongst the nations which do not need to be translated into ideal or ultimate terms. Is the prophetic language really meant to express an absolute transformation of the world? Or is it meant to capture the massive political-religious but nevertheless contingent significance of such a change as the empire-wide worship of the God of marginal, rebellious, inconsequential Israel?

I agree, though, that Christendom represented only a partial victory—it was a contextually, historically appropriate sign of the sovereignty of the God who chose a people in Abraham. But like N.T. Wright, I think, that the New Testament conceives of the final victory not in anti-pagan but in creational terms. Jesus’ resurrection anticipates not only—narrowly—the vindication of the martyrs but also the final defeat of death.

I agree that the Anabaptists are very like the New Testament church, but that’s because the New Testament was defined to a large extent by its relationship to Judaism. The New Testament church was a prophetic witness against Judaism in the same way that the Anabaptists have been a prophetic witness against Christendom. But the question I think needs to be asked is: Does an authentic people of God always exist as a collective critique of an inauthentic people of God? Isn’t there something in us that strives to be new creation—as Israel strove to be new creation in the land that was given to it, and as Christianity strove to embody a new civilization under Christ in the empire that it inherited through the loyalty of persecuted prophetic communities?

Ok, I think I understand your point better. And I agree there is a fear of culture-building in Anabaptist thought so that it seems very restricted (although I do think Yoder is better with this than Leihart seems to assume - consider “The Christian Witness to the State” and the “leavening” function of the church).

I still wonder whether the repudiation of the pagan gods real was a repudiation of idolatry - which seems more the point of the prophetic critique. Certainly Constantine initiated a gigantic change (and much of it was good - the idea of religious tolerance in the Edict of Milan, and the ending of sacrifice), but I’m curious how we would judge that it’s been changed enough. After all, one doesn’t need pagan gods to be idolatrous - we do this with lots of other things thank you very much! In other words, based on the NT narrative, what criteria would there be for judging whether or not this climax has been reached?

Does an authentic people of God always exist as a collective critique of an inauthentic people of God? 

I guess that depends on who gets to define which one is authentic, no?

But more seriously, I think you are absolutely right about the church changing, and I think Paul and Jesus would not recognize the organization that developed that uses their names. But I don’t look at is as authentic as in, “the closer we get to the ideas and practices of the original group, the more authentic we are.” Because everything is to a large degree a reaction to what goes on around it. You could no more create another group that thinks and acts like the first Jesus movement than you could create another group of gnostics.

Even  the idea that Israel was rebellious is based on time and circumstance. Israel was “rebellious” only to those who couldn’t get enough Jews to believe their ideas. The proof that Israel was rebellious against God was that they got slaughtered by the Romans, even though the rebellion against Rome was triggered by the population’s devotion to their God.

They were so hot for God that they rebelled against Rome, expecting God would intervene. When he didn’t, it was cited as proof that they rebelled against him. How’s that for a kick in the pants?