Is David Fitch right that God is making the world right?

Read time: 7 minutes

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, [amazon:978-1606086841:inline].

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.

Doug in CO | Thu, 06/28/2012 - 00:47 | Permalink

I think the key question becomes what does it mean to “heal the nations”?  This is the ongoing kingdom function.  Is it purely a future issue?  Is it happening now?  If it has started, but is only seen in scripture as happening once the New Jerusalem has started to fully function, then why are we looking for anyting else?


@Doug in CO:

But in relation to Fitch’s argument, it’s important to note that the healing the nations motif is still very much centred on the new Jerusalem. The leaves by which the nations are healed grow beside a river that flows from the holy city. This seems rather different to the idea that God is out there at work and the church needs to catch up.

“Where do we get this idea from that the missio Dei is all about putting the world to rights?”

The new heavens and new earth of Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 show the world put to rights at the end — restored to something like the pre-Fall garden of Genesis 2.

Jesus also talks about destroying the bad (in the end) and gathering the good in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24ff). In the following parable, the kingdom is something that grows and develops — like the stone in Daniel 2. This is the kingdom as something which is now-but-not-yet; i.e., we have a foretaste but it’s not yet here in its fullness.

I find it hard to accept that the kingdom of YHWH arrived fully with Constantine, so for me the narrative these passages refer to is still incomplete. God is putting the world to rights.

There’s also the question of whether the new creation will evolve from the present one, retaining that which is good (as Fitch presumably believes), or will totally replace the present one (as the pop Armageddonists would have it).

But I think your question is really about how God is putting the world to rights — is it through enlarging his covenant people (your position I think) or through his covenant people working with him in the wider world (Fitch’s position I think). Is it possible for “things to be made right” in the world? Surely a pragmatic answer is “yes” — distributing mosquito nets in Africa makes the world a better place. But that’s not a theology.

@Keith Wansbrough:

Keith, thanks, some good comments. A few thoughts in response…

The new heavens and new earth of Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 show the world put to rights at the end - restored to something like the pre-Fall garden of Genesis 2.

I agree that Revelation 21 depicts a world finally put to rights—presumably in some sense this world put to rights, though don’t ask me in what sense. I don’t agree, however, that Isaiah 65 has in view the same final reality. The renewal of heaven and earth here appears to be a metaphor for the restoration of Jerusalem. From our post-biblical and post-Constantinian perspective the absolute renewal of the world seems much more important than it did for Israel.

Still, the new heavens and new earth of Revelation 21-22 are not the product of anything that is being done now, whether by God or by the church; there is no connection with the mission of the church. The new creation is utterly new: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). So I don’t see how this lends support to Fitch’s view that God is currently present in the world putting things to right.

I take the parable of the wheat and weeds to refer to judgment on Israel. It goes back via John the Baptist to Malachi 4:1-2:

For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

It also seems to me that the language of putting the world to rights—or anything similar—is not there in scripture’s account of the future. The idea of the nations or Jesus’ enemies being put under his feet in some sort of progressive sense is found quite often, but I would hold that what is in view here is in the medium term the victory over aggressive pagan nations and in the long term the final defeat of satan and death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-26). This is fully in keeping with Old Testament expectations that Israel’s king would rule over the nations. Daniel 2 would be part of this narrative: it refers to a day when God would overthrow the empires of the ancient world and set up his own kingdom—there is no progressive element here, no “now and not yet”.

I find it hard to accept that the kingdom of YHWH arrived fully with Constantine, so for me the narrative these passages refer to is still incomplete. God is putting the world to rights.

The trouble we have with equating the coming of the kingdom of God with the overthrow of pagan imperialism—and therefore retrospectively with Constantine—is that we assume that “kingdom of God” is a matter of everything being put right. It doesn’t mean that. It means “God rules”—God rules over his people rather than Herod or Caesar or fear or satan. God rules over the nations through his Son Jesus. It means that the right king reigns over his people and has acted decisively to transform their status.

The point is rather that Jesus reigns as king until everything has been put right, which is new creation. In Revelation kingdom language climaxes in the overthrow of Babylon the Great, which I think must be Rome. Kingdom language disappears when we get to John’s description of a new creation. There is no need for kingdom here because the last enemies of humanity have been destroyed—so as Paul says, at this point, when death and other powers have been defeated, kingdom is given back to the Father so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Kingdom is only relevant as long as there are enemies.

But I think your question is really about how God is putting the world to rights - is it through enlarging his covenant people (your position I think) or through his covenant people working with him in the wider world (Fitch’s position I think). Is it possible for “things to be made right” in the world? Surely a pragmatic answer is “yes” - distributing mosquito nets in Africa makes the world a better place. But that’s not a theology.

No, I don’t think God is putting (present continuous) the world to rights, one way or another. The covenant people witnesses to the power of God to renew his creation, and part of that witness, if it is to be credible, is the concrete transformation of the world around us—as I suggested in the post, a by-product of the making right of the people of God.

Distributing mosquito nets in Africa may be a concrete sign of who our God is and what it means to reflect his character, but I think it is merely sentimental to suppose that such acts of justice and compassion are part of a comprehensive putting right of all things. I think we need a reality check here. On the one hand, the poor and the sick and the greedy and the criminally insane will always be with us. On the other, if the church cannot put its own house in order, what reason do we have to think that the world is being put to right?

@Andrew Perriman:

If you focus on the invisible church as the true church, ignoring the man-made church, it’s easier to see God making the world right through His people.

That is, following the historical-narrative pattern of the gospels, the disciples represent the true church and the Pharisees represent the man-made church.

Dana Ames | Fri, 06/29/2012 - 19:05 | Permalink

I ran across this group — begun by progressive Jews — when I was just beginning to read Wright:

This is not a commentary on this group’s politics, but it fascinated me that the Jewish thread to all this, which NT Wright brings out,  is still part of Jewish sensibility — tikkun ha olam, the Repair of Creation, which involves actively working to better the world — working *for* the Kingdom, as Wright would say.   To me, this is not a-historical and could be included  in your scheme, Andrew.

How else is the visible church going to visibly witness in places where Christians are not persecuted, and in some respects even in places where Christians are persecuted -  since the time Roman Empire turned Christian — if we don’t actually do things that show love to others not of our own tribe?

The Father sends sunshine and rain on the just and unjust alike — be whole and complete the same way your Father in the Heavens is…


Mark Nieweg | Sun, 07/01/2012 - 16:34 | Permalink

Andrew, you mention in your post “Why don’t we have an exaltational model of mission?” Your statement brought to mind what Jesus said to his disciples “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25,26). It appears Jesus is anticipating his new community and how it is to conduct its affairs. However, it is the self-proclaimed label the nations call themselves — of being “Benefactors” — that struck me, especially in how my particular “governing authority” (the United States) makes claims for itself.

When I think of how I (we) “bear witness” (Acts 1:8) these days, a quote from Hendrikus Berkhof comes to mind, one that I found in John H. Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” under the chapter called “Christ and Power.” His approach to Jesus and the cross I think may give us a clue as to what our mission is. I hope it is not too long…..

By the cross (which must always, here as elsewhere, be seen as a unit with the resurrection) Christ abolished the slavery which, as a result of sin, lay over our existence as a menace and an accusation. On the cross He ‘disarmed” the Powers,’ ‘made a public example of them and thereby triumphed over them.’ Paul uses three different verbs to express more adequately what happened to the Powers at the cross.

He ‘made a public example of them.’ It is precisely in the crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been perceived, nor could it have been perceived, that this belief was founded on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him, acting not as His instruments but as His adversaries. The scribes, representatives of the Jewish law, far from receiving gratefully Him who came in the name of the God of the law, crucified Him in the name of the law. The priests, servants of His temple, crucified Him in the name of the temple. The Pharisees, personifying piety, crucified Him in the name of piety. Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself. Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (I Cor. 2:8). Now they are unmasked as false gods by their encounter with very God; they are made a public spectacle.

Thus Christ has ‘triumphed over them.’ Their unmasking is actually already their defeat. Yet this is only visible to men when they know that God Himself had appeared on earth in Christ. Therefore we must think of the resurrection as well as the cross. The resurrection manifests what was already accomplished at the cross: that in Christ God has challenged the Powers, has penetrated into their territory, and has displayed that He is stronger than they.

The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has ‘disarmed’ the Powers. The weapon from which they heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince men that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty for small, dependent humanity. Since Christ, we know that this is an illusion. We are called to a higher destiny; we have higher orders to follow and we stand under a greater Protector. No Powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on men. The cross has disarmed them; wherever it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the Powers takes place. (From Christ and the Powers by Hendrikus Berkhof)

@Mark Nieweg:

Mark, thanks for this. My view is that Jesus’ followers were called to the imitation of Jesus in his obedience, suffering, death and resurrection, because that was what was required if he church was to survive the coming period of eschatological crisis. The church that shares in his death will also share in his exaltation and reign over the nations (cf. Rev. 20:4). However, insofar as the church as moved beyond eschatological crisis, it also has to live out the fulness of created life. Dying and being raised to new life makes that a possibility and is always the condition for safeguarding the new creation space. But if we over-emphasize the cross as the way of discipleship, we risk failing to affirm the fulness of what the people of God was saved for. Just my view. Of course, by “exaltational” I mean the exaltation of Jesus, not of the disciplese—except in the sense suggested above.