I spent a day this week with a group of leaders from a network of churches in the UK who were discussing how best to teach theology across the movement. They went about it with a refreshing candour: “We have an anti-intellectual history—we need to embrace learning.” The discussion revolved around the questions of what should be included in an “in house” theological training programme and how it might most effectively be delivered.
The rather less practical question that kept going through my mind, however, was: What do we want this sort of programme to achieve? What is the guiding vision? Are we looking to theology to underpin our ecclesial structures and doctrinal commitments? Or do we need it to take us somewhere? In the context of the consultation that would probably not have been a very helpful contribution—the network in question already has a solid vision for the coming decade. But I want to explore a bit further here what we currently need theology to do in our churches.
Stasis and crisis
I made the point some years ago in that there are effectively two modes of corporate existence for the people of God in the Bible, one dynamic, the other static. They are both legitimate, there is no need to elevate one above the other, but they come into operation under different conditions. They are not uniquely theological or biblical categories. All human life oscillates between these two states—between stasis and movement, between stability and crisis.
On their difficult journey through the wilderness towards the fulfilment of the promise made to the patriarchs the Israelites had to learn a radical trust in YHWH to sustain and protect them. That is the dynamic mode of existence: the people were literally on the move towards an end goal—a telos, an eschaton. Alan Hirsch uses the anthropological term “liminality” to characterize this precarious, marginalized way of being and calls the resulting form of corporate life communitas.
Once settled in the land, however, the people ceased to be refugees and began to develop the practices and institutions of statehood. So, for example, rather than having to rely on God to provide manna for their daily survival or water from a rock, they cultivated the land and dug wells. There was never any suggestion that farming would be unnecessary in a land flowing with milk and honey. Hirsch rather dismisses this settled existence as merely bourgeois community.
There is, of course, some overlap between the two ways of being God’s people—such distinctions are never as clear-cut as we like to think they are. But I suggested that the mistake made by proponents of Prosperity Theology is, to a large degree, that they have tried to make us live in the land as though we were still in the wilderness.
Life on the road—or perhaps in exile—is very different to life at home; living out of a suitcase is very different to living out of a wardrobe and chest of drawers and bathroom cabinet; and what the people of God needs to learn varies accordingly. The constantly retold narrative of the Old Testament enabled Israel to locate itself in the world, in relation to the nations, as God’s people. But then, roughly speaking, the Law and the Wisdom literature taught Israel how to live well in the land; and the Prophets taught Israel how to respond to the crises brought upon the nation by their failure to live well in the land.
There is no eschatology as such in the Law and the Wisdom literature, but the prophets speak consistently in the light of a foreseen future. The settled existence of the people of God has become dangerously unstable because of sin; they face a crisis of divine judgment in the form of invasion and exile; but the prophets hear from God and articulate the hope of forgiveness and restoration, notably in the form of return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Church without end
It seems to me that modern ecclesiology—what we teach the church to be—has been founded largely on a static, non-eschatological, and no doubt inherently bourgeois, model of community, and that this is what we expect to find in the New Testament. It makes little difference whether the church has been conceived as a charismatic fellowship or as a bureaucratic institution. People gather together on a regular basis, indefinitely, and it is the responsibility of the leadership to manage and oversee their shared life together in the Spirit. Training, discipleship, preaching, Bible study, theological education are oriented towards clarifying and sustaining this arrangement. The church may get bigger or smaller, but it stays in one place.
If that’s the problem, what is the solution? Well, it seems obvious. Get moving! Get missional! A missional church gets off its backside, gets out into the community, and gets its hands dirty.
But it’s one thing to be sent, it’s another to know where we are going.
The turn to mission has been driven largely by the realization that the Western church is facing a crisis—perhaps a crisis of biblical proportions, as they say. We think: if we don’t get out there and do evangelism, the church will continue to shrink like the Aral Sea and eventually evaporate altogether. If we don’t get out there and do social justice stuff, etc., the church will end up as an irrelevant, unfrequented, stagnating backwater on the margins of the great swamp of life.
I think this may be a mistake—in a way, the reverse of the mistake made by Prosperity Theology. We are trying to deal with a crisis as though we are still in the land—in the sense that we are trying to solve the problem of the post-Christendom collapse of the church without eschatology, without a narrated future, without a frame within which to speak prophetically.
Eschatology—don’t leave home without it
In scripture the direct response to crisis is not mission but prophecy. God speaks to Moses. He tells him that he has seen the affliction of his people, that he will deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and will “bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). Then, with this telos in view, Moses is sent to bring about that envisaged future.
Similarly, the resolution to the crisis of exile begins with the announcement of good news to Jerusalem, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that YHWH is coming to re-establish his rule before the eyes of the nations (Is. 40:1-5, 9-11). Only once the proximate eschaton is in view does the historical “mission” to restore Jerusalem begin.
“Proximate eschaton”? Ah, yes…. For the most part the church has not really felt the need for a proximate eschatology. Everything has been fulfilled in Christ, and the church was, is now, and shall be until the ultimate eschaton—if the tautology may be allowed—the end of all things, regardless of what history throws at us in the meantime. My view is that this perspective does not do justice to scripture and deprives us of what may be the most valuable theological resource available to us at a time of crisis—a robust narrative self-understanding as the people of God.
Like Moses and Isaiah, the New Testament addresses a pressing, historical circumstance. Israel is in a state of crisis at least analogous to the crisis of the exile (cf. Mk. 1:2-3); Jesus responds with a call to repentance in recognition of the fact that the kingdom of God is at hand (Mk. 1:14-15). God is going to do something—not a single thing, more like a sequence of events. He will judge his people, he will judge his enemies, he will vindicate the faithful, he will publicly demonstrate his rightness, he will give his Son authority over the nations…. Simply put, the kingdom of God will come. This is the proximate eschaton—it is not so far away, it looms large, it bears upon the present, creating a sense of urgency. It determines the mission of Jesus and of the churches: they anticipate in word and action the future coming of the kingdom of God; and this mission then determines the form of the community’s existence.
There is no mission in the New Testament apart from some vision of future events because the mission is precisely the announcement of that future. The gospel is not so much what God has done, though it comes to include that. It is what God is going to do. And that eschatological outcome is anticipated in the praxis of missional communities.
New Testament ecclesiology, therefore, is at all points eschatologically determined. Jesus formed a community of followers in the light of the coming judgment on Israel—to the extent that it is a category mistake (of sorts) to suppose that the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, for example, set out his understanding of what the church should look like at all times and in all places, whatever the weather. In the same way, the apostles formed communities in the light of the looming crisis of the clash between Christ and pagan empire—to the extent that Romans 8 is not a general account of what it means to be Christian but the core of Paul’s martyrdom theology. I have proposed elsewhere that 1 Peter may be understood in the same way.
The future of theology
My argument, therefore, is that the Western church is going through a crisis of biblical proportions and that, as in scripture, the way forward needs to be determined eschatologically. We need to believe that God has a viable future for us.
How we view the future will then affect how we do mission and how we form our churches. For example, if our eschaton were the imminent return of Jesus, our mission would probably be to proclaim the gospel to all nations in order to hurry things along, and our churches would be reduced to sending bodies for missionaries. I think that paradigm is misconceived in all sorts of way, but it illustrates the point.
An ultimate eschatology remains in place for us: evil and death will be defeated, there will be a new heaven and new earth. But in a time of crisis and transition scripture teaches us to construct, in the light of that final hope, a credible, compelling vision for our more immediate future—a proximate telos or eschaton.
How do we do that?
Arguably the current missional movement, like the emerging church, is not so much the solution to the crisis of the marginalization of the Western church as one of the ways in which we are endeavouring to shape a new vision for the future. It is a way of getting outside the old mindset. It is a way of testing new identities. How plausible do they feel? How well do they work? It has created a new environment for us to think in.
Another way in which we may begin to shape a new vision for the future, I would suggest, is to relearn how to do our theology narratively, historically, prophetically, eschatologically. It’s not going to be easy. The Western church hasn’t had to think that way for 1700 years. But we need a theology that will help us to see where God is in the future of Western civilization, that will motivate in the way that the theology of Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul motivated communities to live in the light of their respective proximate eschata, that will equip today’s churches to deal with the massive intellectual and social challenges that lie ahead.
To sum up, I suggest that our theology should help us to develop:
- a narrative-historical framework within which to understand the crisis facing the Western church;
- a proximate eschatology, a sense of where God is in the future, of what the churches will have to deal with;
- an account of mission that is a response to that “prophetic” vision;
- an ecclesiology that directly serves the mission that is the response of God’s people to the eschatological vision.