Someone recently got in touch with some pertinent questions about my contention that the main trajectory of New Testament eschatology lands not at the end-of-the-world but firmly in the muddy battle-field of history, at the conversion of Rome.
This is not just a question about New Testament eschatology, of course. It is also a question—as will become clear—about how we understand revelation and, indeed, about how we understand God.
If I have understood you correctly, Constantine marks the moment of eschatological fulfillment that the NT writings anticipate, correct? But where I struggle is that I just can’t imagine God getting all excited and working towards the deathbed baptism of a military leader and the subsequent slow descent into corruption by his church.
Yes, I would say that the conversion of Constantine marks the most significant moment of eschatological fulfilment in the New Testament, but the statement needs to be qualified in two respects.
First, the conversion of Constantine only marks the moment—he is a convenient cipher. The real fulfilment from a biblical point of view, is that the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, in effect the empire, which formerly served other gods and opposed YHWH and his people, came to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). In that regard, what God thought of Constantine is neither here nor there, but there is some scope for rethinking his place in salvation-history. Peter Leithart, in Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, comments rather smartly on one of the ironies of Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism:
Yoder’s opposition to Constantine suffers from the same oversight as earlier forms of anti-Constantinianism with regard to martyrs. He longs for the hardy faithfulness of the martyr church but does not recognize that the martyrs were motivated by something very different from anti-Constantinianism. They died, one might almost say, in the hope that the Lord would raise up an emperor very like Constantine, through whom the Lord would show that their blood had not seeped silent into the earth. (309-10)
This is not to absolve Constantinianism of its subsequent sins, but it does highlight the relevance of perspective. A major part of my argument in The Future of the People of God is that the motif of suffering—notably Romans 8:16-39—has just this eschatological orientation. In his suffering and vindication Christ is “firstborn among many brothers”—that is, many others have been called to be “conformed to the image” of the martyred one (Rom. 8:28-29). This is not a narrative for the universal church at all times and in all places. It is a narrative for the early churches as they confronted the frightening hegemony of classical paganism.
Secondly, while the conversion of Rome is historically the most significant outcome of the biblical narrative, it is still only a precursor to, or anticipation of, the defeat of the final enemy, which is death, and the renewal of all things in a new heaven and new earth. Every particular contingent victory in history—over idolatry, over the debasement of human relations, over injustice, over suffering—is not much more than a signpost towards this final judgment and restoration of creation.
It’s like the early church got what it wanted, but much like the Israelites asking to have a king, it didn’t really work out the way they anticipated, know what I mean?
Exactly. I would argue that the history of the people of God after Christ was just as messy, just as glorious and lamentable, as the history of the people of God before Christ. Christendom succeeded and failed in the same way that national Israel succeeded and failed, only on a much bigger scale. But national Israel was still a chosen people, it still represented in its institutions and symbols the sovereignty and presence of the creator God.
I think we make the mistake of assuming that the kingdom of God was to be—or still is to be—some sort of ideal or perfected state of things. My argument is that the coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament was the coming of God to intervene decisively in the history of his people—just as he had intervened before to bring them out of Egypt or back from exile. So for Isaiah the “good news” to the exiles was that “Your God reigns”, that he was about to bare his holy arm before the nations and redeem Zion (Is. 52:7-10).
The difference is two-fold. First, since the death of Jesus the people of God is no longer under condemnation because of sin, no longer faces the sort of destruction that Israel faced, but is under grace.
Secondly, since the resurrection Jesus has been given authority to reign—along with the martyrs—at the right hand of God, over all his enemies, for the sake of the body (cf. Eph. 1:20-23); and he has poured out the Spirit of prophecy, covenant renewal, divine presence, and new creation power on his people. That is an ideal reign, if you like, but we engage with it only through the imperfection and fallibility of corporate historical experience.
I am totally ok with the NT being a series of historical documents, but out of interest do you have a post somewhere on how the divine inspiration of scripture fits into that? I ask because IF the NT is divinely inspired (or even inerrant) then it’s strange to imagine the culmination of God’s Great Plan to be Constantine and Christendom; if it’s not inspired but ‘merely’ historical documents, then I can (as a former historian) easily imagine analysing them historically, but is it then still valid to use them theologically?
I think I would challenge the dichotomy between inspired and (merely) historical. Also the assumption that we have to read them theologically rather than historically if they are going to teach us something about “God’s Great Plan”. It is precisely as historical texts that they reveal to us the purposes of the God of Israel—not any old God but the God of a historical community over time. It is precisely as historical texts that they are inspired. I am inclined to think that the doctrine of divine inspiration is essentially redundant. Nothing is ever true simply because we say it is.
Again, we assume that revelation must be absolute, transcendent, supra-historical, but I don’t think that’s how scripture works. Why should the God who called Abraham to be the father of a great people not have a plan—or plans—that culminate in just those momentous events that punctuate the history of a people? In fact, it seems to me that the God who called Abraham is barely interested in anything other than the continuing, troubled historical experience of his people.
Thanks to scholars like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight we are getting comfortable with the idea that Jesus fulfilled Israel’s story. All I’m arguing is that the story didn’t stop with Jesus—that the destruction of Jerusalem and the conversion of Rome—and the eventual collapse of Christendom, for that matter—are just as significant theologically as the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, the exile to Babylon, the return from exile, and the commonly overlooked but theologically very important attempt made by Antiochus IV to suppress Jewish worship and religious identity.
I can see how like sociologists we can evaluate how early Christian communities understood themselves and their relationship to God, but can it apply to us? Or do we have to write our own ‘scriptures’?
Good question! I don’t think we have to write our own “scriptures”, but we do have to tell our own story in a way which is consistent with the biblical narrative. We are not in the situation that the first century church was in. The New Testament does not tell our story. We might be in a situation like it—just as the journey that the early church had to make was analogous to the exodus or the return from exile. But I think we need a hermeneutic that both recognizes the narrative distance between us and the New Testament and is imaginative enough to understand how the narrative also establishes our dependence upon the New Testament. History forces the two worlds further and further apart, but history also holds them together.