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

A question about the “Jesus-looking God” of the neo-Anabaptists

This pointed question was posed by Zach Hoag in a brief conversation about Jesus and violence that I was following on Twitter over the new year:

Honest Q: Is there tension between the “Jesus-looking God” of neo-anabaptists & the “1st century Jewish Jesus” of the new perspectivists?

I am not an Anabaptist—though like many evangelicals today I have a lot of respect for the moral and theological integrity of the Anabaptist position; and I can’t say for sure what the Anabaptist God looks like. But I imagine that he eschews violence, in some sense shares in the suffering of the cross, has been re-cast in the image of Jesus, is opposed to empire, identifies with the oppressed… and must have been deeply disappointed with the church for its post-Constantinian accommodation to political and cultural power.

Is that the God that we find in the New Testament? For that matter, is this the Jesus that we find in the New Testament? Here are some new perspectivist or, as I prefer, narrative-historical thoughts on the matter….

If the story of Israel in the first century is still determined by the covenant with Moses, which appears to be the implication of Matthew 5:17-20, then the God of Jesus is a God who punishes his people violently. Both Jesus and his disciples after his death condemn a “perverse generation” of Israel, for which a “day of calamity” and doom is at hand (Matt. 12:39-41; Acts 2:40; cf. Deut. 30:20, 35). In other words, AD 70 is the watershed rather than the cross. For all the violence of the imagery in 2 Thessalonians and Revelation, it appears to be the witness of the early churches that brings down idolatrous Rome rather than the sword.

The cross is meaningful as an act of atonement precisely because Israel was about to face the wrath of God as prescribed in the scriptures. In that respect Jesus suffered alone at the hands of Rome the punishment that Israel would soon suffer en masse at the hands of Rome. That’s why I think that the progressive campaign for penal substitution reform hasn’t got it quite right.

I have a hard time, frankly, seeing how the New Testament might be used to establish the idea that God himself suffered in Jesus—that he is henceforth the “crucified God”. Clearly, the point might be determined theologically—crudely put, if Jesus is God incarnate in the classical sense, then presumably God died on the cross. But that is not how the New Testament presents the matter. Not as far as I can see.

When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34), we are not to read it as the expression of a metaphysical conundrum. He is invoking a Psalm in which Israel’s righteous king is rejected by his own people, finds himself encompassed on all sides by evil-doers—“they have pierced my hands and feet”—but expects YHWH to deliver him. The Psalm culminates in the declaration that “kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28).

This gives us the central political-religious narrative of the New Testament. The Lord’s anointed is rejected by his own people and killed, but he is raised from the dead, vindicated for his faithfulness, and exalted to the right hand of the Father to act as judge and ruler of the nations. Anabaptism is much more comfortable with the first part of that story than with the second part, much happier following Jesus as example, teacher, friend, and redeemer than confessing him as Lord over the nations.

The Lamb that was slain is seen in heaven beside the throne of God—perhaps that is a sort of incorporation into the godhead. But this Lamb is still the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David”, he has ransomed a kingdom of priests, who “shall reign on the earth”; and more importantly, by his suffering  he has earned the right to open the scroll that will prepare the conditions for judgment—first, against Jerusalem, then against Rome. Kingdom is consistently articulated in terms of judgment and rule, not of social transformation in the modern sense.

What Jesus taught and modelled was an ideal response of Israel to the eschatological crisis: keep the Law, do not resist the one who is evil, love your enemy, trust your heavenly Father, keep to the straight and narrow (Matt. 5:17-20, 39, 44; 6:25-34; 7:13-14). This is not presented as a way of defeating empire but as a way of ensuring that when the day of calamity comes, something will be left standing (Matt. 7:24-27). In his faithfulness to God as Father, his willingness to suffer, and his expectation of vindication, Jesus represented not God but the remnant of Israel—the community of the Son of Man, he saints of the Most High—that would eventually inherit the kingdom of God.

From a narrative point of view the marginalized and oppressed are strategically important for contingent eschatological reasons: they were the means by which the God of Israel renewed his people and gained sovereignty over the nations at that stage in the story. I question whether it makes sense to base discipleship programmes on the Gospels.

Jesus told his followers that they would sit on thrones with the Son of Man, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. There is no suggestion that they would judge and rule over the nations. But presumably the martyrs who were raised following judgment on corrupt Rome came to reign with Christ not over God’s people only but over the peoples of the empire.

I know this is a contentious point, but I would argue that, if we are to be consistent, this sort of narrative-historical reading of the New Testament inevitably leads us to view the conversion of Rome—the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations—as a positive biblical outcome.

The Anabaptist Network claims in its core convictions that “Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus”. In my view, that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the biblical narrative. Paul’s “gospel”—and implicitly Jesus’ too—was that Jesus had been given authority at the right hand of the Father to judge and rule over the nations. Christendom did not distort that gospel; it was the historical—and therefore imperfect—fulfilment of that gospel. Equally, Christendom did not marginalize Jesus. It simply recognized the narrative fact that the Jesus who had been a prophet to first century Israel was now seated in glory at the right hand of Father having been given authority to judge and rule over the nations.

That is not to let Christendom off the hook. The people of God, because it exists not ideally but historically, has always been in need of reform and always will be. But we should not have to sacrifice the narrative-historical integrity of scripture to that end.

Comments

Thanks for the deep thoughts, as always. :)

My main question here is that you seem to be minimizing the role of the cross in the defeat of the Roman Empire. Paul, at least, seems to see the cross as the event which itself guaranteed the defeat of all political and religious powers.

In other words, the cross is not simply a way of atoning for the sins of the people, so that a small group of followers can then escape destruction…it’s actually the means which will bring about the downfall of Rome.

If I’m seeing this correctly, then it would seem that within that historical context, the anabaptist position is a bit closer to the New Testament than you’re giving it credit for. Yes, the New Testament is concerned with violent judgment; but it sees that violent judgment actually coming about due to the non-violence of the cross, and of Jesus’ followers.

Micah, that’s a fair comment. I mentioned rather in passing that it “appears to be the witness of the early churches that brings down idolatrous Rome rather than the sword”. But I was looking more at the Gospels and partly reacting to your Jesus the Insurgent post, which I felt overstated the significance of the cross in the clash between Jesus and the “domination system” of Rome. I thought it was a very powerful piece of writing, but to my mind it fell more into the category of Anabaptist (or something similar) rhetoric than that of straightforward New Testament interpretation, if such a thing exists. That’s probably unfair, but it did rather blur the boundary between what Jesus thought he was doing and the meaning that later generations found in the cross. 

I don’t think there’s enough evidence to suggest that Jesus self-consciously engaged with empire. He engaged with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, explicitly and repeatedly, but it is difficult to find an anti-Rome or anti-imperial sentiment in any of the parables, for example. The parable of the mustard seed? So this paragraph seemed to me to universalise—or humanize—Jesus’ understanding of his mission in a way that is not really evident in the Gospels:

The system had one vision for humanity, a vision played out to the full extent in the Roman Empire, and one which the rulers of Jerusalem had completely bought into. Jesus had another vision, lived out in the communities he had generated, in his creativity and blatant truth-telling, in his steadfast determination to live from his own identity rather than one foisted on him. His was a humanity not built on violence, which did not scapegoat or victimize.

But I strongly agree that the cross would have been worthless if there had not emerged a group of followers and believers who were prepared to live according to the cross, to reproduce the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication in their own lives. It is presented more as a willingness to die than a refusal to take up arms, which would have been futile in any case. But it was indeed the means by which Rome as an idolatrous, satanically inspired, immoral and unjust system was eventually defeated.

But not Rome as empire. It seems to me that what the New Testament foresaw was not an end to empire but an end to pagan empire. As I said in the post, if we are prepared to let the New Testament speak historically, I think we have to accept that the predicted outcome is that the empire of Rome will become the empire of YHWH because of the faithfulness of Jesus and and of the early churches.

Thanks for engaging with my post. For the sake of bystanders, let me clarify that I am not an anabaptist (just heavily influenced by the anabaptist leanings of the Restoration Movement). And my post was written to capture some ideas in a narrative, philosophical way, not to serve as historical or exegetical arguments (see my references and disclaimer for the series).

So while I do think my post captures the essence of what is going on in the New Testament, I heartily acknowledge you need to engage in some abstraction to get there. In this, I am trying to follow Walter Wink in translating ideas captured in one language and worldview, into expressions that make sense in a completely different one. This is a tricky and dangerous enterprise; but it’s an enterprise we’re all engaged in, one way or another.

To your point, I agree that Jesus was focused on Israel, not Rome. His mission seems to center on battling for a certain understanding of Israel’s identity. His critique of Israel’s leadership was that they were either not understanding or not correctly embodying the Jewish mission.

But it’s hard to escape the notion that this had implications stretching much farther. First, Jesus’ issue with Israel seems to arise from the same thing the prophets had always criticized: they were living according to the values of the nations, rather than the values of their own identity. Second, Israel living out its (correct) identity would have an impact on the rest of the world. This can be seen both in the “light of the world” talk, and in the kingdom of God talk. Correctly embodied Jewish identity would reshape the rest of the world.

So although Jesus is completely focused on Israel, Israel is already assumed to be playing a role that has meaning for the rest of the world, and humanity as a whole. My “universalizing” of the effect of the cross is not an attempt to pull it out of historical context, but an assumption that a vision of Jewish identity implies a vision of human identity.

But perhaps I’m getting side-tracked from your point. I think you’re arguing that you can’t derive a universal ethic of non-violence from the cross. I agree. My assertion is not that the cross is Jesus’ vision for humanity, but that there is a vision for humanity implicit in the biblical narrative.

As I see it, Genesis sets up a rough idea of what humanity is supposed to be. Genesis then focuses on violence as one of the primary ways in which this human ideal has been compromised.

After Abraham, the presumed solution to this problem is that the people of God will eventually rule over the nations, bringing humanity to its ideal state, pacifying the violence of the world. One would assume that this would be accomplished using all the normal tools of empire.

However, Jesus puts forward a different approach. The people of God will come to rule over the nations and pacify them without using violence. I think Jesus makes the subtle argument that this is the correct way because “you can’t fight fire with fire”, so to speak.

So the scriptures have a vision for a humanity living out from under the reign of violence. That does not mean an individualist, ethical pacifism; just that violence should cease to be the normal state of affairs. Jesus offers a twist in that the people of God would bring about this state of affairs not only by abandoning violence, but by being willing to die under the violence of others.

I agree that there is a distinction between what “normal people should do”, and “what the people of God should do during this timeframe”. I’m just seeing the dynamic within that timeframe as being wrapped up with the issue of violence in a more thorough way.

And I think the main difference in how you and I are looking at history is that, given my understanding of Jesus’ intentions, the conversion of the empire should be seen as a side-effect of the victory of the early church, not the victory itself.

Great comments. There’s little I would disagree with here. The qualifications regarding the intention of your post are well made, though I rather feel that there is more going on in this sort of exercise than the translation metaphor suggests. A translation is supposed to allow you to understand the original communication more or less as it was intended. What you’re describing is more a rewriting—John Barton uses the term “creative transcription”; I quite like the metaphor of transposition, as from one key to another. But I also wonder whether it wouldn’t serve us better these days to tell the story as it was—to push the church to recover a sense of historical and ideological distance.

And I think the main difference in how you and I are looking at history is that, given my understanding of Jesus’ intentions, the conversion of the empire should be seen as a side-effect of the victory of the early church, not the victory itself.

Yes, that’s probably about right. My view is that the horizons of Jesus and the early church were historically circumscribed: Jesus didn’t look beyond AD 70, or barely; Paul didn’t look beyond the revelation of Christ as Lord to the nations of the oikoumenē. The collapse of Christendom—the repudiation of Jesus as Lord by the nations—puts us in a very different position, one not envisaged by the New Testament, and I think it calls for a radical, Spirit-directed, imaginative rethinking of what it means to be the people of God. We do so in the light of the story that is told in scripture, the story of God’s people so far, and of the hope of new creation. But in a real sense, I think we are biblically off the map. I’m not sure we should now expect the sort of “victory” that the early church had in mind.

I like the metaphor of “transposition”. I think that makes a lot of sense.

And I agree with you on wanting to recover a sense of historical and ideological distance - to rediscover how alien it is. My only quibble is that I don’t think we can quite get at it “as it was” without some work of translation.

For example, I could have avoided terms like Wink’s “domination system”, and stuck to terms like “sin”. But I rather think that “sin” means something different in the 21st-century English-speaking world than it did in the 1st-century Roman Empire.

To me, this feels like one of the primary obstacles to talking about the New Testament: our religious terminology is so comfortable and familiar, it’s hard to notice when someone is saying something quite alarming.

The way I see it, what a thorough-going narrative theology makes us do is work hard 1) to understand the original meaning of the New Testament, in its own context, on its own terms; 2) to understand how history carries the story forward as history and not as an allegory for modern interests and controversies (eg. as a crude battle between evil Christendom and good Anabaptism); and 3) to speak about our own situation in language that is as relevant and meaningful for our world as the language of the New Testament was for the world of the first century.

Andrew, thanks so much for interacting on this. I think you’ve filled in a lot of the blanks that my question was getting at. I find myself in a sort of NPP-Wesleyanabaptist kind of mode these days, and my only pushback might be that the way of peace outlined by Jesus does seem to have relevance beyond the impending AD 70 situation. The kingdom is prophetically one in which peace/reconciliation should increasingly manifest (leading to the final abolition of war/conflict) & power dynamics ought to represent the self-emptying humility of Jesus vs. the selfish power & control of human empires/systems (“it should not be so among you,” etc.). But I do agree on the other points that NA thought often opts for a philosophical reading over a historical one.

…my only pushback might be that the way of peace outlined by Jesus does seem to have relevance beyond the impending AD 70 situation.

Sure, and I fully agree that the church should be, among other things, a concrete, embodied, imaginative, selfless, corporate prophetic sign of the sort of future transformation that you describe. I just don’t think Jesus himself directly addressed the post-AD. 70 situation of the people of God, and I’m not really convinced that Paul’s programme can be couched in quite those terms. Narratively speaking, Paul precedes Christendom.

I would argue that the post-Christendom church has to take prophetic-theological responsibility for the post-imperial development—rather than find it anachronistically inscribed in the New Testament. Perhaps Anabaptism is to be regarded as a prophetic movement presaging the eventual collapse of the imperial-Christendom paradigm. The really big question, then, is: What are we reconstructing after Christendom?

And as I said, thanks for involving me in the conversation.