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.