Tom Wright on religion and politics: the beginning and end of theocracy

The National Secular Society has taken Tom Wright to task for advocating a “cruciform theocracy” that would overcome the prevailing separation of religion and politics in the West. A more detailed summary of Wright’s talk at St Paul’s Cathedral in London a week ago can be found on the Christian Today website, from which I have gleaned the main bullet points of his argument: 

  • The church has bought into the Enlightenment split between heaven and earth, sacred and profane.
  • As a result the message of the cross has shifted “from the ultimate victory over the principalities and powers, to simply the mechanism of dealing with individual sins”.
  • Jesus came to “institute God’s rule on earth, theocracy”.
  • God’s rule on earth “challenges Caesar’s type of kingdom”.
  • Both personal salvation and social action are proper out-workings of the gospel, but taken in isolation they are distortions of it.
  • Western Enlightenment thought has rejected this message, ascribing authority instead to “science and technology and western democracy”.
  • But the world is fundamentally different because of Jesus’ coming: “something that will happen at the end of time began to happen through Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection”.

I agree with Wright that what we have in the New Testament is a “theocratic” vision that pre-empts any division between the sacred and the profane: Jesus taught his followers to pray that God’s rule would be realised on earth as in heaven. I have been reading a lot of second temple Jewish texts recently and I have been impressed by the degree of correspondence between the Jewish political-apocalyptic narratives and New Testament eschatology. The penultimate, if not the ultimate, objective is the rule of YHWH over the nations as part of history. Where the Jewish texts and the New Testament diverge is over how that objective is to be achieved.

I don’t think, however, that the New Testament challenges Caesar’s “type” of kingdom. The New Testament does not generalise in that way. What comes to be challenged—not so much in the Gospels—is the particular kingdom which at that time opposed the Lord, his Anointed, and his people, namely Rome. [pullquote]This is my basic critique of Wright: his historical narrative runs out of gas when it gets to the AD 70 and he parks it there. But history keeps going.[/pullquote]

If Jesus proclaimed a coming theocracy and, in the fourth century, the nations of the pagan empire converted and confessed Jesus as Lord to the glory of God the Father, I don’t understand why Wright is so reluctant to accept that Christendom was in historical terms the appropriately messy fulfilment of the New Testament belief that God’s Son, in keeping with the ambition of Psalm 2:9, would rule the nations with a rod of iron.

Theology has made us over-idealistic. The conversion of the empire achieved everything anticipated in the eschatology of the missional church in the pagan world: deliverance from persecution, the defeat of satanically inspired aggression running right up to the emperor, public vindication of the suffering churches, the confession of Jesus as Lord, and the inauguration of a theocratic régime over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.

Ironically, people are troubled by the bishop’s argument about theocracy not so much because of the implications for our reading of the New Testament—the emphasis on cruciformity helps there—but because it sounds like a reversion to the discredited Christendom model and an attack on religious freedom. D.G. Hart asks pointedly, for example: Would N.T. Wright be Popular If People Knew His Politics? And Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society comments:

I’m sure most Christians in the UK would join us in dismissing these bizarre comments. Theocracy and the imposition of religious belief through coercion is the direct cause of many conflicts in the world today; to say nothing of the immense human rights abuses that theocracies perpetuate.

I think Wright seriously underestimates the historical significance of the triumph of secularism. The latent universalism in his theocratic vision simply doesn’t work any more. While the church may still believe that Jesus is Lord, seated at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (Eph. 1:21), as far as Western culture is concerned, the God of Israel has been unceremoniously ousted from power and a highly efficient meritocracy of reason, science, pluralism, human rights, etc., has been installed in his place. No one wants to go back there—not even many in the church.

The Bible is overwhelmingly a historical narrative, and history has left us in a position where talk of recovering theocracy sounds at best naïve and at worst dangerously regressive.

The challenge for the church is to develop a post-theocratic vision for its mission and place in the world “on the margins”, as we like to say, that is no less an embodiment of the full scope of creational righteousness. Superficially it appears that we are in the same situation as the New Testament church in relation to society, but it is at most a mirror image. Whereas for the New Testament church Christendom was in the future, for the church in the West today it is firmly in the past.

We can affirm a final vindication of the Creator in the terms of John’s vision in Revelation 20:11-21:8, for example. But the Bible is overwhelmingly a historical narrative, and history has left us in a position where talk of recovering theocracy sounds at best naïve and at worst dangerously regressive. Our own narrative must take that into account.

So if we are going to read the New Testament in “theocratic” terms, we should do so properly: it has to do with the concrete rule of YHWH over the nations. But then we are bound also to acknowledge that Christendom—and theocracy—came to an end long ago in any meaningful sense. The West has thrown off the yoke of theocracy and has embraced the benign dictatorship of secular humanism.

If a theocracy—in the first case, “Christendom”—happened once in history, could it happen again, Andrew? I accept that such may no be part of the vision of the NT, but even so? 

Accepting that the West has thrown off Christendom for secularism, could it ever turn back to some kind if Christian theocracy? Is it a legitimate goal, at al? What about other nations? Philip Jenkins, for example, suggests sub-Saharan Africa is on a trajectory he refers to as “another Christendom.”

i can see these scenarios being labelled unlikely. I’m interested in your historical-theological-narrative perspective. Does it suggest anything about these possibilities? If so, how would it differ from Wright’s theocratic vision?

According to the reading that I am proposing, the New Testament envisages a judgment of the nations and the reign of Christ over the nations throughout the coming ages. The New Testament does not envisage the reversal of that political arrangement 1500 years later. It is simply beyond the prophetic horizon, just as AD 70 was beyond the horizon of Old Testament prophecy.

So we either have to disregard the vicissitudes of history, no matter how momentous, and suppose that they are of no real theological significance. Or we have to accept the responsibility for developing the narrative ourselves. I see no reason to think that Christ is no longer seated at the right hand of God, above all authority and power, for the sake of his body, which is the church. But the particular political expression of that rule, which was Christendom, has ended, and we are trying to work out where the story goes next. That is my historical-theological-narrative perspective, as you call it.

Wright appears to assume that nothing has really changed since the New Testament. We are living the same cosmic narrative, which is only in a very general sense political. The same cruciform theocracy is in place, though I’m a little unclear what he makes of the intervening period of Christendom. This seems to me to run counter to the manner of biblical narrative, which deals with the contingencies of history. 

The other possibility is that they were wrong. They preached a coming kingdom, a noble theocracy of sorts that would usher in the rule of God. It didn’t happen. Today we debate whether the timing was wrong, or maybe we misunderstand the definition of the kingdom. The simplest explanation, thoug, is that they were just wrong.

The simplist explanation actually is that they were right, and that your view of what that kingdom and what the rule of God is needs to be realigned.

Since nobody has ever been able to figure out what the right view is, or even what Jesus and Paul meant by the right view, and we’re waiting 2,000 years later for this kingdom, that is anything but simple.

I’m not waiting for it Paul, I’m living in it, and it’s great. I’m loving every minute of it. Sorry you’ve missed out on it, but we’d love to have to be a part of it. But it’s only for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. A lot of people missed it 2000 years ago too so you’re in good company I guess.

And BTW Paul, you’re wrong that no one has been able to figure it out. Many different proposals have been made on what and when it is, but the fact there are multiple views doesn’t mean none of them are right. You seem determined to kick against the goads, but I’ll repeat again that the simplist view is to believe that Jesus and Paul were right when they said the kingdom was coming within their generation and lifetimes of the apostles. I accept that as truth. Now my job is to look for what they meant by kingdom and make sure any definition I think I may have about it doesn’t contradict the simple truth that it came within 40 years of the ministry of Christ. The church at the Council of Nicea declared the kingdom as arrived and without end, which in effect made chillism (the father of modern dispensationalism) heretical. Sure not everyone agreed, and there were some who attached political aspects to this spiritual kingdom of Christ, but it’s flat out wrong that no one knew about it. The spiritual kingdom/amillennial view has been the majority view in the church for most of church history (all of it really except for the last 150 years and some 2nd and 3rd century chilliasts). It’s the Orthodox view. I’d say that stand for something.

Jerel, the obvious problem is that the kingdom that “came” was not the kingdom described by Jesus and Paul. They has something specific in mind, a world controlled by a Jewish King and messiah. What happened was anything but that, a “church” age in which the kingdom is now an inward thing. Later Christians had to redefine what Jesus and Paul meant so that this contradiction doesn’t appear to be so glaring. It’s a lot like Paul reworking the story of Moses so that what in Exodus was a celebration of how close Moses was to God became a story about a curse on Israel.

I would be interested Paul in seeing a list of all the kingdom passages where the kingdom that Jesus and the Apostles described is not what arrived.


I would be interested in seeing a list too because in my mind both Jesus and Paul taught a Kingdom that is exactly like what we got in AD 70.

What part of Jesus’ words such as: “within you”; “does not come with observation”; “not of this world”, isn’t clear to you?

JerelRich | Thu, 11/12/2015 - 00:10 | Permalink

In reply to by Rich

Well we haven’t seen that list yet Davo…

…the obvious problem is that the kingdom that “came” was not the kingdom described by Jesus and Paul.

I’m not sure this is entirely accurate… certainly the apostle pre-Pentecost (Acts 1:6) may have had a similar ‘fleshly’ notion as to king and kingdom in kind with the Jewish brethren (Jn 6:15), but Jesus was having none of it (Lk 17:20-21), even to the point of declaring… “my kingdom is not of this world” Jn 18:36, i.e., certainly not of the old covenant era, régime or mode of existence.

Agreed: there is no theological / missiological future (sic) in “disregarding the vicissitudes of history.” We must understand God’s (eternal) purpose as being outworked within the concrete realities of history. And thus read the NT in this light. And the ongoing history of both God’s people and the world in this light.

Also agreed: “Christ (remains) seated at the right hand of God, above all authority and power, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” If we accept that Christendom was AN outworking of his purposes / power in history, how is the same outworking now?

This is the nub of the question, surely, which we are seeking to gain greater light? How do we understand the mission of God today, in we we are invited into within our respective contexts, in the light of BOTH history and scripture?

It seems to me that the historical purview of scripture places a high value on the enduring quality of the Covenant. When God revives (the faithfulness of) his people, it is within the framework of covenant. In this sense, the New Covenant remains an overarching reality from which to draw our inspiration and direction. I wonder if we have, as a people of God, particularly within Christendom, properly understood the New Covenant. 

Yes there is a political reality that allows us to (perhaps) interpret Christendom as an outworking of the New Covenant purpose. There is also a spiritual reality which is greater than the political reality. So that when the political furniture rearranges, as in this liminal post-Christendom stage, we are not entirely adrift from the covenant, from the Messiah, the High Priest, sat at the Right Hand of God.

If we can understand the New Covenant more deeply, we are able to better hold in tension how it can be understood as a governing reality during both Christendom and post-Christendom…and the eras to come…


Rob Haskell | Wed, 10/28/2015 - 04:31 | Permalink

Greetins — I have always been struck by the combination in Matthew 28: All power is granted to me in heaven and earth. THEREFORE… preach the gospel. God’s authority in the world is manifested in the gospel, it seems to me. 

But another observation here, I notice that it is common to respond to post Christendom by saying things like we need to craft a self-identity in which we are on the margins, and be OK with that. And certainly this is appropriate. However, I wonder if this is too much like going back rather than forward. What I mean is that Christianity is no weak force in the world today. Is a theology of living in the margins really adecuate for our current reality, where believers are not infrequently leading some of the most powerful nations of the world? Are we really in the margins? It’s not Christendom, but I’m not sure its pre 313 either.

Rob, the argument about post-Christendom here is mainly about the situation in the secular West, and from my perspective mostly about Western Europe. This is where it ties in with the biblical narrative. From the second century onwards Christianity was overwhelmingly a Western European phenomenon—and became a global religion largely on the back of Western imperialism. The global church carries the DNA of European Christianity.

The other point I’d make is that it’s now much less about who is running a country than about worldview. The West used to have a Christian worldview. It now has a secular worldview, and Christians are having a hard time trying to hold the two together. Acknowledging our marginalisation may actually help us in that respect.

But I’m certainly not saying that marginalisation makes the church weak. Quite the opposite.

Yes, I agree with the power of being marginalized and I don’t intend at all to promote a kind of moderated constantinianism. I can see how if you limit the view to Europe your perspective will be different. I suppose that the secularzation of the rest of the world is not necesarily a given. Here in the US we have Christians in all level of leadership, of course. And you are right: everyone is basically confused about “Christendom” (even if they don’t know it). But I also think of Latin American countries I have visited where leaders have been explicitly evanglical Christians with a strong following. There is very little understanding about how to carry out ones faith in these contexts, precisely because many Christians have for years seen themselves as a beleagered minority. When they get into power, they act like like powerless people who can suddenly promote their cause, rather than true leaders. That is what is behind my point that a comparison (even in Europe, I suspect) between now and the first two centuries might need some moderation. There are similarities, but there are also vast differences. While Chrisians are marginalized, globally speaking, and surely in Europe as well, we have much more social, political and even ideological power than the first Christians. I just wonder if we need to talk about how to use that rather than focus on not having it, or implying that we don’t have it. So, what does it mean for a very large and very resourced marginalized group to live in the world? I get that you are just refering to Europe here, but it’s interesting to me to take this issue out into the multiplicity of contexts out in the rest of the world too. Blessings

This is a very interesting discussion. As a Researcher on Revelation, I am tempted to see the future in postmillennial theocratic terms, but I’m nervous about such a confidence because Christians haven’t used earthly power very well when we had it: think post-Constantinian Rome, the English Commonwealth and Puritan North America, for example. On the other hand, a purely spiritual kingdom with no political form seems rather gnostic and not true to the NT vision (e.g. Matt.28). Christendom has been in decline in the west for several centuries and it seems like the “dead body” of Christendom is being fought over by resurgent Islam, secular humanism and maybe eastern religion in different ways.  Yet various streams of Christianity are resisting these trends and I am sympathetic to that. Meanwhile as you have noted, in the “majority world” Christianity is growing apace and asserting some political muscle. Recent trends in PNG politics are a case in point. I’d like to be able to predict where all this is, or should be, going but I reluctantly (reluctantly because it seems like a copout) conclude all I can do is serve Christ faithfully in the places he puts me and leave the outcome to him.

Jon Newton