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. 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.
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 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.