The inheritance of the world: Paul and the happy-ever-after

The lengthy responses provoked by the third post on missio Dei make for very good reading. I am neither a historian nor a missiologist. What interests me primarily in this discussion is the question of where the New Testament’s view of the future lands us. The traditional view—notwithstanding the complications introduced by various forms of millennial expectation—is that it lands us at the end of the world, on the brink of a final transformation of all things. This is the moment when Jesus comes back, the kingdom of God is fully established, there is a final judgment, the faithful go to heaven, the unbelievers either to torment or oblivion, death is destroyed, and all things are made new.

Emerging evangelical theologies, however, are increasingly recognizing that future hopes and fears expressed in the New Testament may have in view some other event than a final or absolute eschaton. A number of evangelicals would now accept—largely thanks to the work of NT Wright—that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple loomed large on Jesus’ horizon and that much, if not all, of the apocalyptic material in the Gospels needs to be interpreted as pertaining to that devastating event.

In the happy-ever-after

There is certainly not the same level of support for my argument that the defeat of Greek-Roman paganism constituted the same sort of eschatological terminus for Paul as AD 70 did for Jesus, but it seems to me that this is such a natural extension of the current re-reading of the Gospels that it has to be considered a serious exegetical option. Jesus gave expression to foreseeable critical events in the historical future of Israel and of his followers, in the realistic language of Old Testament prophecy. Paul, I think, does exactly the same thing. He gives expression to foreseeable critical events in the historical future of Israel and of Jesus’ followers, in the realistic language of Old Testament prophecy—only his perspective has changed. He looks beyond AD 70 to the extremely relevant issue of the conflict between the churches and the dominant political-religious system of Europe.

The seriousness of this conflict is illustrated by a passage in Celsus’ A True Discourse (reconstructed from Origen), in which Celsus considers the Christians’ perverse enthusiasm for martyrdom. He argues, somewhat scathingly, that they have a simple choice. They can pursue normal lives in accordance with established customs, honoring and making sacrifices to the gods. Or they can martyr themselves into extinction:

If they refuse to render due service to the gods, and to respect those who are set over this service, let them not come to manhood, or marry wives, or have children, or indeed take any share in the affairs of life; but let them depart hence with all speed. Let them leave no posterity behind them, and be driven with all haste out of life, that such a race may become extinct from the face of the earth. (Frag. from Origen, Against Celsus 7.55)

At stake was not merely the credibility of the gospel but the survival—or salvation—of the race of Abraham’s descendants according to faith. Surely we would expect an apostle to the nations, inspired by the prophetic Spirit of God, to have had something substantial to say about this?

So I have argued that the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” for Paul was not an end-of-world event (the New Testament has other language for that) but the moment when the narrative of conflict between the emerging churches and European paganism would reach a climax—when the churches would be delivered from their afflictions and publicly vindicated for their faith in Israel’s messiah, when the name of Jesus would be confessed by the nations, and the kingdom given to that community of the living and the dead which had emulated Jesus in his faithfulness, in his death and resurrection and vindication.

That is a forward-looking or apocalyptic account. It does not speculate on what might happen next. The kingdom of God is like a fairy-story that comes to a satisfying, if somewhat idealized, conclusion in the marriage of the prince and the much-abused scullery maid, when justice is established, and all things are put to rights (this is exactly the language of righteousness and vindication). No attempt is made to predict the messy realities of their happy-ever-after existence, but the climax to the narrative is as much a beginning as it is an ending. The couple will have to live together, raise a family, deal with the challenges that post-fairy-tale life will throw at them. The prince will become king and rule over his father’s kingdom… which brings us to a question raised somewhat tangentially in the discussion about missio Dei and Christendom. What does Paul mean when he speaks of a “promise to Abraham or his seed that he would be heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13)?

“Why do we not possess our world as an inheritance?”

What it comes down to is something like this: Is Paul speaking about the spread of evangelical Christianity, with particular reference to the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God? Or is he still grounded in a Jewish worldview that conceived of the rule of God in much more political terms—to the extent that some manner of just rule over the nations in the name of Israel’s self-giving king falls within the purview of Paul’s vision?

My contention is that if we read Romans with the same sort of historical imagination that has been applied to the synoptic Gospels, we will detect significantly different resonances in the language used—resonances much more in keeping with the worldview of first century Judaism. The detailed arguments can be found in The Future of the People of God, but a brief consideration of a couple of Jewish texts and one Psalm will get us moving in the right direction.

1. Abraham was promised by God that he would inherit the land of Canaan and that his descendants would inherit the cities of their enemies (Gen. 15:7; 22:17; cf. 28:4 LXX). In the literature of Second Temple Judaism there is an expansion of this hope to include the whole earth. This passage from Jubilees, for example, appears to envisage the installation of the Jews as a ruling elite over the nations of the world:

And there will be kings from you; they will rule everywhere that the tracks of mankind have been trod. And I shall give to your seed all of the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired. And after this all of the earth will be gathered together and they will inherit it forever. (Jub. 32:18-19)

2. Written after the war against Rome, 4 Ezra expresses bewilderment that although the world was created for Israel, the nations “domineer over us and devour us”. The author asks in despair: “If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?” (4 Ezra 6:55-59). Inheritance of the world meant a dramatic overturning of existing power structures.

3. Psalm 2 is certainly of central importance for New Testament christology, and probably lies behind Paul’s definition of the “gospel of God” in Romans 1:1-4. Israel’s king will be given the “nations as your inheritance”, which is interpreted as a victory over the kings and rulers who gather together “against the Lord and against his anointed”: “You shall shepherd them with an iron rod, and like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them” (Ps. 2:8-9 LXX).

The rhetoric of Romans provides strong evidence that Paul engaged in heated conversations in the synagogues over issues that were understood by and mattered to diaspora Judaism. In this context it seems highly unlikely that he could have used the language of inheritance and rule without raising the question of the political identity of the nations in relation to Israel and to Israel’s God. I am not suggesting for one minute that Paul would have agreed with the chauvinistic definition of the rule of YHWH operative in the Jewish texts. His answer to the Jewish questions—such as the question posed by the writer of 4 Ezra—would have been very different. But I’m not sure that he fundamentally questions the question.

The language of rule and inheritance remains in place. Paul makes no attempt to qualify or redefine the realistic political expectation. Where he diverges from Second Temple Judaism is with regard to the means by which YHWH will come to rule over the nations and his people inherit the world—not through observance of the Law but by a way of eschatological faithfulness pioneered by Jesus.

It is worth noting also that Paul characterizes this future in terms of political rather than prophetic existence. The churches will inherit  world—just as Abraham’s descendants inherited Canaan—over which Jesus, along with the martyrs, will reign. In his comment Peter argued that the victory of Christ over the pagan Roman empire

looked very similar to the ‘victory’ of Christ over the corrupted church of empire which followed pagan Rome. There would always be those who attempted to reflect the teaching of Christ, and who demonstrated in their lives and communities an alternative to the lives of those living in a dying world around them. The ‘holy nation’ of God’s people scattered across the earth would always be a counter-culture to the values and lifestyle of the nations in which they found themselves.

But I think that this is a post-Constantinian perspective. Paul simply does not characterize the “happy-ever-after” in this way. He does not make use of the language of marginal, prophetic, counter-cultural existence. Of course, it could be retorted that if Paul speaks of the reign of Christ over the nations, he must be speaking about some final, end-of-history transformation, which would take us back to square one. But if we allow that the language of future inheritance and kingdom lands in the fourth century with the conversion of the empire and the public confession of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords, then I think we have to see Christendom, in its imperfect way, as the proper historical outcome of Paul’s gospel. Then we have to deal with all the theological problems that that scandalous proposition throws up.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 01/18/2011 - 11:55 | Permalink

I did wonder whether one of Tenniel's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland might have been a more appropriate visual for this thread than Walt Disney's Cinderella, but that might have been seen as  inflammatory.

The problem with too literalistic an extrapolation of OT prophecy into NT fulfilment and beyond is the question of what that fulfilment looked like, in relation to OT expectations. Jesus did not look like any messiah, or "one to come" (Matthew 11:2) that Israel was expecting, not because the expectations were wrong, but because the reality looked different from the expectations.

Extrapolation of OT prophecy also raises the issue of the interim nature of the old covenant. For Paul, the old covenant was fading in the light of the advent of the new - 2 Corinthians 3:11. What was changing? Concepts of how God was going to rule in the world prior to ruling the world needed to change. Far from bringing another interim ethic, as some have argued, Jesus was laying the groundwork for the modus vivendi of the people of God up to and beyond judgement on Jerusalem, and if you like, on Rome. If not beyond, then we really are in a pick-and-mix postmodern smorgasbord of the applicability of any of Jesus's teaching today.

There is no reason to doubt that Psalm 2 was an assurance of the ultimate outcome of the reign of the Messiah on earth, which was to begin through his church. There would be judgements, and final judgement. I think Paul has his eye on both; probably more on the latter than the former. But what was this reign on earth through the church to look like before the final earth-changing events, when Revelation 21 and 22 are fulfilled?

I personally do not think that the reign of Christ was primarily intended to look at all like a church taking up the weapons of conquest and coercion, after a brief period of something different modelled in the life of Jesus and the pre-AD 300 church. For that reason, I do not think we can take the establishment of the church post-Constantine as a fulfilment of prophecy without considerable reservation, and enquiry into the very complicated picture of the church which emerged in this period. The NT paints a picture of the reign of Christ in the church which is very different from a despotic church of authoritarian rule.

I do not think Paul envisaged anything radically different from the communities of believers he was establishing, which would model Christ's character and teaching until the final transformation of the earth, and which would always sit alongside, perhaps inter-penetrating, forms of government which themselves were interim until such a transformation. The groups of believers were usually small to begin with, but in places like Ephesus seem probably to have grown considerably in numbers. This was certainly becoming the case before the edicts which established Christianity first as a tolerated faith and then as the official faith of the Roman Empire.

Also, I think Andrew does not acknowledge that persecution and martyrdom were not threatening to extinguish the church, as Celsius observed. Rather, as Tertullian remarked in the 2nd century, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". Martyrdom enhanced the credentials of the faith in the eyes of observers, and opened the floodgates for more to believe.

What then if the church became widespread and a mass movement throughout the Empire? Should its form have changed to meet the changed circumstances? I think Paul would have argued that the church would continue to exist as a prophetic sign of something that is yet to come, rather than become an institution which would  accommodate itself with things as they are in the world of power politics. I personally think that is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 7:31. Corinth was devastated by an earthquake in the 4th century, as well as being despoiled by Alaric in the same era, but the language of the passage suggests something much more to me. These were not imminent events in our understanding of timescale, and therefore I think Paul always has in his sights the much greater transition of this world at the end of time, which according to his eschatological clock and thinking, was soon to come. He lived in the light of the urgency of an end which could come at any time, and could be prefigured by climactic events in history.

I'm therefore convinced that beneath the church of corrupt wealth, power and coercion which emerged after Constantine, there was always another church beneath or within it, trying to get out. Sometimes this would be through renewal movements within the church, sometimes through movements which had never been part of the 'official' church, from earliest times through to the reformation. I sense that Paul would have been aware of the possibility of a true and false church operating simultaneously, even within each other, and had his apostleship extended that far, he would have condemned the false and supported the true. This may be suggested in the Man of Lawlessness prediction. Certainly the protestant reformers thought the 'anti-Christ' (not a Pauline term) was the Pope.

I think the political character of Paul's rhetoric arises as a consequence of the primary task of establishing the prophetic counter-culture of the church; a different power was at large on the earth, with a different authority. The absolutising tendencies of earthly power systems of all sorts inevitably run into conflict with this alternative power. They did not understand it when they crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 2:8), and they do not understand it to this day. So I think, contrary to Andrew, that the prophetic character of the church always takes priority over, and governs, its political character.

My perspective is post-Constantinian because I have not lived in pre-Constantinian times. Unlike those who have an uncritical view of the development of the church under Constantine, and call it 'Christendom', I do see a line of continuity from the early church to the present day, which has not altered with the advent of Constantine and the arrangements made for the church under him. I think this is how Paul sees things. The growth of the church, and its official acceptance within the Empire, had consequences for good and ill.

The 'Happy Ever After' is still to come, though we get a good foretaste of it now, and probably could get much more than we think, or are asking for.