Here’s a diagram (click for a larger version) to accompany last week’s post explaining how I think the biblical eschatological narrative takes us beyond the violence of God.
1. The diagram starts with the mission of Jesus and his followers as a continuation of the story of Israel.
2. This eschatological mission climaxes in divine judgment on Israel in the form of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This gives us the primary significance of the cross: Jesus died so that his people might find life in the age to come beyond AD 70.
3. The mission to Israel is overtaken by the mission of the apostles and the churches to the Gentiles, which arises from the conviction that the God of Israel has raised his Son from the dead and will make him ruler over the pagan nations.
I don’t entirely agree with Paula Fredriksen’s reconstruction in Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (2017), which I have just finished reading; but I think she is right to stress, on the one hand, Jesus’ lack of interest in “ethnically inclusivist apocalyptic traditions” (29), and on the other, Paul’s view that at the parousia the nations as nations, not as members of Israel, would abandon their idols and turn to the living God.
Disappointingly, Fredriksen’s astute eschatological reading of Paul is burdened by the weight which she attaches to the problem of the delay of the End. I think this makes it harder to see the historical outworking of the apostolic vision.
4. To my mind, the era of Christendom is the obvious historical fulfilment of this expectation. The covenantal paradigm of curse and blessing, violence and restoration, has finally been dismantled. In its place, as an eschatological ideal, is the prophetic-apocalyptic vision of the peaceful rule of God over the nations of the Mediterranean world.
From this point onwards, however, we are off the map of the biblical narrative, in dangerous, uncharted waters, and won’t find land again until we reach the other side of the ocean of history and a final putting right of all things.
5. Christendom as a concrete expression of the political sovereignty of the creator God collapsed following the triumph of Reason—and other stoicheia of the cosmos (cf. Col. 2:8)—in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the modern era the church in the West, and arguably globally, has been desperately experimenting with a range of ecclesiastical, missional and theological innovations (including the narrative-historical approach to scripture advocated here) in an attempt to rescue the situation.
6. It seems to me that for the foreseeable future the church will have to learn to function as a marginal but compelling witness to the good creator God under a rapidly evolving and increasingly alien global secularism.
7. What lies beyond this foreseeable horizon cannot be foreseen.
Does it matter that we are now voyaging beyond the biblical story? No. We have a clear sense of narrative direction: we are always moving towards new creation. We have a clear sense of corporate identity and purpose: the church is the priestly-prophetic people of the one true creator God, set apart to serve him, summoned to obedience, instructed in the ways of justice and compassion, governed by our risen and exalted Lord, guided in life not by the Law but by the Spirit, confident that its future is secure in his hands.
There is no reason to get lost.