Peter asks a question that gets right to the heart of my attempt to follow the historical narrative of scripture through to our own time. This is exactly the sort of conundrum that a consistently developed narrative-historical method throws up—and, I think, solves:
I don’t mean any disrespect, and maybe I’m just not understanding your view, but it feels like you are trying to rescue Jesus or at least rescue the Church. But either way, it paints a picture of a weak ruler. If Jesus became Lord almost 2000 years ago but was overthrown by the Enlightenment, is he really king of kings and lord of lords? Or did he abdicate the throne?
I see it this way. The early church, as it pushed out into the Greek-Roman world, came to the quite outrageous belief that within a foreseeable future Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations, that he would rule over the Gentiles. I don’t think we should simply defer the fulfilment of this hope. We are no longer within that foreseeable future horizon. It makes much better sense all round to say—yes, with hindsight—that the hope of the Gentiles (Rom. 15:12) was fulfilled in the conversion of the empire under Constantine and his successors.
This established a regime—European Christendom—which lasted through to the modern era. For centuries it embodied, in a range of public, political forms and with all the moral and spiritual ambiguity that we expect from history, the rule of the God of Israel, through his Son, over the nations. But it has now been overthrown. Western civilisation no longer confesses Jesus as Lord. Other values—reason, liberty, equality—have been enthroned in his place.
This does not alter the fact, however, that Jesus has been seated at the right hand of YHWH to rule in the midst of his enemies. That remains the defining testimony of the church. He was Lord in the 300 year period leading up to the conversion of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, contrary to appearances, safeguarding his people, ensuring the success of their mission to bring in a new age. And he now supervises the extremely difficult transition that the church is having to make after Christendom—a situation not at all envisaged in the New Testament, entirely off the biblical map. He will retain that authority, through thick and thin, until the last enemy has been destroyed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28).
The concrete historical expression of Christ’s rule over the nations has come to an end—that is how history works; the grass withers and the flower fades. We are now having to deal with something wholly new. So Jesus’ strength is demonstrated not in the politics of Christendom now but in his resistance to the secular-humanist hegemony, at least insofar as it threatens the distinctive witness of the priestly-prophetic people entrusted to his government.
There is a relativisation of eschatology here. At the historical level, kingdom has come and gone, and you can understand why the church has turned its attention either to inner-personal or to transcendent outcomes. Or, as Peter says, to humanitarian work. History is not on our side at the moment.
But scripture does not allow that escapism. It is the historical level that matters. God is a God of history. The controlling biblical story is that of the sustained historical existence of a people charged with the task of serving the living creator God whatever history throws at it.
The Old Testament YHWH was a fierce warrior, to be sure. But things didn’t always go his way. The challenge the prophets faced was to maintain a coherent narrative, grounded in some fundamental convictions about election, covenant and promise, that would make sense of historical reversals, delays, etc. We are having to do the same today.
Until coronavirus came along, I thought that the normalisation of same-sex relationships provided the best lens through which to reexamine evangelical narratives of mission. Now we are presented with a quite different angle on the task.