In defence of a narrative-historical perspective on European Christendom

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The statue of Constantine at York Minster

I’m getting into the bad habit of answering questions raised in the comments with another post. The reason is that the questions are very good and merit consideration at length, but I wonder if the practice is conducive to good debate. Anyway, Jo says that he has trouble accepting that “European Christendom was the full embodiment of the kingdom of God.” Surely we are led to expect something more “glorious and enduring.” He also introduces the perspective of two black theologians who regard European Christendom as a “whitewashed Christianity” allied to an oppressive imperialism.

The pushback is entirely understandable from a modern point of view, but it is very easy to let our modern point of view colour our sense of history. I’m not sure it’s correct to say that New Testament Christianity was a non-white, pre-European, or even anti-imperial phenomenon. I’m not sure it’s helpful to suppose that western Christendom was a massive, fifteen hundred year apostasy that no one in the New Testament saw coming.

It makes all the difference in the world that we are looking backwards across the battle-scarred landscape of history, whereas the early church was looking forwards into a mist, trying to discern when and how the nations would submit to the rule of Israel’s exalted messiah.

The mission of the New Testament church was westward

What we call Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, and in principle that’s why it is throughout the New Testament. But at a very early stage the mission of the churches took on a systematic and determined westward orientation. From the moment that the centurion at the cross recognised that Jesus was a son of God, the conviction grew that eventually the nations governed by Rome would abandon the old pantheons and worship instead the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s express mission was to claim the whole oikoumenē, from Roman Palestine to Roman Spain, for the God of Israel, to be ruled by his Son (Rom. 15:19, 22). The letter to the Romans was written by a Roman citizen to a church made up of Italians, Greeks, sundry migrants from around the empire, no doubt, and Hellenised diaspora Jews.

How were we not going to get a whitewashed church?

Biblical prophecy is always realistic and historical

Once that ball was rolling, it was only a matter of time before “Christianity” became the official religion of the formerly pagan Roman world. The big question is whether we are willing to think historically rather than theologically, realistically rather than idealistically, and allow that this was a proper outcome of the New Testament mission.

My view is that prophetic-apocalyptic vision in the Old Testament is always realistic and historical, and that the rhetorical method of the prophets, which was the product of devastating historical experience, shaped the extravagant hopes generated by the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.

Such an understanding allows us to affirm the political-religious fulfilment of the hopes of the New Testament churches in the transformation of the ancient pagan world—a quite extraordinary development from their point of view. When Paul tells the men of Athens that their unknown God is no longer will to overlook the centuries of polytheistic ignorance and has fixed a day when he will judge the oikoumenē in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed to the task by raising him from the dead, I think that we have to take the concrete historical perspective seriously. Paul has in view the Greek-Roman world as it was and is and what it would become.

The rule of Christ over the nations was never meant to be permanent

Here’s an important qualification. I would not say that European Christendom was the “full embodiment of the kingdom of God.” What is full, glorious, and enduring is the reign of Christ at the right hand of the Father, as long as there are enemies who threaten the life, mission, and integrity of the priestly-people of God. But there will never be a perfect embodiment of that rule on earth precisely because there is kingdom only where there is opposition. That is why Psalms 2 and 110 were so important for the early Jewish-Christian movement as it reflected on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven. The new creation described in Revelation 21:1-8 is not the kingdom of God. The rule of Christ at the right hand of God becomes redundant once the last enemy, death, has been destroyed (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

What the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world constituted was a major but contingent demonstration of the sovereignty of YHWH and his anointed at that moment in history. It was the climax to a story that went back to the exile and Isaiah 45:22-46:2. YHWH would restore, justify, and exalt his people, the ends of the earth would turn to the one living God to be saved, the old gods would go into captivity, and every knee would bow and every tongue would swear allegiance.

The kingdom of God that Jesus and the apostles announced was not a unique state of affairs. For a start, it meant different things in the New Testament. For Jesus it meant the judgment and restoration of Israel. For the apostles it meant judgment and rule over the nations. But kingdom events had happened before. The return from exile, notably, was a saving action of God in history:

How beautiful upon the mountains of the land of Israel are the feet of the one proclaims good news, who announces peace, who proclaims good, who announces deliverance, who says to the congregation of Zion, “The kingdom of your God has been revealed.” (Targum Is. 52:7)

The New Testament does not speculate about how long the new political-religious order would last or what would succeed it, other than to affirm a final new creation after the “thousand years” of human history. But given the overall character of the biblical witness, I don’t think we are bound to conclude that the age-to-come of western worship of the living God would be perfect or that it would last forever.

What were the New Testament churches getting ready for?

New Testament Christianity did not position itself as a critique of power. It positioned itself as a movement of eschatological witness to the future reign of Christ over the nations. The churches were taught not how to protest, how to campaign against the injustices of Roman rule, how to subvert the dominant culture, but how to endure persecution and overcome doubt until the future reality materialised. Then the expectation was that the martyrs would reign in heaven with Christ, and the “new Jerusalem,” the bride of the Lamb, would be the dwelling place of the living God on earth, in replacement of the prostitute which was Babylon the great, a healing presence in the midst of hurting nations.

It seems to me that what the apostles offered to the peoples of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē was not a narrowly spiritual religiosity—not some sort of proto-Gnostic escapism—but a wholly transformed life, and that inevitably had a social and political dimension to it. The modern division between a secular world of public policy and science and a private religious world, problematic as it is for us in a pluralistic age, would have made no sense to the early churches. The future of God’s new creation people in the Greek-Roman oikoumenē could not have been less socially and politically grounded than its past in the land of Israel.

A 1500 year apostasy?

Admittedly this is not a biblical argument as such, but if we don’t allow New Testament eschatology and actual history to zip together in this way, we have to reckon with a very long and very peculiar hiatus in the affairs of God between the prophetic witness of the early churches and the late-Christendom—effectively post-Christendom—revivalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jesus and the apostles announced the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, but that went horribly wrong and we ended up with a “counterfeit kingdom of God” that lasted the best part of two thousand years, and we are supposed to believe that the modern church has finally got it right? Is the church of the last two hundred years really so much better than the Christendom church? Are we not just flawed in ways appropriate to the confinement of faith to the private sphere?

The God of the Bible is always the God of history, and history is always messy. It’s as simple as that.

The prophetic counterweights

But the prophetic-apocalyptic tradition has also retained two crucial counterweights to the necessary and inevitable exercise of political-religious power.

The first was the persistence of a prophetic critique of the exercise of power. The church remained in principle, in the Christendom era, a priestly-prophetic people set apart among nations that had switched their allegiance to the living God. The church mediated between the God whom it served and the “nations,” which were still expected to function as nations, not as churches.

But part of this mediation had also to be the sort of holding power to account that we see in the Old Testament prophets—in the form of monasticism, for example, or various dissenting movements. The prophets never claimed to be the true Israel in opposition to a spurious monarchical Israel; and reform was always the reform of Israel as a political-religious entity in the land.

The second counterweight is the narrative-historical aspect of biblical prophecy: things change over long periods of time. The prophets spoke on behalf of a God who was deeply and irrevocably implicated in the long term historical experience of his people, from the promise of the land to Abraham through to the overthrow of Babylon the great and the acclamation of Jesus, by the nations, as King of kings and Lord of lords. Theologically significant history did not come to a halt with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.

But by the same token, we have to include in the theologically interpreted narrative the collapse of western Christendom and the current struggle of the disenfranchised church in the West to redefine its purpose, justify its existence. In the terms established by the biblical narrative, this probably has to be seen as God’s “judgment” on the failure of his people to maintain the integrity of their priestly-prophetic service, at all sorts of levels. I think it is fair to say that God is re-forming his stubborn, short-sighted people for effective and meaningful worship and ministry in the Anthropocene.

Divine judgment is the God of history stepping in to put things right, in whatever way is needed. It includes correcting inherited sexism, racism—the whole catalogue of political-religious prejudices that comes with 1500 years of western civilisational hegemony. But that’s where we are in the story, not where Jesus and his followers were.

[I have added an addendum to this post in response to criticism, hopefully clarifying matters a bit.]

“What is full, glorious, and enduring is the reign of Christ at the right hand of the Father, as long as there are enemies who threaten the life, mission, and integrity of the priestly-people of God. But there will never be a perfect embodiment of that rule on earth precisely because there is kingdom only where there is opposition. “

This seems to me that Christ’s actually ruling at the right hand of the Father in heavens is still a spiritual one. European Christendom was only the temporal expression of that rule which would have ebb and flow just like the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the theocratic period of OT.

As usual, thank you for a detail explanation. Lots for me to chew on. Back to tunnel digging.

I agree that European Christendom was the temporal expression of the rule of Christ and that as such it would “ebb and flow just like the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the theocratic period of OT.” I think that’s exactly right. But I would still resist labelling the reign “spiritual” because we too easily internalise that idea. Admittedly, that is what the rule of Christ has actually become in the modern era in the West, but I think that we need to recover a sense that this rule has to do with peoples and cultures in history.