Kingdom come and gone: is Jesus all he’s cracked up to be?

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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.

At the historical level, kingdom has come and gone, and you can understand why the church has turned its attention to either inner-personal or transcendent outcomes. Or to humanitarian work.

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.

I always appreciate your work, and this post is no exception. As I read it I couldn’t help but also think of Peter Enns and his reminder of how the scriptures themselves evince a continual reworking of the scriptures themselves and the understanding of Israel’s story and calling in light of changing events. One point of modification: you refer to “secular-humanist hegemony,” and while that is certainly there, I think we must also add religious pluralism into the mix, even if that pluralism is shaped by secularism. How can the church rethink mission our post-Christendom, post-9/11, postmodern, secular, and pluralistic enviroment?

@John Morehead:

Thanks, John. Yes, a good part of telling the story is a retelling of the story.

I tend to subsume religious pluralism under secular humanism: on the one hand, secular humanism accommodates religious commuities; on the other, religious communities, including the churches, are increasingly secular humanist in their intellectual and ethical commitments. That’s from a western perspective. Globally, I guess the balance of power shifts somewhat.

Hey Andrew, thanks for answering my question in such a clear and thorough manner!

I’m still not ready to accept that “the hope of the Gentiles was fulfilled in the conversion of the empire under Constantine and his successors,” but I agree with you that it makes better sense than deferring this hope.

Keep up the good work.

One thing I’ve tried to reflect on is: what were God’s people supposed to be doing during the times they were not on top? You can find in early first century Judaism a spectrum of answers to that question that are somewhat analogous to how Christians think we should be spending our time as well.

@Andrew Perriman:

Well, sometimes I contemplate Simeon. He’s a pious man who, despite external circumstances and a very long time of exile/quasi-exile is looking for the restoration of Israel. He believes in a new age in the midst of a world that doesn’t very much look like it at all.

What is he doing? We don’t know, but he’s known as a pious man — perhaps just quietly doing good.

Also, I think of Jesus’ critiques of Israel’s leaders, especially religious leaders, at the time for the things they have pursued and the things they have neglected. You (well, I) get the sense that these leaders were supposed to be doing some of the things Jesus was doing this whole time. Comforting, restoring sinners to faithfulness, working to heal the sick, favoring the “weightier matters of the Law” for the benefit of the people under their watch, giving people eschatological hope based on God’s promises while at the same time dealing in love with people experiencing their present realities which were very far off from those promises — at least apparently.

Samuel Conner | Sun, 04/19/2020 - 02:43 | Permalink

The thought occurs that there’s a pretty strong precedent, in Jesus’ contemporaries, for the possibility that “we don’t know what his rulership, on his terms, would look like.” Jesus resisted the “kingdom agendas” of the people who wanted him to lead them into a war of national redemption against Rome.

Looking at the situation on my side of the pond, I think that it feels somewhat similar — we recruit, or attempt to recruit. Jesus into our agendas (practically speaking, we try to recruit people into our agendas, which we attribute to Jesus). Maybe what Jesus is actually working for in the present situation, granting the hypothesis that he remains “head over all things for the church”, is the avoidance or delay of troubles that we are still misguidedly bringing on ourselves.

Perhaps that’s a way in which he remains the same, yesterday, today and forever.

To borrow an apposite quotation from “Doctor Who”: “I thought I’d never be done saving you”

@Samuel Conner:

Agreed, but it occurs to me that this is perhaps where a pneumatology should kick in. How might Jesus be saving God’s people from obsolescence in the secular western context? Not by coming in person, but through the creative, reforming work of the Spirit that lives within us. The Spirit was poured out at Pentecost to empower the church for witness in Israel and among the nations through to the final recognition of Jesus’ lordship at the parousia. We now need the Spirit of God to empower fading churches for renewed witness during a time of eco-eschatological crisis.

(I think perhaps I should copyright the term “eco-eschatological”.)

(Nope, someone beat me to it.)

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks, Andrew. I’m afraid that pneumatology is not a strong point among most of the groups on my side of the pond, and in those groups where it is strong, it tends toward (what seems to me to be) weirdness.

If I may be suffered to throw out another hypothesis, is there a case to be made that the “en humin” language in Paul (and the 4th Gospel Supper Discourse) should be understood to have a corporate as well as individual sense: “among you”? The “traditions” of the groups I have been associated with try to hold onto a robust ecclesiology while accommodating to an emphasis on individuals as the locus of “salvation”. I’m not sure that is possible. The current trend of this seems to lead toward hierarchy, authoritarianism and, eventually, exodus of the individuals.

I have to concede that there is an “individual” element to the presence and working of the Spirit; the OT and NT prophets (pre-eminently Jesus himself) and Paul’s “gift” language show that. But Paul’s “corporate temple” language in reference to “the church” strikes me as implying something interpersonal or even collective. Maybe the twin emphases in the Supper Discourse of “love one another” and “I will send the Spirit” are intimately related.

It seems to me that the limited NT evidence we have suggests that the first churches had something of the character of “mutual aid societies”; that’s something that would highly relevant to “saving the church” under present circumstances. Perhaps we should be caring for one another out of reverence for the Creator.

@Samuel Conner:

Nicely. We are well on our way towards a strong and not weird pneumatology. Now to bring the prophetic aspect into operation…!

Hi Andrew

Where I’m not sure I follow is your identification of today’s world-order-against-God with secular humanism/secularism.

To my mind this lacks a material/economic dimension. It describes an outlook or zeitgeist – an overlay of the present world order perhaps? – but I’d say it’s pretty intangible as far as powers/empires go. The existential threat to God’s name/God’s people is the stuff not only of thinking & beliefs, but of shopping & transport & our most mundane routines. And there is now talk of the post-secular, so ‘hegemony’ just doesn’t quite seem to fit!

Plus, secular humanism is by no means global, while Christianity is global, and Western Christians can no longer avoid identifying themselves with it.

It seems to me that we have to start talking about the world economic system. The most recent example of this I’ve seen in relation to the pandemic is this piece by John Gray, who refers to both hyperglobalisation and liberal capitalism—I take it the first is an effect, the second is the system/program itself? Should we be referring also to consumerism? extractivism? neoliberalism? Still getting my head around this…

@Arthur Davis:

I wouldn’t disagree with this. It’s partly just a matter of finding the best concise label for the dominant ethos in the western world.

But in terms of the historical narrative it seems to me true to say that western culture has broadly and ostensibly shifted from theism (originating in the confession of Jesus as Lord, etc., by the nations of the Roman world) to humanism over the last few hundred years, largely because we have given priority to lively reason over moribund tradition.

This has coincided with a huge increase in our capacity to produce, and it would be interesting to consider the connection between the two developments. But if you work forwards from the New Testament, you get to the challenge of humanism before you get to the challenge of materialism.

I presume “post-secular” is largely intended to acknowledge the continuing existence of diverse religious communities in western cultures. I see that at the moment as only an accommodation. The fundamental commitments of our economic, ethical, scientific, political, and metaphysical systems are humanist. Does what we do serve the interests of humanity? Is it an expression of what it means to be human? And so on.

It seems to me that humanism is increasingly global, and that global Christianity is increasingly humanistic.

Finally, I agree that we need to be talking about the economic and material implications of globalisation. My wife is heavily involved in climate change mitigation. We talk about these things a lot.

John Gray’s article is worth reading. I like this line: “What is commonly described as an apocalypse is the normal course of history.” Pretty much true for the Apocalypse of John.

My concern is that this will be another excuse not to talk meaningfully about the creator God, who is the God of history, and live that talk out in our churches.

@Andrew Perriman:

Yes, I see what you mean. And these things are not necessarily separable. The assumptions of the world order are humanistic, even if it comes with an ostensibly magnanimous tolerance of ‘faith communities’. It’s definitely in the water!

Yet if we ask what threatens to dominate the Earth, I could not answer ‘humanism’.

Someone I’m learning from on this is Jonathan Cornford, who describes the origins and nature of capitalism here. He writes,

The language of capitalism has its strongest descriptive power when it is used to describe an economic system as a whole. Thus, a capitalist economic system surrounds and involves and even determines the lives of many who could never be described as capitalist. Moreover, capitalism was from the very beginning an internationalised economic system which has never been under the control of a single government. As an economic system, it has governed governments and not been governed by them.

This is central to what makes capitalism unique amongst all other forms of economic organisation in human history. … The new world-system that emerged in 16th Century Europe – what we are calling a capitalist world-system – accomplished a historic inversion: in a capitalist world-economy, social and political structures ultimately came to serve an economic structure that was beyond the scope of any political authority to control. As Karly Polanyi famously observed, ‘it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.’