Should evangelicals be reading the signs of the times?

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This is proving to be a tumultuous year for the world, and for the post-colonial western world in particular. Many people are hoping—myself included—that the coronavirus pandemic has woken us up to the damage that we are doing to our planet, and that the death of George Floyd has finally ignited a racial justice revolution. We shall see.

The only good news that evangelical churches in the UK seem to have found in events, however, is that under lockdown people are showing a new interest in Christian faith and attending online services. I also read somewhere that at least as many have taken the opportunity to stop attending church. We shall see.

In any case, it underlines the fact that evangelicals, who think of themselves as the true heirs to the biblical witness, are mainly interested in the numbers of people who want to develop a personal spirituality in the context of church.

What bothers me is how unlike the biblical witness this all is.

Jesus spoke the language of Jewish apocalyptic, and the purpose of Jewish apocalyptic was to interpret current historical developments, and to outline, in largely symbolic forms, where things might be heading. His overriding message, which explains everything he said and did, was that there was something rotten in the state of Israel and it would all end in tragedy within the next few decades—oh, and that this would be a manifestation not of the kingdom of Herod or of the kingdom of Caesar but of the kingdom of God.

The question about personal salvation arises at the heart of this narrative and should not be separated from it. When Jesus was asked whether those saved would be few, his answer was framed eschatologically. When the master of the house finally shut the door on this wicked and adulterous generation of Jews, many who had heard Jesus’ message and had done nothing about it would be excluded from the new political-religious order (Lk. 13:22-30). It was only those who stayed faithful to the vision through to the end of the crisis who would be saved (Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13). His perspective on numbers was very different to ours.

But look, we’ve got all this unused apocalyptic language lying around in the New Testament, devised for the purpose of speaking about the first century Jewish view of history! Can’t it be repurposed for our own times?

I am led to think, therefore, that if we are going to bear witness to the reality of the living God today in a manner consistent with scripture, we likewise need to articulate a controlling narrative about God and history, in the context of which we may talk about personal salvation and a whole load of other things. The two main themes in that narrative would be, in my view: 1) the displacement of the Christian worldview by secular humanism and the marginalisation of the church; and 2) the growing threat of a climate emergency within the lifetime of some of those standing here.

But look, we’ve got all this unused apocalyptic language lying around in the New Testament, devised for the purpose of speaking about the first century Jewish view of history! Why let it go to waste? Can’t we do something useful with it? Can’t it be repurposed for our own times?

Could we not, for example, as Samuel Conner suggests, adapt Jesus’ “signs of the times” language to interpret the meaning of the pandemic? Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees could not read the signs warning them that a storm was coming, so many today, both inside and outside the church, fail to see that the pandemic is one “sign” among many that an environmental catastrophe will soon overtake us if we do not repent and change our ways?

I half think we could…. No, I think we could, but we first have to get to grips with the fact that we do not yet have a good field of discourse in which such language could be made to work.

Currently, there are three things that we can do with the apocalyptic language of the New Testament:

  1. We can leave it where it is in its historical context, interpreted either realistically or transcendently, which has been the way of New Testament scholarship by and large. The argument would be that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple or that he “literally” expected the end of the time-space continuum within a generation. He certainly wasn’t open to the idea that it would be millennia before the Son of Man is seen coming with the clouds of heaven. My own “historically informed” view is that, to all intents and purposes, New Testament apocalyptic expectation was fulfilled, first, in the Jewish war against Rome and, secondly, in the conversion of the Greek-Roman world, by which momentous events the faithful, long-suffering witness of the early churches was vindicated or “justified”.
  2. We can allow apocalyptic language a very limited and shrivelled contemporary relevance by deferring it to a remote hypothetical end, as far off as it needs to be not to bother us, which is the mainstream evangelical strategy. The second coming of Jesus is a line in our creeds and statements of faith, but it is not the sort of living urgent belief that it clearly was in the New Testament (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). It becomes important only when someone tries to revise or delete it.
  3. We can bin the apocalyptic language as so much non-recyclable waste from an antiquated worldview, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before a wild-eyed fundamentalist comes along, rummages through the bin, and waves the text triumphantly in the air, telling anyone who will listen that Jesus will be back as soon as lockdown is lifted.

But I’ve made the point repeatedly—tediously, no doubt—that a thoroughgoing application of the narrative-historical method tells us that we should be able to speak about history in much the same way that Jesus and his first century followers spoke about history. In other words, we need a fourth option that registers the theological and interpretive power of Jesus’ language without rendering it either vacuous or fantastical.

It sounds sensible enough—and solidly evangelical—to say that for the last two thousand years it’s all been about Jesus, but this belies the actual experience of the church, which has been all about kingdom, empire, war, schism, expansion, the rise and fall of civilisations, the triumph of science, the comprehensive defeat of the religious worldview, the alienation of the church from public life, and the severe diminution of its sphere of influence, etc.

That seems to me to be a storyline easily on a par with the grand narratives of scripture—exodus, exile, the failure of second temple Judaism, and the conversion of the nations. But we have no way of talking about it, no interest in talking about it as evangelicals.

So there are two main problems with my argument.

The first is theological, as I highlighted in my review of Tom Wright’s book on the coronavirus pandemic. Do we think it even desirable to believe in a God who is still actively involved in the large scale events of history? Evangelicals mostly prefer a modified Deism which confines the living God to high level cosmic events (creation, the providential underpinning of the universe and life, and eventually the renewal of creation) and to the immediate circumstances of personal and church experience.

If we depart from this pattern, it will be to declare that God is bringing revival to our nation or that he is progressively building a kingdom of righteousness. Such hopes seem to me to be borderline delusional.

Is an upsurge of interest in online church during lockdown a sign of coming revival? I doubt it. Is Black Lives Matter evidence that a new post-millennialist programme is in full swing? Of course not. It is a sign, as same-sex marriage is a sign, that secular humanism is moving on from its Christian-imperialist past and doing what needs to be done. The church is welcome to tag along and lend a hand, but this has nothing to do with our God.

A renewed “apocalypticism” will indeed have to learn to read these “signs of the times”, with the sort of clarity and realism that characterised Jesus’ prophetic vision, before it opens its mouth. Which brings us to the second problem….

The second problem is linguistic. We do not have a common or public fund of apocalyptic language and conceptuality to draw on. Apocalyptic in the New Testament overlapped extensively with a large corpus of Jewish apocalyptic writings from Daniel onwards and, though less clearly, with a good part of the language of Roman imperial ideology. It was a living idiom.

To use the same language today, apart from the living tradition and the circumstances that made sense of it, would be deeply anachronistic. We do not talk about history, politics and social transformation in the same terms; we do not plot the course of change along the same cultural and ethical lines. We are modern people. We are for the most part, in the West at least, even the more conservative of us, liberal, rational, democratic humanists, with a worldview shaped by the enlightenment. Black Lives Matter is an enlightenment project.

The language of trumpet calls, resurrection, signs of the times, coming on the clouds, war in heaven, the bowls of God’s wrath, bottomless pits, etc., is not at home in this cultural milieu.

But that’s not a reason to say nothing. So I make the point again that there is a plausible and inherently “evangelical” (in the best sense of the word) way forward. First, we need to do the hard work of recovering the proper context and perspective of the New Testament texts, in which the apocalyptic language of Jesus and the apostles was profoundly meaningful. Secondly, we need to bring our own prophetic narrative to birth in a way that fuses the two voices ringing in our ears—the voice of scripture, which will not be silenced, and the voice of contemporary understanding, which goes without saying.

I feel like there is a spectrum ranging from Conservative to Deist (with Progressive and Liberal somewhere in the middle), and it seems to me that you are trying to find a spot between “Conservative” and “Progressive.” You would take the Bible story seriously (more seriously than most) AND you would like to use your status as a member of a royal priesthood to improve the world by being in the forefront of social change.

Although your narrative-historical reading makes this place on the spectrum more viable, I think the theological and linguistic problems you mentioned (along with a growing “freedom from religion” movement) are too large to overcome at this point, so progressive or liberal Christianity, which avoids some of the pitfalls by just focusing on Jesus’ moral teachings and the “social gospel,” is the best you’re going to get. 

I’m not trying to be a discourager. I’m just sharing my limited perspective as one who has inhabited several places on this spectrum over the years.

AND you would like to use your status as a member of a royal priesthood to improve the world by being in the forefront of social change.

I am not as pessimistic as you seem to be, Peter, about the prospect of sustaining an “evangelical” vision that is consistent with the historical reading of the New Testament. My faith is precisely in the continuing relevance of the church as a confident and inspired “royal priesthood”, doing what a priesthood must primarily do, which is not function simply as an agent of social transformation in religious garb. A priesthood must first serve the interests of the living creator God—worship him, speak to him, speak on his behalf, mediate between him and an alienated world, and express the fullness of that relationship concretely amongst others.

I think the theological and linguistic problems you mentioned (along with a growing “freedom from religion” movement) are too large to overcome at this point…

That may be true, for now. But the world is changing, even the Christian world. If we are going to reinstate the God of history, we will have to get used to thinking—and “prophesying”—according to longer timeframes. It is part of the modern malaise that we are too impatient, but God moves through history at his own pace.

As I have noted before, I am a big fan of theme #1 above, less so about #2.  The question is how do evangelicals, for whom a large swath seem to view prophecy as really just something that was needed to predict Jesus coming as the messiah and then his ultimate return.  This perspective views prophecy as basically prediction. Not speaking about what might be on the horizon for God’s people but what WILL happen.  The only other prophetic voices are overly tinged with a deep nostalgia for the post-war West where mainstream Christianity was seemingly central to culture.  As a result, most avoid prophecy, others vaguely call for a return to our Judeo-Christian roots, and those that make predictions end up looking foolish.

The flip side of this is the progressives who use prophetic language to call for their politics in the name of their faith. It is not even that I always disagree with these pronouncements, but rather that it feels like the politics drives the call to action with the church simply providing the language and a patina of spirituality.

Which is why I think the church needs a period of soul searching, for lack of a better term, before it is in a position to be prophetic.  Conservative inclined evangelicals might wrestle with their relationship with hyper-individualism, consumerism, nationalism, etc.  Progressive inclined evangelicals might wrestle with their relationship with an elite culture that is increasingly anti-Christian, hedonistic and even pagan.  Both should wrestle with the call of the church in a world where it seems increasingly marginalized and in places even irrelevant. 

I agree with you that evangelicals seem trapped in an ahistorical, individualistic perspective.  I have called this moralistic therapeutic Trinitarianism.  Conservative churches are locked into a theological perspective and many seemed determined to double down in order to lock in a small but committed audience (Neo-Reformed).  Mainstream churches would seem more open to a narrative driven approach but are also locked into an individualistic lens and seem intent on simply repeating the mantra that God’s loves you no matter what you do.

So I guess what I am saying is that we need to build a language to talk about our history and story first before we can begin to build a prophetic voice on what is happening in the world.  How did we get here is an important step before where are we headed?  The two steps overlap but I think many have not wrestled with the first step enough.

Agreed. Plus we’re on different trajectories. My working assumption is that it will take at least two generations of leaders more or less educated in new historical perspectives on the New Testament before we see a real shift in outlook. That will go hand-in-hand with the “dying” of the church—like a grain of wheat that must fall into the ground and die before it comes to life and bears fruit again. The church in Europe is good at dying, the church in the US may be better at coming to life. We need to get those two trajectories to line up.