Secular Eschatology; Secular Salvation

Part of the human condition is living in a world wherein teleology is an inescapable reality. What I mean is that in-built into our creatureliness is an innate notion that nature, or creation is heading somewhere; viz. that it has some sort of end. It isn’t just Christians who have an eschatology as part of their doctrine of creation [or as the mainstay of their doctrine of creation]; it isn’t just Christians who have a belief in last things, and how the cosmos, and the earth therein ends. The secular, because of the human condition, because ‘eternity has been set in our hearts’ (Eccl. 3.11), has a view towards the way the natural order will come to an end. True, the Christian versus the Secular view is dissimilar in some radical ways, but this is to be expected just as some can call Christ, LORD, and others cannot; because the others do not have the Spirit. This dissimilarity notwithstanding, creatures build intellectual and even spiritual constructs based upon the hollowed-out material left to them in the old-fallen-creation; insofar as the old creation has God’s ratio, some might want to call it Logoi replete within it, here concepts of nature’s finitude and transitoriness help supply the secular with its own versions of the eschaton. These versions, the secular’s, are only able to be developed as a result of a sort of parasitic siphon on the actual eschatological reality as that has been Revealed in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Within the webbing of this Revelation the secular is given conceptual/intellectual access that helps illumine further what remains for them in the old-fallen-world order. In other words, it’s not as if the secular has no exposure to the Revealed reality of God in the taxis of the intellectual world order of ideas. Indeed, the secular has been shaped, ‘innately,’ even as that is only given pressure for the secular in mostly unconscious ways, by the conceptual seeds broadcast this world over by the kerygmatic in-breaking of the Christian witness, as that has ruptured the horizon of this old-world-order with the Light of God’s own beaming Eschatos in the face of the Christ; it is in this new horizon that that old-horizon can faintly sense orientations that remain dead to them, insofar as the Spirit has not hovered over them bringing the sprout of new life—the seed imperishable.

All of the aforementioned to say: The world order itself, as broken man experiences it, provides for a schema of the ‘end’ that ultimately bears witness to the fact that humanity has never nor will ever be alone. Fallen humanity, the secular, lives in a world that requires a response to its stimuli. The stimuli of this world is a reality that is extra nos (outside of us), a reality that is external to us grounded in the heavenly session of the Son of Man seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This pressure, even for the fallen humanity, makes such humanity squirm under the Light of God’s forbearance; under the reality that this fallen humanity lives under the No of God’s Yes in Jesus Christ. Such contradiction to the secular’s attempt to create a life out of the world’s perceived nothings is precisely the point wherein humanity feels compelled to construct accounts of the ‘end’, as they couch that in their concepts of the ‘Beginning’ (protology), such that they hope to ‘innately’ mimic the reality pressed upon them without bowing the knee to this Ultimacy which they cannot escape. The secular has a concept of the beginning correlating to an end; not just in a linear sense, but in an apocalyptic sense. Colin Gunton helps illustrate what I’ve been getting at thus far,

When we seek to speak of the eschatological dimension of creation theology, we should be careful to define what it is that we mean theologically. There are in currency a number of what can be called secular eschatologies, often scientific theories of the end of things in the observable universe, taking the form of the disappearance of everything in an immense black hole, a heat death of everything or the equivalent death by extreme cold. In response, some scientists have attempted to salvage from the wreckage some form of secular salvation, supposing that a kind of immortality might be attainable for the human race if something could be projected into eternity in computerised form. It must be said of all these that they are not truly eschatological, in the sense we shall explore, because they are simply or largely projections on the universe of forms of this-worldly experience. It is possible that some of them may signal an end of all things in a more radical sense, but it remains the case that the end of things as we know them is not necessarily identical with the End, just as speculation about the ‘big bang’, or whatever, is not the same as the doctrine of creation out of nothing.[1]

Gunton helps to reinforce some of my own inklings, and at the same time brings even greater precision as he notes the role that human projection plays in constructing naturalistic concepts of the beginning and end.

For my part, what I want to drive home, in the main, is that no man or woman can escape the conditions which they have been born into. And the harder they try the more precision they will offer in regard to the sort of mimicry they will achieve when they attempt to explain reality under the new world order within which they exist (but do not live); i.e. the New-Creation. I think this is important: The Secular animal only proves the reality of the cross of Jesus Christ as they attempt to continue to find some sort of harbinger in its Shadow side. What I am pressing is the idea that humanity is objectively oriented to God by the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; whether they will acknowledge that or not. In their disacknowledgement of that they only ironically bear witness to God’s No over them, and their fallen condition, while not participating in God’s Yes for them in Jesus Christ. As a result, they live from the ‘kingdom of darkness’ and attempt to create a reality, even an eschaton for the human story, that is given fiery breath from their doomed father, the devil. The devil has been attempting to construct a kingdom out of the rot of his own choice to be against Christ rather than for him for millennia untold. Is it any surprise that his progeny in the dark underworld of this fallen world bears witness not only to the No of God, but to the tactics and tics of the devil himself?

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 2961, 2966 kindle.

Advertisements

Engaging With Karl Marx’s Utopia and the Future: With Some Constructively Christian Eschatologizing

Marxism. Utopia. Realities shunned by Americans in the main; well at least until lately. I am reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. Not because I want to become a Marxist, but because I want to understand Marx and the subsequent developments of Marxisms better. One concept that is often caricatured, among others when it comes to Marx’s doctrine, is the concept of Utopia. I haven’t given much thought to it myself, other than to give in to the common idea that utopia represents some sort of a heaven on earth. But as Eagleton points out, at least for Marx himself, this really couldn’t be further from the truth. So for the rest of the post we will hear from Eagleton on Marx’s understanding of Utopia and the Future.

“So will there still be road accidents in this Marxist utopia of yours?” This is the kind of sardonic enquiry that Marxists have grown used to dealing with. In fact, the comment reveals more about the ignorance of the speaker than about the illusions of the Marxist. Because if utopia means a perfect society, then “Marxist utopia” is a contradiction in terms.

There are, as it happens, far more interesting uses of the word “utopia” in the Marxist tradition. One of the greatest English Marxist revolutionaries, William Morris, produced an unforgettable work of utopia in News from Nowhere, which unlike almost every other utopian work actually showed in detail how the process of political change had come about. When it comes to the everyday use of the word, however, it should be said that Marx shows not the slightest interest in a future free of suffering, death, loss, failure, breakdown, conflict, tragedy or even labour. In fact, he doesn’t show much interest in the future at all. It is a notorious fact about his work that he has very little to say in detail about what a socialist or communist society would look like. His critics may therefore accuse him of unpardonable vagueness; but they can hardly do that and at the same time accuse him of drawing up utopian blueprints. It is capitalism, not Marxism, that trades in futures. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as “an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself.” Instead, he sees it in that book as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Just as the Jews were traditionally forbidden to foretell the future, so Marx the secular Jew is mostly silent on what lie ahead. We have seen that he probably thought socialism was inevitable, but he has strikingly little to say about what it would look like. There are several reasons for this reticence. For one thing, the future does not exist, so that to forge images of it is a kind of lie. To do so might also suggest that the future is predetermined—that it lies in some shadowy realm for us to discover. We have seen that there is a sense in which Marx held that the future was inevitable. But the inevitable is not necessarily the desirable. Death is inevitable, too, but not in most people’s eyes desirable. The future may be predetermined, but that is no reason to assume that it is going to be an improvement on what we have at the moment. The inevitable, as we have seen, is usually pretty unpleasant. Marx himself needed to be more aware of this.

Foretelling the future, however, is not only pointless; it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a tactic for shielding ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish—as a comforting idol to cling to like a toddler to its blanket. It is an absolute value which will not let us down because (since it does not exist) it is as insulated from the winds of history as a phantom. You can also seek to monopolise the future as a way of dominating the present. The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, is not a clairvoyant at all. It is a mistake to believe that the biblical prophets sought to predict the future. Rather, the prophet denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we may well have no future at all. Marx was a prophet, not a fortuneteller.[1]

Before I say anymore, Eagleton’s perspective of the biblical prophet is half-baked and relies upon a certain anti-super-naturalistic approach to Holy Scripture and its Prophets and Apostles. If someone reads the Bible it is clear that its prophets and apostles believe that they are referring to something concrete and future; something that they weren’t experiencing yet, but knew because of who God is, and because he keeps his promises that they someday would, as a people, experience his promises to them. It was upon this basis that they not only forthspoke but also foretold future realities; of most significance with reference to Jesus Christ. So Eagleton is just wrong on this score (as he wrote this originally he was either an atheist or agnostic; I’ve heard of late that he may well have returned to the Catholic church).

Nevertheless, he helps to provide greater clarity in regard to what Karl Marx believed ‘utopia’ and the ‘future’ entail as realities. I think, at least with reference to Eagleton’s telling of Marx, there is some wisdom in recognizing that attempting to divine things about the future—even in the name of Jesus—can become idolatrous. Idolatrous in the sense, as Eagleton notes, that we are looking for stability and security in some abstract conception of a forthcoming history as we have designed and divined that. It is in the shadow of this idol that ethics, foreign policies, geo-political postures, perceptions of other nationalities and races, and a host of other shibboleths can be fostered and allowed to fester. As Christians we can learn something from this sort of perspective about the future, even from a materialist like Marx. It isn’t that Christians don’t have a proleptic-future oriented looking view in regard to eschatological reality; it is just that a properly Christian orientation to such things will recognize that that reality is not something that we determine or that is at our behest. Christians will recognize that God in Jesus Christ himself is the eschatos, the last thing that is not absent or in a faraway land, but that he is personally present with us in eucharistic form spread abroad in the hearts of his people by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians, while standing in a genuine hope for the future—i.e. the bodily resurrection secured in Christ’s resurrection for us—have not been left as orphans; we live from the future of God for us in the risen and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is not something that we could have ever secured, or divined, but it is something God could. As such, we live lively lives not of our own possession, not of our own construction, but lives put to death and risen again, over and again from Christ’s life for us. This is important: we live in a vulnerable state in regard to our grasp on the past, present, and future, but the grasp on our lives by God’s great big hands are indeed secure; yet not a reality that we have control over, but instead one that we trust can keep us from being plucked out.

Marx can provide some intellectual and even spiritual foil for the Christian, even as the materialist and atheist that he was. But he should not be given too much shrift. He rejected the living Christ, and the living God; so his perspective will be skewed, he did not have the resources to supply people with the hope that God alone can and has in Jesus Christ. Yet, I think it is important to get Marx right, particularly in regard to the nuance he had with reference to realities like utopia. By engaging with the nuance he had we might find some fruitful lines of self-criticality even as Christians. If God could use the Abimelechs, the Assyrians, and the Athenians to work his purposes; he certainly could use a Marx.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 774, 782, 790, 797 kindle version.

A Note on the Christian Conception of the Relationship Between Church and State: A Christopolitical Dispatch

Theo-politics have been somewhat of an uninterrogated reality for me. As a conservative evangelical, growing up, I sloppily and haphazardly went the way of the Republican party as “the lesser of two-evils” in our representative government in North America. As time has progressed, and I have developed more (at least I like to think that) I have become what might be called unenthralled and agnostic when it comes to politics, but the reality is that this just cannot be. As a Christian politics is always a present reality; the fact that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) is in itself a call to action, and to be engaged in such a way that requires that I be intentionally thoughtful about theopolitical action. The theo attached to the political is of upmost and adjectival significance for me; it might be better, just for sake of clarity and specificity to call this concern christopolitical. So this has caused me a bit of anguish—although the realities of daily life often keep me preoccupied such that I have less time to critically contemplate such verities with the type of acuity that I’d like—as a result I keep seeking ways to think about my relation to the state as a member of Christ’s church (catholic).

In seminary I took a class called Church and Culture; this class was taught by Paul Metzger, and in it we worked through Karl Barth’s concepts on the relationship between the sacred and secular—we spent our time working through Metzger’s PhD dissertation on the subject helping him get it ready for publication. It was in this class that I really began to see a critical way to think theopolitics, but that remained an inchoate reality for me; nevertheless the frame was set for thinking such things through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian pattern which the hypostatic union provided the component concepts towards. Not too long ago I read Barth’s book Against the Stream, which represent some post-second world war talks and lectures he gave, as I recall, in Hungary and Poland. In these published lectures I gained an even better grasp for what I was introduced to in Metzger’s class; in regard to how to think of the relationship between the state/church in a Christic frame. Most recently (like tonight) I have continued to read through Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics, and have come to the section where they are sketching the various approaches that have developed in the history of ecclesial interpretation in regard to how Christians have thought the relation of church/state together. Here I want to share two of the four frames that I find most attractive (and leave the other two frames to the side since they are less attractive to me). What you will find is that Barth’s approach juxtaposed with a sort of Reformized Anabaptist tradition is what comes to the fore in my own proclivities relative to thinking state/church, and ‘kingdom theology’ together (and apart in some ways). Here is what Kooi and Brink have to offer us:

The church as a Christ-confessing church for all people. After the Second World War the Dutch Reformed Church promoted the ideal of a Christ-confessing church for all people; in this way it tried to connect distance from and commitment to public affairs. The model followed Barth’s proposal that the church, by its proclamation, should fulfill a public role for the common good. This “theology of the apostolate” has also been referred to as proclamation-theocracy: the church does not directly interfere in the government and does not attempt t usurp its powers but rather, on the basis of the Bible, holds up a prophetical-critical mirror before those who govern. The ideals of the World Council of Churches and other efforts to have the church assume a prophetic role in the world also belong in this category. The supporters of this view were optimistic about its possibilities, but in the Netherlands their attempt failed because the forces of secularization were stronger than expected.[1]

They continue with the fourth frame, which is that much more amenable with an Apocalyptic theological frame that I am oriented from (see Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology); but also with an Anabaptist tenor in the flux of this frame of understanding.

The church as a counterculture or contrast community. A recent and popular image for the church’s role in the public domain proposes that it be a “contrast community” (Yoder, Hauerwas; but also  more and more theologians from mainline Protestant churches feel attracted to  this model; e.g., see Bruijne 2012). That is, the church is not primarily an association with some good ideas; its vitality is found by living under a new life order, namely, that of the kingdom. This kingdom produces its own politics, a structure of practices in which people bless each other, wish each other well, forgive each other, and reject all forms of violence. It only bears witness of the heavenly kingdom but is itself a witness through its praxis. This praxis, in fact, answers the question of how the church may speak.

This position strongly emphasizes the difference between the church and the world; it may indeed be called Anabaptist to the extent that the orders of heavenly and earthly citizenship are kept far apart. Practically, it leaves the political order to its own devices. But it can also take a more Reformed or Catholic shape through a new appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of the two kingdoms—by recognizing, in other words, that in real life the two realms cannot be totally separated. They are intertwined here below and will be separated by God only in the eschaton. (see Matt 13:29-30). In this world Christians must live with this tension. When they try to escape and eliminate that tension (as in the Anabaptist view), they withdraw from the ongoing course of history, in which God ordains that his church live. A real continuity connects the fallen world and redemption, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the domains of the church and believer; it seeks to have an impact upon the world. What we noted in chapter 8 about a responsible doctrine of sin is relevant at this point. It enables us to take a realistic view of the world and to implement damage control from the perspective of God’s new reality. This attitude differs from that of older Protestant positions in consciously leaving behind the quest for relevance, and with it the majority strategy that for many centuries burdened and plagued the church in the public domain.[2]

Between these two frames, particularly the latter paragraph in the latter frame emerges a semblance of my own approach to the relationship between the state/church-secular/sacred. I alluded to Ziegler’s work in his book Militant Grace, the themes he identifies and develops therein also provide the sort of theological depth that I like to appeal to in order to thicken what these sketches only present in introductory form. What’s at center for me in all of this, from a theological perspective (what other perspective is there for the Christian?), is that the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ orients all considerations about Everything. In other words, this whole discussion takes place, for me, between the two poles of protology and eschatology, original creation and disruptive recreation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There still yet remains agnosticisms in regard to how all of this gets applied in daily life, and in my own perceptual encounter with the complexities foisted upon us by the travail and groaning that this old creation, and the human governments therein present; but this ought to let you in on how I intend to approach this world, in its highly charged christopolitical context, for the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 636-37.

[2] Ibid. 637-38.

Living in the ‘Feeling’ and Reality of Freedom from Sin that God Desires For Us In Christ: From Gestation to Resurrection

I really struggled with a false sense of guilt and condemnation for particular sins from my past for years upon years. The enemy of my soul kept me living under ‘a yoke of bondage’ that Jesus said I ‘would be free indeed’ from. The Lord did not leave me as an orphan though, by the Spirit he ministered to me through a sort of rigorous exercise of training me to think rightly about reality as declared in the evangel of His life as borne witness to in Holy Scripture. After many years of anxiety and depression, particularly stemming from living under this false yoke of condemnation the Lord used the reality of creation and recreation to bring the freedom that I so desperately desired. I am sure that I am not alone in this walk, and so I thought I would share a little bit of how this ‘training’ from the Lord looks; at least the way it looks for me.

As I just intimated a doctrine of creation and recreation, along with God’s sovereign providential care of all reality, played the required roles for me to finally see that I truly was and am free (for God and others). As already noted this sort of education from God was motivated by a crisis—we might refer to it as a theology of crisis—a crisis that brought the realization home that I did not have the resources in myself to bring the freedom that God alone could bring.[1] So how does this relate to God being Creator; and not just in an intellectual sense, but how does that reality relate to these real life spiritual issues in a existential felt manner?

In order to help explain what I’m attempting to detail let me offer a very brief definition of the theological concept creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). Keith Ward offers this definition:

Creatio ex nihilo (Latin for “creation from nothing”) refers to the view that the universe, the whole of space-time, is created by a free act of God out of nothing, and not either out of some preexisting material or out of the divine substance itself. This view was widely, though not universally, accepted in the early Christian Church, and was formally defined as dogma by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Creatio ex nihilo is now almost universally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indian theism generally holds that the universe is substantially one with God, though it is usually still thought of as a free and unconstrained act of God.[2]

There are many important theological implications we could explore simply based upon this brief definition, but for our purposes I wanted to inject this definition into this discussion to elevate the idea that God is the Creator, and thus all of creation is contingent upon his Word. It was this idea that God started to use in my life, years ago, before I ever had any understanding of ‘creation out of nothing’, that I could have freedom from my past. This concept, before I knew the theological parlance was captured for me in this Bible verse, “3And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….” (Heb. 1.3). Interesting how even in this verse the concept of being purified from sins and God’s ‘upholding all things by the word of His power’ are connected. It was this connection that God used to bring freedom for me. The lesson took many years, and was full of ‘anfechtung’ (trial-tribulation). The Lord allowed me to existentially feel the weight of what this world might look like without him as the One holding it together. It is very hard for me to verbalize the sense that I experienced, but it was as if I was questioning all of reality; even physical reality. I would look out at the world and based upon the sort of nihilistic logic that had infiltrated my mind (as a Christian!) over the years I would have this excruciating condition of feeling the transitoriness of all of reality. It was living in this reality, accompanied by ‘intellectual doubts’ (not spiritual) about God’s existence, that of course!, threw me into great pits of despondency and despair. But it was also through this that my perception of reality was transferred from one contingent upon my word—and this world system’s word—to God’s Word. It was this process, ironically, that allowed me to finally understand that “If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8.31–32) Again, like with the Hebrews passage, we see here in Paul’s theology that a connection is made between freedom from condemnation and the creational reality of God’s Word; except here what is emphasized is not creation in general, but creation in particular as that is particularized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Once I’d been schooled enough with the reality that ‘reality’ is God’s reality based alone upon his given and sustaining Word; once I could ‘feel’ that weight, not just intellectually, but spiritually-affectively, the resurrection and re-creation therein had the real life impact I personally needed to be ‘free’ and stand fast in the freedom that the Son said I would be free within (Jn. 8.36); his freedom in the re-creation; the resurrection; the new creation; the new humanity that is his for us.

So I had this doctrine of creation out of nothing in place, in a ‘felt’ way; with the emphasis being upon the reality that God alone holds all of reality together. It was within this conceptual frame that the doctrine of re-creation and resurrection came alive for me; in an existential-spiritual-felt and lived sense. This is why Karl Barth’s doctrine of resurrection has resonated with me so deeply. It is tied into the type of ‘primordial’ thinking that creatio ex nihilo operates from—as part and parcel of God’s upholding Word—and then explicates that from within a theology of God’s Word wherein the primacy of Christ’s life is understood as the telos the fulcrum of what created reality is all about. Robert Dale Dawson really helped me to appreciate this sort of connection between creation out of nothing and Barth’s doctrine of re-creation as he wrote this:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

Threading out the academic technicalities (that are important in their original context), and focusing on the concepts that serve our purposes, what I draw from this is the significance of what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Can you see how all of this might provide the sort of apocalyptic freedom we are in need of in order to live the sort of ‘free’ life that God wants us to before him? It does seem rather mechanical and academic; I agree. Let me try to summarize and draw together the themes I’ve been attempting to highlight in order to provide you with a maybe-way forward in your own spiritual walk and life as a Christian.

The Conclusion. It is actually rather basic, but deeply profound; at least for me. What is required is that we ask for eyes of faith to see what God sees in Christ. He will school us in his ways as we seek him first in the Scripture’s reality in Christ. He will work things into our lives that will shorn away the accretions of the ‘worldly-system-wisdom’ with his wisdom; the wisdom of the cross. He will allow you to ‘feel’ the existential weight of his life, and the reality that that upholds, and within this, this apocalyptic reality of his in-breaking life into ours, the reality that the God who could rightly condemn us has broken into the surly contingencies of our sinful lives and become the ‘Judge, judged.’ If the God who holds all reality together by the Word of his power in Jesus Christ invades this world in the Son, takes his just condemnation of our sins (no matter what they are!) upon himself for us, puts that death to death in his death on the cross, and then re-creates all of reality in his resurrection; then there remains no space for condemnation. The One who could condemn me stands in the way and has eliminated the sphere for condemnation insofar that he has re-created a world wherein only his righteousness reigns and dwells in his enfleshed life for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. What I just noted is the key to grasp. There is another world in Christ; a world accessible by the eyes of faith, provided by the eyes of Christ, in his vicarious humanity which we are enlivened into by the Holy Spirit. This is the real reality that Christians live in and from; and it is this reality that I cling to whenever the enemy of my soul wants to bring me into a life of bondage that belongs to the world that he is king over; a world that is dead and no longer real by virtue of the reality of God’s new world re-created and realized in the primacy of Jesus Christ.

I hope this small reflection might help provide some liberation for some of you out there as well. I realize this all might seem pretty academic, but I don’t really see things that way; I’m hoping you’ll see as a result of this post why I don’t see things in terms of the ‘academic.’ I think good theology, whether people think it is “academic” or not can begin to see that at spiritual levels these ideas can have real life impact and consequences, and that God can use them for the good; he did so, and continues to work this way for me. Just recently, as recent as yesterday, the devil tried to bring me back into a sense of false condemnation and guilt, and I found relief in the very ideas I’ve just outlined. The process, in the head, can be somewhat mechanistic, when working through things this way, but, at least for me, it is what is required for to live a life of freedom that God wants me to live in and from his Son, and my Savior, Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.

 

[1] This might also explain why I have so much resonance with Karl Barth’s theology. Early on Barth was known as a theologian of crisis. Martin Luther’s theology was spawned by deep angst, and his theology is often related to what is known in German as Anfechtung (trial/tribulation). This is why I have found these theologians, among others, as some of my most insightful teachers; they understand that the ‘wisdom of the cross’, that a theologia crucis and a theologia resurrectionis are the key components for knowing God and making him known to others. This is where God meets us; it’s where he knows we must be met if we are going to meet him.

[2] Keith Ward, Creatio Ex Nihilo (Encyclopedia.com), accessed 05-18-2018.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Using Apocalyptic Theology to ‘Re-fund’ the Doctrine of Total Depravity with the Hope of ‘De-funding’ the Pelagian-Impulse in the Christian Church

I don’t have any quotes from someone else in this post; I simply wanted to state something very briefly. Many of my posts are in critique of what I have called classical Calvinism, which is a designation I use to classify the dominant form (in its reception) of ‘Reformed theology’ or Calvinism in its common expressions in the 21st century west (whether that be an elaborate form of federal theology, or a reduced form of five-pointism). That notwithstanding, Evangelical Calvinism, as myself and Myk Habets articulate it (and in this post I am really just speaking for myself) have a strong doctrine of total depravity. That is, we believe that at a moral/spiritual level, theological-anthropologically, there is nothing in humanity but a homo incurvatus in se (human incurved upon themselves); a very Augustinian concept, or more pointedly, I’d argue, Pauline. It is at this point that Evangelical Calvinists can lock-arms with their classical Calvinist cousins; yet, I’d argue, that in many cases this is only in principle (de jure). The intention of articulating a doctrine of total depravity is to take away any sort of Pelagian notion that within humanity there is a neutral spot, a point of contact that remains lively between God and humanity; a point of contact that is not contingent upon God’s choice to be for humanity, but instead upon humanity’s choice to be or not to be for God. We see this principle, the ‘Pelagian-principle’ rearing its head over and over again through the history of interpretation in the church. Whether that be in Pelagius himself, John Cassian following, the Roman Catholic church with its teaching on created and cooperative grace, certain iterations of Reformed federal theology that have a doctrine of preparationism (quid pro quo contractual conception of salvation), or what have you. I contend that this impulse, this Pelagianizing impulse remains a pernicious devil that wants to remain present at all costs; and as such through many forms of sophistication and subtleties we do indeed see it remaining, even in various iterations (significant ones) of so called Christian theology.

As a proponent of what has come to be called ‘Apocalyptic theology’ I think that theology, which I take ultimately to be heavenly and Pauline, has the realistic resources to counter this Pelagian-impulse; in the sense that apocalyptic theology takes seriously the radicality required in order to deal with the human-inspired desire to continuously inject itself into the realm that alone belongs to God. Apocalyptic theology ultimately recognizes that creation is in such a dire place of irreconciliation with God that its only hope is if God breaks into his creation in Jesus Christ, puts it to death, resurrects and recreates such that creation itself only has hope if it lives from this new creation whose name is Jesus Christ. Apocalyptic theology sees nothing of value left in the old creation (in the sense of a moral component left in humanity before God), and by consequent, Pelagianism, and all its Genesis 3.15ish iterations go the way of the ‘stony ground.’ Humanity, soteriologically, only has hope as it lives from the reality of the new creation, from the new humanity in Jesus Christ; the humanity whose reality is only realized by the person of the eternal Logos, the Son of God, who we now know as Jesus Christ (an/enhypostasis).

We need to constantly repent and live from Christ. Total depravity recognizes the dangers of presuming a place in humanity that has spark for God apart from God’s intervention in Christ. Sometimes people who are proponents of total depravity in word, in deed end up undercutting the intention of total depravity by offering theological models and constructs that end up re-inserting the very premises that total depravity was intended to guard against (think of ‘created grace’ for example).

The Apostle Paul’s Apocalyptic Vision of the World Constituted by the Living Christ: In Dialogue with Bonhoeffer

Pauline, and thus canonical apocalyptic theology fits where I am at to a T. Philip Ziegler continues to unpack for us what such theology looks like in its various iterations scattered throughout the theological past and present. Here he is engaging with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own style of apocalyptic theology, and in this instance how that gets fleshed out in the realm of ethics and the ‘moral life.’

As Bonhoeffer comes to argue in the Ethics, only trust that reality has in fact been decisively constituted by God’s apocalypse in Christ underwrites “serious” grappling with moral life in the world. Against abstract “sectarian” and “compromise” postures toward the world, he says this:

Neither the idea of a pure Christianity as such nor the idea of the human being as such is serious, but only God’s reality and human reality as they have become one in Jesus Christ. What is serious is not some kind of Christianity, but Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus Christ God’s reality and human reality take the place of radicalism and compromise. There is no Christianity as such; if there were, it would destroy the world. There is no human being as such; if there were, God would be excluded. Both are ideas. There is only the God-man Jesus Christ who is real, through whom the world will be preserved until it is ripe for its end. [Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 155]

The realism that Bonhoeffer sets over against all idealism in church and theology is thus apocalyptic. Since “revelation gives itself without precondition and is alone able to place one into reality,” he says, serious theological ethics, is no less than dogmatics, must struggle for forms of thinking appropriate to God’s apocalypse in Christ Jesus. The ages having turned, Christians are alert to the fact that they stand together with all others in a world who reality has been both taken apart and put back together with effect by God’s redemptive triumph through the cross: it has become Christ-reality.[1]

This is radical stuff; the stuff of what it means to think Christianly. As the Apostle Paul asserts: ‘we walk by faith not by sight.’ I would suggest that a Scripture reader, one who reads it consistently and often, will arrive at this conclusion about reality and the world.

Personally, when I apply this perspective to daily life it blows my mind; in a good way! As I look out at the heavens, at the trees and birds, at the sporadic coyote that comes across the rail every morning at work, as I look at the mass of humanity, I see it through this lens; the cruciform lens  offered by God’s life for the world in Jesus Christ. We cannot go back, the old order has been disrupted by the in-breaking of God’s life in Christ; the older order lived in proleptic service to the new that would eventually invade it, disrupt it, disorient it, and re-constitute it by the order always already present in the antecedent, the inner triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This calls the Christian to look at the world with fresh eyes, eyes full of anticipation and hope that all is not lost; that the perceptively crooked has already been made manifestly straight in the ruling life of the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. This fills me with great hope and assurance, not only for the present reality, but with the realization that this life now is contingent and in repose upon the life of God that sustains it moment by moment with his upholding Word. I don’t think I can articulate just how much of an upheaval this way of thinking is; at least for me. I like to think that I live in a world that is enchanted with a splendorous life, with an uncontainable pleroma that has been particularized immemorial in the Lamb of God, slain but risen. There is power here, like that found in the Lion from the tribe of Judah; a power, a perception that cannot be ameliorated by an unbelief of the old order, but that instead reigns supreme in the regnant belief of the Son in the Father for us. This is an all consuming reordering of things; not something simply inchoate, not just a seedling, but a full grown blossoming tree full of lively leaves and effervescent fruit with the power to heal the nations. We walk by faith, the faith of Christ, but in this Kingdom, faith is sight; it is not grasping, it is not jumping into a fantastical world of our own projecting, it is instead a world fully contingent upon the indestructible life of God. While the world continues to languish in despair and unbelief, the life of God’s belief for the world concretized in the eternal Logos will not be intimated or vanquished; no, God’s life cannot be stopped. There is hope. This is what I take apocalyptic theology to be offering.

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 180 kindle.

The Negation of Natural Law in the Apostle Paul’s Apocalyptic Theology

I wrote my Master’s thesis on a Pauline pericope, an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1.17-25. I was inspired to write a thesis of this nature, in the realm of New Testament studies, based upon Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross). At that point, in 2002, I was only nascently aware of the division between the disciplines of Systematic/Dogmatic theology and biblical studies. This post will veer, as is usual these days, towards the side of systematic theology; more focusedly, to the side of apocalyptic theology in its current and developing iteration. I brought up my Master’s thesis because the content of this post touches upon that passage, and other Pauline passages. For the remainder of this post we will engage with apocalyptic theology and what that entails in regard to not only knowledge of God, but knowledge of ourselves in a world that has been ‘twice-invaded,’ by sin and the Christ.

Natural Law, and as corollary, natural theology are continuously present in the theologizing and the hermeneutics of not only the Roman Catholics, but remain present for the repristination of the Post Reformed orthodox tradition that continues to surge in the Western Christian world; at least in significant parts of that tradition (I think of the work that Davenant Institute is doing for example). Natural Law theorizes that not only is their intelligibility in the created order, but that it is accessible to the sentient human creatures who inhabit that order; that it is not only accessible to the regenerate mind, but also to the unregenerate (to a degree), and thus can be appealed to in order to construct civil law that both Christian and unChristian alike can flourish under. In other words, natural law presumes that there is a remainder within the created order, even after the ‘fall’, wherein a common nature can be appealed to in order to develop a common natural law and ethics that is equally available to the Christian and the nonChristian; that there is a degree to which all humanity can discerningly live under God’s order embedded inherently within the taxis of creation.

But there is a counter-proposal, one that I believe is more fitting with the Gospel story. The counter-proposal comes from the so called apocalyptic reading of Paul wherein the created order is understood to be in a place of rupture twice over. In other words, apocalyptic theology understands the world to have been disentangled from its rightly ordered relationship with God once sin entered the world (Gen. 3); at that decisive point the noetic capacities of humanity lost their ability to rightly discern God’s order for the world, and thus their ability to establish governments and ethics that would allow the human species to flourish as God had intended were likewise lost. Yet, this is of course is not the end of the story in the Christian narrative; for the Christian we realize that God entered this world in the Incarnation, and in his atoning work he reconciled humanity unto God (II Cor. 5) through the recreation and new creation that occurred in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the apocalyptic theologian, though, this does not bring the sort of dénouement that some might suspect; no, instead it further problematizes things, not for the Christian but for the world at large. Indeed, the new creation has set things to rights with God with an eye to and from the eschaton, but it has also so disrupted the created order that any latent perception that this ‘world’ might have of an order is negated by the reality of the cross and the new creation. In other words, for the apocalyptic theologian there is no space for natural law or ethics in the new creation; what is appealed to for that construct to work, under the apocalyptic has been put to death and recreated. As such the only possibility for discerning an order in creation or recreation is that we ‘walk by the faith of Christ rather than by the sight of our fathers and mothers.’ I would only note, before sharing Philip Ziegler’s thoughts, as he sketches Louis Martyn’s thinking in the apocalyptic direction, that as we look out at the governments of the world, I think the apocalyptic reading is given the type of empirical realization that we might (ought to) conclude that this apocalyptic reading is onto something; in other words, the world is in utter chaos, a chaos that bears witness to its negated reality and need for something outside (extra) of itself in order for genuine flourishing before God to take place. Here are Ziegler’s comments on this Pauline evangelical reality, and with this we will close (hopefully it is readable, if not click on each section):

.[1]

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 132-33 kindle.

The Death of Death in Jüngel’s Apocalyptic Frame

Death is a deplorable reality. We often attempt to avoid thinking about it until we can’t; until we or someone close to us is faced with it either through disease, sickness, or accident, or they die themselves. We have constructed a society, as Arthur McGill notes that attempts to sanitize death, indeed attempts to segregate it out away from our daily experience. We have created insane asylums, cancer wards, homeless and refugee camps all hidden away behind well groomed gardens and ornately architectured buildings; we have constructed facades that attempt to keep the reality of death away from us. But in the end we can never really escape its reach; we feel it, it touches us, even when we don’t want it to. It’s not that death has an inherent power of its own, but the way we treat it in society you would think it does.

Christians fall prey to this line of culturally formed thinking as well. We are like everyone else, so often. But in reality we really aren’t. We live in a Kingdom where death has no power, yes it still has sting, but its actual power has indeed died. This is the evangel, the Good News hope that us Christians live from and for; we live to bear witness to this inbreaking reality. The reality that God in Christ has broken the surly bonds of the frailty of a fallen sub-humanity, and entered into it by his own self-humiliation clothing himself with the dust of our broken humanity in order to redeem and reconcile us unto God from the inside out. We might even see this as apocalyptic; i.e. that God has entered into our situation, assumed it for himself, and in this assumptio, in this wonderful exchange (mirifica commutatio) he has annihilated the ‘last enemy’ which is indeed, death. Christians live from this reality on a daily basis whether we acknowledge it or not; whether we live with the gravitas that this ought to engender in our daily lives. This reality, what Christ has done by accomplishing the death of death, ought to inject a sense of transitoriness into our lived lives as Christians; we ought to recognize that the shadow of this earth is passing away such that the new creation has already come (‘now’ and ‘even more so’ in the eschaton).

Philip Ziegler in his book Militant Grace The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology develops what death and life look like in the frame offered by what is being referred to these days as ‘apocalyptic theology.’ Here he engages the locus of death in the theology of Eberhard Jüngel in an apocalyptic frame:

The theme is even more sharply present in Jüngel’s theology. Evangelical faith obediently trusts that “the God who in participating in man’s death gains victory over death” has done so for me. As Jüngel sees it, the antithesis between God and death structures the gospel itself. “God and death are opponents,” he writes, “they are enemies. The style in which God deal with death, and in which death also has to deal with God, is the history which faith tells about Jesus Christ.” As the annihilating power and consequences of sin, death is aggressively active, “repudiate[ing] life by hopelessly alienating men and God from one another.” Salvation is the business of dealing with death, as it were. For Jüngel, the death of Christ accomplishes the death of death: in the identity of the living God with the dead man Jesus, God meets death, taking its enmity and contradiction into himself in virtue of his own divine life. Death is thus overcome in and by the outworking of the eternal vitality of God’s love. When this victory is consummated “even then” in the final judgment, human beings will be given to know that it is by grace that they are “undying, or better . . . plucked from out of death.”

The final judgment is judgment unto eternal life because it means final deliverance from that annihilating power of death, which is “God’s enemy and mine.” And we should recognize that it is exactly the apocalyptic form of the saving work of cross and resurrection and its close identification with final judgment that makes it possible and then necessary to link the philanthropy of saving divine justice with the vision of God’s ultimate triumph over death’s inimical misanthropy.[1]

One thing that ought to immediately stand out is what God has accomplished in the atoning work of Christ; the frame is not primarily forensic. In other words, what we see in Jüngel’s theology is something akin to what us Evangelical Calvinists refer to as the ontological theory of the atonement. The idea that what God came to do was greater than (not lesser than) the juridical (i.e. pay for a penalty); he came to deal with the depth issue that leads to sin or rupture in the first place; the issue of our discordant and deceitfully wicked hearts. We see a creational and recreational theme funding Jüngel’s thought, such that what takes place in the saving work of Christ is that humanity is recreated to a place wherein humanity can actually be humanity as originally intended; that is humanity can be in a right and koinonial relationship with the living God. This is nothing short than apocalyptic; nothing short of God breaking into his own world, working it from the inside out in his humanity in Christ, and reversing the curse that sought to sublimate humanity into nothingness.

On a personal note, as someone who has survived a normally terminal incurable cancer all I can say is that God’s apocalyptic presence is real and vivacious. Whatever his purposes, he chose to break into my life and put to death a monster that would have liked to kill me. But God’s prevailing grace in Christ decided that that wasn’t going to happen, at least not yet (and I pray never!). There is life in Christ, concrete life; we live in and from it, and death has no hold on us because of it. Death is indeed dead in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It couldn’t hold him down, and it can’t hold us down; at least if we are full participants in his type of indestructible life.

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 109 kindle.

The Hope of Apocalyptic Theology: Engaging with Philip Ziegler’s Militant Grace

I just started reading Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology. Because of the influence of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (and others) on the development of Evangelical Calvinism, at least upon this Evangelical Calvinist, apocalyptic theology, as a particular domain of theological reflection has been an important source for my own theological formation. I was first introduced to this genre of theology by reading Nate Kerr’s book Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission when that first came into publication years ago (Ziegler references Kerr’s work). Thus far (I’m starting chapter three) Ziegler’s book is helpfully orienting what Kerr first introduced me to years ago. At this point you might be asking “what in the world are you talking about, Bobby?” Let me explain through providing some quotation from Ziegler himself.

As Ziegler introduces his book he engages with Lutheran theologian Gerharde Forde and the apocalyptic theology present in his work. After he has developed that, a bit, Ziegler, in order to provide further explication, offers three indicatives of what apocalyptic theology entails in its eschatological mode. Let’s consider what he has to say in order to fill out what apocalyptic theology itself actually is as a theological type. Ziegler writes:

What makes Christian dogmatics eschatological is, first, a proper preoccupation with understanding salvation as the advent of the radically new, and only thus as a divine act. An eschatological grammar is required to explicate the sense of the Christian gesture of pointing to Jesus and uttering, “God. God did this new thing for us.” This is the abiding truth in Barth’s assertion that Christianity must be utterly eschatological if it in fact arises from the coming of God to save. Forde concurs, claiming the cross is a saving event because, and only because, in it God conquers our dissolution and “ends it for us by coming.” We might say that dogmatics is eschatological first and foremost because it conceives of and emphasizes salvation as God’s very own action.

Second, Christian theology requires an eschatological grammar because the outworking of salvation in Christ is a matter of ends. Following the contours of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel rather closely, the cross, for Forde, proves to be the axis for the turning of the ages, a macrocosmic of human being. The finality of this revolution and the creative force of the new thing it inaugurates can only come to full expression in an eschatological register, for when “God quickens, he does so by killing,” as Luther famously put it. So too, it seems, must the once-for-all character of salvation’s accomplishment—what Forde denotes as its “christological anchor”—be articulated in eschatological terms. For only if what takes place in cross and resurrection is unsurpassable in time—only as Christ’s person and work is the “unsurpassable new which does not grow old and which therefore makes all things new”—can it be the final ground of Christian faith and future hope. The decisiveness of the passion and resurrection of Christ is signaled fully when set forth as the “invasion of God’s sovereign future” into time, the preemptive deliverance unto a destiny not of creation’s own making. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is truly “a first swing of the sickle” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23). Dogmatics is also eschatological in that it acknowledges and bespeaks the finality, singularity, and unsurpassable effectiveness of the saving judgment that God renders in Jesus Christ.

Third and finally, Christian dogmatics must be eschatological if it is to do justice to the very logic and form of divine grace as such. This is a particularly strong emphasis in Forde’s work: “The question about grace—whether it is a quality in the soul or the sheer divine promise—is a question of ontology versus eschatology. Is ‘grace’ a new eschatological reality that comes extra nos and breaks in upon us brining new being to faith, the death of the old and the life of the new, or is it rather to be understood in ontological terms as an infused power that transforms old being?”

It is the very graciousness of grace that is at stake here. The full force of the classical Reformation devices that serves to emphasize this—for example, the logic of imputation, the alien character of the righteousness that grace delivers, the unconditional character of the divine promise that “while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), the insistence that grace comes on us from outside (ab extra) so that we are justified by faith alone (sola fide)—is only fully acknowledged when they are understood eschatologically. Nothing militates against synergism as fully and finally as the reality of the death of the sinner; and nothing affirms the divine monergism of salvation as fully and finally as its designation as “new creation.” If, as Forde discerns, God’s grace is pronounced in Christ so as to “establish an entirely new situation,” if it is nothing less than “a re-creative act of God, something he does precisely by speaking unconditionally,” then such a thing must be set forth in an eschatological discourse or not at all. Dogmatics is finally eschatological because and as it admits and articulates the victorious grace of the God of the Gospel.[1]

These loci ought to tune you into what the entailments of what apocalyptic theology is about in the eschatological key (at least as Ziegler engages with that in Forde’s theology). It takes the implications and inner-logic of the Christmas story as that unfolds in the Easter story, and sees this as the premise of all that is in regard to God’s dealings with creation. The story of the Gospel in apocalyptic hue recognizes the discontinuity that the invasion of God in Christ into this world pronounces upon the old order of things; it pronounces its death. Apocalyptic theology recognizes that this pronouncement continues, even as we live in-between the first advent and the coming advent of Christ; and as such it calls us to ‘reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ Apocalyptic theology sees the need that the cross of Christ pronounces as the penultimate step required in order to come to the ultimate reality of re-creation which the resurrection of Christ proclaims as the evangel of God to the nations.

Ziegler, as he pushes forward into chapter two, brings Karl Barth’s theology into the discussion. He notes the way that some current apocalyptic theologians have understood Barth, but then how they have moved beyond Barth’s own type of apocalyptic theology. This reminded me of something I read in Robert Dale Dawson’s book on Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. What Dawson identifies in Barth’s doctrine of resurrection coheres with the impulses we just surveyed through Ziegler’s development; indeed, what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology resonates deeply with me, and I think resonates deeply with the aims of apocalyptic theology in general. Dawson writes:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

The emphasis, for Barth, according to Dawson, is upon God in Christ; upon his act in being-in-becoming. Dawson elucidates the way that resurrection, for Barth, is a global ground-clearing; of the apocalyptic sort. The event of resurrection, for Barth, according to Dawson, is a sort of re-creatio ex nihilo, a new creation out of nothing but the ‘stuff’ of God’s living Word.

I hope you have found this post enlightening, particularly if you have never been exposed to ‘apocalyptic theology.’ There are many personal and spiritual implications that can be gleaned from this. The primary one that stands out to me is Hope. Without the new creation, I’d have no hope; no hope of overcoming death, or the torments of sin in my daily life. There is hope in the new creation because it is grounded in the very life of God; the immovable unflinching life of God.

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 10-12 kindle.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Messianic War Against this World System: Gaining Perspective on the Presidential Election 2016 from the Book of Revelation

If you’re an American, and unless you live in a corner, something that cannot escape you at the moment is the intensity of the presidential election (as I write this only two days away). Like many of you, I have been involved in various discussions and debates about who the best candidate is or isn’t; my conclusion is that there is no better candidate (between Trump or Clinton). They are both going to promote policies and aims that are anti-thetical to the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and as such it is impossible for me to vote for either one of them (from an ethical perspective as trumphillarya Christian). The reality is, is that they both have more in common than not. They both promote a horizontal vision of society and the world, whether that be an absolute form of nationalism (Trump), or an absolute form of anglo-globalism (Clinton). They both endorse policies that involve racism— whether that be informed by an inward obsession with Americana, and certain conceptions of what it means to be an American (Trump); or whether that be informed by supporting the House of Saud, radical Muslims in Syria, and elite globalists (Clinton). They both, like Israel, as the prophet Isaiah noted about Israel, have a covenant with death (Is. 29); Clinton, in this regard, more so than Trump, in some ways. They both are continuing the vision of ancient Babylon which is one of empire, and self-promotion (whether that be focused on the homeland [Trump], or globally [Clinton]).

What this presidential race has illustrated to me is how corrupt human government and politics are. It has concretely shown me that this world has been placed under a curse which it longs to be relieved of by the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8). Both Trump’s and Clinton’s visions of reality are purely informed by horizontal paradigms of thought, and have appeal only to the base impulses of natural humanity wherein the individual and its self-preservation is elevated to god-like status. But the good news is that there is hope; hope to come, and hope in-breaking currently.

Richard Bauckham, in his little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation provides prescient insight into the emphases and themes of that often misunderstood book. As he works through the theology of the book of Revelation what he unveils is a vision and hope for the world that is other-worldly, while being radically this worldly. He masterfully shows how the book of Revelation is a book precisely for moments like we are currently experiencing here in the States as we, as Christians, are attempting to maintain perspective relative to the “choices” we have in front of us for our leadership.

In the following Bauckham works through three themes that he sees at play in the book of Revelation; it will be the first theme that we will highlight in this post. This theme gives me much perspective as the reality of how messy of a thing humanward politics actually are in this present evil age. The victory has already been won by Jesus Christ; the victory over evil, horizontal conceptions of human government, and how that gets expressed in the world. As we will see, Bauckham underscores how the theme of messianic war in the book of Revelation functions, or should, as a place of hope and perspective for the Christian attempting to navigate through this evil age. What is presumed, of course, is that as Christians we do indeed live in a violent world, under the control of violent governments who we ought to take a militant posture towards. Note I said ‘militant,’ not violent. The only violence that has any purchase in the Kingdom of the Lamb of God is the violence the Lion of the Tribe of Judah already endured for the world at his cross. It is this reality wherein we as Christians, according to the Revelator, can take a militant stand against this world system. We stand in the power of God, which is the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and this is the victory we have to proclaim to the world. It is a prophetic word that God’s judgment has already come, and been realized for us in Jesus Christ on the cross; that the heart of human self-destruction and violence has been crushed with Jesus as he put it to death with him (Rom. 8:3) at the cross. And that there is good news of final victory, wherein the final enemy, death, will finally be put under Jesus’s feet as he comes again in his second advent (I Cor. 15). By proclaiming and living out this reality we participate in the victory of the Messiah by capturing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, of every race, tongue, and nation inhabiting this world. We also bear witness to the fact that indeed a violent, but final end is coming, the final realization of the death of death (cf. John Owen), when the Lamb of God comes with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19) finally crushing the kingdoms of this world (Dan. 2) by the Stone of his Kingdom; which is the Kingdom of kingdoms. It is this posture and place that we as Christians, according to the book of Revelation, have in this current world system. It is one of fighting, and the church militant; and our weapons of warfare are not fleshly but spiritual (II Cor. 10) through both word and deed, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will.

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

The first is the theme of the messianic war. This takes up the Jewish hope for a Messiah who is to be a descendant of David, anointed by God as king and military leader of his people. He is to fight a war against the Gentile oppressors, liberating Israel and establishing the rule of God, which is also the rule of God’s Messiah and God’s people Israel, over the nations of the world. Essential to this notion, it should be noted, is that the Messiah does not wage war alone: he leads the army of Israel against the enemies of Israel. Many Old Testament prophecies were commonly interpreted by first-century Jews as referring to this expected Messiah of David. The identification of Jesus with the Davidic Messiah was, of course, very common in early Christianity. It is very important in Revelation, partly because for John, as a Jewish Christian prophet, it is one of the ways in which he can gather up the hopes of the Old Testament prophetic tradition into his own eschatological vision centred on Jesus. But it is important also because it portrays a figure who is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by defeating the pagan powers who contest God’s rule. As we shall see, John carefully reinterprets the tradition. His Messiah Jesus does not win his victory by military conquest, and those who share his victory and his rule are not national Israel, but the international people of God. But still it is a victory over evil, won not only in the spiritual but also in the political sphere against worldly powers in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Insofar as the hope for the Davidic Messiah was for such a victory of God over evil Revelation portrays Christ’s work in continuity with that traditional Jewish hope.

The prominence of Davidic messianism in Revelation can be gauged from the fact that, as well as the two self-declarations by Christ that we have already considered (1: 17– 18; 22: 13), there is a third: ‘I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22: 16). The first of these two titles comes from Isaiah 11: 10 (‘ the root of Jesse’) and is used of the Davidic Messiah (‘descendant’ interprets the meaning of ‘root’, rightly giving it the same sense as the ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ of Isa. 11: 1, which was more commonly used as a messianic designation). The second title refers to the star of Numbers 24: 17, which (in the context of 24: 17– 19) was commonly understood to be a symbol of the Messiah of David who would conquer the enemies of Israel. ‘The root of David’ is found also in Revelation 5: 1, alongside another title evoking the image of the royal Messiah who will defeat the nations by military violence: ‘the Lion of Judah’ (cf. Gen. 49: 9; 4 Ezra 12: 31– 2). Further allusions to the Messiah of Isaiah 11, a favourite passage for Davidic messianism, are the sword that comes from Christ’s mouth (1: 16; 2: 12, 16; 19: 21) with which he strikes down the nations (19: 15; cf. Isa. 11: 4; 49: 2) and the statement that he judges with righteousness (19: 11; cf. Isa. 11: 4).

One of John’s key Old Testament texts, allusions to which run throughout Revelation, is Psalm 2, which depicts ‘the nations’ and ‘the kings of the earth’ conspiring to rebel against ‘the LORD and his Messiah’ (verses 1– 2). The Messiah is God’s Son (verse 7), whom he sets as king on mount Zion (verse 6), there to resist and overcome the rebellious nations. God promises to give this royal Messiah the nations for his inheritance (verse 8) and that he will violently subdue them with a rod of iron (verse 9). Allusions to this account of the Messiah’s victory over the nations are found in Revelation 2: 18, 26– 8; 11: 15, 18; 12: 5, 10; 14: 1; 16: 14, 16; 19: 15. To what is explicit in the psalm it is notable that John adds the Messiah’s army (with him on Mount Zion in 14: 1) who will share his victory (2: 26– 7). Probably also from the psalm is John’s use of the phrase ‘the kings of the earth’ as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1: 5; 6: 15; 17: 2, 18; 18: 3, 9; 19: 19; 21: 24; cf. 16: 14).

Also derived from this militant messianism is Revelation’s key concept of conquering. It is applied both to the Messiah himself (3: 21; 5: 5; 17: 14) and to his people, who share his victory (2: 7, 11, 17, 28; 3: 5, 12, 21; 12: 11; 15: 2; 21: 7). Once again we note the importance in Revelation of the Messiah’s army. That the image of conquering is a militaristic one should be unmistakable, although interpreters of Revelation do not always do justice to this. It is closely connected with language of battle (11: 7; 12: 7– 8, 17; 13: 7; 16: 14; 17: 14; 19: 11, 19) and it is notable that not only do Christ’s followers defeat the beast (15: 2), but also the beast defeats them (11: 7; 13: 7), so that this is evidently a war in which Christ’s enemies have their victories, though the final victory is his. We should note also that the language of conquering is used of all the three stages of Christ’s work: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3: 21; 5: 5), his followers conquer in the time before the end (12: 11; 15: 2), and he will conquer at the parousia (17: 14). Thus it is clear that the image of the messianic war describes the whole process of the establishment of God’s kingdom as Revelation depicts it. Revelation’s use of this image incorporates the fundamental shift of temporal perspective from Jewish to Jewish Christian eschatology. The messianic war is not purely future. The decisive victory has in fact already been won by Christ. His followers are called to continue the battle in the present. The final victory still lies in the future.[1]

Conclusion

In light of the perversion and corruption attendant to this presidential election, I hope this perspective, indeed, provides perspective. I see too many Christians settling, or even compromising for what they shouldn’t be compromising for; for the kingdom of man rather than the kingdom of Christ. The reality is, as the book of Revelation makes very clear, is that being human means being political; the issue is where we are going to get our politics from. Are we going to get them from the horizontal, or instead are we going to get them from the vertical? It is clear that the politics of heaven intersect with the politics of this fallen earth, just as God’s person in Christ intersects with our humanity in his assumption of ours. As such it is important, I would contend, for us to remember that we are at war; not with people, per se, but with the principalities and powers which inform the politics of man. We need to bear this in mind as we, as Christians, attempt to negotiate our ways through the muck of this world system. We need to keep in mind that earthly policy-makers all work from a vision of the world, at this point, that is informed by impulses that are indeed anti-thetical to the aims of the Kingdom of God. Thus it behooves us, as soldiers in Christ, to take a stand, and engage this political system with the weapons of our warfare which is to proclaim the Gospel of peace and hope for all who will hear.

It is always tempting to begin to conflate the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we see Israel engaging in this type of syncretizing activity over and again with the nations that surrounded them. But again, as the book of Revelation makes clear, we are part of another nation, a heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), which thinks from heaven rather than earth; it thinks from other-worldly and even foolish norms relative to the policies and “ethics” of this world system (I Cor. 1). Let’s remember that we are ambassadors for Christ (II Cor. 5; Eph. 6), and that our primary job as Christians is to bear witness prophetically that Jesus is King, that he has won the victory through his shed blood (I Cor. 6:18,19; Acts 20:28). Let’s not compromise the integrity of our positions as ambassadors for Christ by fighting for a kingdom, this world system, that has already been put to death by the cross of Jesus Christ. Let’s remind this world system that there is real power and real hope available in and from the One who was dead, but now lives (Rev. 1). Let’s remind our politicians that God wants us to choose life, not death (Ez. 32). As far as I can tell, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have chosen Life, instead they have both chosen death; as such their political policies and practices will only portend that. Policies that Christians, as part of God’s Kingdom, ought to be at war with, not in bed with.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition), 68-70.