This post started out as a quick response to some good questions raised by Daniel in relation to my reconstruction of the story-line of the divine meta-comedy, but as sometimes happens, it grew too big and needs repotting.
I appreciate that the phenomenon of Western Christendom has been extremely problematic and something of an embarrassment for the modern church; and it’s only in some limited respects that I would venture to defend it. I am certainly happy that the Christendom paradigm has now collapsed—though not everyone is aware of the fact—and that we are in a position to reconsider the possible outcomes of the biblical narrative under very different circumstances.
But let me make a number of points in response to the basic objection that Christendom was a disaster and can hardly be seen as the victorious climax to the biblical narrative.
1. There is a big difference between our disillusioned post-Christendom perspective and the pre-Christendom perspective of the early church. Exegesis has to discount what Christianity became after Constantine.
2. The clash with unjust, idolatrous, pagan imperialism is a much more significant part of the biblical narrative than is apparent from our modern perspective—from Babel to Egypt to Assyria to Babylon to Antiochus Epiphanes to Rome. Every major event in the history of the biblical people of God, including the death of Jesus, is determined by the clash with pagan empire. It does not seem remarkable, therefore, that the “climax” to Israel’s story is similarly conceived as victory over pagan empire and the confession that the one God of Israel has given the kingdom to his Son, who in some sense will rule the nations.
3. European rationalism, from the neo-Platonists onwards, has bequeathed us such spiritualized and privatized notions of salvation that we have a hard time recognizing the essentially corporate and political nature of the biblical narrative. Jesus’ death and resurrection effected a massive transformation in the existence of the people of God, but it remained a people, a political entity.
4. The people of God cannot exist solely as a negative prophetic movement, critiquing from the sidelines. We are called to be “new creation”—to embody the social and religious fulness of being restored humanity centred on the Creator. The witness of the Old Testament prophets cannot be separated from Israel’s existence as a nation. The Anabaptists may have the moral high-ground, just as the prophets had the moral high-ground—but the prophets always called wayward Israel back to its proper national existence. The challenge that the church faces now is to find new modes of social and religious existence after the failure of the Christendom-modern paradigm—the emerging church understands this; modern evangelicalism and the neo-Reformed movement do not.
5. A narrative-historical hermeneutic has to take account of the continuation of the story. We cannot pursue a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament and not recognize that the same historical narrative keeps moving forwards.
6. Christianity existed for 1700 years more or less in the imperial mode. I know we would prefer to regard the various reformist and dissident movements within Christian empire as authentically Christian, but again we tend to idealize these alternatives. The people of God remains subject to sin. I’m not sure it makes so much of a difference whether we sin on a personal basis or sin big-time on an imperial basis. And who’s to say now whether the sins of omission of the global evangelical movement are less serious than the sins of commission of the imperial church?
7. I’m not a historian, but I suspect that the enlightenment and modern secularism have left us with a less than objective view of European Christendom. There was more to it than corrupt popes and the crusades.
8. So can we treat Christendom as a victory? I think we have to recognize that the ending of persecution by Rome and the “conversion” of the pagan world to the worship of Israel’s God counted as the climax to core eschatological hopes expressed in the New Testament. This is the final outworking of the Jewish prophetic-apocalyptic narrative. Unsurprisingly it came to be superseded by the incommensurate rationalist categories of Greek thought, but exegesis must pretend that never happened. The writers of the New Testament constructed their future narratively, and I think that the clash between the renewed, charismatic people of God and pagan empire was the central story-line in that narrative.
9. Would Paul have seen in Christendom the victory that he hope for? That’s a very good question. I don’t know.
10. Finally, the New Testament story is told from a limited geographical perspective—that is the nature of history. It is dominated by Paul and his determination to preach the gospel from Jerusalem to Spain. The sphere of the clash with empire stretched at most from Persia to Western Europe, and even Persia is probably to be seen more as an instrument of judgment against Rome than as a place in which the gospel was to be proclaimed. The New Testament has a very European focus—wrath against the Jew followed by wrath against the Greek. Everything else (early missions to Asia and the Far East) is simply outside of it purview. I would stress the point that by far the largest part of modern global Christianity has descended from European Christendom and, presumably, still carries much of its genetic identity.