In the final chapter of Defending Constantine Peter Leithart does two things. He rejects Yoder’s argument about the Constantinian “fall” of the church as being both historically and methodologically flawed; and he puts forward an alternative account of the “major (if not exactly epochal) shift that took place when Constantine converted” and of the subsequent history of the European church. A strong clue as to what shape this alternative account will take is given in the quotation from Augustine that heads the chapter: “God is not the ruler of the city of the impious, because it disobeys his commandment that sacrifice be offered to himself alone.”
In a chapter on “Christian Empire, Christian Mission” in Defending Constantine Peter Leithart challenges the view of John Howard Yoder—widely accepted amongst modern theologians if not amongst historians—that Constantinianism was a fundamental departure from the intention of Jesus and the New Testament. Leithart’s analysis suggests that it is not so far-fetched to see a theologically coherent development, embodied in the missional self-understanding of the early church, between the initial New Testament impetus and the eventual merger of church and state.
This is the first of what I hope will become a series of “glossary” type posts giving a fairly basic and compact explanation of core “evangelical” concepts from—as you might expect—a narrative-historical perspective. Our understanding of these concepts is in transition. I do not at all put these definitions forward as conclusive or authoritative, but I hope that they will provide some temporary focus in the process of reconstruction. We kick off with “salvation”, partly prompted by a post by Michael Patton a couple of days back, in which he addresses a question that he hopes no one will ask: “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” What follows doesn’t really answer the question, but it at least presents a very different frame within which to address it.
I am increasingly coming to the view that a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament will sooner or later be seen to have significant implications for how we understand the transition that the church made in the fourth century from persecuted minority to privileged imperial religion. For the most part, theological opinion today holds that Constantinianism was at best a regrettable compromise and at worst a catastrophic departure from New Testament Christianity. I think that an important strand of New Testament prophetic thought has in view—quite concretely and realistically—the ending of the persecution of the early church, the defeat of paganism, and the public, empire-wide acknowledgment of Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords”. The exegetical argument does not amount to an exculpation of Christendom—and it is certainly not a call for its reinstatement. But I do think that an evangelical theology needs to re-examine the modern prejudice against Constantine and the Christendom paradigm, and to consider other ways of integrating the transformative event into its self-understanding.
Dane Ortlund, Senior Editor at Crossway Books (Bible division) recently asked 25 scholars and pastors to sum up the “message of the Bible in one sentence”. You can read the contributions, some of which are really quite good exemplars of the genre, on his Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology blog. I have two rather contradictory reactions to it, one essentially postmodern, the other much more “modern”—or as I would prefer to call it, “hermeneutically correct”.
The lengthy responses provoked by the third post on missio Dei make for very good reading. I am neither a historian nor a missiologist. What interests me primarily in this discussion is the question of where the New Testament’s view of the future lands us. The traditional view—notwithstanding the complications introduced by various forms of millennial expectation—is that it lands us at the end of the world, on the brink of a final transformation of all things. This is the moment when Jesus comes back, the kingdom of God is fully established, there is a final judgment, the faithful go to heaven, the unbelievers either to torment or oblivion, death is destroyed, and all things are made new.
I started out with a brief history of the missio Dei concept from its origins in Karl Barth’s argument that mission is essentially an attribute of the Triune God, not an activity of the church, to the appropriation of the term by the missional church movement. I then suggested that as a matter of biblical interpretation it makes more sense to understand the mission of God in terms of the escalating conflict between the one good creator God of Israel and the gods of the nations that routinely threatened the political and religious integrity of the people of God, culminating symbolically in the parousia event of the victory of the suffering churches over the “Babylon” which was Rome. So then what?
Mike Morrell asks a couple of very pertinent questions in response to my “presumptuous appeal to both emergents and Reformed”. Very pertinent. The first has to do with the relationship between Jesus and Paul, the second with the fact that any talk about the “wrath” of God makes emergent type Christians feel very uncomfortable.
In The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative Chris Wright follows David Bosch’s analysis and comes to the same basic conclusion—that the phrase missio Dei remains valuable because it expresses a major biblical truth: “The God revealed in the Scriptures is personal, purposeful and goal-orientated” (63). He sums up the overarching mission of God in these terms:
…from the great promise of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 we know this God to be totally, covenantally and eternally committed to the mission of blessing the nations through the agency of the people of Abraham.
This commitment of the missional God may then be located within a biblical metanarrative that moves from creation, through human rebellion, to the extensive “story of God’s redemptive purposes being worked out on the stage of human history”, culminating beyond history “with the eschatological hope of a new creation” (63-64). In other words, the mission of God from Genesis 11 through to the end of history is the blessing of the nations, by which is meant the redemption of humanity.
Koinōnia is a very serious collective biblical-theological blog hosted by Zondervan Academic and Friends. Today’s post by Bill Mounce looks at a technical issue of translation, but he frames the problem in a way that brings out rather sharply the contrast between a mainstream evangelical and a narrative-historical reading of Paul.