Posted by: rogermitchell | June 7, 2020

Unhelpful mindsets (2)

As we have seen in the previous post, nation states like Britain and the USA mistook the biblical account of Israel’s stewardship of the land for the blessing of all the families of the earth for a justification of exclusive ownership of land by nations as the original purpose of God. In much the same way the Evangelical and Pentecostal-Charismatic churches have tended to take on a similar view of the church. They have regarded God’s new covenant as the evidence that the church are God’s specially protected favorites on planet earth, rather than the agents of grace for the poor, strangers, and enemies. For this reason the misapplication of God’s covenant with the land of Israel often continues to feature in the church’s expectations for the future. 

1. Ghastly eschatologies

This privileged position for the church is particularly characteristic of the modern dispensational eschatologies that center round the church’s future relationship to an anticipated thousand years of peace. In times of apocalyptic change like the current pandemic some of these ghastly eschatologies are reappearing. These are the amillennial, premillennial, and postmillennial theories that have occupied much theological debate about the end times. It is especially true of the premillennial eschatologies that posit the removal of the church prior to a supposed great tribulation that befalls the rest of humanity before the establishment of a millennial reign of peace centered on a reconstituted Israel complete with Jerusalem and its temple. These theories came to great public prominence in the 1970s through Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and more recently the Left Behind series of books and films from Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. What is distinctive and particularly problematic about these various eschatologies is the assumption that the climax to the salvation story is a new and cosmic Christian empire with Jesus on the throne and the neo-nations of Israel and the church as his ruling cadres. 

The basic problem with these dispensational eschatologies is that they reintroduce the imperial view of God that Jesus came to fulfill and correct. This is by no means a merely esoteric matter of interesting theological speculations on the nature of the end times. These are life and death issues that need to be faced. It is well documented that President George Bush Junior’s policy on the Middle East was directly influenced by such eschatologies.[1] The highly influential worldwide intercessory movement has been at least partly infected by them. In this way they have inadvertently been a means of exacerbating some of the very problems they had intended to overcome and have continued the colonization of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement by biopower (the capitalist economic commodification of everything).

2. A properly incarnational theology

It is not primarily the specifics of an eschatology that makes it ghastly, although for sure some details are quite dreadful, but the theological and political assumptions that drive it. A properly incarnational theology always argues from Jesus to God. This works forwards as well as backwards. That is to say that our expectations about the future peace that Jesus came to bring needs to be of the same substance as the incarnation. Any second coming of the gospel Jesus will manifest the same essential kenotic lordship as the first coming. So we can say that concepts of future victory for the church and judgment on its enemies that run counter to Jesus’ demonstrations of victory and treatment of his enemies cannot belong to the future kingdom of God. This means that a Jesus hermeneutic has to be applied to the epistles as well as the Old Testament and particularly the Revelation. The latter clearly stands together with the few brief passages of Jesus’ own apocalyptic in the counterpolitical stream of the Old Testament prophets. Seen this way the Revelation and Jesus’ apocalyptic are about exposing the here and now of the status quo, more than providing precise details of an as yet unknown future. Once this is understood the Revelation becomes an extraordinarily practical handbook for the radical activism of subversion-submission spelt out in the previous chapter. Martin Scott has helpfully demonstrated this in his exposition of the letters to the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation. He applies the message and imagery of the letters to particular city types in order to see how a city and its hinterland might best be developed for the blessing of the nations.[2] In their book Unveiling Empire[3] Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther give a comprehensive overview of what a radical political interpretation of the apocalypse might look like when applied to an imperial society in any generation.

3. The roots of dispensational eschatology

Donald Dayton has done comprehensive work on the rise of the premillennial eschatological theories we have been considering here.[4] He helpfully explores their roots in the tension between the dispensational eschatological views of John Wesley’s eighteenth-century associate John Fletcher and Wesley’s much more this-worldly reformist and incarnational approach. He explores how the futuristic premillennial views came to dominate a century later, particularly as developed in the writings of the Plymouth Brethren evangelist J. N. Darby. Dayton explains this in terms of a deep frustration with the perceived failure of the evangelical justice agenda such as that characterized by Oberlin College despite the fact that, as we have seen already, he regards that movement as itself a primary harbinger of the Pentecostal-Charismatic outpourings. This shows how easily the church becomes vulnerable to a crisis of faith when egalitarian grace fails to be properly earthed and the expected rule of peace seems to be delayed. This is both challenging and encouraging. Challenging, because it shows how the failure to have a properly incarnational perspective reduces the gospel to the expectation that it is merely about immediate breakthrough for personal blessing. It exposes a truncated gospel that assumes that either we get permanently healed or socially freed in the present or we simply wait for our sufferings to be justified sometime in the future. Encouraging, because, notwithstanding the apparent crisis of faith that led to the rise of such ghastly eschatologies, the utter abandonment to God of the late-nineteenth-century people of faith, despite their vulnerability to empire, led to an unprecedented outpouring of transcendent grace.

——————————————————————————————————————–

[1] See, for example, Yaakov Ariel, “Messianic Hopes and Middle East Politics: the Influence of Millennial Faith on American Middle East Policies.” LISA e-journal, Vol IX – n0.1, 2011. Religion and Politics in the English-speaking World: Historical and Contemporary Links

[2] Scott, Impacting the City.

[3] Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now.

[4] See Dayton, “The Rise of Premillennialism,” 145.

[5] Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 352.

[6] Ibid., 101.

[7] Negri, Insurgencies, 12.

[8] Badiou, In Praise of Love, 57.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 352.

[11] 1 Cor 15:17, 19.

[12] Rom 8:36.

[13] Mayhew, “Turning the Tables, Resurrection as Revolution,” 1.


Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Andrew James.


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