Friday, October 06, 2006

The Politics of the Gospel

I don't know if that's still true, since NU and OU are now in different Big-12 divisions, but the NU football team traditionally considered the OU football team to be its big rival. The only problem was, OU considered their rival to be UT, not NU. NU fans were always a bit insulted that OU did not quite reciprocate their feelings of rivalry.

The lesson that rivalry can be asymmetrical seems overlooked to me in current discussions about the “politics of the Gospel.” The affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” is a political affirmation, the thought seems to go, because Rome thought Jesus was claiming a designation that belonged only to Caesar.

N.T Wright, for example, writes: “Once we grasp the historical setting of Paul’s gospel, therefore, we discover something for which the abstract categories of traditional history-of-religions research has not prepared us. The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel,’ the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the imperial cult . . . The all-embracing royal claims of Caesar . . . were directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s God. To announce that YHWH was king was to announce that Caesar is not” (emphasis in the original).

Or this: “We have studied Paul’s ‘gospel,’ and have seen that underneath his regular formulae (‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ and so on) there is a carefully worked out sequence of thought, an implicit story-line, which when properly understood reveals that he both remained totally rooted in his Jewish world and was aiming his message directly at the principalities and powers of the Roman world, from Caesar downwards” (emphasis added).

I’m not convinced.

Like NU’s attitude toward OU, just because Rome thought of Lord Jesus as its rival, does not mean that Jesus (or his followers) thought of Rome as their rival. The Christian affirmation “Jesus is Lord” does not aim to challenge Caesar’s worldly rule, rather it is a confession that challenges the all-embracing pretensions of Jesus’ real rival, the devil.

Now, sure, “Gospel” was a term of art used around Jesus’ day to describe a big military victory, or the birth or accession of a new emperor to the throne. I accept that. It does not change its meaning in the least to apply it to Jesus’ end-of-the ages victory over Satan, and Jesus’ ascension to the throne at God’s right hand. It’s just that Jesus’ victory pertains to a much more significant arena than the trifling temporal domain of the Caesars.

Jesus did not reciprocate the Roman rivalry. And I don’t think that the early Christians did either.

Jesus’ focus in the Gospels is the domain of the devil, not the domain of Rome. Consider Jesus’ dismissal of Roman authority in the person of Pilate: Pilate says, “You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you, and I have authority to crucify you?” Jesus responds, “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been give you from above; for this reason he who delivered me up to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19.11). (And, of course, it was Satan who entered Judas to commit this crime, Lk 22.3.) Jesus is telling Pilate, “you’re not even on the radar screen of rivalry.”

In contrast, the Gospels often report Jesus’ fights against Satan’s dominion, Lk 10.18, 11.20, Jn 8.31-47, see also Acts 10.38.

And Rome? Jesus says, “If you’re forced to go one mile for Rome, go two miles” (Mt 5.41). It’s hard to think of a more dismissive attitude toward an ostensible rival. Or this, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul” (Mt 10.28). Talk about dimissing a rival!

But there are, after all, “many lords and many gods” (1 Co 8.3). Caesar lived among this pantheon of gods. Caesar was about as much a rival to Jesus as a local tree god.

So, too, as Christ goes, so goes his church. Jesus liberated us, not from the dominion of Rome, but from the dominion of the devil (Col 1.13). Our struggle is not against temporal authority, but against “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.12).

So, no, I don’t think that Paul (or Jesus) aimed “his message directly at the principalities and powers of the Roman world, from Caesar downwards,” as Wright would have it. The message was aimed upwards – at the Prince of the Power of the air; at the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

To be sure, I don’t want to imply that the ancients had clean cut distinctions between “politics” and “religion.” Nor do I want to affirm the modern conceit that “secular politics” has nothing to do with religion (and can be an idol). Nonetheless, I do want to affirm that Jesus did not consider temporal authorities to be his real rival, no matter how much any of them may have considered Jesus their rival.

So, sure, the Gospel is political inasmuch as it relates to the struggle between Jesus and Satan for power over this world (a power struggle that Jesus completely subverts through sacrifice). But that is its reference. There may be implications of this affirmation for temporal politics. But I don’t accept that Christians were acting politically vis-à-vis Rome in confessing that “Jesus is Lord.” They were confessing that regarding his, our, and the world’s true enemy – Satan.


Blogger Wayne said...


I think you make a good point. What do you think about the book of Revelation though? I've seen a number of commentators (e.g., Bauckham) who see Revelation as an apocalyptic "unveiling" of Rome's absolute claims as subsumed under the Lordship of Christ.

October 30, 2006 6:29 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Well, a couple of thoughts. First, I'm not above rethinking this. I don't see it as an either/or as if here's Satan over here and there's Rome over there. The idea is that demonic forces work through temporal powers, to be sure. It's just that I've been getting the feeling that some of the argumentation has been focusing too much on temporal power in itself rather than recognizing the real power that the fight is against.

Without closing off the argument (such as I know it), I'd be hard pressed to rely solely on the Revelation to motivate the "Rome is the Real Rival" hypothesis.

First, there seems to me to be precious little evidence elsewhere in the NT (versus what I think is ample evidence for "my" view); secondly, I'm inclined to read Revelation as a discussion circling around Jerusalem, not Rome.

I am entirely open on the latter point, though, depending on good exegetical argument. And I admit that I certainly haven't worked closely through Bauckham et al.'s argument with an eye to this issue.

Thanks for the push, though.

November 01, 2006 9:43 AM  
Blogger Wayne said...

Well, I've avoided Revelation for years now, being unsure of some of these issues that relate to date and perview, etc.

One of the things that caused me to "push" a little is that lately I've been seeing in blogsphere something of a confluence of a Lutheranesque Two Kingdoms theology coming out of Westminster CA and the Southern Presbyterian "Spirituality of the Church" doctrine. Some of this seems pretty obvious (e.g., the church shouldn't be in the business of issuing parking tickets, etc.) but at the same time, some of it seems to be going too far, perhaps in reacting against the "politicizing" of the faith by folks like Dobson, Falwell, and perhaps vestiges of Christian Reconstructionism. Some (especially the rhetoric coming out of Westminster) seem to be saying that ANY cultural agenda taken up by the church compromises the gospel.

I would love to see you write up some of your thoughts on the Two Kingdoms doctrine. Where do you see it as a helpful corrective or prophilactive to the church being true to it's mission and where you might see it as a hindrance?

November 02, 2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


Good questions, all. I wish I had some equally good answers. I'll see if I can post some thoughts on "two-kingdom" theory. I don't know much more about it than what I read in the confessions.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure that my post on "The Politics of the Gospel" really has much to do with two-kingdom theory. Wright (and others) seem to want to use the idea of rivalry with Rome as a way of orienting many of the NT themes.

It's not that I see no usefulness in thinking that way. It's just that orienting the thematic rivalry of the NT around Rome rather than Satan would seem akin to orienting an understanding of WWII around Italy rather than Germany. I mean, sure, it's there, and important enough in its own right, but you'd pretty much be missing the bigger picture by doing so.

November 03, 2006 6:10 AM  

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