Friday, June 21, 2013

The "Christian Left" and the "Christian Right" Are Both Wrong: Ephesians 1:9-10 and the Locus of God's Restorative Activity

More than 60 years ago, Yale theologian/ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr published his influential Christ & Culture, in which he famously listed five ways Christians have historically viewed the relationship between Christ and culture:
  • Christ against culture
  • The Christ of culture
  • Christ above culture
  • Christ and culture in paradox
  • Christ the transformer of culture
Notwithstanding serious ambiguities in, and difficulties with, Niebuhr's definitions of both "Christ" and "culture," it would seem that most Western Christians today—apart, that is, from old fashioned, dualistic, world-denying fundamentalists—clearly view their mission in transformative rather than escapist terms. Things were not always this way. For example, the fundamentalism in which I was raised was, to be sure, knee-jerk Republican in its political loyalties. Nevertheless, most of its energies were spent doing personal evangelism in view of the hope of escape from the world in the form of the imminent "rapture" of the church. The wider culture, it was believed, was irredeemable and destined ultimately for the rubbish heap of judgment associated with an anticipated 7-year "tribulation" from which genuine Christians will be spatially delivered—Christ against culture indeed!

Things began to change some time in the 1970s. On the one hand, a number of Evangelical Christians coalesced around ideas that later would result in their being dubbed the "Evangelical left." Seminal in this regard was the Yale-educated activist Ron Sider, who in 1977 published his influential Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Today this stream of thought is most prominently represented by TEDS graduate Jim Wallis and his Sojourners organization. Much more prominent, both in numbers and in popular influence, have been the various streams that have coalesced into the so-called "Christian right," which has apparently succeeded in convincing most theologically conservative American Protestants that genuine Christianity lines up point-by-point with the platform of the trending-ever-more-rightward GOP.

The Christian left (CL) and the Christian right (CR) disagree on almost everything. The CL rightly points to the great prophetic and Jesuanic traditions that emphasize care for the poor and the necessity of social or restorative justice. The CR, on the other hand, tends to think of "justice/righteousness" in distributive terms and emphasize the Bible's teaching on sexual morality and "right to life" issues. [Of course, many "pro-life" CLers, like Sider, criticize the CR for not carrying out their "pro-life" convictions consistently into all spheres of life.] Both, it would seem, emphasize genuine, though disparate, elements of the biblical tradition. Where they agree, however, is more significant: they both apparently believe that the church is called to "transform" the culture directly and, if necessary, through legislative and/or judicial action. The church, in these scenarios, becomes just one of many special interest groups, divinely-sanctioned though their "interests" may be.

Over the years, I have increasingly come to the belief that both the CL and the CR are on the wrong track in this emphasis, even though my sympathies lie much closer to the former group. The catalyst for my unease at the political strategies of both groups was a reexamination of a dense, easily passed over text in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 1:7-10 read as follows:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight. He did this when he revealed to us the secret of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth. (tr. NET Bible)
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul—yes, I remain convinced Paul, not a subsequent "Paulinist," wrote Ephesians—opens his Ephesian letter with an elaborate, single sentence (!) encomium to God for having blessed Christians "with every spiritual blessing in the 'heavenlies' in Christ." In verses 4-14 he proceeds to enumerate these blessings via an incipiently Trinitarian formulation of these blessings: election/predestination by God, the Father of Christ; redemption and inheritance in Christ, God's "beloved one;" and sealing with the Spirit. Sometimes lost in the sweeping flood of these enumerated blessings is the remarkable claim made by the apostle in verses 9-10, where he articulates clearly the full extent and design of God's saving purposes, indeed "the ultimate destiny of the cosmos" (Ernest Best, Ephesians [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998] 133). His argument proceeds in two stages.

First, God has now revealed his previously hidden "secret" plan and intention for the "fullness of times (1:9-10a). The term translated "secret" in verse 9 is the Greek term mysterion; hence the regular translation "mystery" in most older versions. To understand this term, one must look back to its use in Jewish apocalyptic literature rather than to the so-called "Mystery Religions" of the Hellenistic world, as was originally argued by Raymond Brown in the '60s and subsequently confirmed in monographs by C. C. Caragounis and Markus Bockmuehl. In particular, one should look to the earliest such usage in the LXX of Daniel 2:18-19, 27-30, 47, where mysterion translates the Aramaic term rāz and is used to refer to the contents of Nebuchadnezzar's dream which were revealed to Daniel. As in Daniel, so in later apocalyptic texts such as 2 Baruch 81.4; 4 Ezra 14:5; 1 Enoch 103:2; 4QpHab 7.4, 8, 13; 1QS 11.5-8: a "mystery" was an event to be revealed at history's end, but made available proleptically to the seer because it is already prepared in heaven. A "mystery," in other words, may be mysterious. More to the point, however, a "mystery" is a revealed secret, an aspect of God's decree for the denouement of history that had previously been hidden but now revealed.

This apocalyptic usage has obvious relevance to Paul's usage here in Ephesians 1. In verse 9 he explicitly states that God had already "disclosed" (the aorist participle gnōrisas) this secret to "us" (hēmin; whether this refers to all Christians, Gentile Christians, or to Paul and the apostles is of no consequence to our present argument). Not only that, but God's disclosure of the mystery was in line with (kata) God's sovereign and eternal purpose (eudokia, his "good pleasure" or "decree," as F. F. Bruce [The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians {NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984}en loc.] put it). In verse 10 the apostle continues by telling us that the sovereign purpose of which he is speaking has in view (eis) God's "administering" (oikonomia in an active rather than in a passive ["administration"] sense [so Best, 138-39; A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians {WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990} 32; H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians {Brand Rapids: Baker, 2002} 217-18) the "fullness of times," i.e., the time for the consummation of his purposes. God's purpose, as Lincoln rightly notes, thus "embraces history and its ordering" (31), history thus understood as the transcript of God's providential ordering of its development until its culmination ("fullness") in the achievement of what he had designed in his "good pleasure." What, then, is this secret purpose that God had lately revealed? The answer comes in the latter half of verse 10, and forms the second stage of Paul's argument in these verses.

Second, God's ultimate purpose is to reintegrate the universe under Christ (1:10b). Paul provides us with the content of the mystery in the infinitive anakephalaiōsasthai, which has been variously translated (""to head up" [NET]; "to bring together under one head" [NIV]; "to unite" [ESV]; "brought into a unity" [REB]). The term was used of the "summing up" or "recapitulation" of an argument in legal contexts (Quintilian, Aristotle, et al.). Paul himself uses it in Romans 13:9 to refer to a comprehensive summing up or unifying of a larger entity (the Torah) under one focal point (the love command). Paul's point here thus appears to be that "all things" (ta panta) will one day be subject to the sovereignty of Christ, who will reintegrate them and restore them to their divinely-designed place and function.

But when does this "summing up" or reintegration take place? In the immediate context the answer might appear to be "in the fullness of times," the final stage of the divine oikonomia of history. But in the wider context of the letter, the answer becomes more nuanced ... and interesting. First, in Ephesians 1:22-23, as a consequence of God's powerful raising and exaltation of Christ. Paul quotes Psalm 8:7 to the effect that God has (already!) subjected all things under Christ's feet (hypetaxen) and given him to the church as head over all things. Christ has already been installed as cosmic Lord as well as being head over the church. Second, in Ephesians 3:3-10 he elaborates on the "mystery" he so cryptically spoke of in chapter 1. Simply put, the mystery concerned the primary theological datum of the epistle, to wit, that Gentiles were fellow heirs, members of the same body, and fellow partakers of the benefits of the covenant promises whose fulfillment in Christ defined the content of the apostolic gospel.

What this means is that there is a two-stage fulfillment of this "recapitulation," which should come as no surprise to anyone attuned to the shared eschatology of the authors of the New Testament. For Paul, the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the church in Christ is the first stage of the reunification of all the diverse and renegade elements of the universe which will be complete in the new heavens and new earth. The necessary corollary of this is that the church is the locus of God's present activity in which his kingdom purposes are being implemented. And if that is true, then both the CL and the CR are wrong—if not necessarily in their beliefs of what God approves and disapproves in the spheres of social justice and morality, then certainly in how they intend to "transform" society to approximate more closely revealed biblical standards.

What I am arguing has certain precedent in a broadly Anabaptist vision of the church's relation to culture (and is one reason I prefer to characterize myself as an "Anabaptist Anglican," much to the bewilderment of most of my acquaintances). In other words, instead of directing their energies to legislating their values into law via the democratic  political process, they should rather put more energy into making their church communities be in practice what they are in reality, viz., colonies of the kingdom of God living in the midst of the world whose present shape, as St. Paul says elsewhere (1 Cor 7:31), is "passing away" (paragei). That is not to say, of course, that Christian citizens of Western democracies should eschew their privilege of voting and fail to work to enact legislation that conforms to what they believe to comport with the righteousness and justice put forth in the Bible as the hallmarks of human flourishing. It is to say, however, that they should not expect the world to agree with their views, and that consequently they should leave self-righteousness behind, be up front with the religious foundation of their positions, and accept rejection and ridicule with grace. And if the wider culture rejects their political shibboleths, they should refrain from moaning and whinging about the supposed passing of a fictional "Christian America" that never existed in the first place.

What it means most of all, however, is that we as Christians need to take more seriously than we thus far have that we need to embody the kingdom virtues of grace, mercy, truth, and justice in our own communities (for an example which we might profitably emulate, see here). We need to ask ourselves, what might be the result in the wider culture if we did so? That is true witness. And that is how we as Christian communities ought to go about our designed business to be a "kingdom of priests" in a fallen world.

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