FEATURED: Christ, History and Apocalyptic by Nathan Kerr. [Vol. 2, #30]

July 31, 2009

 

“Applying Yoder’s Theo-political
Thought to the Question of History”

A Review of
Christ, History and Apocalyptic:
The Politics of Christian Mission.

by Nathan Kerr.

 Reviewed by Chase Roden.

 

Christ, History and Apocalyptic:
The Politics of Christian Mission.

Nathan Kerr.
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

 

How does the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord affect a Christian’s view of history?  Professor of theology and philosophy Nathan Kerr begins his recent book with this deceptively simple question.  And although it may seem esoteric, in the course of under 200 pages Kerr makes the case that the role of history should be a central question for 21st-century Christians.  Kerr believes that modernism has made an idol of historical processes, and therefore even the concept of “history” is a hindrance to the true confession of Christ’s lordship.  Kerr lays out the key features of an alternative, “apocalyptic” vision of history — one that places God’s interruptive action in the person of Jesus of Nazareth at the center of all historical interpretation.

 

At this point, you may be wondering how our concept of history can be so harmful as to be considered idolatrous.  The answer to that involves the issues of the book’s subtitle: politics and Christian mission.  Following John Howard Yoder, Kerr sees Jesus’s work on earth and the continued action of the Holy Spirit as inherently political; Kerr has an Anabaptist’s earthy, “real” concept of Jesus’s mission as involving not primarily the heart or mind, but the everyday lives and actions of individuals and communities with regard to one another.  For Kerr and Yoder, the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus inaugurate the reign of God, in which the Church doesn’t just carry out the mission of God, but in which the Church is God’s mission.  Since Kerr sees “modernist historicism” — the modernist concept of history — as a system that cannot accept the reality of Jesus’s life as the unique, world-altering event that defines all other events, he believes that a person cannot simultaneously confess Jesus as Lord and hold to such a view.  Instead, modernist historicism sees the processes of history — the actions of humans and our institutions — as the sole means by which the “goals” of humanity are reached.  When a Christian embraces such a view of history, s/he limits the action of God to empirically-observable, repeatable actions of humans, and the mission of God then becomes indistinguishable from structures and events that allow for the continuation of God’s mission.  This intertwining of human “progress” with the mission of God becomes even more harmful when Christianity aligns itself with the nation-state — a situation referred to as Constantinianism — and the action of the state becomes indistinguishable from God’s providence.

 

Kerr spends the middle chapters of the book tracing a particular genealogy of Christian thought on history.  Starting with Ernst Troelstch, who Kerr sees as exhibiting the height of modernist influence on Christian thinking about history, the author’s genealogy represents a development of sorts towards his own position.  He considers Troelstch, Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and Yoder in this genealogy, more or less taking parts from each to develop his apocalyptic view and discarding what he sees as Constantinian elements.  The geneaology is not strictly chronological, since the late Yoder is presented as having a more robust “apocalyptic” than his interpreter Hauerwas.  For Kerr, Yoder’s apocalyptic comes the closest to satisfactorily countering modernist historicism, and he spends the majority of his time expounding on the thoughts of Yoder, especially against Hauerwas’s interpretations.

 

Although these middle chapters constituting the genealogy of Kerr’s view are essential in establishing the background of Kerr’s apocalyptic, the key features of his formulation come in the last chapter, in which he interacts closely with Yoder’s writings.  In this chapter, Kerr’s divergent threads come together to produce the beginnings of a worship-centered politics of mission intended to counter a Constantinian view of the Church as fulfilling God’s mission in terms of worldly “effectiveness.”  In his emphasis on worship or doxology — terms used in a wide sense to include all actions the Church does to glorify God, including and especially acts of service to the other — Kerr may remind readers of Hauerwas, but he is careful to distinguish his views, specifically rejecting the idea of Church-as-polis as Hauerwas uses the concept, in favor of the formulation “Church as worship.”  In fact, Kerr is quite critical of Hauerwas throughout the book — one might wonder if he is misinterpreting Hauerwas except for a cautiously-approving blurb from Hauerwas on the back cover.  Ultimately, it is Yoder who provides the most positive material for Kerr’s apocalyptic — right up to the last few sentences of the book, in which Kerr may remind readers of a common interpretation of Yoder in suggesting that the political irrelevance and ineffectiveness of the Church may be the surest sign of the Church’s reorientation towards worship of God.  Kerr’s view is highly nuanced and complex — too much so to be easily summarized — but it can essentially be seen as an application of Yoder’s theo-political thought toward the question of history.

 

Although the book is extremely dense and at times highly technical, patient readers familiar with John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas will find this book a challenging and possibly rewarding read.