John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE [Continued Conversation]

October 25, 2013


[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0830827226″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”107″]Page 3: John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE


A Different Entanglement
Leithart purports to have identified a significant contradiction in Yoder’s claim (and mine) that by dishonorably discharging Israel’s monarchy God disentangled Israel from empire and led them into a non-imperially-aligned posture. Though he claims at first that he is not sure what I mean by that, he later calls it “romantic naiveté” (649) because he can list several exilic and postexilic examples where God’s people accept the support of Rome and Persia.
Let me be clearer here. Perhaps “disentangle” was the wrong metaphor; perhaps “disrobe” or “defrock” would be more apt. Israel was stripped of wearing the emperor’s robe, so it could stand in a new relation to the emperors of other people groups that would continue to dominate world history until Christ subjugates all rulers underfoot and hands the kingdom over to the Father. The entanglement to which I refer is Israel’s having donned the imperial robe, grasped the imperial scepter, and inscribed these accoutrements into the identity of God’s people. It is true, as Leithart observes, that God’s people will continue to live in a world governed by kings and presidents, but it would no longer crown or inaugurate one of its own with God’s blessing and support. This is not to deny that God might providentially use the kings of the nations to physically protect God’s people and others. What it denies is that kingship like the nations is a political posture that will be compatible with the role God’s people are intended to play in God’s plan. That role involves scattering them among all nations, making disciples among all ethnic groups, and bearing witness to God’s transterritorial reign.
This new disentangled or disrobed posture is best seen in 2 Isaiah which, along with Jeremiah, provides the proper context for interpreting Ezra and Nehemiah. It is tempting here to simply excerpt the section of The Politics of Yahweh where I spell this out in detail (pp. 69-73), but in the interest of space, I will briefly summarize portions of this section. In the Servant Songs of Isaiah, the servant of the Lord is God’s ultimate solution to the problem posed by Israel’s kingship. The Israelites could never go back to a strict pre-monarchical posture. Their expectation of an eternal kingship would not allow for that. They could only move forward with a radically new understanding of what kingship means. The notion of kingship is not abandoned altogether, but transformed in order to reaffirm God’s reign and to reconfigure the shape of God’s people. Isaiah does this through the image of the suffering servant.
In Preface to Theology, Yoder swiftly cuts through the com­plications of this mysterious section of Isaiah and gets to the heart of its meaning saying, “the kind of king God wants is a servant. Isaiah 42, 49, 52, and 53, say that the kind of king in whom God is pleased will bring God’s righ­teousness to the ends of the earth” (243-44). In “Behold My Servant Will Prosper,” Yoder goes into greater detail. He notes that in Isaiah 42 God assigns this servant the important task of establishing his liberating justice on the earth, but not without the qualifier that this is to be done, as Yoder summarizes it, “in quietness and weakness with­out raising his voice to make it heard in the street, without breaking a bruised reed or quenching a smoldering wick” (Karl Barth and the Problem of War and Other Essays, 151-52). This servant’s dependence upon God alone is accentuated in verses 4-5 along with his failure to accomplish his appointed mission to restore Israel. God does not despair of this shortcoming, but notes that it is too little an accomplishment that this underachieving servant would restore Israel. Rather, God will use him as a light to the nations—a light that will reach the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6). Chapters 52-53 describe the unimpressive appearance of this servant as well as his rejection by the people. The combined portrait of these chapters yields a servant who is least likely to succeed according to all commonly accepted standards. Since his only strength is in God, he is perfectly positioned to carry out God’s mission on behalf of the world.
In the Israelite monarchy, the fate of the people is tied to that of the king. Should the king wage war, the people follow suit. Should the king promote idolatry, the people go astray. So whether this servant represents the king or the people or both, the meaning is the same. The future fate of God’s people is, from this point forward, tied to the new way of overcoming opposition and blessing the nations that is exemplified in God’s suffer­ing servant. But how could a suffering servant truly fill the gap that this would leave in Israel’s national defense? Since this servant is not a warrior, his kind of reign would presumably leave Israel vulnerable to attacks. God’s solution is twofold. First, God transforms Israel into a transterritorial nation that is not confined to a single plot of land. This transformation begins in the sixth century exile but is not really complete until the scattered, spirit-empowered church. As a result, God’s people would have no geographically-determined enemies to ward off. They could find a way to exist in any territory and, if conditions made living there unbearable, they were free to relocate.

Second, God had already established in Isaiah 10 the willingness and ability to use the sword of pagan nations to bring wrath upon God’s own people as well as those who oppress them or otherwise warrant divine discipline (e.g., Isa 10:5-12). That God uses nations like Assyria does not mean that they are justi­fied in their war-mongering ways. Rather, Yoder notes, “Isaiah 10 ex­emplifies God’s use of the state’s vengeance to administer His judgment, but without approving of the vengefulness, and without exempting the ‘scourge of His wrath’ from judgment in its turn” (Original Revolution, 59). It is clear in Isaiah 10 that God’s special use of Assyria gives Assyria no reason to boast. The Assyrians believed their victories were a sign of their own greatness and have no idea that, after God is done using them to accomplish specific purposes, God will use a different self-absorbed nation (Babylon) to punish them.
This strategy is equally present in the context of the Servant Songs. Isaiah 45:1 states that the pagan ruler Cyrus will be God’s instrument to subdue the nations so that God’s servant Israel may be free to carry out its responsibility of being a light to the nations. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the biblical narrative. God uses Babylon to punish Assyria, Persia to punish Babylon, Greece to punish Persia, Rome to punish Greece and, beyond biblical history, the “pagan” Visogoths to punish “Christian” Rome. Yoder sees this as an essential background for Paul’s teaching in Romans 12–13 (Politics of Jesus, ch. 10). Christians can love their enemies without retaliating against offenses incurred because God will avenge their enemies and may use the sword of pagan rulers to do so. The world will not fall apart if God does not use the Church to wage war against evil. God can position Christians throughout the world as a peaceful blessing to all nations precisely because God has control over all nations and has chosen to use the nations’ self-interest to keep in check the self-interest of other nations.

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3 responses to John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE [Continued Conversation]

  1. Fantastically helpful contribution to the ongoing conversation, John; thanks for writing it up, and thanks to Chris for publishing it here.

    Re: Cornelius, your assessment seems to resonate with that of Kavin Rowe’s in World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age

  2. Nicely done, John. I think you make a powerful and coherent case for reading the Bible as a whole in a way that truly does see the culmination of the entire story in Jesus.