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N.T. Wright and Michael Bird – Jesus and the Powers [Feature Review]

Jesus and the PowersMaking Peace With Power

A Review Essay of

Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird

Paperback: Zondervan, 2024
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Reviewed by John C. Nugent

N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird (hereafter WB) have teamed up for another joint literary venture: Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies. The subtitle aptly encapsulates the overall scope of the book, even if the main title is a bit of a stretch. More on that later. The twofold aim of this review is to summarize the book’s contents and critically assess its biblical and theological underpinnings. 

Full disclosure: I own and have read nearly all of Wright’s books and have been deeply impacted and persuaded by him. However, I have also read a great deal of Barth, Bonhoeffer, Yoder, Lohfink, and Hauerwas and have been equally impacted and persuaded by them. Spoiler alert: there are deep differences between them. By way of contrast, I have little to no exposure to Bird and so I will likely read his contributions against the background of Wright’s work. This will undoubtedly obscure some of the nuances in Bird’s own thought, especially where it differs from that of Wright. For that, I apologize.

Summary

The preface of Jesus and the Powers clearly sets forth the book’s basic thesis. WB do not pretend to be political theorists, but they rightly deem it important to tease out the political implications of the gospel. If Christians truly believe that Jesus is king, then his kingdom must remain the object of the church’s witness and work (xiii). Recognizing that Christ’s kingdom transcends the contentious partisanship that typifies contemporary political discourse, WB commendably avoid prescribing specific answers to the fleeting questions that dominate contemporary political discourse. Instead, they implore Christians to wisely discern how to enter the fray of this world’s problems and “build for the kingdom” that which will carry over into the new creation, which endures indefinitely. 

Wright and Bird’s approach builds upon a specific view of God’s kingdom that has become mainstream among Christian scholars with a high view of Scripture. In chapter 1 they make clear that the kingdom Jesus brought fulfills the hopes of Israel to restore her fortunes in the aftermath of exile and to defeat the evil that wreaks havoc upon the world (8). When Christ ascended to God’s right hand, he assumed his rightful place as king of all creation. Of course, not all creation fully submits to his reign. Thus, bit by bit his kingdom gains ground as God’s will is done on earth as is in heaven. Only when Christ returns will God’s kingdom come in its fullness such that all creation reflects God’s original intentions for it. WB consistently push against the notion that world history will culminate in the destruction of this earthly realm and the neoplatonic ascension of believers to live blissfully with God in heaven. This denies the overall arc of the Bible story. God created humans in his image in order that they may reflect and represent his benevolent reign over all creation. When sinful humans consistently fail to do so, God’s people must succeed. We must show all humans what they were made for and guide them in realizing their divine calling. 

Throughout the book, but especially in chapters 1, 4, and the conclusion, WB establish that the heart of kingdom work entails bringing creation into alignment with its original purpose and ultimate destiny. In his life Jesus showed us the way; in his death and resurrection he triumphed over all powers, and the ascended Lord empowers his church to represent this way until he returns to establish this as the way of all creation. WB are careful to reject the naïve notion that the church will somehow bring the kingdom. This is the exclusive work of Christ. But churches can build “for” the kingdom (echoing Col 4:11). They can establish signposts of Christ’s kingdom throughout the world that point to the already begun and yet to be finished work of Christ. Such signposts also serve to draw people to Christ so they, too, may become first hand participants in Christ’s saving work.

Churches themselves ought to serve as signposts to the extent that they organize their life together in ways that faithfully represent Christ’s reign. But Christian witness ought not be confined to congregational life since God’s kingdom encompasses the entire world. Moreover, God wishes to defeat the evil that rules the whole world through his people (8). Building for the kingdom means more than ridding the world of evil. It involves making history by building things like “relationships, alliances, advocacy, food banks, para-church ministries, youth clubs, foreign aid programmes.” If God’s people want to make a difference in world history, we need to “be in the room where it happens” (37). By such kingdom labors we are “preparing the bride to meet the groom…and curating creation for the day when God will be ‘all in all’” (9).  

It is important for believers to recognize that kingdom work does not take place in a vacuum. In chapter 3, WB remind believers that they are not God’s only socio-political actors. God wills to use governing powers to maintain relative order throughout creation so anarchy does not ensue, thereby thwarting human thriving. Paul and Peter both enjoin Christians to submit to governing authorities precisely because they play a positive part in God’s ordering of life in a fallen world. Such divine ordering is not altogether undermined by the fact that these powers have fallen and routinely abuse their power on loan from on high. Jesus himself recognized Pilate’s divine authorization to rule on God’s behalf. Christians must therefore willingly cooperate with world rulers and advise them to carry out their calling in ways consistent with Christ’s reign over them. 

Chapters 5-6 make clear that believers ought not give a blank check to governing authorities. When those authorities transgress their mandate by using legitimate authority to pursue illegitimate ends, God’s people must resist them, disobey them and, in extreme circumstances, seek their end. Such civil disobedience should ordinarily proceed nonviolently, but uncivil disobedience remains a viable option. Bonhoeffer, of course, serves as the poster child for the latter (120) despite the ambiguity surrounding his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler and the remarkable consistency of his rejection of justified violence throughout his writings (see Nation’s Bonhoeffer the Assassin?). This follows from WB’s conviction that a wicked government forfeits the mantle of divine authority (112). In chapter 6, they offer a sampling of the kinds of governments that Christ followers ought to resist, namely the kind represented by the book’s subtitle. These stand in stark contrast to “liberal democracy” and “confident pluralism,” which WB set forth as an ideal form of government that is consistent with Christ’s purposes for it.

Wright and Bird don’t directly engage specific thinkers who might detract from their approach. Still, they clearly distance themselves from neoplatonic spiritualists who are too heavenly focused to be any earthly good (65-71, 76), self-proclaimed prophets who take snarky potshots from the sidelines but are unwilling to get in the game (37), and Anabaptists who take issue with Christians occupying public offices (150). We never learn of the logic behind such rival positions. The implication seems to be that if they knew the kingdom the way WB do, they would embrace the church’s clear biblical mandate and get in the room where things happen. The closest thing we get to a defense against rival positions is chapter 2 where WB seek to narrate the legacy of Constantine and Christendom in a favorable light. This is clearly an attempt to refute those who sever the great humanitarian accomplishments of the past several centuries from their Christendom roots. It may also serve as a preemptive strike against detractors who have been influenced by thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas who famously cast Christendom in a negative light for compromising the church’s nature and mission. If we can recognize all the good that came from the church’s chaplain-like relationship with the Roman Empire and its small-scale successors, then we might be more open to pursuing chaplain-like initiatives in the present.

Assessment

This book is quite ambitious in its scope and it floats a lot of ideas, some familiar and others less so, some convincing and others not so much. My assessment will include five short affirmations and three lengthy reservations. If it seems like I am more critical than sympathetic, it’s probably because I am. I really wanted to like this book, but I fear that its constructive proposal falls surprisingly short and on biblical grounds, oddly where WB ordinarily shine.

Affirmations

1. WB should be commended for highlighting the significant role that the world powers play in God’s governance of this world. Their description of the powers in chapter 3 is helpful. They acknowledge Scripture’s basic presumption that while world powers are deeply flawed and often do more harm than good, God’s people ought to accept that they wield authority on loan from God that is intended to maintain a serviceable level of order throughout the world. This is why Jesus, Paul, and Peter exhort God’s people to accept that they are in charge of society, not us, and allow them to do their job. Of course, should they exceed their God-given mandate and make demands of us that transgress our own God-given mandate, we should feel free to disobey them and face whatever negative consequences may follow. I don’t see a biblical basis for the violent uncivil disobedience to which they want recourse in extreme circumstances, but civil disobedience on grounds of faith—according to God’s revealed word and not human preferences or opinions—seems to follow from what we see in Scripture. Governing authorities are accountable to God and will face his wrath for oppressing those they’ve been called to serve. Any truly Christian political theology must reckon with this reality. 

2. WB are also right that a Christian political theory must reckon with the inaugurated but not fully consummated nature of God’s kingdom. This kingdom reality is rooted in God’s original purposes for creation and centers on God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. It is not about rescuing people from earth and transporting them to heaven. Nor is the gospel only about the spiritual salvation of souls; it is about the physical and spiritual restoration of all things. The church’s political theology must account for how God’s long-awaited reign has already begun in Jesus, but it will not be fully realized until Christ returns. The church of today, like the apostolic church, lives between the times and our political witness must be framed accordingly. Since God’s kingdom is an earthly hope, it requires a robust earthly witness here and now. It cannot retreat to the spiritual ghetto, defer kingdom life to the hereafter, or transfer it to some future heavenly abode.

3. Related to the above point, the Lordship of Christ above all creation, including all earthly and heavenly powers and principalities, must dictate the shape of the church’s political witness. This means that no realm stands beyond Christ’s purview, no institution will escape his judgment, and no ideology or -ism may claim independence from his reign. All will render an account. For believers this means that no aspect of our lives—no job, affiliation, ambition, or activity—stands outside his authority and conforms to some other standard. I am not sure WB apply this conviction consistently, but I believe they affirm it, and I join them in doing so.  

4. WB also rightly assert that the gospel of Jesus has social and political implications that must be embodied and proclaimed by the church. The gospel calls for a new social order in which there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, barbarian or Scythian, Black nor white, young nor old, or any other binary that drives a wedge between parties that God has reconciled to himself and one another through the cross. The church must live this political reality out in public ways. The new way of life we have received in Christ is our political witness. It is a new way of ordering every aspect of our lives individually and collectively. Far from apolitical, the church must embrace, display, and proclaim—privately and publicly, whether gathered or scattered—the politics of Jesus, which is grounded in the politics of Yahweh. WB are not the first to insist on this, but they rightly do so.

5. Finally, I couldn’t agree more with WB’s trenchant critique of Christian nationalism and the dangers of totalitarianism and civic totalism. Though the latter two pose great danger to wider society, the former poses a greater threat to the church’s own nature, integrity, and mission. By Christian nationalism, WB mean governments enforcing Christian hegemony and civil religion, a sort of watered-down cultural Christianity (130). In exchange for privilege at the state level, the church renders patriotic devotion. This often manifests in unhindered loyalty to public officials who champion the Christian cause, thereby insulating them from criticism on other fronts. This is dangerous because political benefactors can easily manipulate Christians to get behind a wide variety of their own pet agendas. It also creates an environment where being a good citizen can be mistaken for being a good Christian without a radical life altering commitment to Christ and his church. Christian Nationalism can also pressure unbelievers to conform to cultural Christianity without eliciting their full consent. When this happens, freedom of religion is effectively lost and the gospel feels coercive, if not oppressive. It is not clear to me that WB truly forswear Christian nationalism, but their criticisms in chapter 6, their qualifiers and disclaimers notwithstanding, appear to be directionally accurate. 

Reservations

My copy of Jesus and the Powers is marked up on nearly every page with amens, no ways, hmms…, and exasperated questions or exclamations. I appreciate books that confront readers with direct arguments that force them to decide one way or another. Rather than set forth my reservations in line-item fashion, I group them into three big picture categories and offer lengthy enough explanations to show why, from a biblical perspective, I find them problematic.

1. My first reservation is perhaps fundamental to all the rest. It has to do with the way WB conflate the creation mandate with the Christian calling. When God created humans in his image and gave them dominion over all creatures, he endowed them with divine authority to order creation in ways that reflect his good intentions for it. God willed to rule through humanity lest anarchy ensue. But humans did not image God well and became oppressors. God’s set apart people, Israel, didn’t fare much better, so God acted decisively through Christ to reinstate his rightful rule. “God was becoming king” through the work of Jesus, and his enthronement defined “the early church as a ‘kingdom’ movement … a vision and vocation for faithful action that works to bring God’s kingship over every facet of human life” (8). In sum, WB define the image of God as the “human vocation for reflecting God’s sovereign rule over creation” and this vocation “is not abandoned by Jesus and his church; rather, they are meant to be the agents for its penultimate and ultimate manifestation” (77). 

Since governing authorities also play a role in God’s rule, the church should prepare for the kingdom through “the redeeming of human institutions such as government, the curation of creation, making them good, making them fit for their divinely called purposes” (77). Accordingly, “we must ‘do God’; we must be involved, active and activist, in public, in politics, in matters for which our kingdom-calling requires us” (77). Likewise, “God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected, ‘imaged’ if you like, into his world through his human creatures. God has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation and in new creation. … Through the work of Jesus and the power of the spirit, he equips humans to help in the work of getting the creation project back on track and to share in its perfection in the coming age” (84).

I quote so many passages above to demonstrate how prominent a role the creation mandate plays in WB’s thought and how completely they fold it into the church’s nature and mission. Several problems beset this approach. For starters, it frames the Bible story in terms of a deity who has lost control of creation and enlisted Israel and the church to help get it back under control. However, it is not clear in Scripture that God ever lost control of creation and needs anyone to re-assert his kingship. The Psalms and prophets are quite clear on this point. Further, neither God’s commission to Israel nor Christ’s calling for the church are framed in terms of “doing God,” ridding the world of evil, curating or stewarding creation, getting the creation project back on track, serving as activists among pagan institutions, or making the world fit for creation’s consummation. Nowhere does Scripture say that humanity in general ever lost the divine image and the concomitant responsibility that comes with it to look after whatever portion of creation falls under our care. 

Moreover, nothing in Abraham’s calling, Torah’s instructions, or the prophets’ platforms suggests that God expected Israel to bring the wider world under control for him. Talk about the divine image is strikingly absent after the primeval prologue of Genesis as any sort of primeval creation mandate. Rather, Israel’s social and political calling revolved around being an exemplary steward of the narrow stretch of land to which God entrusted them. In fact, Israel is told in numerous places to leave alone the lands of other nations, and those kings that get involved with them either die prematurely (e.g., Josiah), succumb to idolatry (e.g., Solomon), or develop an unhealthy attachment to worldly power (e.g., David) for which God judges them. 

Nor does the New Testament instruct God’s people in any clear way to curate creation or bring any institution under God’s reign. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is strikingly apathetic toward social and political institutions beyond the faith community. The church’s number one responsibility toward unbelievers is proclaiming the reality of God’s kingdom made possible by Jesus, which often entails an invitation to join it. The mandate we see the apostles and their successors carry out in the New Testament involves sharing the gospel, making disciples of Christ, and planting churches. This was not a purely spiritual or heaven-focused mission. These disciples and churches ordered their earthly lives in all of their social and political dimensions according to the politics of Jesus, building on the politics of Yahweh. They had their own mechanisms for dealing with enmity, managing conflict, instructing one another, adjudicating lawsuits, assigning identity, negotiating ethnic differences, approaching citizenship, handling debt, demarcating family units, upholding marriage, caring for widows, making decisions, tending to prisoners, stewarding property and possessions, and dealing with death. This was their kingdom work. This is how they built for the kingdom. Each home in which they gathered was the “room where it happens”—where the new creation breaks forth amid the old orders that are passing away (2 Cor 5:17). The early church paid scant attention to the various Greco-Roman social and political institutions all around them, where the movers and shakers “get things done” in the world. Their choice was not between politics or no politics; it was between the politics of this world and the politics of the trans-territorial body of Christ. 

New creation meant everything for the early church, or at least it should have according to the Apostle Paul (Gal 6:15). Though WB clearly understand this, they nonetheless insist on shoehorning a universal creation-ruling mandate into the Christian calling. Since there are no clear teachings or examples of this sort of thing in the New Testament, WB must resort to deductions and inferences. For example, since God’s kingdom is “for this world,” it follows for them that it is impossible to keep out of the politics of this world. Likewise, since values and voting are intertwined, there must be the kind connection they envision between religion and politics (36). Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the early church must not have been very good at syllogisms. The “image of God” trope simply didn’t do the kind of work for them that it does in WB’s political theology. It barely comes up in the New Testament and not how WB use it. Yes, Christ is the new Adam who images God perfectly and, yes, believers are called to conform to the image of Christ. But no New Testament passages connect the image of Christ to the creation mandate or any kind of rulership in the world. On the contrary, ruling over others is something Gentiles do that Christ followers must not (Matt 20:25). And the only New Testament passages that associate Christians with ruling are passages in Revelation that speak about the way things will be after Christ returns and the kingdom comes in full (e.g., Rev 5:10; 20:6). So while the Kingdom of God is a central theme of the New Testament, it had less to do with re-asserting God’s lapsed rule over fallen creation and more to do with the new creation that God has begun in world history through Christ, which God has put on display for all the world to see through his people, the church. More on this below.

2. The above reservation is closely connected to a second one, which is how WB tend to blur the lines between the church, powers, world, Christ, and God within their kingdom framework. It is tricky to tease this out because WB’s teaching about the nature and function of the powers is spot on, as well as their depiction of the fallenness of creation, God’s commitment to its full restoration, the pivotal role of Christ, the nature of salvation and new creation, and the now and not yet dimensions of God’s kingdom. The disconnect lies squarely in their attempt to explain how the church relates to creation and new creation. To understand why, we must gain our Old Testament bearings not just from the first few chapters of Genesis, but from the wider scope of the Old Testament story, especially God’s dealings with Israel.

After God flooded the earth, he vowed never to destroy it again. In doing so he placed the burden on himself to find some other way to redeem and restore his fallen world. The next thing he does is call Abraham into a covenant relationship through which somehow all nations would be blessed. Genesis fails to answer the question of how that would happen. In Torah we begin to catch a glimpse. After God delivered his people from Egypt and set them apart from all nations to be a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:6), he gave them a covenant code that instructed them how to live a holy life in the land that he would give them. He saved them from Egypt by grace and he gave them his land as a gift. They did nothing to deserve being God’s treasured possession. Their simple task was to order their lives according to his instructions, and he would bless them like no other nation has seen or experienced. The nations in turn would be drawn to God’s people and to God through them (Deut. 4:5-8). Should they reject God’s instructions, he would deprive them of his favor and scatter them among the nations. 

Israel’s function on behalf of God and the world was to serve as a witness. They witnessed God’s mighty acts firsthand and could testify that there is no other God like, above, before, or beside him. Moreover, their unique and superior way of life, which required them to remain somewhat separated from all other peoples, bore witness to God’s design for human thriving in all of its social, political, and religious dimensions. They were not separated from the nations to become invisible to them, but to grow into something worth observing—something visible enough that the nations could perceive their divinely prescribed ways. Their life was meant to attract attention. The Old Testament is not clear what would happen next. That is partly because Israel quickly rejected God’s Torah vision and embraced kingship like the nations. This meant becoming so much like other nations that God could not use them for his attractional purposes. So God stripped the Israelites of their national autonomy, stopped protecting them from the nations, and allowed Assyria and Babylon to scatter them among the nations. 

Israel naturally felt rejected and began doubting whether God had any further plans for them. In Isaiah 40-55, God clarifies that he is not done with them. He still wants his servant Israel to be a light and a witness to the nations. Israel may be beaten, bruised, and seemingly unfit for such an important mission, yet in their lowliness and brokenness God still plans to use them. In the short term, God will bring them back to their land, but in the long run he will restore them for their pivotal role in his mission. By the time the last Old Testament book is penned, Israel still awaited their restoration, and they still longed for the [re]new[ed] heavens and earth. The book of Daniel referred to this renewal as the kingdom of God.

The New Testament picks up where the Old Testament left off, with John and Jesus proclaiming that God’s long-awaited kingdom was at hand. WB are therefore right to assert that God’s kingdom fulfills God’s promises to restore Israel’s fortunes and fold them into his renewed creation project, the new heavens and earth, wherein evil kings and kingdoms are vanquished and God’s will is fully done on earth as in heaven. But WB are wrong to suggest that the evil that ruled the world would be vanquished “through” God’s people (8). Daniel didn’t even envision that (cf. “not by human hands” above). Such was the hope of misguided zealots and several of Jesus’ own disciples—a hope that Jesus refused to gratify and a temptation he resisted on multiple occasions. Instead, Jesus donned the mantle of the suffering servant, bore the world’s disgrace, and vanquished evil permanently by laying down his life on the cross. 

The role to which Jesus assigned his people was a lot like that of Israel. They would be salt and light, a city on a hill. They would embrace the exemplary lifestyle Jesus set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, among other places. People would stream to his followers to learn God’s ways, and they would make Christ followers of all ethnic groups. These disciples would be witnesses who could testify to what God has done in world history through Jesus. They could testify (and did), that his kingdom wasn’t like any other world kingdom. It didn’t spread through territorial conquest, legislative monopoly, linguistic hegemony, or cultural uniformity. It spread like the gift-giving mission that it was. God’s lowly servant people would form kingdom communities in every city throughout the world where God’s kingdom is embraced, displayed, and proclaimed. They would participate firsthand in the newness of kingdom life, and they would invite everyone they knew to taste and see the Lord’s goodness among them, the first fruits of the Spirit at work in their midst. They welcomed all people into the new humanity, the new creation, which is the kingdom people—a global network of Christ followers beholden to no human solidarity, save for the family of God. Proclaiming a kingdom like this, making disciples like this, planting churches like this, welcoming all people into the new creation made possible by Christ—this is the church’s responsibility, calling, and kingdom mandate. This is how Paul and his co-workers built “for the kingdom.” This is the work that will not go to waste, will not be done in vain, and will indeed persist beyond the general resurrection and into the fullness of God’s kingdom, where all creation is restored (1 Cor 15:58).

The reason why Israel was never tasked with philanthropic missions among neighboring nations and the reason why Jesus, Paul, and the early church didn’t set up signposts of the kingdom by “getting in the room where pagans get things done” or doing things that make the old order a bit more like the order to come is because such acts of service and compassion are not God’s kingdom work. These tasks may be noble, but that fact alone does not graft them into God’s revealed mission for his people. Rather, they are an important task that he entrusted to the powers and principalities. 

God’s mission for his priestly people is not to do the powers’ job in a slightly more informed and spirit-empowered way; God’s mission for us is to make Christlike disciples into kingdom communities that themselves constitute signposts of his kingdom. We are not the signpost installers; we are the signposts! We are the “space” where kingdom stuff happens—our Christlike life together, our radical love for one another, our rugged commitment to unity amid diversity, our scandalous forgiveness and reckless generosity. Among us, no one goes unfed, unclothed, unhoused, unvisited, and unloved. That’s what a kingdom signpost looks like. No tactical alliance among the powers will aspire to this miraculous new humanity. It is only possible by faith; by the Spirit; by rebirth, regeneration, sanctification; and by the free acceptance of God’s gracious gift. It doesn’t emerge from philanthropic friendships with the world; it overflows from the abundance of God’s gracious gifts showered upon his undeserving and forever grateful kingdom people. 

God has entrusted the old orders that are passing away into the hands of the powers and principalities. The powers can do nothing to reverse their fate and will surely pass away. Still their job is important because if they can achieve even a modest level of peace and stability, then God’s people, to whom God has entrusted his glorious kingdom, can bear witness to that kingdom by the words of our mouths and the revolutionary shape of their life together, for the world’s sake. 

So while God will indeed restore all creation and while the powers play an important role in maintaining fallen creation until this happens, the church’s role is not to help them with their task, but to enter into the new creation inaugurated by Christ and to live it out so convincingly (the new humanity in Eph 2:15) that the people of this world will want to join us in faith. Biblically speaking, this is how we are called to anticipate Christ’s return to consummate the fullness of new creation. WB’s political theology saddles the church with the powers’ burden of tending to the fallen structures of old creation in ways that Scripture simply does not. 

3. A third reservation has to do with how WB conflate Christendom and Christianity and narrate the Constantinian shift in an excessively charitable light. I think I understand what motivates them here. Contemporary Western society looks back scornfully upon the church-state merger that began with Constantine’s partial embrace of the Christian faith and culminated in Christianity serving as the default official religion of the Roman Empire. The separation of church and state has become so fundamental for so many that it is easy for them to look back at the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire and its successors and see only violence, war, colonization, religious coercion, and staunch intolerance of rival religions, doctrines, values, and cultures. Crusaders, witch burners, heresy hunters, greedy powers, and protected perverts immediately spring to the minds of many. Of course, it doesn’t do justice to any religious or political movement to characterize it only by its worst moments. That’s just bad historiography, especially when one has over a millennium of material to work with. So it’s hard to fault WB for highlighting Christendom’s better moments, especially when their political vision for the church welcomes alliances and chaplaincy posts among the powers (37).

But surely WB go too far in their overcorrection. In their view, when Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint the cross on their shields and began privileging rather than persecuting Christians “Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won” (23, citing Will Durant). In their own words, “the blood of the Lamb was indeed victorious over the soldiers and swords of Caesar and his minions” (24). When Christianity later became the state religion, in their view, “Caesar had at last bowed his knee before Christ” (25). Beginning with Constantine, they continue, “Christianity began a social, legal and moral revolution that still echoes today” (26). They go on to explain that the moral vision of western society with its repudiation of slavery, advocacy of gender equality, and criticism of violences in various forms has its roots in Scriptures like Galatians 3:28 and that we all have Christendom to thank for this (27-30). Far from an affront to the gospel of Christ, “Christendom was simply the result of the success of the Church’s mission to proclaim God’s kingdom. Christendom appeared because converted rulers wanted to place their realm under the reign of Christ” (30-31). It later bequeathed to us schools, academies, universities, hospitals, the Enlightenment, the rise of science, and the notion of human rights. According to WB, all these developments would be “impossible without Christianity being hardwired into the moral and intellectual DNA of the West” (34).

For some of you, like me, this language is quite jarring, even bordering on heresy. For others, it may seem entirely innocuous, if not common sense. This only highlights the fact that serious theologians with a high view of Scripture sometimes operate with fundamentally different paradigms, such that the same phrase may bear fundamentally different meanings. For so many of us, the church’s acquiescence to the Constantinian merger was hardly a victory for Christ. It was more like a dog returning to its vomit. God had been warning his people against empires like Rome (Revelation’s whore of Babylon) since Babel! Constantine’s temptation to make the church’s life easier by accepting his patronage bears a striking resemblance to the devil’s offer in the wilderness to ally with Jesus so he could share in the devil’s rule over the nations (Matt 4:8-10). Jesus could avoid all the suffering, all the enemy loving, all the lowliness. He could kiss the ring of the ruler of nations and receive a fast pass for Christian mission. Jesus refused that offer and nothing that he subsequently did or said to his followers suggested that they might respond to a similar offer any differently. When Peter suggested that Jesus might achieve his kingdom ends without facing the cross (Matt 16:22), Jesus immediately recognized a voice he’d heard before – “Get behind me Satan!”

Still, WB offer an important rejoinder on page 37 that demands a response. In their words, 

“Yes, you want to avoid the evils of Constantine and Christendom. Instead of seeking influence in the halls of power, you want to be the angry prophet on the margins speaking truth to power. All well and good. But what happens when the power listens? What happens when the power or the people ask you to sit on a committee, contribute to an investigation, run a programme, advise on policy, or serve as a chaplain?” 

Great question! What should we do? We should do the same thing Jesus did when the devil asked him to do the same. We appeal to God’s revealed word and kindly refuse. We should do what a concert pianist would do if invited to leave the stage and start running the soundboard: shake our head incredulously and stick to what we do best. We’ve got our own mandate, and only we possess the God-given resources to carry it out. Our faithfulness to our mandate will also contribute to the betterment of society. We will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and overcome evil. But we will do it on our own terms in obedience to our God-given calling, and with the unique resources we possess in Christ. 

Within our mandate there will be opportunities to give an account before unbelievers of the hope we have. There will be room to proclaim God’s good designs, to share kingdom insights, to model kingdom principles, and to provide input on how certain things might be done. There is no need to remain silent. But we will speak only as those who are respectfully disentangled from the lording-over mechanisms of the order that is passing away. WB wisely lump together top-down mechanisms of power and bottom-up mechanisms of service on page 37. As if rejecting chaplain status among the powers means rejecting all other forms of public witness. But how we relate to para-church ministries, youth clubs, and food banks might differ considerably from how we respond to relationships, alliances, and forms of advocacy that perpetuate the problematic legacy of Christendom and suck us back into the quicksand that God reached down through Christ to pull us out of.

I will wrap up this essay with one last comment about the legacy of Christendom. WB highlight several positive developments that eventually emerged from the Constantinian turn, like human rights, a critique of slavery, the elevation of women, etc. Indeed, they credit Christendom for accomplishing the social revolution inaugurated by Jesus according to Galatians 3:28. But do we have “Christendom” to thank for these much later developments? Would such changes never have happened had the church never merged with the empire? Would they not also have happened had faithful Christians kept gathering for worship, reading the Scriptures, and ordering their lives accordingly? 

WB also bemoan that contemporary skeptics refuse to acknowledge the Christian roots of modern societal advances, but this is precisely because the Christendom arrangement seemed so blatantly to have denied them. Nevertheless, faithful believers in monastic communities, revival movements, and local churches kept returning to God’s powerful word—despite Christendom—such that kingdom values would never be lost and might eventually be picked up by later generations. This alternative possibility is not mere fancy, it is precisely what we see in the Old Testament. God’s Torah vision delivered on Sinai was preserved for centuries through prophets, priests, and commoners despite Israel’s structural rejection of Torah and problematic embrace of kingship like the nations. It was later picked up with unparalleled fervor only after Israel’s monarchy collapsed under its own inadequacies and divine judgment. God’s powerful word found a way, and we ought not credit Constantine with its transformative effects. Had Christianity remained a minority religion for its refusal to be assimilated into the Roman Empire, would it have born no such fruit? Jesus seemed to be quite clear that his mustard seed kingdom could make a tremendous impact all throughout the world as his followers lived as salt and light in the ways described in the Sermon on the Mount. A case could be made that uncompromising kingdom people may have spawned similar initiatives much earlier and with greater effectiveness had the church not saddled itself with all the tangential responsibilities involved in managing an empire and fending off its enemies.

I began this essay by observing that the subtitle of this book aptly encapsulates its overall scope, but not so much the main title: Jesus and the Powers. I said this because it is not clear to me that the Jesus of Scripture is the book’s main character. The kingship of Jesus is certainly a prominent theme, but this is defined more in light of an overblown interpretation of Genesis 1:26 and a dubious interpretation of the Bible story that revolves around God’s persistent attempt to recruit someone who will rule this world properly on his behalf. The Jesus who reigns on high is also important, but mainly to justify the church’s current alleged calling to make the world submit to his reign. The Jesus of the Gospels is hardly invoked. The specific politics of Jesus, the content of his remarkable teaching, and the substance of his actual example receive strikingly little press. A more apt main title would be Making Peace with Power.

John C. Nugent

John C. Nugent has authored The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God (2011), Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (2016), Genesis 1-11, Polis Bible Commentary (2019), The Fourfold Office of Christ: A New Typology for Relating Church and World (2024), and Priestly Presence: A Church for the World’s Sake (forthcoming, Fortress Press, May 2024). He also cohosts the weekly, Bible-focused “After Class Podcast” (since 2018).

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