Why do the Old Testament Scholars Get All the Fun? This may sound like a strange thing to say, but I’m jealous of those who get to teach the Old Testament. I get paid to teach the New Testament, which I love doing, but I’m envious of those teaching the Old. Why? When it comes to faith, vocation and culture, they have it easy.
Why? There’s immediate payoff for any Old Testament teachers when it comes to faith, vocation and culture. There’s a rather natural narrative arc created at the start of the Old Testament which can then be used to make perfect sense of faith, vocation and culture for Christians. God made the world. And it was made good. And though this world has been corrupted due to sin, God has long committed himself to fixing it through us. The good news is that Christians get to be part of God’s fix-up plan for the world, which has great implications. All we do, including our work and play, is far from meaningless. It all has meaning because it is all part of God’s restoring of the world.
This sounds fantastic. And it is. And the teacher of the Old Testament gets all the fun in this. Fixing the arrow to the string, drawing it steadily back, holding it forty-five degrees, they can let it fly, heading for Revelation chapters 21-22. And what largely comes forth is nothing less than poetry in motion, a narrative arc of the entire Bible, traced from beginning to end. The target is fantastic, the path true. All is good!
The problem is that the narrative arc is actually not quite so smooth; especially nearing the target, i.e.: in that part we call the “New Testament.” Near the end of the scripture’s story, in the part most closely connected to us, there is a howling wind blowing, a wind so tumultuous that those watching may be inclined to cringe and even despair, wondering if the arrow will ever hit its target. This at least was how many of the first Christians seemed to have felt as they faced seemingly insurmountable odds confronted by their surrounding culture. We read in the Book of Revelation the description of how Christians were excluded from working, because they were not part of the system: “they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name” (Revelation 13:17). In Acts, every time Christians interacted with economics, they got their fingers burned. Think of the demon-possessed girl who could no longer make money for her owners after Paul healed her (Acts 16). That ended badly. Paul got whipped and thrown in prison. Think also of the time the gospel undercut business for Demetrius and the Silversmiths in Ephesus (Acts 19). A riot ensued, with obvious consequences for Christians living in the city. Moments of cultural transformation were not part of some neat and inevitable narrative trajectory. The reality of the situation was far more brutal.
Our temptation, when thinking of Christianity and culture, is to imagine that the New Testament’s struggles were more of a blip on the map, at a time when Christians lived under a less sophisticated political regimes. We are living in better days! Culture has become more “civilized” (in the West at least). And so, we hope for better things. But such a way of thinking should make us extremely nervous. This kind of thinking has often ended badly—as we will see.
In this two-part article I wish to promote faith, vocation and culture from the New Testament. This can be done, and must be done. It is my goal. But I wish to do this in a very thoughtful and nuanced way, picking up on the real drama of the New Testament. It seems to me that we cannot at all dismiss those elements of the New Testament that mess with our neat biblical trajectory. We cannot pretend these things do not exist. Rather, by coming to terms with them, I believe we can achieve a far more robust sense of Christian faith, vocation and culture.
Starting here (Part I) I will note a warning from the history of nationalism—but also a warning against overreacting. Then next week (Part II) we will see where and how we should expect things to go in very practical ways when it comes to genuine cultural change and examine the all-important place of the gospel.
The goal here is to avoid romanticism and focus instead on biblical realism. My goal is to give a steady compass bearing for readers to navigate towards a true sense of Christian faith, vocation and culture in the world today.
Changing the World, Nationalism, and a Doomsday Approach: Without making a judgment call on what I am about to say, I want here to simply note that most biblical scholars in the 19th century were persuaded that Christianity existed to change the world. They believed in Christian faith, vocation and culture. And they were known as “Liberals.” (Note that was a theological term, not political!)
Under the ingenious educational scheme of people like Albrecht Ritschl, German scholarship read the New Testament in light of Immanuel Kant and sought to apply his scheme to the church. What did Kant teach, and what did Ritschl do with it? In simple terms, Kant saw himself as a “chaplain” (my choice of words) for the Enlightenment, helping a motley crew of free thinkers in the late 18th century and early 19th century to organize themselves. The French revolution was in full swing, and Kant was not entirely against it. He felt that society needed upheaval but that it must also return to some new form of stabilizing tradition. Ritschl took this idea and applied it to the national church of Germany. What this meant was he turned the church into a nationalist organization, because infused in Kant’s thinking was the idea that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Those of a cultured intellectual background were better placed to point the way forward for others. This even effected the missionary movement of the 19th century, as we will explore next week in Part II.
Where does all this leave us? It leaves us in a position where we should do some serious soul searching. “Liberalism” of the 19th century—a faith that transformed culture—was extraordinarily well placed to push people towards nationalism. And the irony is that while conservative Christians in America today may see themselves as light-years from “Liberalism,” to the extent that they are being nationalistic, thinking they have a superior form of Christianity (as Americans), they are simply following the path of Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. Changing the world can be supremely dangerous.
Allow me to be direct—I feel I must be. Have we who are Evangelicals in America become liberals? We think the terms are opposites, but have we not ended up replicating the same errors, just for a different nation? What I mean is: have we, when we follow a nationalist agenda really just fallen into exactly the same trap as the Church in Germany fell into in the 19th century, which then led to all kinds of disasters in the 20th century: fascism, ethnic cleansing, war in order that we might prove that we are the big guy on campus? Reality check: heaven does not come to earth until Jesus comes back (Revelation 21). So to seek to bring heaven to earth now — which is often just about protecting our turf, our personal interests, our American culture — is quite wrong headed. Of course I recognize that the left has swung to the opposite extreme in what is now a liberal social ethic. It has in many ways become anti-Christian. But the right response is not to become a nationalist. It is to be a balanced biblical Christian!
The other thing to say about this tale of warning is to point out that there was a counter-reaction, which has impacted readers of the New Testament ever since, one which has turned many away from faith, vocation, and culture. Certain people saw what was brewing, people like Albert Schweitzer (a full-blown Liberal). He thus tried to push the envelope in a different direction, towards life-in-society being about the preservation of life. This became pantheism under another name. Karl Barth also saw what was coming and recoiled, seeking to take power out of the hands of humans and put it back into God’s hands. Then there were firebrands like Ernst Käsemann, who saw the atrocities of World War II and acted decisively to counter them. He pushed for a sustained “apocalyptic” reading of the New Testament. What all these people began to promote was the idea that the New Testament was part of social change, but of a different kind.
Käsemann was a fascinating person, one who himself tried to ride the line between Christians living in constant hope of Christ’s return and yet to also be prepared to change the world here and now. Readers would do well to check out the recently published translation of his lesser-known work which focuses on his reflections on culture: On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene (2010). Yet not everyone has been as “balanced” as Käsemann. We today must most certainly watch out for the opposite swing from “liberalism”, a swing to “apocalyptic lockdown.” This is the kind of attitude that says “to h— with the world” I am going to just gather around other Christians in my church and wait for Jesus to return. This won’t fix anything either. It will simply make the Christians feel like their life and work is irrelevant. So neither extreme is right. But there is a way forward, as we will see next week in Part II.
Where then does this leave us? I hope it leaves us with some thinking to do. There is nothing new under the sun. And the sober warning of the history of 19th and 20th century Germany should be a serious warning to us about how serious the study of Christian faith, vocation and culture really is, and the emergence of “apocalyptic” thinking should warn us too. For those of us who are part of promoting Christian faith, vocation and culture let us take seriously the warning of history, lest we find ourselves promoting stuff like nationalism, which can very quickly go bad. But for those of us who are then inclined to run away, let us see that this is not the answer either (more on this next week). To be a Christian is to realize this very challenging tension between living in the world and yet not of this world, not trying to simplify the narrative arc as if it were all so simple.
Next week we will endeavor to put hands and feet on all these ideas.