History, Eschatology and Hermeneutics: the Church in a Post-Christendom World

I led the service and gave the sermon at my church last Sunday (July 17, 2022) and it seemed like something that would be useful to have saved somewhere other than Google Docs. So I decided to post it here so I could link to it and reference it in the future.

Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate inside the palace in Jerusalem.  Bloodied and bruised, a crown of thorns forced on his head and purple cloth draped on his shoulders. Soldiers are slapping and mocking him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”

The religious leaders have stirred up the crowd but Pilate doesn’t see Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary. He goes to speak to them about letting him go. But they are defiant: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

Pilate brings Jesus out to them and sits down on the judge’s seat: “Here is your king.” Their reply? “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Pilate asks “Shall I crucify your king?” The answer: “We have no king but Caesar,”

The scene, full of tension, drama and ambiguity, closes: “Finally Pilate handed him over to be crucified.”

If at that moment you were forced to choose a side in the power struggle between Pilate, as representative of Rome and Caesar, and Jesus, a Jewish messianic prophet, you could hardly be faulted for choosing Rome.

Of course, we know the story doesn’t end there. We know Easter follows Good Friday. But I want to focus for the moment, not on the theological repercussions of the resurrection, but the historical events that followed in its wake.

First, zealots picked a fight with Rome and it went catastrophically bad. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 A.D. Historians at the time describe the violence and bloodshed as unprecedented. As with the crucifixion, the gods of Rome would seem to have the upper hand against the God of Israel.

But fast forward 300 years: the Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity, and 80 years after that, the Christian faith becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Rome, the enemy of God’s people, executioner of Jesus, destroyer of the temple, the power that martyred the apostles, the empire of Nero who burned Christians to light his garden parties, the figure of the beast in the Book of Revelation. This Rome, this empire, proclaimed the Nicene Creed:

“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…”

Why bring up this seemingly obscure history? Because I think it highlights a potential weakness in our approach to scripture and our identity as the people of God.  And because the world this process birthed, Western Christendom, is coming to an end and we need to wrestle with what that means.

Eschatology and Hermeneutics

In order to understand why the conversion of the empire and the rise of Christendom seems like irrelevant history today, we have to discuss two academic terms: eschatology and hermeneutics. I want to explore both through the work of Andrew Perriman, a writer and thinker who has had a significant impact on my approach to theology

Traditionally, eschatology has referred to the study of “last things”- to the end of the world and the ultimate destination of humankind. But I think Perriman rightfully re-envisions eschatology as instead relating to “decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future.”

With this new definition, Perriman highlights three eschatological horizons in the New Testament: 1) the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D.; 2) the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world; and 3) the final judgment of all the dead.

Traditional Christian theology has tended to push nearly everything into the last horizon, the end of the world. But like Perriman, I fear that by constantly deferring the “end” we are not engaging with the present, and are missing the point of New Testament eschatology.

Perriman’s larger narrative-historical approach is an attempt to reshape our hermeneutics, the way we read and interpret scripture, by understanding the New Testament not as a clear break with the Old Testament, but a continuation of the story of Israel and its relationship with the one true creator God. At the risk of oversimplifying, 1600 plus years of Christendom has layered so much abstract metaphysical thought and doctrine onto scripture that we struggle to recognize the original texts.

I believe that this narrative-historical approach offers the church a chance to read and interact with scripture in a fresh way.  It also offers us a chance to not only re-engage with history in order to tell our own story, but to find a way forward in a post-Christian world.

Today, we largely read scripture with an abstract, individualistic, and universal perspective. As a result, historical, political and cultural elements are useful only as they shed light on theology or life application. Instead of telling a story, we create systems of thought.The rich narrative and linguistic elements of the Old and New Testament, and their interaction, are often lost; verses picked out to bolster theological points rather than to understand the arc of the larger story.

When we push off scenes of judgment, destruction, and possible fulfillment to the end of the world, the history of the church risks becoming merely centuries of waiting for the second coming. If the pattern for the church was set out in the Book of Acts, then the temptation is to simply keep doing what we have been doing with pragmatic and liturgical changes along the way. Obviously, the last two hundred years has been anything but a smooth flat line of continuity, but our mental frame assumes that the church today is called to the same basic job it’s always had (with our particular denomination or perspective often viewed as most true to that calling).

For those of us steeped in the language and theology of the Western Church, it is easy to read scripture and feel like we already know what it means.  We have heard the stories over and over again. The words have been defined, loaded with centuries of cultural baggage that we are probably not even aware of, even as the context and ambiguities in the original text have been obscured. Faith can become merely the accepting of a set of doctrines and beliefs and the converting of more people to those same beliefs.

Or we easily blend scripture into the moralistic and therapeutic aspects of our culture; church as self-help and actualization. If we are not careful, scripture becomes a series of motivational posters or inspirational Facebook memes. Or less cynically, everything is devotional and individually applicable. Church as a life hack. We have shrunk scripture down from the complex story of a people and their relationship with God through history, to internalized individual beliefs or a set of ethical guidelines.

The demise of Christendom, however, means that fewer and fewer people speak this language, understand the terms, or even see the world from this perspective. Sixty years ago, nearly one of every six Americans was a member of a mainline protestant church, today the ratio is about 1 of every 25.

I want to return to Paul’s message in Romans, but first I want to briefly talk about the worldview that has largely replaced Christendom.

Our Secular Age

In my opinion, Western culture is dominated by what sociologists call “expressive individualism” where the individual psychological self is the center of life and the highest good is individual autonomy, self-definition, and self-expression. The point of life is to create and actualize your authentic self which only you can identify and express.  Any attempt to restrict or impose on this identity or its expression is oppressive.

This is the landscape in which the church operates and which shapes both parishioners and those it seeks to minister. It is a world in which aggressive secularism, hyper-individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral therapeutic deism, and other “isms” dominate.

As people living in a culture steeped in this worldview we can’t completely step outside of it, but I believe it is critical that we seek to discern where culture and our faith conflict or are in tension. But if we assume the only language scripture speaks in is that of Western Christendom, or we assimilate our faith comfortably within our own culture, we are warping it.

I believe that part of the tension that believers feel in the modern world is a result of being awkwardly situated between the end of Christendom and a world where religious belief is marginalized.  We are stuck between horizon two and three.

Paul’s Communities of Faith

In the short time remaining, I want to talk about how we might use the narrative-historical approach to begin to build a vision of our life together, both now and in the future, and contrast this vision with the culture around us. And for that, let’s return to Paul and the communities following the way of Jesus across the empire.

After his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul has come to believe that by raising Jesus from the dead, God has appointed Jesus as Lord and Judge and will give his Son the nations as an inheritance.  This judgment will come on the “Jews first, and then the Greeks” in Paul’s oft repeated phrase. If God is to judge the pagan world, He must judge His own people; those who were supposed to be the standard for righteousness and faith.  This is the first horizon, the focus of Jesus and the Gospels.

Paul is focused on what he foresees as the end of the Greco-Roman Pagan world.  But he knows the narrow path leading to life involves not military or political power but the faithful suffering modeled by Jesus.  If the fledgling Christian communities throughout the empire are going to survive into the Age to Come, they will have to adopt certain attitudes and practices.  Paul’s mission is to form and nurture these eschatological communities.

Not that our circumstances are exactly parallel, but I think the church today could learn a great deal from the pastoral advice of Paul about forming communities centered on serving God and one another in a hostile culture.

Let’s return to the scripture reading from today:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul is asking believers to live out the reality of God in their whole lives. If there is one true creator God, worship and service is the appropriate response. But in the pagan world the personal, political and religious were all tied up together and there was extreme pressure to conform to the local habits and practices. Paul calls instead for a transformation that comes from a renewed mind; a completely different way of approaching life. Holy, set apart.

Paul uses the metaphor of the body to express the interconnected and interdependent nature of this community. “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” The whole is greater than the parts. Each believer has gifts to contribute and needs to be met.

In contrast, expressive individualism might cause us to approach church as a consumer: what are my preferences and tastes, what makes me comfortable or makes me feel good? We might see it as just another option on our calendar. But if we are truly the body of Christ we all have gifts to contribute and when we ignore those gifts, the body as a whole suffers. The church is not a random collection of individuals who happen to be free on Sunday morning but a community of faith committed to the one true creator God. We are called to mediate this reality to the world, under the Lordship of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And true community happens when members serve something larger than themselves and have a shared identity in Jesus Christ.

The exhortations of Paul are just as challenging and counter-cultural today as they were in pagan Rome. Think of the fruit of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Is this what you see when you read the news, stream shows and movies, or scroll social media?

But if the characteristics of deeply formed communities of faith are challenging, casting a vision for the future might be more difficult. As Jeff pointed out in his sermon a few weeks ago, however, stories are a powerful and basic element of human communication and relationships. We must work to see scripture as our story. We must seek to understand how Christendom was part of that ongoing story. And we must come to terms with the end of Christendom and the reality of a post-Christian world.

I don’t have time here today to offer a sketch of what that future might look like, but I am convinced that the church must seek God, trust in the Lordship of Jesus, and depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I believe we have much to gain by seeing ourselves as eschatological communities and exploring whether this transitional time is a “decisive, theologically significant historical event.” We should seek to understand both our calling and our communities. How does our current circumstances relate to the history of the people of God in the past? What is God calling us to in the future? What characteristics and attributes must we adopt to live out this calling?

God’s Faithfulness

One of the questions reverberating through scripture is the question of God’s faithfulness. Will God keep His promises to Abraham?  Will God rescue His people out of Egypt? Will God bring them to the promised land? How can God be faithful when His people are in exile? When will God bring justice and restoration?

God’s people were asking this very question in the time of Jesus. How long must His people suffer occupation at the hands of an oppressive pagan power? Jesus’s life, death and resurrection formed the decisive intervention of God both to judge and redeem his people. Paul saw how these events allowed for the inclusion of gentiles into the family of God.  He believed that God would defeat the enemy of His people and appoint His son as Lord of the Nations. And as we discussed at the beginning, it happened!

God is faithful. The Bible records amazing story after amazing story of his faithfulness.  But the history of the church, including this specific building and community, contains its own amazing stories of faithfulness.

We must seek out the call of God on his people in our time and place and trust that he will provide a path. As we continue that work, let us keep the words of Paul in our hearts and minds:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Amen.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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