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Statue-Augustus

If like me you’re a Christian layperson and an armchair theologian at best, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that “empire criticism” in New Testament studies is actually a thing, much less why a substantial number of extremely smart people in the halls of academia are devoting their time and mental energies to it. I’m with you. The term was new to me when I picked up Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic), edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica. But I had a hunch it was a consequential topic, nonetheless, and after reading it I’m even more convinced.

First, a word about the editors and contributors. McKnight is of course familiar to many for his helpful and accessible books The Jesus Creed (and blog of the same name), The King Jesus Gospel, and (for my money) especially A Community Called Atonement. Joe Modica is less well known to most, but he’s familiar to me from my days at Eastern, where he serves as chaplain and teaches biblical studies.

book-jesus-is-lord-caesar-is-notTogether McKnight and Modica have assembled contributions from ten different biblical scholars, each focused on exploring empire criticism in reference to a different New Testament book. Rather than tracing the history of empire criticism or providing biographies of its proponents, the authors simply dive right in, engaging with prominent scholars in the field and evaluating specific biblical passages that feature prominently in their work.

Before I go any further, I should probably clarify what is actually meant by empire criticism. Theologian and scholar Pete Enns defines it well, I think, as “an approach to New Testament studies whereby the New Testament’s message is seen primarily as a criticism of the Roman empire. Put another way, the proclamation ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not simple an expression of religious devotion but political subversion, since Caesar was also known as ‘lord.’”

None of the contributors would question the statement, “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” The biblical authors make that clear, and these scholars affirm it. Likewise, there’s little doubt that in any society, but especially those in the shadow of empire, such affirmations have political consequences.

But here’s the big question: is the false lordship of Caesar the primary thing biblical authors are out to negate in affirming the true lordship of Jesus? To that, the contributors would rightly be unified in saying no.

Abraham Maslow is famously credited with saying that for those who have a hammer, everything begins to resemble a nail. Similarly, for those inclined to see the world primarily through the lenses of imperialism and colonialism, those categories will start to inform everything they encounter, the Bible not excluded. But this of course raises the question of exegesis and eisegesis – those fancy but important Greek words having to do with whether we are “reading into” or “reading out of” what scripture actually says. This book is a careful exploration of that very question, and it’s a good exercise for us all, scholar and armchair theologian alike.

My conclusion, which I generally share with this book’s contributors, is that empire criticism has an unfortunate tendency to overreach by implying that the New Testament authors were primarily concerned with pitting Jesus and his kingdom against Caesar and the Roman empire. In actual fact, it seems they’re primarily concerned with pointing to Jesus as the true king, one without any earthly rivals, and that we await the coming of the incorruptible kingdom of God. This is in opposition not primarily to Caesar, but to the claims of Satan, whose kingdom is surely doomed, but who is nonetheless for now an enemy far greater than any mortal emperor.

At the same time, though some pay undue attention to empire, it’s still very worthwhile to engage with the thinking of empire criticism for the simple reason that it does raise important questions about context and biblical subplots, and by doing so it helps us understand important (and sometimes overlooked) aspects of the New Testament. Suffice it to say that sociopolitical realities are in no way irrelevant to our lives as followers of Christ, or for that matter, as humans.

The editors and contributors should be commended for showing the complexity of the context of the New Testament writings, accounting for the important sociopolitical realities of the Roman empire, yet recognizing the New Testament audience was – and still is! – one with concerns than run even deeper.

What I love the most about this book is that, without exception, the contributors do a fine job of showing that when it comes to the New Testament books and the postcolonial interpretations of them, simplistic and reactionary readings will not do. The Bible, and the real world – both then and now – are simply too complex for that.

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[Image: Statue of Augustus via Wikimedia Commons]

This book was provided to me from the publisher for free in exchange for my honest thoughts.

In recent weeks I’ve been doing some reading and blogging related to worldview and the role it plays in shaping how we live as Christians in light of what God has done, is doing and will do in history. Michael Goheen really piqued my interest in this when I heard him speak here in Phoenix in early March. He described his theological and spiritual journey, including what he describes as an important shift from a theological system to a theological worldview (my notes from the talk are here). In last Monday’s post, Bryant Myers suggested “we are to see the world as created, fallen, and being redeemed, all at the same time.” And then on Thursday, Steven Garber in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness argued that if we are to weave together belief and behavior, it is essential to develop “a worldview sufficient for the challenges of the modern world.”

All these writers and thinkers have more or less the same thing in mind, I think, when they refer to worldview, but it’s also a term that carries all sorts of connotations for different people, so today I want to back up and take a look at what worldview means, drawing on the excellent little book Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans). It was originally written in 1985 by Al Wolters, and then re-released twenty years later, with an afterword by Michael Goheen himself (there’s a lot of overlap between that afterword and what he had to say in his talk).

Wolters defines worldview as “the comprehensive framework of one’s basic beliefs about things,” a definition he then breaks down bit by bit (I won’t spell it out here, but each word is carefully chosen).

Like the others I referred to earlier, Wolters believes that a biblical worldview is best understood by the basic scriptural categories of creation, fall and redemption. He also contends that our worldview is to inform all of life; the Bible leaves no room for compartmentalizing certain parts of life into the mutually exclusive categories of sacred (church, spiritual practices, Bible study, etc) and secular (economics, politics, technology, etc). In other words,

The plea being made here for a biblical worldview is simply an appeal to the believer to take the Bible and its teaching seriously for the totality of our civilization right now and not to relegate it to some optional area called “religion.”

All of that is established in the first chapter, and then chapters two, three and four have to do with spelling out a fuller, deeper understanding of creation, fall and redemption, respectively. I hope you’ll read the book so you can see everything he has to say about the nuances of each of those three, but the biggest contribution Creation Regained makes is the chapter on discerning the difference between “structure” and “direction.” The terms may be confusing at first, but understood properly, the implications of that distinction are huge for our everyday lives.

I’ll try to sum it up in a paragraph. First, all things are created good (their “structure” is good), but all created things have been deformed by the Fall and sin (that is, they have been “misdirected”). As Christians, too often we recognize the directional distortion of something and discard it as sinful, but we fail to affirm its structural goodness, and miss the opportunity to see how, as a structurally good but misdirected part of creation, it can be redirected for purposes that please God and, in turn, serve the common good. With this distinction in mind, we can truly be “reformers” rather than either seeking to obliterate what’s tainted by sin on the one hand, or by fatalistically accepting the sin-tainted status quo on the other. In other words, distinguishing between structure and direction gives us an alternative to both “revolution” and “quietistic conservatism,” two approaches that leave much to be desired:

Our focus on structure rejects a sympathy for revolution, and our focus on direction condemns a quietistic conservatism… In sum we may say that whereas consecration leaves things internally untouched, and revolution annihilates things, reformation renews and sanctifies them. God calls us to cleanse and reform all the sectors of our lives.

That goes for our personal lives and our interpersonal relationships, but it also has huge implications for our life as citizens and as active participants in political, economic, and other systems. So, for an example applicable to the readers of this blog, when we’re faced with an ethical dilemma like alleged abuses of workers on the other side of the world tied to the practices of a corporation which we support through our purchases, we’re presented with an alternative to the two predictable and insufficient responses. It doesn’t do to ignore the abuses as inevitable, “necessary evils” in our complicated, interconnected world. And it doesn’t do to decry the corporation for being a corporation and part of the free market system. Rather, we seek to discern structure and direction. What about the corporation is structurally a good part of creation? What about the corporation has been misdirected by sin? And what might we as “reformers” (or what Gabe Lyons calls “restorers”) do to redirect and reform that corporation so that what is good about it can continue, and so that it can contribute to the flourishing of all, including those on the other end of the market equation?

That’s a whole new way of seeing the world, it seems to me, and a whole new way of living. It’s not cynical and detached, but it’s not playing to either side of the culture wars, either. It is, however, rooted in the big narrative arc of Scripture — creation, fall, redemption — which is also the narrative arc of history. It’s brimming with promise, isn’t it? It’s realistic and it’s hopeful. It has both roots and wings.

As Wolters says clearly, developing this sort of a worldview — learning to see the world and our lives through this kind of a biblical lens — doesn’t answer every question and solve every problem we will encounter. In community with other believers and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we’re given the task of discerning the implications of biblical teaching for all these areas of life. We won’t do it perfectly all the time, but we can learn and grow. Most of all, developing a biblical worldview gives us a framework for understanding our lives in the world, and it gives us the right questions to ask:

To approach the phenomena of the world in terms of structure and direction is to look at reality through the corrective lens of Scripture, which everywhere speaks of a good creation and the drama of its reclamation by the Creator in Jesus Christ.

Do you find the themes of creation, fall and redemption — as well as the distinction between structure and direction — helpful for navigating the challenges of everyday life? Is there any part of this “worldview” you’d call into question?