November 14, 2006

History, Eschatology, and Mission

I have been having such fun this morning writing this piece of homework that I thought I would post it:

One aspect of our reading that has caught my “ecclesial imagination’ with regard to missionary activity” has been the interaction of missionary dynamics with different theologies of history. The God of Israel and Christianity is a God who is revealed in the violent processes of history (e.g. Ex 15:3, 12) and who creates a place to dwell among a people on earth. (Ex 15:17) The same God is revealed in the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth. (Jn 1:14) This same Jesus, resurrected from the dead as the Risen Lord is God as the end of history. (Rev 22:13) He is the end of history both in the sense of purpose and terminal point.

As we have moved through the course these past weeks, I have been attentive to the ways in which conceptions or theologies of history interact with the theology of mission.

The powerful interaction between theologies of history and Christian mission begins in the New Testament itself, both in the sense of the practice of the primitive church and New Testament theological reflection. Here we can see the beginnings of how eschatology can set the tone for mission. And in this sense it seems to make quite a difference if one’s eschatology is of the futuristic or realized type.

Paul, though he seems to soften his apocalyptic expectation over the course of his career, seems generally confident in the immanent, historical return of Christ and the end of the age. (e.g. 1 Thess 5:2) This lack of remaining time no doubt inspired some of Paul’s incredible missionary zeal as a founder of churches, and his concern that the churches be found behaving decently and at peace at the Lord’s coming. (e.g., 1 Cor 1:10)

Perhaps most interestingly, in the letter to the Romans Paul’s eschatology and sense of history necessitate his contribution to the great missionary revolution of the New Testament: the mission to the gentiles. In the middle of the letter to the Romans, Paul presents a theological reflection that is a theology of history and mission at the same time. In the seemingly strange historical plan of God, the conversion of the nations will be required to convert unbelieving Israel. (Rom 11:13) The unbelieving “trespass” of the Israel of history (11:11) is the condition for the mission to the nations. (11:12) In fact, the gentile mission must come to some completion in history before the Israel of history can be saved, (11:25) but saved it will be. (11:26) Once the “full number” (11:25) of the gentiles are “grafted” (11:17) into Israel, the Jews will also be saved. (11:26)

Thus human effort in history at preaching the Gospel and converting all the nations to Christ will be required if God is not to be a liar in his covenant promises to Israel.

A more realized eschatology leads to a theology of mission with less urgency. The book of Revelation suggests that the final judgment has already come to pass: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (18:2) In this kind of theological imagination, history has, in a sense, already come to an end, and there is not much left to do but to wait in “patient endurance” (2:2) for the great apocalyptic mess to pass over.

This distinction between the theologies of mission produced by different kinds of historical sense and eschatology can be seen in modern Christian groups with strong apocalyptic expectation. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, look forward to the coming of a renewed and perfected world in a very concrete way. Since this perfected kingdom will only be enjoyed by those who confess religion properly, it is the good will of the Witness to make an effort at helping others to share in it. This imagination of the immanent end of history as we know it can account, at least in part, for the tremendous missionary zeal of the Witnesses.

On the other hand, a fringe group like the Branch Davidians, who came to public consciousness in 1993, believed that they had already received their eschatological prophet in the person of their leader. For them the time of mission was over; they had only to wait for the completion of the final apocalyptic battle.

But what of us who have a Christianity that is more towards the mainstream? What is our theology of history or sense of eschatology? There is a general vertigo and malaise around these issues for us late- or postmodern people. As the old saying goes, attributed to various French philosophers, ‘God is dead, Marx is dead, and I don’t feel very well myself.’

Our world is no longer pervaded by a general sense of its theological finality. The horrors of the twentieth century have broken down our confidence in the evolutionary and progress based models that were supposed to replace a superstitious eschatology. The strongly acclaimed “end” of Marxism has even broken the hopes of purely material and secular eschatologies.

Catholic Christians seem to favor a theological approach of “both/and.” Thus we try to affirm an eschatology that is both futuristic and realized at the same time. The kingdom of God that is the finality of history has already been realized in the Incarnation, Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom, and especially in the mysterious connection of his historical human life and the transcendent event of his Resurrection. On the other hand, human history is still “on the way” to somewhere; The Risen Christ has not yet come to “full stature” (Eph 4:13) and world is still groaning for its full redemption. (Rom 8:21-22)

We must be sure that this “both/and” approach is an invitation to live in a creative tension rather than a way to absolve ourselves from having to make any theological claim at all. Living in such a tense, two-fold theology of history will lead us to a double sense of mission.

First, our realized eschatology, our belief that history has reached its completion in the Resurrection, will lead us to proclaim to the world the great joy that “fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2) This will be a mission of preaching and proclamation, of bring the world the good news that it has been freed from its “bondage to decay” and may begin to enjoy “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21)

Second, our belief in a “not yet,” in a futuristic eschatology, will lead us to a mission of service. This vision of history as not yet complete will call us to serve the world as healers and prophets. This is the missionary mandate to heal the sick and preach the coming kingdom, (Lk 9:1-3) to denounce injustice, and to “bind up the brokenhearted.” (Is 61:1)

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