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Sunday, 27 April 2008

Ancient Jewish Politics, Modern Science, and the Kingdom of God

1st century Judaism was a cauldron of resentment and frustration. Although the Jews had returned to their homeland centuries earlier, at the dawn of Jesus’ ministry they were still in political exile chaffing under foreign rule. Their Creator God had promised to bring justice and peace to his world, but the fulfillment of that promise seemed far off. How long would it take for God’s kingdom to be restored? Why did God continue to delay his coming justice? More importantly, how should God’s people respond to their humiliating political situation?

Ancient Jewish Approaches to Political Problems

N.T. Wright, in his lecture Jesus and the Kingdom of God (HT: Stephen Ranney), describes three different approaches to the Jewish predicament. First, there was the withdrawal or separatist option. This was the approach chosen by the Essenes. They resolved to separate themselves from the wicked world and to wait for God to act for Israel. There was no point in resisting the political problem or trying to accelerate the coming of the Kingdom: God would do what God would do, and he would do it in his own time.

Second, there was the compromise approach. This was the option advocated by Herod and others among the Jewish elite. The strategy here was to get along with the Romans as best one could, and shape the world to suit the needs of oneself. Hopefully God would ultimately validate the approach.

Finally, there was the Zealot option. For the Zealots, armed struggle was answer. To help God usher in his Kingdom on earth, they would fight a holy war. The Kingdom would come to fruition by the spilling of Roman blood.

As Wright explains, Jesus rejected all of these approaches. Where the Essenes withdrew from the world, Jesus immersed himself in it. Where the compromisers ignored the faith of the past, Jesus insisted on recovering an authentic Jewish faith. Where the Zealots spoke and acted in violence (often resorting to mere banditry), Jesus preached love and compassion to all.

Modern Christian Approaches to Modern Scientific Problems

Sometimes Christian approaches to modern scientific problems mirror ancient Jewish approaches to political problems. Many Christians avoid the evidence of modern science and its implications. These Christians conclude that the evil they perceive in the modern scientific community cannot be redeemed and so must be ignored. Like the Essenes, these Christians ignore Jesus' call to be salt and light.

Others accept the “gospel” of modern science at the expense of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Central doctrines like the resurrection are disposed of since they do not jive with a modern view of reality. Like the Herodians, there is peace in the kingdom (at least for those who have bowed to Caesar), but it is not God’s kingdom.

Finally, like the Zealots in ancient Palestine, some modern Christians have sworn to fight “Big Science” which, they say, promotes a religion of materialism. If this fight gets nasty, so be it. The war must be won. Let’s not worry about collateral damage or the morality of our tactics.

A Better Approach to Modern Science

How should we approach modern science? It is of course far easier to identify bad approaches than good ones. For example, the early 20th century fundamentalist withdrawal from modern culture in general, and modern science in particular, was disastrous for Evangelicalism. Others have promoted solutions to the science-faith debate by removing all hints of Christian orthodoxy from the faith side of the equation. (Check out the resources on Thank God for Evolution, particularly the essay "Evolutionary Christianity", for an example of this). Finally, just like 1st century Zealotry was disastrous for Judaism, I believe that much of the ID movement’s aggressive fight against “Big Science” will prove to be bad for Christianity. This, and not so much the questionable science and theology of ID, is why I am appalled that Evangelicals continue to promote the movie Expelled and blogs like uncommondescent as helpful to our Christian witness.

I believe Jesus’ approach to 1st century politics may be instructive for modern Christians in the faith-science dialogue. We must immerse ourselves in the entire scientific enterprise, and not avoid scientific data that seems to challenge our assumptions. We must maintain an authentic Christianity, an orthodox Christianity, even while we grapple with the implications of modern scientific evidence. And we must resist the temptation to view our apologetics as an arms race.

Old assumptions and expectations of how God’s creation works are being challenged. But the result of these overturned expectations may be much better than we think. The Kingdom of God that Jesus preached, and ultimately ushered in through his death and resurrection, was not what 1st century Judaism expected either. But its character was so much better than anyone could have possibly imagined.


Gordon J. Glover said...


If you haven't yet read Brian McLaren's "The Secret Message of Jesus" you might want to add it to your list. Deals with many of the same issues you mention here.

Coincidentally, my current series in Science and Christian Education will deal with this. Preparing our Christian children for successfull careers is a lot like preparing missionaries to take Christ into a hostile environment. If want to be effective, you have to immerse yourself in the environment, the language, the cutlure, etc... Folk science WILL get you expelled!

Can you imagine taking the "Expelled" approach to the mission field? "Gee, we can't go there, they might have some philosophical bias against Christian theism...Rather than do the hard work to invest in this culture, we'll just sit back and throw stones at them..." Not very Christ-like...

I'm "showing my hand" early. More about this later...


Steve Martin said...

Thanks Gordon. I'm enjoying your current series - particularly the last one on primary & secondary causes (http://www.blog.beyondthefirmament.com/2008/04/27/science-and-education-3/ for others reading this comment).

Anonymous said...

I haven't run across anywhere where Wright talks about evolution but he does talk about the kindgom of God being associated with this planet, as contrasted with the dispensational idea that the planet is going to be burned up so who cares about global warming, etc.

His view of the Kingdom of God having been initiated already by the risen Christ is picked up by McLaren and also Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus.

So I think the analogy is consistent with Wright.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Steve R:
It would be interesting to see what type of overlap there is between YEC orgins theology & "Left Behind" eschatology. Wondering if one is almost a proper subset of the other?

Anonymous said...

There is definitely a parallel I've seen discussed in varioius places. "Most flood geologists .. came from churches awaiting Christ's soon return to earth ... Whitcomb and Morris offered a compelling view of earth history framed by symmetrical catastrophic events and connected by a common hermeneutics. 'If you take Genesis literally,' reasoned Morris, 'you're more inclined to take Revelation literally.' Or as an Australian Adventist put it, 'The cataclysmic beginning of our world revealed in the book of Genesis guarantees the supernatural end of our planet.'" Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, p. 372.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your example of Wright, I've been ruminating about the connection. Like I said I don't know his view on creation and such but I would expect, from how he approaches his own area of study, that he would be inclined to accept science and not view it as an enemy.

You say, "We must immerse ourselves in the entire scientific enterprise" ... and "maintain an authentic Christianity" and that is what N.T. Wright does in Biblical scholarship. He doesn't ignore or explain away textual issues, he looks honestly at the history, and he builds a picture of Jesus that is way more compelling and authentic than the way Christ is usually painted by conservative Christianity. The main reaction I had when I first read him was, 'wow, Jesus is way more interesting than I thought,' and that is similar to my reaction about science and creation.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Steve R:
I think your assessment is correct. No, I haven't seen any comments from Wright either on anything to do with origins - but I'm just starting to read him. I think he's going to go right up there with other of my favorite writers like Polkinghorne.

Bill Ather said...

On the political side of this question, here's what Howard Fineman has to say:

"We have been blessed with history’s best chance to live in the space created by equipoise among the brute forces that forever vie for dominion over mankind in society. In shorthand, they are the State, the Church, the Market, the Tribe, and the Academy (Science). Balance among them produced the golden ages in the history of mankind. But let any of these five forces achieve untrammeled control, and slavery is the inevitable result. So far, we have avoided the fate of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Dickens’s London, the Mob’s Sicily, or Huxley’s Brave New World. Our best hope lies in keeping each of the basic forces forever in countervailing conflict with one another. Let them make accommodation; never let them collude. Freedom exists in the space created by equipoise among them."

Seems relevant. When either the church or the scientific establishment seek hegemony over the other's domain, unfortunate things result. But, regrettably, the line of demarcation between them is a bit fuzzy at times.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Bill,
Nice quote! I like it. In a fallen world, having “each of the basic forces forever in countervailing conflict with one another” is probably the best humanity can do. Even though the Church was instituted by Christ, it too is fallen. That the Kingdom Jesus preached about was not about politics was confusing to Jesus’ early followers.

Steven Carr said...

Was the ultra-violent Macabbean revolt backed by God?

Does Hebrews praise the people who took part in that revolt, promising them a future resurrection?

Of course, everybody not blinded by faith could see in 66 AD that a Jewish revolt would be a David and Goliath situation....

Steven Carr said...

'The Kingdom of God that Jesus preached, and ultimately ushered in through his death and resurrection, was not what 1st century Judaism expected either'

Why not?

What had the Bible prophesied? Surely the Bible had prophesied a Messiah who was not Jesus.

And why did Jesus tell the Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah she was expecting, when clearly she had faith in a totally different Messiah?

Isn't that deception on the part of Jesus?

Steven Carr said...

I haven't run across anywhere where Wright talks about evolution but he does talk about the kindgom of God being associated with this planet, as contrasted with the dispensational idea that the planet is going to be burned up so who cares about global warming, etc.

Wright is especially good on explaining the metaphors in Hebrews 1 :-

In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.

The heavens and earth will be rolled up and discarded, in the way that clothes are changed.

The old clothes that have perished are thrown away, and replaced with new clothes.

The old clothes are rolled up and thrown away.

As I said, Wright is very good on explaining this 'clothing' metaphor, which many people up to now have failed to understand.

Steve Martin said...

Steven C:
I'm not really sure how to respond to your grenades - it doesn't really look like you are looking to be part of this dialogue. There are lots of places on the net for general theist / atheist debates (many of them nasty) but this isn't one of them.

You may also want to check out past comments by RBH or Siamang on this blog - they too are atheists but they seem to be able to dialogue constructively and I appreciate their input.

Finally, I noticed there is a new blog call ntwrong.wordpress.com that started posting on April 22 - 4 days after I suggested a similar thing in http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2008/04/miller-polkinghorne-and-wright.html?showComment=1208568300000#c4958876967069905904 . Is this your blog? If not, you may want to check it out.

Steven Carr said...

Is it not important to know why New Testament writers thought the people involved in the Macabbean revolt were heroes of faith, while their leader allegedly renounced violent revolt?

Wright, of course, never touches the subject of whether the Macabbean revolt was frowned upon by God.

Wright is no more than a spin-doctor.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt of the sincerety of Dr. Colling's, Dr. Henry Morris' or your faith. But I nevertheless believe that each of you are doing harm to the Kingdom by promulgating what I believe to be false teaching. You seem to ignore the massive problems with macroevolution and how it directly contradicts Genesis' statement that each specie was created "after its kind." Morris' young earth creationism is hermeneutically unnecessary and scientifically absurd, which causes many to think that "the Bible is wrong," and keeps people from being saved.

While I am in favor of academic freedom, that freedom is granted to the institution, not the individual professor. I certainly understand the great concern expressed by his colleagues. He has no right to whine about the results.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Walt (Carpenter),
I think you meant to post this on the post An Update on Richard Colling's struggle to teach evolution at ONU. Putting that note here so others have the context.

Thanks for "not doubting" the sincerity of those of us that hold Evolutionary Creationist positions - many Christians indeed do doubt our sincerity.

I understand your position, but of course we have different views on appropriate methods of biblical interpretation. Probably not a lot of point into going into details now (For others - search the "scripture" category on the right sidebar for my own views).

One note: Colling actually has very, very little issue with his colleagues. In fact, I believe the entire biology department & maybe even the science department is supportive of his position. The opposition is almost entirely external to the university - but these "external factors" are hugely important for fundraising at ONU.