At the recent 2013 annual meeting of the American Society of Missiology on June 21–23—a 40th anniversary celebration marked by some excellent keynote addresses and very fine papers—there was one paper session that was standing-room only: Stanley Nussbaum and Steve Bevans on “the field of missiology as the queen of theology.” Having studied under and with Darrell Guder and John Flett, I knew in general what this was about. Mission theologians have long lamented the way mission is sidelined into “practical theology” or given a place perhaps within ecclesiology, when systematic theology as a whole ought to be entirely in service to the mission of God and the church. Theology is the conceptual clarification of this divine-human mission actualized in Christ. So and so forth.
All of this I can say a hearty amen to, but things became problematic when Nussbaum proceeded to offer a typology of models for systematic theology. The “modern” model was a triangle, symbolizing a foundationalist method, in which the doctrine of God leads to christology and finally to ecclesiology and eschatology. The “postmodern” model had two boxes connected by arrows to depict a method of correlation between doctrines and contexts without any norm or criterion. Nussbaum then turned to his missiological alternative, which he symbolized with an arcing arrow. The arrow’s starting-point was the “reign of God,” and it moved, according to the diagram, from Jesus to Holy Spirit to church to world and finally to the eschaton. Below it read: “The arrow is mission.” This third model is called the “kingdom-based structure for theology,” and he claimed that it was an accurate representation of a position outlined previously by Wilbert Shenk.
Nussbaum then turned to the question: “Is there a metanarrative?” And according to his third model, the answer is: “Yes, absolutely.” The metanarrative is “the kingdom of God.” This means that all theology is finally basileiology; the doctrine of the basileia is the normative center and hermeneutical key for all Christian teaching. He identified other theologians who share this perspective, including James McClendon, N. T. Wright, and Scot McKnight.
In the Q&A time, I raised a strong objection to this position, at least as described by Nussbaum. In the rest of this blog post, I want to explain in greater depth than I was able in the few seconds I took to raise my question why I object to this position.
1. The first problem is exegetical and hermeneutical. What exactly are we supposed to understand by the word “kingdom”? What does it mean to speak of the “kingdom of God”? We are now well over a century since the pathbreaking work of Johannes Weiss, who showed conclusively that whatever Jesus meant by “kingdom of heaven/God,” it certainly was not the innerhistorical ethical community of Ritschl. The expectation of God’s kingdom was a literal, apocalyptic belief in the imminent incursion of God’s reign and the end of the present age. This kingdom never came, however, and despite immensely implausible attempts by some to claim that the apparently permanent deferral of this new age was actually what the apostles believed all along (“one day is a thousand years” and all that nonsense), there’s no reasonable way to avoid the conclusion that history simply did not unfold the way the original Christian communities expected. What are we to make of this? I think we have to pose serious questions to the assumption that there is some future reign, some millennial kingdom, that is going to come with Christ’s return. Of course, people like Jürgen Moltmann argue that belief in a literal, future, apocalyptic kingdom is necessary as the basis for a radical Christian politics; Jacob Taubes even argues that this belief was only ever a politics. But pragmatic considerations cannot stand in for truth, and the truth is that this belief is a culturally conditioned notion that takes for granted a conception of God and the world that is no longer tenable in any literal form. The gospel has to stand on its own two feet, so to speak; it must not depend on an ancient cultural world-picture for its viability. Christopher Morse is entirely correct to call for a deliteralizing of heaven. In any case, the question remains: which kingdom are we talking about? Is it the cosmic-apocalyptic kingdom of Second Temple Judaism? Is it the theocentric eschatological kingdom proclaimed by Jesus? Is it the christocentric eschatological kingdom proclaimed by Paul? Or is it one of the otherworldly, sacramentalized kingdoms of the imperial church? The list could go on. The point is that one cannot speak about some single, self-evident basileia, as if there were a normative, prehermeneutical dogma of the kingdom that we must either accept or reject.
2. The second problem is theological. In the model presented by Nussbaum, the “kingdom” is clearly differentiated from “Christ” and “Spirit.” The kingdom is something other than Jesus Christ, something other than God. We can debate the exegetical and historical issues all we want, but for those who count the received Christian kerygma—especially as articulated by Luther and the reformers—as somehow normative, this bifurcation between kingdom and Christ is simply not possible. The proclaimer has become the proclaimed, and there is no going back. Within the NT itself, it is evident that Jesus himself has become, at least for most, the object of faith and object. For Paul, and especially John, a shift has occurred, whereby the new age is no longer something future that is separable from Christ, but is instead Christ himself. He is the turning point of the ages. The new age has already arrived for Paul and John; the kingdom is here, and it is incarnate as the Christ. Paul is certainly an apocalyptic thinker, but he relocates the apocalypse out of some cosmic future into the coming of Christ himself, and specifically in the coming of Christ’s faith wherein the old self is crucified and the new person is resurrected. The NT witness is, of course, inconsistent on this point, since this was clearly a matter of some dispute in the early Christian community (see Galatians). Setting aside the question of historical development, the question for us is what is theologically normative. The attempt to separate the kingdom from Jesus belongs to the dubious school of thought that tries to pit Jesus against Paul. We cannot accept that as a valid option. We must instead let the kerygmatic identification of Jesus as the eschatological event provide the hermeneutical key for our understanding of Jesus’ own proclamation. This is not because maintaining some semblance of canonical unity is a good in itself, but because we simply cannot get behind the kerygmatic Gospel narratives to find some purportedly original message from the so-called “historical Jesus.” Christology is inseparable from ecclesiology; faith in Christ is at the same time faith in the Spirit. For this reason, we must interpret Jesus’ proclamation of the future kingdom in accordance with the post-Easter faith of the church in Jesus himself as God’s reign on earth. There is consequently no theological basis for differentiating between kingdom and Christ. The reign of God is a cruciform reign actualized in the crucified one.
3. We can synthesize the above comments into the following thesis: insofar as basileiology is anything other than christology, then it cannot serve as the ground and norm of Christian theology. Nussbaum is absolutely correct in his claim that, while all theology is missiological, missiology is not the ground of theology. But his further claim that this ground is basileiology—in contrast to christology—cannot be sustained. Indeed, it is precisely this gap between kingdom and Christ that marks the nineteenth-century theological tradition against which the twentieth century rightly rebelled. In my Q&A question, I asked how this model differs from that of Ritschl. Nussbaum didn’t have an answer for me, but simply said that it was a worthwhile critique that needed to be taken seriously. It was with great (but unintended) irony that Bevans, who offered some further reflections on this model, proceeded to argue that basileiology is finally a doctrine of creation! The starting-point for theology and mission, he claimed, is an understanding of our common createdness in the image of God. To be sure, this has great interreligious and ecumenical potential, and yet I hardly need to point out that this very prioritization of creatiology above christology has led and continues to lead to all manner of theological propaganda, for the doctrine of creation on its own is a formal category whose content is easily supplied by uninterrogated cultural and political presuppositions (e.g., racial purity, gender complementarity, heteronormativity, etc.). Bevans ended up confirming the very criticism that I lodged against Nussbaum. In so doing, he exposed the way basileiology can become an ideological tool when dissociated from the concrete soteriological content of christology.
4. We can largely retain Nussbaum’s schematic. He is correct, I would argue, in wanting to subordinate all other Christian doctrines to a specific (and ideally concrete) theological norm. But we must replace basileiology with soteriology, or maybe even pisteology. Christology might work; certainly that was Barth’s choice. But christology apart from soteriology is empty and has no meaning for Christian theology. Jesus Christ is a norm for theological reflection only as the one who came “for us and our salvation.” Soteriology is therefore the concrete location of christology. Pisteology, as the doctrine of faith, specifies this location even more concretely. However we end up fleshing this out, it is crucial to see that basileiology can serve no other purpose than what we already find in soteriology. Theology that is not soteriocentric from the ground up is not Christian theology.