Against Basileiology: An Auseinandersetzung

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.


Fascinating. I wish you posted more often.

Just a few questions:
1.) What do you make of the revisionist, less literalist interpretation of NT apocalyptic advanced by Caird and Wright? You seem to hew closely to the Weiss-Schweitzer type of consistent eschatology as a description of the dominant expectations among early Christians (though you do tag some of the diversity in apocalyptic views in the apostolic church). I'm not sure it would have that much direct bearing on your constructive argument, since you've have laid down that an ancient worldview can't be normative as such). But I wonder if this revisionist view -- still a minority report, I suppose -- might be a resource for us to retrieve a more realistic notion of the basilea without adopting literal end-of-the-world scenarios.

2.) I'm a little more intrigued -- a maybe a little concerned? -- about your constructive argument. Is it perhaps a false dichotomy to pit Christology against basileology? Granted that the end of all things, by its very nature, is something that we can't exhaust in finite images or concepts -- it still seems to me that the kingdom, whatever it ultimately is, is at the very least a community, a human community and perhaps a cosmic community with God being "all in all" through Christ. I'm worried about what seems to me (tell me if this seems an unfair characterization) to risk collapsing eschatology into Christology (or soteriology or pneumatology).

Scott, thanks for the excellent questions.

1. Regarding Wright, I simply don't buy the New Perspective, particularly when it comes to the revisionist reading of the apocalyptic passages. There's a excellent study that was done recently (I've forgotten the title) arguing against Wright that these passages really are about the end of history. I don't think there's any way around that conclusion. I'm quite willing to appropriate some of the NPP's work on justification and covenantal nomism, but the claims about apocalyptic strike me as a hopeless apologetic for the validity of the NT by way of wild reinterpretation. And that's finally what bugs me about NTW's entire project, specifically his work on Jesus and resurrection, namely it's apologetic character.

2. I'll be frank: I don't think Christian theology can rest its hope in some literal cosmic "new creation" in the chronological future. I don't think we can or should make that the doctrine upon which Christianity stands or falls. In this regard, I'm a strict Lutheran at heart, but of course a Lutheran that has passed through modern historical and scientific consciousness. Justification is the heart of the Christian faith. The event of justification itself is the eschaton made present. Any notion of some future "kingdom" is, in my opinion, either mythological or simply speculative. And given that it must compete with science, it seems to me to be the eschatological mirror image of six-day creationism. I understand that it will be very hard for people to give it up, but give it up they must. That's not to say I positively disbelieve in some future world, only that I think we have to remain essentially agnostic about it. It certainly cannot be a norm for Christian theology.
Thanks for your very clear responses to my questions. I can agree with a good bit of what you wrote. I've profited from much of Wright's work, but I do think his apologetic stance often leads him to give too short shrift to his opponents' arguments. The resurrection book, despite its heft and wealth of fascinating material, doesn't really deliver the knockout punch it promises, but he manages to turn the positions of Bultmann and other theologians (which must be especially galling to you) into straw man arguments. I don't think he even really deals with Barth at all. He has more to offer, perhaps, in other works where he retrieves some of the socio-political implications of apocalyptic.

Your second set of points maps out, for me, where the more interesting challenges lie. Despite the "heaven is for real" genre and all the books about near death experiences out there, I concede there is no real "scientific" evidence for a life or reality beyond this one. And I'm willing to be "agnostic", as you put it, about the shape or form of such a world. But I would offer that that vision of the kingdom -- not just as a regulative ideal for ethics or some worldly utopia -- but as the basis for some more ultimate hope of a life beyond death could function as an article of faith just as as your claims about justification. I could say that nothing in psychoanalytic theory or behaviorism or any other social sciences (from my layperson's perspective) would vindicate your claim that we are forgiven and made right through faith in Christ. And yet you believe it, as do it. A present oriented eschatology will never quite be quite enough for me, and I guess on that point I concur with Moltmann against your point above -- even though, as you point out, he can't really prove any of this is true. A lifetime of theodicy worries and my indelible religious formation, apparently, just won't let me go there. But thanks for indulging my longish responses.
Matthew Frost said…
David, I know you've told me you find him to be something of a shambles, but I always turn from Wright et al. and their talk of Paul and "King Jesus" to Krister Stendahl, and with him back to the texts, and the Christ we have in the gospels—the man who would not be "king," or any other such title as we might drop on him. Reminds me of a 1977 quote by Dr. Joseph Sittler, as I have it:

"I did a course last summer in the graduate school with Wilhelm Linss, and he called it a critical investigation of the terminology used for Jesus in the Synoptics. He made a catalog of all these terms; and then bringing the best critical studies to bear upon them, he came up with the astounding summary that Jesus never accepted any of these titles for himself, that the language with which the Synoptics invested him was never a language that Jesus used to announce his intention, his purpose, his reality, his self-consciousness."

We are always more gung-ho on the kingdom language than God is. And every time I hear it, this language of kingdom boils down to claims to place, power, centrality, order—and so rarely to any form of ethics that in any way resembles the Jesus we plant as the figurehead for such a thing. Not that I'm pushing for Ritschl here, at least in part because I put no faith in anything internal to history! But if we want to grasp the meaning of the kingdom, we cannot define it. I worry deeply that a model that proceeds from Jesus to the Spirit to the church to the world has all too much to do with our expansion. If your model proceeds beyond the Spirit, it goes too far!

If we really want to read along with the Synoptics, and especially Matthew, we have to do it subversively. Kings and secular powers are not the "good guys" of the story, and it's not just because the people who happened to be in those positions were bad. The gospels are not about a revolution. The parables do not champion kings and rulers—and when they do, it is in the subversive act of championing the absolute antithesis of actual royal morality. God is not identified with kingdom; God is identified with the apocalypse. Regime change changes nothing in these terms—a "Christian" kingdom is as utterly questionable as Antiochus or Herod or Caesar ever was—and for that matter, as utterly questionable as the Hasmoneans or any prior line of Israel or Judah. We cannot put God in power in this way; we can only either put ourselves in God's place, or utterly demolish the concept of kingly power and domain.

I meant to reply earlier. In response to your second paragraph, let me add a few thoughts. First, the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of cosmic redemption are, in my view, qualitatively different in terms of the relation between faith and science. The former is, in principle, noncompetitive, in the very same way that God's action, if it is genuinely transcendent, is noncompetitive with worldly occurrences. By contrast, the doctrine of a future cosmic redemption is necessarily competitive with certain (all?) accounts of the future of the world. I suppose one could argue that the eschatological future is a world that is qualitatively other than this one, but that would be highly problematic for other reasons, and its certainly not the position that Wright and conservative evangelicals want to embrace.

Second, I actually do think that the doctrine of justification is one that has a certain kind of verifiability, at least within faith. That is to say, justification is primarily a conceptual clarification of the encounter with the proclaimed word, the kerygma, and this encounter does something, I want to say. It unsettles us, provokes us, prompts us, commissions us. There is, as Gerhard Ebeling says, an "experience of faith" that is, in essence, the Easter event. To enter into this experience, this reality, is to be justified. Certainly there is more to be said about this, but that should suffice for now.

Third, as I indicated in my post, I am deeply concerned about the claim that we should hold on to certain doctrines because believing in them is better than not believing them, due to the potential consequences that such a belief may have. I think this is a very dangerous road to travel. For one thing, it's just not at all clear to me that belief in a future cosmic kingdom necessarily has positive practical implications. In fact, I think it's pretty easy to demonstrate that it has had disastrous implications. Of course, the abuse caused by a doctrine does not bar proper use, nor does it invalid the doctrine; but at the same time, and conversely, proper use does not validate the doctrine. A doctrine is not true because it has led people to do good things. If that were the case, then we should simply construct a faith from the ground up using only those ideas that are likely to produce positive outcomes. There's something attractive about that, to be sure -- as Charles Finney said, only those teachings that are practical should be taught -- but I think we can all agree that's a dead end. I actually have a post related to this topic in light of the new Wizard of Oz movie, which is not a good movie but represents precisely this notion, that we need religion to make us happy and good.

Fourth, I actually think -- and argue as such in my dissertation -- that justification, the kerygmatic proclamation of judgment and grace, is actually a politically radical and revolutionary belief, one that has the genuine potential to transform ecclesial praxis. I've argued that already (in the KBBC book actually), and plan to expound that position at some length both in the dissertation and future articles.
Thanks, David. You've clarified things quite a bit more. I look forward to reading more of your published work -- esp. your expanded KBBC essay and the diss too, whenever that's in a form you might be willing to share.

I'm going to concede the point to you that justification has (or at least might have or should have) measurable effects in human life. My raising questions about that probably only muddies the waters.

As for Moltmann, Wright and others who make particularly bold and often very specific claims for the eschaton, I'm not committing myself to any of these particular proposals at this point; perhaps some of them are guilty of saying too much.

I share your worry about arguing from the demands of praxis to truth claims, though I don't let that worry become an absolute veto of proposals that make that move (liberationist views, for example). If a certain vision of the eschaton makes some of us happy or gives us hope, we do need to stay alert to the danger of false consolation. But for me the claim that religious beliefs have this wish fulfillment function is not a trump for me.

The question of how certain doctrines and beliefs relate to proposals for socio-political praxis is very interesting to me. Tanner's work is especially important to me on this point. I'll have to wait and see the specifics of your own proposal.

Still, I'm left with the big question of how the NT witness, diverse as it is, can still be living and normative for us if we demythologize or reduce the eschatological claims to refer entirely to the present experience of the believer in the faith encounter. I know "reduce" is kind of a fightin' word, but I guess this is my big ugly ditch that separates me from proposal's like Bultmann's. Somehow I have to integrate Romans 5 and 8 and the "now is the time of salvation" claim with the "many mansions" in John's farewell discourse.

That's about all I've got for this conversation, I think, until I read more of your stuff.

All the best,