Eschatologies of Shipwreck
“The State needs pastors who preach a theology of defeat. It keeps the laymen quiet, in an era in which Christian laymen are the most significant potential threat to the unwarranted expansion of state power.”
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The great chapter in the New Testament which deals with the division of labor within the church is I Corinthians 12. The basic teaching is found in verse 12: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” The church, the body of Christ, is to perform as a disciplined, integrated body performs. It is not to fight against itself, trip itself, or be marked by jealousy, one member against another.
The twentieth century has brought with it a deplorable application of these words. Instead of viewing the body of Christ as a symbolic body with Christ as the head, modern Christians have adopted the Roman Catholic practice of regarding the priesthood as the head, heart, and hands, with laymen serving as the back, feet, and legs. In other words, the priests serve as the unquestioned “specialists in religion,” while laymen, including elders, serve as the “secular” hewers of wood and drawers of water. The laymen are specialists in the things of “the world,” while their priests take care of the spiritual realm. We call this outlook “sacerdotalism.”
This unfortunate development began very early in the history of Protestantism, though its full implications have taken several centuries to work out in practice. Protestant sacerdotalism, like Protestant scholasticism, has been with us for a long time. Laymen have automatically assumed that the division of labor spoken of in the New Testament is a division of labor between secular and spiritual pursuits. But this is not what the New Testament teaches. The New Testament’s vision of Christ’s comprehensive kingdom involves the whole world. Jesus announced: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). Modern Christians really cannot seem to accept Christ’s words. They reinterpret them to say: ”All power is given to me in heaven, but I have abdicated as far as the earth is concerned.” The priests, as representatives of Christ’s spiritual power, which is supposedly the only real power that Christ systematically exercises, are understood to be the central figures in the kingdom. Laymen, who supposedly specialize in earthly affairs, are bearers of an inferior authority (not merely subordinate authority, but by nature inferior).
One of the reasons why Christians have adopted the peculiar view of authority outlined above has to do with the concept of victory. From Augustine to Kuyper, or from Luther to Barth, expositors have too often limited the promise of victory to the institutional church, or even more radically, to the human heart alone. Where a man’s heart is, there will be his kingdom. If his hope of victory is limited to his heart, then his concern will be drastically narrowed. He will worry about his heart, his personal standing before God, his own sanctification, and his relationship to the institutional church. He will be far less concerned about exercising disciplined authority in the so-called secular realm. It is difficult psychologically to wage war on a battlefield which by definition belongs to the enemy. An army which lacks confidence is defeated before it takes the field. This is why God commanded Gideon to announce to the Israelites: “Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart early from Mount Gilead” (Judges 7:3).
A THEOLOGY OF SHIPWRECK What we have seen, especially since the First World War, is a retreat from victory by Christians. Precisely at the time when humanism’s hopes of a perfectible earth were shattered on the battlefields of Europe, the Christians also gave up hope. The Christians had seen the technological victories of secularism, and they had mentally equated these victories with Christ’s kingdom promises. When the secular ship went down in a sea of needlessly shed blood, the Christians grabbed the only life preservers they thought were available: pessimistic eschatologies. They took comfort from the fact that the ship had sunk, not because they were safely sailing on a rival ship, but because all optimistic endeavors are supposedly doomed. They had built no ship of their own to compete with the Titanic of secularism, so they comforted themselves by clinging to theologies of universal sunken ships.
There are those who parade a theology of ship designing. They say that we ought to conquer the earth by means of Christian institutions. They claim that they have designs ready and waiting – cosmonomic designs, certified for export by the Dutch board of trade-but that they know, in advance, that there is no market for such designs, no capital to begin construction, and no hope of seeing them completed. They feel that they have been faithful to the Bible by merely proclaiming the hypothetical possibility of the external kingdom of God on earth. They have not bothered to get down to the blueprint stage, simply because they have not believed that their social and economic designs could ever be implemented. All ships, ultimately, are doomed, say these theologians of shipwreck.
Is it surprising, then, that the “dominies” in clerical robes are considered to be immune to criticism by laymen within ecclesiastical organizations that are based on a theology of shipwreck? After all, if all secular ships must go down eventually, and all Christian social institutions are equally doomed, then the only hope is the lifejacket of internal victory. Spiritual victory is all that counts, since this alone will float in a sea of social chaos. And, we must always remember, it is only ordained pastors who pass out the lifejackets. They have the keys to the kingdom, meaning the sacraments, preaching, and institutional discipline within the churches. This is the only kingdom there is, if not theoretically, then at least practically. The kingdom is finally equated with the institutional church and its operations, despite the fact that Protestant theologians officially reject this medieval vision of the kingdom. Where there is no victory possible, there we find no theology of dominion.
ESCHATOLOGY AND TYRANNY If men have no hope of being able to reform the external world – the world outside the institutional churches – then they are faced with two sources of tyranny. The first is ecclesiastical. The second is political.
Ecclesiastical tyranny stems from the monopoly position which pastors are understood to enjoy within the confines of the institutional churches. If the internal kingdom is the only hiding place for weary, beaten laymen – inevitably defeated in a world devoid of Christ’s power-then laymen must accept this resting place on the terms assigned to them by the ordained leadership. A monopoly can extract monopoly returns, after all. The only competition faced by the clerics, given an eschatology of external defeat, is that offered by other clerics in other churches. The world offers no comforts, no hope of successes enjoyed by faithful Christians, no promise of dominion in terms of biblical revelation. The only hope of victory is the victory of the lifejacket. Of course, other churches can offer lifejackets. This reduces the power of the defenders of Protestant sacerdotalism, but it does not eliminate it. Laymen, in relation to their ecclesiastical superiors, can only playoff one against another; they cannot exercise comparable authority in any significant sphere of life officially belonging to them, because their spheres of legitimate authority are battlefields of guaranteed defeat. At best, laymen can be generals of rag-tag armies of incompetents.
An eschatology of shipwreck also leaves men virtually helpless against the unwarranted demands of an expanding civil government. Humanism may be bankrupt, but Christians – who own moral and cultural capital because of their relationship with Christ – are unwilling to make a “run on the banks” of humanism. Therefore, the State expands its naked power, since few voices are raised in principled protest. The Christians remain silent, or at least confused in their opposition, precisely because they have been taught that impotence politically and culturally is their assigned task on earth. There are two realms, spiritual and secular, and the secular realm is one of chaos and defeat. Why spend time in principled protest, if the only possible result is defeat? How much capital – energy, time, money, commitment – will men invest in a venture which has attached to it the theological equivalent of a Bad Housekeeping seal of approval?
CONCLUSION So what we find in the twentieth century is a twofold expansion of power, first by the defenders of Protestant sacerdotalism, and second by the secular State. The State needs pastors who preach a theology of defeat. It keeps the laymen quiet, in an era in which Christian laymen are the most significant potential threat to the unwarranted expansion of State power.