The new book Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life publishes papers delivered at colloquia that were held by the Oikonomia Network in 2019. This innovative, cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration is now available in an inexpensive paperback. This is an excerpt from a chapter in the book; footnotes have been omitted.
Note: Mark your calendar today! This chapter, and the previously published chapters “Flourishing and Justice as ‘Subduing’ the Earth” (Michael Thigpen) and “Capitalism, Socialism and Karl Barth’s Pragmatism” (Kimlyn Bender) will be among the papers discussed in our scholarly paper session at Karam Forum on January 5. See the story in this month’s newsletter for more details.
Nations, which are a key element in forming our identity and culture, play a central role in the Bible’s metanarrative of redemption. While the modern “nation-state” is not identical with the biblical “nation,” and theologians have not yet developed adequate frameworks for relating the social categories of the Bible to the social categories of advanced modernity, there is a more basic point that we can and must start putting at the center of our theological ethics: our public life – living as members of our nations in the daily life that takes place in our homes, workplaces and communities – must be rooted in the gospel that goes out to the nations.
The role of the nations in the gospel metanarrative challenges nationalism (the idolatry of nations) while also challenging purely individualistic and ecclesial conceptions of discipleship that exclude public life from the scope of Christian concern. It challenges disciples of Jesus to think of themselves as members of our nations, and thus as implicated in and responsible for the lives of our nations (in cooperation with our non-Christian neighbors, giving rise to much conflict and tension that cannot be fully resolved until Jesus returns). This metanarrative also gives a new impetus to evangelism, as the spread of the gospel to all nations advances the gospel mission of reconciling the nations, and reveals the glory of God in new ways through the discipleship of diverse peoples.
Nations Are Central to the Metanarrative of Redemption
The nations come to the fore with particular clarity in the stories of Babel (Genesis 11), Pentecost (Acts 2) and the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22). While the nations are a key part of the gospel story throughout, these incidents provide an especially clear window into the essential place of the nations in God’s plan of redemption. In light of the role the nations play in the gospel metanarrative, an understanding of the metanarrative that does not include God’s intentions for the nations and his redemptive action regarding them will result in an anemic understanding of redemption and provide insufficient theological grounding for Christian life in the present age.
Nations are depicted in the Bible as people-groups that are typically marked off from one another by differences including, but not limited to, ethnic cohesion, covenants with their gods, royal offices and shared history. These differences occur in widely varying modes and degrees; the identity and boundaries of a nation are socially constructed and historically contingent, giving rise to complexity and ambiguity (for example, the ambiguous relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans in the New Testament era). Because of this ambiguity and contingency, scripture should not be taken as providing a universally valid account of what is or is not a “nation” and how nations relate to such categories as “ethnicity.” Even the distinction between nationality and ethnicity as we now understand those terms is largely of modern origin, and thus not a subject of conscious reflection by the biblical authors.
Distinct nations are not present in God’s original creation, but as the consequences of the fall unfold, they are introduced as – and remain consistently – a central part of the gospel metanarrative. God introduces nations into history at Babel (Genesis 11) as a way of controlling the negative effects of sin. But even as he does so, he also creates a separate nation for himself – Israel (Genesis 12) – whose role will be redemptive rather than merely remedial; this nation’s redemptive work will serve the other nations. Conflict between this special nation (which carries God’s redemptive plan on behalf of all nations) and the other nations (which remain in rebellion against God and resist the redemptive plan) is a consistent theme of the Old Testament.
An especially important juncture in God’s plans for the nations arrives with the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. God reveals the inadequacy of the Mosaic covenant (by itself) for salvation, and transfers the special redemptive role of his people from a separate nation to a church that is explicitly sent out to all nations. This church is given an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) unprecedented not only in degree but in kind, permanently breaking the special association of the redemptive community with the cultural structures of a particular nation. The church community lives into this new reality, with many strains and conflicts along the way.
This new trans-national community culminates in the climax of the biblical narrative, not (as we might expect) with the removal of the national differences imposed at Babel but with the redemption of the nations as nations. The account of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22) emphasizes that the redeemed people are God’s people, but also that they are “the nations.” The contrast between Israel, which is God’s people, and the nations of the world, which are not, has been transformed. Now, all the nations are God’s peoples, plural (Revelation 21:3)…
“In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16). But now God is changing the ways of the nations, by sending out the church in the power of the Spirit. Distinguishing our religious affiliation as Christians from national affiliations is imperative. But we cannot do this at the expense of privatizing our faith. If we suppress our faith whenever we participate in the daily activities that make up national life, we are not wholly disciples.
The gospel is a gospel for and to the nations, as well as for and to individuals. The above survey of the biblical metanarrative is sufficient to show that we ought to challenge the assumption that “the gospel” properly understood includes only the redemption of individuals, while the redemption of social groups is an implication or effect of the gospel. As the “Cape Town Commitment” says, “the gospel is God’s good news, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for individual persons, and for society, and for creation.”
While the difference between saying the gospel is for the nations and saying the gospel has implications for the nations may seem like hair-splitting, it is not. As Dallas Willard has observed, one of the key challenges to building mature discipleship today is that on our understanding of what the gospel is, the gospel is not directly connected to our daily way of life. Willard challenges us to ask three questions:
- Does the gospel I preach and teach have a natural tendency to cause people who hear it to become full-time students of Jesus?
- Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural “next step”?
- What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of my message? [Divine Conspiracy, p. 58]
Without a gospel that is for and to the nations, our answers to these questions will never be fully satisfactory.
The gospel metanarrative challenges nationalism (the idolatry of nations) in at least three ways. Centrally, it demands the submission of all nations to God, casting down the use of nations as loci of ultimate meaning and allegiance. It places love, peace and reconciliation among nations at the center of the church’s mission and the life of discipleship. And by reminding us that national differences ultimately originated as a result of sin, it rebukes the pride of nationalistic historical narratives, by which nations create high and heroic origin stories.
Yet we cannot retreat from public and national life; disciple-making is a sociological as well as ecclesial and individual activity. Some parts of the church today – particularly in the United States – are dominated by purely individualistic conceptions of discipleship. One needed corrective to this deficiency is ecclesial models of discipleship, looking to the church as a social locus for following Christ. But the biblical metanarrative of the nations compels us also to wrestle with the deep challenges of public discipleship, in harmony with (not to the exclusion of) individual and ecclesial discipleship. We are implicated in, and must cooperate with our neighbors in responsibility for, the lives of our nations.
Recognizing the central place of nations in redemptive history also gives a new impetus to evangelism. The spreading of the gospel to new nations (and to new semi-national or quasi-national people groups) is not only valuable because it increases the number of saved individuals. It also carries forward God’s redemptive plan to reconcile all the nations to himself. And it opens the door for God to reveal and glorify himself in new ways. In church history, whenever the gospel has gone forth in a new cultural setting – or been revived in an old one – God has used that movement to add new dimensions to his people’s understanding of his character and purposes. What new manifestations of his glory will God reveal, unimaginable to us now, as the gospel goes forth in new ways in nations around the world?