The Protestant Deformation of Christian Nationhood, Part 2

Prof. Andrew Fraser


The Revolutionary Excesses of Christian Humanism

Throughout the Western world, both State and Church have adopted Barth’s doctrine of “near and distant neighbours.”  When we encounter “foreigners” or “strangers”—whether as citizens or Christians—we must not allow “being in one’s own people” to become “a prison and stronghold.”  Every man must instead obey God’s command “to move out from his beginning and therefore seek a wider field.”  The result has been that neither the State nor the Church works any longer to preserve and protect what even Barth conceded is our “divine disposition” to love kith and kin over both neighbours and strangers.  On the contrary, political and religious leaders, alike, now act as if “our only impulse” should “be so to strengthen the inner forces of our own land and people that we can not only tolerate many foreign countries, and many foreigners who find a second home among us, but make them our own.”  Barth denied that the church can “legitimate its own division along racial lines ‘because the community owes to the world a witness…to the mutual fellowship of human beings.”[1] In the years since his death, the “inner forces” pushing both State and Church to embrace the neo-communist program of open borders and mass Third World immigration have become so powerful that the national identity—indeed the very survival—of every Anglo-Saxon Protestant (and European Christian) country has been thrown into doubt.  The universalist humanism invoked to justify the globalist program is based not upon reason but upon an “existential leap of faith” entailing a host of unknown and potentially dangerous consequences.  Unless and until Protestant theology recognizes the ecclesiastical legitimacy of the Volkskirche, it may be impossible to avoid “excessive” reactions from the forces of ethnoreligious particularism demonized by Barth.  Christian ethnopatriotism is down but not out.

Even Barth acknowledged that loyalty to one’s own people “does not exclude the recognition and respecting of other nationalities or the will to experience fellowship with them.”  He also knew that it was “not wholly impossible to speak in rational and Christian terms with at least some” defenders of folk-centred, national churches.  The need for many such conversations has become much more urgent since the abstract humanism of Barth’s theology has transgressed the boundaries within which he sought to confine it.  Barth denied that the nation was an order of creation but he affirmed that there were at least “two distinct circles of natural fellow-humanity.”  Unlike national identity which is inherently fluid and contingent, Barth maintained that the relationships between man and woman and parent and children are posited “irreversibly, inflexibly, and indestructibly” by the God-given nature of mankind.[2] Unfortunately, the ideological civil wars of the twentieth century did not come to a permanent end in 1945.

By the 1960s, the forces of cosmopolitan universalism had launched an ongoing cultural revolution that seems set to dissolve the last two orders of creation recognized by Barth.  Relationships between men and women and between parents and children are becoming as fluid, reversible, and removable as national identity now that both the State and many ostensibly Christian churches “tolerate” feminism, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion-on-demand, artificial insemination, illegitimacy, and single-parent “families” slavishly dependent upon the corporate welfare state.  An incremental, creeping, toleration of incest, polygamy, and paedophilia is following not far behind.  Already, Muslim colonies in the West have normalized cousin marriages; feminist journalists suggest that, all things considered, polygamy offers the best balance between autonomy and intimacy for today’s emancipated career woman;[3] and who knows what happens when fashionably transgressive homosexual couples invite “their” children into the privacy of Frankenfamily bedrooms?

Towards an Ethnotheological Critique of Barth’s Humanist Ecclesiology

In these circumstances, a critical re-assessment of Barth’s theology of the anti-nation is long overdue.  Let us examine the tortured trajectory of Barth’s long campaign against the ideal of the Volkskirche.  Barth asserts that no particular place or people can be holy.  “God alone is holy.”[4] But he must acknowledge that God willed Old Israel to become a holy nation.  To minimize the normative force of that concession, he contends that the covenant between God and Israel was only a provisional arrangement that was fulfilled by the advent of Christ and his suffering on the Cross.  In other words, the central role in the economy of salvation is played by Christ.  Ironically, Barth’s Christocentrism left him open to charges of supersessionism; i.e., the belief that Old Covenant Israel was superseded by the New Israel incarnate in the church.[5]

Struggling to resist the supersessionist logic of his Christology, Barth denied that the unbelief of Jews excludes them from “the community of God” because “its election…exists according to God’s eternal decree as the people of Israel (in the whole range of its history in past and future, ante and post Christum natum.)”[6] In effect, Barth provides theological support for the claim that the Jewish ethnonation is a unique order of creation—even though Jews still flatly deny that the coming of Christ changed everything.  Of course, Barth does not want to promote the “direct or indirect renewal of Jewish nationalism (which is the prototype of all bad nationalisms).”[7] He does, however, situate contemporary Jews (and the modern State of Israel) in a direct line of descent from Old Israel.  As a holy nation elected by God, Israel remains—despite its continued disobedience—the chosen people, an ontological status not open to non-Jewish nations.

According to Barth, neither in “the sphere of creation” nor “in the eschaton, in the light of the final revelation,” does Scripture advert to “the problem of nations.”  He asserts that “we can read…the whole context of Genesis 1–9…without finding a single reference to the presence of individual peoples.”[8] A better view is that Genesis 1–9 represents a creation myth; it presupposes the existence of other peoples such as the Egyptians and the Babylonians; it also provides the Israelites, emerging from exile and ignorant of their own identity with a narrative that distinguishes their holy nation from the mythological origins of those other peoples.[9] Throughout Scripture, the sea and the land serve as recurrent metaphors for Jews and non-Jews, respectively.  As God created his cosmic temple in Genesis One, the Israelites were set apart from the non-Jews on the third day; it was then that “the waters under the heavens” were “gathered together into one place” called the “Seas,” thereby allowing “the dry land” to appear (Genesis 1:9).[10] Contrary to Barth’s claim, therefore, the relationship between “nations” and “humanity” was foreshadowed in the sphere of creation.

Barth believes that a final solution to the naggingly persistent problem of national identity will come with the eschaton (i.e., the last days, or the Second Coming of Christ.)  Only by appealing to an abstract, ahistorical, and passively futurist eschatology can Barth paper over the tension between his doctrine of Israel and his teaching on near and distant neighbours.  As we have seen, Barth casually dissolves primordial biocultural distinctions between strangers and neighbours, out-groups and in-groups, into the lowest common denominator of “humanity.”  He then declares grandly that an allegedly divine commandment of xenophilia is mandatory for every Christian people.

Barth also licences—in perpetuity—an obdurate, self-assertive, Jewish ethnonation whose identity is grounded firmly in the collective rejection of Christ as the Son of God.  Accordingly, Barth was no more interested than the Deutsche Christen in continuing the Christian mission to convert individual Jews to the faith.  His utopian vision of the collective conversion of Jews in the last days left him indifferent to “the role of personal choice in the matter of Jewish salvation.”[11] Only through the mysterious work of God, he believed, will Jews come to recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Until the apocalypse, however, Jews remain their own Messiah with a self-proclaimed mission “to heal the world.”  Barth insists that “the church” must “not dispute…the eternal election of Israel.”  While expressing sorrow over “the nationalist legalistic Messiah-dream of the Synagogue,” Barth affirms that “the bow of the one covenant” still arches over both unbelieving Jews and faithful Christians.  In Barth’s humanist ecclesiology, such contradictions and double standards—like the “possibility of unbelief, false belief, and superstition, of ignorance, indifference, hate, and doubt” forever dividing the visible from the invisible church—“all lie close at hand and will continue so to lie as long as time lasts, as long as the final revelation of the victory of Jesus Christ has not yet dispersed these shadows.”[12]

Conclusion

The key to understanding the Protestant deformation of Christian nationhood lies in Barth’s futurist eschatology, the belief that all the earthly divisions of race, class, and gender, between Jew and non-Jew, male and female, slave and free, will be overcome in the apocalyptic appearance of a new heaven and a new earth.  In the present age, all the nations of the earth are separated from God in his heaven by an impassable gulf.  Alienated from the incarnate Word of God, humans face the constant temptation to worship instead “the gods of power, wealth, nationality, and race that clamour for our allegiance.”[13] In the age to come, the elect will be taken up into the Kingdom of God, into a New Jerusalem where Christ will be seated on his throne with all the saints of Old and New Israel by his side.  Barth’s highly refined brand of millennialism contributed to a broader ecumenical movement that led liberal Protestants to embrace mass Third World immigration while pointing conservative evangelicals, especially in the USA, toward Christian Zionism.  Christian humanism is not alone in its addiction to millennial teleology.  Every revolutionary movement in the modern era has invoked its own secularized version of the apocalyptic myth of the Second Coming.  The religion of humanity simply translates the eschatological hopes of Christian believers into secular utopias and myths of human perfectibility.  In concurrent campaigns to engineer the salvation of the chimerical abstraction they call “humanity,” both Christians and Communists committed countless excesses.  In pursuit of the millennium, “progressives” of all stripes brought Christendom to the brink of extinction.

The good news is that futurist eschatology may lose its hold over the Christian social imaginary during the next Protestant Reformation.  The neo-communist theology now peddled by Protestant divinity schools draws its emotional force from the as yet unrealised promise of Christ’s Second Coming.  That promise is wearing thin, much like secular humanist hopes that the Bolshevik Revolution would usher in a worker’s paradise.  For centuries now, atheists and sceptics have mocked the Christian creeds which look forward to the parousia; the New Testament, they say, clearly shows that first-century Christians were convinced that Christ was coming in their near future.  In the Book of Revelation, Christ proclaims, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7). During his lifetime, Jesus promised that “this generation will not pass away” before they see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and glory” (Matthew 24:30–34).  Barth encouraged mainstream Christians to join with sceptics in assuming that first-century Christians were wrong, that their expectations were left unfulfilled.  But what if they were right?  What if the parousia did come before all those who had heard Jesus speak had passed away?  What if Christ came back, as promised, on clouds of glory, in the first century AD?  What if the evidence for such a startling proposition has always been present, in plain view, readily available to all with eyes to see in the Holy Bible?

One of the most interesting and potentially world-shattering developments in the history of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism is emerging, outside the theological seminaries and divinity schools, in a Bible studies movement known as preterism (from the Latin praeter meaning ‘past’).[14] Preterist pastors teach that Old Covenant Israel was destroyed, once and for all, with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70.  By any standard, that event was of world-historical significance; more than a million Jews died as a consequence.  What might now be called the first holocaust did not come as a surprise to first-century Christians.  Jesus had warned them to leave Jerusalem when the signs of its imminent destruction began to appear.  He told his disciples that “not one stone” of the temple “will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.”(Matthew 24:2)  Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian and eyewitness to the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, reported that armies of angels were seen moving through the clouds as the gathering storm of destruction swept over the city.[15] The Old Covenant with Israel was superseded when a New Covenant came into force in which the church became the New Israel.

This teaching marks a return to Christian orthodoxy in which neither individual Jews nor the modern State of Israel are to be set upon a pedestal as avatars of the still-holy nation of ancient Israel.  The parousia of Christ is in the past; it did not herald the physical end of planet Earth; nor will the Temple in Jerusalem be restored sometime in our future so that Jesus will at long last reign in glory over his Kingdom.  Old Israel no longer exists.  God is no longer bound hand and foot to the Old Covenant.  The advent of Christ changed everything; in particular, it changed what it means to be a Jew.  Until the New Covenant was consummated in AD 70, in other words, while every “jot and tittle” of the Law still remained in force, to be a Jew was to be a member of God’s holy nation; but, even during Christ’s lifetime, as can be seen most clearly in the Gospel of John, the meaning of the word “Jew” was changing, until finally after AD 70 it denoted a people whose collective, ethnoreligious identity was—and remains—rooted in its rejection of Christ.  Christians, on the other hand, are duty-bound to pray for the conversion of the Jews—only by recognizing the Lordship of Jesus Christ can the “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9) be saved from itself.

Once the New Covenant creation was inaugurated, the church was called to exercise and expand Christ’s spiritual dominion over a world without end.  Barth, of course, explicitly rejected a theology of dominion:

The sign which [the church] is called to erect is a sign other than the sign of dominion.  For this reason, it will not conceive its task to be the establishment of a rule of its own. It will not proceed to build a city of God in opposition to the cities of the world, a realm of the pious against the realm of the godless, an island of the righteous and blessed in the midst of the sea of wickedness.[16]

Barth designed a defeatist theology to accommodate the church to “post-Christendom.”  The early church, by contrast, set forth to make disciples of every nation.  Having been rejected by the Jews, and driven out of the Middle East by the Muslim conquest several centuries later, Christ found his only secure earthly habitation in the hearts and minds of the European peoples.  It was in Old Europe that the first and greatest Christian nations came into being, thereby fulfilling Christ’s prophecy that the leaves of the tree of life will be “for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2).  Barth’s ever-so-nice Christian humanism threatens to undo that glorious achievement.


[1] Ibid., 291-294; Mangina, “Stranger as Sacrament,” 331.

[2] Barth CD III 4, 308, 288.

[3] Jessica Mack, “Women can be independent and intimate,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/22/women-intimacy-autonomy

[4] Ibid., 292.

[5] R Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 85-94.

[6] Barth, CD III 4, 292, 310, 197-200.

[7] Barth, CD II 2, 280-281.

[8] Barth, CD III 4, 310.

[9] Cf John H Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

[10] Norman Voss, “The Six Days of Creation,” Covenant Creation Conference, 2010, lecture available online at:

http://preteristhosting.com/ad70net/audio/CCC2010/CCC2010_Lecture_02_Norm_Voss_2.mp3

[11] Johnson, “Jewish Rejection of Jesus,” 238.

[12] Karl Barth, CD, II 2, 204-205; Gerhard Sauter, “Why is Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics not a ‘Theology of Hope’? Some Observations on Barth’s Understanding of Eschatology,” (1999) 52(4) Scottish Journal of Theology 407; Barth, God Here and Now, 84.

[13] Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 5.

[14] A very good introduction to preterism is: Timothy P Martin & Jeffrey L Vaughn, Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation (Whitehall, MT: Apocalyptic Vision Press, 2007).

[15] Paul L Maier, ed, Josephus: The Essential Writings (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1988), 365-369; Paul L Maier, tr. Eusebius: The Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 73-83.

[16] Cf., David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Horn Lake, MS: Dominion Press, 2007). Karl Barth, God in Action (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 34:

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