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Heaven and Earth

A Narrative-Historical Framework for Cultural Engagement

Brandon Rhodes

April 2007

Introduction The relationship between Christ and culture has always been contentious. Proposed solutions range from all-out withdrawal from culture by Christians, to the establishment of church and state. In part one, this paper will show that many solutions have become mortally ensnared in two briar patches: they assume insufficiently missional ecclesiologies, and they operate within a flawed framework of “Christ and culture”. Part two will sketch ways out of these thickets through the narrative-historical work of N.T. Wright. The final part will explore his framework in contrast to the frameworks and authors we met in part one. The proposed solution is in more elegant and consistent harmony with the scriptures concerning cosmology and framework, and more missionally fruitful concerning ecclesiology, than the others we will have met along the journey.

I –Failed Fundamentals Limp Ecclesiology The twentieth century birthed a new theological discipline in missiology, a focus on the mission of God. It concluded that mission begins not with the church, but in God himself. Apropos: the mission of the church involves participation in his broader mission of setting the whole world aright. Such innovations have breathed new life across the ecclesial spectrum, particularly regarding cultural engagement. Yet missiology did not come to full bloom until well after the publication of a foundational text on cultural engagement, H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Niebuhr’s ecclesiology was not influenced by the missiology conversations, and so was


not missional; his famous options for Christ-culture interaction didn’t assume the inherently missional nature of the church. Worse, Niebuhr’s own ecclesiology seems oddly absent from the entire work. This absence exists because his framework is Christ and culture, rather than, say, the church and culture or Christianity and culture. Thus instead of defining the church, he defines Christ instead,1 and worked with that. missional notes, they appeared absent. If Niebuhr’s ecclesiology had any

This lack of ecclesial mission is more an

incidental (if fatal) failure on Niebuhr’s part, than it is a willed fault. But a failure it remains, as the formation of mission later on will show.

Frameworks of Fantasy A more fundamental problem in Niebuhr’s book is the very framework he uses, Christ and culture, which generations of Christians have been trained to process the issue through. This framework fails insofar as it is built on a faulty cosmology-level anxiety: “the challenge of articulating the Christian understanding of the nature of God in a manner that balances, affirms and holds in creative tension the twin truths of the divine transcendence and the divine immanence.”2 When Niebuhr does consider how Christ and culture, the sacred and the secular, interact, he does so with that anxiety assumed: ‘how does the holy God interact with this unholy world?’ Thus for Niebuhr it is: how can the holy Christ engage these shattered cultures? This framework is compromised because this entire question and anxiety – balancing the immanence and transcendence of God – would have been lost on the New

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ & Culture. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1951), 11-29.


Grenz, Stanley J., and Roger E. Olson. 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 11.


Testament’s writers. As will be shown, their cosmology did not necessitate this question. This is not to invalidate the anxiety, but only to say that the Bible’s authors have an answer to it. If Christians are move forward, they must abandon this immanence-

transcendence question, and so also Niebuhr’s five options and entire framework. Returning to the biblical cosmology of ‘heaven and earth’, and to the story of God’s setting the world aright with his elect people, can dim today’s perceived tension between Christ and culture. Other solutions than Niebuhr’s have been proposed in recent years. For example, Craig Carter brilliantly reworks Niebuhr’s options along the line of nonviolence.3 But for all the validity of his lambastes against Niebuhr, Carter’s work remains built on the cosmology which breeds the immanence-transcendence problem. Alternately, Paul Metzger has come to a solution through the theology of Karl Barth which, it will be shown, is close to this paper’s proposed solution.4 His dogmatic answer, however, is arrived at by way of the long, winding, and overgrown path of Barth’s unique doctrines and intricate Christological details. The following framework will prove more accessible, simple, elegant, and fruitful than the trying and tedious theological trapeze-work found in Metzger’s Barth.


Carter, Craig. Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), chapter 3.

Metzger, Paul Louis. The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular Through the Theology of Karl Barth. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003)


II – N.T. Wright’s Narrative-Historical5 Framework Our Place and Part in God’s Story N.T. Wright finds the church’s mission in the five-act story of God, with most of the fifth act missing. The beginning (Acts, epistles) and end of the act (Revelation 21-22, bits of the prophets) are there, and it is up to the church to improvise their parts in the fifth act in continuity with the first four.6 Act 1 (Creation) – YHWH creates the heavens and the earth, and forms humanity in his image to rule over and reflect that image into the rest of creation. Act 2: (Fall) – Humanity brings death and evil into creation by rejecting YHWH. Act 3 (Israel) – God chooses a people through whom he would redeem his ailing creation to himself; they are to be the solution, or the means to the solution, to the crisis introduced in Act 2. These people persistently behave more as the problem than as God’s solution, so he sends them into exile, and keeps them under pagan empires for nearly 500 years. Through prophets and apocalyptic literature, they form a hope that some day, YHWH will deliver them from pagan bondage, forgive their sins, end the exile, return his presence to Jerusalem, send his Messiah, renew his covenant, rebuild the Temple, vindicate them, become King, defeat evil, resurrect the righteous dead, and set the world aright (‘new creation,’ a new heavens and new earth).7 Israel was in the present evil age, awaiting ‘the Age to Come’ (ha’olam haba; in Greek, eternal life).8


For a summary of Narrative-Historical methodology and theology, see: Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 131-137, 139-143.

Ibid, 139ff. Ibid, chapter 10. Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 201-6.




Act 4 (Jesus) – Jesus of Nazareth fulfills all of these hopes as the climax of Israel’s story, but in ways that they neither wanted nor expected.9 Almighty God “has acted in Jesus the Messiah to usher in the new age, to inaugurate the new covenant, to plant the seeds of new creation.”10 After accomplishing these through his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended to become Lord of all creation, ruling from heaven. He commissioned his followers – the renewed, eschatological people of God – to announce his reign in word and deed. Easter pulls the curtain on Act 5. Act 5 (New Creation) – Among the Jewish hopes which were inaugurated was that YHWH would defeat evil and set the world aright through new creation. As Wright pens, the “cross is the hinge upon which the door swings open to God’s new world.”11 Thus Jesus is God’s future for the world, ha’olam haba, suddenly rushing in to the present evil age12 – leaving the church “caught in the overlap of the ages.”13 Nevertheless, the work of the gospel by the Spirit is to create and empower “the people in whom the new age, the Age to Come of Jewish eschatological expectation, had come to birth.”14 Though the promise of a world wholly set right side up is still future, it is the task of the church as that future’s firstfruits to implement God’s victory on the cross as it actively anticipates the coming consummation of that victory, the life in the Age to Come. Carter’s ecclesiology fits perfectly within this story: the church’s “goal is not to

Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), chapters 6-8. Wright, N.T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 147.



Wright, N.T.. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, with Marcus Borg. (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1999), 103.

Wright, N.T.. Lecture: “God’s future for the world has arrived in the person of Jesus.” The Future of the People of God series. 2004. Available at

Wright 2005, 150. Ibid, 147.



transform society, but to witness to the truth that, in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the world has already been transformed. The purpose of the church is to proclaim this truth and to embody it in its own communal life”. 15 The church is oriented by “the present reign of Christ in which the coming completed reign of God is revealed and becomes effective in the present”, says Hans Küng.16 Thus cultural engagement is emphatically not the mission of the church, but is an inexorable outflow of that mission. Simple enough, it seems: this is ‘inaugurated eschatology’ through and through. The hook for the present discussion, however, comes in finding the late-Jewish/earlyChristian cosmology’s role in that same story. So also its implications for the nature and mission of the church, and a long overdue conclusion to the immanence-transcendence anxiety which has so gridlocked cultural engagement theologies.

A Biblical Cosmology According to biblical cosmology, heaven and earth are neither coterminous (the womb for strong immanence, and, later, pantheism) nor severed by a cosmic gulf (the womb for strong transcendence and, later, Gnosticism).17 Rather, they are the two

dimensions of God’s total creation, God’s space and humanity’s space, which are intended to overlap, intersect, and interlock – eventually, says Christian hope, once and for all. “This sense of overlap between heaven and earth,” says Wright, “and the sense of God thereby being present on earth without having to leave heaven, lies at the heart of


Carter, 26. Küng, Hans. The Church. (Garden City, NY: Image, 1967), 126.



Wright, N.T.. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. (New York, NY: Harper-Collins, 2006), 60-63.


Jewish and early Christian theology.”18 Ancient Jews understood this overlap to happen in several ways and places, the foremost being the Temple. By Jesus’ day, Jewish thinkers understood heaven and earth to also overlap in God’s “Presence, Torah, Word, Wisdom, and Spirit.”19 These are how the creator God interacts redemptively with his creation: like immanence, like transcendence, only better than either. This strongly echoes the Jewish expectation of the present evil age and the Age to Come, and of the Christian innovation that because of Jesus the two are now overlapping and running alongside one another. Revelation 21-22 shows the picture of heaven and earth coming together at last, and so being mutually renewed. The dwelling places of God and humanity marry at last. The Christian story proposes that the beachhead of that future, of heaven, arrived in Jesus, and continues in the life of the church. “Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present.”20 Jesus taught his followers to pray as much: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Mt 6:10). This cosmology has two presently relevant implications. First, Jesus relocates the place where heaven and earth intersect, the Temple, to himself; Paul says this of the church. The church, the people inhabited by the Spirit, are intended to be the continued place where God, and God’s sphere, are known and shown as their sign, foretaste, agent,


Ibid, 65. Ibid, 88. Ibid, 116.




and instrument.21 Consequently, the church is “to live by the rules of the new world rather than the old one, and the old one won’t like it.”22 As we discovered at the close of the previous section, this is where we can locate the mission of the church. Second, if all of earth is now joined to heaven, and if Jesus is indeed Lord of it all, then God’s future “expresses itself in a unique, though not exhaustive or exclusive, fashion in the church.”23 God’s healing and redemptive presence may make itself known in places and powers beyond his own people. His cruciform victory, his Lordship, and his future are all far wider than just the church. Moreover, the two realities of ‘Jesus as Lord’ and the ‘the overlap of the ages (or heaven and earth)’ slice through the dualistic neurosis of the holy God or his holy people being blemished by any engagement with the fallen cultures of this fallen world. If God is sovereign, and if the Christian hopes of the Age to Come have been decisively inaugurated through Jesus Christ, then the Christian may be joyfully assured that culture and the church are places where God may safely redeem his creation.

III – Review Niebuhr Mission – Niebuhr’s question of Christ-and-culture is not the same as discerning the church’s mission, but they seem to be perceived as such. His options become tenable heuristic tools, once mission is established, for understanding how the missional church


Guder, Darrell (editor). Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 101.

Wright 2006, 137. Guder, 99.



might engage culture in given contexts. Its mission is not to be against, of, or transform culture, though all are consequent behaviors of being the church in various contexts. Cosmology – Wright’s heaven-earth framework, it has been shown, is in better harmony with the biblical cosmology, than Niebuhr’s Christ-culture framework. Where Niebuhr’s framework wavers and vacillates in definition, Wright’s remains steady and true to the Bible’s story.

Carter Mission – Carter’s grasp of ecclesial mission is excellent, and much on par with Wright’s. Cosmology – By building on Niebuhr, Carter’s cosmology fails against Wright’s for identical reasons.

Metzger’s Barth Mission –Barth, like Niebuhr, came before missiology bloomed, and so has scant traces of ecclesial mission. Cosmology – Wright’s cosmology overcomes that of Metzger’s Barth, while arriving in a remarkably similar place. Metzger says that concerning the sacred and secular, Barth sought “to guard against the separation of the two spheres… [he resisted] the amalgamation of the sacred and secular, whereby one overwhelms the other.”24 Barth’s theology “safeguards the distinction between God and the world, Christianity and broader culture, while also connecting the two spheres, the divine and human, sacred and


Metzger, xix.


secular, in an integral manner.”25 This is close to Wright’s cosmology of heaven and earth; both insist that the divine and the fallen do engage one another, the divine’s engagement of creation is not singularly through the church, and that the incarnate Word is the Rosetta Stone for understanding how it happens. But as stated before, where Metzger’s Barth gets caught in the briars of convoluted dogma, Wright’s arrives at an exceptionally similar conclusion, albeit with more elegance and through a story that simultaneously charges the church with mission.

Conclusion A good solution should (i) make sense of all relevant data, (ii) do so with simplicity and elegance, and (iii) prove “fruitful in areas beyond its immediate concern.”26 N.T. Wright’s narrative-historical framework meets all these criteria better than the authors we have met along the way. In its return to the worldview and story assumed behind and beneath the scriptural witness, the first. In its accessibility and beauty, the second. In its charging the church with mission out of this story, the third. Therefore, Wright’s theology is a superior lens through which the church can imagine cultural engagement.


Ibid, 233. Wright 1992, 42.