Christ, the Meaning of All Scripture, Life and History
Chapter 8—The Captivity of the Christian Church
The death and resurrection of Christ not only give meaning to history before the cross, but to all history after the cross. The book of Revelation is about the future, but it is a future seen in the light of the Lamb that was slain and lives again. Calvary is rehearsed in the history of the followers of the Lamb who were dragged before courts, condemned, and who poured out their blood at the altar. The witnesses of Revelation 11 prophesy for three and one-half years. They are slain in the street of the city "where also their Lord was crucified" (Rev. 11:8). They are jeered at by their enemies, and then they are resurrected and ascend to heaven. The entire prophecy is reminiscent of Christ's three and one-half year ministry and His death and resurrection.
The book of Revelation shows that the church also recapitulates the history of the Old Testament. There is another Egyptian bondage or, to change the figure, another Babylonish captivity (Rev. 11:2, 3, 7; 17:1-5). Luther could see that the church had recapitulated the history of the Old Testament church. One of his most famous treatises was entitled The Babylonish Captivity of the Church.
It is now our task to trace the steps which led to this new Egyptian or Babylonish captivity. Paul warned the church that there would be a "falling away" (2 Thess. 2:1-8). This fall obviously recapitulated the fall in Eden, when Eve was tempted to exalt herself above God (cf. Gen. 3:5 with 2 Thess. 2:4). In his Corinthian correspondence Paul likened the church to Eve and expressed his fear that Satan would again be successful in her seduction.
This passage reminds us of Paul's warning to the Galatians:
I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to Him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.—2 Cor. 11:2-4.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! — Gal. 1:6-8.
The apostle's remarks about "the man of lawlessness" who "opposes and exalts himself" and "sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God" (2 Thess. 2:3, 4) are obviously taken from the book of Daniel (Dan. 7:8, 11), especially from Daniel 8:11-13. This antichrist, who pollutes the temple and becomes the object of adoration, is called "the transgression that makes desolate" or "the abomination that makes desolate" (Dan. 9:27; 11:31). We cannot possibly confine this prophecy in Daniel to Antiochus Epiphanes and his desecration of the temple at Jerusalem about 165 B.C. Jesus applies this prophecy about "the abomination that causes desolation" to something future from His day (Matt. 24:14, 15). Old Testament figures such as Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus are historical precursors of the antichrist. Neither can we confine "the abomination that causes desolation" to the idolatrous standards of pagan Rome, which desecrated and finally destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70. We must grasp the biblical principle of the recapitulating history of events and then hold this history in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Let us now look at this religious desolator, this supplanter and destroyer of the gospel, through the eyes of John the Revelator.1 John describes a trinity called the dragon, beast and false prophet (Rev. 13). (The links this passage has with Daniel 7, 8, 11, Matthew 24:15 and 2 Thessalonians 2 are obvious.) Here we are shown that Satan is trying to imitate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dragon gives to the beast "his power and his throne and great authority" (Rev. 13:2). This parallels the Father's giving "all authority in heaven and on earth" to His Son (Matt. 28:18; cf. Dan. 7:13, 14). The beast of Revelation 13 is the antichrist because he tries to reenact the death and resurrection of Christ. The analogies between the false prophet and the Holy Spirit are also striking. The false prophet is called "another beast" (Rev. 13:11) just as Jesus called the Holy Spirit "another Counselor" (John 14:16). This beast brings down what appears in the sight of men to be fire from heaven. He deceives men into making an image to the antichrist and worshiping him. In all this he counterfeits the work of the Holy Spirit. Altogether, John is warning the church about deception, false worship and a false gospel which would lead the people of God back into the slavery of Egypt or the bondage of Babylon.
We must now search out the chief characteristics of this false gospel which leads the church into the great captivity. As we look at the warnings of holy Scripture, we see that the false gospel has two characteristics. It is a "gospel" of reenactment, and it is a theology of glory.
The "Gospel" of Reenactment
The most striking feature of the antichrist is his attempt to reenact the Christ event. Just as Christ was crucified at the end of three and one-half years of ministry, so the beast receives a death wound after three and one-half years (Rev. .13:5).2 After the beast's death another beast takes his place to conform men to his image. Most remarkable of all, the first beast recovers from his death wound and receives the worship of men (Rev. 13:3). Luther once remarked that the devil is God's ape. This aping of Christ is Illustrated by comparing these apocalyptic scriptures:
... who is, and who was, and who is to
The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up.
I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive.—Rev. 1:18.
Look, He is coming.—Rev. 1:7.
. . .the beast who was wounded [slaughtered] by the sword and yet lived.—Rev. 13:14.
There are some who look for a future antichrist but fail to see his past and present developments within the Christian church. John saw antichrist at work in his day (1 John 2:18; 4:1-3). The Reformers identified antichrist with that institution which opposed the gospel of Christ in their day. We need to see antichrist in his three dimensions: past, present and future.
We have seen that God's salvation act in Christ was a once-and-for-all event. The church was to live by rehearsing that great historical event. But instead of proclaiming the gospel of rehearsal, men began to proclaim a "gospel" of reenactment. The church began to see herself as the extension of the incarnation. Instead of the Supper being a rehearsal of the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, it was construed as a reenactment of Calvary.
The theology of reenactment is perfectly exemplified in the Roman mass. Here the bloody sacrifice of Christ is said to be reenacted over and over again on the Roman altar. What we need to see, however, is that the mass is only a visible expression of Rome's view of the gospel. In a recent article entitled "The Gospel Truth As Reenactment," Jesuit scholar Navone articulates the heart of Romanism. The theme of his article is that the gospel merely presents a script to be reenacted in our experience. Instead of teaching that we are saved by faith alone in God's unrepeatable act in history, the article says we are saved by reenacting Jesus Christ.
Jesus prescribes that we re-enact the perfection of life that is his Father's and his own. Scripture, in this respect, is a script that is also a prescription to be re-enacted for that healing and enlightenment that is our salvation.3
We should note that salvation is not said to be by God's act outside us in Christ, but by its reenactment in us. By this reenactment (said to be wholly by grace, of course!) man "becomes acceptable to God."4
If the sacraments are celebrations of God's saving act, we must not be surprised that they now become a celebration of the renewal which grace has accomplished in the worshiper. Jesuit scholar Fransen says:
We celebrate, indeed, what we are. We joyfully and confidently witness to the life which is in us.... We celebrate the 'Kingdom of God,' which 'is within you'.5
This theology transfers the glory of our salvation from the finished work of Christ to our renewal. Chemnitz called this blasphemy6 (see also Rev. 13:1, 5).
In celebrating what we are, it makes no difference if we say the inward renewal of the heart is by grace. It is still blasphemy, for it compromises the unique work of God in Christ. This work, being outside the believer, must focus away from the believer. God's work in Christ was so infinite that it cannot be reduced to an intrahuman experience. It is also unrepeatable. God Himself cannot reenact it. The Rock of our salvation has been smitten once. He cannot be smitten again. If God and Christ and the Holy Spirit cannot reenact but can only rehearse before us what the Godhead has done, what blasphemy for man to presume to reenact God's saving work! Here is the spirit of the first sin (Gen. 3:5), which puts man above God, in God's temple (Dan. 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:4). The church in every age is in danger of confusing the "gospel" of reenactment with the gospel of rehearsal. It is easy to point an incriminating finger at things like the Roman mass while failing to see our own guilt.
The false gospel of reenactment springs from a failure to grasp the New Testament gospel of salvation through faith in what God has done in His great act in Christ. The gospel proclaims that salvation is by that event plus nothing. The righteousness of faith is that act of God in Christ plus nothing. But very early the teachers of the church began to confound the article of righteousness by faith with the renewal and life of new obedience which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the believer. The influence of Greek Gnosticism led many to seek a knowledge of God in mystical experience rather than in the historical reality of Christ crucified. The Greek mind of the West has always had the tendency to indulge a false spiritualization of the incarnation. There was a tendency to talk about Christ's birth in the hearts of men. The church was seen as the extension of the incarnation, with the believer being crucified in a mystical act of self-renunciation. The work of Christ in history was subordinated to the work of Christ in the mystical experience of the believer. The result was to teach that men are made acceptable to God by the reenactment of Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection in mystical experience rather than by His objective finished work. The locus of the saving act was shifted from the Christ of history to the human heart itself. If the saving act of God occurs in the worshiper's heart, it is only logical for the church to use the sacraments for advertising her sanctity and for witnessing to the life in herself.
The accent of the Reformers' preaching fell on God's act of redemption in Christ. But under the influence of pietism and Christian revivalism the accent in Protestantism has increasingly shifted to the believer's appropriation of salvation and to his life of renewal. This shift of emphasis from the objective to the subjective has taken place in both the liberal and conservative wings of the Protestant movement. Liberalism has always tended to dehistoricize the gospel. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the critical rationalism of the nineteenth century questioned the historicity of the Bible. Schleiermacher rested all of Christian truth on the realm of experience. Bultmann's twentieth-century demythologization dehistoricizes the gospel.
The heart of Bultmann's theology is found in the significance he attaches to the proclamation of the kerygma, for in the moment of proclamation Jesus becomes the Christ for the believer and the incarnation is re-enacted. . . . The Christ event cannot be made present through remembrance; it is not really 'datable' for it occurs ever again in one's own existence.7
Even the more conservative and objective neoorthodoxy of Barth and Brunner taught that revelation takes place in "religious encounter" rather than in historical event. Says Malcolm Muggeridge:
The Incarnation was not a historical event.... It goes on happening all the time. . . . There are examples on every hand.... Solzhenitsyn.... Mother Theresa.8
The popular evangelical emphasis on the new birth experience ("Let Jesus come into your heart") might be all right if it were presented in the context of God's redemptive act in Christ. But unfortunately, the new birth itself often becomes the redemptive act itself. People are left hanging onto their experience as if that were the act which reconciled them to God. People think Christian testimony is witnessing to their newfound love, joy and peace instead of to the acts of God in the Christ of history.
Much pietism and enthusiasm subordinate the work of Christ for us to the work of Christ in us. The emphasis is no longer on the fussless inclusion of all believers into the once-and-for-all death and resurrection of Christ and their living by faith in that status. Rather, "dying with Christ" and "rising with Christ" become some mystical communion with the pneumatic Christ. This is more than simple faith in His doing and dying.
There is, of course, a true "Christian mysticism," a true Christ of experience. But the Spirit of Christ always leads our faith away from our own experience to the Christ of history. The Spirit's work is to explicate the glory of Christ crucified and risen. He adds nothing to Christ's work but incorporates us into it. Evidence of the Spirit's presence will be seen in preoccupation with God's act of redemption objectively accomplished. This preoccupation will be evidenced in preaching, writing and witnessing.
Much evangelicalism today is a "gospel" of reenactment rather than a gospel of rehearsal. This too is an antichrist. It transfers the locus of the salvation event from what happened in Christ to what happens in the human heart. It leaves people looking to themselves and witnessing to their own charismatic endowments. It is a subtle exaltation of religious man above God. One of the greatest proofs that this is evil is the angry response to those who accept the reality and necessity of the new-birth experience but refuse to put this good thing in the room of the best thing—the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Protestantism is dead and Romanism lives again when the renewal the Spirit accomplishes in the believer is placed in the room of Christ's imputed righteousness or is confused with the righteousness of faith.
The Theology of Glory
The "gospel" of reenactment does not lead men to bow low before the cross and confess no other righteousness before God than what Jesus has already done. Instead, it proclaims a glory of being saved by the marvelous experience of reenacting salvation history. The gifts of God are used for self-validation. The sacraments are used to celebrate what men have become—by grace, of course! (For even the Pharisee could thank God that he was not like the tax-collector.)
Did not Christ promise His people power? (Antichrist is attended by a parade of power—like fire from heaven, miracles and signs (Rev. 13:13, 14.) Jesus warns us, "Many will say to Me on that day [the last day], 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' [This is surely a very high-powered ministry.] Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from Me, you evil doers!"' (Matt. 7:22, 23). Yes indeed, many will ride the "glory" train to perdition. We must beware of this spirit of religious triumphalism.
The gospel of rehearsal is a theology of the cross. Christ came to glory by way of suffering, to honor by way of shame, to victory by way of apparent defeat. The power of God was veiled in weakness. Look at this bruised and bleeding Victim stumbling along the Via Dolorosa. His hair is matted with blood and sweat, His face anointed with the spittle of His rejecters. He is so weak He staggers and falls before the jeering spectators. Who would have thought that hidden in this spectacle of utter weakness was God's infinite power, or that veiled in this shame was the most infinite glory?
Calvary should at least teach us the folly of judging after the flesh. That which is despised by the flesh is glorious in the eyes of God. And "that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15, KJV).
The cross is not a medal of honor but a symbol of shame (Luke 14:26, 27). The great ones of faith also "faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. . . . They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground" (Heb. 11:36-38). This hardly looks like a triumphalistic procession.
According to the book of Revelation those who bear "the testimony of Jesus" are dragged before courts, their names are cast out as evil, and their blood is poured out at the altar. The followers of the Lamb are not depicted as riding to glory on the stately chariot of honor. They are on the dung cart of shame, trundling off to the scaffold or to the stake. Their lives are a series of uninterrupted victories—not seen to be such here, but known to be such in the great hereafter.
The contrast between the theology of the cross and the false theology of glory is most clearly demonstrated in Paul's Corinthian correspondence. The spirit behind the false gospel was the same spirit of self-exaltation which deceived Eve (2 Cor. 11:3, 4). The false teachers with whom the church was flirting were "super-apostles" (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11). They paraded their super-piety in their spiritual gifts, miracles and other signs of power. Some had evidently fluttered so far up to heaven that they had transcended human weakness and sinfulness to such an extent that the resurrection state was a thing of the past as far as they were concerned (1 Cor. 15). They were not ordinary Christians still identified with this old eon of human weakness. They were super-Christians. As they compared themselves among themselves, they believed Paul was weak, unspiritual and inferior. They were leading many in the Christian community to doubt his apostleship, especially since he seemed to lack the trappings of power so evident in the experience of the super-apostles.
In his letters to the Corinthians Paul first reminds them that the cross is the "weakness" and "foolishness" of God. Then he stresses his own weakness and glories in his infirmities.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us.—2 Cor. 1:8-10.
Rather, in every way we show ourselves to be servants of God: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, praise and blame; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.—2 Cor. 6:4-10.
For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus.—2 Cor. 7:5, 6.
I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
What anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was ship-wrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.—2 Cor. 11:16-30.
I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.—2 Cor. 12:5.
Paul regales his readers with an account of his weakness, shame and suffering. He ends his "bragging" with an account of his undignified escape from Damascus (2 Cor. 11:32, 33). See this bald-headed, bandy-legged little scholar being let down over the wall in a basket.9 What glorious dignity to hold up before these super-apostles!
Since the Christ event, the new age of the kingdom of God and the old age of sin and death overlap. The last things have been inaugurated but not consummated. We must therefore live in the tension of being in the kingdom of God and having perfect righteousness by faith and yet at the same time being identified with the old eon of sinful human flesh and death. Until the consummation we cannot wholly transcend human sinfulness. We can only press on in the face of much tribulation (Acts 14:22). When we are agonizingly conscious of our human sinfulness, we confess we are righteous. And when we are dying, we believe we have eternal life. The peace of faith is not a warm inward glow, a sort of spiritual euphoria, nor is it freedom from the tension of our own inner self-contradictions. Our peace, like our righteousness, is objective to ourselves. It is "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). "He is our peace" because with Him is perfect peace between God and man. Our peace, therefore, is not a peace that comes by being lifted out of the agonizing struggle of the human situation. It is a peace in the midst of conflict.
The false theology of glory despises this way of faith. It wants to transcend the agonizing struggle of Romans 7:14-25. Instead of the uninhibited confession of human weakness and sinfulness, it wants to confess nothing but inner peace, victory and power. Many think this is consistent with faith in an all-powerful God. But when the church tries to prematurely seize the glory that shall be, she becomes a proud, arrogant, triumphalistic church which kills and takes peace from the earth (Rev. 6:1-11).
Much of the charismania we see today exemplifies the theology of glory. If it were a manifestation of the spirit of Christ, it would not lead to confessions which sound suspiciously like the strutting super-apostles in the Corinthian church. If we may borrow some words from Barth, "How vast a gulf separates . . . [this] conquering-hero attitude to religion from that disgust of men at themselves, which is the characteristic mark of true religion!"10
A flippant triumphalism often accompanies the claim to be saved and born again. It lacks the poignant sense of human sinfulness which men of God feel whenever they are touched by a sense of the divine glory (Isa. 6:1-8). If the unabashed showmanship of TV evangelism is representative of evangelicalism, if the spirit of evangelical empire building is also representative of it, then we have to say that the theology of glory is the passion of a large section of Protestantism.
The issues before the church today are not mere issues of how to interpret a few texts. There will always be interpretive differences. We should not fall into a theological perfectionism anymore than into an ethical perfectionism. But we are talking about two different approaches to the Bible and Christianity. Indeed, we are talking about two different religions for which there is no hope of reconciliation. The issue transcends denominational and sectarian boundaries.
Either we ride into perdition in the splendid chariot of glory, or we ride into glory on the dung cart of humility. The cross cannot be preached without offense, even within the Christian church. The gospel and religious triumphalism are absolutely incompatible.
(To be concluded)
1 The abomination that causes desolation, or the man of lawlessness, is obviously a religious entity. Applied to the Christian era, it is that which supplants the gospel (Dan. 8:11-13; Matt. 24:14, 15)
2 The passage in Revelation is symbolic. Some expositors do not take the forty-two months to be literal months but "prophetic" months. We will not argue this point here. We merely draw attention to the principle
3 John Navone, S. J., "The Gospel Truth As Reenactment," Scottish Journal of Theology 29, no.4 (1976): 333.
4 Ibid., p.323.
5 Piet P. Fransen, S. J., "Sacraments As Celebrations," Irish Theological Quarterly 43, no.3 (1976): 167.
6 Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Tent, Part 1, p. 491.
7 Review of Christ without Myth (Schubert M. Ogden) by Daniel L. Deegan in Scottish Journal of Theology 17, no.1 (Mar.1964): 86-87.
8 Malcolm Muggeridge, "What Is the Christian Alternative?" These Times, Feb.1978, p.15.
9 So tradition describes him. Apparently his physical appearance was quite unimpressive (2 Cor. 10:10).
10 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p.263.