Reading Jeremiah as Christian political prophecy – post-liberal OT theology

Reading the Old Testament is sometimes problematic for contemporary Christians. I’ve often heard Church people either say or imply that these texts are less relevant to us than those of the New Testament and that Jesus made a decisive break with Judaism.

On the other hand during my years as a Sunday School teacher, before I began training for ministry I found the  Old Testament books enormously valuable. Many of the stories in it connected directly and immediately with children (I have to confess, though, that I never tried Leviticus or Deuteronomy with them).

Also when studying the “historical Jesus” at New College Edinburgh with the very excellent Dr. Helen Bond my intuition that Jesus far from breaking with Judaism can only be understood by seeing him in his Jewish context was greatly strengthened. Jesus really was a first century Jew and his innovations make sense solely within his continuity with that formation.

So one of the things I have wanted to find during this period when I have the freedom to explore theology has been a way of understanding how the riches of the Old Testament can be made available to the Church now. A way of seeing the way those ancient texts can be related to modern Christians.

Last semester I took a post-graduate course called Church and Ministry: Biblical and Historical Foundations in the hope of making progress with this and I think it worked! For my course essay I set out to read Jeremiah’s words of judgement and of hope directed at Israel as applicable to the Church and looked for resources to help me do so. Dr. David Reimer guided me towards a set of writings in recent Old Testament Theology that proved extremely suggestive.

In particular the re-instatement of  “typological” approaches beyond and in light of modern critical scholarship seems to me to unlock the riches of the OT for today. If we take seriously both the idea that the OT provides a narrative account of God’s dealings with Israel (seen from the point of view of Israel) and that the Church, through Jesus, continues that story, then by reading these texts we can see how our relationship with God and through that relationship our knowledge of God has developed (and can continue to develop).

This chimes well with the “post-liberal” theology developed over the last 30 or 40 years that emphasises that the Church as a cultural formation is the locus of Christian life and hence of Christian revelation. While stressing the authority of Scripture this theological strand also recognises that our reading of Scripture takes place in the context of a culture and a tradition and that these are properly appreciated as part of the revelatory action of God. Scripture’s authority is never unmediated.

With this background I set out to read Jeremiah as a guide to the orientation of the post-Christendom Church to secular political authority. What struck me particularly were the references to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon being the servant of God. This is especially notable since the activity of Nebuchadnezzar that attracted this epithet was the conquest of Jerusalem with its consequences of the end of the Davidic monarchy and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. Nebuchadnezzar was God’s servant against Israel, which nonetheless remained God’s chosen people.

This forms a fascinating pairing with Isaiah’s calling of Cyrus, who ended the exile begun by Nebuchadnezzar, God’s anointed, in Hebrew messiah, in Greek christ. Two imperial rulers both recognised as carrying out God’s work, although neither recognises God’s authority.

It is often suggested that to be “prophetic” is necessarily to try to hold authority to account according to moral and political standards derived from religion and sometimes this is necessary (although the derivation is likely to be a more problematic operation than is often recognised). It can also, though, be a matter of the correct interpretation of events, actions and persons, as these examples from Jeremiah and Isaiah suggest.

Jeremiah’s prophetic word to Israel as regards Babylon was not one that urged resistance and confrontation. It was exactly the opposite. Jeremiah urged political leaders who wanted to resist to surrender, telling them that Nebuchadnezzar was doing God’s work. It is not possible to extrapolate from this that all political leaders are necessarily appointed by God but it is clear that to be so appointed, according to the prophetic witness, it is not required to be Christian, or even conspicuously devoted to peace and justice.

How then do we arrive at an evaluation of political leadership? That’s a difficult question since it requires a discernment of God’s purposes in the world. My main concern here is to argue that it is difficult and that it is dangerous for us to imagine that we have a simple and reliable formula for it.

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5 comments
  1. Pingback: Love's Work

  2. Lots of good stuff here. I certainly agree that Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were doing God’s work. None of this of course excuses them from God’s potential judgement against them in the long run in my opinion. Just as Judas betrayal of Jesus took its place within God’s Sovereign plan (Acts 2:23) still it would have been better for Judas never to have been born (Matthew 26:24). It’s fascinating, if a little scary to contemplate what these passages tell us about God’s Sovereignty and holiness/ justice.

    • Thanks, James, and I agree about God’s judgement. That is very explicit in the text, at least in Nebuchadnezzar’s case, although even here there is the interesting witness of Daniel which appears to make him recognise God’s sovereignty.

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