This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
I don’t always agree with everything Fr. Stephen Freeman publishes on his blog, Glory to God for All Things, neither can I vouch for all the assertions he makes in his vast library of writings. After all, he operates in a ministerial context on the verge of the polar opposite side (doctrinally) from where I minister. I’m an Independent Baptist pastor — Fr. Stephen is an Orthodox Priest in the Orthodox Church in America.1
Be that as it may, while it might sound like ours is a relationship as compatible as oil and water, there is plenty to glean from Fr. Stephen’s insights into the Christian faith, especially as he examines the influence that modernity has had on the Church. This, I think, is most clearly expressed in one of his recent articles, “The Gospel of Progress—and the New Jerusalem,” in which he reviews the subjective “success” of the Industrial Age and, most notably, its influence on the Christian hope of the kingdom of God. The fact that God’s domain is coming to overwhelm this domain of darkness is a fundamental tenet of Christian faith and practice. What remains less clear, though, is the question of man’s role in the progress of this kingdom.
The triumph of industrialization also gave birth to “a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology,” as Fr. Stephen terms it. That is to say that humanity’s progress in technological advances likewise progressed the notion of humanity’s capacity to institute heaven on earth. Our industrial advancements functioned more like aggrandizements of the modern self, leading to a hubristic sense of human ingenuity and efficiency at managing and manifesting a “reformed society” — a utopia, if you will. Or if you live in the church world, industrialized eschatology tends to look a whole lot like a “social gospel,” where the cross becomes a model of “suffering love” in which man is encouraged and empowered to live uprightly.2
The notion that man’s proclivity for evil can be superintended through shrewd, corporeal, and even political institutions is a surefire way to relinquish the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3) “None of this needs a God, nor a Savior,” Fr. Stephen affirms. Indeed, all that is necessary to achieve these ends is a paragon of morality, an exemplar of virtue, goodness, and justice, and a charismatic chairman to ensure the program’s success. But, as Fr. Stephen writes, Christ is so much more than a moral exemplar:
The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom” . . . is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty — from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.
Mankind’s notions of “utopia” are failures before they even begin. They are destined to crumble under the weight of human frailty. We need something far more powerful than any legal, ethical system man can impose. We need something far more effectual than human ingenuity. We don’t just need moral restitution. We need resurrection.
The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.
The essential truth of the gospel is the mere fact that the entire cosmos, so permeated with sin that it is, can only be redeemed by one Person — namely, the Lord Jesus Christ. You and I, for all our vitriol and violence and virtuous gambits, cannot usher in the kingdom of God. The world can’t be remedied by any ends we engineer. For all our ardent activism or impassioned conviction, the created order will carry on in its depraved existence. This is not to say that your activist efforts are misguided or your convictions are wrong. But it does mean that your hope for a “better world” had better be in Someone more competent (capable) than yourself to pull that off. “The kingdom,” writes the beloved Robert Capon, “is already an accomplished fact in Jesus himself. We are invited not to make it happen, but to believe that it is and to let it come.”3 Fr. Stephen elsewhere echoes the same thing:
Modernity has as its goal the creation of a better world with no particular reference to God — it is a secular concept . . . The “better world” concept is, historically, a heretical borrowing from Christianity, a secularization of the notion of the Kingdom of God, translated into terms of progressive technology and laws (violence). But, in truth, the management of history’s outcomes is idolatrous. Only God controls the outcome of history.
This is not an invitation to sit on our hands. This is an anthem of freedom and faith. The unburdening of the world’s fate from off your shoulders and onto the ones that bore sins of every man, woman, and child from the dawn of history till the end of time. This is the liberating message of the gospel, which announces that the fate of the kingdom isn’t up to your programs but rests squarely in God’s providence. Changing the world, “making all things new” (Is 43:18; Rv 21:5), is not your assignment. It’s God’s. He alone holds the authority to usher in his kingdom. Capon continues:
Spiritual works no more bring in the kingdom than moral or intellectual ones. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus . . . proclaim that no meddling, divine or human, spiritual or material, can save the world. Its only salvation is in the mystery of the King who dies, rises, and disappears, and who asks us simply to trust his promise that, in him, we have the kingdom already.4
It’s the kingdom of God (and not the kingdom of us). God is the Master Builder of his house (Ps 127:1–2), the lone Sovereign of the kingdom of heaven. And this sovereignty extends over its timetable as well. He is establishing his domain in his timing, in his way. (Is 55:8–9) Not through our assertive efforts but through his Incarnate Grace. Therefore, the remedy for the unpleasant present and our uncertain futures remains the same as it has always been: lean on the everlasting arms. Arms which are strong and mighty, gentle and lowly. (Is 40:10–11) For as much as we want to build God a house, he’s already given his blood-bought assurance that that building project is already underway. He’s building us a house. (1 Chr 17:10–12; Jn 14:1–3) As we exercise faith in the kingdom of God, then — in the house that he’s building — we are necessarily invited to abandon any hope of building our own.
It probably strikes you as incredibly odd that as an Independent Baptist minister I find Fr. Stephen’s articles so informative and insightful. I do, though, and if you are a discerning reader, I am sure you will find his posts equally as beneficial. Discernment is the operative word when reading Fr. Freeman, however, seeing as many of his theological proclivities are not on the same wave-length as mine. Interestingly enough, I was probably among a fraction of readers who actually totally understood his reference to the “secret service guys” who monitor the halls of the Bob Jones University Art Gallery, seeing as that’s my alma mater.
In the original article, Fr. Stephen identifies the pastoral career of American Baptist churchman Walter Rauschenbusch, who worked and ministered in a variety of ways to establish a “social gospel.” This can be seen in Rauschenbusch’s assertion that the prevailing need which was remedied by the passion of the Christ was man’s inability to live morally. This, Fr. Stephen says, is a “jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity,” needing “none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching.”
Robert Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985), 46.