Posted by: Dan | September 12, 2005

Subjects of the King

In his book Jesus Remembered James Dunn argues for three primary titles given to the new community of people that formed around Jesus. I find it telling to compare these titles to those that John Stackhouse gives to the people of God in his teaching (these titles were the central motifs of his course The Christian Life, and also merited attention in his course Theology of Culture. I suspect they will also be operative in his upcoming book on that subject).

Stackhouse says the the people of God should understand themselves as (1) children of God and (2) disciples of Jesus. Dunn is in agreement with this — his second and third titles for the people formed around Jesus are exactly these. However, what is significant is what Stackhouse leaves out. Dunn first title, and the one that is given primacy, is “Subjects of the King.”

(Dunn does a beautiful job of showing how these titles fit into Jesus' threefold call to (a) repent, (b) believe, and (c) follow me. Repentance is required for subjects to once again return to submitting themselves to the reign of God; belief is the corollary of discovering that this Divine Sovereign is also Father — and one can thus have faith like a child, and live as a child of God; and following Jesus is the vocation of Christian disciples.)

When Dunn gives primacy to an understanding of Christian identity that focuses on being subjects of the King he notes how little notice this topic has received in much of modern theology and biblical studies. However, he emphasises that such an understanding is intimately linked to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God. The proclamation of the kingdom come (and coming) highlights the reign of God, and implies a subject/king relationship.

Neglecting this title is a significant blind-spot in Stackhouse's theology. Or is it a blind-spot? It is rather convenient for theologians like Stackhouse to deemphasise this topic. As a theologian Stackhouse has been highly influenced by the likes of R.R. Niebuhr and is committed to working alongside of (and as a part of) the powers that be in order to enact social transformation. To prioritise the theme of God's reign, and the proclamation that Jesus (and only Jesus) is Lord jeopardizes this approach — which is why Stackhouse would rather see the likes of Yoder and Hauerwas as sectarian, rather than giving any priority to the implications of Jesus' Lordship.

This is not to say that nothing good has come from the Niebuhrian school of thought. However, there may well be a better way. “Christian realism” is markedly hopeless leaving little room for such major biblical motifs as the exodus, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the inauguration of a new creation. The faith of the biblical authors is far more defined by hope than by any sort of “realism” — yet this hope is assured because it is grounded in the proclamation that God has returned to reign at Zion, and Satan has been defeated. Christian realism actually gets itself behind the 8-ball and, from the get-go, prevents itself from attaining that for which it strives — transformation.

(Hauerwas applies the same critique to Christians that are focused on relevance. A Christianity that strives after relevance will end up being irrelevant; it is only a Christianity that strives to be faithful that will discover that it is radically relevant. Which is one of the reasons why I can't stand Relevant Magazine. A friend of mine gave it a more appropriate title — Self-Indulgent.)

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