Alan Jacobs was unconvinced at my argument that, even putting aside the individual merits of Renn’s Three World’s Thesis, that sort of heuristic or analysis, or asking the question “is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan?” is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice.
No. I’m gonna say that the question is indeed irrelevant, and for several reasons. First, because within the Empire conditions for Christians varied from time to time and place to place. Even at the height of Christian power there were pockets of pagan dominance; and let’s not forget that the reign of Julian the Apostate came after Constantine. Historians may be able to look back and see clear patterns, but no one at the time could have had that kind of assurance. No one knew that Constantine’s support for Christianity would succeed, or that Julian’s opposition to it would fail. Christians then had to face whatever reality confronted them in any given place, at any given moment — as do Christians today. And sometimes adherence to an abstract account of the-situation-in-general can obscure what’s right in front of your face.
I’m emphasizing how contextually variable the circumstances of Christians always are because simplistic accounts lead to strategies. The most profound problem with the three-worlds account is not that it’s wrong, though it is wrong, but that it’s supposed to yield a strategy. And let me be blunt about this: Whenever Christians decide that they need a strategy, they’re writing a recipe for disobedience to the Lord Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas has always said in response to people who say that the Church needs a social strategy, “the Church is a social strategy.” And here’s Lesslie Newbigin:
When our Lord stretched forth His hand to heal a leper, there was no evangelistic strategy attached to the act. It was a pure outflow of the divine love into the world, and needed no further justification. Such should be the Church’s deeds of service.
The Church’s job is to be the Church, and the Christian’s task is to be like Christ, and strategies invariably get in the way of both. In fact, I believe that, generally speaking, though the people who hold them typically don’t realize this, that’s just what they’re designed to do.
So I spot three problems at least: (1) Not only are these heuristics reductionistic the even more incredibly contextual situations that Christians find themselves in, (2) they are inevitably blinkered given how opaque historical trends are, which can blind you to the clear obligations you have, and (3) they inevitably do that because they’re designed to produce “strategies”, which are always bad, because they’re unwittingly, “a recipe for disobedience to Jesus.” The Church should do what the Church should do because the Lord Jesus commands it, not because it’s part of some timely social strategy.
I know Dr. Jacobs is smarter and wiser than me, but I don’t think this rejoinder gets at my question, or is adequate at least, so I wanted to throw out one more note by way of response. Let me explain.
First, I think it’s possible to both account for broad and local contexts in someone’s analysis. I work as a campus minister and one of the big principles we constantly think through is local, university student context. A UCI student is not a Baylor student is not an NYU student. And yet, they’re all Gen Z, so it’s very likely there are some generational-contextual traits and challenges to faithfulness that most campus ministers should be accounting for, along with everyone’s personal, individual narrative. I often roll my eyes at generational analysis and the programs that are rolled out as absolutes, precisely because of the issue of context. Still, again, it’s not absolutely without value for the pastor to consider, preach on, or counsel on its basis.
Second, it is entirely possible and likely that such heuristics are intended to be more than merely descriptive, but generate prescriptive strategies, but it is not necessarily the case. Nor does it guarantee the shape of the strategy to follow, which is evident in how different the proposals we’ve seen appended to the model actually are. Still, I appreciate and entirely sympathize with the logic of “the church is a strategy whose life of Christlikeness is in need of no justification”, a la Newbigin and Hauerwas. (This is why I’ve long said all of these “return to liturgy as Millennial bait” justifications are silly. Take the Lord’s Supper because it is the Lord’s Supper and it’s right.) But here’s where I will suggest there has been a communication breakdown.
The question I’ve been asking is that as the Church tries to follow Christ and do those acts which need no strategic justification, should she be aware of the context in which she is ministering? Does it matter for offering a healing hand to the leper whether the leper knows his need for healing or not? Does it matter if one lives in a nation that increasingly sees leprosy not as a disease, but a normal part of the human condition to be left alone? If so, is it helpful, is it wise to be aware, warn, and instruct God’s people should be emotionally and intellectually prepared to engage with that understanding as a part of that call that we always have as the Church to love the leper or not?
Often doing so is precisely part of what gives people the requisite moral and emotional resilience to keep engaging in the acts of persuasion, the acts of love, the acts of fidelity required by Jesus in the face of negativity. Or again, in the positive world, it may lead to warning against presumption that your neighbor’s easy acceptance of your confession, shared morals or ways of living are necessary signs that you are definitely engaged in clear gospel ministry, fidelity, and so forth. The heuristic doesn’t change what you do but may give wisdom and situate your approach as you do it.
If suggesting we prepare people for this is a strategy and strategic thinking, I suppose I am guilty of thinking it is not inherently wrong, sinful, or a recipe for disobedience to do so. Warning a student about the potential situation they’ll face in the HR departments at major corporations they’re headed off to is not a strategy to disobey, but an invitation to count the cost of obedience. Recognizing that the non-Christian student who heads threw the doors cannot be assumed to recognize and share the basic values and goods promoted by the gospel is not an excuse to avoid persuading them, but a potential aid in the attempt.
Anyway, I’m still mulling the actual thesis, but for now, this is my explanation for why I don’t think it’s total a waste of our time.