Thursday, December 10, 2009

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "The State In The New Testament" by Oscar Cullmann

One good thing you can say about the late Dr. Oscar Cullmann is that he is one major twentieth scholar who did not believe what was written in the New Testament was the result of generations of rewrites.  At least that is what I gather from Cullmann's "The State In the New Testament", which occupied my last two Friday evenings.  In this work he speaks of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as actual authors.  His views of the relationship between Christians and the state are quite helpful.  The problem with Cullmann is that his actual Biblical exegesis is simply off the wall.

Cullmann's views of what Scripture teaches concerning the Church/state relationship makes good reading.  He maintains that the correct relationship between the two is a matter of eschatology.  The state is to be considered a provisional institution which is necessary until the return of Christ.  As Christ taught concerning paying taxes to Caesar, the state can expect from all citizen's, Christian and otherwise, all the support it finds necessary to carry out its proper functions.  Cullmann points to Rom.13 to point out that the state has no religious function; its role is one of retribution for those who do wrong.  Paul points out in this passage that the state is capable of judging between good and bad conduct.  As the state engages in its proper role, the Church is to publicly support it.  Cullmann points out that Paul instructed Timothy to uplift secular leaders in prayer (ITim. 2:1-2).  This instruction was written during Nero's persecution of the Church and was binding even during those circumstances.  Yet Cullmann criticizes the traditional Protestant interpretation of this verse as the controlling verse on this issue.  Many Christians have read Rom. 13 as commanding that Christians obey the state in all things without question. Yes, Peter and Paul urged Christians to obey their rulers, yet both were executed for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as God. Cullmann believes that the beast from the abyss in Rev. 13 was the state exceeding its proper role and trying to take God's place.  He goes on to say that this is the most tangible embodiment of satanic power.  Cullman also points to ICor 6:1 to say that while we must support the state, we should not allow our affairs to get tangled up with it.  Cullmann is helpful in pointing out the dangers of using just one verse to fashion a theological position. "The fountainhead of all false biblical interpretation and of all heresy is invariably the isolation and the absolutising of one single passage."

Unfortunately, much of Cullmann's own Scriptural analysis is off the mark.  Cullmann claims that the sole reason Jesus was crucified was because Pilate mistakenly thought Jesus was a Zealot, a Jewish revolutionary faction seeking to overthrow the state through violence.  Cullmann asserts that Jesus' disciples were mostly Zealots who believed that Jesus was going to oust the Roman Empire from Israel and set up a theocracy.  What is Cullmann's proof?  One of the disciples was named Simon the Zealot.  If there was one zealot, there had to be many more.  After all, Jesus named James and John "the sons of thunder." Gamaliel linked the Christian movement to ealier uprisings.  And then there is Peter.  Before Jesus renamed Peter, Peter was Simon Bar Jona, Simon the son of John.  But is this the actual meaning of his name, Cullmann asks?  He believes that there is a possibility that Bar Jona may actually have meant "terrorist."  "Terrorist?"  In Jn. 21:15, did Jesus actually say "Simon, you terrorist, do you love me?"  While Cullmann cites these examples as proof of the makeup of Jesus' inner circle, his language is not one of assertion but speculation.  Cullmann believes that Jesus' ultimate temptation was to heed the Zealots' demands that he seize power in a violent revolution.  He also believes that when Jesus prohibited others from announcing His true identity, his sole purpose was to prevent a violent revolution from being waged in His name.  That was certainly one of Jesus' concerns, but His prohibition against announcing His identity had more than that one sole purpose.  Pilate did not execute Jesus for being a Zealot; he had announced that he found no fault in Jesus.  Pilate relented to pressure from the Jewish religious establishment because they threatened to get him in trouble with Caesar.  Cullmann's preoccupation with the question of Church and state leads him to the assertion that in the Cross of Christ the relationship between Christ and Caesar is at the very center of the Christian faith.  Like his student John Howard Yoder, Cullmann does not seem to have much interest in the question of personal holiness and individual sin.  Cullmann also believes that if it is effectively communicated to the state that Christians are loyal citizens just as long as the state stays within its proper boundries, then much bloodshed against the Church can be avoided.  This seems to me to be a bit naive.  Christians may be a loyal citizens yet stand up to societal abuses such as the burning of widows in India or economic disparity.  This often brings the wrath of governments which favor the status quo even if these same governments are religiously neutral. 
This concern for the proper relationship between the Church and the state grew out of the Church's conduct during the reign of Hitler in Germany where many in the German Church supported Hitler because of a misguided reading of Rom.13.  This is understandable.  Yet I cannot but be amazed how an obsession with one's own theological agenda warps ones reading of Scripture.  I saw it with John Howard Yoder. And I am sorry to say that Cullmann, one of Yoder's professors, a better and much more balanced writer than Yoder, allowed his own preoccupations to cause his interpretation of Scripture to be so off the mark.

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