Recently I was at a conference where a Roman Catholic presenter gave an excellent review of post-modernism and its effects on our society. At the end of it he put up these words from John 17: 20-21:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
His point was that we as a Church need to put on a united front if we are to combat the forces of post-modern, relativistic evil in our culture. His “point behind the point” was that, in fact, there is a Church out there united under one Shepherd, his Roman Catholic church. His point behind this point, if I may be a bit curt, was: Our cause isn’t helped by all you Protestants dividing over and over again!
Fair enough. I’d make the same plugs for Lutheran doctrine were I in a similar situation among Roman Catholics. My problem, however, is with his interpretation of John 17.
John 17 is a prayer of Jesus. It’s a prayer of Jesus for unity. He prays to the Father, “I…pray…for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one…” He’s praying for us – those who believe in the apostolic word – and He’s praying that we might be one.
Now, it’s easy to read these words and say (as the ecumenical movement guys did), “See? We should be one! The church should not be divided! We need to work out our differences and become unified.” And from there, we can go ahead and determine what’s really important – doctrine-wise – and what we can fudge on a bit. We might begin to compromise things we earnestly believe are apostolic teaching, like that communion is truly the Body of Christ. We might say, “Why let this divide us? Communion isn’t a matter of eternal salvation, after all.” The driving force of such an operation is, “We need to be one. Jesus says so! So what can we compromise a bit in order to be united.”
But all this line of thinking ignores one glaringly clear point about Jesus’ words: IT’S A PRAYER TO THE FATHER, NOT US!
Jesus was not asking US to be one or to work for unity. He was not praying TO us. He was praying to the Father that we might be one. Our job isn’t to “work for unity.” That’s the Father’s concern. Our task is to believe in Jesus through the apostolic word. That’s where we are referenced in the prayer. In that task, yes, we will have disagreements over the “apostolic word.” So be it. And we may even divide over that, with each person believing they truly hold to the apostolic word. And that causes us disunity. But the fact that Jesus is praying a prayer to the Father for unity lets us know that, the unity isn’t our concern. It’s the Father’s concern.
And in fact, as Jesus teaches elsewhere – that a father will not give his son a scorpion who asks for a fish – the Father WILL answer Jesus’ request. The Father WILL answer Jesus’ request for unity. In other words, the Church IS one! This is why we confess in the Nicene Creed the “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.” The Church is one. But notice! It’s something we must confess by faith, not by sight.
As with all things of the faith, what we see is broken, sinful, suffering, and bleeding – like Christ on the cross – but in reality what is present is God at work saving the world. The same is true with the Church. Outside it appears divided, broken, suffering, and bleeding, but still, through it God is at work saving the world.
But I’d like to build off of this idea that WE answer prayers intended to be answered by the Father. It gets to the millenarian orientation we see frequently, that we “cooperate” with God to bring about His kingdom.
Does this not suggest that, when we pray “thy kingdom come” – a clear petition in which I, the suppliant, stand on one side of a line, and God, the Supplier of all good gifts, is on the other side of that line – we in fact are standing on both sides of that line? We assume a posture of prayer, which is a posture of utmost need, humility – saying “I can’t do it, Lord. I am helpless without you” – and we pray “thy kingdom come,” and then we jump on the other side and say, “OK, we have to spread God’s kingdom in this world! We have to build His kingdom here and there! This is the task the Lord has given to us, to increase His kingdom.” And off we go to answer our own prayer.
This is a form of blasphemy, is it not?
But it’s exactly what the millenarians often believed. They believed that in the “new age of the Spirit,” God would immediately fill people to be His hands in the world to bring about His kingdom. Their millenarian beliefs were carried forward by the Anabaptists, Puritans, the communitarians of the 19th century, and a whole host of others. (Read Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium to get the full story.)
Their “cooperating with God” ideas, in turn, led to the Social Gospel movement and eventually progressivism. As it evolved into these movements, it also took on certain Hegelian and Darwinistic tones, so that it was believed God expanded Himself through the operations of humankind in History (see “Process Theology”). Such is the danger when we believe that we answer God’s prayers.
Did Roman Catholicism arise when the Church believed it was their job to answer Jesus’ prayer for unity? And did progressivism arise when the Church believed it was their job to answer Jesus’ prayer that his kingdom come?
What about the other petitions of the Lord’s prayer? Do we answer the prayer that Gods’ will be done, that our sins are forgiven, that we are not led into temptation?
What current religious bodies have arisen, believing that they have the answer to temptation, the “ten steps to conquer” this or that sin? Or what current religious bodies have arisen, believing they have the answer to deliverance from evil?
These are interesting things to think about, because it’s an ongoing temptation to believe we have the answer to the petitions we ask in the Lord’s Prayer. We are stepping in the role of God.
Against this temptation the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of two things:
1. We are put in a posture of prayer til our dying day. God’s kingdom, being led into temptation, deliverance from evil, feeling forgiven, even daily bread…these things will all seem unfulfilled. There will never be a day when we can say, “Hey, I don’t think I need to pray the Lord’s Prayer today. As far as I can tell everything’s covered.”
2. Yet, they ARE fulfilled because our Father has promised to answer them. So yes, no matter what my eyes tell me, His kingdom is come, my sins are forgiven, I am delivered from temptation and evil, and I have my daily bread. If I can’t see how this is so, I remember we live by faith, not by sight.
So in a sense, the Lord’s Prayer becomes a sort of confession, a confession of what we possess and have, and what will become manifest when we enter the life of the world to come.
2 replies on “The Millenarian Temptation: Co-operating with God”
I heard you on Janet Mefferd’s show,read what you have on your website and read everything in the ‘Look Inside’ feature at Amazon. You’ve done a lot of great research and have done a great job on showing the development of Gnosticism in the Western Church–Catholic and Protestant.
But I saw nothing in the text or index referring to the Eastern Church–Orthodoxy. The Eastern Fathers dealt with many of these issues without the aberrations found in the West. The debates concerning the Filioque were critical here.
Being concerned about the increasing gnosticism I saw in the mid-seventies, I started reading Church Fathers from the beginning. Many of these issues were discussed As time went on, it seemed that the Eastern Fathers avoided many of the West’s problems; and am now Eastern Orthodox.
Anyway, I’ve ordered your book and look forward to reading it.
Yeah, my only reference to Orthodoxy in the book is in their attitude toward prayer. When faced with the problems of society, they pray, where millenarians seek to change the world. (In my post on the millenarian temptation, I was thinking about that Orthodox attitude.) I’m actually quite fascinated in the cultural and philosophical reasons why Orthodoxy has avoided many of the Gnosticizing tendencies. On the other hand, the whole Hesychast thing has intrigued me. I’ve studied it periodically, but not enough to speak with authority. I’m wondering if this was the closest they came to accommodation of Gnostic tendencies (mysticism) during a time when it was rising throughout the West.