Christ, History and Apocalyptic Review

coverimage.christ-history-apocalyptic (Cascade)

First off let me say that I agree with Graham Ward’s assessment on the back, this is excellent theology for the up and coming generation. I might, might be willing to even go so far as to call it a manifesto. Either way it is an exceptional peace of work and well worth a read. Below is a brief summary/review of the book.

For Nathan Kerr a missionary, dispossessive and political ecclesiology can only come after a Christology rooted in the particular and contingent history that is Jesus Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection: namely, the historical and apocalyptic claim that “Jesus is Lord”. It is incredibly important, for Kerr, that this claim be historical in the sense that it takes place within our history and that it is the only claim upon which world history can be founded and can make any sense. It is also important that it be apocalyptic in the sense that it can only take place as the contingent and particular eruption of God into our time and history. Thus, the aim of Christ, History and Apocalyptic, according to Kerr, “is to seek out and to expound a vision of history that at once calls for and is empowered by an apocalyptic politics of mission.”[1]

In order to do this Kerr leads the reader through some of the most important voices in twentieth century theology; Troeltsch, Barth, Hauerwas and Yoder, highlighting were he believes they went wrong as well as picking up some helpful theological insights along the way. Though not without some caveats, Kerr uses Yoder’s work as his point of departure for critique and construction. In addition Kerr makes use of the French historian, theologian and cultural theorist Michel de Certeau. Walter Benjamin’s work is also employed as a way of outlining a thorough apocalyptic historicity.

Kerr begins with Troeltsch who he sees as being concerned with taking seriously the contingencies and particularities of history, yet only doing so in relation to the universal in which they can ultimately make sense.[2] In order to do this Troeltsch must posit a dualistic metaphysic. On one side of the binary is a trans-historical, teleo-eschatological goal coupled with an idealistic vision of Kantian transcendental subjectivity, while on the other is a purely contingent and ultimately agonistic view of history.[3] Since history is purely contingent and particular historical subjects must relate to it by attempting to control it and move it towards its true goal, which is the universal. It is only through the universal that the contingencies and particularities of history, which include both events and subjects, can be understood.[4] However, since this universal/telos is outside of history, and individual subjects are stuck within history, subjects can only relate to this goal through inner subjective communion with this universal, or Absolute, or God.[5]

The problem, as Kerr sees it, is that according to this dualistic metaphysics of history the current political, economic, and social situations as manifested most fully in the state become the only locus for a politics of immanence. Thus, the only hope is that Jesus, through the Church, can form individual souls—the only things that can have contact with the transcendent, for Kerr this is the psychologization of Jesus—in such a way that as they go out into the historical political realm they can move/force history in the right direction.[6] It is here that Troeltsch becomes Constantinian, which for Kerr and all who follow Yoder, is about the worst thing one’s ecclesiology can do. If the politics of the state is the only locus where politics qua politics can take place then the Church becomes little more than an ideological support system left to buttress social and political stability so that the pure spiritual message of the Gospel can spread.[7] The Church’s claim that “Jesus is Lord” is divorced from the historical particularities and contingencies of the here and now and idealized as existing in some transcendent realm, and psychologized as accessible only through a transcendental subject, in which it can make no political claims on us in our current time.[8] 

Klee,_Angelus_novusIn contrast to this vision of history Kerr presents Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”. Put simply, Benjamin argues that there is a Messianic moment in which the homogenous flow of history is exploded by this singular and contingent Messianic event. This event must be counter-ideological and thus a revolutionary critique and subversion of the powers that be. This is precisely because the powers that be ideologically construct the homogeneity of history that infinitely post-pones history’s telos. This telos must be infinitely postponed if the state of things, which those who are in power are dependent on for their power, are to remain. In response the Messianic event reveals that history is a gift of contingent, particular, heterogeneous and ever-new time that is to be received and transformed by active engagement in the present.[9] In this way history is freed from idealist metaphysics and the realm of immanence takes on meaning.

For Kerr, this is precisely what the Christ-event signifies and calls us into, however before getting there he must pass through Barth and Hauwerwas. Because of space I will attempt to do so incredibly quickly. Kerr’s main insight taken from Barth is that Jesus Christ is the key to history.[10] His main problem is that Barth’s actualist ontology, God’s being-in-act, subsumes history into eternity and thus cannot allow us to relate to the Christ-event as a truly historical act in which we can and do participate in and through our own particularities and contingency.[11] In regards to Hauwerwas, Kerr is concerned that his narratively constructed “Church as counter-polis” limits Christology and pneumatology to ecclesiology.[12] In addition, this ecclesiology is in danger of being little more than liberalism’s antonym. For Kerr, following Yoder, the sole driving force of history is the Lamb that was slain. This Lamb’s historical life, death and resurrection is constitutive of all history and as such must  be free to be located immanently, both in his past and ongoing historicity, not only within but even outside of ecclesial practices depending on their fidelity to the Christ-event. Ecclesiology cannot delimit pneumatology and Christology. [13] Precisely because it is this Lamb’s Spirit that “gives” us the participation in the midst of our particularities and complexities in this event even in the ecclesia.images-1

In continuing to build his own political, missional and dispossessive ecclesiology Kerr suggests that mission makes the Church.[14] In contrast to his reading of Hauwerwas, as has been said, the Church does not exist until it is on mission. This mission is one of diasporic dispossession in which as the Church realizes it does not possess Jesus and releases its possession of “stuff” it, through the power of the Spirit which gives Jesus and gives ourselves, encounters Jesus through the other and as such the “more” of history that is Jesus continuing historicity becomes present in the historical contingencies and particularities of the now.[15] This presence is a subversive and active engagement with the world and the principalities and powers in contingent and particular situations. It is one that is continually open to the ongoing in breaking of the Messianic event and as such challenges the ideology of the powers.

Kerr’s ecclesiological vision is an immensely compelling one that is both philosophically and theologically cogent and timely. While the book is not practical in the sense of laying out specific guidelines for ecclesiological politics in our historical moment, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is an outworking of Kerr’s theology: if the Spirit is always working in the structures of our present time attempting to create and embody an in breaking of the Messianic event then this event will not be able to be predicted or laid out in advance, but rather will happen in a particular and contingent way depending on its locality and actors. The Church must await the eruption of history that is Christ’s coming in the other.[16]

One of the most important points that Kerr makes is that the Church does this through a mode of diasporic existence that finds itself in solidarity with the oppressed, dispossessed and impoverished.  This is not an idealization of the poor as other philosophies of revolution have done but rather an option for the poor that identifies with them in identification with Christ. Kerr believes that ecclesia happens as the option for the poor, not before.[17]

The last point that I believe is worth making is that Kerr’s book enters into the terrain of the philosophies of immanence that have pervaded much of contemporary continental political and critical theory, and philosophy and provides a rigorous theological response that rescues transcendence and puts it to work for immanence. I do not have the room to trace this out here, but I will likely be writing on it for an upcoming research paper.




[1] Nathan Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene, Cascade Books, 2009), 3. Italics his.


[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 23-62.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 54-55.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., 53-56.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] Ibid., 76.

[11] Ibid., 79-81. For Kerr Barth’s

[12] Ibid., 109.

[13] Ibid., 151.

[14] Ibid., 175.

[15] Ibid., 175-193.

[16] Ibid., 193.

[17] Ibid., 192.


5 thoughts on “Christ, History and Apocalyptic Review

  1. Thanks for the review. I’m very glad you found the book helpful; and I am grateful for your summary and your reflections. I would be keen to read your research paper on transcendence and immanence. Incidentally, I think you would find Daniel Barber’s work helpful on the question of immanence, particular his article from Modern Theology that I reference in chapter 5. Also, you might find another essay that I’ve recently had published in Political Theology helpful for addressing this question further in light of the theme of my book. It is entitled, “Transcendence and Apocalyptic: A Reply to Barber.” If you’d like, I could send you a PDF file of the essay. Just shoot me an email (

    At any rate, thank you again for the review. I am grateful for the engagement; it is encouraging to find the book being read well (as you have) and I learn from such engagements as I continue my work.

  2. Natt,

    Thanks for the thanks. I did really enjoy the book as was obvious from my post. I have read Barber’s article and may use it for my paper and would love to get the PDF of your reply. I will email you. I think my summary was less than satisfactory but I originally wrote this for a class and thus had to get it down to a certain length.

    As for my paper I would love to send it to you when I am done and hear any thoughts, critical or otherwise. I am planing on using Badiou, Cavanaugh, Boff and your work in order to argue for a Eucharistic creation of political subjectivity or something along those lines. So, the whole immanence/transcendence debate will not be the central focus but rather, most likely, the outlying frame work. Or at least I think. Still trying to work it all out. We’ll see. Anyways, great and exciting work. I’m looking forward to Exodus, Exile and Ecclesia.

  3. Dan,
    That paper you are working on sounds very interesting. Be sure to send me a copy when you are done with it. I definitley thinking the eucharist is the place to start (and maybe finish as well) when thinking through the tensions of immanence/transcendence in Christianity.


    1. Michael,

      I will definately send you the paper. I realize that I should probably read Henry before doing anything with the Eucharist and immanence but because of time this will not happen for this paper. I would also love to talk to you some time about Badiou’s ontology and its connection to the Event/Truth/Subject, that is, if one does not see mathematics as ontology– could it still be a language for mapping ontology?–then in what ways would this affect one’s use of Badiou’s schema of the subject.

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