The right side of history’s long defeat: onward Christian soldiers?

The right side of history’s long defeat: onward Christian soldiers? July 23, 2014
What kind of soldier is he? *

So, what have I done in the title of this post? I have taken what has become a common phrase in our current environment: “the right side of history”, and have combined it with J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of “the long defeat”.

Inspiration for this came this morning, after reading a couple excellent blog posts by the Eastern Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman (see here and here – long-time readers of my blog posts know that I try to read some of the best blogs from the various Christian traditions).

So, what do I mean by this? First of all, Christians can unabashedly say that history is largely about God’s work in time for us – the crown of His creation.  As He brings into being the new heavens and the new earth, we are to be a very big part of that – He will be seating us on thrones to rule with Him.

On the other hand, the way that He brings us into this Kingdom seems strange indeed. As Jesus said, “Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. As Jesus suffered, so his followers are not exempt. As our King entered the His Kingdom by means of the cross, so must we.

Some very thought-provoking paragraphs from Father Freeman’s posts.  I refrain from bolding as it is all very good:

History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider.


But the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.”

(from this post – read the whole thing).  From his second post:

For the long defeat through time is nothing other than the playing out of the Cross through time. It is not the failure of the Church and of Christians – though our failures certainly participate in the long defeat. Nor is it a pessimism born of the modern experience as we reflect on the tragedies of our times.

The tendency of many (particularly among contemporary Christians) to relegate the Cross to a historical moment, renders that “defeat” to the past and writes the remainder of subsequent history and the coming future under the heading of the resurrection. Christ died – but now He’s risen – having taken away any need for the Cross.


The whole history of the Church, its path through time, has been a manifestation of the Cross. The occasional “triumphs” (as measured by the world) are very often the times of greatest unfaithfulness to the gospel. The “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” according to the fathers. We have no teaching about building on “success.”

Just as all of human history prior to Christ is seen as culminating in His death and resurrection – so all subsequent human history should be seen as a cosmic version of the same.

The vision of St. John is the triumph of the slain Lamb.


I think that some Christians are uncomfortable with a phrase like “long defeat” because the Cross has somehow lost its original meaning for them. So swallowed in the victory of Christ’s resurrection has it become, that we fail to remember its character of defeat. Our adversary understands only that our defeat means his victory. In this he is utterly mistaken and it is the resurrection that assures us and encourages us not to fear the Cross.

But the resurrection is never anything apart from the Cross. There is no Resurrected Christ who is not always the Crucified Christ. Nor will there ever be a victorious Church that is not always the defeated Church.

Those who long for a return to Christendom (in all its various forms) engage in an understandable nostalgia. But they do not engage in something promised by the gospel nor established as a theological necessity.

(read the whole thing here)

All of this jives very well with not only Luther’s “theology of the cross”, but also with what the Lutheran saint John Gerhard said about the nature of the church in his arguments with the larger, more powerful and successful Roman Catholic Church.  We keep this in mind as the days seem to be getting darker, remembering the words of our Lord, “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Mat 24:22)”

As I pondered these things this morning as well, the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers” came to mind. I do not deny that a hymn like this has its proper place, and yet I was reminded about what I had recently heard about it: this kind of metaphor – of Christians boldly marching into battle – is basically absent from Scripture. When metaphors of war are used, they have to do more with things like watchtowers and standing one’s ground. Good to keep in mind.

And a good way to end – from the first post quoted above:

“But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

We are a very particular – and curious – kind of soldier.  And the victory has been won in our Suffering Servant King (contrast Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1).**


Note: in some upcoming posts here, I will talk more about the origins of the phrase “the right side of history” and our Christian response to it.

* Wikipedia: Tolkien, aged 24, in military uniform, while serving in the British Army during the First World War, 1916

** Further note after a conversation with a pastor friend: …in posting this I am not denying that, in some regards, things have gotten better in the Western world in the last 150-200 years (medicine, food security, safety regulations, political liberties), and this is in large part to the continuing influence of Christianity (here and here are two posts I have done on that aspect).   We are to seek to improve things for people and the creation when God gives us the gifts and abilities to do so, even if such improvements will always be fragmentary and imperfect.  That said, until Christ’s return we will deal with man’s fallen nature and the curse that is cast over this fallen world (Romans 8) – and we need not and cannot carry the burden of establishing God’s kingdom, earthly paradise, on earth.


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