The Politics of the Stumbling Stone

Earlier today a reflection of mine on the subject of 1 Peter 2:2-10 was published over on Political Theology Today.

In three interwoven scriptural allusions, 1 Peter 2:4-10 presents us with a striking image. While undertaking a great construction project, a team of builders reject a stone. However, this stone is later placed as the chief cornerstone of a new divinely established building, a vast new temple constructed by the Spirit, formed of ‘living’ stones.

This stone which God has laid becomes a cause of division. On the one hand, people come to this stone in order to be built upon it. On the other hand, those who continue to reject it consistently find it to be an obstacle in their way and stumble over it to their destruction.

The imagery explored in this passage was deeply embedded in the consciousness of the early Church. The passages to which Peter alludes—Isaiah 28:16-19, Psalm 118, and Isaiah 8:11-15—are referenced in numerous other places in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 21:42-44; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17-18; John 12:13; Acts 4:11; Romans 9:32-33; 10:11; Ephesians 2:20).

The significance of the imagery of this passage arises from the fact that the construction work described is not a general building project, but the establishment of the eschatological Temple itself. The stone that God lays is placed in Zion, where the Temple itself was located. Hence the imagery explored in this passage involves a searching interrogation of core scriptural symbols, and is not merely a random metaphor deployed only for a limited purpose.

Read the whole thing here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in 1 Peter, Bible, Ethics, NT, NT Theology, Politics, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Politics of the Stumbling Stone

  1. Geoff says:

    I appreciate your depth of writings on scripture, much, much, more than your many other writings, and thank you for the full article

    While you have widened the application to political idolatry, in your full article, rather than condensing the scriptures to apply only to Israel, do the whole swathe of scriptures you cite not also apply other religions and their temples and gods as shown in Daniel 2 and in the Roman Empire in NT times, an Empire which endorsed or permitted temples built to many different gods and an Empire that sacked the Temple in Jerusalem, after “sacking” the body of Christ. The temple destroyed contrasted with the body-temple of Christ raised to glory, and to be built, as you say. by “living stones.”
    Is this not also of political significance, as well as religious?
    All temples, and political replcements will ultimately fall into destruction, except for the body of Christ, a “living stones” temple, indwelt by the indestructible life giving, life raising, the living God, the Holy Spirit.
    As AW Tozer in his book/essay put it “Man – the Dwelling Place of God.”

    • Yes, the stone cut without hands breaks about the idolatrous empire statue and grows to become a mountain filling the whole earth. That said, in the specific context of 1 Peter 2, the relationship being explored is that between Israel and the Church. This relationship has a unique significance and, while there are important analogies between it and the relationships between the Church and the idolatrous temples of the Roman Empire, it has an importance and centrality that those other relationships do not.

  2. James Bejon says:

    Dear Alastair,

    This is very thought-provoking, both in terms of its exegesis and application. Thanks! There’s a lot I need to think about. Meanwhile, a general comment if I may.

    You mention the awkwardness of some of the things you say given our post-Holocaust context. And rightly so. I wonder, for what it’s worth, if some of the potentially-interpretable-as-anti-Semitic overtones (a cumbersome phrase I know, but I can’t think of a better one, and I don’t want to accuse you of an anti-Semitic bent when I don’t for a moment think you have one) of your post would be minimised if you spoke more about a division between ‘Jews who accept their Messiah and Jews who don’t’ as opposed to a division between “Jews and Christians” (and similar phrases). I also wonder whether that might not be a more contextually accurate way to speak about the relevant issues.

    Peter was the apostle to the Jews. That was his specific call and commission. Peter wrote to those who had been “dispersed” (Gr. diaspora) throughout Gentile lands, and told them to live honourably ‘among the nations’ (true, most commentators take diaspora here to be a reference to the Church in general, but I’m not personally convinced by their arguments; suppose for a moment Peter did choose to write to Jewish believers in the diaspora; wouldn’t his letter look pretty similar to 1 Peter?). And, in Acts 4, Peter preached in Jerusalem to a multitude of Jews, and spoke to them about the exact image you discuss here in 1 Pet. 2, saying, “The stone rejected by you builders…has become the cornerstone”. The division in existence in the days of the early Church was, therefore, a division among the Jews. Indeed, the Church, at that time, was a subset of the Jewish nation. Many Jews believed in Jesus as their Messiah, but many (notably the leaders) did not, and hence the nation was divided. That, it seems to me, is the historical root and context of Peter’s statements, and I think it’s helpful to keep that in mind. Over time, the Church has grown and has come to encompass millions outside of the Jewish nation (in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to Abraham), who have distanced themselves from the term Christianity, and hence the world is as it is today, and it seems natural to talk about a distinction between “Jews and Christians”. But I wonder if it might not be a potentially unhelpful and unhistorical way to frame the issue.

    James.

    • Thanks for the comment, James.

      Yes, I think you are right about the focus of Peter’s ministry and the fact that he is primarily referring to a division between Jews. Arguing about which sect was the true heir or guardian of Israel’s destiny was a rather first-century Jewish debate and the early Church was, in this respect, engaged in a characteristically Jewish activity.

      The problem is that, as one cashes out the New Testament’s vision of how this works out, one still ends up with most historical Jews on the wrong side of redemptive history and with Christ and Christian Jews and grafted in Gentile believers in him as the only true heirs. While, as the natural branches, unbelieving Jews, should they repent, are more naturally grafted back in, this really isn’t going to scratch the post-Holocaust theological itch. Rather than bury this challenge, I preferred to declare it up front.

  3. James Bejon says:

    Hi Alastair. Thanks for the response. I agreed with everything you said; I just couldn’t quite understand your last two sentences. What does “This really isn’t going to scratch the post-Holocaust theological itch” mean?

    • That the position I have outlined really won’t satisfy the desire to present Judaism in very positive terms. For instance, the Catholic idea that Jews don’t have to convert to be saved is not a biblical one. Judaism remains opposed to and alienated from Christ in unbelief. It isn’t easy to sugarcoat this fact, nor should we try.

      • James Bejon says:

        Ah okay. I think my initial comment probably wasn’t clear then. My desire wasn’t to endorse a more positive view of Judaism per se. (Jesus clearly didn’t have a positive view of the Judaism of his day.) What I’m doubtful about (and maybe you agree, I’m not sure) is the legitimacy of an immediate association of Jews with Judaism and the Church/Christians with Gentiles in the treatment of texts like 1 Pet. 2.

        On a slightly different note, how do you understand Matthew’s reference to “he who falls on this stone”? ‘To fall on’ is, I take it, different from ‘to stumble on’. I wonder if it could be ‘to fall on’ as in ‘to set upon and attack’, in which case those who fell upon Christ would be those who had him crucified. (I’m guessing piptō + epi as per Matt. 21.44 could have a similar sense to epipiptō + epi in, say, Gen. 14.15, but I’d have to look into it a bit more.)

      • Yes, in the treatment of texts such as 1 Peter 2, such an immediate association doesn’t necessarily hold in the context. However, in our context, where the Church is an overwhelmingly ‘Gentile’ body and Judaism an overwhelmingly ‘Jewish’ body, it definitely does.

        As regards ‘falling on’ the stone, I think it is an allusion to Isaiah 8:15, in the context of the stone of stumbling. However, other texts such as Zechariah 12:3 are probably also playing in the background, where the notion of falling upon (in battle) are more prominent. It wouldn’t surprise me if both senses were being played with.

    • That, although the theological position outlined pushes back against anti-Semitic positions, it doesn’t really provide us with the sort of positive account of contemporary Jews that post-Holocaust theology has been searching for.

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  5. Alastair, I appreciated your piece! I left this comment on the Political Theology blog, but post it here as well since there’s more lively conversation happening over here 🙂

    When I saw your title, I’d hoped you were going to push the questions raised by the “stumbling stone” even further. The Danielic stone in particular suggests that God’s kingdom will supplant earthly ones: that one day, God’s kingdom will be the only one to speak of.

    Granting that this will only be fulfilled in the eschaton, how do you see the Stumbling Stone affecting Christian approaches to political engagement today? Because if we grant the following premises:
    1) Jesus reveals the greatest good in life – the richest vision for human flourishing
    2) Not all people will accept this vision

    How should these affect our political engagement, especially when we have access (as the earliest Church didn’t) to political power? Should we pursue some form of Christendom, if we are able? And how should knowing that some of our fellow men and women may never accept that authority affect that pursuit?

    I’d appreciate any further thoughts you have!

  6. William Murphy says:

    Alastair,

    Thanks for your reply above:

    “For instance, the Catholic idea that Jews don’t have to convert to be saved is not a biblical one. Judaism remains opposed to and alienated from Christ in unbelief. It isn’t easy to sugarcoat this fact, nor should we try.”

    Sadly, this may be an idea from Catholic sources, but it is most certainly NOT Catholic teaching. The traditional Catholic teaching and practice up to the Second Vatican Council was to pray fervently for the conversion of the Jews. For obvious political and historical reasons, various Catholic teachers, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis , have emphasised the idea of “our elder brothers in the Faith”, but this only evades the real problem.

  7. Eric says:

    Of course, another text which uses the stone imagery, and I suggest is also significant is the anointing of the stone which had been Jacob’s pillow, at Beth’el. Something which is alluded to in the encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel early in John’s gospel. Where he declares him to be The Son of God and The King of Israel.

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