New creation and the kingdom of God

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This is an attempt to clarify, in response to some perceptive comments on the post ‘NT Wright and the confusion of kingdom and new creation’ (the link is to a copy of the article in this site: the original with comments can be found here), how I understand the relation between ‘kingdom of God’ and ‘new creation’. These two themes have become central to the thinking of the emerging church, but I’m not sure that the tendency to treat them as broadly synonymous does justice to their biblical provenance.

There is clearly a connection between the two themes - I suggested in Re: Mission that Jesus’ comment to Nathanael about the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man (Jn. 1:51) brings together in a quite remarkable way the story of new creation (the promise to Jacob) and the story of vindication and kingdom (Daniel’s vision of the human figure coming on a cloud). Indeed, the book basically explores how these two narratives intersect in the person of Jesus and in the experience of the early church that found itself called both to be new creation and to the community of the Son of man in him.

But that does not mean what we have here are simply two different terms for the same thing. A narratively constructed theology indicates quite readily, to my mind, how they are to be differentiated.

1. The new creation narrative is the bigger one - it contains the story about kingdom. Abraham is called to be God’s new humanity before Israel becomes a kingdom like its neighbours; and when the final enemy of creation, death, is defeated, the kingdom is handed back to the Father. Right at the centre of the whole thing is the critical story of how the new creation project is rescued from oblivion by God actively and decisively intervening as Israel’s ‘king’ - an intervention which is anticipated, we might say ‘incarnated’, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but which should not be reduced to that pivotal episode.

2. I would argue that the kingdom theme has to do primarily with the problem that arises when Israel finds itself threatened by powers greater than itself or when YHWH’s sovereignty over the people is challenged. So the assertion in Isaiah that ‘YHWH reigns’ is meant specifically to contradict the power of Babylon and of the gods of Babylon over Israel. In Daniel kingdom is taken from the oppressive, war-mongering little horn on the head of the fourth beast and given to the saints of the Most High. The kingdom of God motif, therefore, has to do with the preservation and protection of God’s new creation. It is necessary, on the one hand, because Israel is surrounded by powerful enemies, and on the other, because God is willing to use those enemies to punish Israel when they persistently fail to keep the Law.

3. The dominant thought in the synoptic Gospels and in Acts is that the kingdom of God is something that is coming in the foreseeable future - that is, it is anticipated as an event that will have an impact on the future of Israel and the emerging church as they could realistically have imagined it. My view is that it is the borrowed story of the Son of man, which pervades the whole New Testament, that centrally (not exclusively) articulates the nature and scope of this expectation. It is a story of pagan oppression, Jewish apostasy and rebellion, the suffering of the righteous, judgment on unfaithful Israel, the eventual defeat of the oppressor, and the vindication of those who remain loyal to the covenant. It will be ‘fulfilled’ finally when the oppressor of the people of YHWH, that is pagan imperial Rome, is overthrown and the persecuted church is publicly vindicated in the ancient world, which I take to be the meaning of the parousia motif.

4. This is what finally and concretely liberates the community of those who have remained faithful to the new covenant in Christ to be God’s new creation inspired and guided not by the Law but by the Spirit of the creator God. So from our perspective the kingdom of God is no longer a future event; it has come. As long as that new creation needs to be protected and preserved, it remains under the ‘kingship’ of Christ (and of those who suffered and came to reign with him as part of that Son of man narrative). It seems to me that the New Testament takes a step beyond this in seeing Christ not only as the ‘firstborn from the dead’ but also as the ‘firstborn of all creation’ (Col. 1:15-20) - so I agree that Christ integrates these two themes in himself: he is both the Son of man who suffers and is vindicated and Jacob who hears a promise about a new creation in microcosm. But if we are going to read the Bible narratively, I think we need to allow the distance between these two themes and their complex narrative interaction to stand.