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More questions about the kingdom of God

My very good friends Rogier and Christine have responded to my post Kingdom of God: who, what, when, and how? with a number of pertinent questions. I have tried to answer all of them thoroughly, but the result is a rather long post. So if your name is not Rogier or Christine, you may want to skip it. In fact, when you see how long and abstruse it is, you may want to skip it even if your name is Rogier or Christine.

Was the conversion of Constantine the culmination of the kingdom?

So was the conversion of Constantine and the edict of Milan the culmination of the Kingdom? Is that where the people of God were transformed and finally did not have to fear being conquered?

In historical terms I think the answer is yes. The conversion of the empire unquestionably represented the victory of Christ over the gods of the pagan world; and it put an end to the persecution of the churches that had borne faithful witness to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus throughout that period. That is a limited victory, of course. It is not a final victory. My suggestion is that the kingdom language in the New Testament refers, in effect, to a historical process that culminated in the judgment of the “empire in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:31).

I understand that as modern believers, many of us with Anabaptist sympathies, we have a hard time swallowing the argument that Constantine and Christendom constituted the fulfilment of such a core New Testament belief. But I think that simply reflects the difference between a modern abstract theological perspective and a historical perspective. The fact is that Christendom—that is, Christianity descended from the conversion of the empire—has been the dominant expression of the people of God throughout most of the history of the church. We have to take it just as seriously as we take the historical existence of Old Testament Israel. I think it is a mistake to escape into a theological idealism that ultimately finds it has nothing to say to humanity as a socio-political—and therefore historical—phenomenon.

In response to Christine’s related question, “Do you think God used Constantine to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom?”, I would ask where the idea of the kingdom coming in its “fullness” comes from. I’m not sure Jesus puts it in those terms—at least not in the sense in which we typically mean it. Is the kingdom something that comes half full or full, like a bottle? It is spoken of as a coming event, a moment of decisive divine intervention, when Israel is judged, when authority is transferred to another people, when the nations are judged, when the churches are vindicated publicly for their defiance of pagan idolatry in the name of Jesus. God did not use Constantine to bring about the fullness of the kingdom. But arguably he used Constantine—and others after him—to bring an end to pagan idolatry and the persecution of the churches, and in that sense to bring this critical trajectory in New Testament eschatology to a close.

Is the kingdom of God now our source of motivation and vision?

Do you believe it is wrong, theologically speaking, to now use the term ‘The Kingdom of God’ as the source of our motivation and vision — in small scattered parts for now, and in grand, all encompassing manner in the future?

In principle, yes, I think it would be wrong. My argument would be that the coming of the kingdom of God is not ahead of us to draw us forward; it is behind us to enable and sustain us. It is not now the victory over idolatrous, oppressive empire that gives us our motivating eschatological horizon, that draws us forward into mission, but the final renewal of all creation.

Of course, there are always going to be situations where the church finds itself persecuted and oppressed by empire or something like it—China is the obvious example today; and it’s also possible that new crises will emerge that will again make the prophetic announcement of a coming act of divine intervention on behalf of his people relevant. But it seems to me that for now, after Christendom, in a rapidly globalizing context, the prophetic task of the church is to stand for and practically embody, in all its fulness, the belief that the creator God will ultimately renew all things. This is a much bigger “good news” than the announcement that YHWH was about to transform the status of his people vis-à-vis the nations. Which brings us to Rogier’s next question…

Is the renewal of all things the same as the coming of the kingdom in its fulness?

You do refer to ‘God making all things new’ — an event evangelicals tended to call ‘the coming of the Kingdom in all its fulness.’ What do you call that now?

Yes, I think it is a mistake to conflate the kingdom language and the new creation language. Evangelicals tend to deny the significance of future historical events for understanding New Testament theology. Between Jesus and the end of the world, when the saved go to heaven (if they are not there already), all we have is the church and the kingdom of God, and we struggle to make sense of the relationship between the two. Tom Wright has helped us to adjust that perspective somewhat by highlighting the significance of AD 70 for Jesus’ teaching and the renewal of creation as the final hope. But I would argue that just as the destruction of Jerusalem formed the decisive horizon of Jesus’ eschatology, so the judgment of pagan Europe formed the decisive horizon of Paul’s eschatology.

Did the kingdom of God come and go again?

If the Kingdom came with ‘the transformation of God’s people’ is it still here now. Did it leave after a while?

The effects of the transformation are still with us. From the New Testament’s point of view what mattered was the event of the coming of the kingdom of God. Isaiah 52:7 focuses on the moment when YHWH will act sovereignly to restore Jerusalem and demonstrate his power to the nations. But the event has lasting implications. Similarly, Jesus proclaims an event when God will judge and restore his people’. Paul extends the narrative, proclaiming an event when God will judge the pagan world and when this world will be inherited by the descendants of Abraham by faith.

But the lasting outcome is that Jesus has been made lord and king over the people of God in place of Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, Caesar, and satan. That seems to me to have two basic theological consequences, which can be traced all the way back to the original demand for a king: “there shall be a king over us …that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:19-20).

The first is that as king Jesus rules over or judges his people—we are answerable to him and not to anyone else. The second is that as king he preserves the security and integrity of his people: he has defeated our enemies. In other words, as the people of God in Christ we deal with opposition, setbacks, internal strife, intellectual and cultural challenges, etc., always on the basis of the fact that YHWH delegated rule over his people to one who loved, was faithful and obedient, who was weak, who suffered, who gave himself for others, who trusted in his Father to vindicate him.

These are the enduring consequences of the fact that the kingdom which Jesus said was at hand came, resulting in the radical political-religious transformation of the status of the family of Abraham amongst the nations. However, I think we do have to take into account the fact that the embodiment of Christ’s lordship in the existence of the people of God as empire has more or less ended. The paradigm is obsolete. Christ’s lordship over his people has not changed, but we are looking hard for a new way of embodying it in our corporate existence.

Was it by Constantine or the cross that the lordship of Christ was established?

Just to clarify… do you mean that the kingdom came through Constantine and due to this historical event we now operate securely under the lordship of Christ? If yes, I have to ask what was the cross for? Was not the cross the historical event that allows us to operate securely under the lordship of Christ?

Very good question, Christine. I think that it’s unhelpful to separate the death and resurrection of Jesus from the story that unfolds subsequently. Evangelicalism doesn’t really know what to do with what happens between Jesus and the end of the world—just as it doesn’t really know what to do with what happens between Jesus’ birth and his death.

But in some important respects his death and resurrection anticipate or preempt the eschatological narrative. His suffering and vindication as Son of Man anticipates the suffering and vindication of the churches. His death on a cross anticipates the punishment of Israel through the instrumentality of a brutal army of invasion. His resurrection on the third day anticipates the healing and restoration of the people of God (cf. Hos. 6:1-2). His resurrection gives Paul grounds to believe that God intends to judge the Greek-Roman world in the same way that he judged ancient Egypt or Assyria or Babylon.

The kingdom is given to Jesus—and to the martyrs who suffered for his sake—because he was faithful unto death. What Constantine represents symbolically, I suggest, is full outworking of the implications of the fact that under these historical conditions the kingdom was given to Jesus. We now live with the consequences of that completed narrative. It is Philippians 2:8-11 transposed on to history. The expectation that every knee should bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord for the sake of the glory of Israel’s God evokes the belief expressed in Isaiah 45:22-23 that at some point in history the nations would abandon their idols and turn to Israel’s God for salvation.

Is the church the new Israel?

I am confused about Israel’s part. You state ‘the family of Abraham was transformed’. Yet Israel was destroyed and the church that emerged victorious from 300 years of struggle was largely non-Jewish. In your view, is Israel’s part over? Is the church the new Israel?

Here is how I see it, very briefly. The fundamental unit of God’s mission towards his creation—the missio dei—is a people that derives its identity and calling from the promises made to the patriarchs, a people designed to be a new creation in microcosm in the midst of a world that had turned its back on the creator. That people became a nation, with land, temple, Law and king. This national existence, however, was brought to an end in AD 70, which the New Testament interprets as a final judgment on the nationalist Law-based paradigm. Why? Because the Law could not change the human heart.

Jesus demonstrates an alternative basis for existing as the family of Abraham, so we have a new covenant on the basis of faith. This has the effect of opening the door to Gentiles, which is important because, in Paul’s view, Israel’s God is about the claim the whole pagan world for himself. It is a concrete demonstration of the fact that YHWH is not God of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles. In the end, as I’ve suggested, the national template for the political-religious existence of the people of God was replaced until fairly recently by an imperial template.

Paul, of course, writes Romans before AD 70. I think he holds out the hope that after judgment the Jews as a people might repent and believe that Jesus was indeed the messiah sent by God to save his people from their sins (for the argument see The Future of the People of God). As it turned out, that didn’t happen, and the family of Abraham according to faith, rather than physical descent and the Law, became a Gentile movement. I don’t think that the New Testament has anything to say about national Israel beyond that.

Comments

Hi Andrew,

I stumbled across your blog while searching for stuff on the Kingdom as i’m about to write my first essay for NT studies looking at Mark 1.

I really appreciate your thinking Its definatly a fresh perspective to me and it does make a lot of sense logically/historically. 

I have 2 things that I would question:

1- how would you deal with Mark 14:25, when Jesus says he will not drink wine again till the Kingdom?  Would this not imply that Jesus should have returned with constantine, and nipped down to the local Inn?

2-The 2nd thing that I struggle with is that a lot of what I consider to be worst of christianity has stemmed from abuse of power.  To imply Gods kingdom came fully in Empire I can understand from the Christus Victor perspective, but I don’t feel the Empire and it’s consequent manifestations , could be said to represent Jesus moral teaching and thus could not be the full coming of  Jesus kingdom.

Again want to encourage you I really enjoying your thinking, and I hope my questions arn’t too silly.

Neil

1. I don’t think that Jesus had the conversion of the empire in view, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he would have enjoyed a drink with Constantine, given the chance. His eschatological horizon was the war against Rome, against which background he speaks of the restoration of the people of God, not least in terms of a feast when the forgiven and healed part of Israel would sit down at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (eg. Matt. 8:11). I would take the saying about drinking from the fruit of the vine (Mk. 14:25) as a reference to the theme of an eschatological banquet that symbolizes the renewed family of the patriarchs. A fruitful vine is a natural Old Testament metaphor for righteous Israel. In the context of the supper, however, there is perhaps the further thought that Jesus will specifically celebrate with his suffering disciples, who will share in his vindication and authority as the Son of Man.

2. Your second comment is entirely appropriate. For my argument at this point to be valid we would have to recognize that there is always a gap between prophetic language and the realities of history to which it refers. If we think of Jesus’ “kingdom” as an ideal state of affairs, then we will inevitably have difficulty associating it with Constantine. If we think of it more pragmatically or realistically as a reference to a foreseen transformation in the status of Israel among the nations, as I have argued, then it is not so preposterous to suggest that the empire-wide acknowledgment of Christ as Lord over the gods and man-gods of the ancient world constituted the proper historical fulfilment of the New Testament’s belief regarding what Israel’s God was doing in the ancient world.

So my argument is that our problems arise because we are trying to import a modern, a-historical evangelical idealism into Jesus’ much more earthy, pragmatic, Jewish outlook. In any case, Christendom is a problem however you look at it. If we don’t regard it as a deeply flawed expression of “new creation”, just as Old Testament Israel was a deeply flawed expression of “new creation”, we have the problem of explaining how God allowed the supposedly true church of the first centuries to degenerate so badly, to the extent that it became abusive empire.

We probably fixate too much on the imperial dimension. Europe became a thoroughly Christian society, which at many levels and in many ways endeavoured to embody the ideal corporate relationship to a creator God. We also probably think rather too highly of ourselves as evangelicals. The people of God is always deeply flawed, which is why we rely on grace.

Having said that, the cognitive gap between prophetic vision and historical reality is not accidental or merely cultural. It reflects a persistent unhappiness with the way things are in the world and a constant striving for redemption and newness. It is a generator of hope. Our life under Jesus as our king is imperfect, but my argument is that for us now the overarching hope is not for kingdom but for new creation. The kingdom came so that we might be new creation.

Thankyou for your response :)

I can see how your argument speaks of Gods continued salvation/redemption history from Gen to now and the age to come. 

I actually kind of like its messiness, if that makes sense.  It speaks to me of the continued partnership between a Perfect God and imperfect humanity where God is continually having to pick up the slack for the weaker partner who just the like the OT kings of Israel get in-culturised in this worlds politics and morality leading them to oppression & idolatry/unfaithfulness to God, rather than the liberation, witness, light to the gentiles they are supposed to impart.

If you don’t mind me asking how does your argument outwork issues like moral responsibility for evil?  The only answer I can see is complete libertarian freedom or else God is responsible for all the atrosities of Christendom as well as all the positive outworkings of Christian society.

There is a lot for me to unpack with what you are saying. 

Neil

I just thought I should reveal my current (Very un-educated) worldview so you know where I’m coming from. 

I would consider myself broadly evangelical but I tend to hold a more Christus Victor view of atonement with a fair amount of Moral Exemplar thrown in for good measure.

I also tend to see salvation as corporate, but the choice to be part of the saved group individual. 

I tend be quite an open theist (in my limited understanding of it, it seems to make the most sense to me), and see that humans are completly free to act as the future is unknowable but God can see all possible futures and can plan/act accordingly.

I love Jesus and want to serve him in all I do and see family as a very important model of how to be a christian.

I don’t know if this is appropriate in cyber relations in this forum, but I felt I know a lot more about you than you did me so it’s only right to let you know a bit about me.  I won’t be offended if you moderate this out if it’s not.  :)

Neil

Nice comments. Thanks.

I would consider myself broadly evangelical but I tend to hold a more Christus Victor view of atonement with a fair amount of Moral Exemplar thrown in for good measure.

Why the “but”? Can’t broad evangelicals hold to a Christus Victor view of atonement?

My view is:

i) substitutionary atonement makes a lot of sense in the Jewish part of the narrative: Jesus suffered the destruction at the hands of the Romans that was to be Israel’s punishment;

ii) the Christus Victor motif makes much more sense in the pagan context, where the emphasis is on the victory over the powers and gods and political forces of the Greek-Roman world; but it is only because Jesus died as a substitutionary atonement for Israel’s sins that his death and resurrection constituted a victory over the principalities and powers of the ancient world (Col. 1:15);

iii) the imitation of Christ theme belongs to a theology of martyrdom: the disciples are called to imitate Jesus in his suffering, with the same hope of vindication;

iv) perhaps now I would put the emphasis, in more general terms, on the failure of the fallen world to suppress the new creation life that arises out of Jesus’ commitment to the enduring narrative of the people of God.

The ‘but’ is referencing the absence of the Penal Sub which I have been told (rather strongly sometimes) is a cornerstone of evangelicalism. It was not meant to say that I think Christus Victor is not an evangelical position.

‘But’ your point is well made.

I read the posts you linked to, some very interesting points I will have to think on.

The thing i find difficult with theology/biblical studies in general is exatly that thinking process.

How when you pull one thread it changes the whole tapestry and you then have to look at the picture in a completly new light and assess how this works practically as praxis. (I think thats the right term?)

I find this hard as i’m temprementally more inclined towards praxis. By that i mean I’ve experienced God through Jesus In my life in an experiential way and I want to model that to others so that they may share in the amazeingness of him and it. (To keep this thread on track being about kingdom) I would say that I have always seen this as primarily about bringing people into/under Gods kingdom/ship as I have previously viewed it.

At the same time I want my expression of this to be as honest, trustworthy and explainable as possible, so I recognize the need to keep making myself/ourselves uncomfortable by pulling at the threads of my/our tapestry.

I have tended to reject penal sub on my narrow reading that it was:

a) A construct of Anslem which tried to answer the question of atonement from a European Feudal society worldview which viewed God as needing to have his honour restored, which stemmed from a neo platonic/ hellenistic view of God as a perfect anthropormophised ruler who could not endure any dis-hounour as it would challenge his perfection and therefore his right to rule, rather than my (equally prejudiced) view from reading the bible, of a God primarilly concerned with expressing relationship and love to a hurting world at any cost.

b)My reading of Greg Boyd (which I don’t claim to be an expert on) who seemed to answer quite a lot of my questions regarding the problem of evil through the Christus Victor Model tied to an open theist view of God.

c)I’m a product of my own culture as well as a christian and I struggle with the narrative of

“God was angry and wanted to hurt us because we had hurt him but at the same time loved us and didn’t want to. God then sent his Son and hurt him instead and then felt better about us but only if we loved his son because he took the hurt meant for us”.

I know that is a caricature but in essence is how it looks to me.

d)Penal sub also seemed to me to put too much emphasis on Jesus death to the detriment of both his life, teaching, and resurection.

I will have to think more about your point:

“substitutionary atonement makes a lot of sense in the Jewish part of the narrative: Jesus suffered the destruction at the hands of the Romans that was to be Israel’s punishment”

My first thought on this is that

1) if Jesus was a ‘substitute’ to take Israels punishment why would the AD70 Destruction of the temple have happened.

To go back to my caricature, doesn’t this paint a picture not only of an angry God but a vindictive one who punishes 2 times for the same thing?

Kingdom of God has taken from the Jews and given to another nation. This has been prophesied by Jesus that is written in Matthew 21: (43) Therefore, I say unto you, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and will be given to a nation that will bear fruit kingdom.

And, the Kingdom of God has given to all the people in the outside world (according to the prophecy of Jesus above) by the Arabs in the form of the religion of Islam. 

I read an article in http://ishamerdeka.blogspot.com with the title Kingdom of God, the dream of every Christian who has been enjoyed by Muslims.

Thank you.

Ha ha, you’re right Agust, thanks

Just stumbled across your site and I find your writings very interesting, well developed, and thought-provoking. Thank you!

I had a question with respect to the “Kingdom of God” in light of thee prophetic hope and expectations found in the Old Testament…

(I will only take two excerpts, but there are many more passages that would help me make my point)

“Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Is 2:4

“The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Is 11:8-9

It seems that the OT expectation was one that included an end to war, and even maybe an end to violence and oppression in general.

With Constantine, many good things came that seem to support this (persecution of Christian church stopped, abolishing crucifixion, better treatment/rights for women, etc.), but it is also hard to think that the entire dream/hope is fulfilled: War is not ended, rather the cross is now an emblem on a shield; and the way is established for the accepted Christian religion to torture heretics and dissidents.

The persecuted soon become the persecutors. The opressed become legal, powerful, and fashionable. In this established “kingdom” we seen the establishment of the idea of “holy war”, crusades, inquisitions, Salem witch trials, and the defense of slavery. It seems that kingdom is still developing (seeds are still growing, the leaven is still working) and we are not at a place where this is complete…

Darren, I agree with you—there is a clear deficit between Isaiah’s vision of a restored Jerusalem “in the latter days” and what Constantinian Christianity became.

But what Isaiah describes in these chapters is a set of historical events consisting of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem, followed by the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem, the installation of a righteous Davidic king who will judge the nations, the return of the scattered exiles of Israel and Judah, and the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion to learn the ways of the God of Israel.

What are we to do with that? Do we suppose that it is still to come? Are we to think that it is has been or will be fulfilled in some symbolic sense? But symbolic of what?

One important hermeneutical question to consider is whether the New Testament assumes the fulfilment of all Old Testament testament. Admittedly everything will come good in the new heavens and new earth, and something of Isaiah’s vision carries over into that vision. But it’s curious that the New Testament does not draw on the imagery of weapons being transformed into agricultural implements or of predator and prey peacefully coexisting. Why not? Perhaps because it was not felt to be appropriate to describe the coming of the kingdom of God, as envisaged from the New Testament’s perspective, in such terms.

Just as Isaiah struggled to express the particular circumstance of Israel threatened by Assyria or of Judah threatened by Babylon, so the New Testament struggles to outline the fate of Israel and then the churches threatened by Rome. There is always some tension between prophetic hope and historical reality, and I don’t think it should be resolved by discounting the historical perspective.