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.