I managed to get an internet connection on the bus between Antakya (Antioch on the Orontes) and Tarsus and followed a link from Michael Bird to a Themelios article by Don Carson on “Kingdom, Ethics, and Individual Salvation”, republished on the Gospel Coalition site. It doesn’t seem an inappropriate theme to reflect on as we ride in air-conditioned comfort in the footsteps of Paul.
Carson is responding to a number of different views on the kingdom of God advanced in recent years that diverge from “traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought”. Most of them are attempts to reintroduce a social and ethical dimension to the church’s understanding of the kingdom of God, either alongside or in displacement of a supposedly Pauline focus on individual salvation. As Carson puts it:
…the focus of their frame of reference is one or another of these large visions, usually tied to a distinctive understanding of the kingdom, heavily leaning toward societal transformation (either of the entire society or, in the Anabaptist heritage, the ecclesial society).
Carson allows that there is some truth in these various proposals but he thinks that “in each case there is something either reductionistic about the proposal or just plain exegetically wrong or both”. He picks a few specific holes in them and then attempts to show how reductionist they are by outlining a number of ways in which “kingdom” is used in the New Testament. I have conflated some of them:
- In many instances the kingdom of God is “virtually coextensive with God’s sovereignty” over all people and all things. But it may also constitute “that subset of God’s total reign under which there is acceptance with God and eternal life”. The kingdom is something that we have to enter. “One is either in the kingdom or one is not.”
- The kingdom is often presented in the Gospels as something that is either in the process of coming or will come in the future, but the emphasis is on it coming progressively, like seed sown in different soils or yeast transforming dough, not in a great “climactic burst” as some Jews expected.
- At any particularly moment the coming or dawning kingdom includes both wheat and weeds, which Carson thinks is another way of stating the first point.
- In the New Testament the kingdom of God increasingly becomes the kingdom of Christ. In particular, Jesus becomes king by virtue of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. “Paul sums up this vision by insisting that all of God’s sovereignty is currently mediated through Christ and that this will continue to be the case until the last enemy has been destroyed.”
- Matthew’s preferred phrase “kingdom of heaven” suggests a slightly different perspective: kingdom viewed “a little more focally from heaven’s vantage point”.
- There is occasionally an ethical dimension to kingdom, but ‘there is nothing in the NT quite like the current infatuation for expressions like “kingdom ethics,” in which “kingdom” is reduced to a mere adjective’.
This seems to me a typically confused and contradictory theological account of the kingdom of God as it is presented to us in the New Testament. It is confused and contradictory for the simple reason that it fails to reckon with the historical frame both of Jesus’ message to Israel and of Paul’s (and John the Seer’s) message to the pagan world. If we accept that in Jewish thought the reign of God signifies a political reality in the sense that it speaks of God dealing decisively with his people in history and especially in relation to the nations, I think we can construct a much more coherent account of the New Testament concept.
- Kingdom is fundamentally a future event from the perspective of the New Testament. Any experience or realization of kingdom in the present of Jesus’ followers or of the early churches should be understood as in some way or other an anticipation of or pointer towards the kingdom to come. It is only this in anticipatory or prophetic sense that we may talk about the kingdom in the first century being both “now and not yet”.
- The coming of the kingdom of God is portrayed as a crisis for the communities addressed. It is expected within a foreseeable future. From Jesus’ point of view this crisis will consist in the catastrophe of judgment on Jerusalem and the temple, by which the “Son of Man” will be publicly vindicated. From the point of view of the apostles, this will be part of a much bigger crisis involving, finally, judgment on the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or empire.
- The coming of the kingdom of God will be the moment when YHWH acts sovereignly in history to judge, first, his people, and secondly, the nations. But that coming or moment will have lasting consequences both for God’s people and for the nations.
- The authority to judge and rule, as Carson notes, was given to Jesus following his resurrection. What follows the moment of the coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, is the reign of Christ (and the martyrs) throughout the coming ages of human history, until the last enemy, death, is defeated.
- In his fascinating book Constantinople: The Last Great Siege 1453, which I have been reading en route, Roger Crowley quotes the inscription on the column of Constantine the Great in Constantinople: “O Christ, ruler and master of the world, to You now I dedicate this subject city, and the sceptres and the might of Rome.” That, to my mind, is the coming of the kingdom of Christ.
- Kingdom is not incidentally ethical, as Carson rather implies. It is thoroughly ethical but not in the manner supposed by many in the “emerging church” and others who regard it as a synonym and pretext for social justice work. The coming of the kingdom of God means judgment on Israel because of sin and on the Greek-Roman world because of sin.
- Kingdom is not new creation. The coming of the kingdom of God is the moment of judgment on and restoration of God’s new creation people; and the kingdom of Christ is then the means by which the integrity of that people is preserved until all sin, all opposition, and the last enemy, death, are defeated. At that point there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and there will be no further need for kingdom, so Jesus will hand back the right to rule to God the Father, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:25-28).