Weiss and Schweitzer on the kingdom of God: right, right, right, wrong, and still wrong

Read time: 3 minutes

I have read both Weiss’ Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Schweitzer’s The Mystery of the Kingdom of God recently. Both excellent books—up to a point, which I’ll come to—and well worth reading. The significance of their work for the modern understanding of the kingdom of God is neatly captured by Bruce Chilton in his 1996 book Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God:

What most of all struck scholars at the end of the [nineteenth] century was that in early Judaism “the kingdom of God” was used neither of an individual’s life after death in heaven nor of a movement of social improvement on earth. Those had been dominant understandings of the kingdom, deeply embedded in the theology and preaching of the period. The brilliant and incontrovertible assertion of the basic significance of eschatology, first by Johannes Weiss and then by Schweitzer, changed all that. They demonstrated that the kingdom of God in early Judaism and in Jesus’ preaching involved God’s final judgment of the world; the concept of the kingdom was part and parcel of anticipation of the last things. (4)

Weiss and Schweitzer were right to oppose the popular pietistic view that the kingdom of God is simply where the faithful go when they die. That is a notion that still lingers in some more remote evangelical enclaves.

They were right, too, to oppose the liberal modernization of New Testament thought that turned the kingdom of God into a programme of social reform. It seems to me that a lot of evangelicals have bought into that misunderstanding as a way of gaining a measure of socio-political traction in an increasingly post-Christian world. It’s remarkable how the nineteenth century errors have persisted.

They were right to insist that Jesus’ outlook and mission were fundamentally eschatological, directed towards an imminent coming of the kingdom, when God would decisively intervene to judge and make new. Traditional evangelical theology doesn’t know what to do with this. Eschatology is little more than a weird post-script.

But Weiss and Schweitzer were wrong to assume that Jesus was talking about the end-of-the-world. From Jesus’ point of view, as far as his mission was concerned, the coming of the kingdom of God would be the end of the world of second temple Judaism. Israel would be judged. Israel would be made new. Jesus has virtually nothing to say about what lies beyond the historical horizon of a catastrophic war against Rome.

By ignoring or twisting the consistent note of imminence in Jesus’ teaching, evangelicals have managed to perpetuate the mistake. So the kingdom is still for us both now and not yet. There is low key kingdom stuff going on in the present, but the assumption remains that the coming of the kingdom of God will be the end of the world. We are left, as a result, with an enervated understanding of New Testament eschatology and no way to speak effectively about how God acts in history to judge or deliver his people.