Sweet and Viola’s a-historical kingdom of God

In [amazon:978-0849947025:inline] Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have attempted to write a different type of book about Jesus. Not a biography but a “theography”: “we are telling the story of God’s interactions, intersections, and interventions with humanity through the life of Jesus”. It runs from eternity past to the second coming. The whole of scripture, they claim, is held together by a single narrative: the story of Jesus Christ. “Every bit of Scripture is part of the same great story of that one person and that one story’s plot line of creation, revelation, redemption, and consummation.”

I am not proposing here to offer a general review of the book, other than to say that it is well worth reading as an attempt to construct a newish christological synthesis, partly, at least, on the basis of recent historical research. There are a couple of odd arguments that I may pick up on later: the claim that God will “renovate” the earth rather replace a corruptible creation with an incorruptible one, for example, and the assertion that Jesus visited hell between his death and resurrection. Here I merely want to suggest that Sweet and Viola have largely missed the historical significance of the kingdom of God.

The coming of the kingdom of God and the disappearance of Israel

From the outset the authors characterize the kingdom of God in existential rather than historical terms, which immediately betrays the modern theological perspective. Their kingdom of God is not about the people of God in history but about humankind in eternity. A couple of statements illustrate the point.

Jesus is the human face of God. He is also the inbreaking of the eternal into time. This is a good definition of the kingdom of God, which is embodied in Jesus. (513)

I disagree. I think it is a misleading definition of the kingdom of God because it excludes or discounts the historical existence of Israel. The biblical God doesn’t simply break into time in the quasi-Gnostic sense that is the hallmark of so much modern evangelical thinking. God intervenes in the history of Israel, in the narrative of his people—and has been doing so for the best part of two thousand years by the time we get to Jesus. That is what is meant in the New Testament by the coming of the kingdom of God. Yes, we can say that the “kingdom of God proclaims the possibility of a new person, a new human being” (1458), but only in the context of the story of the judgment, restoration and vindication of God’s people.

The temptations that satan leveled against Jesus in the wilderness were targeted at obliterating His true humanity and His solidarity with humans. Jesus was tempted to betray His mission, to abandon His vocation, to “be His own man” and be the divine being He was, thus inaugurating the kingdom of God not by suffering and death but by politics and economics. (2811)

I find this a rather startling misreading of the passage. Sweet and Viola have succeeded, intentionally or unintentionally, in missing the whole point of the episode by framing it in existential-human terms. The confrontation with satan in the wilderness is not about humanity but about Israel. The background story is that of Israel’s troubled journey from slavery in Egypt to the land that had been promised to them. The fact that Jesus responds to satan’s challenge to turn stones into bread with the words “Man shall not live by bread alone…” does not mean that he is asserting his essential humanity, as Sweet and Viola argue.

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, which has to do not with being authentically human but with being obediently Israel. The temptations are targeted at obliterating his identity as an obedient son, his solidarity with Israel. I think it is a bad mistake to short-circuit the narrative in this way.

Having said that….

The brief reappearance of Israel

Probably the strongest biblical statement regarding the kingdom of God in the book comes as part of an argument about its present impact. Understandably, Sweet and Viola are concerned to counter the tendency of many modern Western Christian movements to emphasize the unworldliness of the kingdom of God, as being the “equivalent of heaven after you die”. The kingdom comes from somewhere else, they admit, but “it is ultimately for this world, and it will ultimately fill the physical universe”.

The message of the kingdom, however, does not “fit into today’s left-versus-right spectrums. We simply cannot put Jesus into our political grids.”

Jesus is the true King of the earth, whose kingdom comes in a totally unexpected and radically counterintuitive fashion. It was foolishness to the Roman officials. And it was a scandal to the Jewish elite.

The kingdom of God is the sovereign rule of Israel’s God on earth as in heaven, exercised through David’s true son and heir. This is what the ancient Scriptures foretold. And God chose to bring that kingdom by an event that most Jews and Gentiles found incomprehensible: a brutal death on a Roman cross. (3535)

This narrative is developed at some length. The kingdom of God “was a royal inauguration that challenged the existing kingdoms of the world”. Jesus fulfils the prophetic expectation that “God would reign through the Davidic King from the land of Israel and would rebuild the temple”. Today, “Jesus is enthroned as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true King”, and we are, therefore, now “living in the new creation wherein a new world has dawned in Christ”. This is very good. It anchors us in the language of the biblical narrative. Up to a point.

As an account of the kingdom of God in the New Testament what is missing is the religious-political dimension or layer of the story. It’s there nominally—the kingdom challenges the kingdoms of the world. But in practice, as Sweet and Viola tell the story, the kingdom of God immediately transcends the messy historical experience of a community that has both a past and a future, and becomes really just an abstract interaction between God and humanity through Jesus.

We jump from the Ascension to the second coming with no consideration given to the critical historical events to which both the kingdom language and the parousia language actually refer. You cannot talk about the coming of the kingdom of God in the synoptic Gospels without talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. You cannot talk about the Lordship of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament without talking about the victory of the churches over their supreme enemy, pagan Rome.

It’s all very well saying that the Bible is all about Jesus, but that is patently not true. The Bible is all about God and the people of God. Just read it, for goodness sake. The death and resurrection of Jesus dramatically realign that narrative, but they do not fundamentally contradict its historicality. The story does not stop with Jesus.

Kingdom and the nations

As we argued in Jesus Manifesto, Jesus is the kingdom incarnate. In fact, the most widely quoted scriptural text in the Second Testament is Psalm 110:1, which points to the cosmic consummation of the salvation story and the restoration of the original temple: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’” (4071)

To say that “Jesus is the kingdom incarnate” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Jesus is simply the king to whom authority has been given by God because he was obedient unto death on a cross.

But my real problem here is with the claim that Psalm 110:1 points to the “cosmic consummation of the salvation story”. Psalm 110 has nothing to say about salvation, and there is nothing particularly cosmic about. It speaks of the lasting rule of Israel’s king over nations which will have been subjected to the wrath and judgment of God. It is used in the New Testament to make exactly this point: the nations which violently oppose God’s people will be judged and Jesus will rule over them as Israel’s king. This is what happens towards the end of Revelation: Rome is judged (Rev. 19:2) and Jesus reigns, along with the martyrs, throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:4).

The final enemy to be defeated is death, which constitutes a “cosmic” victory, but that is precisely the moment when there is no more need for kingdom.

Not “now and not yet”—not any more

The first generation of Christians was fired by hopes for the kingdom. The second wave of Christianity built the church as an interim device while waiting for the kingdom. Later generations identified the two. Today the task is to reactivate the Christian hope by pointing to the Kingdom of God whose biblical images have been blurred in the history of Christianity. — NORWEGIAN THEOLOGIAN CARL BRAATEN (6071)

The first generation of Christians were fired by hopes for the kingdom because they had been led to believe that God was going to do something in the foreseeable future to vindicate them, to prove to the world that Jesus really had been given the name which is above every name, to bring an end to their suffering. Once that milestone had been passed, it’s not surprising that the church’s outlook changed.

I agree that we would do well in our own time to re-engage with Christ as Lord, but I would argue that that is in response to the fact that the kingdom has come, that Christ has been reigning on behalf of God, for the sake of his people, ever since he was raised to the right hand of the Father.

We do not now hope for the kingdom. Kingdom is where we start from, not where we are going. We are not waiting for kingdom to come. We are waiting for kingdom to end. We don’t get any more kingdom than we have at the moment. It doesn’t get any better than this. Jesus is reigning at the right hand of God, he already is sovereign over all powers, to the practical extent that nothing can separate us from the love of God, etc.; and he will continue to reign until the end, when he will give the kingdom back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24).

Sweet and Viola also differentiate at this point between the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God and the physical reality. According to the spiritual aspect, the kingdom of God is here “in mystery”, it is “perceived spiritually”. Christ reigns at the right hand of God, and “those who submit to His headship are in the kingdom and partake of its blessings”.

The second aspect of the kingdom is what we might call the physical reality of the kingdom. The physical reality of the kingdom will become manifest when the King physically appears. At that time, Jesus the King will return to planet Earth in visible form, and all things will be submitted to His rulership. (6096)

I think this is wrong. There is only one type of “kingdom” in the New Testament: it is where God gets his way with respect to the condition and destiny of his people, particularly when it comes to their relation to the nations. God has given Jesus the authority to rule on his behalf from heaven, but that is always a rule that manifests itself in the concrete experience of the historical community.

Going the wrong way in the right direction

The book certainly takes the argument forward. Sweet and Viola have made a serious attempt to engage with historical Jesus studies. But I still think that they start at the wrong end. They start with where they want the New Testament to get to, not with where it begins.

They do what we moderns want to do all the time. They pluck the ship of the early church from the stormy seas of history and set it in dry dock so that we can admire and examine it. We can clamber all over it and learn a great deal about its construction, but we get only a very poor understanding of what it felt like to have the wind in the sails, or to be lashed by storms, or to fear running aground on a reef. There is still some way to go in the crucial project of adjusting our modern theological perspective to the historical perspective of the New Testament.

Doug in CO | Sat, 12/08/2012 - 02:48 | Permalink

“Today, “Jesus is enthroned as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true King”, and we are, therefore, now “living in the new creation wherein a new world has dawned in Christ”. This is very good.”

So, is this the New Heaven and New Earth, the proto-New Heaven and New Earth, or what?

The way I see it, the people of God since Abraham has been “new creation” in contrast to the “old creation” ruled by sin. Since the resurrection the possibility has existed that God will raise creation from the dead in the same way that he raised Jesus from the dead—though the New Testament doesn’t put it like that. The resurrection of Jesus anticipates the final ontological renewal of all things.

To the extent that the church now participates in the resurrection life of Jesus through the power of the Spirit, it exists as a concrete sign in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world that our God will ultimately make all things new. I disagree with Sweet and Viola’s view that the New Testament teaches that God will “renovate” this present cosmos. I think that the defeat of evil, corruption and death envisaged in Revelation 20:11-21:8 must entail a more radical renewal than that.

Samuel | Wed, 12/11/2013 - 21:44 | Permalink

So am I to assume from this:

We do not now hope for the kingdom. Kingdom is where we start from, not where we are going. We are not waiting for kingdom to come. We are waiting for kingdom to end. We don’t get any more kingdom than we have at the moment. It doesn’t get any better than this. Jesus is reigning at the right hand of God, he already is sovereign over all powers, to the practical extent that nothing can separate us from the love of God, etc.; and he will continue to reign until the end, when he will give the kingdom back to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24).

That you have adopted a full-preterist view?

No, but thank you for asking. I see kingdom and new creation as distinct. It seems to me that Israel’s God established his kingdom through the historical events of the early centuries. But I take the view that the renewal of all things and the elimination of death and evil (as described in Revelation 21-22) belong to an absolute end of this world—John seems to me to be at pains to describe a new beginning here quite unlike the historical events that form the frame of reference for the bulk of biblical eschatology. Preterists generally seem to take exception to that argument.