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Plotting the kingdom: now and not yet and not like that

In order to keep my knee-jerk prejudices against certain aspects of traditional evangelical theology in good working order I have been reading [amazon:978-1433531620:inline], edited by Grudem, Collins and Schreiner. What I have been looking for is examples of how theologians really don’t get narrative, and I have not been disappointed. Thomas R. Schreiner begins the section on the New Testament by affirming that biblical theology, unlike systematic theology, “concentrates on the historical story line of the Bible”, and then proceeds to outline “some of the main themes of New Testament theology” (109). In other words, he’s incapable of dealing with the “historical story line” without systematizing it.

The first of the main themes is the “already-not-yet” of the kingdom, which Schreiner thinks “dominates the entire New Testament and functions as a key to grasping the whole story”. I’ve discussed this before, but I’ll discuss it again.

Jews had a straightforward linear notion of the kingdom of God. Its coming would be unambiguous, clear cut: the old age (A) would come to an end, a new age would begin (B); “the enemies of God would be immediately wiped out and a new creation would dawn”. Schreiner plots it thus (117); I’ve added the A and B:

In the New Testament things are not so straightforward. Schreiner provides a clear statement of the traditional evangelical eschatological position. The Old Testament is a large, antiquated filing cabinet—my metaphor, not his—crammed with prophecies and promises about Jesus, salvation, kingdom, etc. (A). Jesus announces the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. It is present in his person and ministry (C), but only as a mustard seed that would take time to “grow into a great tree that would tower over the entire earth”.

In other words, the kingdom was already present in Jesus and his ministry, but it was not yet present in its entirety. It was “already—but not yet.” It was inaugurated but not consummated. (110)

The kingdom will be consummated when Jesus returns and sits on his glorious throne and judges between the sheep and the goats (B).

So ‘believers pray both for the progressive growth and for the final consummation of the kingdom in the words “your kingdom come”’. This is how the Synoptic Gospels present things. John makes the same point, Schreiner suggests, using the phrase “eternal life”—that is, “the life of the age to come, which will be realized when the new creation dawns”.

Naturally, I disagree with this schematization in most of the details, if not in its overall shape. 

  • The Old Testament is not there just to point forward to Jesus. The Old Testament tells the story of the people of God from Abraham to the Maccabeans. It’s a matter only of secondary consideration that out of this troubled story there arose the expectation that YHWH would restore his people and establish his rule over the nations.
  • [pullquote]I think it is misleading to say that the kingdom of God was present in Jesus’ person and ministry.[/pullquote] That undermines the thorough-going future orientation of kingdom language in the New Testament. It would be more accurate to say that the future arrival of God’s kingdom was foreshadowed or anticipated in Jesus’ teaching and actions.
  • The parable of the mustard seed speaks of a future day when the “kingdom” of God’s people would rival the great empires of the world, providing an alternative form of security and prosperity for the nations.
  • The Lord’s prayer is not a prayer for the “progressive growth” of the kingdom—that is, I suspect, a modern construal, entirely alien to the Jewish perspective. Nor is it a prayer for the final consummation. It is a prayer for God’s will to be done in history regarding Israel and the nations. See Ezekiel 36:23 LXX: “And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord when I am sanctified among you before their eyes.”
  • In the argument about kingdom the resurrection-ascension-exaltation of Jesus is much more important than the death of Jesus, which is why there is virtually no atonement theology in Acts. An image of the ascension, therefore, is more appropriate than the cross.
  • The judgment of the sheep and the goats—so called—is not a final judgment. It is a judgment of the nations according to how they have responded to the presence of Jesus’ disciples in the period leading up to the victory of YHWH over pagan Rome.
  • The coming of the kingdom of God marks the beginning of the age to come. “Eternal life” is the life experienced by the people of God in this new age, during which Jesus reigns, along with the martyrs, at the right hand of the Father. Neither the kingdom of God nor eternal life are to be confused with the final renewal of all things, though the life of the people of God in the age to come may be thought of metaphorically as “new creation”.

The upshot is that the already-not-yet kingdom argument is formally correct but needs to be scaled down, on the one hand, and reformulated, on the other.

By scaled down I mean that it needs to be reduced to fit the historical period actually foreseen by the New Testament—the developments that lead up to the overthrow of pagan Rome, the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations, and the vindication or justification (might as well throw that in for good measure) of the prophetic churches. As the fulfilment of kingship themes articulated in the Psalms and Prophets (A), the ascension of Jesus on the clouds of heaven (C) inaugurated a state of affairs that would come to fulfilment at the parousia (B), when the Son of Man would “come”—again on the clouds of heaven—to deliver his disciples from their enemies and judge the nations according to the terms of Matthew 25:31-46.

By reformulated I mean that the already-not-yet motif can also quite reasonably be used with respect to new creation, though this adds a further layer of complexity. What the New Testament strains towards mainly is the historical horizon of  victory over pagan Rome (B). That is the kingdom narrative. But beyond that is the prospect of a final judgment of all the dead and an utter ontological renewal—as I see it (D). We are two thousand years into the period between B and D.

The resurrection of Jesus anticipates both outcomes. Jesus is the firstborn or firstfruits of the many followers who would suffer as he suffered and be vindicated as he was vindicated. But as a victory over death his resurrection is also the beginning of a new creation.

In that respect, the new creation life that we experience now as part of a redeemed people of God empowered by the Spirit is the now or already of the not-yet new creation. This was too distant a prospect for the New Testament churches to get excited about: political realities were much too urgent. But it has become a much more compelling theme in a post-imperial, globally conscious, ecologically threatened world.

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