Friday, July 24, 2009

Kingdom Theology

I wrote last week about George R. Beasley-Murray and his legacy on my life and my understanding of the New Testament. Anyone who knew George or has read anything he’s written knows at once that he believed eschatology (Greek for “last things” or more colloquially “the future”) to be the centre (George would have insisted on the British spelling!) of the proclamation of Jesus and the message of the New Testament. That theme runs right through virtually every book he wrote but is nowhere more evident than in his book The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. In this, Beasley-Murray stands squarely within the mainstream of New Testament scholarship (see, for example, G.E. Ladd’s New Testament Theology; E. P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism; Geza Vermes’ Jesus the Jew; N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, to name a few).

Now, to be sure, there are those who argue for a “non-eschatological Jesus,” that the emphasis on the future and the coming kingdom of God did not originate with Jesus but with his followers. On this view, Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom and purveyor of practical advice, who had no aspirations about playing any kind of role in the ultimate denouement of history. It was rather a group of his followers who, after he was gone and was unable to defend himself, re-interpreted Jesus along the lines of an eschatological prophet of the End and in the process re-invented Jesus and created the Christianity we know today. The Gospels, they argue, contain more the perspectives of these “revisionists” than they do the authentic teachings of Jesus. In fact, one widely known and well-publicized group, the “Jesus Seminar,” claims that 82 percent of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels actually derive from the revisionists rather than Jesus. Of course, the way they arrive at this startling conclusion is by employing circular reasoning: they begin with the presupposition that Jesus was not an eschatological prophet and did not speak with eschatological language or imagery, and, therefore, that any reference to eschatology attributed to Jesus in the Gospels must be inauthentic. How convenient. Their “findings” are simply a restatement of their presuppositions.

But when we look at Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God itself, a fairly clear picture emerges. It can be characterized by four assertions:
  • The kingdom of God was the centre of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and action. From the parables to the Sermon on the Mount to the exorcisms, virtually everything Jesus said or did was meant either to elucidate or exemplify the coming kingdom of God.
  • Jesus believed (and taught) that he himself had a central role to play in both the coming and consummation of the kingdom of God.
  • The kingdom of God will be characterized by what has been called “The Great Reversal,” which is predicated on the assumption that this world’s vision and values are not only different from those of the kingdom but in conflict with them. That is to say, the kingdom of God is counter-cultural.
  • There is a tension in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God that is both spatial (heaven/earth) and temporal (is/comes; already/not yet).
With this most New Testament scholars would be in general agreement. That’s why I continue to be surprised when I read things like this in a recent op-ed piece for a Baptist news agency: “For Jesus, the kingdom is the reclaiming of God’s world in its entirety. The kingdom happens when God’s will is done ‘on Earth as it is in heaven.’” Note the underlying assumption: There is no kingdom until we make it “happen” on earth. That kind of warmed-over social gospel rhetoric reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the New Testament means by the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God in the New Testament is not some giant “reclamation project.” It’s more radical, more disruptive, more, well…eschatological than that. John, in the Apocalypse, catches a glimpse of the kingdom, fully and finally come, when he writes: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Paul, in advising the Corinthians to remain in the social context in which they find themselves because, he writes, “…for the essence (Greek schema) of this world is passing away.” And C. S. Lewis, in discussing the radical nature of life in the kingdom of God, says, “If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.”

It is for that reason that in the New Testament the kingdom of God is a fundamentally “other worldly” reality that has “this worldly” implications. Jesus said it best himself when asked by Pilate whether or not he was a king: “My kingdom (Greek basileia) is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my supporters would fight that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). The New Testament perspective is that the kingdom of God is “another world” (from the New Testament’s perspective, the real world!) that has broken in and broken through in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and some have caught sight of it, been captured by it, and live within it.

Perhaps an illustration from George Macdonald will help. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the room in which you currently reside is the only room in the whole world, and the people with whom you occupy that room the only people in the world. There are no windows or doors in your room; hence, you have no concept of anything outside your little “world.” Indeed, the word “outside” doesn’t exist in your language. You would be forgiven, in such a situation, for believing that your room and the people with whom you occupy it were the entire universe. However, unbeknownst to you, there is another floor above your room where other people are living other lives and doing other things. You are not aware of them, because you’ve never been outside your own little “world,” but they’re there nonetheless. Suppose somehow a hole were torn in the ceiling of your “world,” the floor of the “world” above, so that for the first time you were to become aware of this “other world” just above you. And suppose some in your “world” began to call up to the people in the room above, interacting with them, learning about all sorts of strange and wondrous things, things utterly inconceivable in your “world.” Indeed, you discover, to your amazement, that the people in the room above live their lives according to entirely different “rules’ than those which govern life in your “world.” In the room above, the poor are not regarded as a drain on the system, but are precious and prized; the old and the sick are honored and valued rather than warehoused and discarded; in this “world,” if one makes a promise, one keeps it, even when inconvenient or difficult; and in this “world,” it’s okay to suffer for doing the right thing. Some in the “world” below find themselves strangely drawn toward this “world” above. Indeed, a few are so captured by this new “world” and its new way of living, that even though they still live in the “world” below, they start to think of themselves as really belonging to the “world” above. Though they are still in your “world,” they are no longer of your “world.” The knowledge of the room above, having broken through into their “world,” has changed them forever (cf. see my “Introduction to the Thessalonian Correspondences,” Review & Expositor Vol. 96, No. 2, 175-194). That’s what Jesus meant when he described the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in his life and ministry, creating a new community which he called the “church” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt. 16:13ff.).

Moreover, there are implications for the church as well. The church is not a “social action committee” out to “fix” the world; it is a “kingdom community” out to announce the end (Greek, eschaton) of this world and the advent of a whole new world visible only through the eyes of faith. It is a “kingdom colony,” a counter-cultural community of people who have caught sight of that “other room” and having been captured by it can never again feel quite so at home in this world.

Now that doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t concerned with “this world,” or that Christians are exonerated from the obligation to work for justice (social, economic, racial, gender, or otherwise). It’s just that Christians don’t reduce the kingdom of God to justice in this world. Through the years, I’ve been a supporter of Habitat for Humanity. I believe in what Habitat stands for and does – giving the dignity that comes with home ownership to people who have not known it before; offering a “hand up” instead of a “hand out;” requiring people to be a part of their own solution by investing their own “sweat equity” in their home. But I don’t support Habitat because by doing so I believe that I can end substandard housing in my lifetime and, thereby, bring about the kingdom of God. Rather, I support Habitat because I’m a Christian and that’s the kind of things Christians do! Christians have caught sight of another world in which the kinds of marginalization so characteristic of this world no longer obtain, and because they believe themselves to belong more to “that world” than “this world,” they live in “this world” according to the vision and values of “that world.” It’s a matter of being more than doing.

Again, perhaps an illustration will help. You find a stray cat and bring him into your home. Bathe him, de-flea him, give him his shots, care for him, nurture him, and give him a name – call him Kevin. After a while, you’ll start to feel that Kevin is such a part of your life that you find yourself talking to him, believing that he understands you. He responds to you almost as though he were a person and not a cat. You believe that you can understand him when he meows, and that he understands you when you speak to him. After a while, you begin to think of Kevin as such a member of the family that he ceases for you to be a cat at all! But you bring a mouse into the house and put it in front of Kevin and you’ll find out what a cat is every time! In the same way, you put a hurting person in front of a Christian and you’ll find out what a Christian is…or isn’t…every time! It’s a matter of being more than doing.

As a citizen of the kingdom of God, the Christian is at once in this world but not of it. Will Willimon’s term for it is “resident aliens.” C. S. Lewis says that currently we are in “enemy-occupied territory.” When I was a boy, I used to sing in church, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.” Different formulations; same idea. We got it from Jesus.

And so, remove the essentially eschatological character from the proclamation of Jesus, and you can make Christianity pretty much anything you want. But if you’re going to talk about the Jesus of the New Testament (and not some “Jesus” you prefer to the Jesus of the New Testament), then let’s be fair to him. He is not the first century Eleanor Roosevelt some want to make him out to be. He’s the long-robed bearded guy standing outside the political convention holding up the sign that says, “The End is near. Get ready!”


Tim Marsh said...

Dr. Stacy,

When I re-read Gushee's article, I don't think that you and he are as far apart as your article indicates. Further down from your quotation of Gushee, Gushee acknowledges the already/not-yet tension that you allude to. However, you seem to emphasize the not-yet more than the already, whereas he does the opposite.

Both articles are excellent contributions to a discussion that must move from academia to the church. And,both move the discussion from an either/or in terms of missions as evangelism or social justice.

However, I do agree with your assessment over Gushee's in that the NT is more 'not-yet' than 'already' in its eschatology.

Too, you have whetted my appetite to read Dr. Beasley-Murray's work. Thank you!

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Hi Tim,

Point taken. The major concern I have with articles like this is that they reduce the NT tension to the temporal alone (already/not yet) while ignoring the unambiguous and ubiquitous NT emphasis on the spatial tension to which I alluded. In the NT, the kingdom of God is not merely an earthly reality "whose time has not yet come;" it is another world that can't be achieved merely by "fixing" this one.

Thanks for your comment and for keeping the conversation going about things that matter!

Pax Christi,


Tim Marsh said...

I understand your point now.

You alluded to Resident Aliens. I think Hauerwas and Willimon said it best when they stated that Christians are to be faithful rather than effective.

Many ethical mishaps are the result of applying human cause-effect logic for the purpose of shaping an outcome. Though that particular reasoning skill is important, Jesus' disciples are called to faithfulness first, trusting God for the intended outcome. I, at least, think this is the gist of Luke 12:22-34.

Thank you for your time with this article. God bless!