Can we have the ‘kingdom of God’ without God?

The term ‘kingdom of God’ crops up frequently in conversations about mission and ministry (see, for example, the recent use in Martyn Percy’s discussion of bishops), but it is not always very clear what the term means, or what relation it bears to Jesus’ use of the term in the gospels. It seems to me to be rather important to look carefully at the meaning of the term before we hitch it to our own agendas for a theology of ministry.

The first thing to note about the phrase is that it is presented by Jesus (and by John in Matthew 3.2) as the fulfilment of expectation. Its meaning cannot therefore be detached from OT and intertestamental expectation of God’s reign, even if Jesus’ teaching significantly reinterprets such expectations. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ does not occur in this form in the OT, but the theme of God’s kingship runs like a thread through it, from the dominion God has over creation which he then delegates to humans made in his image, through his rule over his people in contrast to Pharoah’s control in the Exodus, to the theme of theocracy in the debate about whether Israel needs a king (1 Sam 8.6). A number of psalms express God’s sovereignty, and some include extravagant expositions of God as king:

For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth… Sing praises to God, sing praises…For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. (Ps 47)

The climax of this understanding comes in the second-century text of Daniel. In the first (story) cycle, the stone that rolls down from the mountain and destroys the statue signifies a kingdom set up by God which ‘will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever’ (Dan 2.44). In the second (vision) cycle, the corresponding episode describes the everlasting kingdom given by the Ancient of Days to the ‘one like of Son of man’.

Out of all this, two things are worth noting. The first is that, whatever the distinctive features of the realm over which God reigns (and they are many), this cannot be separated from actual recognition of God himself as king. The ‘kingdom of God’ is not a set of ideas or features; it is the exercise by God of his authority. The second is that, particularly in Daniel, it is clear that the kingdom of God is something that God enacts, and not something the human action brings about. (This is especially clear when contrasted with the themes and idea of the contemporaneous Books of Maccabees.) Both these things persist into the NT discussion of the kingdom of God.

In Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom, it consistently comes with judgement and decision. In the Synoptic gospels, the start of his preaching is summarised as ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe!’ It has often been claimed that ‘repentance’ here (metanoeo) has a sense of ‘changing one’s mind’ or ‘thinking again’. But this meaning had fallen from use by the first century, and the term should be understood in its LXX sense as the equivalent of the Hebrew shuv, meaning ‘turn [from your sins]’. This is hardly surprising, since the anticipation of God’s advent as king in the OT is, within one part of the prophetic tradition, described as ‘the great and terrible Day of the Lord‘, a day which will bring deliverance, but which will also bring judgement to his people, and so is distinctly ambiguous (see, for example, Mal 4.5).

It is very clear that Jesus reconfigures this sense of judgement, most notably omitting the references to judgement in Is 61.1–2 when citing it in his ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ in Luke 4.18f, and the inversion of power structures that the kingdom brings (see Luke 1.51) means that judgement will not come in the way that is expected or necessarily on those expected. But John’s ministry in Matt 3 and Luke 3 expresses this judgment very clearly, and Jesus repeatedly refers to the division that his message brings, both in the present (Matt 10.34) and in the eschatological future (‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30, the separation of sheep from goats in Matt 25.31f). John’s gospel makes this equally clear; he mostly deploys the language of the ‘life of the age [to come]’ (poorly translated as ‘eternal life’ in most ETs) in place of language of the kingdom, but just as the future life has broken into the present in the ministry of Jesus, so therefore has the future judgement come with it. So, though Jesus has come to offer life, and judgement is deferred, paradoxically that judgement is pulled forward into the present in the form of people’s response to Jesus’ offer (‘those who do not believe are condemned already…’ John 3.18).

It is often noted that Jesus exercises his ministry of healing and deliverance freely, and that there often appears to be an absence of comment on repentance in the narratives by those who benefit. But it is not possible to conclude from this that such ‘kingdom’ ministry has no connection with faith and commitment for at least three reasons. First, it would be odd to expect the gospel writers to record Jesus’ teaching that accompanied every miracle; if so, then the gospels would be a lot longer! Secondly, whilst healings and deliverance are key elements of the kingdom, and point to the presence of God, it would be odd to reduce the kingdom of God to these alone, given the range of teaching and exposition throughout the gospels on the nature of the kingdom. Thirdly, Jesus talks sufficiently often of repentance and decision to discourage us from detaching this from his ministry. When questioned about his radical approach to table fellowship, Jesus responds that he has come ‘not to call righteous, but sinners’ (Matt 9.13, Mark 2.17), the labelling of his fellow diners as ‘sinners’ is hardly a flattering affirmation, and does not suggest an acceptance of them ‘just as they are’ without involving a call to change. Luke helps us by clarifying this for his (most likely non-Jewish readership) by adding ‘…to repentance’ (Luke 5.32) in case we were unsure. And it is Luke who also clarifies the consensus of the gospels that (rather awkwardly for post-Holocaust theology) the destruction of the temple is seen as an expression of judgement on those who did not recognise in Jesus the presence of God as king (Luke 19.44).

The question of division and decision in relation to the kingdom are in large part related to the theme of cosmic conflict: in proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus is announcing the displacement and overthrow of all other pretensions to imperial power, whether political, social or spiritual. This is seen in the question about loyalty to Caesar (Mark 12.16 and pars), perhaps the most pressing political question of the day, but also in Jesus’ consistent practice of restoring those who have been marginalised to their communities (Mark 1.44, 5.19 ‘Go home to your friends…’). Yet this is located within the spiritual conflict between Jesus and Satan, not just in his temptations in the desert, but in both his acts of deliverance (‘Have you come to destroy us?’ Mark 1.24) and his physical healings. The woman crippled for 18 years has been ‘in bound by Satan’ and should be ‘released’ by healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13.17). This is not to mythologise illness as Satanic possession, but to put all that damages and destroys human life in the theological category of that which is opposed to God’s will and which must therefore be done away with in the restoration of God’s rule over his world.

The connection between the kingdom, cosmic conflict, and the ministry of the Spirit is made clear in Luke 11.20 = Matt 12.28: ‘If, by the finger/Spirit of God I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come amongst you.’ We might have expected Luke (rather than Matthew) to focus on the Spirit, but Luke’s wording points us back to Exodus 8.19, where it is the ‘finger of God’ which overthrows the power of the Egyptian magicians and so leads to the liberation of God’s people from the oppressive rival kingship of Pharaoh. (There are also possible allusions to the writing of the Ten Words in Ex 31.18, and even the writing on the wall in Dan 5.5).

The finger of God therefore prefigures “the mighty hand and outstretched arm” of God, who delivers his people through “his Holy Spirit”. The Holy Spirit therefore is the power that binds Satan. Jesus is the Moses who heralds the New Covenant-based Kingdom of God, which arrived at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit.

This connection is also made in Jesus’ teaching the disciples as he sends them on ‘mission’: they are to cure the sick, drive out demons, and declare ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ (Luke 10.9, Matt 10.7–8)—oh, and declare the judgement of Sodom and Gomorrah on any who reject them.

This in turn means that the kingdom of God cannot be detached from Jesus and his ministry, recognition of who he is as God’s anointed ruler, and his death on the cross. John again makes this explicit in a different register of language when he records Jesus as saying ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out’ (John 12.31). (John here is talking about ‘the world’ as humanity opposed to God which hates both him and his followers; elsewhere he talks of ‘the world’ as humanity loved by God for whom Jesus dies.) But this connection is also present throughout the Synoptics. Matthew’s genealogy, structured around the number 14 which is the numerical value of the name of king David, emphasises Jesus’ identity as Davidic king from the outset, and on Palm Sunday Jesus is welcomed as the bringer of the kingdom of David (Synoptics) or, more unambiguously, as the king who bring the kingdom (John). These connections are made explicit in Jesus’ saying in Matt 16.28 = Mark 9.1 = Luke 9.27. The kingdom will come ‘in power’ (Mark), in the lifetime of those present, which will be when the ‘Son of Man’ comes in his kingdom (Matthew). This is not the failed expectation of the imminent end of the world, but the proper theological understanding of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. All three Synoptics follow this saying with the account of the Transfiguration, a proleptic (ahead of time) revelation of Jesus’ true identity which the disciples are to keep to themselves until after the resurrection.

The compelling invitation to ‘repent and believe‘ in the kingdom of God is therefore neither the command to sign up to a doctrinal charter (on the one hand), not some general emotional sense of trust (on the other), but an invitation to recognise that God is uniquely at work in the ministry of Jesus and, ultimately, to acknowledge Jesus as the king of the kingdom that is coming. If the kingdom is God’s, and Jesus is its king, and the work of the Spirit brings this kingdom amongst us, then we have here a nascent Trinitarianism—or at least the theological data of which only the doctrine of the Trinity can make sense.

A complete account of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus would need to explore the numerous parables in which the kingdom is often something organic that cannot fail to grow, even though it has small or apparently insignificant beginnings, as well as the idea of the kingdom as a place to be entered, something that can ‘come near’, or a treasured possession to be obtained at great price. The reason for focussing on the issues above is that they seem to be an integral part of Jesus teaching and practice—and yet almost total absent from readings of the kingdom as a social programme detached from questions of commitment and discipleship, such as that expressed by Simon Kershaw of Thinking Anglicans. (Simon has, by the day, done some excellent work over the years developing online liturgical resources, including generating and annual electronic lectionary calendar.) I think Simon is right in many of his observations about what are the social and practical implications of the kingdom of God, and what living faithfully in the kingdom implies practically. But, rather astonishingly, he then manages to leave God himself out of this kingdom:

What about God? Everyone must come to their own conclusions on that, and about the literal existence of God, because God’s kingdom — the place where the rules are love and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation and social justice for all — is a concept that exists whether you believe in God or not. Just as the arrival of the Magi in the Christmas story indicates that this baby is significant to Jews and non-Jews, so too he, and the kingdom he announced, are significant to believers and non-believers.

This seems to me to hollow out the kingdom as we find it in Jesus and the gospels, and leave a social action shell without a centre. I am genuinely puzzled as to what reading strategy of the New Testament can leave you with such a picture—what kind of hermeneutic can possibly lead to this conclusion. For James Byron (who often interacts with this blog), this is the heart of Christian faith—love expressed as social action without the need for religion per se:

This, for me, is the heart of Christianity: not debating the existence of a theistic god; but the radical social and interpersonal transformation of the Kingdom

He goes on to express this as a welcome demythologisation:

I separate this from the mythic cloak in the Gospels; and, indeed, Jesus’ own belief in an imminent end of history. We can work towards the Kingdom regardless.

Yet even Bultmann (who introduced the idea of demythologisation) still saw what was left as an existential decision to live in authentic response to God himself; this approach appears to go further by even removing this. It is not so much a demythologisation, but a detheologisation, where humanism is the only measure of truth.

We might want to claim that the essence of grass is its greeness; it is hard to imagine grass without it being green, and we might even want to say that unless it is green, it is not grass. (Don’t bother writing to me about other colours of grass: I am sure you get my point!). But it would be folly to suggest that whatever is green must therefore be grass. In the same way, the kingdom of God has love at its heart, since the king of the kingdom confirmed that love of God and love of neighbour were the supreme commands. But to suggest that, wherever love is expressed (even in our poor, failed understandings of what love is) is the sum total of the presence of God is to make the same basic mistake.

If we need language for our positive engagement with the world beyond the boundaries of discipleship and faith, then we find it in the phrase ‘the common good’. But to try and use the language of the kingdom of God for a general social programme is to ignore almost all the key elements of the kingdom in Jesus’ teaching and, in the ultimate irony, actually remove from the kingdom the one who introduced us to it in the first place.

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36 thoughts on “Can we have the ‘kingdom of God’ without God?”

  1. Thank you for this Ian. I completely agree endorse your argument and the conclusions, which I would support with a couple of remarks.
    You perhaps underplay the eschatological aspects. The Kingdom of God in the Gospels is all that God will do in His Kingly Reign in the end times. That began to break in through the ministry of Jesus and continues to be expressed through the church but will ultimately only be fulfilled in the Return of Christ. The focus is always on what God does, not what human beings can do (even in their response to God’s love). The Kingdom is the activity of the Sovereign God.
    As you rightly say, we cannot conclude that Jesus did not demand repentance from those narratives where repentance is not mentioned. There are sufficient places where there is a clear call for a change of life. For me the story of the woman taken in adultery is the obvious example. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.” John 8:11 Having written on the authorship question I am convinced that we should receive that passage as Holy Scripture and as evidence that Jesus not only offered unilateral forgiveness but also expected a response of repentance from all who became his followers.

  2. I find it strange that people could use kingdom language without wanting to mention the King of the kingdom! As you say, Ian, it’s very difficult indeed to read Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom in any way other than what you describe.

    I do think there is an attraction about seeing the kingdom as divorced from the king: (1) it removes any notion of a coming judgment, or at least opens the door to a kind of universalism; (2) it reduces ethics to an ethics of ‘love’ divorced from Biblical notions of love – i.e. your own views about morality take precedence over the King’s view.

    It seems to me that this ‘kingdom’ view boils down to “if you’re nice to people you’re in the kingdom”, which is works-righteousness and the very antithesis of the gospel. We human beings love to believe that we can earn our own salvation, and having a ‘kingdom’ view where that’s essentially what happens is therefore attractive.

  3. I’m conscious of the tendency of most or even all of us to leave God out of what we are doing. (even if we are so much “better” than all these “others”) … I often think of our primary objective as seeking God’s kingship for this reason.

  4. 1:12
    Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:
    Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:
    In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:

    The above from Colossians makes it clear that we are all, by nature, outside the kingdom of God and need to be delivered from the power of darkness. This is the paramount need of us all.

    Phil Almond

  5. Simon Kershaw has offered a provisional response to my posting on the TA site, in which he says:

    I haven’t had a chance (yet) to properly engage with lots of these comments, though I still hope to do so.

    But to respond brieflt to Ian’s most recent comment … I suggest that the kingdom of God is about a number of things, but that primarily it is about doing God’s will.

    As very succinctly summarized in the prayer that Jesus taught his followers (“your kingdom come”, meaning “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, and expanded to include “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who wrong us” and “let us not be tempted away”).

    The question is about whether Jesus asked his followers to believe theological propositions; and whether doing God’s will is contingent on believing in God.

    We might well want citizens of the kingdom to acknowledge its king — but to what extent is that a necessary part of citizenship?

    • Simon appears to be omitting (deliberately?) the first two lines of the Lord’s prayer: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

      God’s kingdom coming is, of course, about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. But that very much includes God’s name being hallowed. Hallowing the name of God is, oddly enough, integral to his kingdom. Starting the Lord’s prayer in the middle can lead you to some very strange theology!

  6. My response, also in comments there:

    Thanks Simon. Everyday ‘common sense’ reflection on the language of citizenship answers your last question ‘It is essential’. You cannot be a citizen of the UK without recognising the monarch and her Parliament, and the rule of law that they enact.

    John, as often elsewhere, makes explicit what is everywhere implicit in the synoptics. ‘This is the work of God: to believe in the One He has sent’ (John 6.29). This is not about believing theological propositions (see A Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine for the better idea of ‘disposition’); it is about confessing Jesus is Lord as a central aspect of kingdom life.

    Social engagement is a key part of Christian living—but ‘the kingdom of God’ is not the term to use for it…unless you feel the need to bend over backwards to avoid the idea that the Church is there to make disciples.

  7. “This, for me, is the heart of Christianity: not debating the existence of a theistic god; but the radical social and interpersonal transformation of the Kingdom.”

    The commentator was not, I think, expressing the supposed validity of a ‘Kingdom without a King’ as you suggest they were, but rather pointing out the weakness of doing the opposite; preaching a ‘King without a Kingdom’, a crucial difference. At least to me, this quote is not objectionable.

    The “heart of the christian faith” is a combination of both. We do need to understand the King, reflect on His character, kneel before his throne and hold him in a position of praise and honour, but that King does have a Kingdom and a purpose within the world too, one that we are active participants in. To preach the Kingdom of God is to do both, and to separate the two is grave error.

    In this I agree with you. Thanks for the article.

    • I’d certainly treat King and Kingdom as inseparable: Kingdom teaching isn’t some generic program of social democracy; it’s rooted in the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, itself rooted in the theology and practice of 1st century, Second Temple Judaism. Couldn’t get more specific.

      Like I said over at Thinking Anglicans, to me, the Christ-event represents a breaking in of the highest ideals, a meeting between the temporal and the eternal, and a call to undergo radical personal and social change, both necessary to bring about the Kingdom.

      I expect we’d disagree on whether Jesus expected Adonai to imminently enter history, bring it to an end, and make a new world. Regardless, it didn’t happen, and it’s on us, fired by the Christ-event, to, in the words of Robert Kennedy, tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world.

      • But for those who believe that Jesus was the Logos of God, Adonai *did* enter history, and the new world *did* begin. This was the astonishing realisation of Paul, which shaped all his theology (2 Cor 5.17)

      • Thanks James. Initially I had not read the T.A article, so when I posted my initial comment here I was genuinely ignorant of “the commentator’s” identity. No longer.

        As for your first paragraph here: 100% agreement with both you and Ian. The first and sadly simplest mistake to make is separate ideas of ‘God’s Kingdom’ from second temple expectations of it.

        With the second and final paragraphs I understand and would agree with your two-part description of the “Christ event”, as being both A: a meeting between the temporal and eternal and B: a call to personal/social transformation; but would stress personally that the latter is clearly dependent on the former.

        But, you are right, we probably (read: almost certainly) do not agree on the eschatology here. I am more with Ian.

        Jesus’ life and ministry was the beginning, the prototype of God’s kingdom vision, only partially realized through Israel in the past but to be bought to glorious fulfillment in himself, as a result of his Resurrection and Ascension. It is this understanding of God’s sovereign plan for the whole of humanity (the whole of creation) that underlies Paul’s theology.

      • James,

        I’d also think that we’d also disagree strenuously on how such radical change is effected. Whether it is by the conscious intellectual self-effort that favours the intelligentsia of each age or by divine prerogative conferring supernatural insight that often contradicts human reasoning and intuition.

        What is clear is that Christ’s preaching of the Kingdom of God (declaring Himself to be the apocalyptic ‘son of man’) contrasted sharply with the Sadducees ‘sola Pentateuch’ theology which patently rejected any belief in a final apocalyptic divine intervention to usher in a new heaven and earth in which every wrong of human history is judged, all harm is reversed and all evil is finally and comprehensively defeated.

        Remove this promised apocalypse from the Christian faith and you have a travesty of well-intentioned, but futile Sadducean social reformers rallying for and revelling in the Pyrrhic victory of short-lived social change, while their implementation of the progressive vision is repeatedly undone by senseless evil.

        Your ‘gospel’ has no answer to the problem of evil.

    • Mat, I think James is certainly suggesting a kingdom without the king that I suspect you and I would recognise. As with much in the liberal Protestant tradition, James rejects the idea of Jesus as the Logos of God or a teacher of the truth, since, like all of us, he can make mistakes.

      ‘Christianity’ takes its name from Christos—the belief that Jesus was in fact the anointed one of God, who brought God’s kingdom and was in fact the king of that kingdom, whom God raised from the dead and vindicated in his ascension, and who now sits as king at God’s right hand (or on the same throne, if you go with Revelation.)

      I’m open to correction, but I am pretty sure that James believes in a kingdom without that kind of king.

      • As I think I say in my second comment, I had not realised you were quoting James. Without knowing that context, I felt the quote was entirely reasonable, and it’s not worth editing it or correcting it now.

      • Plenty truth-tellers make mistakes. If Jesus was fully man, error’s a part of that.

        As for the Incarnation, I’m not a neoplatonist, and anyone else who isn’t will find it hard to use the term “Logos” as the author of John did. This is why I find the notion of fixing it as doctrine impossible even on a practical level.

        As I said over at the original post, the concept of Incarnation can be used to describe Jesus’ life and ministry, in the sense of highest (or divine, if you prefer) truth breaking into this world, and being lived out. It doesn’t have dogmatic precision, ’cause I don’t believe this concept’s amenable to that.

        • James, you seem to be of the school that wants to keep the hallowed terms and redefine them.

          In the circumstance that hallowed terms (such as ‘incarnation’) were inaccurate, it would always be far more likely that they were not true/accurate at all rather than that, having been found inaccurate, they should just so happen to be found to be the mot juste in some other dictionary sense of the word. Come off it, how improbable is that?

          It will generally be found that those who neither affirm nor jettison but redefine are ideological redefiners who will never accept or jettison anything. However, we live in a world where every proposition is either true or false and where there are infinitely more false propositions than true.

          • I’m not wedded to the term “Incarnation,” but do note that, removed from its neoplatonist origins, it’s already been redefined. The rapid evolution of Christology found in the Gospels and Church Fathers is testament to the fluidity of church doctrine. It’s always changed, and always will.

            Generally, I feel it’s important to speak plainly, which is why I say, straight-up, that such-and-such is wrong, rather than hide in reinterpretation.

          • Great. If you say which things are right and which are wrong, and do not redefine unless the evidence points that way, then you are an honest man and a scholar.

  8. “For one commentator …” *raises hand* “And another …” *raises hand again* Seems I’ve gone full Jekyll/Hyde! Which, as I’m probably about to commit a dozen separate heresies, may be appropriate.

    Bultmann was, indeed, a devout believer in God: thankfully, demythologization didn’t stop with him, but later moved through Tillich’s ground of our being, and onto Don Cupitt’s (unfortunately named) non-realism.

    How to get this from the Gospels? Accepting the mainstream exegetical position that a bunch of it’s the words of the early church, inserted into Jesus’ mouth: and the authentic sayings were filtered through Jesus’ first century belief system, which no one, however devout, can authentically hold without junking 2,000 years of subsequent discovery.

    In short, Jesus, like any of us, was often wrong; but the Kingdom ethic, core to his life and teaching, can be extracted and, with modifications, can inspire us today.

    • James
      I wonder whether you could tell us, please, what your view is about the words and deeds of Jesus as recorded in the NT. Which happened and which did not happen and which are you doubtful about. And how do you get from the words and deeds of Jesus to ‘the Kingdom ethic, core to his life and teaching’ and what modifications are needed to that in order to ‘inspire us today’.
      Phil Almond

      • I’m not a fan of the Jesus Seminar’s color-coded text antics: besides the handful corroborated in Paul’s letters, we can’t pin down precisely which sayings are authentic. I much prefer E.P. Sanders’ approach of starting with authentic events in Jesus’ life, then seeing which teaching fits with that. Dale Allison’s method of looking at repeating patterns is also appealing.

        Sadly, Jesus’ original words, being in Aramaic, are lost to time. We can be reasonably sure, however, that he taught about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom, called for repentance and renewal, demanded exacting personal transformation, and warned of Gehenna for those who fell short. The overriding theme was the sovereignty of Adonai, and the remaking of the world into the New Earth.

        • I found N.T.Wright’s case in Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) to be the most compelling case for the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus life, though I am not without some small skepticism myself.

    • Ha ha ha! I don’t think the CA comment system is very clear: I thought the second comment was from ‘Susannah’! Well, you certainly can’t complain that I ignore your comments! (And I have changed my piece to acknowledge you.)

      As we’ve discussed before, I don’t think the idea that the gospels are ‘a bunch of it’s the words of the early church, inserted into Jesus’ mouth’ is the central, mainstream view even in scholarship, and certainly not in the Christian churches. The assumptions of liberal Protestant reductionist historicism are no longer so persuasive.

      But even if there is an academic context where this view might hold sway (by protecting itself from critical scrutiny) it is not the case in the Church. Anyone is entitled to claim that, ‘Jesus, like any of us, was often wrong’, but it is not very plausible to include that view within any reasonable definition of creedal Christianity.

      So any of the ordained readers of CA need to do some hard thinking—and there is no reason why the C of E should take any of this into account in its thinking about mission and ministry.

      • Textual criticism’s certainly taught as a mainstream position in seminaries, which of course train ministers in mainline churches (and, indeed, quite a few evangelical ones). As for protecting itself from critical scrutiny, there’s been no end of scrutiny published in journals of biblical studies and by academic presses, often from evangelicals. The great popularizer Bart Ehrman was himself taught by the conservative Bruce Metzger.

        As for its compatibility with creedal Christianity, none of the creeds even mention Jesus’ fallibility nor biblical authority (and would’ve had no reason to, since the Reformation was the best part of a millennia away, and the Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium taken as given). If they had done, so what? Protestantism doesn’t invest apostolic councils with infallibility.

  9. Thank you Ian, this is a really helpful overview of some of the key biblical sources for the concept of the kingdom.

    Have you come across Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy? His main message is to return to a biblical use of kingdom language. He argues that ‘good works’ is probably the more biblical term for what most people seem to mean by ‘bringing the kingdom’ etc.

    The identification of the kingdom of God with a social programme originated at the turn of the last century in the social Gospel movement (especially with Rauschenbusch). So it’s pretty well established by now, but still controversial.

    My view is that the kingdom does, as you point out, need to include an express acknowledgement of the kingship of God, and that it is essentially to be identified with the redeemed, those who have actually submitted to God’s rule in their lives. However, I think this can have a social impact, since to live under God’s rule is to live as he says we should, and as Christians do this both in their churches and in their occupations throughout society this will have a social impact, and even (if there are enough of us in the right places) transform society (or at least improve it). I think I would be reticent to describe these social changes as the kingdom of God, but I would be happy to affirm that they are associated with it and an outworking of it.

    • Thanks Will—yes, familiar with McKnight (though for some reason didn’t find it an easy read…not sure why?)

      As I think James Byron articulates, the belief in the kingdom as a social programme is built on extreme methodological scepticism—though not a scepticism about its own method!—and a rejection of any vaguely orthodox evaluation of the person of Jesus.

      Why this should shape the Church’s thinking is therefore rather beyond me…

      • The kingdom cannot be defined solely in terms of a social programme, I agree. But, if the work we desire to do it is truly the work of the kingdom then it cannot fail to have some major expression of social action/activity, some outward-looking and active component: otherwise it is not the kingdom, it is something else.

        • Well said, Mat. To employ a well-worn but useful phrase, good works are an outward sign of inward grace.

          Jesus wasn’t a 1st century Bernie Sanders, which is why I don’t have much time for the Jesus Seminar and its Jesus of California, a wandering hippy sage advocating fortune cookie wisdom and advocating the kinda social programs that liberal Democrats like.

          Instead, he was a herald of the Kingdom, rooted in 1st century Jewish eschatology. Social transformation’s an expression of that transformative ethic, not an alternative to it. If we’re not changed, we can’t change the world.

        • Mat, I would prefer to put it this way:

          To be a subject within a kingdom defines your genetic identity (you are born into it) and your first loyalty (you obey the king without question).

          In the Christian context the kingdom of God does not come with a social program in the way that we think of it today, instead it has an individual program for every single one of its new-born subjects who become transformed by the Spirit of God working within them – a pretty amazing concept.

          This transformation will surely then in part cause Christians to become involved in all sorts of good social actions, both among their Christian brothers and sisters, and also spreading out to non believers. It is in fact the only true way by which the world can ‘become a better place’; and the lack of comprehension of this explains why politicians, no matter how hard they try, can and will never achieve that for which they so earnestly strive.

          So if we Christians (rightly) long for a more just, compassionate and stable society where people can flourish, is not our best course of action to do all that we can towards calling people to repentance and new life in Christ rather than devise programs of social action? To do the former will inevitably (and more radically) work for the latter also – win, win.

          • Yes, well said, I was not disagreeing with this idea.

            My overriding point here in these comments, and why I am perhaps in more agreement with James Byron than I normally would be, is that I do not think we are not being careful enough in our criticism of what Simon Kershaw is saying.

            A social action programme without Jesus is a noble, but ultimately weak and ineffective expression both of our faith and of the Gospel we profess to carry.

            But a social action programme with Jesus at the center, first (as you rightly highlight) at the center of our lives, and then at the heart of our communities, will be both powerful and effective.

            The problem therefore is not the social elements of the kingdom, but where that element draws it’s focus and direction from. This is surely the correct criticism of the article linked to above: that the desire is not connected to the right source, not that the desire is wrong in and of itself?

  10. Hmm. An interesting read – especially the comments (no offence meant to your excellent article Ian!)

    I love Thomas and his exclamation in John 20:28

    This is the risen Jesus, not yet returned to the Father. This is a glimpse of the power of God, the power of His Kingdom rule. Death has been defeated, love has won. Without this reality there is no Kingdom of God here on earth, we could not see it, we could not pray for it . . .

    I don’t miss some of my Baptist upbringing, but what I do remember is that being part of God’s family, entering His Kingdom meant coming under His authority. I remember one of the deacon’s regularly asking me, with a glint in his eye, “Is Jesus your Lord and Saviour?” I have seen and heard much less teaching about the Lordship of Christ in recent years . . . but plenty about our wonderful Saviour. His Kingdom reign is only possible if He is Lord.

    Social engagement, social justice and battling inequality are futile endeavours without our King. God’s own people looked around and wanted to be like other nations – the challenge we have, with some of our beliefs and practice, is not to conform to the pattern of this world, “Doing good” for it’s own sake . . . this can very easily become to us a God like Saul or David . . . we replace our King with something earthy, real and tangible – we can touch this, we can see this.

    From Luke 1:33 . . . to Revelation 11:15 we have a King.

  11. This discussion is complicated by the fact that it is taking place both here and on ‘Thinking Anglicans’.
    On TA James Byron on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 at 3:59pm GMT posted:
    ‘And yes, we do disagree about Jesus’ capacity for human error, but that’s a separate issue from the fact that we must both reconcile teaching forged in the crucible of 1st century cosmology with later discoveries. However much we want to, since we’ve benefited from the fruits of 2,000 years of learning, we can’t think as the authors of the Bible did. Modernity’s inescapable.’

    Notice that in the above quote James mentions ‘teaching’. In his January 10, 2017 at 3:34 pm on this site he posted, ‘Sadly, Jesus’ original words, being in Aramaic, are lost to time. We can be reasonably sure, however, that he taught about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom, called for repentance and renewal, demanded exacting personal transformation, and warned of Gehenna for those who fell short. The overriding theme was the sovereignty of Adonai, and the remaking of the world into the New Earth’.

    The key issue is what Jesus said and did according to the New Testament. What is the relationship, if any, between Jesus’ recorded words and deeds in the NT and James’ ‘teaching’, ‘taught’, ‘reasonably sure’ and ‘overriding theme’. I tried to get him to clarify explicitly in my January 10 2017 2.55 post on this website. I don’t see that he has explicitly answered in any of his subsequent posts here.

    Phil Almond

    • Phil, as I said, with the exception of a handful of sayings, the methodology I run with doesn’t allow for precise determinations of what Jesus did or didn’t say; best we can hope for are general themes.

      We can be reasonably sure that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who preached God’s impending judgment and the coming of the Kingdom, demanded the exacting ethic of personal transformation fond in the Beatitudes, and used parables often. We can also be reasonably sure that he traveled to Jerusalem at Passover, circa A.D. 30, and was crucified. Shortly after his crucifixion, his followers experienced his resurrection, and began to preach his return.

      Beyond that, it’s faith.

  12. This discussion is complicated by the fact that it is taking place both here and on ‘Thinking Anglicans’.
    On TA James Byron on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 at 3:59pm GMT posted:
    ‘And yes, we do disagree about Jesus’ capacity for human error, but that’s a separate issue from the fact that we must both reconcile teaching forged in the crucible of 1st century cosmology with later discoveries. However much we want to, since we’ve benefited from the fruits of 2,000 years of learning, we can’t think as the authors of the Bible did. Modernity’s inescapable.’

    Notice that in the above quote James mentions ‘teaching’. In his January 10, 2017 at 3:34 pm on this site he posted, ‘Sadly, Jesus’ original words, being in Aramaic, are lost to time. We can be reasonably sure, however, that he taught about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom, called for repentance and renewal, demanded exacting personal transformation, and warned of Gehenna for those who fell short. The overriding theme was the sovereignty of Adonai, and the remaking of the world into the New Earth’.

    The key issue is what Jesus said and did according to the New Testament. What is the relationship, if any, between Jesus’ recorded words and deeds and James’ ‘teaching’, ‘taught’, ‘reasonably sure’ and ‘overriding theme’. I tried to get him to clarify explicitly in my January 10 2017 2.55 post on this website. I don’t see that he has explicitly answered in any of his subsequent posts here.

    Phil Almond

  13. Thank you Ian, this is very helpful. I have felt a growing discomfort with the way ‘Kingdom of God’ has become synonymous with either social justice or signs and wonders. Of course the Kingdom entails both of these, but is much more than them.

    The key question seems to me to be: Who’s in charge? Is Jesus at the centre of our work for the common good, or are we? To whose voice are we listening? Whose authority are we claiming? Whose resources are we depending upon?

    Is God really King, or is this just a humanist project with Christian branding? Who are we trying to make famous?

    There’s an organisation near me that aims to ‘Partner with God to transform our city’. Makes me wonder who the senior partner is.


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