The Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus (ii)

Here is the second part of my essay on the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus. The first part can be found here.

q-1487-jesusdemoniac-fullpg-zmIn contrast with Weiss, Dodd’s emphasis was on the present reality of KG in Jesus’ teaching. However, this was not through denying or ignoring Jesus’ eschatological perspective, as had been done before, but through postulating that Jesus transformed it into a ‘radical eschatology’.[i] In Jesus’ ministry ‘the impact…of the “powers of the world to come” … [is] now in actual process’[ii]. The hoped for, long-promised KG has ‘in some way…come in Jesus himself’[iii](Lk 4.21), and this provides a much more satisfactory exegesis of Mt 13.16f/Lk10.23f[iv] than Weiss could bring himself to, believing as he did that the disciples were missing out on the greatest promise of all[v]. Dodd rightly draws attention to Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist’s disciples[vi], to the force of ephthasen in Mt 12.28/Lk 11.20 (‘the KG has come upon you’)[vii], and to the fact that some sort of realized eschatology is the only way to make sense of many of Jesus’ sayings about KG[viii]. This is the great distinctive of Jesus’ teaching compared with Jewish teaching (rabbinical or apocalyptic)—that KG was somehow present in his ministry—and, if the criterion of dissimilarity is worth anything at all in indicating what we can call ‘authentic’ with certainty, then this characteristic of Jesus is clearly authentic.

But Dodd goes further. He believes that the use of engiken in Lk 10.9 is parallel (and equivalent in meaning) to the later ephthasen in Lk 11.20. He supports this equivalence in meaning by citing the overlap in the use of the two verbs in LXX; he basileia tou theou engiken can mean that the KG ‘has come’, rather than simply that it is ‘near at hand’[ix]. So Jesus’ teaching was that KG had come, and (effectively) no more was to be expected[x]. Otherwise, says Dodd, in an argument that almost exactly mirrors Weiss’, why was there no declaration that ‘the KG will come’ to match the declaration that ‘the KG has come/is near at hand’?[xi] (A simple answer could be that Jesus’ contemporaries already knew of the hope of a future kingdom to come and there was no need to declare it; the novelty of what Jesus preached was its present arrival). Dodd’s argument falls at the first technical hurdle if we believe that, as Matthew claims, John the Baptist also declared that he basileia tou theou engiken. The KG could hardly have come with John the Baptist. But Dodd argues[xii] that Matthew is not reliable with regard to the exact words of John the Baptist; elsewhere he confuses John’s words with those of Jesus. I think Dodd has a case here; as Stanton points out [xiii] in commenting on Mt 11.12-13/Lk 16.16, for Matthew John is closely aligned with the new age of Jesus, whereas for Luke he is the last of the old era.

Perrin takes us a little closer. He shows[xiv] that, although there is some overlap in usage in the LXX, it is not half so great as Dodd would have us believe. There is still a clear difference in emphasis, engiken meaning ‘has drawn near’, ‘is at hand’, and ephthasen meaning ‘has come’. He admits, however, that the argument is not completely settled.

To my mind, Dodd’s position really comes unstuck when he deals with the ‘future’ sayings and parables, such as Mt 8.11/Lk 8.28 and Mk 14.25; Mt 6.10/Lk 11.2 (‘your kingdom come’) doesn’t even get a mention, a massive omission in any argument proposing realized eschatology. Dodd postulates that future references to KG aren’t really referring to the kingdom coming in future time, but is talking of the KG as ‘the transcendent beyond time and space’[xv] of apocalyptic thought. But, as Perrin points out, apocalyptic thought had no such ‘transcendent order’[xvi], and Ladd makes clear that in prophetic hope that the KG ‘is always an earthly kingdom’[xvii]. Sanders concludes that, however ‘otherworldly’ the KG is, it is ‘an otherworldly-earthly kingdom’[xviii], and New Testament theology of the KG outside the gospels confirms this.[xix]

From the textual evidence, then, it seems impossible to get away from the fact of KG as present, and yet also as future. How can this be resolved?

Perrin argues that KG is best understood as a ‘tensive symbol’ that evokes the true myth of ‘the inner meaning of the universe and of human life’[xx]. It is difficult to see exactly why Perrin talks of KG as ‘symbol’ in the first place; in fact, he almost takes it as axiomatic, describing the KG as a ‘symbol’ in the first line of the opening chapter without explanation, To be sure, Jesus’ use of the term is wide-ranging, but the same is true of a number of terms in Paul’s theology, which we do not treat as ‘symbols’ in Paul’s thought[xxi]. Sanders helpfully points out the possibility that ‘Jesus thought of ‘the kingdom’ in two ways and never brought the two into a systematic relationship.’[xxii] Further, as Marshall points out[xxiii], Perrin fails to take seriously the apocalyptic hope of God acting in history which Perrin himself has demonstrated was central to contemporary understandings of KG, and which Marshall shows is clearly present in Jesus’ teaching. It would be strange indeed if the historical figure of Jesus, coming in fulfillment of historical hopes, taught of a future consummation that was entirely unhistorical.

Chilton, on the other hand, argues that ‘for Jesus, regnum dei deus est’[xxiv], that is, that by ‘KG’ Jesus means God himself, acting in power[xxv]. “The kingdom here is not separable from God, nor again is it simply a periphrasis for mlk [the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to rule’]; it is neither an autonomous regime nor does it merely refer to the Lord’s assertion of sovereignty”[xxvi]. This is an attractive idea as it, too, makes the presence of ‘present versus future’ of the KG non-existent. I think too that Chilton is right in emphasizing the close relation between KG and God himself, and especially the identification with the person of Jesus as the one who brings the KG.

But I am not convinced by Chilton’s method. The substitution of the phrase ‘KG’ for God himself in the Targums does not necessarily imply their theological equivalence; it is not clear that there isn’t some other theological agenda operating. The ‘practical equation’[xxvii] cannot lead us directly to a theological equation for popular contemporary theology, and still less for the content of Jesus’ teaching, though it may give valuable insight into the background. As a result, I feel that Chilton fails to adequately deal with the ‘possession’ and ‘entry’-type sayings of Jesus about KG. Again, Marshall highlights the fact that both Perrin and Chilton (and the many commentators on ‘KG’ that depend of the premises of radical form criticism[xxviii]) continue their studies to too narrow a set of texts. ‘We have to ask whether Perrin and Chilton’s view still holds when a wider body of relevant evidence is taken into account’[xxix].

covtapestryLadd proposes an understanding which is more fruitful. Ritschl, Hamack and others conceived of Jesus teaching as inner and ethical—God’s reign in the hearts of men, quite unapocalyptic. The contribution of Weiss and Schweitzer was to demonstrate how much Jesus’ teaching was rooted in apocalyptic eschatology. But they went too far in supposing that Jesus was simply apocalyptic, and that his understanding of KG was as a new order, the realm over which God ruled, coming cataclysmically in the near future. Dodd demonstrated that the KG was present in Jesus’ teaching. Now Ladd, starting from Jewish usage of the term, and looking at usage elsewhere in the New Testament, in Paul as well as in the gospels[xxx], argues convincingly that the KG is to be understood as God’s dynamic reign, rather than as the realm over which God rules. For Ladd, it is this understanding which allows us to see the KG as ‘present and future, inward and outward, spiritual and apocalyptic’[xxxi]. God reigns in the hearts of those who acknowledge him, so the KG has a present, ethical aspect[xxxii], but the same God who is king over the universe de jure will bring in his reign de facto in eschatological visitation[xxxiii]­­. So Ladd agrees with Dodd, that Jesus’ ministry is a prolepsis of the eschatological kingdom, but with Weiss that despite this there still remains a historical, eschatological coming of KG in future history.[xxxiv] Ladd therefore describes the KG as fulfilled in Jesus—it really has come—but yet to be consummated at the end—it really will come.[xxxv]

There is a danger that Ladd pays insufficient attention to the idea of KG as a ‘place’ to be entered. But he recognises this, and in fact notes it as an element of Jesus’ teaching distinct from Judaism.[xxxvi]There seems to me to be a sense in which Jesus uses ‘KG’ to denote ‘spiritual reality’, what is really true according to God’s values, rather than what appears to be so in the world, especially in the parables of the KG. Perhaps Ladd’s understanding doesn’t remove us totally from a ‘two-storey’ view of the universe.

Marshall takes this understanding of KG primarily as the reign of God, and only secondarily as the realm—as one of the points within an emerging scholarly consensus.[xxxvii] Marshall goes on to show that if, as he believes, Jesus understood the KG to be present in his own person and work, then the crucial question is not ‘whether he was correct or mistaken about the neatness of the KG in the future, but … whether he was correct or mistaken about the reality of God’s action in the present.’[xxxviii]

Finally, three concluding remarks about the KG. First, it comes in weakness. ‘On a cosmic scale KG comes in weakness and grows in weakness’ and so for the church God’s triumph and strength are ‘known in weakness’[xxxix]. It came to unexpected people—the poor, the sick, tax collectors, and to women—people on the fringe of society.[xl] And it came in an unexpected way—‘not in a world-shaking event but in a small insignificant movement … as insignificant as a grain of mustard seed’.[xli] This is the mystery of KG. Even when men see that the kingdom has ‘come in power’ (Mk 9.1), by witnessing the resurrection[xlii], it is still a thing revealed to a few.

Secondly, as we have seen hinted at earlier, the KG means the defeat of Satan. ‘God’s kingly power…has come…to free [people] from satanic bondage’[xliii]. But the victory and defeat are brought about at the cross, and so ‘Jesus’ death is essential to the coming of the kingdom’.[xliv]

Lastly, ‘the primary intention of [the ‘kingdom’] sayings is to declare the reality and power of God’s presence and the response this demands’.[xlv] God is confronting people with the challenge to decision.[xlvi] And because ‘the KG and the person of Jesus are so integrally bound together’[xlvii], the call to enter KG, to receive eternal life, to sell all to buy the treasure in the field, are all summed up in one command: ‘Follow me’.

[i] Dodd, Parables, p 51

[ii] Ibid, p 51

[iii] Ibid, p 45

[iv] Ibid, p 46

[v] Weiss, op cit, p 74

[vi] Dodd, op cit, p 47

[vii] Ibid, pp 44–45

[viii] Ibid, p 49

[ix] Ibid, p 44

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid, p 53

[xii] Ibid, p 48

[xiii] Stanton, op cit, p 198

[xiv] Perrin The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus pp 64–66

[xv] Dodd, op cit, p 56

[xvi] Perrin, op cit, p 67

[xvii] Ladd ‘The kingdom of God’ p 25

[xviii] Sanders, op cit, p 237

[xix] See, for instance, Perrin, op cit, p 70 on the kingdom of God in Revelation

[xx] Perrin Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom p 198

[xxi] Sanders, op cit, p 237. I am more confident than Sanders that we can do better than that, for instance, in Ladd’s resolution. But the comment is helpful in that he reminds us of the danger of turning Jesus into a systematic theologian or philosopher of 20th century Western culture.

[xxii] Marshall, Jesus the Saviour pp 217ff

[xxiii] See Sanders’ comments in a similar vein on Scott, who proposed a similar thesis to Perrin, in Sanders, op cit, pp 124f

[xxiv] Chilton ‘Regnum Dei Deus Est’ in SJT p 268

[xxv] Ibid, p 270

[xxvi] Ibid, p 268

[xxvii] Ibid, p 269

[xxviii] I have argued elsewhere that form criticism as widely practised is inadequate for making judgements about the historicity of certain texts.

[xxix] Marshall, ibid, p 217

[xxx] Ladd, Presence, pp 130–138

[xxxi] Ibid, p 42

[xxxii] Stanton comments that ‘”the kingdom of God” always carried ethical implications. This is clearly implied in the sayings which refer to individual response.’ Stanton, op cit, p 196

[xxxiii] Ladd, Ibid, p 132

[xxxiv] This is, in some ways, quite closely parallels to Pannenberg’s understanding of the meaning of the resurrection to the disciples. In the historical context of eschatological expectation of resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection can only signify a proleptic revelation of both the destiny of man and the glory of God. See Pannenberg Jesus, God and Man (SCM 1968) pp 66–88. The point is that both Ladd and Pannenberg take the expectation of a future historical event (the coming of the kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead) realistically, even after the proleptic foretaste of that in Jesus.

[xxxv] God’s kingdom has come…[and] the reign of God…will one day indeed establish the new age…’ Ladd, ibid, p 145. See also Marshall, op cit, p 214

[xxxvi] Ladd op cit, p 133

[xxxvii] Marshall, op cit, p 214

[xxxviii] Ibid, p 220

[xxxix] Marshall, op cit, p 233

[xl] Stanton, op cit, pp 202–203

[xli] Ladd ‘The kingdom of God’ p 28

[xlii] Lane’s interpretation (Mark pp 312ff) is that this saying relates to the transfiguration that follows this isolated logion in all three accounts. But the transfiguration is only a prolepsis of the resurrection, itself a proleptic breaking in of the kingdom of God, and it is this (resurrection) which is the sign that the kingdom of God has come with power. Marshall (Luke pp 378ff) is in broad agreement with this.

[xliii] Ladd, op cit, p 27

[xliv] Ibid, p 29

[xlv] Stanton, op cit, p 200

[xlvi] Ladd, op cit, p 24, paraphrasing Bultmann

[xlvii] Lane, op cit, p 312

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4 thoughts on “The Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus (ii)”

  1. I found the first of your concluding remarks about the KG coming in weakness interesting, Ian, given your recent criticism of those who praise failure in the CofE/Christianity. It makes me suppose that many people wrongly equate weakness and failure.

  2. Hi Terry, just saw your comment. Agreed – weakness and failure can be the same thing, but things/people etc that are weak can still succeed !

  3. “Jesus’ teaching and behavior is our guide to the treasures of The Kingdom. Our response should be to examine the time we devote to our thoughts. How much time do we spend: seeking other people’s attention and admiration; acquiring things in hope that they bring us happiness; worrying about our needs; observing others and criticizing them; scheming about how we can be accepted into a social group? These are the notions of this world’s reality. ”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “On Earth As It Is In Heaven.” iBooks.


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