I recently posted on the Gospel Coalition, a group for which I am sure that I have a great deal of affinity particularly in terms of clearly defining the gospel and taking a stand for it in a pluralistic society and what is increasingly a pluralistic church (if "church" can even be used for some of what is going on out there). That post centered particularly what I would call "the social justice" plank of the foundational documents, which I argued stemmed to a great measure from Tim Keller's influence in the GC.
Well, I received a bit of feedback (the source of which shall remain nameless) that was essentially (or perhaps completely) this: "a faulty view of the kingdom."
As I noted in my post, the view of the kingdom is one of the main driving forces in the social justice beliefs of many people, and has been for ages. The Social Gospel movement of the previous centuries stemmed from a view of the kingdom. So, I don't think my analysis was off target in that respect.
But the "faulty view of the kingdom" deserves a response, at least for my satisfaction. So I will attempt briefly to outline why I believe what I do about the kingdom. This will admittedly be blog-like ... longer than most people will read, and shorter than is necessary to actually argue the points. But it will at least lay out a broad framework for what I believe.
So here we go:
1. The Bible's teaching about the kingdom is rooted in the OT. In my judgment, many people start their theology of the kingdom with the NT, and then proceed backwards to the OT and justify it through what I believe are questionable hermeneutical practices. I find that unconvincing methodologically and exegetically. In order to establish a biblical theology of the kingdom, we have to start with the prior revelation on the kingdom, not the later revelation. Whatever the NT teaches about the kingdom, it does not change what the OT teaches. So we start with the OT.
2. Accordingly, the kingdom promised in the OT must come to be just as the OT says. It is obvious that throughout the OT, progressive revelation increased the amount of knowledge about the kingdom. But at no time that I can find did the later revelation ever change or contradict the earlier revelation. It simply built on it. So the kingdom, whenever it comes, will be just what the OT says it will be.
3. When we see the OT prophecies of the kingdom, any notion of "the church" is strikingly absent. Paul even said so, noting that the church was a mystery not previously revealed. So whatever the kingdom is, it was not intended to be solely the church. Some would argue (as I think my critic would) that there is some kind of future for the "new Israel," a phrase which of itself needs some more stout exegetical and theological consideration by many. I think the "new Israel" is end-time Israel, repentant before her Messiah as prophesied in Zechariah 12.
4. The kingdom spoken of in the NT is a continuation of the kingdom already known in the OT. It is called in the NT a "restoration" (Acts 3:19-21), meaning that it was something that previously existed. To see the kingdom as "present now" is to see something that never existed prior to Acts 3. The OT kingdom was not a mystical spiritual rule in the hearts of true believers. In fact, in the demise of the kingdom in 722 B.C. and 586 B. C., there were true believers who were affected even though they were obediently submissive to YHWH. This is simply because the kingdom was a national thing, not an individual thing. To now make the kingdom some sort of "rule in the heart" does not fit the nature of the kingdom as described in the OT. This is not to say that Christ does not rule in the believer's heart. It is simply to say that that is not what the OT prophecies of the kingdom were about. The king of the kingdom will sit on the throne of David, a place where Christ is not presently sitting.
5. I have yet to be convinced that any NT use of the OT requires a present form of the kingdom. Now, admittedly I have not studied all uses in depth. And admittedly, I come to these passages with a bias towards the ability of the OT to stand on its own. So far as I have studied, every single NT use of an OT kingdom passage is able to be legitimately explained by a future kingdom, rather than a present one (even an "already/not yet" one). It is true that some of the explanations offered by the "kingdom now" proponents are legitimate. The question is, Are they necessary? In my estimation, the answer is no. In sum, I am inclined to say that if one did not start with the presupposition that there was a "kingdom now," he would never get it from the OT followed by the NT. He may get it from the NT followed by the OT. But that in and of itself creates a whole bag of hermeneutical issues that this post will not allow time to develop.
6. If there is a "kingdom now," why did the disciples ask "Is this the time of the restoration of the kingdom?" and why did Jesus say, "It is not for you to know the time"? If there is a "kingdom now," it seems that Jesus should have said, "You are in it," or will be tomorrow (or whatever the precise timing was between Acts 1:5-8 and Acts 2. The very fact that the disciples asked about a "restoration of the kingdom to Israel" means that 1) their understanding of the kingdom was drawn from the OT, and that three and one-half years of walking with Jesus had not disabused them of that notion. Furthermore, in the face of an explicit question, Jesus did nothing to disabuse them of the notion of a restored OT kingdom, rather than a present kingdom, or a "already" kingdom. Admittedly, I have not read everyone's attempt to answer this, but I have yet to read one that is convincing to me.
7. If there is a kingdom now, why do we not see kingdom acts? In my opinion, the "kingdom now" proponents are very loose when it comes to arguing for the characteristics of the kingdom prophesied in the OT. There is no worldwide peace while the nations gather in submission to the King. There are not great miracles (actual miracles, not healing someone's back out in TVLand). Most recognize this. The question is, Why doesn't it carry more weight than it does? Why do we so easily dismiss these prophecies for the sake of finding a kingdom now? When Christ was on earth, he was doing kingdom acts. And when he left, those kingdom acts went with him, with the exception of a short stint in the apostolic era for the purpose of confirming the message (cf. Heb 2:4).
8. When Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to a nation (ethnos) producing the fruit of it, who is that? I think the ethnos to whom it is given is the people prophesied of in Zechariah 12, who look on the one whom they pierce and mourn. This prophecy is seen fulfilled in John 19:37 when Jesus was pierced, and Revelation 1:7 where the nations mourn over him when they see him coming on the clouds. This is a kingdom prophecy that is future, not past or present. The piercing has already taken place. The looking has not. Yet that is the precursor to the kingdom, it seems to me, since the Son of Man coming in the clouds is the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
The upshot of all this is that I think it is undeniable that there is a future millennial kingdom on earth in which ethnic Israel will be restored to a position of honor after having repented and accepted Christ as their Messiah. And I see no reason to try to shoehorn that kingdom into the present age. I don't think the apostles said it was "now." I think the OT descriptions specifically preclude it from being "now," given that what they said would accompany the kingdom is nowhere to be found.
This is not a matter of orthodoxy, but is a matter of accuracy. Until I find answers to the reasons I have listed, I will have a hard time switching my position.
Lastly, on the issue of pursuit of social justice issues, I tend to believe that the church and Christians do not do enough in that arena. We should do more, but let's not do it because of the kingdom (as Keller, et al would do). That creates far too many theological problems. Let's do it because the NT tells us to, and because we believe the Bible does have transforming effects in people's lives. (I will write later to defend that more since this is already quite long enough.)