Monday, November 05, 2007

A Faulty View of the Kingdom?

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.)


Scott Aniol said...

Very helpful once again. Thanks, Larry.

Keith said...

The brevity of this response is due to time shortage. It is not intended to be nasty.

That said, it is not a questionable hermeneutic for Christians to interpret the OT in the light of the NT. The NT is full of passages giving the proper interpretation of the OT. If Christians are correct, and the NT is God's word and Jesus is the Christ, then these interpretations are the acurate interpretations of the OT. Jesus interprets the OT regularly as does Paul. These interpretations do not contradict or change the real meaning of the OT, but some do differ from the apparent meaning of the OT. They do not uniformly follow some literalist, grammatical-historical approach.

Lastly, here are just two passages in which Jesus teaches the arrival of the Kingdom:

"Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." Mark 1:14, 15.

"The kingdom of God cometh not with outward show; neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: 20, 21.)

Larry said...

Thanks Keith. I too will be brief since I am on my way out the door to hear Doug Moo lecture on Romans again.

I don't think it is a questionable hermeneutic to interpret the OT in light of the NT. I think the problem is that the modern interpretations of the OT in light of the NT are not the necessary interpretations. In other words, it seems to me that what some are doing is not using the apostolic model of OT usage, but rather a later model.

Secondly, this later model implies, at least tacitly to some degree, that the OT cannot stand on its own ... that we would have no idea what it actually means unless we have the NT. I completely reject that. I think the NT uses the OT appropriately. I am not convinced that modern interpreters read the OT in the NT as the apostles used it.

There are a variety of usages of the OT in the NT, some of which are not literal, grammatical, historical, but which are not intended to be. They are simply borrowing words, or some such, which is a long discussion that I don't want to get into for the sake of time. But I don't think that anything Jesus or Paul said contradicts the OT or changes the meaning. I do think some modern interpreters contradict or change the meeaning, not maliciously to be sure.

Lastly on your two proof texts, I agree with both, and don't think say what you think they say. They say that the "kingdom is here." And it was. That was my point about the kingdom being here when Jesus was here. But remember in Matt 21 it was taken away and will be given to a people producing the fruit of it, which I take to be end time Israel, not the church.

Secondly, the Luke 17 passage about the "kingdom within you" was spoken to a group of Pharisees who were not believers in Christ and in fact were antagonists. The kingdom was certainly not spiritually inside them. That text cannot, in my judgment, be used to argue for an internal form of the kingdom. What Christ was telling them was that they were living in the midst of kingdom times and kingdom type activities. They were looking for the kingdom and Christ was saying, "Look around. It is all over."

BTW, you don't have to preface your comments with a disclaimer about not being nasty. I will assume you are not being nasty. I enjoy the interaction and try not to read the worst into people's comments.

Thanks again

Keith said...

Yes, it is all over!

Maybe more later.

Larry said...

Yes, it is all over!

Yes it was, but it is now. Isn't that self-evident? I have not seen the kingdom things that Jesus was talking about. I may have simply been in the wrong place or watching the wrong channel.

Seriously though, what Jesus was referring to is nowhere to be found today, at least the OT describes it and as Jesus performed it.

Keith said...

I'm not sure I understand you when you write: "Yes it was, but it is now. Isn't that self-evident?"

Did you mean: "Yes it was, but it is not now . . ."

If that's what you meant, I'd respond that, no it is not self-evident. If it were self-evident there wouldn't be a debate among faithful, wise, well educated ministers and laymen.

Allow me to respond to your question with some questions: Are you saying Christ's kingdom began and then ended?

I'd say his kingdom began and it is growing. It is here to some degree already but not yet in its fullness.

And, as far as the OT descriptions occuring in the NT, one must allow for prophetic/poetic/metaphoric language. Otherwise, we should still be waiting to see a literal serpant bruise the saviors literal heel, we should still be waiting to see the savior on a literal tree, etc.

Keith said...

I'm running out of time again, so unfortunately, here's another drive by . . .

In your earlier post on the Gospel Coalition you critqued Tim Keller's view on the Kingdom/Mercy Ministry because he "once preached a message on this topic based almost completely on the book of Proverbs."

Such comments are what really cause many of us to drop our jaws when coversing with fundamentalist dispensationalists. On one hand fundamentalists have stood so strong for the inspiration and inerrancy of all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Yet. on the other hand, it is somehow problematic to preach from the OT.

All of the Bible is God's word for all of his people for all time.

Larry said...

Thanks Keith,

As you did, I too will just drive by quickly and clarify.

First, you are correct that I missed the "not" in there.

And I don't see these kingdom things. I see people making a mockery out of them, but that's about it. You say the kingdom began and is growing. Yet I would argue that if you look at the OT descriptions and look at what we see around us (even allowing for different genres, which I do), I just don't see it in any meaningful way.

Second, as far as language, I do believe in these different genres. But I don't think that helps because I think even the genres support what I am saying, or to put it differently, I have yet to be convinced otherwise.

As far as my comment on Proverbs/Keller and on the OT, I don't think it is problemmatic to preach from the OT. In fact, I am in the middle of a series on Genesis that will take up more than a year by the time it is said and done. I am an OT PhD student. So it is not problemmatic to preach from the OT. I think we need to do more of it, as a whole.

But was Proverbs given to teach a theology of social ministry to the church? My commitment to the integrity of the OT leads me to say no. And in that message, as I recall, there was a great deal that I agreed with. But Proverbs was not given for that reason, IMO. I can't see the warrant for preaching a theology of social ministry for the church from the book of Proverbs.

You say, "All of the Bible is all of his people for all time." Are you packing up today to move away from your home, your family, and your relatives on the basis of Genesis 12? I doubt it. Which means that while Gen 12 is for us in a sense, it is also not for us in a sense.

So we have to be more careful with this broad statements because they are open to so many problems.

So I believe strongly in the OT and its relevance. And that is, in large part, why I hold the position on the kingdom that I do. I don't think the NT came along and changed it. I think it has meaning on its own basis, rather than only when the NT comments on it.

I should run but hopefully that will clarify at least a bit.

If someone differs from me on the present form of the kingdom, I am okay with that. I am not all that okay with amillennialists because I think there are some serious issues. But I consider some amillennialists to be brothers, based on what I have read and heard from them. I simply don't agree. I assume most of them would view me the same way if they knew me.