August 24, 2019

A Better Kingdom Vision

A Bigger Kingdom Vision

At The Gospel Coalition, Jeremy Treat has written an article called, “The Kingdom of God in 8 Words.” It begins like this:

The number-one thing Jesus talked about is the kingdom of God. It’s everywhere in the Gospels and impossible to miss. But if the theme of the kingdom is so significant, then we need to make sure we know what it means. A good starting place is to have a solid working definition.

Here’s one: The kingdom is God’s reign through God’s people over God’s place.

I think that’s not bad. Let’s see how Treat develops it.

First, he emphasizes that the kingdom is about God’s reign. He critiques much “kingdom” talk these days as imagining utopian human dreams of “making the world a better place.” This is a kingdom “with a vacant throne,” Treat says, and cannot be identified with the kingdom scripture envisages.

God is king, and he reigns over his creation. But in a world marred by sin, God’s kingship is resisted, and the peace of his kingdom has been shattered. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God’s reign is revealed as redemptive. He’s the king who is reclaiming his creation. His kingdom is not the culmination of human potential and effort, but the intervention of his royal grace into a sinful and broken world.

Second, this kingdom is about God’s reign through his people. Treat begins with a statement I heartily endorse, one which I think captures the creational vocation of humanity as portrayed in Genesis 1 quite well: “Adam and Eve were commissioned as royal representatives of the king, called to steward his creation and spread the blessings of his reign throughout the earth.”

One thing that Treat misses, however, which has led a lot of Christian theology astray, is that the human vocation included the call to overcome the chaos and evil that was already present in the world.

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Gen. 1:28)

Treat, however, in good Reformed form, blames the “fall” of creation completely on human rebellion in the persons of Adam and Eve, “which shattered the goodness of his creation.” As a result, he takes the next logical leap, and posits complete discontinuity between the original creation design and the story that follows.

Ever since sin entered the world, God’s kingdom project has at its heart a rescue mission for rebellious sinners, drawing them into his renewing work.

This theology neglects the vast majority of the Bible, particularly the story of Israel. If this is the way the early chapters of Genesis work, then we might as well just jump to the New Testament, the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. If this is the story of the Bible, if the message of the Kingdom is as Treat says it is — Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation — then we could just as well skip over the rest of the Hebrew Bible, understanding it all as mere preparation and prophecy for something to happen in a couple thousand years. Can that possibly be?

But perhaps the early chapters of Genesis are not just the beginning of the common Christian metanarrative. If instead they primarily introduce the story of Israel, then the “creation-fall” theme comes out looking quite different. Adam and Eve’s failure becomes not a singular event that changed everything, but the first account in a long chronicle of blessing-failure-redemption stories that characterize the history of the people whom God called to represent God in the world.

God, throughout the entire story, expects people (all people!) to fulfill his original creation mandate of living in his blessing, flourishing throughout the earth, overcoming evil, and exercising stewardship over creation. And time and time again, God intervenes with redemptive activity when humans fail in their calling. However, Jeremy Treat’s emphasis on a divine “kingdom project” that is solely focused on “redeeming sinners” through Christ basically throws out all human vocation, responsibility, ability, achievement, and progress over the course of history except for that which a few “redeemed” souls are able to accomplish.

Jeremy Treat gets some elements of “Kingdom” theology right, and in the third part of his post, he correctly identifies the location of God’s reign as the new creation, not some “heaven” that we leave this world for. But I think he seriously misunderstands and downplays the part humans — all humans and not only the ones he calls the “redeemed” — play in preparing for this new creation.

The whole purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and passion was to create a redeemed, Spirit-filled people — in continuity with the people of Israel but then extending throughout the whole world — who will actively participate in planting seeds that will bring about a great harvest in the new creation. Fulfilling the original creation mandate. Those who trust and follow Jesus are to lead the way, but also to work alongside all humanity (God’s representatives too!) in moving this world in that direction.

This is no mere utopian dream, dependent on human effort and leaving out God. This is taking seriously what God called us to do in partnership with him. It also takes seriously the responsibility and contributions of all humanity in fulfilling the creation calling of God.

Comments

  1. “Treat, however, in good Reformed form, blames the “fall” of creation completely on human rebellion, “which shattered the goodness of his creation.” As a result, he takes the next logical leap, and posits complete discontinuity between the original creation design and the story that follows.”

    Not just the Reformed… evangelicals too.

    “This theology neglects the vast majority of the Bible, particularly the story of Israel. If this is the way the early chapters of Genesis work, then we might as well just jump to the New Testament, the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. If this is the story of the Bible, if the message of the Kingdom is as Treat says it is — Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation — then we could just as well skip over the rest of the Hebrew Bible, understanding it all as mere preparation and prophecy for something to happen in a couple thousand years.”

    And that is exactly how the OT is handled in so many places.

  2. Christiane says

    I like the way Jean Vanier wrote of ‘the Kingdom’ also in an inclusive way, this:

    ““The Call to Wholeness in the Body of Christ

    He came to transform fear into trust,
    so that the walls separating people into enemies
    would disappear,
    and we could join together in a covenant of love,

    ˜So shall we fully grow up into Christ,
    who is the head,
    and by whom the whole body
    is bonded and knit together,

    every joint adding its own strength
    for each individual part to work according to its
    function,
    so the whole body grows until it has built itself up in love.

    Yes, this is the vision of Jesus for our world
    announced by St Paul:

    one body
    with the poorest and weakest among us at the heart,
    those that we judge the most despicable, honoured;
    where each person is important
    because all are necessary.

    His body, to which we all belong
    joined in love,
    filled with the Spirit.

    This is the kingdom.”

  3. Iain Lovejoy says

    If creation is supposed to be understood as perfect before Adam and Eve messing it up:

    – Why are they placed in a secluded garden with a wall around it: what is the wall for?
    – Where did the snake come from?

    • anonymous says

      allegorically speaking, we are not invited so much into the mystery as we would like, but we know enough to realize this:

      there IS a universally-recognized difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ among human persons, and we have ‘choice’ in so far as we comprehend what this means, and that this is BOTH BLESSING AND CURSE

      trying to weasel out of it doesn’t work, extreme Calvinism has tried and miserably failed;
      and the ‘once saved, always saved’ model won’t make it past the judgment of the sheep from the goats;

      the only model that comes close to working is a sorrowful human standing in a temple with his head down and praying
      ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner’

      all the other hoops and escapes and excuses pale before that humble person’s cry for mercy

    • “— Where did the snake come from?”

      Exactly. Evil already existed in creation, even within the walls of the Garden, before Adam and Eve sinned.

      We try to avoid saying that God is the author of evil, but there you have the snake, and God created the snake. So the best we can do is ignore that.

      Question: is Christ on the cross a “patch” to fix human sin, a patch on human history; or is Christ the true meaning of history?

      If sin came first, as an unfortunate and unexpected event, then Christ on the cross is secondary, and merely a patch because creation wasn’t done right the first time. But, if Christ on the cross—and God’s redemptive love with that—is really the meaning of all history, then perhaps sin is really part of the plan after all.

      Paul wrestles with this in Romans 5, also bigtime in Romans 7. In Romans 6:1 he asks, “Should we sin that grace may abound?” and answers himself, “Certainly not!” Yet he has already explored the possibility that sin provides a necessary function, in Romans 5:20: “…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” He also develops the sequence of Law awakening an awareness of sin; and then sin leading to grace.

      This may have been what Luther was talking about when he wrote, “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

      So if grace is what it’s all about, which really came first, sin or grace?

      I think it was God’s grace, demonstrated by Christ on the cross, that came first. God built his creation around that. Otherwise we have a tail that wags the dog, a god who constantly plays catch-up with a fallen creation, a god who doesn’t think ahead.

      • Christiane says

        it’s like that children’s book ‘The Giving Tree’

        the Tree loves the little boy, and gives and gives and gives

        and the little boy loves the tree and comes back to it again and again, and after a while all the giving is taken ‘for granted’ and the boy needs to build a boat to journey out into the world . . . and the tree gives itself for the wood, and only a stump of the tree is left . . . . and the boy comes back and is older and tired, very tired, and sits down on the stump to rest . . . . and the tree is happy

        somewhere in the abundant giving from God and in our ‘taking it for granted’ what happens ???

        are we to fault for our insensitivity to God’s love that gives even of Himself unto death on the Cross for our sake?

        or have we got lost because of the abundance . . . . not understanding that grace has a price?

        does God enable us to the point that we feel ‘entitled’ to indulge ourselves and still ‘all shall be well’?

        what is it that we do not understand, until we are old, and worn out, and come home to sit on the stump that is left because the tree gave of itself til there was no more to give and we took it all for granted not realizing the cost of God’s love ?

        For some reason, I could never read ‘ The Giving Tree’ to my children without weeping.. Now that I am old, I begin to understand, but it’s only a beginning. . . . . wish someone had read that book to me when I was little, but I fear it might not have mattered a damn 🙂

        https://image.slidesharecdn.com/thegivingtree-100227111735-phpapp01/95/the-giving-tree-30-728.jpg?cb=1267269510

        • john barry says

          Christiane, Finally you have sourced a material that operates on my level. What a great children book that I was not aware of , which says more about me than the book. Like so much great lit it works on so many levels. The book answers so many questions it should stump no one.

          Reminds me of somewhat of a Animal Farm based joke, where the chicken is complaining the farmer takes her eggs and she does all the work, the cow feels the same about his milk, works for free, horse same with tilling the fields and on it goes. The pig breaks in and says ” I have it made, I have my own pen to protect me, all the food and more than I can eat, mud and straw and I give nothing back”. What we do not know, we do not worry about. There is a cost for everything.

          I will get the book for my grand daughter age 6 and she will love it perhaps forever, I hope so. I guess I am her stump and that is certainly okay with me. Thanks again.

          • Christiane says

            I started laughing with the first paragraph and I can’t stop! Too much, J.B. LOL

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        I can speculate that in a sense mankind is to creation what Christ is to mankind – we are the image of God in creation to complete it as Christ is God incarnate as man to complete us.
        I have seen pointed out that the Eden story is an allegory for the archetypal Israel story – God takes his chosen out of all the world and puts them in their own special country and they sin and mess up and so are exiled from it.
        Babel is also the same proto-story – wealth, sin, scattering / exile.
        The flood is also another aspect to it, with sin bringing destruction on the land / world and a faithful remnant spared by God to start again.
        My point (in so far as I have one) us that the Eden story in the OT is simply the earliest example of a repeating pattern, not a unique one-off event. It is part of God’s (two step forwards one step back) ongoing work to perfect creation, not a patch to fix it.

    • If you’re talking about the actual origins of the myth it is derived from older Ancient Near Eastern imagery. In most ANE conceptions humans were created to be the slaves of the gods. You still have a taste of that in the responsibility of Adam and Eve to tend the garden but the Jewish conception of humans is much more exalted. The snake seems to derive from polytheistic cultic imagery. The association with Satan is a late Christian apocalyptic idea.

      In fact, judging from the dearth of references to the Garden of Eden story in the rest of the Hebrew Bible it mattered a lot more to Christians than it did to Jews.

  4. Robert F says

    One thing that Treat misses, however, which has led a lot of Christian theology astray, is that the human vocation included the call to overcome the chaos and evil that was already present in the world.

    That is exactly right, CM. Evil and chaos already existed in the prehuman world. Miss that important truth, as Treat and so many have, and you end up pivoting to an understanding of Christian mission as a purely privatized idea of personal salvation. — get the message out, spread salvation around, and God will do the rest. But there is no purely personal salvation, and even if you think not, your missional activity will include other things, such as trying to regulate the sexual and reproductive activity and mores of not only Christians but whole societies and peoples. Because life is holistic, your message and actions will be tend to be holistic, whether you like and know it or not.

    • “Because life is holistic, your message and actions will be tend to be holistic, whether you like and know it or not.”

      This. If your view of God’s priorities is truncated, your prescriptions for society will be equally truncated.

      • Robert F says

        Yes. Your prescriptions will tend to be holistic, but wrong, because you are not perceiving the truth about the real problems in creation and humanity

  5. Michael Z says

    If you see the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ manifesto for what the Kingdom of God ought to look like, then “making the world a better place” and “bringing the reign of God” are not mutually exclusive goals. The Bible (and the modern world as well) contains pretty clear examples of non-believers doing God’s work and God’s people destroying the Kingdom. I worry that *too* much focus on “God as king” can become “build a society that tells us Christians we’re right” rather than “build a society where the least of these are blessed.”

    The recent abortion debates are a good example: there are people, both Christian and non-Christian, quietly working behind the scenes to provide the sort of resources, services, and policies that have been so effective in reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions over the past decades (cutting the abortion rate in half since 1980). And then there are loud voices who support only a narrow sliver of the pro-life agenda, pushing legislation that even most Christians in the country disagree with. Which of those two groups is actually building God’s kingdom?

  6. Why do the hard core Calvinists even worry about the Gospel? We were either selected for election or doomed to Hell before we were ever born.

    • Most Calvinists would say that God ordained the means (human witnessing) as well as the end (predestined salvation). I just put that out there as an FYI, not to start a debate.

    • Mot, I’m finding that most Calvinists would agree with Eeyore’s description, and would blame hyper-calvinism for what you’ve described as “hard core.” But to my mind, if Calvinists are consistent they’ll end up hyper-calvinist anyway and therefore the gospel becomes irrelevant. They’ll need to accept some form of paradox, allowing some free will, to get away with a straight-faced teaching of the gospel.

      • “They’ll need to accept some form of paradox, allowing some free will, to get away with a straight-faced teaching of the gospel.”

        That’s always been the Achilles heel of Reformed theology. One lecturer I listened to said, “As nature abhors a vacuum, theologians hate mystery.” It took me quite awhile to see the wisdom in his words.

        • anonymous says

          and yet, it is known:

          ” ‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’

        • Robert F says

          Karl Barth, though thoroughly Reformed, avoided that Achilles heel. He was completely at home with mystery, and, though his Church Dogmatics is a multi-volume academic work (unfinished), he presented it not as a work of systematic theology, but one of irregular and contextual theology.

      • Rick Ro. says

        –> “They’ll need to accept some form of paradox, allowing some free will, to get away with a straight-faced teaching of the gospel.”

        I’ve come to realize that we “free will” people need to accept some form of paradox, too–allowing for some “predetermination” and “election”–to get away with a straight-faced teaching of the gospel as well. In other words, there’s no denying (at least, the way I read the gospels/epistles) that God has SOME bit of Calvinistic character…LOL.

        • Robert F says

          See Karl Barth. One of the things he says is that “man’s” (that was the word he used, so I’m using it here, though he meant all humankind) freedom is not in competition with God’s sovereignty; the reality of the one doesn’t detract from the reality of the other.

        • Rick Ro.,

          YES. We need to accept mystery and paradox whichever side we favor. Of course God is sovereign, but what does he do with his sovereignty; does he allow any free will to us? Are we partners with God in an ongoing creation? What does this have to do with vocation, etc.?

          Eeyore recalls a lecturer saying that “theologians hate mystery.” I’m not so sure of that, but there are enough others who do hate it. I think the theologians are the ones asking the difficult questions and getting shot down by the fundamentalists within us who hate mystery and love certainty. And love rules.

          • Robert F says

            Fundamentalist theologians of all types and theological traditions hate mystery, except when they invoke it to deny the legitimate grievances of people and classes of people who fundamentalism has accorded the right only of second and third-class human beings; when asked why such a low status should be applied to any person, they are perfectly willing to say, “This is a mystery of God’s sovereign will which we have to accept on faith.”

            • Christiane says

              “they are perfectly willing to say, “This is a mystery of God’s sovereign will which we have to accept on faith.””

              well, I don’t ‘accept’ it because Our Lord didn’t . . . . He assumed our humanity during the Incarnation and that inclusiveness counters the argument that ‘some’ are doomed from all time to all time and they ‘cannot’ be saved;
              but ‘others (that is, all Calvinists) are OF COURSE saved which they KNOW (by some process that seems to be self-serving)

              I’m out of line here, but I don’t get it.

              I don’t get the hubris. I don’t get the ‘we’ have to accept on faith. If I did this, it would make God a monster, and the Incarnation a fraud, and I’m not willing to go there

              these folks who are perfectly willing to see God throw others under the bus . . . . what if they show up for the event and find out THEY are included among the throw-aways? Do they still ‘accept this on faith’? too strange, their hubris . . . . inhumane on their part and God-a-monster – i don’t get it

              sorry for rant, but is there ANY better explanation of how these folks arrive at their conclusions???
              (I don’t see ‘Christ’ in their image of God, no)

              • Robert F says

                I strongly disagree with the negative way they use the idea of mystery, only when it reinforces their ideas of order and supports their traditional power positions in church and society; but they are not of a different species than us, they are human, and the motivations behind their attitudes and actions are surely a mixture of the all-too-human ones of fear and the desire for control, motivations what we humans all share. If we look within, we will find potential in ourselves for just as much strangeness, hubris, and inhumanity.

        • Dana Ames says

          Not so much “predetermination” but God’s providence, most of which has not yet been revealed to us – so in that sense it’s technically “mystery”. If we trust God’s love and his desire to make us who were headed to the oblivion of the grave fully alive and human, then we can have our legitimate feelings about our circumstances and still have at least a little peace.

          Dana