Perhaps it’s not until you’ve held a view that has been misrepresented or unfairly slurred that you really become sensitive to being careful not to engage in that kind of tactic with others, or appreciate the wrong that is done when other people are attacked in this way.
I can still remember when the internet was fairly new to me, browsing various Christian websites that purportedly fill the role of “warning” Christians about dangerous theological points of view that they need to stay away from. Looking back, it’s fairly obvious that all these sites really ended up doing was enshrining the viewpoint of the author as the only one that any serious thinking Christian can possibly hold, and labelling anything outside of this perspective as a dangerous aberration from the pit of hell (yes I exaggerate, but not much). I wish I could say that this was largely a phenomenon of the past when the internet was still fairly young, but that just isn’t so.
One of the targets of that sort of website is the term “kingdom theology,” and as someone who a) actually thinks that the ideas represented by that term are biblical and b) has a background in theology and feels a certain responsibility to promote good theological education among those who want to learn about it, I’ve decided to say a few things on behalf of kingdom theology.
One tactic that is fairly common in criticisms of kingdom theology is to associate it with as many theological camps and terms as possible – many or most of which those who actually believe in kingdom theology have never even heard of, and certainly have no connection with. Apart from polemical, reactionary websites that negatively characterise anyone who disagrees with them, have you ever actually personally been involved with groups that describe themselves using terms like “Joel’s Army,” “Manifest Sons of God” or “The Identity Movement”? Nor have I, and yet nearly every single online critique of kingdom theology that I have encountered has found a way to mention all of these terms, and this wee gem gives readers a neat little picture to suggest that they are really all just arms of the same thing. This is so grossly misleading that any respectable theological commentator would be embarrassed to think that anyone might accuse him of arguing this way. The allegation is made that kingdom theology is an invention of twentieth century Pentecostalism, and its proponents are those who want to seize political power in the name of the church, and by force if necessary, establish the political kingdom of God on earth.
Naturally, the more threatening and strange you can make a position sound, the better your chances of turning people away from it are. By selectively quoting from fringe theologians (I use that term loosely) who are associated with various weird and wonderful movements that the writer in question has decided should be associated with kingdom theology, the dots are connected. But it is not an honest way to try to convince people of something.
Kingdom theology is the Christian belief that Jesus is the king of kings, that he came into this world to save it, and through his life and saving work, the kingdom of God was established – a kingdom that really makes a difference in the world, a difference that we should seek to be a part of.
It doesn’t sound nearly as bizarre as you might have expected, does it (unless of course, you’re someone who thinks that any claim about the existence of God and the person and work of Jesus is bizarre)? Not only do I think that kingdom theology has a clear biblical foundation, but it also has a very respectable history in Christian thought. I’ll offer a brief overview of each of these.
The view that the kingdom of God is going to make a fundamental difference to the world, transforming and improving it, instead of dwindling within it until some day when Jesus steps in to rescue the church in some miraculous escape (as advocated by many of the critics of kingdom theology) has clear biblical foundations. I will be brief, and plenty will be left out.
The Old Testament messianic prophecies present an undoubtedly positive view of what would happen to the world when the Messiah comes. Isaiah 11 serves as a good example. Here we read that “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse,” a son of David upon whom the Spirit of God will rest, one who will bring about justice for the needy of the earth, one who will judge the wicked (vv. 1-5). We read that “the nations will rally to Him,” he will “raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth” (vv. 10-12). In Micah 4:1 we learn that “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.” Perhaps the most graphic prophetic depiction of the coming of the kingdom of God appears in Daniel chapter 2. Here, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream about a statue made up of various different materials. Then a rock, not cut out with human hands, strikes the statue, smashing it into pieces. The rock then begins to grow, until finally it is a mountain that fills the whole earth. Daniel interprets the dream, explaining that the different parts of the statue represent different world kingdoms that would rise on the earth. The rock represented God’s kingdom that would overcome these kingdoms:
In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.
The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy. (vv. 44-46)
God was going to establish a kingdom on earth, and it would become so great that it fills the earth.
Consider the words of Micah, who said that the mountain of the LORD’s temple would be lifted up, and the all the peoples would stream to it. Put this alongside the words of Jesus in John 12:32, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” When Jesus said that He would rebuild the temple after it had been destroyed in John 2:19-20, John clarifies for us by telling us in verse 21 that “the temple he had spoken of was his body.” Or we might think of Hebrews 12:22, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” Paul, in Ephesians 2:19-21 tells his readers that we have become part of the household of God, built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Jesus Himself as the cornerstone, and that this household is “a holy temple in the Lord.” The view expressed in the New Testament suggests that Micah 4:1 has indeed been fulfilled. Christ has been lifted up, and the nations are streaming to Him, becoming part of the household of God, a holy temple, the body of Christ.
The teaching of Jesus seems to confirm what the Old Testament prophesies about His coming. For example, he gives two parables about the Kingdom of God in Matthew 13:31-33, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
The fairly natural impression we might get from sayings like this is that the kingdom, once planted, would continue to grow, transforming the whole “batch of dough” as it were.
Jesus proclaimed the “Good News of the kingdom.” He told his listeners that “the kingdom of God has come to you” (Mt 12:28). The idea of the kingdom of God was not new. It is a repetition of Old Testament language that the first century reader would have recognised. In short, the Old Testament anticipates a time when God’s kingdom will be established, and the result will be that all the nations come into it, until it subsumes the world. Further, the New Testament teaches that the Kingdom of God has in fact been established in Christ, and that Jesus anticipated its ultimate success in the world, transforming and filling it.
The early Christian document, the Epistle of Barnabas, has overtones of Kingdom theology where it says:
The Scripture says concerning us…: “Multiply and fill the Earth! … Have dominion over it!” … We, having been quickened and being kept alive by the faith of the promise and by the Word, shall live, ruling over the Earth…. To govern implies authority, so that one should command and rule…. Christ was the Son of David…. He says [Psalm 110], “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘You must keep on sitting at My right hand, until I make Your enemies Your footstool!’” And again, this is what Isaiah says: “The Lord said to Christ, ‘My Lord Whose right hand I have held so that the nations shall yield obedience before Him!’”
Epistle of Barnabas, chapters 6, 12.
Similar statements are found in Clement of Rome, who draws on similar parts of Scripture to the same effect in chapters 33 and 36 of his letter to the Corinthians.
Later Church Fathers like Augustine certainly had no time for the modern pessimism that we see among those who think that failure is inevitable for the church, whose only hope is to be yanked away at the last minute when Jesus returns before things finally fall to pieces on earth.
At the time of the Reformation, Luther declared:
In the beginning, the Church was victorious over… the Jews and the might of the Romans. In like manner, she will today and forever be victorious…over the Pope and the power of the Turk…. The Pope is the last blaze in the lamp which will go out, and ere long be extinguished…. But when he is struck with God’s Word – then the Pope is turned to a poppy and a frothy flower!
Matin Luther, Writngs, cited in Francis Nigel Lee, Always Victorious: The Early Church not Pre- but Post-Millennial (n.p., n.d.), 19.
You can probably detect in Luther’s words a similar view present in most modern “Left Behind” type writers, the view that we ourselves are living at the crisis point of history and it’s all about to be wound up. But setting that aside, it goes as virtually undisputed that the overwhelming majority of Protestant writers from the time of the Reformation until the rise of premillennialism in the 19th/20th century (including Luther) were what some would call “postmillennial,” that is, they had a strongly optimistic view of history. I have some quibbles about using that label, but the point is that they believed that God’s kingdom would increase in influence and transform the world in which we live.
A fundamentally important implication of this outlook is that we should not give up on interacting with society, surrendering it as utterly lost, and retreating to our Christian ghetto. God really does want to work not only in us, but through us in this world. This was not lost on thinkers like John Calvin.
Calvin understood Christianity as a faith that engages the realities of both personal and public life. He had considerable interest in the development of an authentic Christian theology, and was well aware of the importance of issues of personal piety and spirituality. Yet his vision of the Christian faith extended far beyond the piety of a privatized faith or the cerebral conundrums of an intellectualized theology. Theology for Calvin offered a framework for engaging with public life… He taught that the individual believer has a vocation to serve God in the world — in every sphere of human existence—lending a new dignity and meaning to ordinary work.
Alister McGrath, “Calvin and the Christian Calling,” First Things 94 (June/July 1999), 31-35.
Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the thought and lives of the Puritans. They have bequeathed to us a worldview wherein we worship God every day of the week by investing in God’s world in the lives we live and the work we do.
Erroll Hulse is right when he reflects on the Puritan view of history, saying:
This positive view of the future known as the eschatology of victory has tremendous implications because it inspires vision. It motivates effort and enterprise. If we believe that evil will overcome everything we will be subject to fear and despair. We will not be inclined to attempt very much. If the gospel is destined to prevail in all nations then we will be inspired to attempt great things for God. We will seek to win the nations for Christ.
Errol Hulse, The Example of the English Puritans
When you get time, have a browse through Iain Murray’s classic work on Puritan eschatology, The Puritan Hope, of which you can read the first four chapters online HERE. It surveys the way in which the eschatological view that I think deserves to be called kingdom theology served as the basis of so much of the good work done by the Puritan movement in terms of world mission.
It was not just in evangelism that the Puritans expressed their theological convictions about the difference that Christ makes to the world. The Protestant work ethic is identifiable as such precisely because industry was seen as a way of worshipping God in the role to which we are called, a way of improving the world by serving God. Similarly, accompanying the Puritan movements was a strong emphasis on the social dimension of the Gospel. Contrary to the impression some might have, the Christian “social justice” movement was not started by liberals in the 20th century. Puritan conservatives were up to the task centuries earlier. Social justice reform was important to Puritans. It was their job as servants of God to improve this world for God’s glory, and as such they advocated for education of the everyday person as well as the improvement of the economic well-being of their neighbour. As Benjamin Hart summarises:
The Puritans knew that conditions of political and economic well-being depended on an educated population. The American belief that every citizen must have a certain amount of education, and a certain degree of literacy and mathematical competency, is a Puritan legacy. In Europe, education, especially advanced education, was limited to the extreme upper crust of society. The lower classes, it was thought, were unfit to be put through schools. Education in Europe was to be reserved for the ruling class. Oxford and Cambridge were England’s only two universities.
In the Puritan mind literacy was important not only to ensure a reasonably informed electorate, essential for the survival of democratic government; but it also played an important role in the individual’s walk with the Lord. The Puritans stressed the individuals personal relationship with Jesus. To read the Bible or follow the logic of a sermon requires a certain familiarity with basic concepts. That a religious movement, which shunned philosophy, was strictly fundamentalist, and believed completely in the inerrancy of Scripture, produced the most educated nation of people the world had ever seen is one of the remarkable paradoxes, and lessons, of history.
Benjamin Hart, Faith and Freedom: The Christian Roots of American Liberty, chapter seven. Read online HERE.
Likewise Daniel Anderson-Little says:
One of the changes that the Puritans made from the laws in England was the vagrancy, the lack of working for three or more days, was decriminalized. Of course, the main reason people didn’t work for more than three days was that they were so poor and malnourished that they were sick much of the time. Instead the Puritans made care of the poor a moral issue for the community.
Dr Daniel Anderson Little, “Moral Values” in Light of the Resurrection: Poverty
For a fuller treatment of that subject, see W. Schenk, The Concern for Social Justice in the Puritan Revolution (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1948).
Kingdom theology, it has to be stressed, is a theological rather than a political movement. While it envisages a world transformed at every level including politically, this is not because, as some critics have carelessly claimed, advocates of kingdom theology hope for some sort of political takeover, coup or violent revolution. Anything but! Proponents of postmillennialism, dominion theology, kingdom theology – call it what you will – have always based their position (whether you think they’re right or not) on biblical arguments about the work of the Spirit of God in building God’s kingdom in the world as more people are brought into a relationship with God and are empowered by God to do God’s will. As Charles Hodge spelled it out:
As therefore the Scriptures teach that the kingdom of Christ is to extend over all the earth; that all nations are to serve Him; and that all people shall call Him blessed; it is to be inferred that these predictions refer to a state of things which is to exist before the second coming of Christ. This state is described as one of spiritual prosperity; God will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh; knowledge shall everywhere abound; wars shall cease to the ends of the earth, and there shall be nothing to hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord. This does not imply that there is to be neither sin nor sorrow in the world during this long period, or that all men are to be true Christians. The tares are to grow together with the wheat until the harvest. The means of grace will still be needed; conversion and sanctification will be then what they ever have been. It is only a higher measure of the good which the church has experienced in the past that we are taught to anticipate in the future. This however is not the end, After this and after the great apostasy which is to follow, comes the consummation.
From Hodge’s Systematic Theology, volume 3, available online HERE.
According to kingdom theology, it is the presence and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit that makes any change possible, and not political might, force, overthrow or persecution.
In contemporary theology the basic tenets of kingdom theology (although not necessarily agreement at every point) can be found at the heart of Christianity that really wants to make a difference in the world. It’s crucial to appreciate that Kingdom theology does not commit to an exact model of what kind of reforms or changes really are good for the world. Nor does it require a specifically defined theological tradition, be it Calvinist, Arminian, Pentecostal, Catholic or Baptist. People who hold to the basic ideals of kingdom theology can differ over these things. Christian voices as politically or theologically diverse as Tony Campolo, N. T. Wright, Abraham Kuyper, Greg Bahnsen, G. E. Ladd, Gordon Fee and John Wimber are named among Christian theologians who advocate some form of Kingdom theology.
Serious reflection on the eschatological thought of historic Christianity, as well as the insight of contemporary theologians assure us that the fuss over “kingdom theology” is misplaced. It may well be that the only exposure you’ve ever had to the idea is via websites that were designed to warn you away from every error under the sun (websites, ironically, frequently created by those who inhabit the fringes of Christian theology themselves) including this one. If that’s the case, let me be the first to welcome you from the other side of the fence.
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- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!