The Nature of God’s Kingdom: insights from George Eldon Ladd

Christus Rex

As I mentioned yesterday, I am in the midst of preparing for an upcoming sermon series on the kingdom of God. One of the greatest American scholars on this topic is George Eldon Ladd, who gave significant attention to this theme in his teaching and writing career. In his brief book, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, Ladd summarizes his larger Jesus and the Kingdom. Although both of these books are now out of print, Ladd’s thoughts on the kingdom of God are still available in his A Theology of the New Testament, revised edition.

What follows is my halting attempt to summarize his summary through excerpted quotations from chapter four of The Pattern of New Testament Truth, “The Synoptic Pattern: The Kingdom of God.”

The truth of the Kingdom of God is rooted in the prophetic view of God who comes to his people in history, who reveals his redemptive and judicial purpose in historical events The Old Testament sees God acting in the sequence of events in Israel’s history, and it continually looks forward to a final, decisive act in history to establish his Kingdom. The new redeemed order is described in different ways, but there are four constraints: it results from a visitation of God, a divine inbreaking; this occurs in history, not in personal individual experience; the new order stands in continuity with the old order, in that it is always viewed as earthly existence; yet there is also discontinuity in that the new order involves a transformation of the old and the emergence of something that has never existed before. (51)

Since it is Go who acts—God who is the eternal one—his present acts in history and his final act in consummating redemption can be viewed as though they were one single act; for it is one God who is acting in the present and who will act in the indeterminate future for the one redemptive purpose that fills the prophetic consciousness. The dynamic tension between history and eschatology stands at the heart of the prophetic perspective. (52)

The key to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God is found in  the dynamic understanding of that term. God’s Kingdom is first of all his kingly rule, his sovereign redeeming activity, and secondarily the realm of blessing inaugurated by the divine act. The proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God is the announcement, as in Judaism, of the inbreaking of God into human history to establish his will. At this point, Jesus’ message is apocalyptic. (53)

There is in Jesus’ proclamation, however, a distinctive, novel, unique element that finds no parallel in Judaism, namely, that before the apocalyptic consummation at the end of history, a fulfillment of the prophetic hope has occurred within history; that before the coming of God’s Kingdom as a cosmic event, his Kingdom has come as an event in history; that before God acts as King to inaugurate the redeemed order, he has acted in Jesus of Nazareth to bring to men in advance of the eschatological consummation of the blessings of actual fulfillment. The Old Testament promise of the coming of the Kingdom, fulfillment of the promise of the Kingdom in history in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus, consummation of the promise at the end of history–this is the basic structure of the theology of the Synoptic Gospels. (54)

When Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom has come (Matt. 12:28) in his own person and mission, he proclaimed something new and unheard of in Judaism. This is the ‘mystery’ of the Kingdom (Mark 4:11): the revelation of a new redemptive act—that before the eschatological theophany, God has invaded history to bring men the blessings of his redemptive reign. This coming of the Kingdom is a real event in history. Jesus spoke, and his words embodied the power of the Kingdom. He acted, and his deeds were the working of the Kingdom. They are objective historical events: words, deeds, and relationships created by the coming of the Kingdom in Jesus. (55)

The proclamation of the Kingdom means a twofold event, or two acts in a single divine redemption: a visitation in history hidden in the person of Jesus, and a visitation at the end of history in an unveiled cosmic event. How these two are related temporarily is one of the most difficult questions to decide, because of their nature. (56)

Although there is no difference in meaning between the terms ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Kingdom of the heavens,’ the latter reminds us that God does not dwell o earth but in heaven. In effect, the coming of the Kingdom means the coming of heaven to earth, so that finally in the consummation earth and its redeemed society share the blessings of heaven—righteousness, peace, immortality. (57)

The theology of the Kingdom of God is a theology of the invasion of history by the God of heaven in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to bring history to its consummation in the age to come beyond history. And the age to come may be spoken of as ‘beyond history’ because heaven has invaded history and raised it to a higher level in a new redeemed order. (57)

[All excerpts from George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968).

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