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).

Total and Radical Obedience: a word about Jesus’ call into God’s Kingdom from John Bright

Christus Rex

While studying for an upcoming sermon series on the kingdom of God, I came across this gripping description of Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom from Old Testament scholar John Bright:

Christ, then, has come to call men to his Kingdom. His mission was not to instruct men in a better and more spiritual ethic, to impart to men a clearer understanding of the character of God, to attack those abuses which had made the Jewish law the stultification of the religious spirit and to suggest certain emendations to that law—in short, to point men the way to be better men. All this he did, indeed, and with a vengeance. But he did it in the dazzling light of the coming Kingdom. His was a call of tremendous urgency, a call to radical decision for that Kingdom. The Kingdom is right there, ‘at hand.’ It stands at the door and knocks (Luke 12:36; cf. Rev. 3:20). Who will open and let it in? Who will say Yes to its coming? Over and over again in the Gospels comes the radical urgency of its call. It is a pearl of great price; you sell everything you have to get it (Matt. 13:45-46). You leave father and mother, wife and family, as if you hated them, at its beck (Luke 14;26). It transcends all earthly concerns (Matt. 6:33). If it were a question of gouging out your eye and entering it blind or having two eyes to be excluded from it, you would without hesitation mutilate yourself in order to get in (Mark 9:47). No call to be trifled with, this—like the man who puts his hand to the plow and then turns back (Luke 9:62)! No call to be answered with a modicum of moral improvement, a burst of zeal, a few New Year’s resolutions to live a better life! It is  call to total and radical obedience, to an utterly impossibly righteousness, to be perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48): in short, a call to the righteousness of the Kingdom of God to which no man can attain, yet to which he may give the answer of faith. For to say Yes to the Kingdom and to submit to its rule is faith (Mark 1:15; cf. Rom. 3:22). And it is of faith’s nature to cry, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9:24 KJV).

[From John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1953), 219-220.

Theological Blind Spots: Paul Hiebert’s suggestion for an international hermeneutic

Paul HiebertYesterday I wrote about blind spots in our individual lives. It is difficult to see them and just as challenging to address them.

The same thing is true in our theology. We often have blind spots that are evident to others but hard for us to see ourselves. Many years ago, I came across Paul Hiebert’s suggestion that we need the input of many people to save us from theological blind spots. Hiebert envisions an international hermeneutical community, who helps one another read, interpret, and live out Scripture beyond our cultural and personal blind spots for walking with Christ. He writes:

The goal of theology is not simply to apply the gospel in the diverse contexts of human life. Theology’s nature also revolves around the goal to understand the unchanging nature of the gospel—the absolutes that transcend time and cultural pluralism. If theology is to become more than a Rorschach inkblot into which we project our own cultural prejudices, we need a standard against which to test our theologies. Here again we can apply principles used by the Anabaptists to test the orthodoxy of theologies. One principle is that the primary test is the Scripture itself—the divinely superintended record of God’s acts in history. Another principle is that humility and the willingness to be led by the Spirit are vital to the reading of Scripture. The final principle is that the hermeneutical community checks interpretations and seeks consensus.

Just as believers in a local church must test their interpretations of Scriptures with their community of believers, so the churches in different cultural and historical contexts must test their theologies with the international community of churches and the church down through the ages. The priesthood of believers must be exercised within a hermeneutical community.

As the church in a given sociocultural setting seeks to contextualize the gospel, it is keenly aware of the needs the gospel must address within its setting and the foreignness of Christian forms that have been introduced from without. It is often unaware, however, of its own cultural biases, which it projects into its understanding of the Scriptures. Believers in other cultures are generally more aware of these. Consequently, churches in specific cultural settings need the check of the international community of churches to test where theologies are too strongly influenced by cultural assumptions.

Ironically, this metatheological process, carried out on the international level, may lead us to what Western theologians have long sought—a growing consensus on theological absolutes. It may bring us closer to the formulation of a truly supracultural theology. But such a formulation must be an ongoing process; for as the world and its cultures change, so do the problems theology must address.

[From Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 102-103.]

Discipline is the Price of Freedom

discipline

I came across this excerpt from D. Elton Trueblood’s 1970 book The New Man for Our Time on the topic of spiritual discipline. It caught my attention as I continue to give attention to the disciplines of grace necessary for us to grow in the spiritual life, drawing upon the influence of writers like Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, as well as other spiritual writers of much earlier eras and today.

When we begin to ask what the conditions of inner renewal are, we receive essentially the same answers from nearly all of those whom we have most reason to respect. One major answer is the emphasis upon discipline. In the conduct of one’s own life it is soon obvious, as many have learned the hard way, that empty freedom is a snare and a delusion. In following what comes naturally or easily, life simply ends in confusion, and in consequent disaster. Without the discipline of time, we spoil the next day the night before, and without the discipline of prayer, we are likely to end by having practically no experience of the divine-human encounter. However compassionate we may be with others, we dare not be soft or indulgent with ourselves. Excellence comes at a price, and one of the major prices is that of inner control.

We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom, to the effect that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matter is the character of our binding. The one who would like to be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously and to live abstemiously denies him the freedom to go over the bar at the desired height, or to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life with the dictum: Discipline is the price of freedom.

[From D. Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).]

How Does Spiritual Formation Happen?: themes of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart

DallasWillard-sm

This summer, I have been returning to some classic guidance on spiritual formation, am reflecting on how spiritual formation happens in our individual lives and in the church as a whole. I shared a reflection from Eugene Peterson yesterday, and have peppered in other thoughts on my blog over recent weeks. Having just re-read Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart this summer, I wanted to offer a high level summary of Willard’s thinking in that book here.

Willard says that spiritual formation must take account of the various aspects of our being: spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social, and soul. It is only when we thoughtfully account for all these aspects of our person that whole spiritual transformation will truly happen. He writes:

It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.” (41-42)

Such transformation happens according to “the general pattern of personal transformation, which also applies to spiritual formation” (85), which Willard describes with the acronym VIM, which stands for vision, intention, and means.

  • Vision: “The vision that underlies spiritual (trans)formation into Christlikeness is, then, the vision of life now and forever in the range of God’s effectives will—that is, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1-2) through a birth ‘from above’ and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in our lifetime on earth….What we are aiming for in this vision is to live fully in the kingdom of God and as fully as possible now and here, not just hereafter” (87).
  • Intention: “We can actually decide to do it…first of all to trust him, rely on him, to count on him being the Anointed One, the Christ…Concretely, we intend to live in the kingdom by intending to obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus….Now, on intention is brought to completion only by a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention (87-88).
  • Means: “Here the means in question are the means for spiritual transformation, for the replacing of the inner character the lost with the inner character of Jesus: his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character” (89).

This must be vigorously and holistically applied to our lives with God’s grace for growth. When we do that, what does it look like? Willard cites these passage as a “New Testament descriptions of what the apprentices of Jesus are to be like”:

  • Matthew 5-7
  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12-7:1
  • Galatians 5:22-6:10
  • Ephesians 4:20-6:20
  • Philippians 2:3-16; 4:4-9
  • Colossians 3:1-4:6
  • 1 Peter 2:1-3:16
  • 2 Peter 1:2-10
  • 1 John 4:7-21

In the local church, while the individual work is intimately involved, the plan for spiritual formation is built around the definition of Matthew 28:18-20:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Specifically, Willard describes three essential emphases for churches to really move toward this reality of spiritual formation in their life together (240):

  1. Making disciples – the church must aim for actually apprenticing people to Jesus in their lives
  2. Immersing the apprentices at all levels of growth in the Trinitarian presence – the church must call disciples into the lived presence of the Triune God that is accessible and available at all times and in all spheres of our lives
  3. Transforming disciples inwardly – through spiritual practices/disciplines, the church must help disciples grow in such a way that doing the words and deeds of Christ is not the focus but the natural outcome or side effect of living

This is Willard’s basic thrust in Renovation of the Heart, which helps us see how true spiritual formation in Christlikeness happens in the lives of the individual believer and local church.