Kingdom of God
According to many scholars, the kingdom of God is the most central and comprehensive theme in the entire Bible. The main features of this theme are present, at least implicitly, in Yahweh's establishing of the Sinai covenant with Israel (see esp. Exodus 19:4-6). The kingdom of God is rooted, first, in the divine initiative and consists in God's unhindered rule. Yahweh delivered the people of Israel from Egypt in order to govern them directly. Second, God's kingdom rule is to be actualized among a particular people (in this case, Israel) called especially to that task.
Third, God's kingdom will be actualized where this people is obedient. Obedience consists, on one band, of keeping commandments which regulate unique forms of social relationship; on the other hand, obedience must spring from inner allegiance to Yahweh. Fourth, God's kingdom has a missionary thrust. Through Israel's obedience it is to spread to all nations. Finally, God's kingdom will be fully established only in the future. The kingdom of God is a dynamic movement which stretches forward in time.
During Old Testament times God's kingdom was actualized only in small measure. This was largely due to Israel's tendency to identify its present national existence with the kingdom of God. Instead of continually responding to Yahweh's initiative, Israel often regarded its kingdom status as guaranteed. Instead of keeping Yahweh's social commandments, Israelite society increasingly split into groups of rich and poor; rather than remaining inwardly loyal to Yahweh, Israelites increasingly turned towards foreign gods. Overestimating its own superiority, Israel often neglected its mission and despised Gentiles. Finally, being overly satisfied with its present situation, the nation frequently forgot God's forward call. As a result of all this, Israel came under Yahweh's judgment, and by Jesus' time the kingdom of God still seemed a largely unfulfilled hope.
Jesus' main message was: "the kingdom of God is at hand!" (Mark 1:15) The divine initiative was present in his hearings, exorcisms, and teachings. While his message went out to everyone, it was directed especially towards a "little flock" willing to follow a "narrow way." Jesus called for obedience: for keeping his commands as well as for inner allegiance of heart. He especially stressed the life of self-giving, servant-like love which, among other things, could heal destructive social relationships between rich and poor, and between men and women. Jesus also called for the reversal of attitudes towards Gentiles, opening the way for the kingdom's missionary thrust. Finally, Jesus looked towards the future actualization of God's rule over all.
Scholars agree that Jesus emphasizes the initiative and reign of God in general, and called for different attitudes by Jews toward Gentiles. They disagree, however, over other features of his message. Most scholars contend that Jesus called mainly for conversion of the heart, and that his specific commands regarding social behavior were not as central to his message. In this way they interpret his efforts to be directed primarily towards individual hearers, and not as much towards the formation of a committed group of disciples or towards their social impact. Scholars also disagree over the extent to which Jesus understood God's kingdom to be present ("realized"), future, or both. Most of them agree, however, that Jesus saw the kingdom, paradoxically, as in some way "already" present and "not yet" fully consummated.
The earliest Christians retained this paradoxical tension, understanding God's kingdom to be already among them, but expecting it to be fully established in the near future when Jesus returned -- that is, in an earthly and therefore social manner. Over the next few centuries, however, this expectation dimmed, and the consummation was pushed further into the future and into a heavenly, or spiritual realm. Subsequent interpretations differed primarily in the way they emphasized the present vs. the future, and also the social (or earthly) vs. the spiritual (or heavenly) dimensions of God's Kingdom.
While medieval piety focused on a future, spiritual and heavenly hope, Catholicism, at least since Augustine (354-430), could also regard God's kingdom as present in a secondary way through the establishment of the church, and in society insofar as the church influenced it. This led to a sacralization of Catholicism and of medieval society which the Protestant reformers sought to challenge.
Martin Luther spoke of two kingdoms, both of which were largely present. God was most directly active in the kingdom of Christ. This consisted in the spiritual relationships between justified individuals and God, and among such individuals in the church; here affairs were regulated by Jesus' teachings about radical self-giving love. God was indirectly present in social affairs, however, through the kingdom of this world; here God maintained order through traditional social structures and the violence exercised by the temporal rulers. Although Luther intended to identify the political government less directly with God's kingdom than did Catholicism, his insistence on conformity to established structures and rulers led to similar practical results.
One of the leaders of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, spoke primarily of God's kingdom as spiritual, heavenly, and future. Yet he acknowledged that certain beginnings of it are present on earth. Reformed Christians, unlike most Lutherans, increasingly regarded the kingdom of God as a dynamic force transforming political and economic life. At times this led to social criticism and transformation. Often, however, it also led to a sacralization of violent means of change (as in the English Civil War, 1642-48) and of new social arrangements (as among American Puritans).
In the 19th century Protestant liberalism stressed the social and earthly aspects of God's kingdom so strongly that its heavenly and spiritual dimensions sometimes disappeared. They emphasized Jesus' radical social commands, confident that these were becoming more practicable because humanity was becoming more moral. They often equated this supposed moral evolution with the future dimension of God's kingdom. But insofar as they identified it with such movements as socialism and democracy, liberals sacralized them and underestimated the radicality of Jesus' call for spiritual conversion.
Liberalism's optimistic alignment of social movements with God's kingdom aroused two very different protests in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dispensationalists argued that Jesus' social teachings were to be followed literally in God's kingdom -- but that this kingdom was wholly future and would be established only at his return. In the present "Church Age" only the spiritual emphasis of Jesus was relevant. Quite differently, existential theologians, e.g., Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), claimed that Jesus' teachings really had no social import, but that God's kingdom was present whenever individuals responded to God. Despite their differences, both theologies located the essence of Christian life not in social and historical movement, but in a present, inward realm.
Mennonites have strongly affirmed that the kingdom of God has future and heavenly dimensions. Yet what distinguishes their perspective most sharply from others is the way they find the kingdom taking root in present earthly life. Although God's kingdom transforms hearts, Mennonites cannot assign it to this spiritual realm as many Lutherans, existentialists, and modern biblical scholars have. Along with Catholics, liberals, and the Reformed, they find it also being actualized in social relationships. Nevertheless, these relationships cannot be identified, even indirectly, with those prevailing in any earthly society. For to do this is to sacralize behaviors, structures and special interests quite different from those of God's kingdom.
Instead, Mennonites find God's kingdom most fully present wherever groups are committed to living out Jesus' teachings about self-giving, servant-like love, and are doing so by means of God's initiating grace, whether their actions seem in tune with their larger sociocultural context or not. Mennonites stress not only the role of spiritual and social obedience in general, but also that of the called-out community, or "little flock," through which these take concrete, social shape.
In extreme cases, Mennonites may have virtually identified the church with God's kingdom and may have relegated the rest of society and culture to the devil's rule. Sometimes they have separated themselves socially and geographically and, like ancient Israel, minimized the kingdom's forward movement and its missionary thrust. Today, however, Mennonites are increasingly aware that society can be most deeply affected by the radical examples set by deeply committed minorities. Some are also asking whether God might be initiating the kingdom, or at least opportunities for its actualization, in some way in other social or cultural movements. Yet however they grapple with this, Mennonites will be extremely unlikely to identify any such movement with the kingdom of God, for they will expect the kingdom's reality to be focused and actualized primarily through communities committed to Jesus' radical way.
Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972: 43-82.
Augustine. The City of God, Bks. 16-18.
Bright, John. The Kingdom of God. Nashville: Abingdon, 1953.
Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus and the Word. New York: Scribner's, 1934.
Dodd, C. H. Parables of the Kingdom. New York: Scribner's, 1961.
Finger, Thomas N. Christian Theology, vol. 2, ch. 15.
Ladd, George. The Presence of the Future. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.
Ladd, George. Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.
McClain, Alva J. The Greatness of the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959.
Niebuhr, H. R. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper, 1935.
Perrin, Norman. The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.
Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: Abingdon, 1917.
Ridderbos, Herman. The Coming of the Kingdom. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962.
Schnackenberg, Rudolf. God's Rule and Kingdom, rev. ed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1963.
Segundo, Juan. The Gistorical Jesus of the Synoptics. Maryknoll, N. Y.: Orbis, 1985.
Snyder, Howard. The Community of the King. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977.
Wilder, Amos. Eschatology and Ethics in the Teaching of Jesus. New York: Harper, 1950.
Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.
Springer, Nelson and A. J. Klassen, compilers. Mennonite Bibliography, 1631-1961, 2 vols. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977, Subject index contains references to a large number of articles and pamphlets on the subject.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 490-491. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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