Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Is the "Kingdom" simply a metaphor?

I am reading Brian McLaren's book The Secret Message of Jesus. You can find good reviews of the book as a whole elsewhere (I can think of McKnight's at Jesuscreed.org).

I want to point up a pervasive view of the "kingdom" that McLaren reflects in his book. For starters, I really like much of what the book is about, but as I was reading I had a sense that I was uncomfortable with something, but could not put my figure on it until I came to chapter 16: "The Language of the Kingdom".

In this chapter the issue that had been lingering for me came into view. In this chapter, McLaren attempts to contemporize the metaphor of "kingdom" for a 21st century audience. He believes that it is necessary to update Jesus' outdated "kingdom" language because in his view it carries the negative baggage of imperialism, colonialism and dominiation. He suggests several alternatives: dream of God, revolution of God, mission of God, party of God, and dance of God. Now I would agree that these metaphors can be useful in communicating the message of the NT at some level.

However, my question is: Is the "kingdom of God" simply a metaphor that can be updated? Or is the "kingdom of God" actually a concrete entity that must continue to be explained and announced in contemporary preaching and apologetics? In other words, I wonder if there is a complete misunderstanding of what is the "kingdom of God" that Jesus/apostles preached that is reflective in McLaren's suggestion!


Michael F. Bird said...

Joel, at the end of the day 'kingdom' stands for something like the reign or rule of God or even divine government. The problem I have with Maclaren is that his idea of kingdom as the 'party of God' etc. is that it removes the cultural distance invovled in translation. Yes, kingdom does have colonial and imperalistic overtones, but so does basileia.

Anonymous said...

Mike, thanks for your thoughts, esp. the point of the colonial and imperialist overtones--we cannot escape this even in this post-colonial milieu. I am of the mind, however, that "reign or rule of God" is indeed correct, but on the lips of Jesus and Jewish believers it implies a more specific idea: the "kingdom of Israel".

David Shedden said...

Isn't this area of 'kingdom of God' the biggest headache for Christian theology? There is no getting away from the scandal of particularity that Jesus proclaims in his teaching about the kingdom of God - God is building his kingdom, he will complete the task soon, and it will fulfil the kingdom promises that God made to Israel throughout its history.

As far as I can see Christendom never gave up on trying to equate or accommodate the 'kingdom of God' with human authorities in our world. That's why most of the historic church creeds and confessions are so pointless today - they were framed with a view to solving problems for the human government of church and state!

Perhaps Maclaren's reformulation is just a subtle (liberal?) interpretation to ease the tension between what Jesus plainly teaches, and what is acceptable to the majority of modern churchy people in North America.

Anonymous said...

David, well said! I think part of the problem you have identified could perhaps be described as the "Christianization of a Jewish hope". When the church left its Jewish roots behind the kingdom no longer had a concrete setting and context. The idea of kingdom then was co-opted by supersecessionist Christendom and contemporary political convenience.

Danny Zacharias said...

Not having read the book I can only go by your examples. One of the immediate problems that popped into my head is that "mission of God" and "party of God" take away his Lordship- which is the point of the Kingdom, right? The "dance of God" does nothing to point to Yahweh as the Lord of the dance, so to speak. The most contemporary, and faithful, cultural translation would probably be government of God. At least there is still an implication of leadership and authority.


driver9 said...

Without wholly disagreeing with David I wonder how much most NT scholars know of the patristic and medieval interpretations and use of the NT. Let alone liturgical appropriations etc..

Luz commentary and the Blackwell series are good beginnings but there is a huge amount of work still to be done.

IMO it might be more fruitful to have specific analyses of particular patristic/medieval/reformation texts and authors (as is the way when NT scholars look at the range of texts they are actually familiar with).

As to creeds there has been a good discussion over at Scot McKnight's blog on the significance of creeds. (But I guess you already know that Joel!)

PS You never did say about plans for publication. Spare us the task of going through ILL, please!

Anonymous said...

driver9, thanks for your comments. As for publication, that is yet to be determined. I will let you know IF and/or when it is published. Thanks for your interest.

Justin Jenkins said...

It seems to me McLaren’s audience here is a post-modern culture, and at that a younger set such as myself --- I think it’s downright condescending to think we can’t understand the concept of a Kingdom. Frankly to me personally a kingdom has little to none of the negative baggage whilst “Empire of God” would indeed have much of that baggage. To me and I suspect many of my contemporaries “Kingdom” harkens back to a different time of Kings and Lords and Dominions --- not imperialism, colonialism and domination.

If more time was spent explaining what was originally meant instead of trying to reinvent terms that the Jesus and all the NT authors used consistently (to many different and varied types of audiences mind you!) I think there could be a much greater impact.

There are many terms and ideas that seem perfectly fit to contextualization, but one so central as the Kingdom? I think not. Education is the answer here, not reinvention.

I wonder what McLaren thinks of Witherington’s use of the term “Dominion of God” ?

driver9 said...

Thanks Joel - I look forward to seeing it published.

NWMihelis said...

I'm in agreement with Danny's comments above. The first thought that crossed my mind (though I've only read the post and not the book) was that if Kingdom was taken as a metaphor and could be updated to dance or party or whatever,what happens to the phrase: Jesus is Lord? Does this euangelic (okay I made that up) pronouncement change to Jesus is the Party Animal or Jesus is My Dance partner? This sounds about as bibiblically emasculated as Jesus is my copilot. If the statement, Jesus is Lord needs to be "updated" then I'm not sure what's left for proclamation.

tony siew said...

Hi Joel

I will give my take on this. The kingdom of God or heaven proclaimed by Jesus is a concrete phemenemon where God will reign in a specific place in time and history.

The kingdom of God is in our midst when people believe the Gospel because God begins to reign in their lives but it awaits future consummation.

Jesus is the king who will inherit the throne of his father David (Luke 1-2)which means Jesus will reign over Israel one day centred in Jerusalem. In Revelation, the kingdom will come when the beasts are defeated and the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of the Lord and his Christ (Rev 11:15). This is something concrete just as the kingdom of the world now is a visible reality.

Kingdom is best translated as government in modern term. The kingdom or government of God has a universal dimension in that God is king over the world. The kingdom may be centred in Israel/Jerusalem (The Lamb on Mount Zion Rev 14:1) but it extends worldwide.

It is also called the kingdom of heaven because ultimately when evil/Satan is finally defeated after the millenial kingdom (Rev 20), God's kingdom will be the new heavens and the new earth or the heavenly Jerusalem. Only the righteous has access or will enter in but the rest are cast in the lake of fire with the devil, the beast and the false prophet (Rev 21-22).

Alyosha said...

Joel, thanks for raising this issue.One can sympathize with Mclaren's desire to make theological language fresh for this day and age. It's all too easy to miss the importance of a concept bc the language it's couched in (1)is old and unfamiliar, (2)too familiar, or (3) carries with it contemporary associations.

That being said, I would have to agree that the kingdom language is not just linguistic garb but is essential to the concept. To remove it or alter it unavoidably robs the concept of its explosive meanings.

Furthermore, I tend to think that the fact that there are imperialist kingdoms and empires that are anything but of God does not necessarily hinder description of the Kingdom of God. If anything, these alternative kingdoms can serve as useful foils in explaining the uniqueness of God's rule--much as Yahweh himself did when instructing the Israelites why it was in their best interest that they have no king other than him.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I think McLaren has a valid point. I haven't read The Secret Message of Jesus, but here are a couple of thoughts based on A Generous Orthodoxy.

McLaren points out that Kingdom talk sounds patriarchal to modern ears. It is also heard as an autocratic form of government. Kings were not known for taking the best interests of their subjects into account.

McLaren points out that we need to take relations within the Trinity into account. What sort of ruler is the Father in relation to the Son? Words like relationship, mutuality and even freedom come to mind — words that we do not associate with the government of kings.

(Note, for example, that Jesus' emptied himself of his own free choice, not under the coersion of the Father.)

First, then, there is a problem with the way the word "kingdom" may be heard by postmodern listeners. Second, perhaps we need to rethink the way we depict God's rule. The God and Father of Jesus is not an autocrat.