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Wednesday, February 07, 2007 

Brief Thoughts Concerning the "Kingdom of God"

One of the few nearly unanimous points of agreement among NT scholars is that a central (if not the central) theme of the synoptic Gospels is the "kingdom of God" (or Mt.'s equivalent phrase "kingdom of heaven"). Furthermore, though there are many diverse and often times opposing historical reconstructions of Jesus (e.g., compare Albert Schweitzer's fully apocalyptic Jesus with Dominic Crossan's egalitarian promoting Cynic peasant) most scholars in this field agree that the "kingdom of God" was an integral component of the historical Jesus' mission. But the agreement often ends there with any further elucidation of the "kingdom of God" diverging widely. The discussion tends to get weighed down by scholarly baggage over whether or not the kingdom should be defined in a purely spiritual or physical sense (or both) and if the kingdom should be understood as principally imminent or present or somehow both. The disagreement on this matter is enhanced further by the fact that the phrase itself is rarely found in the Hebrew Bible, Deutero-canonical, Qumranic, and Pseudepigraphal literature. There is then little to no background information with which to inform scholars of the possible connotations that the phrase "kingdom of God" might carry. And so disagreements understandably arise.

But for many evangelical Christians, especially those of a verbal plenary inspiration stripe, the matter is easily settled and it goes something like this: Jesus was sent by God (indeed, was God in the flesh) to fulfill the prophecies of the OT which included the coming of God's kingdom; Jesus fulfilled these prophecies of the kingdom by inaugurating its coming principally via his death and resurrection; the ekklesia or Church which his apostles founded is in some sense the incarnation or manifestation of this inaugurated kingdom of God; and this kingdom will be fully realized or concretized at Jesus' Parousia. Thus the "kingdom of God" has two stages: fulfillment and consummation. Jesus at his first coming ushered in the former stage and will usher in the consummate stage at his second coming.

I at one time subscribed to this viewpoint known as "inaugurated eschatology". But the more and more I've come to study and analyze the Hebrew Bible, especially concerning its restoration of Israel motifs, the more and more that I'm beginning to see this interpretation as apologetic nonsense. The uncomfortable fact that many of the eschatological kingdom characteristics normally associated with its arrival such as the general resurrection of the dead, a Messianic rule, the restoration of Israel, etc. did not occur at Jesus' coming has forced Christians into this semantic word game by neatly dividing up the kingdom into 'fulfillment'and 'consummation' stages.

I will have more to say on this in the next post.

Hey Chris,

Have you decided on graduate school?

I hear what you are saying here. It seems (to us) a strange way, to put it mildly, to 'finish the story' of the OT.
Two short thoughts: (1) From the sources we have at hand, it seems that this two-stage business was Jesus' own view: the kingdom is here, but the agents of its inauguration (Jesus, Spirit, etc.; even J's disciples) haven't finished their task. God's judgment, justice, etc., are not fully here...yet. Clearly, there is a second coming, a judgment of some sort, in J's teaching: I'm convinced that J is strong on judgment/reward beyond national trial like 70 AD (though many of his comments obviously apply there), in some rather amorphous eschatological horizon, cf. Matt 5-7, a horizon unknown to him temporally but not exegetically.

(2) Perhaps the diversity and amorphous concepts floated in circa 1C noted in your first paragraph gives us reason to pause before saying that it wasn't supposed to work out the way it has.

Have you read Brant Pitre's book yet? It comes highly recommended, and I've found the first few chapters to be a thrilling ride.


Thanks for the comments. Unfortunately, my quest for graduate school will be put on hold for another year. I just accepted a job with my local hospital which pays very well. Thus I have decided to stick around one more year to pay off some debt, save money, as well as get back on my ancient languages before I go into graduate school.

As for your two helpful assertions, stay tuned to the next post for comment.

Oh and by the way, I have read Pitre's book and found it to be very persuasive on many points.

Don't leave us verbal plenary inspiration striped folk waiting too long for that next post!

I've been working on the "kingdom" in second temple Judaism and Jesus' ministry over at the blog I share with Brant Pitre. Hereis an overview (with links) to most of the series so far.


1. If you think there is some kind of surreptitious link between verbal inspiration and inaugurated eschatology, go ye and read W.G. Kummel. I've got news for ya mate!

2. The now-not yet mantra is a good one and inaugurated eschatology appropriately describes Jesus' teachings. The only alternative is to say that the apocalyptic layer was added later (Crossan et. al.) or that the realized sayings are truncated apocalyptic material (Ehrman).

3. For an integration of inaugurated eschatology with Jewish restoration eschatology go ye and read Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pp. 465ff.

I just heard about this:

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