Kingdom Theology Makes A Comeback
By David Gushee, McAfee School of Theology
The past decade or so has witnessed a surge of Christian theological work that features the kingdom of God as its central theme. This is certainly not the only current trend in theology or ethics. On the right, a revived neo-Calvinism holds sway in many quarters. Meanwhile, many younger scholars (among them many Baptists) are attracted to the narrative theology and character ethics most associated with Duke Divinity School’s Stanley Hauerwas and Notre Dame’s Alasdair MacIntyre.
But it is hard to avoid noticing the spread of kingdom theology. I have seen it again this summer in working through texts by Baptist pastor-theologian Greg Boyd (Myth of a Christian Nation), young neo-monastic Shane Claiborne (Jesus for President), and theologian-ethicist Obery Hendricks, Jr. (The Politics of Jesus).
These voices lean to the “left” side of the social/ethical spectrum, but kingdom theology is not prevalent only there. In reading a new unpublished work by the promising young Christian leader Gabe Lyons (educated at Liberty University, co-author with David Kinnaman of the very important book Unchristian I notice that his own constructive theological proposal also revolves around the kingdom of God. And of course Glen Stassen and I helped further the trend a bit in 2003 when we published Kingdom Ethics.
These books offer accounts of the kingdom of God that vary in some ways, but in most respects hold together as a single narrative. It goes something like this: The Bible proclaims that God is the sovereign king—of creation, of Israel, of the world. But his kinship has been rejected by sinful humanity, bringing dire consequences not just in individual life but in every sector of human experience. The Old Testament promises that God will one day act to reclaim his kingship and renew the world.
Jesus came proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom was central to his entire ministry—affecting not just his preaching, but everything he did. For Jesus, the kingdom is the reclaiming of God’s world in its entirety. The kingdom happens when God’s will is done “on Earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus came to embody God’s reign and to create a community that would make as its mission the continued embodiment of God’s reign until Christ returns.
Kingdom theology has been stimulated and supported by brilliant work in biblical studies to situate Jesus within his actual first-century Jewish context. These scholars help us understand him as a genuinely Jewish figure working with the materials of the Jewish tradition and in a context of fierce Roman oppression and grotesque economic and social injustices.
Reconnecting to Hebraic (rather than Greek or Gnostic) thought categories has begun to pull Christian thought back from its tendency toward disembodiment and various other kings of destructive dualisms.
This means that kingdom theology is social and this-worldly rather than privatized and otherworldly. Jesus came to offer not primarily a path to personal salvation, but a way of living that can contribute to a renewed world. The message of personal salvation is not absent from kingdom theology, but it recedes to become a component of a broader proclamation.
And people “get saved” not just for their own sake, but mainly so they can get to work on their part of God’s kingdom project.
Kingdom theology is eschatological rather than static. Its particular version of eschatology is generally an “inaugurated” kind as in, “Jesus came to inaugurate the reign of God, but it will not be fully consummated until he returns again.” It does not throw eschatological hope entirely off to the future. Inaugurated eschatology makes us pay attention to what is going on right now in this world and leads to a deep hunger for our world’s total reclamation. It is most appealing to those most dissatisfied with our broken world.
Kingdom theology often leads to a reconceived theology of the church, which is treated as both more and less important than we often understand it. It’s more important in that the church is to be a place where God’s reign is made visible right now. It’s less important in that the church does not exist as an end in itself, but as a means to a greater end. It’s no longer about buildings, budgets and baptisms.
Kingdom theology was birthed through a fresh focus on Jesus and tends to encourage an ongoing focus on him. And that focus is not just on Jesus as my personal Savior or best friend, but as the one who embodied and inaugurated God’s kingdom and who is even now gathering around him a community who will give their very lives for the reign of God.
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