The Gospel and Our World by Georgia Harkness
Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, 1959. New York & Nashville. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 6: Christian Faith and Ethical Action
A generation ago Walter Rauschenbusch wrote his Theology for the Social Gospel to undergird the emerging social gospel movement in the churches. Several notable facts have given this book lasting value: (1) the author’s discernment that a theology was needed which would be both more inclusive and more incisive than the familiar and easily mouthed "fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man," (2) the range and depth with which the author actually succeeded in setting forth such a theology in reference to his particular theme, and (3) the centrality of the Kingdom of God, in terms of which the rest of the system was bound together. The book still deserves to be read. Certain emphases need to be added to meet the emergence of a historical situation which, with all the tragic facts of the First World War, Rauschenbusch could not prevision; and if he were writing now, what he says of both the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil might be put in a different setting. Yet in its general theological structure the book has so much truth and so little error that it deservedly stands as a landmark in American theology.
What is greatly needed now is a fresh approach -- either a modified form of Rauschenbusch’s or some other if a truer can be found -- which can be preached, discussed in lay groups, read and understood by laymen, brought to bear by laymen on political and economic action. Some very commendable writing on Christian ethics has been done in recent years. Most of it, however, has been pitched at a level to be read by seminary professors and ministers, and I am forced regretfully to believe that relatively little of it has reached the eye or the mind of the rank-and-file layman who must do the living that is written about. Here is a gulf we have hardly more than begun to span. Yet in a world as secularized as ours is, both without and within the Church, there is not much likelihood that social action will be vitally and intelligently Christian unless it roots in a vital and true theology.
This is not, of course, to imply that even the best of theology would cure all our social ills and make the world over. It will take a great deal of love in action, joined with technical wisdom, to do this. Love in action calls for the dynamic, propulsive power of the Christian evangel, and we shall need to acquire all possible skills from the natural and social sciences if we are not to act blunderingly. Nevertheless, with a poor theology or in the absence of any we shall make worse mistakes, for in what has to be done goals will be distorted and we shall not see clearly enough our own relations to the work of God. The most important factor in any situation is what God requires of us and what God offers in the way of power to see it through.
In what follows no attempt will be made to cover the whole gamut of theology as it bears on Christian ethical decision. The things most commonly affirmed by those of social conscience are in general true and need not here be labored. That God is our Father and all men are brothers; that love is the great commandment; that men are sinners but also of supreme worth and dignity in God’s sight; that we are knit together, body and soul, in such fashion that both the bodies and souls of men must be served and saved; that the individual cannot fulfill his God-given destiny apart from society -- these basic foundations of a Christian social ethic will be assumed. This is not to say that these notes are already fully accepted. They are far from being accepted in practice and must continue to be preached. But it may be more fruitful here to center attention on other points at which errors or inadequacies in theology inhibit fruitful social action.
Let us therefore look rapidly at three great doctrines of the Christian faith -- creation, judgment, and redemption. With the last I shall link the closely related concept of the Kingdom of God.
Creation. The most elemental meeting place of the Christian with the secular mind is at the point of the doctrine of creation. The world is here and we are in it -- this is an indisputable fact among many uncertainties It is, furthermore, in its natural aspects an extremely intricate and law-abiding world, hardly to be conceived of as the product of accident or chance. Increasing scientific knowledge, far from disproving the existence of God, has seemed to many to give clear evidence that a Supreme Intelligence is the source of our world. The vogue of Lecomte du Noüy’s Human Destiny is at least partly to be accounted for by the fact that it gives scientific corroboration to what many readers already believed, or wanted to believe. In any case the fact that the existence of the universe is not self-explanatory seems obvious enough so that, except where mechanistic or naturalistic philosophies have inculcated a contrary view, assent is usually readily given to the view that a Supreme Power has made the world.
This, however, is still a long way from the Christian doctrine of creation. The Ladies’ Home Journal poll reports that while 95 per cent of the people questioned said they believed in God, only 26 per cent in subsequent answers seemed to indicate that they think of God as being in any way intimately related to their own lives. To the others God is "Creator" or "Supreme Power" or vaguely "spirit." To hosts of people creation is essentially a deistic process -- something that took place a long time ago when the world was set in operation, but which has little if anything to do with us now. The Christian doctrine of creation requires interpretation and application at several vital points. The essential goodness of creation, the union in the Creator of holiness and majesty with personal concern, man’s delegated responsibility and stewardship, and the unfinished character of creation are all aspects of the doctrine which have great social importance.
Running like a great refrain through the poem of creation in the first chapter of Genesis are the words, "And God saw that it was good." This is an insight we ought never to lose. In the midst of personal tragedy, global disaster, or the threat of man’s total destruction we need to remember that this is God’s world, and a good world. Not even an approximate solution of the problem of evil, and in particular natural evil, is possible without this confidence. In the conviction that "This is my Father’s world," and
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
anything can be endured and an incentive found to do what one can to help right the wrong. Without such a confidence life loses much of its meaning, hope turns to despair, and it is easy to believe that the world is not the work of God the Creator at all, but simply "the trampling march of unconscious power." That this has so widely happened in our day is at least part of the reason for current cynicism and nervelessness in the effort to secure peace and justice in human relations.
The Christian doctrine of creation implies also that the High and Holy One, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, is also the God who is intimately near. Both the majestic holiness and transcendence of God and his immanence need to be stressed to give the right incentives to Christian ethics. Liberalism has sometimes so overemphasized the immanence of God that it has skirted close to pantheism or humanism, and has lost the sense of great divine imperatives from the God who "hath made us, and not we ourselves." This is probably the major source of its relatively slight ethical influence in spite of its continuous moral injunctions. However, the other extreme of putting God so far off that he has little if any connection with men through the natural order is even more destructive to ethical action. We do need "Christian Marshall Plans" both in the political order and in the Church; and if Christians cannot feel that God is present in personal loving concern both in the natural order and in the persons he has created, it is but a step to the conclusion that no God that matters exists anywhere.
To say that God cares about his whole creation is not to say that he cares about the physical or the subhuman biological world in just the same way that he does for persons. In all probability for him as for us the physical order is an instrumental and not an intrinsic good, and life apart from the human spirit is less meaningful and precious. Yet to assume that in everything but man there is a vast indifference is to open the door to the suspicion that it is only a fragment, and not the whole, of the world that is God’s world. In the literature outside the Bible I know of nothing which more vividly and in a spiritual sense more accurately portrays the intimate regard of God for his whole creation than James Weldon Johnson’s sermon on creation in God’s Trombones. Obviously anthropomorphic and in need of translation for rational purposes into other language, it has in it the majestic overtones and delicate resonance of a divine concern for all that is. Man needs to love the world because it is God’s world before he can cease to be enticed by it in self-love, and without something of a shared concern for the earth and all its resources we are not likely to work with God in a shared enterprise to use them for human good.
This brings us to a third aspect of the doctrine of creation, man’s delegated responsibility and stewardship. The biblical account of creation leaves no doubt about the fact that man’s lordship over the earth is a gift of God in trust, not a natural right and not something man has earned. A fuller recognition of this fact would challenge current assumptions from two directions. In the first place, we should have less of self-righteous pride in our technological achievements, and the implicit humanism of a secular society which finds both its chief goals and chief supports in man’s mastery of nature might be somewhat sobered. Our economic life is at present largely organized on a ‘little Jack Horner" basis, and both the pulling of plums from the common pie and the consequent exclamations of individual pride are contrary to the Christian understanding of man’s relation to the Source of his being. And, second, a conception of stewardship which has often been limited to tithing might be broadened to incorporate a sense of responsibility for the more socially productive use of what has been entrusted to men. The waste or misuse of natural resources -- whether in soil erosion, exploitation of oil or gas or steam or electric power for private gain, or the use of atomic energy for human destruction -- has not yet come to be viewed by many Christians as a sin against God. If the question, "Will a man rob God?" were put searchingly enough, a conscience might eventually be aroused as to whether this has not some connection with robbing one’s fellow men through private appropriation of what God in the act of creation has intended for all.
A fourth major deduction from a Christian doctrine of creation is that creation is still going on, and in this process man has a place as God’s servant. This is less obvious than the other points noted, for the biblical story of creation is in the past tense and reads as if the process ended with the creation of man. However, if the biblical doctrine of God as the Lord of history is put in conjunction with creation, it becomes abundantly clear both in the Old Testament and in the New that "My Father worketh even until now," and expects men to work with him. Glancing into a small and by no means complete concordance to locate this reference, I was surprised to find nearly five hundred passages referring to work, these being about equally divided between God’s work and man’s work. The Bible is an extremely activistic book. It is a distortion of the biblical view to suppose that the eternity of creation implies a timelessness in which God, as a disinterested spectator, views the whole from the standpoint of an "eternal now." It is equally a distortion to regard God as simply primus inter pares in the co-working of God and man. Nevertheless, it is deeply imbedded in the biblical view that God’s work is not done yet, that it will not be until the Kingdom is consummated, and that in the fashioning of the world nearer to the purposes of God man as God’s servant has an indispensable part to play.
Indeed, any other view is both so static and so totalitarian that, regardless of professed doctrine, our moral intuitions recoil. The vogue of the unfortunate phrase "building the Kingdom of God" has lain in the emphasis it gives to the fact that man, together with God, has still some creative work to do. Though the phrase had better be abandoned for something less open to the charge of self-righteousness, the meaning it conveys of responsible creativity is a note which can be surrendered only at great loss. The parable of the sower gives a better simile, for while men must sow the seed, amid risks that are shared by God and man, it is God who gives the fruitage. The more such ongoing, divine-human creativity is made to seem relevant to political and social action, the more enthusiasm ("God within us") and hence effective accomplishment can be hoped for. Without it hope and confidence of change bog down, motives turn inward and go stale, and to preserve the status quo appears the most we can expect.
Judgement. At the point of doctrine of divine judgement the modern mind finds both easy collaboration and as almost insurmountable stumbling block. The tragic events of the past generation are so directly traceable to human sin -- particularly in the forms of acquisitiveness, national pride and arrogance, vindictiveness, cruelty, narrowness of outlook, and collective selfishness --that many sermons have been preached to demonstrate the existence of a moral order in the universe. On this foundation much has been said that is right and true regarding the doing of "the things which belong unto peace." This approach ought not to be disparaged; in fact it ought to be made oftener than it is. Yet it may be doubted whether in most of such sermons the full depths of the biblical doctrine of divine judgment are probed.
If the biblical concept of judgment is viewed as a whole, it implies neither an automatically working moral order nor a God of wrath as this term is commonly understood. Judgment implies condemnation -- a God of sternness, even severity, who cannot be complacent before sin. It means dynamic opposition to injustice and evil, terrible in the power of righteous indignation joined with righteous love. But at its center is a loving God "whose mercy endureth forever," and who because he desires righteousness in his erring children works both in the lives of individuals and the currents of history to win men to obedience. Punishment is not God’s chosen way; it is his instrument only when men in stubborn self-will refuse either to cease their sinning or repent. The message of doom which resounds through the words of the prophets is never God’s last word, and both the promise and the coming of the Deliverer lose much of their meaning unless they are seen as the positive side of the word of judgment.
If this is true, it is apparent that some serious mistakes are commonly made in Christian thinking about judgment. The first is an essentially deistic assumption that the moral order works automatically, and therefore whoever breaks the laws of God is broken upon them. This corresponds to the assumption regarding physical nature that natural law has been inaugurated by God but operates without specific divine intervention in particular events. In both instances there is an important half-truth which, taken by itself, becomes untruth. There are apparently great continuing processes, moral as well as physical, through which God acts within his world; but this is not to say that he acts in indifference to the individuals concerned. What is left out of a deistic view of judgment is a sense of divine intimacy and concern -- the living God who is grieved not only at the sin of mankind but at our own sins and who seeks in love to win us to obedience. Because this preaching of an automatic moral order so often sounds impersonal, it may be questioned whether it elicits as much repentance and personal passion for righteousness as did the older preaching of "sinners in the hands of an angry God."
But if liberalism has erred in the direction of making judgment too impersonal, the orthodoxies, old and new, have made it too wrathful. The term "God of wrath" has again come back into popular theological parlance, and with dubious gain. In spite of efforts to reinterpret it and remove some of the more obviously anthropomorphic connotations of spite and petty jealousy, both the natural connotation of the term and much of its context in current usage still sound pretty wrathful.
This is a matter of central importance from the standpoint of both biblical interpretation and Christian ethics. That numerous references to the wrath of God appear in both the Old and New Testaments cannot be disputed. Nevertheless, it may still be questioned whether a God of wrath can be fitted in with Jesus’ understanding of the nature of God. God’s displeasure -- or better, his sorrow -- at man’s sin is bedrock for Christian belief; his anger at sinners is contrary to every basic note in the New Testament. Furthermore, "righteous indignation" is safe only with God. The moment the door is opened to a view of judgment which makes God wrathful in the sense of vindictive toward any of his sinful human children, at that moment we begin to find alibis for our own vindictive passions. Under cover of such a doctrine of divine justice man’s own sense of justice loses the quality of mercy, and the bars are down to approve obliteration bombing or any other atrocity which modern warfare seems to call for.
Two illustrations may be in order at this point. It ought not to be said that every supporter of a "just" war does so on the basis of belief in a God of wrath. Yet there is more than a little connection between what we think of the judgment of God and the way we approve our own acts as instruments of that judgment. The modern mind has not really made a great deal of progress since ancient Israel in the matter of viewing the nation’s enemies as God’s enemies. Our bombs, battleships, bacteriological laboratories, and potentially our "satellite vehicle platforms" take on a more terrible and ominous sanctity when viewed, not simply as supposed instruments of security, but as instruments for the infliction of divine judgment upon those who contemn God’s holy name and flout his law. It would appear that large portions of the Christian world have yet to discover the word of the New Testament: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him. . . . Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."
A closely related example of the practical bearing of the problem is found in the fact that the most serious menace to the peace of the world is now to be found in attitudes of mutual recrimination between communists and those who in general consider themselves Christians. To hate -- or at least to condemn --communism is one thing; to hate communists is another. God must draw the distinction, but we seldom do. Communism is not wholly evil, and in its concern for race equality and the alleviation of poverty for the underprivileged it is what the late Archbishop Temple called it in contrast with Nazi paganism, "a Christian heresy." Yet as far as we can read the mind of God in Christ, the all-righteous and all-loving God must judge many of its tenets and doings evil and at the same time seek in love the redemption of its adherents. If Christians in any considerable numbers were to try to make this their policy, the security as well as the justice of the world could be greatly enhanced.
To move to a different angle of the doctrine of divine judgment, a third major error -- or perhaps, confusion -- about it is based less on a wrong theology than on the lack of a right one. This appears in the inability of most of our laymen to find any credible answer to the problem, "Why do the righteous suffer while sinners prosper?" It is not difficult to find a correlation between a nation’s collapse and the undermining of its foundations by sin and shallowness; history past and present gives numerous illustrations. Indeed, after a war the correlation is apt by the victors to be too closely drawn, overlooking factors other than their superior righteousness which determined the outcome. But such correspondence between goodness and success as can be seen in the rise and fall of nations seems not to have its counterpart in individual experience. Nothing is clearer than that goodness gives no immunity from pain, and on the whole a good many sinners seem to get along pretty well. Of course "honesty is the best policy," and "crime does not pay." But one is neither dishonest nor a criminal, and if one needs to take a few chances with shady practices to get ahead in business or romance or war, why be inhibited?
What this eventuates in is that even where the reality of sin and divine judgment are admitted, it often happens that no very pointed personal application is made by the individual to himself. Sin and judgment, conceived as general categories applicable to somebody else, do not strike home with the potency of "Thou art the man!" It is quite possible to believe that everybody needs to repent -- and certainly that one’s obstreperous neighbor does --without any searching sense of personal contrition. This is particularly true regarding large-scale social sins like race prejudice, and perhaps throws light on why so many good social gospel sermons seem to produce so little fruit.
Nor can the issue be met any longer simply by pointing to deferred penalties for sin. In our society -- at least in the Protestant portion of it -- there has been a major fading out of any individual fear of divine judgment, either here or hereafter. This may mark some progress from the day when the fear of hell was a dominant motive to Christian ethical action. But if nothing is put in its place, what we have is not gain but loss. The lack of any eschatological undergirding for Christian action is certainly a mark of our secularization and is probably also one of its dominant causes. In any case it goes along with the loss of a vital sense of sin, and without a sense of sin moral exhortations fall largely upon deaf ears.
I do not believe that the cure for this situation lies in the reinstatement of a fire-and-brimstone hell, or essentially in an appeal to motives of fear. However, there is no way out except through a better understanding of both judgment and redemption. We turn, therefore, to look at what redemption means in the context of our society.
Redemption and the Kingdom. The Christian doctrine of redemption, like the closely related concept of the kingdom of God, needs to be viewed in several polar relations, in which the omission of either aspect of a fundamental duality introduces distortion. The Kingdom of God is the righteous and triumphant rule of God over a redeemed society -- thus far Christians generally go in agreement. But how that rule is to come about, or when, or where, and what the relation is between a society of the redeemed and the redemption of society as a whole are matters about which widely diverse judgments are held. Is the coming of the Kingdom through the coming into being of such a redeemed society the work of man or the gift of God? Is it in some measure a present attainment, or is it a future hope? Is it to be consummated in this world or the next? Is it to be found only in the fellowship of redeemed Christians, or has it a wider context in the elimination of social evil and the creation of conditions of the good life for all men? What is the relation of Jesus Christ to it? Did he bring the Kingdom with him in his own historical incarnation? Does it come as men receive him today? Will he usher it in when he returns in glory? The mere listing of such questions uncovers a nest of problems, and anyone who has ever attended an ecumenical conference has seen them emerging in full force to thwart agreement and make it difficult to speak with a united voice on what lies at the heart of our faith and message.
It is obviously a mistake to blur distinctions and try to hold all of these views at once as equally true. Nevertheless, the fact that most of them have been held for centuries and defended on scriptural grounds by men who were not only sincere but intelligent Christians, should give us pause before rejecting them in toto. The one most widely prevalent in America -- so widely held as to be regarded by many as the doctrine of the Kingdom -- is the one with the shortest tradition behind it and the least explicit biblical foundation. Nevertheless, this social gospel Kingdom need not be dismissed if it emphasizes fundamental elements implicit, even though not expressly stated, in the teaching of Jesus.
The reason the Church has held all these views in rich profusion is not mainly to be found in the vagaries of the human mind. The deeper reason is that in a vital unity -- not an abstract system but a living insight into man’s relation to God -- Jesus seems to have held them. What we have to do is to get at these profoundly true though apparently contradictory insights of Jesus and put them together in such systematic unity as we can without forcing their meaning.
Let us take a brief look at some of the questions above -- not certainly with any idea of answering them in full, but to see how any attempt at an answer that seeks to be guided by the mind of Christ must take into account these polar aspects.
The first question to be considered is, "Are we justified in linking redemption with the Kingdom? Can there be any redemption apart from the coming of the kingdom? Is the Kingdom what ‘salvation through Christ’ means?" In the writings of Paul and throughout the history of Christian thought before the nineteenth century these concepts were largely kept in separate categories, and surprisingly little was said about the Kingdom. The primary notes in Christian redemption are man’s need of repentance and the availability of mercy, forgiveness, and the new life through God’s grace; and these have not been -- indeed, are not now -- the dominant notes in discussions of the Kingdom. Yet to separate redemption from the Kingdom is an artificial wrenching which distorts the message of Jesus. The conditions of membership in the Kingdom are faith and love, expressed in repentance, confident trust, purity of heart, humility, mercy, forgiveness, loving service to God and neighbor. I am unable to discover that Jesus made any separation between what is now called individual and social salvation, or between entrance into the Kingdom and entrance into new life through the power and grace of God.
Any such separation not only is untrue to the primary message of Jesus, but has disastrous social consequences. Perhaps the major tragedy of Christian history is the fact that personal salvation has so largely been conceived apart from its social context, and as a consequence too little attention has been given either to the social factors which beget sin or to the social fruits of the redeemed life. I have not seen this put more forthrightly than by the late Nicholas Berdyaev in his article in the first issue of The Ecumenical Review:
Can we go on interpreting Christianity as solely the religion of personal salvation in the eternal life -- which means transferring selfishness to the world beyond? Such an interpretation is the main source of reactionary motives in Christianity. A religion of merely personal salvation is an essential contradiction to the good news of the coming of God’s Kingdom. That Kingdom means not only a personal but a social and a cosmic transfiguration. ("The Unity of Christendom in the Strife Between East and West," in the Ecumenical Review, I, 1 (Autumn, 1948), p. 15).
If one looks around today at the movements within Christianity which are most reactionary, it is apparent that what Berdyaev says is true, and emphasis on personal salvation outside the context of the Kingdom runs into a form of selfishness which is the antithesis of anything that Jesus taught. If there is any redemption at all, it must be within a social framework, though this leaves still open the question of the kind of society the Kingdom connotes.
The crux of all the problems in this field -- indeed, the central problem confronting the Church -- is the nature of the society that constitutes, or will constitute, the Kingdom of God. Is the Kingdom composed only of committed followers of Jesus Christ, in such a sense that "the saved" here will be saved hereafter, destined to dwell with God in the bliss and glory of an eternal fellowship? Or does the Kingdom mean such a transformation of earthly society that all men -- whether saints or not, and perhaps whether Christians or not -- will be treated as persons of intrinsic dignity, and will be able without man-made barriers to enjoy "the abundant life" and dwell together in peace, justice, and good will? There is much to commend either view, but it is not easy to get these two views together. To the defenders of either, the adherents to the other are apt to appear reactionary, blasphemous, or in any case deluded.
As in most matters, the extremists in either camp are wrong. As we have just noted, any exclusive emphasis on personal salvation, whether for this life or the next, runs into a form of selfishness which is the antithesis of the teaching and spirit of Jesus. Nor is this remedied when the implicit egotism of such a view becomes the "we-gotism" of assuming that Christians alone perhaps only our brand of Christians -- are children of God having favor in God’s sight. But it is equally a departure from authentic Christianity to interpret "the abundant life" as economic abundance, or cultural achievement, or even the establishment of the conditions of a free and democratic society. Christians have lived in the Kingdom of God in the absence of all these conditions, and if necessary will presumably continue to do so.
To get these two views together certain great admissions and affirmations must be made. The first is that there is a kind of salvation, and hence some measure of the coming of the Kingdom, outside of personally committed Christian experience and outside of Christendom. God has "left not himself without witness" among any people. This point, so sharply debated at the Madras Conference, needs to be affirmed to prevent Christian pharisaism. As Paul Tillich has reminded us, besides the "manifest church" there is a "latent church" in labor movements, in efforts for international understanding and racial equality, even in some measure within communism. If this is true, it means that membership in the Kingdom cannot be equated with membership in the visible Christian Church.
Yet this admission, though necessary, is at the same time exceedingly dangerous. It can safely be made only by those who stand squarely within the Church and the convictions of Christian faith, not by those outside or on the margin. Made by any except convinced Christians, the assertion that God has channels for the establishment of his Kingdom outside the witness committed by Christ to the Church is likely to run into alibis for personal indifference and a kind of easy tolerance in which the drastic demands and saving power of the gospel are lost. This has so largely happened that the emphasis on a transcendent and eschatological Kingdom of the redeemed in Christ needed to reappear. Yet this too needs correction by a closer linkage of a doctrine of full salvation through Christ alone with one that leaves an open end for God and man to work together through many channels for the creation of a universal community of love.
Is the Kingdom to come through man’s achievement or God’s act? The history of Christian thought for centuries has swung between these Pelagian and Augustinian, these Arminian and Calvinist poles. But if we consult the New Testament, nothing is clearer than that God brings in the Kingdom when man meets the conditions of obedience and faith which God imposes. "By grace are ye saved through faith" and "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" are equally authentic Christian notes. Where these notes have been held together, Christianity is virile. Where they have been separated, it becomes on the one hand socially reactionary and on the other religiously shallow. Nothing is much more needed in our time than to get them back into the undivided unity where Jesus and Paul had them.
Is the Kingdom here, or is it coming? I see no reason to doubt that when Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you," (Luke 17:21[R.S.V.]) he meant to stress its present attainability. Anyone who has participated in a great fellowship such as a world conference of Christians can scarcely doubt that, in spite of much human frailty and defense of vested ecclesiastical, theological, cultural, and personal interest, the Kingdom is already in some measure present. Yet it would be arrant utopianism to suppose that in any group it is fully present, or that in any proposal for a new Church or a new society we have a panacea for ushering it in. Neither democracy, nor capitalism, nor communism, nor the United Nations, nor the ecumenical church is a straight highway to the Kingdom; yet presumably in each we have some foregleams of its reality.
Will the Kingdom ever fully be consummated on earth? Here extremes meet, for both utopian liberals trusting in evolutionary social processes and despairing premillennialists trusting in catastrophic divine intervention believe that it will be. The truth lies presumably in neither view but in the more restrained judgment that as long as human life lasts upon earth we shall still need to be praying, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth." Such tentativeness is required by any serious reckoning with the pervasiveness of human sin. It is essential also to the Christian moral enterprise if we are to continue to act soberly but in hope, "perplexed but not unto despair," in obedience to the will of God and in the quest, not for a perfect, but for a better world.
We noted in a previous chapter the need of more positive preaching of the Christian view of death and immortality. The same holds true in the social sense. No adequate view of redemption or the Kingdom is possible without an eschatological note. Both the premillennialist and the exclusively social gospel Kingdoms are unsatisfactory because they are too earth-centered. Any view that is to be both true and dynamic -- dynamic with the power of truth -- must have in it the resonance of faith in God’s triumph beyond the frustrations and proximate successes of the earthly scene. Regarding the form God’s triumph will take "we see in a mirror dimly," but some assurances we have regarding membership in the eternal society: the continuance of personal existence, a fellowship of free spirits, moral endeavor in fuller obedience, growth in the things of God, closer companionship with Christ, the glory of God’s nearer presence, the preservation by him of all that is truly worthful. Regarding these elements in the Christian hope we ought not to be too dogmatic, but neither ought they to be blurred over and passed by as utter mysteries.
In the confidence that for time and eternity our destinies are in God’s hands we can labor with God for the advancement of his Kingdom, "rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer." Without this confidence, held and propagated with greater earnestness and understanding by laymen and clergy alike, the time may not be far away when
Our little systems have their day;
will become realized eschatology, and God’s eternal Kingdom will alone be left.
Viewed 42596 times.