Understanding the Kingdom of God 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, New York & Nashville, 1974. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: The Spectrum of Opinion
The purpose of this chapter is to provide for the general reader a survey of the shifting nuances of opinion on the kingdom of God which have been held and seriously advanced by competent biblical scholars and theologians during the twentieth century. By no means can all of them be included. There are too many for that, and to multiply names would neither interest nor enlighten the reader. Nor can the arguments and citations of each writer be presented in minute detail. To do so would require a book devoted to nothing else, indeed, an entire shelf of books. What can be done is to state a dominant point of view with its main line of defense, and indicate something of the points at which it seems to be valid or vulnerable.
1. Apocalyptic eschatology
Around the turn of the century a position was developed by Johannes Weiss and Albrecht (better known as Albert) Schweitzer in Germany. It was mainly originated by Weiss but popularized by Schweitzer, and to it the latter gave the name of consequente Eschatologie. This is sometimes translated as "consistent eschatology" and again as "thoroughgoing eschatology." It is doubtful, as we shall note later, that it was either consistent or thoroughgoing, but the name has stuck.
Johannes Weiss (1863-1914) was the son of a noted New Testament scholar, Bernhard Weiss, and the son-in-law of a more noted theologian, Albrecht Ritschl. This relationship is of some importance, for Weiss developed a point of view that is steeped in New Testament textual and historical criticism but is more far out than that of his father and much at variance with the nineteenth-century liberalism of Ritschl. While Weiss attacked vigorously Ritschl’s ethical and teleological understanding of the kingdom of God, he nevertheless was willing to grant that for Christian living in the modern world, this was the better point of view. He merits more attention than has usually been afforded him.
Weiss inaugurated this eschatological emphasis by publishing in 1892 a short work of sixty-seven pages entitled Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes, recently republished in English after many years of oversight as Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God.l The book created such a storm of criticism as to lead him to bring out a considerably enlarged edition in l900, which was virtually a new book with the same title. The main point of the position he advanced was that Jesus was not a modern man but a thoroughgoing apocalyptist, and therefore it is important not to read into his teachings ideas foreign to his world or to his thought. His attack on Ritschl, which was at the same time an attack on the whole trend of liberal theology at that time, was against the assumption that authentic lives of Jesus could be written which would portray him as a moral teacher urging men to build the kingdom of God by their labors.
At three points in particular Weiss attacked the prevalent liberalism. One was for its overlooking the antithesis between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Not only was Satan to be cast down at the final crisis, but the exorcisms of Jesus were a sign of this coming event. A second basic error, he believed, was the assumption that Jesus, by his coming, ushered in a new era in the continuing development of the stream of history. Whereas, Jesus himself foresaw and taught the imminent end of the world and of history by an abrupt incursion of God into the human scene. A third error lay in putting the emphasis on human effort to bring about the kingdom, whereas God alone, by his kingly power, will bring it to pass when in his divine wisdom the season is right.
If these points should sound to the reader like neo-orthodox or Barthian protests against more recent forms of liberalism, there is a reason, for there is a direct line of succession. Some of these connections will become evident later in this chapter. It should be clear, however, that the biblical literalist can find no comfort in these affirmations, for they rest on grounds quite other than those of fundamentalism. They are based on extensive studies of the complex processes by which the New Testament was produced. These led to the belief that complete historical accuracy cannot be attributed to the words of Jesus, yet with the conclusion that the apocalyptic sayings ascribed to him give us, if not his exact words, a true picture of his point of view.
Weiss, with scholarly reserve, dealt only with the teachings of Jesus and did not attempt any reconstruction of his ministry or life story as it appears in the Gospels. His startling affirmation of an apocalyptic kingdom of God in Jesus’ outlook brought him critical attack from many and approval from some. A somewhat younger contemporary, who was destined to live much longer and have a more lasting influence, was much impressed by it. It was he who introduced this promise into the main stream of Christian thought. We must look now at the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), regretfully passing by his great work as an interpreter of Bach and as a medical doctor in the Congo to deal only with his contribution as a theologian.
Schweitzer’s first published work to deal with this theme was The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion, now more commonly known as The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, which appeared in 1901.2 However, his far more influential work appeared in 1906, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 3 which is still read and quoted. Published originally with the title From Reimarus to Wrede, it could hardly have been expected to leave such an impact, for it is mainly a survey of biblical scholarship in regard to Jesus between the writings of Reimarus in 1778 and Wrede in 1901. Only toward the end of the book does Schweitzer give a full and direct statement of his own eschatological position. This proved to be arresting enough to make the book live. It has gone through numerous editions, and in title and partially in content it forms the backdrop of the new quest of the historical Jesus of which much is being heard today.4
While this book transmits rather than originates the apocalyptic position which Weiss had set forth, it popularized this position and created much more stir in the theological world. Seldom after that did a major biblical scholar attempt to write a life of Jesus, which had been commonly done in the previous century. Günther Bornkamm, fifty years after Schweitzer had proved its impossibility, was brave enough to produce such a book in 1956. In it he says of Schweitzer’s work that it was at one and the same time a memorial to the liberal quest of the historical Jesus and its funeral oration.5
While Weiss had dealt only with the teachings of Jesus, Schweitzer extended the presentation to include what he believed could, and could not, be known with reasonable assurance about the life of Jesus. The result is the contention that the entire life, work, and teaching of Jesus was dominated by an eschatological expectation to be understood only in terms of Jewish apocalyptic assumptions and writings. Schweitzer theorizes that Jesus believed the end to be so imminent that he expected it to occur before the disciples’ return from the mission reported in Matthew 10. Then when this did not take place he decided that his own messianic vocation was to die, for his death would bring about the coming of the kingdom and his manifestation as the expected Son of man.
The one human requirement for a place in the kingdom would be repentance. The ethical teachings were given to form the criterion of repentance and were to apply only to the brief period before its coming. Hence, the "interim ethic" for which Schweitzer is famous. The ethical implications of the Sermon on the Mount as well as those of the parables are included in this category.
Thus, the kingdom in Schweitzer’s understanding of Jesus is to come in the very near future but is still not present. The prayer "Thy kingdom come" testifies to its futurity. It is present only as its coming may be discerned by the events which foreshadow it. In fact, in the statement by which Schweitzer comes nearest to hinting that Jesus discerned its presence, he uses the simile of the shadow: "It is present only as a cloud may be said to be present which throws its shadow upon the earth; its nearness, that is to say, is recognized by the paralysis of the Kingdom of Satan. In the fact that Jesus casts out the demons, the Pharisees are bidden to recognize, according to Matt. XII. 25-28, that the Kingdom of God is already come upon them." 6
Since to Schweitzer the message of Jesus is wholly eschatological, the kingdom could not be understood simply as an inward spiritual reality. But that did not preclude the presence of the living Christ in and to the Christian believer. His own estimate of the significance of Jesus for the modern world is not based upon an apocalyptic hope that was unfulfilled either in New Testament times or since, but in the fact that Jesus speaks to and calls men as followers to his service today. This is stated in moving words at the conclusion of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, quoted so often that they have become a classic.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.7
What shall we say of "thoroughgoing eschatology" as a whole? First, it is bold enough to take seriously the apocalyptic passages in the world of and in the recorded words of Jesus and to see that he was, in a measure, situation conditioned. This is not to say that Schweitzer was right in taking these passages as the dominant note in the message of Jesus. Yet it is too easy a way out of the dilemma to dismiss them all as first century interpolations.
A second contribution lies in the fact that Schweitzer never renounced his allegiance to Jesus or his sense of the validity of the call of Jesus to the service of human need. Jesus was certainly wrong in his expectation of an imminent and cataclysmic end of the present world and coming of the kingdom, yet he still remains our Lord who calls us to be his followers.
A third contribution comes out more clearly in Schweitzer’s other major work among the considerable number he wrote, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle.8 There he maintains that Paul’s conception of the kingdom, though he expected an imminent end of the world, was far from other-worldly in its bearing on the Christian life. The kingdom is not a human achievement, nor is it wholly a matter of personal piety. It is God’s kingly rule to become manifest in the human scene through divine irruption from beyond it, and we await with faith and hope its consummation. "To be a Christian means to be possessed and dominated by a hope of the Kingdom of God." 9
These are no small contributions. Yet Schweitzer’s apocalyptic interpretations of Jesus are open to challenge. Perhaps the shortcoming most commonly pointed out is that he did not take seriously enough in his analysis the ethical teachings of Jesus in relation to the message of the kingdom. Thus, the "interim ethic" has met with minor support, and I know of no one who takes it seriously today. It has been charged that he formulated his apocalyptic position at the beginning of his study and then without full objectivity shaped his textual conclusions around it by regarding as authentic the passages which corroborate it.10 Be that as it may, both Weiss and Schweitzer in their eschatology so largely bypassed the prophetic notes for the apocalyptic in the message of Jesus as not to be fully consistent or thoroughgoing. Eschatology is a broader term than apocalypse.
So, though there are constructive values in this school of thought, it was bound to be countered by others. We turn now to a very different approach.
2. Prophetic eschatology
It is difficult to know what to call the point of view to be considered in this section, for there is no single term for it that is generally agreed upon. While it has had many exponents, especially in America, no one like Schweitzer has given it a distinctive and lasting name, and various nuances of thought are embraced within it.
Its basic feature is that the central message of Jesus lies in the love commandment -- love of neighbor as well as love of God -- and this calls his followers to earnest and unremitting effort for the increase of love with justice throughout all humanity. This has received various emphases. In 1917 Walter Rauschenbusch, an early and outstanding exponent of it, brought out A Theology for the Social Gospel. 11 The position it defends is often referred to, usually today with disparagement, as the social gospel kingdom, though it embraces much more than a transformation of the world by political and economic action. A major theologian in recent years who has defended such a moral and ethical kingdom as basic to the message of Jesus is L. Harold DeWolf in A Theology of the Living Church. He stresses its religious nature as well and calls it the immanental as contrasted with the apocalyptic interpretation. 12 George E. Ladd in Jesus and the Kingdom settles for calling its various nuances simply ‘’noneschatological interpretation." 13 Norman Perrin in his The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus dismisses it as being not authentically biblical in a chapter entitled "The American View of Jesus as a Prophet." 14
As I shall attempt to indicate, I believe that this understanding of the kingdom is thoroughly grounded in its roots, though not in all its fruits, in the message of Jesus as we find it in the Bible. "Prophetic’’ is the best term by which to compare this point of view with the apocalyptic. I have used it in the brief introduction given in the previous chapter. This does not mean that Jesus was a prophet only. He is universal man sent by God with a supreme mission and rightly viewed as Son of God, Lord, and Savior. My mind and heart respond to the words in Matthew 11:9: "Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet." To designate the social-ethical kingdom as prophetic is open to misunderstanding since to many a prophet means a foreteller or predicter, which is closer to the apocalyptic view. Yet in the more authentic sense of a prophet as one who speaks for God to declare his word and will, Jesus and his message of the kingdom stand clearly in the prophetic tradition.
Whatever it may be called, what are the dominant notes in this view of the kingdom? First, it rejects completely the idea of Jesus’ coming again on the clouds of heaven and with a dramatic cataclysm putting an end to earthly society. It does not deny that Jesus may have thought that the end was coming soon. In modern forms it grants that through human sin and folly life may indeed end on this planet -- a possibility that has become the more acute through the unleashing of nuclear energy and the advance of ecological destruction. Yet to this prophetic or "immanental’’ point of view the apocalyptic passages in the Bible are a blend of first century thinking with symbolic imagery. They have meaning if interpreted mythologically in the light of the situations within which they emerged, but are not to be taken as literal fact or precise prediction.
But to be nonapocalyptic is not sufficient, for a negative approach does not do justice to the great affirmatives of Jesus. What is affirmed is the rule of God, in love and justice, over his total created world and especially over humanity as his supreme creation. This kingly rule is not a kingdom in the sense of a particular realm that is ruled over; it is the kingship or sovereignty of God over all. In no part of the world and among no people is God’s kingly reign fully accepted. Hence, the sin and evil in human society. Yet at no point does God surrender his sovereignty to the devil or to the blind indifference of meaningless forces. Despite the world’s misery and the ever-present fact of human sin, God’s providential care is over all, and God’s design impels us to service in love.
Man’s responsibility, therefore, is to further the acceptance of God’s rule and the meeting of God’s demands through the increase of love and justice upon the earth. The essential meaning of "Thy kingdom come" is for an increase in the doing of God’s will on earth, and hence for a greater acceptance of God’s sovereignty through the elimination of barriers to God’s will. This requires of God’s servants faithful obedience in love.
But coming when? This point of view takes seriously the injunctions of Jesus not to try to set a time for it. Yet it will be a growth process, present in some measure now but advancing slowly because of the recalcitrance of the human spirit. This position has often been tied in with the evolutionary process, but this note is tangential rather than central to it. The parable of the mustard seed and of the leaven suggest its biblical rootage. The Sermon on the Mount and the parables of the kingdom are its principal charter. The love commandments of Jesus and his concern for the weak and helpless impel us to political and economic action in our time, although it is generally admitted that what Jesus was talking about was not particular strategies, but the relation of persons to God and to one another in every human relationship.
The limits of space permit only a quick review of the thought of some of its major exponents, but this may throw light on the forms it has taken and its stages of development.
This type of interpretation starts with Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, in the early part of the nineteenth century. He viewed Christianity as a form of teleological and ethical monotheism, in contrast with those Eastern religions which view existence as a cycle of rebirths from which the individual seeks escape. The telos, or "goal," toward which Christianity strives is the kingdom of God. It is through Christ the redeemer that this forward movement takes place, and the kingdom is the corporate human consciousness of God, experienced in a fellowship of believers through the living influence of Christ.
Albrecht Ritschl, from whom we noted that Weiss took his divergence, and Adolf Harnack, another great liberal German theologian, agreed with Schleiermacher’s general position but with an important distinction. Instead of the kingdom’s being summed up in Christian redemption, they said that Christianity should be viewed as an ellipse with two foci: one, the redemption of the individual from his guilt into a new freedom in Christ; the other being the kingdom of God. The kingdom, then, is the moral restructuring and teleological advancement of humanity through action inspired by love. In brief, Christ redeems, but the redeemed are to establish the kingdom.
This had the effect of giving greater precision to the meaning of the kingdom and encouraging greater moral vigor. But it had also the result of drawing too sharp a line between personal and social religion -- something that Jesus never did. This has persisted to the present. Taken up in America, this view of the kingdom spurred Christians to an attack on social evils never before taken seriously. It also tended to accent human effort to the point where some exponents of the social gospel forgot to say that while God calls us to activity in love as his servants, it is still God’s kingdom, and he establishes it.
Walter Rauschenbusch in his exposition and theological defense of the social gospel did not fall into this error. He believed that the impulse toward a better society was the fruit of Jesus’ proclamation of a kingdom of love, divine in its origin, growth, and consummation, sustained by the Holy Spirit, made manifest and operative as the will of God is done in human society. In his thought there was none of the utopian thought or "evolutionary optimism" often attributed to liberal theology and the social gospel movement by its critics. Though there was the note of hope through faith in God and fidelity to the call of Christ, his chapter on "The Kingdom of Evil" is starkly realistic in its portrayal of both the internal and the social barriers to the good life. In fact, in my own long association with this movement, I have never encountered anybody who doubted the power of evil in the world or who believed in automatic progress.
The chief defect in the thought of Rauschenbusch was that he did not take seriously enough the extensive apocalyptic passages in the Bible. This was true in general of the social gospel movement of the first half of the century, with the idea of a second coming or last judgment relegated to the Pentecostal sects. The social gospel itself was an enormously creative emphasis, and, while it declined in influence as neo-orthodoxy arose to challenge its liberal theological foundations, it survives to the present, mainly under other names.
After Rauschenbusch others wrote and many ministers preached the social imperatives of the kingdom. So commonly was this done that European theologians fell into the habit of referring to us as "American activists." The requirements of space prevent more than a brief look at two other authors in this succession.
Frederick C. Grant in 1940 wrote The Gospel of the Kingdom in which he disclaims completely the apocalyptic view, going so far as to say that it was too fantastic for a sane man like Jesus to have held. 15 His exposition of the prophetic element in the message of Jesus is unexcelled. He defends the social gospel but grounds it in the total religious outlook of Jesus, not in ethical imperatives only. The teaching of Jesus is not to be taken as a pattern for modern social reform, yet it is social through and through because it is religious in the deepest and fullest sense. It is a mistake "to represent Jesus as either a social reformer, an ethical philosopher, the founder of an institution, or an apocalyptic enthusiast." 16
L. Harold DeWolf in his discussion of the meaning of the kingdom in A Theology of the Living Church, a textbook in systematic theology produced in 1953, deals little with the social gospel but holds that the apocalyptic and "immanental" strains in the Gospels are radically inconsistent.17 After giving a carefully balanced statement of the biblical evidence for both views, he concludes that the apocalyptic is the result of bias in the oral reporting of the teaching of Jesus, which led to the substituting of a spectacular for a spiritual understanding of the kingdom. This was probably intensified by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ predictions of national disaster.
Such solutions would present a welcome resolution of the dilemma were it not for the fact that they propose a continuing world order, which Jesus apparently did not expect. The apocalyptic passages are too deeply imbedded in the Gospels for most biblical scholars to feel that they can be thus disposed of. So, we must turn now to another influential presentation.
3. Realized eschatology
The interpretation of the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom, which bears the name of realized eschatology, is always associated with the name of the distinguished British New Testament scholar, C. H. Dodd. This is not to say that in all its elements it is new, or that after nineteen centuries he discovered something in the New Testament that others had not found there. Yet, in The Parables of the Kingdom originally published in 1935 and in several later works he has proposed a view which is original enough to elicit a new name, and to command the respect of even those scholars who do not accept it.18
The principal note in realized eschatology is the contention that Jesus thought of the kingdom as having already come, an attainment brought into being through his coming as the Messiah and thus through his own ministry. The kingdom then is a present fact, not something to anticipate in the near or distant future. Eschatology in this sense does not have to do with the last things in a temporal sense but with ultimacy -- with finality, not at the end of time and history, but with what is most real and most vital at all times in human existence.
The kingdom, therefore, is not to be viewed either as an apocalyptic breakthrough from another world to put an end to this one or as the goal of a long-continued social process within earthly history. The kingdom is here now because Christ has come to proclaim the gospel of judgment and salvation -- though this is not to say that all have entered it. It was here in the person of Jesus and his ministry; it is here as the living Christ still speaks and transforms lives. The kingdom is the eternally present realm of God. It is eternity breaking into time in the presence of Jesus in his ministry, and after his death and resurrection in the presence of the Spirit within the church. The latter is the true parousia. The source of the kingdom is transcendent; it is the kingdom of God. Yet its presence is felt within this world, here and now, through the living Christ.
Dodd does not question Jesus’ use of apocalyptic language. But he explains it by saying that Jesus used apocalyptic imagery "as a series of symbols standing for realities which the human mind cannot directly apprehend, and as such capable of various interpretation and re-interpretation as the lessons of history or a deepening understanding of the ways of God demand." 19 Such concepts, familiar to his hearers, as the awful fate of the unrighteous, the bliss of the redeemed, and the expected dramatic coming of the Son of man, were employed by Jesus to drive home to his hearers the ultimate and absolute nature of the kingdom and its entrance into history through the message which God had given him to proclaim.
While the apocalyptic passages, Dodd believes, can thus be accounted for, they do not provide the central ground for belief in realized eschatology. This is to be found in words of Jesus that are far less controversial. There are such basic passages as the initial summons of Jesus. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Whether Luke 17:21 is rendered as in the King James Version (cited hereafter KJV), "The kingdom of God is within you," or more accurately as ‘’in the midst of you,’’ the time-setting is clearly in the present. An important passage is, "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’’ (Matt. 12:28). A cognate form in Luke 11:20 has a striking variation, "But if it is by the finger of God." In the charge of Jesus to the seventy as he sends them out on their mission, he bids them heal the sick and say to them, "The kingdom of God has come near to you’’ (Luke 10:9). A sharp break between the past and the present new order of the kingdom is suggested in Luke 16:16, "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.’’ The final adverb is puzzling, but it probably suggests that there is no easy entrance into the kingdom in spite of its availability.
Professor Dodd points out that passages such as these have no parallel in Jewish teaching or the prayers then in use. This fact points to their being not only distinctive but the authentic words of Jesus.20 However, it is in the parables that he finds the fullest evidence that Jesus believed he had been sent by God to inaugurate the kingdom. They present a crisis of decision and judgment that is not future but present. They set forth the new ethical requirements for entrance into and life in the kingdom. They embody the heart of the message of Jesus about the kingdom. "Hence there is a place for ethical teaching, not as ‘interim ethics,’ but as a moral ideal for men who have ‘accepted the Kingdom of God,’ and live their lives in the presence of his judgment and His grace, now decisively revealed.’’ 21
Realized eschatology has been taken seriously. It has had the effect of bringing contemporary theology in general to the recognition that the kingdom of God must be in some sense present, however much it may be regarded as future also. It has much to commend it, for it reinterprets the apocalyptic passages without rejecting them, and it accents the present saving work of Christ. It makes a place for the moral imperatives of life in the kingdom. Still the problems persist. There are other passages, not simply those with striking apocalyptic imagery, but those in a more sober vein such as Mark 9:1 and Mark 13:30 which point clearly towards the future. And for the kingdom to be near or at hand, does that mean present or future? There is still room for difference of opinion.
4. The kingdom as existential decision22
We come now to one of the outstanding biblical scholars and theologians of the century, Rudolf Bultmann. Perhaps no one except Karl Barth has had a greater influence on Christian thought in our time, not only in person but through the students who have been his disciples but have modified his thought.
As foundation for understanding him we must reckon with the fact that for the past fifty years there has been an increasing amount of form criticism. This is the attempt to get behind the biblical records to their sources in oral tradition and written fragments, and thus to determine how individual passages, called pericopes, are related to each other. From this study in the New Testament, estimates are made as to what was probably the original form, and, therefore, how much in the Gospels can be taken as the authentic words and deeds of Jesus. We have encountered this before, but it becomes especially important to Bultmann’s thought about Jesus and the kingdom.
As has been indicated, the biblical scholars as a result of their studies still differ not only as to the interpretation but the accuracy of the records of the sayings of Jesus. Bultmann goes further than most at this point and questions also the authenticity of the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, with the result that we know little about him. He says, furthermore, that it is not essential that we know what he did or what kind of man he was. He does not deny that Jesus lived and proclaimed a message which led to the founding of Christianity. Yet what is important is the effect of the message on the early church and, through this impact, the effect on the life experiences of people to the present. Thus, our understanding of Jesus must be existential.
But what of the apocalyptic passages? Here Bultmann follows in general the thought of Weiss and Schweitzer in their futuristic eschatology. But with a difference. They held these to be mainly the authentic words of Jesus, who predicted an imminent cataclysm and an end of the world which did not occur. Bultmann’s view is that these, along with many other passages in the Bible which are the product of a prescientific age with thought patterns very different from ours, must be "demythologized.’’ That is, we must stop trying to take them as they stand, but instead must try to see what the writers were getting at that is of permanent meaning. This does not, of course, mean that we should try to make an allegory of the passage or drag out of it a moral that was never intended. What needs to be done for any disputed passage of importance is to try to find its perennial meaning -- that is to say, its existential meaning as it bears on the conditions of human existence and our lives today.
Bultmann finds the most important thing about the apocalyptic passages to be their stress on the imminence of the coming of the kingdom, and thus the urgency for human decision. This imminence is not temporal, but it is the nearness of God. We know, or at least can deduce, that Jesus repudiated the popular expectation of a messiah who would restore Israel to its former political greatness under King David, and that he substituted a spiritual call to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). Thus, the kingdom is not already present in this call, but it is near, and this precipitates a crisis of personal decision as to whether one will accept for his life the reign of God.
Not only was this call issued in the first century, but it is a life and death decision with which God confronts every man. Each one of us stands, whether we recognize it or not, at a point of critical decision in our personal lives. God is the great demander who, from a realm beyond history, requires of us the decision to respond to his call within our human experience. This demand requires not only personal decision but moral obedience, not to merit a place in the kingdom by our goodness but to find it as the fruit of the new life. Jesus’ ethics are set forth as the conditions of entrance into the coming kingdom, but in reality there is only one condition -- complete obedience to the will of God.23 Both the radical ethical teachings of Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom find their unity in the crisis of decision before God.
Thus, the kingdom is available to all, but only at great personal cost. It is not the mistaken vision of Jesus about a coming world cataclysm and his return through the clouds of heaven. It is not a process of gradual growth in a continuing world order during which human effort brings it to pass. It is not something already present because of having been inaugurated by Jesus in his own person as the Messiah.24 It is the supernatural, superhistorical gift of God to him who responds affirmatively to God in the ultimate -- even eschatological decision of his own existence.
What shall we do with this interpretation? Have we at last found the key to this whole baffling matter? It relieves us of the necessity of trying to explain how Jesus could have been mistaken on so important a matter, and the demythologizing covers the entire gamut of miracle stories and a good many other puzzling passages. This is congenial to the mood of the Christian liberal who is fed up with fundamentalist literalism. On the other hand, it puts the emphasis at the point where the conservatives have always thought it to be central -- on personal decision and surrender. In more erudite language it resembles the old familiar call to conversion, "Are you saved?’’
Can these two moods be combined? Perhaps, but I doubt that Bultmann has done it. His picture of the Jesus of history is unnecessarily hypothetical and too tenuous to give an adequate foundation for the Christ of faith. The rallying cry of the early church in their witnessing and frequent martyrdoms was not to some dimly known figure who might have been somebody else. It was to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, who had lived among men with a message and mode of life never seen or heard before. One who had given himself for their redemption, had been crucified, dead and buried, and had risen again to be with his followers as living Spirit through time and eternity.
So it is today under vastly changed external conditions. "What will you do with Christ?" is the ultimate, eschatological question. It relates deeply to how one orders his life and how he confronts his inevitable death. In short, it is the life-and-death matter that Bultmann says it is. This is why the meaning of the kingdom is far more than an academic question. But Bultmann’s solution does not give us the full answer.
Does any solution give the answer? The ordinary Christian who has prayed all his life for the coming of the kingdom when he said the Lord’s Prayer, and who thought he was being called to labor diligently for its advancement may be more confused than edified if he has read thus far in the book. Why all these complicated theories? And if the scholars cannot settle on what the kingdom is, or on when or how it is coming, or what Jesus really taught about it, why should I bother to try? That would be a natural response to this author’s attempt to show that the problem is not as simple as it appears and the attempt to outline some of the principal types of approach to a solution.
There are points of truth and value in each of the four types of eschatology considered in this chapter. The apocalyptic stresses a sense of urgency and of God’s power; the prophetic calls us to be active participants in the kingdom process; the realized type reminds us of the kingdom’s immediacy; the call to existential decision again emphasizes urgency but without biblical literalism. There is truth in each of these thrusts if they can be amalgamated.
The author of this book is not presumptuous enough to suppose that she has the perfect solution. Yet she has an opinion on these matters which satisfies her mind and heart as adequate for Christian faith and life. Hence, she owes it to her readers to try to state it. This will be attempted in the next chapter.
Chapter Two The Spectrum of Opinion
I. Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. trans. and ed. Richard H. Hiers and D. Larrimore Holland (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).
2. Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1950).
3. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, 3rd ed., new introduction by author (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1968).
4. Cf. James M. Robinson, The New Quest of the Historical Jesus (Naperville, Ill.: Allenson, 1959). Deals with the modern stance of apocalyptic eschatology in contemporary New Testament interpretation and especially with Bultmann’s position.
5. Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p.13. This life of Jesus rests on a considerably revised basis from those produced in the nineteenth century or in the early part of the twentieth.
6. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 238.
7. Ibid., p. 401.
8. Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1955).
9. Ibid., p. 384.
10. Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963), pp. 32-34.
11. Walter Rauschenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1917).
12. L. Harold DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1960).
13. George Eldon Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 11-13.
14. Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus, pp. 148-57.
15. Frederick C. Grant, The Gospel of the Kingdom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1940), pp. 63, 67, 153, 156.
16. Ibid, p. 137.
17. DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church, pp. 306-314.
18. Charles H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938).
19. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 106.
20. Ibid., p. 49.
21. Ibid, p. 109.
22. 1 am using this designation instead of "existential eschatology" because the latter is an ambiguous term which one tends to apply to any point of view which he considers the right one.
23. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. I, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), pp. 24, 11-12. See also Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), pp. 72 ff.
24. Bultmann’s view is that Jesus regarded his own work as the "sign of the time," but did not think of himself as either the Messianic king or the supernatural Son of man. Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1, pp. X, 27-34.
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