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Beliefs That Count 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 The Graded Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 10: We Believe in the Kingdom of God

It is the reign of God in every department of human society, the divine scale of values f or every individual, group, and nation. As Christian perfection is the goal of the individual life, so is the kingdom of God in human society. Its creation is a co-operative task involving both God and man. The pattern of a redeemed society is the thought of God. Its achievement is through the spiritual energy imparted by His spirit in human hearts, but its final consummation comes slowly through the joint efforts of God and man, working side by side, in the struggle to create a new and divine order and to make His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

"Thy Kingdom Come. . . ."

Every time the Lord’s Prayer is spoken, this petition is uttered. What does it mean? Immediately it is followed by the words, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." In a sense, these words must explain the meaning of the Kingdom, just as the phrase "the communion of saints" explains the term "the holy catholic church." Yet this by no means tells us all that we need to know about the Kingdom and its coming.

Christians generally agree that the kingdom of God is the central note in the teachings of Jesus. Parable after parable deals with it. Glance, for example, at the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, where the author of the Gospel has compiled a number of parables that were doubtless spoken on various occasions. We find there the parables of the sower, of weeds growing in the wheat until the harvest, of the mustard seed, of the leaven, of the treasure hid in a field, of the pearl of great value, of the dragnet taking in all kinds of fish, of the householder bringing out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Others are found throughout all the Gospels. Some like these are explicitly introduced with such words as "the kingdom of heaven is like. . . ."; others, like the stories of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), are related to the Kingdom not by words but in substance. There can be no question that to Jesus the kingdom of God, which is identical in meaning with the kingdom of heaven, is absolutely basic.

But what does the Kingdom mean? Jesus never specifically defined it, for he was not a systematic theologian dealing with precise distinctions in terms. He felt himself to be the messenger of God to summon men to a life in God and obedience to God, and definitions were farthest from his interest. He told us enough to build on, and a great call to faith and love, to dedication, to service and pure living in the midst of persistent evil, runs through all his teaching. This unity is more important than any differences that emerge as we examine his life and work.

Yet differences there were, and these differences make the nature of the Kingdom the most disputed element in Christian theology. These differences stem mainly from the fact that Jesus apparently accepted, though with some modifications, the apocalyptic ideas current in his time. Beginning toward the end of the Old Testament period -- notably in the Book of Daniel -- and growing in force through the inter-Testamental era, the idea became prevalent that a heavenly being would be sent from God to establish his reign among his righteous followers. Thus with the condemnation of sinners to eternal punishment God’s kingdom would come suddenly and dramatically. This is suggested in the parables of the weeds and of the dragnet referred to above (see Matthew 13 :24-30, 47-50) and still more vividly in the "signs of the end" found in the almost wholly apocalyptic chapters Mark 13 and Matthew 24. There is an apocalyptic setting also for three great parables in Matthew 25 which emphasize watchfulness, fidelity, and brotherhood: the parables of the wise and foolish maidens, of the talents, and of the Last Judgment, in which our place in the Kingdom is to be determined by our service to our fellow men. Other incidental references to a sudden end of this earthly regime are too numerous to be overlooked.

The presence of these passages has caused a wide diversity of views among both scholars and ordinary Christians as to how the Kingdom will come. Will it come gradually or suddenly? On earth or only beyond earth? With Christ’s visible return or only as men accept him in their hearts? Will it come in a gradually transformed society or only by the destruction of the society we now have? Perhaps the most crucial of all the questions is, Will it come by man’s co-operation or only by God’s act? Quotations can be drawn from the Bible to support all of these views.

We cannot in this brief presentation go into all the subtleties of this matter. It is the writer’s view that Jesus did hold to some aspects of the apocalyptic expectations of his time and may have thought of himself as the heavenly being sent by God to usher in a new order. But he also thought of himself as the Suffering Servant of God, a Messiah who would conquer not by political power, as many of his contemporaries hoped, or by dramatic and spectacular intervention, as the apocalyptists expected, but by the long, slow process of winning men to faith in God and to the love of God and one another. These notes became blended in his thought, but the one that was uppermost in his message and which is rightly dominant in ours is that which stresses trusting obedience and suffering love and which is expressed in the way of the cross.

It is on this basis that we must now look further at the nature of God’s kingdom.

The Nature of the Kingdom

It is the reign of God in every department of human society, the divine scale of values for every individual, group, and nation. As Christian perfection is the goal of the individual life, so is the kingdom of God in human society.

Among divergent views of the Kingdom there is a common element in the belief that the Kingdom is the reign of God in a redeemed society. Christianity has never proclaimed a purely individual gospel. Often the major, if not the only, emphasis has been on the individual’s receiving forgiveness of sins through the saving act of God, and this is often referred to as an individual gospel. Yet at least in the acceptance of the corporate fellowship of the Church, and usually, also, in some recognition of the Christian’s obligation to serve his fellow men, Christianity has been a social religion.

The kingdom of God, whether thought of as that which gradually comes on earth through a transformed society or as that which comes only in God’s eternal kingdom beyond death and earthly history, is always a social concept. Though it is personal in the sense that we can enter the Kingdom only by responding to the call and to the gift of God, we cannot enter or dwell in it alone. This is Christianity’s answer to any kind of mysticism that centers in the solitary individual’s confrontation and union with God. We must add, however, that the most creative and most prevalent forms of Christian mysticism are quite compatible with the idea of God’s reigning in a redeemed society.

But what do we mean by a redeemed society? Do we have in mind one in which the outer structure is changed by legislation and the realignments of social institutions? Or are we referring to one in which the inner fabric is different? The answer is both, although the outer changes depend on inner reorientations for their motivation and strength. A society made over by totalitarian edict, as in much of the life under communism today, would not be the kingdom of God. But neither do we have the reign of God for the redemption of society when Christians are unconcerned about the plight of their fellow men, or when such giant evils as war, race discrimination, alcoholism, economic injustice, hunger and homelessness, and the shattering of family life go unchallenged. The Kingdom is "the reign of God in every department of human society."

And what is the reign of God? Does not God rule anyway? In an ultimate sense he does. This is our Father’s world; he is not only "Maker of heaven and earth" but Ruler as well. This we ought never to forget in the midst of the world’s evil. The suffering that comes in conjunction with the great social evils just mentioned is a persistent warning to us that God, the Ruler of all, requires us to make this earthly scene into the kind of world he wills it to be. Yet his rule must be accepted by men before this can happen. The Kingdom is God’s design; man’s disorder prevents its realization.

This conviction lies at the basis of the social gospel, which has sometimes been identified with the kingdom of God. More correctly, it is one expression of the Christian obligation to labor for the coming of God’s kingdom. A redeemed society is one redeemed inwardly and outwardly, purged of personal sin and freed from the crippling and corrupting effects of social sin. It is a society redeemed for this life and for whatever in God’s providence lies beyond our earthly destiny. Hence, it is not justifiable to identify the coming of the Kingdom with human social progress, but neither is it legitimate to overlook God’s demand that in every aspect of human life our world must be fashioned more nearly to his will.

How Does the Kingdom Come?

Its creation is a co-operative task involving both God and man. The pattern of a redeemed society is the thought of God. Its achievement is through the spiritual energy imparted by His spirit in human hearts, but its final consummation comes slowly through the joint efforts of God and man, working side by side, in the struggle to create a new and divine order and to make His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

We used to hear very often the phrase "building the Kingdom." It stood for a true emphasis that needs to be preserved, namely, the Christian’s obligation to labor earnestly to do God’s will on earth. But not only is the phrase itself unbiblical; it also has the unfortunate connotation that it is man, not God, who establishes the Kingdom. A better metaphor is found in the parable of the sower: In Christ we sow God’s seed and God gives the harvest.

In reaction to the activism and even the human presumption that was thought to underlie the idea of building the Kingdom through the social gospel, theologians in some circles have swung to the opposite extreme. There are eminent theologians today who refuse to admit that man has anything to do with the coming of the Kingdom. They regard its coming wholly as the act of God to take place in a final consummation when Christ comes again. This was brought sharply into the foreground by the discussions of the main theme of the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches which met in Evanston, Illinois, in 1954. This theme was "Christ -- the Hope of the World." Most Americans took this to mean that Christ is our hope both here and now and in man’s future destiny on earth as in heaven. Many Europeans interpreted it as the hope of the coming of the Kingdom by God’s act in a realm beyond earthly history.

The statement quoted above mediates between these extreme positions. "Its creation is a co-operative task involving both God and man." To say that "its final consummation comes slowly through the joint efforts of God and man" affirms, first, that there will be a final consummation; second, that we cannot expect it suddenly or catastrophically; and third, that the Kingdom comes only as God and man work together.

This statement is important in what it leaves unsaid as well as in what it affirms. Whether the final consummation will come on earth or only beyond earthly history, we do not know. That we must leave in God’s hands. While sin remains, an earthly utopia is unlikely, and sin is not apt to be banished from the earth. Yet we must labor toward this goal. As we labor, sowing God’s seed, it is unlikely that all of it will grow. There is always transiency and rootlessness, "the cares of the world and the delight in riches" to stifle fruitage. Yet some of our efforts will bear fruits. And though God gives the Kingdom, man must do his part. The "joint efforts of God and man, working side by side" should not be taken to mean equal partnership, for God is always Lord and we are his servants. Yet in the vision of God which Jesus gives us, the Lord of life is also Father and daily Companion.

Thus we come to this: that in the kingdom of God, God rules as Lord but loves as Father and works with us as Companion. Slowly, gradually, like the leaven and the mustard seed, the Kingdom comes as we labor faithfully in God’s service. Some evidences of its coming we see about us in redeemed lives and in a better society; for others we must hopefully wait, labor, and pray. Christ comes wherever men accept him in faith and give him the dedication of their lives. And where Christ comes to take possession of men’s lives, there the kingdom of God is manifest.

In a world cluttered with many interests and desires, anxieties and demands, there is one supreme obligation: to "seek his (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness." When we do this, God’s will is done on earth and his Kingdom comes. When we fail to do this, God’s righteous judgment condemns us. At this, the sterner side of our faith, we must look in the next chapter.

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