Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Write-Up: Jesus and the Kingdom

George Eldon Ladd.  Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism.  New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

Some of my readers may know that I grew up in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God.  One thing that Herbert Armstrong liked to harp on was that Jesus’ Gospel was about the Kingdom of God.  The Gospel, according to Mr. Armstrong, was not a message about Jesus, but rather it was Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God, which Mr. Armstrong understood to be the world government that Jesus Christ would establish on earth after his second coming.

Over time, I came to be aware of Christians who interpreted Jesus’ message about the Kingdom in terms of present or spiritual realities, not just as a future event.  Some understood the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed to be a spiritual kingdom, in which God rules over the hearts of human beings.  Others contended that the Kingdom of God was actually in the world in the person of Jesus Christ during the first century, since Jesus was the king of the Kingdom and was bringing Kingdom blessings to people, such as healing, exorcism, and forgiveness of sins.

I recall a career day session that I attended back when I was in high school.  I went to the session on ministry, which was led by a local evangelical pastor.  Another student who was there was a Jehovah’s Witness.  This student was ordinarily very quiet, so it was surprising to hear him suddenly opening up and voicing his religious beliefs!  In the course of the session, the Jehovah’s Witness asked the evangelical pastor to define the Kingdom of God.  The pastor defined the Kingdom as God’s moral standards and spiritual rule, though he acknowledged that it also included Christ’s future rule over the earth after his second coming.  The Jehovah’s Witness responded that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Kingdom is “real,” and he defined the Kingdom as the paradise that God will one day set up on earth.  In my experience, that is often what Jehovah’s Witnesses focus on when they go door to door.  But, as I talked with Jehovah’s Witnesses and read old JW works, my impression was that they do acknowledge some present or spiritual dimension to the Kingdom.  One JW evangelist told me that he will not fight in a war because he follows the standards of Jehovah’s Kingdom, in which war will not exist and all people will be at peace.  And I was reading a book by Judge Rutherford, an influential figure in the early days of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I vaguely recall him interpreting Luke 17:21 to mean that the Kingdom of God was among the first century Jews in the person and ministry of Jesus.

At college, as I was taking religious studies courses, I came across the view that Jesus in the first century believed that the end was imminent, but he turned out to be wrong.  That view troubled me as a Christian, but I could not easily dismiss it, for there were passages in the Gospels that appeared to support it.  Moreover, as I read the Old Testament prophets, I wondered if they themselves had an imminent eschatology, for they seemed to me to envision God bringing paradise amidst the historical situations of their own day, in which nations such as Assyria, Babylon, or Edom were prominent.  “Is that what the Bible is?”, I wondered, “A book of people’s frustrated expectations?”

In Jesus and the Kingdom, evangelical scholar and pastor George Eldon Ladd interacts with these issues.  No, he does not mention Herbert Armstrong or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but he does talk about biblical scholars and theologians who have sought to define the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached: some treat it as a future kingdom over the earth, whereas others see it as a present reality—-as ethics, or as the church, for example.  Essentially, Ladd argues that the Kingdom of God existed in the ministry of Jesus—-which included healing, exorcism, forgiveness, and conversions—-but that Jesus’ ministry foreshadowed the future Kingdom of God that would one day be over the entire earth.

Ladd also interacts with the works of biblical scholars and theologians who have wrestled with the idea that Jesus inaccurately predicted an imminent end of the world.    Ladd disputes that Jesus was wrong.  Ladd disagrees, for example, with the view that Jesus in Mark 13:30 was predicting that the parousia would occur within “this generation,” meaning the generation of the disciples; rather, Ladd maintains that Jesus was saying that Jerusalem would experience peril within “this generation,” which is what happened.  Ladd notes that Jesus in Mark 13 denied that the Son knew the time of the parousia, which means that Jesus was not setting dates for his return, and Ladd also observes that Jesus in Mark 13 affirms that the end is not yet during some of the cataclysmic events that Jesus narrates.  In discussing the Old Testament prophets, Ladd acknowledges that they mixed history with eschatology, but he does not believe that they were expecting an imminent paradise in their own day.  Rather, Ladd argues, the Old Testament prophets acknowledged in places that paradise would come in an unknown future (the latter days), and they mentioned what would occur in the distant future because they deemed that to be relevant to their audience.  They chose to inform people of God’s larger plans for humanity, not just God’s plans for Israel and the nations within their own historical contexts.  The same God who would soon bring them a “Day of the LORD” (i.e., conquest by a foreign power) would one day bring about a larger “Day of the LORD”—-one that would precede paradise on earth—-and they should repent before such a God!

Although Ladd disputes that Jesus predicted an imminent end of the world, Ladd does believe that Jesus wanted for Christians to be continually anticipating the Kingdom while avoiding spiritual compromise and slumber.  Consequently, Ladd acknowledges some tone of imminence in the preaching of the Kingdom by Jesus and the early church.  Such a tone is also intended to encourage repentance, Ladd claims.

Was I convinced by Ladd’s arguments?  I do not thoroughly dismiss them.  I agree that Jesus in the synoptic Gospels believed that the Kingdom was present in his own ministry.  I also think that redactors and canonizers of the Old Testament prophets interpreted the prophets’ eschatological promises as what would occur in the future, beyond the historical contexts of the Old Testament prophets themselves, and that is why the redactors and canonizers deemed the promises to be still relevant.  I am very hesitant to say that the Old Testament prophets themselves, Jesus, and the early church lacked an imminent eschatology, however.  Moreover, I think that Ladd should have explained more fully why Jesus came to earth in the first century and gave people a preview of what the distantly future Kingdom of God would be like.  What exactly was the point?  Ladd does affirm that the future kingdom in some sense rests on what Jesus accomplished at his first coming (i.e., his crucifixion and resurrection), but he should have fleshed that out more.

Ladd also thoughtfully discusses other issues, such as the distinction between prophecy and apocalyptic (the first is historical, whereas the second expects God to intervene from outside of history, and yet the two can overlap), the meaning of discipleship (the same thing was not expected of all disciples), and the role of grace in fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount.

The book is unsatisfying, yet thought-provoking.

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