Discussion of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Part One
A few days ago here I invited you to read Kingdom Conspiracy (Brazos Press, 2014) along with me and participate in a discussion of it here. Hopefully you have obtained the book by now and are prepared to participate as you wish. I will be offering my thoughts about the book in several response posts over the next couple weeks.
First, let me say that this topic “Kingdom of God” has long interested me. A few years ago I taught an elective theology seminar on the subject at the seminary where I teach. Then I gathered as many book about the Kingdom of God as I could and selected several for the students and I to read and discuss together. One thing we found very clear is variety of interpretation about the meaning of “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of the heavens” among biblical scholars and theologians. Since my own seminary experience in the 1970s I’ve tended to agree mostly with evangelical scholar George Eldon Ladd who wrote extensively on the subject. (McKnight mentions Ladd and his profound influence on evangelical students and scholars.) This subject seems to illustrate what Christian Smith called “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” And, as I tell my students at the beginning of every class, “The Bible is not as clear as we wish it were.” That’s why theology is necessary. But, over the centuries and still today, “top notch,” “world class” biblical scholars and theologians continue to disagree about the meaning of “Kingdom of God.”
Second, Scot’s book is not exactly like many others on this subject. It is intentionally polemical—not in a “bad” sense (insulting, argumentative) but in the sense of opposing certain views and proposing his own to replace them. In the background of the book is Scot’s concern (clearly expressed) that some, perhaps many, contemporary Christians are looking for the Kingdom of God completely outside of any church context, leaving the church behind and interpreting “Kingdom of God” as something that happens outside of and away from church. Scot clearly wants to re-connect the Kingdom of God with the church. But will he identify it with church? If so, with what church?
Third, laying all my cards on the table, I am open to correction about this subject, but I come to it with my own opinion shaped primarily by Ladd. So that makes me one of what Scot calls the “Pleated Pants” crowd—about the Kingdom of God. I’ll come back to that metaphor later. Ladd was a historical premillennialist. He believed that, although the Kingdom of God is God’s dynamic reign “between the times” (creation and consummation), hidden in the world, appearing wherever God’s will is done, its fullness will appear only in the millennium so vividly (even if only partially) described in chapters such as Isaiah 65 and Revelation 20.
So, with those preliminary explanations, let’s plunge into the first two chapters of Kingdom Conspiracy.
Scot begins this book with a clever and intriguing juxtaposition of two interpretations of “Kingdom of God” among contemporary evangelicals. The two are what he calls “Skinny Jeans Kingdom” and “Pleated Pants Kingdom.” The former, described in Chapter 1, tends to view the Kingdom of God as “good deed done by good people (Christian or not) in the public sector for the common good.” (4) Scot’s response to this interpretation of Kingdom of God is simple, straightforward and undeniably correct: “The Bible never calls working for the common good ‘kingdom work’.” (5) Scot reveals that his “skinny jeans” people are mostly Christian “millennials.” Increasingly (not exclusively) they are coming to talk about Kingdom of God in terms of social activism for the common good in the public sector.
Chapter 2 is entitled “Pleated Pants Kingdom.” There Scot describes an older, alternative vision of Kingdom of God to “Skinny Jeans Kingdom.” “Pleated Pants” Christians tend to interpret the Kingdom under the influence of Ladd as: Jesus’ redemptive lordship, inaugurated by Jesus, at work in the world now, God’s “redemptive-rule dynamic,” to be fulfilled in the future when Christ returns. “The location of the kingdom for the Pleated Pants crowd is nowhere and everywhere at the same time! It is wherever redemption is occurring, and of course ‘redemption’ can shift its meaning from the spiritual to the social without so much as notifying us.” (13) According to Scot, this vision of the Kingdom of God makes “kingdom” mean nothing because it means everything. (14)
Scot accuses both of these common (mainly evangelical) interpretations of “Kingdom of God” of being extra-biblical and overly vague (“gauzy”). He acknowledges some truth in both views (18), but argues that both “fall substantially short” of what Kingdom of God meant to Jesus. (18) He calls for greater clarity and precision in talk about “Kingdom of God” among Christians.
Toward the end of Chapter 2 Scot lays down a “rule”: “Never use the world ‘kingdom’ for what we do in the ‘world’.” (18) Apparently the entire book is going to serve as a justification for that rule.
I hesitate to express any opinion about a book based solely on its first two chapters. (I have read more, but here, for now, I’ll restrict myself to responding to the first two chapters only.)
First, I hope Scot doesn’t mean to imply that everyone who talks about “Kingdom of God” falls into one or the other camp or view—either the “Skinny Jeans” or the “Pleated Pants.” I take it these are two prominent interpretations of Kingdom of God that Scot has encountered (as I have) and wants to correct.
Second, I agree with Scot that both views can be unbalanced and partial and, taken to an extreme, are theologically incorrect. He tends to describe them in their more extreme versions. The point he seems to be working toward is their exclusion of the church from “Kingdom of God” description. I’m not sure, however, that all Skinny Jeans and Pleated Pants people would go that far. These are tendencies and both tend to neglect the church in their description of the Kingdom of God.
Third, I feel that Scot is being a bit dismissive with statements such as in the Pleated Pants interpretation (Ladd’s and his followers’) “kingdom” means nothing because it means everything. (14) That doesn’t follow from anything Ladd said or that any of Ladd’s followers I’ve ever met mean. It’s an overstatement that needs correction. Without citing chapter or verse in Ladd (which I’m sure I could because I’ve read all his books on the subject) Ladd (and those of his followers faithful to his interpretation) looked to the future as the touchstone of what “Kingdom of God” looks like in the here and now. That future is the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. Wherever Jesus reigns in life here and now foreshadows that future Kingdom and so can be called the Kingdom of God between the times—“already but not yet.” That hardly justifies saying it means “nothing.” (I’m being a bit defensive, but I can’t help it.)
Fourth, these first two chapters certainly grabbed my attention and intrigued me enough to want to read on. I do agree with Scot that both of the dominant views of the Kingdom of God tend to be vague and need more precision. And I agree that the church of Jesus Christ needs to be brought more clearly into both views. Both can leave the church behind as unnecessary for a holistic vision of the Kingdom of God.
My next post will discuss Chapters 3 and 4: “Tell Me the Kingdom Story” and “Kingdom Mission Is All about Context” respectively. I’ve read them already, but will re-read them and then summarize and comment on them in a few days. I may post on another subject (or two) between now and then, so don’t think I’ve forgotten this series or quit it just because I interrupt it with blogs posts on other subjects.