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The Crucified King
atonement and kingdom in biblical and systematic theology
By Jeremy R. Treat
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Jeremy R. Treat
All rights reserved.
THE KINGDOM AND THE CROSS
PERSPECTIVES ON THE atonement have been offered from all over the world, but the voice of the man closest to the cross of Christ has rarely been heard. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). How could this thief view a beaten, bloodied, and crucified criminal as one who rules over a kingdom? Maybe he was confused by the title "King of the Jews" on Jesus' cross or by the crown of thorns on his head. Or perhaps, as Jesus' response indicates, this man rightly saw the kingdom of God in the crucified Christ.
This book seeks to provide an answer to the following basic question: What is the biblical and theological relationship between the coming of the kingdom of God and the atoning death of Christ on the cross? As we will see, the answer lies ultimately in Jesus, the crucified king, as properly understood within the story and logic of redemption.
The Kingdom or the Cross?
Beneath the surface of this theoretical question lies the problem of the separation of the kingdom and the cross in the church as well as the academy. Some champion the kingdom and others cling to the cross, usually one to the exclusion of the other. Tomes are written on the kingdom with hardly a mention of Christ's cross. Volumes on the cross ignore Jesus' message of the kingdom. Furthermore, while some passively ignore any connection between kingdom and cross, others intentionally pit one against the other. Why has such a rift developed between two of Scripture's most important motifs? There are at least six reasons.
First, and most important, the wedge driven between kingdom and cross is largely the result of reactionary debates between those who emphasize the kingdom and those who focus on the cross. The zenith of these debates was the collision between the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century and the ensuing conservative response. Walter Rauschenbusch, drawing from nineteenth-century German liberalism, advocated the kingdom of God to the exclusion of substitutionary atonement. H. Richard Niebuhr's assessment of this theology is fitting: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Conservatives reacted sharply by reclaiming the centrality of the cross, often relegating the kingdom solely to the future or ignoring it altogether, thereby setting in place the defining feature of the history of this discussion: pendulum-swinging reductionism. The result is a false dichotomy—either the kingdom without the cross or the cross without the kingdom—that truncates the gospel.
Second, the fragmentation of Scripture that has occurred since the Enlightenment has contributed greatly to the severance of kingdom and cross. If the Bible is not a unified whole, then there is no need to integrate the seemingly incompatible ideas that God reigns and the Son of God dies. Furthermore, this fragmentation applies not only to the Bible as a whole, but even to individual books of the Bible. In Isaiah, the Messianic King and the Suffering Servant need not be related, for they belong to different and unrelated traditions. In Mark's gospel, the kingdom ministry of Jesus need not be congruous with the Passion Narrative, for they are simply separate sources that have been brought together. Clearly, such a disintegrated view of Scripture will discourage the integration of its themes.
Third, the kingdom–cross divide is widened by the "ugly ditch" between biblical studies and systematic theology. Broadly speaking, systematic theology has given great attention to the doctrine of the atonement but has largely ignored the kingdom of God. The field of biblical studies, on the other hand, is dominated by the theme of the kingdom of God and yet gives less attention to the doctrine of the atonement. A holistic answer to the kingdom–cross divide, therefore, will bridge this gap between biblical studies and systematic theology, incorporating insights from both disciplines for both doctrines.
Fourth, kingdom and cross have not been integrated because the Gospels (the place in the canon where the kingdom theme is most explicit) have largely been withheld as a source for theology. N. T. Wright has belabored this point, saying that as a result of misreading the Gospels, "Jesus as kingdom-bringer has been screened out of the church's dogmatic proclamation." The Gospel writers, once assumed to be mere historians, are now acknowledged to be theologians, interpreting Christ's ministry by the way in which they tell the story, especially as it fulfills the narrative of Israel from the Old Testament.
Fifth, kingdom and cross have been difficult to relate because of the over-systematization of certain doctrines, such as the states and offices of Christ. If Christ's work is divided neatly into the two categories of humiliation and exaltation, with the cross being only in the state of humiliation, it is difficult to see how it could relate to the kingdom at all. If Christ's death is interpreted only in terms of his priestly office, then it will be difficult to connect the cross to the kingdom. Although the doctrines of the states and offices themselves are not to blame, they have often been used in a way that draws a thick doctrinal line between Christ's royal and Christ's atoning work.
Sixth, to state the obvious, if one has a mistaken view of the kingdom or the cross respectively, then properly relating the two will be impossible. For example, if the cross is understood solely in terms of personal salvation and the kingdom as future eschatology, then never the twain shall meet. Or, if the kingdom is thought to be a utopian place and the cross an eschatological event, then they will be equally difficult to relate.
The need to address this divide and clearly articulate the relationship between atonement and kingdom has grown and is pressing for such a time as this. Over fifty years ago Emil Brunner stated, "We cannot speak rightly about atonement without at the same time thinking of redemption, as the overcoming of resistance and the restoration of the rule of God." Though few have taken up this task, others have joined in expressing concern over the doctrinal gap between Christ's atoning death on the cross and the kingdom of God. Herman Ridderbos laments that "there are many authors who continue to ignore the correlation of these two central data in the gospel." Scot McKnight claims, "Jesus' kingdom vision and atonement are related; separating them is an act of violence."
History of Interpretation
Although there has always been confusion with or resistance to the paradoxical integration of kingdom and cross, such a stark division has not always been the case. In the first century, Barnabas declared that "the kingdom of Jesus is based on the wooden cross" (Epistle of Barnabas 8:5). According to Augustine, "The Lord has established his sovereignty from a tree. Who is it who fights with wood? Christ. From his cross he has conquered kings." Luther chastises those who "cannot harmonize the two ideas—that Christ should be the King of Kings and that He should also suffer and be executed."
These representative quotes, along with the reasons given above for the kingdom–cross divide, reveal that this division is an essentially modern (post-Enlightenment) problem. Much of the church's tradition, therefore, will buttress my argument, though with the understanding that the kingdom–cross interplay was present but hardly explained and that our current situatedness requires not simply a reformulation of previous thought, but a fresh approach in light of contemporary questions and aided by modern advancements.
How, then, have scholars responded to the modern divide between kingdom and cross? Some have given partial answers within broader discussions on the doctrine of the kingdom or the atonement respectively. Ridderbos, in The Coming of the Kingdom, has an excellent six-page section titled, "The Kingdom and the Cross," where he asserts that the kingdom cannot be understood apart from the cross, nor the cross without the kingdom. McKnight weighs in on the recent atonement debates, seeking to shift the emphasis of atonement from personal salvation to God's cosmic purposes for all creation. The kingdom is "the telic vision of what atonement is designed to accomplish."
The doctrine of the atonement is perhaps the most important place this discussion has played out, though not necessarily in the language of kingdom and cross. Among contemporary debates, the two most controversial approaches to the atonement are penal substitution and Christus Victor, each offering a different view of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Christus Victor emphasizes the cross as victory and the restoration of God's reign over the cosmos, whereas penal substitution focuses on the reconciliation of God's people. While many have attempted to use Christus Victor alone as a way to connect kingdom and cross, others have pointed to a more holistic approach that integrates penal substitution and Christus Victor.
The question of the kingdom and the cross has also been answered by a few scholars in works limited to particular books or sections of Scripture. Michael Bird addresses kingdom and cross in Mark's gospel. In a recent and superb work, Mavis Leung demonstrates that there is a kingshipcross interplay throughout the gospel of John. N. T. Wright's recent work focuses on reconnecting kingdom and cross in all four Gospels.
There is one particular area where the relationship of the kingdom and the cross has received a great deal of attention: the quest for the historical Jesus. Historical Jesus scholars have set out with vigor to discover Jesus' self-perception of his vocation, specifically regarding the relationship of his preaching of the kingdom and of his journey to the cross. This is primarily where N. T. Wright's weighty contribution falls. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright directly addresses the relationship of the kingdom and the cross in a sustained manner, arguing that "Jesus ... believed that the kingdom would be brought about by means of his own death." Wright's conclusion is compelling, and his methodological aim unmistakable: this is "the mindset of Jesus."
When considered within the field of historical Jesus studies, however, Wright's contribution is not exactly novel. In response to Bultmann, who saw Jesus' self-perception as inaccessible to historical inquiry and therefore irrelevant to the matter, many have attempted to demonstrate that Christ's own view of his death is not only accessible but an "essential ingredient" to understanding Jesus. Of those who have undertaken this task, several have noted that no theory of Jesus' own perception of his death should be taken seriously if it does not take into account the larger context of his preaching the kingdom of God. Jürgen Becker, in a matter-of-fact way, writes, "Since all of Jesus' activity was dedicated to the kingdom of God, it would make sense that he saw his anticipated death as having some relation to that kingdom."
Perhaps the most thorough and sustained explanation of this relationship comes from German New Testament scholar Heinz Schürmann. Schürmann begins his Gottes Reich, Jesu Geschick: Jesu ureigener Tod im Licht seiner Basileia-Verkündigung (God's Kingdom, Jesus' Fate: The Death of Jesus in Light of His Own Kingdom-Proclamation) by revealing the fundamental problem to which he devoted much of his career, namely, that there appear already in the New Testament two essentially different doctrines of salvation. While the post-Easter "staurological soteriology" focuses on the atoning substitutionary death of Jesus, the pre-Easter "eschatological soteriology" emphasizes the kingdom of God. Schürmann insists these two conceptions of salvation, although seemingly distinct, must be understood as unified in Jesus' self-perception, which was passed on to the apostles. For Schürmann, Christ's death can only be understood "in the context of his kingdom-proclamation."
What do I make of this quest for Jesus' self-perception regarding the kingdom and the cross? At the most basic level, it is simply attempting to answer a different question: How do the kingdom and the cross relate in the mind of Jesus? I am seeking to understand the kingdom and the cross in the Bible and Christian theology. Although the two questions are not unrelated, they remain different questions with different sources and presuppositions. Richard Hays's critique of N. T. Wright's method captures my concern: "Instead of attending to the distinctive portrayals of Jesus in the individual New Testament texts, [Wright] aims instead at something else: a reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus behind the texts, including the construction of an account about Jesus' intentions and his self-understanding." Though Scripture certainly reveals that Jesus did think and pray about his own vocation, the aim of Christian faith (and theology) is not to ascertain the self-perception of Jesus by means of historical reconstruction but to understand Jesus through the witness of Scripture.
In sum, although several have begun to ask the question of the kingdom and the cross, and some have proposed brief answers, there is little on constructively integrating kingdom and cross, and none that does so in tandem with biblical and systematic theology. What is needed is not only the assertion that atonement and kingdom belong together, but a biblically rooted and theologically formed articulation of how they relate.
Biblical and Systematic Theology
The fact that atonement and kingdom have often been divided by a particular disciplinary wall requires this project to integrate biblical and systematic theology. Defining the relationship between the two disciplines, however, is a difficult task inasmuch as the nature of each is greatly disputed in its own right. Beginning with a brief history of this wounded relationship, I will demonstrate how biblical and systematic theology are distinct yet inseparable, thereby revealing what I mean by each and how they relate.
Biblical and systematic theology (understood in the broadest senses) have been in happy union throughout most of church history. Whether Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, or Wesley, Christians thinking at a high level felt no obligation to pick methodological sides. In 1787, however, J. P. Gabler drove a wedge between the two disciplines in his famous inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, titled, "An Oration on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each." Gabler called for a distinct separation of the two disciplines, arguing for biblical theology as a strictly historical enterprise to be conducted apart from the church's theological biases.
This separation between biblical and systematic theology was cemented in academia by the development of the German university system and largely persists today, often in line with Krister Stendahl's assertion that biblical theology focuses on "what [the Bible] meant" and systematic theology on "what it means." Although the Biblical Theology Movement was declared dead in the 1960s for attempting to uphold orthodox Christian theology and (or by means of) a modernistic epistemology and methodology, biblical theology itself is still alive, though its definition and relation to systematic theology is disputed.
How, then, do I define biblical and systematic theology in comparison to one another? The key is that both draw from the same source of Scripture, yet have different emphases. Geerhardus Vos made a similar argument, though he is known more for his contribution to biblical theology than for defining its relationship to systematic theology. The key for Vos, contra much current thought that depicts biblical theology as closer to the text than systematic theology, is that both are equally bound to Scripture, albeit with different principles of interpretation: "There is no difference in that one would be more closely bound to Scripture than the other. In this they are wholly alike.... The difference arises from the fact that the principle by which the transformation is effected differs in each case. In Biblical Theology this principle is one of historical, in Systematic Theology it is one of logical construction."
Biblical and systematic theology, therefore, both draw from Scripture and seek to understand its unity, albeit in different ways. Biblical theology emphasizes the unity of Scripture through the unfolding history of redemption or, in literary terms, the development of the plot in its story line. Systematic theology seeks to understand the unity of Scripture through the logic of its theology and the way in which individual doctrines fit together as a coherent whole.
Excerpted from The Crucified King by Jeremy R. Treat. Copyright © 2014 Jeremy R. Treat. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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