01 July 2013

One Kingdom on the Edge

It's been a while since I've posted in the internecine doings among conservative Reformed (Calvinistic) folk about the number of kingdoms. (For some examples go here, here, or here.) For those outside this small--but very significant (IMHO)--slice of American Christianity the question may be incomprehensible but that doesn't mean it's unimportant. Not as all-important as the combatants sometimes seem to think but still significant for one's understanding of the nature of the Church and the mission of Christians in contemporary culture.

It's also been a while since I've mentioned James K.A. Smith on my blog. Smith is a one-kingdom guy in contrast with, say, D.G. Hart who is the leading two-kingdoms curmudgeon. The tendency in the blogosphere is to exaggerate the extremes of an opposing point of view, create a straw man to knock down, or simply to engage in caricature. Well-balanced analysis simply isn't as much fun because it tends toward work rather than play.

But Smith's recent post here is an excellent example of an exception that proves the rule. If many conservative, Christian two-kingdoms folks tend to aggrandize the Church and anticipate relegation of society and culture to the eschatological flames then, Smith observes, the danger risked by one-kingdom proponents is the opposite: to reduce the Kingdom of God to a "baptized" progressive social agenda (usually expressed with the Anglicized Hebrew term shalom). If the overwhelming emphasis is on the Kingdom of God that is already present, then what's the big deal about the Kingdom yet to come? The tension between the already and the not-yet is resolved by sublimating the not-yet into moderately (un)successful programs of social action. (For more on this long-running debate within Reformed Christian circles see my review of David VanDrunen's Natural Law and The Two Kingdoms here.)

As Smith writes, "The New Jerusalem is not a product of our bottom-up efforts, as if it were constructed by us. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven (Rev. 21:2, 10). And the light of the holy city is not a 'natural' accomplishment, but is the light radiating from the glory of the risen, conquering Lamb (Revelation 21:22-25)." In other words, a creation-fall-redemption narrative of biblical theology is incomplete. God's work in history should be understood as creation-fall-redemption-consummation. The last stage of God's program is not a product of well-intentioned Christian social action. Instead,
It is the call of the Son from heaven, and the vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, that pushes back on our illusions that we could figure this all out, that we could bring this about. Shalom is not biblical language for progressivist social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come.
None of this in Smith's view detracts from the propriety of social action by Christians that is distinctively Christian. It is only to distinguish between what can be accomplished in this age and what will be accomplished in the age to come.

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