Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 3)

Paradigm 2. Jesus is the bringer of the kingdom.

Such dominant 20th century Protestant thinkers as Bultmann, Tillich and the early Barth (perhaps) embraced the ambiguities and tensions inherent in the firm distinction between Jesus and his message, on the one hand, and the faith of the church, on the other. This distinction -- or perhaps better put, aporia -- is often framed as a dilemma: The Christ of faith vs. the Jesus of history, or vice versa. These profound thinkers coped creatively with this tension -- in different ways, to be sure -- by shifting the locus of christology from the inner identity of Jesus' personal being, which preoccupied early christologians especially in the second through fifth centuries CE, to the moment of revelation or the birth of faith as noetic event. (I realize I'm oversimplifying here, but bear with me). After Weiss and Schweitzer dismantled a century of quests for a liberal Jesus, these theologians concluded that any bridges that sought to tie the religious experiences of contemporary believers back into the piety of the Savior (a la Schleiermacher) had been irreparably burned.

The pendulum swings, nonetheless, and numerous Jesusologies and christologies of recent decades have attempted, with full knowledge of the critical problems involved, to bring the historical Jesus and the Kingdom he promises back together again. One approach is to try to do an end around the conundrums of classical two-nature christology and elaborate the bond between the Savior and the kingdom in terms of vocation. A good example in this regard is Moltmann's "messianic" christology (that one has to retrieve the "messianic" dimensions of christology, when "messiah" and "christ" are supposed to mean exatly the same thing, perhaps shows how far Christian theology has drifted from its ancient Jewish roots). Something stronger than Jesus as mere proclaimer or exemplar is in view.

The path to this project of reconstruction was paved by post-Bultmannian New Testament scholars, who sought to put back together what a half century of research had rent asunder. One strategy was to tease out christological claims from appeals to unique divine authority ostensibly implicit in sayings and incidents from Jesus' life -- for example, the sovereign freedom with which he presumes to forgive sins. Günther Bornkamm, in an immensely popular book from the mid-1950s, argues that Jesus, in an unprecedented and startling way, sets himself as superior even to Moses by arrogating to himself the direct authority to interpret the law; witness the bold repetition of the phrase "but I say unto you" in the Sermon on the Mount (pp. 96-100). The long awaited kingdom of God is now dawning through the authority of Jesus' words and deeds. His role transcends the role of the apocalyptic seer who merely recounts a heavenly vision:
What distinguishes Jesus from these seers is that he himself enters the battlefield; God's victory over Satan takes place in his words and deeds, and it is in them that the signs of this victory are erected (ibid., p. 68).
Some more recent third-quest Jesus researchers have produced portraits that are more sympathetic -- or at least more neutral than the likes of Crossan -- to the possibility that Jesus saw his own destiny as somehow central to the kingdom drama. In this vein, E.P. Sanders is circumspect:
Jesus may have thought that the kingdom was "somehow" present in his own words and deeds; I cannot prove that he did not think this. I only note that no passage clearly says so. Jesus doubtless thought that the power of God was present, both in his own life and elsewhere; but in view of the lack of good evidence, it is unlikely that he meant that the kingdom was fully present wherever he happened to be (pp. 177-178).
Sanders interprets Jesus as a charismatic prophet who speaks and acts on direct divine authority; his role is to prepare Israel for the coming reign of God, whatever form it might take -- present or future, earthly or heavenly, or some combination of these. The authority Jesus implicitly claimed for himself suggests he may have seen himself as God's "viceroy". According to Sanders, then, Jesus clearly attributed to himself an eschatological role, not merely a hortatory or exemplary one, both for his disciples and for world history:
We also know that he considered his mission as being of absolutely paramount importance, and he thought that how people responded to his message was more important than other important duties. He thought that God was about to bring in his kingdom, and that he, his Jesus, was God's last emissary (p. 248).
Of course, there could be examples of my second paradigm wherein Jesus brings in the kingdom somewhat unwittingly, unaware of his true significance. Still, for most who wish to assert that Jesus is the one who brings in the kingdom, and who furthermore care that his salvific role is somehow rooted in his historical life and ministry, statements such as the foregoing will probably be a historical baseline.

Works Cited:

Bornkamm, Günther, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLusky (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).

Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1993).



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