Jesus and the Kingdom: Three Paradigms (Part 4)

Paradigm 3. Jesus himself incarnates the kingdom in person.

"The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20b-21, NASB).

"[S]trait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life," (Matt. 7:14, AV).

“I am the way," (John 14:6, NRSV).

If we take the passages above -- and others from the New Testament -- and read them together, in a canonical conversation, something interesting emerges: Despite the diversity among the individual canonical writings, when the texts are read together a certain blurring or interpenetration seems to occur between the goal of salvation (e.g., the kingdom of God or eternal life) and the pathway to that goal. In both the passages from Luke and from Matthew above, the Greek work translated as "way" is ὁδός, which can also be translated as "road", "path" or "track". The locus classicus of this confluence between path and goal within a particular NT writing is in the "I am" sayings in John's Gospel -- hence, "I am the resurrection and the life"(John 11:25, NRSV). At the center of this confluence stands the figure of Jesus the Christ himself.

In the previous posts (post #1, post #2, post #3) in this series, I have looked at two ways of understanding the relationship between Jesus and the Kingdom of God: 1) "Jesus as the proclaimer of the Kingdom" and 2) "Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom." I used Crossan's work as an example of the first paradigm, wherein Jesus points beyond himself to a reality that is either coming or already present in the life of the community. I suggested that this paradigm would tend to adopt the lowest Christology -- that is, the content of the message is clearly distinct from and superior to the messenger. In discussing the second paradigm, Jesus as bringer, I noted an increased focus on Jesus himself and his role in the present/coming kingdom. My go-to figures here also were NT scholars, present and past -- E.P. Sanders and Günther Bornkamm.

The third paradigm takes us into different territory. This is the christologically maximal way to understand the relationship between Jesus and the kingdom, and this approach links closely the presence of the kingdom with the personhood of Jesus himself. Jesus and the kingdom aren't two terms that have to be interrelated; rather, what we understand as the reign of God is redefined in terms of the Savior's identity and mission.

The key exemplar of this paradigm, as I've construed it, is Karl Barth. Now Barth is not terribly interested, as far as I can tell, in historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus, nor is he concerned too much with the Savior's subjective self understanding. Rather, Barth focuses on what the church confesses about and on the basis of God's self revelation in Jesus Christ. In his interpretation, the reign of God no longer has an independent interest apart from Christology.

Several passages from Church Dogmatics, 4/2 deal directly with the notion that Jesus just is the kingdom in the flesh; if we want to see this reality, we must look to him. The mystery of the kingdom is subsumed within the mystery of the incarnation and, more particularly, with the sanctification of human life in and through the personal identity and agency of Christ as "The Royal Man". Barth writes:
In Him, in His being as man, the reconciliation of the world with God has already taken place, the kingdom of God has already come on earth, the new day has already dawned (p. 117).
Note how Jesus' royal dignity subsumes and transcends the roles laid out for him in the first two paradigms; in dealing with the "Servant as Lord", we speak of "the man who has not only declared and inaugurated but in His own person is and will be the kingdom and lordship of the God who reconciles the world with Himself" (p. 161).

At first blush, it would seem that Barth's position excludes those sketched in the first two paradigms. On the other hand, we might see it as a way of encompassing and transforming the concerns in the first two models: Jesus proclaims the Kingdom; He also brings it; He proclaims it and brings by coming in the flesh.

Crossan's low or even anti-christological depiction of Jesus, in particular, which seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the position of Barth, the "Christomonist" (as he was accused of being) who eschewed historical Jesus research as theologically suspect. After all, isn't Jesus for Barth the mediator of the covenant, and as such the ultimate broker of the reign of God? But from another angle, Jesus is not the broker of the covenant so much as he is its very fulfillment, the free gift of grace poured out into a fully human life. And I would raise the question: How can Jesus be the broker of the kingdom if he just is the reign of God in person?

If we were to imagine Crossan and Barth getting together at some pub to talk shop, we might expect them to get into a heated argument -- thus, Barth channeling Luke Timothy Johnson. Or we might imagine a polite and awkward silence. But maybe, if they decided to place the kingdom itself at the center of their conversation -- the brokerless realm of open commensality, radical truth and transforming justice -- they just might have something substantive to talk about after all.


_____

Works Cited:

Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV/2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G. W. Bromiley. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark,
1958).

Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).

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