Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Are We There Yet?” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone.
Are We There Yet?
The Kindgom of Christ by Russell D. Moore
The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective
reviewed by David Dockery
We must confess that the Church often misunderstands the implications of her dual citizenship: sometimes living too much in this world and sometimes too much in the next. Who has not known people (and whole movements) for whom “the kingdom of God” meant solely and simply a current political position, and others who seem “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good”?
In this significant book, Russell Moore, the dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of Evangelicalism’s most promising thinkers, seeks to provide a coherent way of addressing key issues facing both church and culture through the theme of “the Kingdom of Christ.” He calls for nothing less than a fully developed Evangelical public theology.
Moore rightfully contends that no overarching framework has existed to enable faithful Evangelical believers to address the culture in a coherent fashion, much less to influence substantive public discourse. How should the Church respond to the issues of abortion and euthanasia in a “culture of death”? How should Christians think about and speak to matters of sexual ethics, homosexuality, and same-sex “marriage”? What place, if any, do the Ten Commandments have in public life? Do Christians have a voice on matters like the war in Iraq, the death penalty, the social security system, and welfare reform?
Moore suggests that Evangelicals have characteristically only addressed such matters issue by issue, as a particular issue became the hot topic of the day. In this carefully researched volume (it includes 82 pages of very helpful notes and a 36-page bibliography), he invites his readers to develop a kingdom-based theology that can serve as a public theology for the twenty-first-century Church.
For centuries, however, Christians have been divided over how to understand Jesus’ teaching concerning the kingdom—a question that extends back to the New Testament itself.
Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, his disciples asked, “Is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus had proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” a new order in which the meek will inherit the earth, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the pure in heart will see God. The disciples had seen Jesus’ signs and wonders, but wanted to know when he would fix this broken world.
The early Church expected the supernatural intervention of God in human history to conquer evil and establish his kingdom. This hope brought great comfort and encouragement to those Christians who suffered at the hands of Imperial Rome. The expectancy for a future “not yet” kingdom, however, took on a more “here-and-now” perspective with the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, and became the dominant perspective throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation period in the West.
The question of whether the kingdom was “already” inaugurated and present on the earth or “not yet” present and still to come has often created a great divide since the Reformation. These two interpretations, over the past century in particular, have threatened to sever Evangelical denominations and churches, as well as separate individuals from one another.
On the one hand, dispensational premillennialists (who expected Christ to return to earth and establish his one-thousand-year reign prior to the new heavens and the new earth), like J. N. Darby and Lewis Sperry Chafer, emphasized the “not yet” perspective of the kingdom. On the other hand, covenant thinkers (who taught that the kingdom had been inaugurated with Christ’s first coming but that good and evil would remain mixed until the Second Coming), like O. T. Allis and Louis Berkhof, emphasized the “already” nature of the kingdom.
Moore insightfully helps his readers understand how this intramural focus largely kept conservative Christians from engaging the culture or speaking beyond their own boundaries.
It was out of this context of a much-divided Evangelicalism in 1947 that Carl F. H. Henry called for “a new Evangelicalism” that would seriously engage the culture rather than fighting and dividing over secondary issues.
Henry, who became the new Evangelical movement’s chief theologian, produced an attention-grabbing and movement-shaping work titled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). This work shook up the world of conservative Christianity in America in much the same way that Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans had shaken European liberals three decades earlier.
Henry insisted that Evangelicalism must not be only future-oriented but also culturally and even politically engaged. Yet he also claimed that service by itself, apart from the gospel of Christ, is ultimately insufficient. Informed by the gifted biblical theologian George Ladd, he proposed an “already/not yet” kingdom orientation.
Building on Henry’s well-developed foundation, Moore is at his best in his articulation of an “already and not yet” kingdom eschatology and of a “holistic and Christological” kingdom soteriology. He focuses on the development of Evangelical thought over the past fifty years, from Henry’s initial work to the new consensus that has quietly developed among Evangelical theologians from Wayne Grudem to the late Stanley Grenz.
The consensus has been advanced by modified dispensationalists like Craig Blaising and Robert Saucy, who have reshaped the “not yet” perspective to include the “already” inaugurated kingdom teaching. Likewise, Reformed theologians like Anthony Hockema and Vern Poythress have balanced the “already” covenant theology with a “not yet” expectation of Christ’s coming kingdom. The consensus has produced what Moore calls “a ‘Reformed dispensationalism’ or an ‘apocalyptic Kuyperianism,’ a viewpoint that holds in tension the kingdom realities of a church truly militant but not yet visibly triumphant.”
Moore shows how theological confusion about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom teaching has affected doctrinal formulations on matters other than eschatology. The chapter on a kingdom understanding of soteriology, for example, bridges the revivalist (“not yet”) tradition growing out of the Whitefield/Wesley/Finney/Moody synthesis and the social gospel (“already”) vision of the kingdom best articulated by Walter Rauschenbush.
Moore helpfully enables his readers to discern the shortcomings in each of these traditions by proposing a well-developed soteriology grounded in a careful exegesis of the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification, adoption, and regeneration, and an unapologetic affirmation of Christ as the only way to receive salvation. He is particularly alert to postmodern influences and their challenges to the gospel.
Although Moore persuasively advocates the “new consensus,” the reality is that the academic consensus has had little influence on the laypeople in the churches, or even on their pastors. The traditional dispensational framework that supports the Tim LaHaye novels and the revivalistic tradition is still the dominant teaching in most sectors of Evangelicalism.
And there is another problem to be faced. “Ironically,” Moore writes, Evangelicalism “has indeed achieved virtual unanimity on the question of the Kingdom of God, thereby overcoming the impasse preventing united action in the public square, even as the movement splinters apart over issues of first-order importance for the survival of evangelicalism as a theological movement.” Among the challenges he astutely critiques are open theism and evangelical feminism.
But if Moore’s chapters on kingdom eschatology and soteriology can be described as being in the indicative mood, the chapters on the Church and the call for a coherent, theologically grounded worldview that can engage the political and cultural issues of our day—for a kingdom ecclesiology—are in the subjunctive or the optative mood: that is, they are hoped for, but not yet developed at either the academic or popular levels.
Moore’s proposal offers few new insights. He focuses on the Church as Christ’s kingdom agent in the world. He emphasizes the Church as community, which is a helpful correction to the tendencies to see theology in individualistic terms in much of Evangelicalism, and particularly in Moore’s and my Baptist tradition, which at times seems to have more in common with Thomas Jefferson’s individualism than with the “communitarianism” emphasized by the apostles and church fathers.
Building on the theme of the believing community as Christ’s agent in the world, Moore calls for the Church to develop a kingdom public theology to engage the culture. While his thought at this point will not seem to be much of an advance for Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican readers, it nevertheless is a significant step forward for Evangelicals, who think largely in terms of personal piety and entrepreneurial para-church associations.
One can understand Moore’s contribution at this point by contrasting it with that of the great Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins, who once held the office at Southern Seminary now assigned to Russell Moore. As hard as it is to believe, Mullins failed to include even a chapter on the Church in his theology, The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Perspective.
In many ways, Evangelicalism since the eighteenth century has been a renewal movement seeking to make Christianity simultaneously “more Christian” to the faithful and more appealing to outsiders. Moore’s emphasis on the Church as community awaiting the consummation of Christ’s kingdom addresses both of these concerns.
As he concludes the book, Moore begins to develop the public theology he called for in his introduction. He does so by calling for the Church to address itself before engaging the culture on social issues.
His public theology recognizes that Christ’s kingdom is sovereign over church and society. Because believers are citizens of heaven living on earth, we belong to both church and society and thus must be faithful citizens of both. While he does not develop the comprehensive public theology that he proposes, he has provided a solid foundation for it. He would serve the Church well to write the much-needed sequel.
Some will see The Kingdom of Christ as nothing more than a consensus-building project between the dispensational and covenant wings of Evangelicalism. That would be a mistake, for it enables us to understand the Church’s responsibilities to culture, society, and politics, without losing sight of its relationship to the world to come.
By implementing Moore’s well-informed and carefully articulated vision of the kingdom, the Church will seek neither to escape culture nor to identify with it, but to engage it through Christian thinking and Christlike service, with the goal of influencing it for God’s glory.
“Are We There Yet?” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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