Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Church and Kingdom

This evening I'd also like to initiate a dialogue with my friend Joe Brancaleone who writes at Pensieri di Brancaleone. Joe and I have had a few talks on the subject of the relation between the visible church and the invisible Kingdom of Christ. As I see it, how one conceives the relation between these two "spheres" is the issue lying at the center of the current "justification controversy" that is troubling the Reformed world at this time.

The dilemma can be formulated in the following way: Is the visible church the elect people of God or is it a provisional community of believers awaiting the establishment of the kingdom? If the visible church is the elect, how can Calvinism be true, since it is the case that some fall away and demonstrate a reprobate status? To affirm the election of the visible company of believers seems to entail admitting that individuals may loose their election. Also, since election and justification are inseparably linked (Rom. 8:30) , it appears that on this view individuals may fall from a state of justification. Therefore, the affirmation of "church election" and the "objective covenant" must be a betrayal of the Reformation and the assurance of salvation that was hard won by it.

According to the reasoning of those who would defend the Reformation, it is better to make a sharp distinction between the present church and the future Church that will be revealed from heaven as the spotless Bride of Christ, than to compromise the doctrine of justification. My friend Joe falls into this camp as is evident from the following:

...the NT definitely makes a distinction in this present age; one the hand the elect who are justified, receive full forgiveness of sins, and covenanted a kingdom glory. They are ones for whom Christ is the mediator of an eternal covenant and intercedes for all those whom he came to save by praying that their faith may not fail, and all of whom will one day feast with the king in the full glory of his eternal kingdom.

On the other hand there is a visible community where the general invitation is given to enter this kingdom by faith and baptism, a place where the Word of God is proclaimed, the hope of glory, and warnings are given against falling away from the Word which saves. [1/4/05]

It is here plain that the eternal kingdom and the visible community of Christians, while containing some of the same individuals are actually two distinct entities.

A consequence of this is that the visible church is not really the kingdom of God. It is a provisional society that has been gathered by the preaching of the Gospel, and sojourns as a company of pilgrims while awaiting the kingdom yet to come.

This conception of the church is summed by Joe in another place:

God's people are no longer characterized as a sovereign theocratic nation like Israel was. We are scattered and mixed across the world where we often find ourselves in a pluralistic bazaar of religions and ideas in the public square. [3/30/05]

According to this understanding, the church may be a kingdom of priests, but it is a spiritual nation, corresponding only analogously to the old covenant nation. The messianic kingdom of Christ is a spiritual reign in our hearts, which will be established as a social polity at the second coming when the kingdom is delivered up to the Father.

I hope I have characterized Joe's position fairly. If I have done so, then I am quite certain that his covenantalism is identical in principle to dispensationalism. The original dispensationalists taught that the kingdom only exists in mystery form at present, after a spiritual manner. They also split the New Covenant into "letter" and "spirit." (St. Paul was minister of the covenant spiritually, not legally. see 2 Cor. 3). For dispensationalists, the new covenant has not yet been established.

Likewise, I'd like to challenge Joe that his covenantalism pushes the substance of the New Covenant into the future, so that we do not in fact possess it. The covenant community is only in the process of being called, and therefore cannot be said to be God's own possession at present. At best we have the New Covenant in principle, i.e., in name only.

Both views deny that the reality of the kingdom is here, and posit a kind of half-way anticipatory economy in its place. The antidote to this Almost/Not Quite eschatology is to read what blessings are promised in the New Covenant and to read of their fulfillment in the Acts of the Apostles.

Herman Ridderbos has characterized the exorcisms performed by Christ and his disciples as signs that manifested a victory over Satan which had not yet been realized. Jesus' other miracles were of an "incidental" character of "temporary significance" for the real accomplishment that would take place later. The miracles were illustrative of his message and not the subject of it. (See The Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 113, 115.)

I am afraid this construction on the biblical data has unnecessarily postponed the kingdom to a future consummation day. It is at best a partial truth, because the consummation is wherever Jesus is. It is a gift given with the right hand, but taken away by the left.

At present, Jesus is not convalescing in heaven awaiting the time when he will be able to get around to the real business of his messianic rule. In actuality he has entrusted a mission to his church on the basis of his own authority, an authority he has already been endowed with by virtue of completing the course of his earthly obedience (See Matt. 28:18ff.; Heb. 1:3ff.).

The cosmic victory of Christ is only hidden to us who are on earth. But to the heavenly powers it is already manifest. Let us walk by faith and not by sight, following the example of the Old Testament saints "who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises" while not shrinking from the persecution that will inevitably be aroused in opposition(Heb. 11:33ff.).

1 comment:

reformata said...

Hi Andrew,

My name is Josh, and I used to post for the (now offline) ReformedCatholicism.com blog. Glad to see another Christendom-minded Reformed guy operating in the blogosphere. If you have a chance, please stop by my blog,Musings of a Reformed Catholic.

Blessings,
Josh