At the risk of seeming cruel by telling you the ending to the story before you’ve had a chance to interact with my arguments, I give you the conclusion to my new book, Reimagining the Kingdom: The Generational Development of Liberal Kingdom Grammar from Schleiermacher to McLaren. Yesterday, I posted the introduction and the day before the preface outlining my motivation for the topic of my ThM thesis that went into this book.
Again, in my thesis/book, I argue that the Kingdom grammar of the Emergent Church movement is continuous with four previous generations of Protestant liberalism, including how it defines the Kingdom of God, who is in, how one gets in, and how it solves for our human problem….By examining the most prominent Protestant liberals, I will demonstrate a direct link between them and show how they are contributing to the comeback of evangelical Kingdom grammar, as evidenced in Emergent’s Kingdom grammar.
By Kingdom grammar I mean the basic elements and entire system that makes up our discussion of the Kingdom of God, mainly how we understand the problem for which the Kingdom solves, the One who bore our Kingdom solution, Jesus of Nazareth, and the salvation of the Kingdom itself. In other words, how does historical liberal understandings of anthropology, hamartiology, christology, soteriology, eschatology play into their—and the Emergent church’s—understanding of the Kingdom of God?
So without further adieu, my conclusion. Keep in mind, you don’t have the luxury of the case I built and arguments made that went into this conclusion. So enjoy, but read at your own risk!
This examination has demonstrated that the Emergent Church’s Kingdom grammar is continuous with four previous generations of Protestant liberal theologians. This grammar teaches that sin is social and environmental, rather than an inherited nature and guilt—their view of sin is Pelagian; Jesus of Nazareth, the person who bore the solution to our problem, is not God, but merely divine by nature of living out the universal human ideal; the work of Jesus is His life, rather than His atoning death—His death is important insofar as it was the climax of his life of love; and the Kingdom of God is the means by which humanity is saved—humanity is beckoned to place their faith in this way of Jesus rather than His person and work. In the end, the gospel of the Emergent Church is identical with the good news of liberalism: the Kingdom of God, the universal human ideal and essence of human existence, has come near in the life of Jesus; live your best existence now by turning from the destructive stories and dysfunctional systems of this world and turning toward everyday acts of brotherly love. We conclude this examination by considering an observation and a few implications that contemporary appropriations of liberal Kingdom grammar are already having within evangelicalism.
First, an observation: in tracing the generational development of liberal Kingdom grammar it was interesting to note the ways in which the focus on the Church itself shifted and waned. When Schleiermacher introduced the language of the Kingdom back into the Church’s theological discourse, the Church was squarely in view: He equated the Kingdom with the Church. Ritschl maintained such a connection, yet broadened the Kingdom to include those well beyond its borders. By the time Tillich formulated his own theological enterprise, the Church had become a symbol and mostly unnecessary. Likewise, in McLaren’s theological missive arguing for a new kind of Christianity, the Church is roundly ignored in favor of the Kingdom as the ultimate religious reality. This gradual downplaying and dismissal of the Church makes sense, as the Church is simply one faith community that embodies the universal human ideal and is important only insofar as it was the original religious organization that perpetuated Jesus’ teachings. Now in our postmodern polytheistic context, there is even more pressure to downplay and negate the role of the Church as the particular embodiment of Christ and agent of the Kingdom. Such maneuvers have two implications for the future of mainstream evangelicalism.
First, it was noted at the beginning how the terms mission, evangelism, and gospel seem to have shifted over the past few years in light of the resurgent use of the Kingdom of God. While perhaps the nature of Jesus and His substitutionary work on the cross is not in danger of losing their meaning and significance in such circles, one has to wonder how using the Kingdom in ways liberals have for generations will begin to affect mainstream evangelical commitment to core evangelical convictions, mainly conversionism and activism—particularly evangelistic. Popular Evangelical magazines such as RELEVANT, books on Christian cultural engagement such as AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church1 and For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel,2 and young church leader conferences like Catalyst emphasize doing good by living like Jesus. Not that this emphasis is necessarily a bad thing. It seems, however, that in so emphasizing the Kingdom in ways that liberals have for years—mainly transforming human existence through mundane and supramundane acts of love—mainstream evangelicals are in danger of losing sight of what has always been central to evangelicalism, and authentic, historic Christianity.
Furthermore, evangelicals should think twice about appropriating the grammar of the Kingdom in ways liberals have because of the implications that grammar has for the Christian faith itself. How liberals arrive at their definition of Kingdom depends on how they define sin, the person and work of Jesus, and other aspects of historic orthodoxy. In light of that grammar, then, what is to say mainstream evangelicals will not join progressives in transforming, say, the meaning of the cross itself? Already some have accused proponents of substitutionary atonement of holding a view akin to “divine child abuse.”3 And while some do not go as far as this language they wonder whether we should speak of the cross in language that side-steps traditional substitutionary language altogether in favor of alternative atonement views, such as Christus Victor. What is to stop mainstream evangelicals from eventually downplaying the significance of Jesus’ death in favor of Jesus’ significant life? Perhaps more importantly, if the deeds and teachings of Jesus are all that matter, then what would stop some evangelicals from fudging on the person of Jesus, including His deity? Without sounding apocalyptic, if evangelicals continue to use the language of the Kingdom in ways that liberals have for generations, they risk the potential of joining them in the other beliefs that supplied the context and definition of that grammar. So the first implication in adopting liberal Kingdom grammar is the danger of losing sight of the historic Christian faith.
Secondly, the Kingdom grammar of liberals and the Emergent Church has massive implications for the future of missions and evangelism. As the introduction noted, a new generation is thinking differently about the nature of evangelism at home and missions abroad. For instance, in times past the typical evangelical college would take students on Spring Break trips to key beaches around the country to share the gospel with Spring Break revelers. While such methods of evangelism could be contested, it is worth noting that now it is more common for such colleges to take trips to serve the homeless in Seattle or build wells in Africa than it is to share the gospel with people in need of a Savior. Missions is now about acts of love in the interest of serving our neighbor, rather than acts of gospel proclamation in the interest of seeing our neighbor saved. Furthermore, alongside a shift in emphasis in missions has been a shift in evangelism, the hallmark of mission work of yore. Rather than evangelism being the proclamation of the gospel, people now define evangelism using the maxim often ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi: preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words. Words that urge repentance, belief, and confession are considered unnecessary, being abandoned in favor of actions of acceptance, service, and love.
The gospel is now framed as the Kingdom coming to our here-and-now rather than justification by faith in Christ. While the Kingdom is part and parcel of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is being pronounced at the expense of the justification provided through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Such pronouncement not only has implications for the future of mission and evangelism, but the gospel itself. Therefore, it behooves evangelicals to reconsider their Kingdom grammar in order to guard their gospel grammar. Yes, we must pray for God’s Kingdom-rule to break into our existence in increasing measure. But we do so with the realization that it was God Himself through His Son’s life, death, and resurrection that made it possible in the first place. It is not the Kingdom that saves us, but Jesus Christ alone.