If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal and moral packages that have become convenient substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for ourselves, then you will eventually bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its most important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is fully God and fully Human; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of human beings. A paradox is a statement that consists of ideas which on the surface appear to be logical contradictions but which are nevertheless mutually true, and the Bible is chock full of them, which is why no single Biblical verse is ever sufficient to establish a moral or theological position. The word “canon” refers to standard measurement or collection. The “canon” of Scripture says that the value of any Biblical book, Biblical text, or Biblical idea is not in what it says all by itself alone, but by what it contributes to the larger conversation of faith.
I once heard the “canon” of Scripture compared to the lines on a baseball field. Balls that fall within those lines are “fair” and in play, while balls that fall outside those lines are “foul” and out of play, and it is only by knowing everything that’s in the Bible on any given topic that we will know where those lines are. And the fact is that the Bible’s “furious opposites” creates an enormous playing field. There’s lots of room to roam between its lines.
I was reminded of this last week as I was preparing to preach on “Thy Kingdom Come” as part of a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. The paradoxical ways of the Bible hit me full force once again as I thought about all of the “furious opposites” that are at work in what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God.
It’s “already” and “not yet.”
It’s spiritual and social.
It’s got something to do with the church,
and something to do with the world.
It’s personal and political.
It’s God’s doing and our responsibility.
As I was chasing after the complexity of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom of God this week for my sermon, I came across a letter that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote to one of his students –
Dear N.N., Many thanks for your kind letter. But what an obstinate fellow you are! You write that you were very impressed with what I told you last week in the Theological School. And now you manage to put down on paper all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of a pastor.
Karl Barth, from a letter to a theological student in Basel
Karl Barth: Letters: 1961-1968 (1981), p. 283.
That would certainly have left a mark, but in all fairness, this was an idea that cut pretty close to Dr. Barth’s theological quick. He was a well-known critic of the overly optimistic view of human nature and potential that was so characteristic of the church in his day, and that made him, in turn, thoroughly skeptical of the widespread belief about the inevitable progress of human society. The World Wars in Europe had disabused Karl Barth of any lingering illusions that he might have been harboring from his classically liberal theological training about the perfectibility of this world by human strength and ingenuity alone. He saw precious little evidence of things getting better and better every day and in every way. His reading of the Scriptures – and especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – convinced him that humanity was completely incapable of saving itself. He understood that it was going to take nothing less than God Himself breaking in from the outside to rescue us. And so we do not “build the Kingdom” Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days. Karl Barth’s perspective is certainly not all that there is to the Biblical witness about the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless an important part of it. And as such, we should expect it to have its own “furious opposite,” and it was John Killinger who gave the most eloquent voice to its paradoxical Biblical counter-point in my experience –
There is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear. You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness 115)
In my own life of faith, it was Karl Barth who drew the line on one side of the field where the meaning of the Kingdom of God was in play, while it was John Killinger who drew the line on its other side. To be sure, I’m more comfortable on Karl Barth’s side of the field, this is my more natural position spiritually. And so, just like Barth in that rather mean letter that he wrote to a student of his, my initial reflex is to kick, and to kick hard, when I hear somebody glibly talking about what it is that we must do as Christians to bring about or to build the Kingdom of God as if this was something that we are capable of doing as human beings! And then John Killinger yells a sharp “head up” at me from the other side of the field as he fires a fast ball straight at my head… and heart.
Even if building the Kingdom of God is well above my pay grade, John Killinger reminds me, in no uncertain terms, this doesn’t excuse me from doing whatever it is that I can do to personally and socially inhabit the coming Kingdom’s values that have been previewed for us so clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- When Christ fed the hungry it was to foreshadow that coming day when there will be no more hunger, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to feed hungry people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
- When Christ healed the sick it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more sickness, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to heal sick people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
- When Christ set the captives free it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more bondage, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to liberate people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
It was something that Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale House – 1970) that put in place for me the category that I have operated with ever since about what it is that Christians can reasonably be expected to do about the world’s wounds even though they know that they will not be finally and fully healed short of the in-breaking of the Kingdom at the close of the age when Christ returns.
So there are these multiple divisions (Theological – our division from God; Psychological – our division from ourselves; Sociological – our division from others; Ecological – our division from nature), and one day, when Christ comes back, there is going to be a complete healing of all of them, on the basis of the “blood of the lamb.” But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace substantially, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now… In all of the areas of our division (Theological, Psychological, Sociological, Ecological) we should expect to see substantial healing. I took a long time to settle on that word “substantial,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not perfect, but that is real, evident, and substantial. (67-68)
Karl Barth said that God is not just humanity speaking “with a loud voice.” What he meant by this was that it’s going to take more than just smart people, and more than just strong people, and more than just sincere people, and more than just busy people to save the world. It’s going to take God. But God goes missing pretty quickly in many of the most urgent appeals to build the Kingdom that I hear sounded. It all gets put on us – on our efforts, on our ingenuity, and on our abilities alone as human beings to fix things.
Karl Barth’s critique of the theology of his day was that it left God out of the equation as the active agent of the world’s salvation. In an essay for First Things on Karl Barth (“Confusion of Humanity, Reign of God” – https://www.firstthings.com – 9/22/16) Peter Leithart said that when the world spins out of control our first instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” forgetting that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we know that “confusion is not the final word… confusion will itself be confused and dispelled.” God’s got this. This is what Karl Barth wants us to know.
But this doesn’t mean that we are just to sit on our hands as God moves history towards His own final redemptive purposes. And this is what John Killinger wants us to know. We are not reduced to just being passive spectators because the Kingdom that’s coming is God’s doing. No, the way that we show our confidence in what it is that we believe that God is doing is by working for what Francis Schaeffer called those “substantial healings” in every area of human brokenness and division that we face in our lives and in the world today.
We don’t bring the Kingdom by doing these things, but we do bear witness to its reality, and to our certainty that it is coming, and the “furious opposites” combine. DBS +