Monday, 16 February 2015

Salvation & Eschatology (4): Evangelicals and the Kingdom of God

The theme of the Kingdom of God has been widely picked up within Evangelical (and Reformed) theology. But this hasn't led to a revision of the Evangelical understanding of salvation, as Moltmann and Pannenberg argued it must.
Why has the Evangelical movement picked up the Kingdom-theme so swiftly? And why does it hesisate to revise its soteriology accordingly?
What might be the mistake in Evangelical thinking here?

[Part 11 in a series on New Wine and systematic theology, drawn from my research master thesis Life to the Full. From Creation to Re-Creation, VU University 2014]

Evangelical Theology and the Kingdom of God

In the previous chapter we already referred to the Lausanne Movement within modern Evangelicalism, calling for “integral mission” and thus expanding the understanding of the mission of the Church with notions of social justice, next to evangelism. Eschatology has been central to the post-Lausanne debates, and its traditional Evangelical motif, the “millennial reign”, has been replaced by the Kingdom of God.[1]
However, we have also pointed out that the Lausanne Covenant, which the 1974 Congress endorsed, reasserted classical Evangelical theology and failed to review its concept of salvation (...).
By and large, Evangelical theologians have adopted to the Kingdom-terminology but have failed to revise their systematic theology accordingly. Pannenberg noted a similar reluctance to revise traditional Reformation soteriology in wider Protestant theology.

“Protestant theology, though supposedly subjecting all tradition to the authority of scripture, takes up this task only grudgingly, if at all.”[3]

Why then, has the Kingdom-motif come so central in Evangelical and Evangelical-Reformed theology? And why, at the same time, are these strands in Protestant theology reluctant to revise their understanding of salvation accordingly?

Why is the Kingdom of God an Attractive Motif for Evangelicals?

Tim Chester mentions a number of reasons for the emergence of the inaugurated Kingdom of God as the key eschatological motif.[4]

Firstly, this emergence reflects the debate within New Testament scholarship. Not only Moltmann and Pannenberg have propagated the centrality of the concept of the inaugurated Kingdom of God, a wide consensus has grown within New Testament scholarship on this as well. Chester refers to George Eldon Ladd and his book Jesus and the Kingdom (1964), later republished as The Presence of the Future (1974), as being the most influential Evangelical contributor to this retrieval.

Secondly, the Kingdom-motif “has proved an attractive theme for evangelicals concerned to emphasise social action”, Chester explains, because it allows them to acknowledge the broad context of “God’s salvific rule over all life”, while at the same time maintaining the traditional focus of Evangelical soteriology, namely an individual’s relationship with God.
It is debatable however, whether these Evangelicals really allow the Kingdom of God to be understood as God’s salvific rule, as Moltmann and Pannenberg are propagating. Social justice and healing are not part of God’s salvation, according to leading Evangelicals as John Stott (presiding over the Lausanne Congress), as we noted previously.

Thirdly, the eschatological concept of the Kingdom offers a theological rationale for (social) change, over against the traditional rooting of social involvement in the doctrine of creation. The latter, seeking to preserve the creational order, tends to be politically conservative, Chester notes. A theological orientation towards the radical nature of the Kingdom and its future is able to shape a more dynamic view on social change - something that many Evangelicals, increasingly involved in social action, were looking for.

And fourthly, the inaugurated Kingdom-motif frees Evangelicals from their traditional other-worldliness, flowing from an overly-future, escapist eschatology. When the Kingdom of God is seen as already present (albeit with its consummation still future), and as having implications for all aspects of life, Chester argues, “then social action is no longer seen as a diversion from the central task of mission.”

Why are Evangelicals reluctant to broaden their concept of salvation to comprise integrity of life?

However, the latter is exactly the reason why many conservative Evangelicals are refusing to view social action as a part of mission. It will inevitably lead to neglect of evangelism, they fear. The real issue in mission, they hold, is still an individual’s personal right standing with God. Everything else - including issues of social justice and peace, healing and deliverance, or ecological care - are distractions from this. Bottom line, of course, is that many conservative Christians would say that salvation of the individual’s soul is the only thing that has eternal value. All earthly matters, though not insignificant or diminutive, will pass away, and are non-essentials in the light of eternity.

Broadening our understanding of the nature of salvation will immediately jeopardize the missionary focus on the problem of sin and the individual’s need for forgiveness of sins, conservatives fear. Make social action part of mission, conservative critics say, and the issue of personal sin and forgiveness of sins will disappear to the backdrop. And don’t we see this in the theology of Moltmann? Or in African theology, with its emphasis on salvation as Christ’s victory over evil powers, restoring full life on the present earth?[5]
And not before long, the need for personal forgiveness might be theologically challenged. Because if salvation comprises social justice, then social justice might be perceived as salvific. If we see God’s acts in the world in terms of peace and justice (and our participation in it though mission) as acts of salvation, then we actually might think that salvation is possible outside the church and apart for a conscious confession of Christ, they fear. And indeed, the theological debate has gone in this direction, especially as the Spirit’s work in the world comes into focus. [6] Not unimportant in these debates, is the Evangelical suspicion towards the (alleged) universalist view of salvation in the theologies of Moltmann and Pannenberg.

What we see happening here, is two things:
- Firstly, traditional Evangelicals first define their perception of the problem (personal sin) and then allow this definition to determine (and limit) the nature of salvation (forgiveness of sin).
- Secondly, there appears to be a mingling of distinct aspects of the scope of salvation: a. the scope of the nature of salvation (does it comprise social justice?), b. the scope of for whom salvation is, or: who is “saved”.
Even Chester himself seems to be mingling these distinct qualities of “being saved” and “God’s graceful acts of bringing justice and peace”. He discerns two positions among Evangelicals:
  • Firstly, the position of the Lausanne Covenant and John Stott that salvation (being saved) “is limited to the conscious confession of Christ”, and therefore political liberation and social justice are not part of salvation (the nature of salvation). The vocabulary of salvation should be reserved, they hold, for an individual’s reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of sins.
  • Secondly, the position of those who argue that God’s salvation (nature) does comprise social justice and integrity of life, also outside the church. And Chester seems to assume then, that this automatically means that this position implies that people can be saved apart from consciously confessing Christ.[7]

This might be the case with specific theologians (Chester refers to Moltmann’s universalism), but of course it certainly isn’t automatically the case for the second position (as we’ve seen with Pannenberg’s linkage of the Kingdom and Paul’s emphasis on cross and justification, which enables the avoidance of universalism and retaining the Evangelical emphasis on conversion and acceptance of the message of Jesus).

This second position finds expression in an alternative Lausanne-statement, entitled Theology and Implications of Radical Discipleship, drawn up by a group of participants of the Lausanne Conference that wanted to go further than the Covenant itself. Chester gives a quotation from this statement, defining the gospel as

“God’s Good News in Jesus Christ: it is Good News of the reign he proclaimed and embodies; of God’s mission of love to restore the world to wholeness through the Cross of Christ and him alone; of his victory over the demonic powers of destruction and death; of his lordship over the entire universe; it is good news of a new creation, a new humanity, a new birth through him by his life-giving Spirit; of the gifts of the messianic reign contained in Jesus and mediated through him by the Spirit; of the charismatic community empowered to embody his reign of shalom here and now before the whole creation and make his Good News seen and known. It is Good News of liberation, of restoration, of wholeness, and of salvation that is personal, social, global and cosmic.”[8]
By defining the gospel in terms of the Kingdom of God, they made social change “not only part of mission, but part of the gospel”, Chester rightly notes. At the same time, this definition makes perfectly clear that for those Evangelicals defining salvation as the wholeness that comes with the Kingdom, does not imply that there is salvation apart from the conscious confession of Christ.
Nonetheless, the Evangelical reluctance is quite understandable, especially when the universalist thrust of Moltmann and Pannenberg’s theologies are kept in mind.

Salvation and Creation: The Kingdom as Integrative Principle

One more theological step needs to be mentioned here, differentiating between traditional Evangelical theology on the one hand, and Moltmann and Pannenberg on the other.
In the Grand Rapids Report (1982) - a follow-up report on the Lausanne Conference (of which also John Stott is the main architect) - “integrated mission” is propagated but again the traditional understanding of salvation is maintained.[9] On the question whether God is at work in the world “anticipating in the present something of the future salvation”, the answer is negative. It is interesting to have a look at the theological grounding for this assertion.

Stott argues that a clear distinction should be made between God’s redemptive work in Christ and God’s activity as Creator (in “providence and in common grace”). The vocabulary of salvation should be reserved for the first category (focused on an individual’s right standing before God) and not be used to refer to the emergence of justice and peace in society at large (29).

As we have seen, Moltmann and Pannenberg do not agree with this conservative Evangelical point of view, as they are consciously applying the vocabulary of salvation in the broader sense (even beyond social justice and peace, comprising healing and wholeness). They would not deny the possibility of examining the efficacy of God from the point of either his work as Creator or his work as Redeemer (as their dogmatic contributions show), but reject the separation of the two (see also Chapter 4 of this thesis).

For both Moltmann and Pannenberg, the Kingdom of God functions as the integrative principle, again. The Kingdom of God, in its New Testament usage, is both
  • realm (the future order of creation as God’s royal dominion[10]), and
  • rule (God’s dynamic reign, both as his sovereign and preserving governance over creation towards this future realm[11], and as his active reign in the lives of believers anticipating the future realm[12]).[13]

Instead of perceiving God’s rule over creation merely as God’s sovereignty and preservation (as John Stott’s conservative Evangelicalism does), they perceive this divine rule as moving towards the future Kingdom as an order of salvation (realm) and thus as part of God’s salvific rule (just as the active reign of God in the lives of believers through the missions of the Son and the Spirit). The concept of the Kingdom of God in their theologies, therefore, keeps God’s work as Creator and God’s work as Redeemer closely together (instead of their separation in traditional systematic theology).

How then are the categories of salvation and creation related, according to Moltmann and Pannenberg? This will be the main question in Chapter 4 of my thesis.

Earlier in this series on salvation & New Wine theology:

- Part 8: Salvation & Eschatology (1): Salvation is for this earth and coming in history
- Part 9: Salvation & Eschatology (2): Salvation is the Coming of the Kingdom of God (Moltmann)
- Part 10: Salvation & Eschatology (2): Salvation is the Coming of the Kingdom of God (Pannenberg)


[1] Peter Kuzmic, ‘History and Eschatology: Evangelical Views’, in: Bruce Nicholls, In Word and Deed (Exeter: Paternoster, 1985), 135-164, quoted in Chester, Mission and the Coming of God, 133.
[2] See also David F. Wells, ‘Evangelical Theology’, in Ford and Muers, Modern Theologians, 617: The Lausanne Covenant “reasserted classical evangelical theology (...) It defined the gospel in terms of God’s forgiveness through Christ, rather than alternative notions.”
[3] Pannenberg, ST II, 460.
[4] Chester, Mission and the Coming of God, 133-136.
[5] See Keith Ferdinando, The Triumph of Christ in African Perspective. A Study of Demonology and Redemption in the African Context (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999), an insightful study into African soteriology from an Evangelical point of view.
[6] Chester refers to the position taken by Evangelicals such as Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, who see God’s grace and transformation functioning apart from personal submission to Christ, as part of “God’s saving work by his grace”. Also see Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, for instance in The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
[7] When Samuel and Sugden assert that “the kingdom activity in society beyond the church” brings “promise and grace”, Chester interprets this as claiming that people are “being saved” beyond the church and apart of confessing Christ.
[8] Chester, The Mission and the Coming of God, 134.
[9] The Report results from the Grand Rapids “Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility” (1982). It propagates integrated mission, viewing evangelism and social action as “inseparable and interrelated components of mission”. And even though the Report does look at salvation under three headings - new life, new community, and new world (28) - and states that the “whole cosmos” is included in God’s plan of salvation (29), and even acknowledges a certain “continuity” between the present world and the world to come (41), it maintains the traditional Evangelical understanding of salvation. It chooses to speak about social action in terms of “our social responsibility in society” and not in terms of any emergence of God’s salvation. See Chester, The Mission and the Coming of God, 122-123, 137-139.
[10] Pannenberg, ST III, 30 (see also Mostert, God and the Future, 183-184).
[11] Pannenberg, ST II, 35 ff, 52 ff.
[12] Pannenberg, ST III, 31, 46-48, 531, 553-555, 604-605 (see also Mostert, God and the Future, 200); Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 98-99;
[13] See also the section on George Ladd in my Introductory chapter.

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