I just finished a challenging and provocative volume called Models of the Kingdom by Howard A. Snyder. In this book, Snyder evaluates eight discrete models for understanding what the Bible means when it speaks about the Kingdom of God. These models are as follows:
The Kingdom as Future Hope — the reign of God is yet to come; the faithful believer is to help people flee the wrath to come, waiting for the descent of the New Jerusalem at the End of the Age.
The Kingdom as Inner Spiritual Experience — the Kingdom has already come and consists of God’s reign in our hearts as we align ourselves with him in relationship
The Kingdom as Mystical Communion — the Kingdom consists in our experience of the Lord and our participation in the communion of the saints down through the ages
The Kingdom as Insitutitional Church — the reign of God is entirely manifest in his Church, which is his body on earth
The Kingdom as Countersystem — the rule of God consists in all those forces that serve to subvert the existing social order, which most often upholds evil and promotes injustice; the truly authentic and radical community of Jesus’ followers serves to point people to the bigger reality of God.
The Kingdom as Political State — the kingdom of God is best expressed in the form of a theocracy or “Christian nation.”
The Kingdom as Christianized Culture — the kingdom of God comes in its fullness as society at large is more fully transformed into the likeness of Christ. Economic policies and political decisions can begin to create the shalom that God desires.
The Kingdom as Earthly Utopia — the former model taken to the extreme: God desires to create a perfect society here on earth; this is the complete opposite of the Kingdom as Future Hope.
In assessing these eight models, Snyder considers six polarities that he sees are present in some respect in each model. These are:
Present Kingdom / Future Kingdom
Individual Kingdom / Social Kingdom
Kingdom as the Church / Kingdom as greater than or not the Church
The Kingdom coming gradually / The Kingdom coming in cataclysm
Heavenly Kingdom / Earthly Kingdom
The Kingdom brought about through divine action / The kingdom brought about through human action
Though it is clear even from a cursory investigation into each of these models that all, to some extent, resonate with what the Scriptures means when it describes the Kingdom of God (therefore making the truest picture some combination of the all of the above), some are by themselves hit closer to the mark than others. Interestingly, Snyder identifies certain systems as more biblical or helpful than others based on how well they maintain the tensions present in the above polarities. For example, a model that sees the kingdom as entirely future — such that Christians can do nothing but form little enclaves to wait for the rapture — or one that sees the kingdom as entirely present — such that Jesus’ eventual return turns out to be of little importance — has allowed the pendulum to swing too far to one side or the other on the present / future axis, and therefore falls away from the truth of the kingdom. Preferable to either one of these is a models that recognizes that the Kingdom is both ‘already’ and ‘not yet.’ This becomes true, then, for all eight models along all six axes, so that the most biblically faithfuil model is one that holds all six of these factors in tension.
The rationalist and theologian in me was stimulated in the reading, but was somewhat disappointed in the end because no definitive answer was given as to which was the best of the models. But I suppose that this is exactly the point: no one model can describe the Kingdom; no human classification system can do justice to its tensions and mysteries, and the very use of models, though they can be instructive, also fundamentally disrupts the tension in which the Kingdome exists by favouring one side of each axis.
The mystery of the kingdom is often the key feature in Jesus’ parables: strangely enough, he seeks to obscure the meaning of the kingdom to some extent. And if one did a survey of all the New Testament references to Kingdom, there is some material to substantiate any of the above models. The Kingdom is a mystery — it is many things at once and therefore transcends all our classifications. The kingdom is the rule of God already here on earth but yet to be fully manifest; it is the rule of God in the hearts of individuals that then spills over into how we interact with one another; it is a stabilizing force in society that uproots our most cherished insitutions; it is a force that sneaks up on us and bursts onto the stage of human history; it is based in the spirit realm but changes our earthly reality; the Church is a Kingdom beach-head but transcends the four church walls.
It is all these things and more and is the more glorious and deep for it. Let us never reduce the Kingdom to simply some of these things as we attempt to fit God’s plan into our neat little box.