Book Review

The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective" by Russell D. Moore

Michael Allen
Russell Moore
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

Jesus declared that "all authority on heaven and earth" had been given to him. He also promised to his disciples’the church’"Be-hold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20). Exactly how his authority over all things’heaven and earth’relates to the life of the church has proven to be a difficult and debated question. Indeed, in a time and place where neo-Gnosticism beckons as a temptation peddled by those on the left and the right, thinking about the kingdom of God should become an even more important calling for churches. It calls us to think about a number of seeming polarities: the now and the not yet, the spiritual and the earthly, the churchly and the cultural. In the midst of such vociferous debates, Russell Moore's The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective celebrates a growing consensus about the kingdom of God. The book began as a doctoral dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and it has been reissued by Crossway Books. It is clearly written and includes almost one hundred pages of endnotes (many of which are fascinating). It is thoroughly documented and well organized.

Evangelicals have taken different approaches over the years, relating the kingdom of God to the church in a variety of ways: classic dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, covenant theology, "modified" covenant theology, and so forth. In four main chapters, Moore charts a historical narrative, beginning with Carl F. H. Henry's influence and moving to consider the development of an eschatological consensus among evangelicals in the latter part of the twentieth century. He notes the persistence of some critics, it must be said, so it might be more accurate to speak of an eschatological center affirmed by many otherwise diverse evangelicals and denied by some on more extreme ends of these various constituencies.

Moore's historical analysis is fascinating, and his basic survey of various positions is consistently accurate and illuminating. Most interestingly’I suspect surprising to most readers’Moore rehabilitates the theology of Carl Henry as thoroughly eschatological in character. "Henry's Uneasy Conscience waded into the Kingdom debate as an incipient call for a new consensus, one that was a break from the Kingdom concept of classical dispensationalism and also from the spiritual understanding of many covenant theologians" (22). Henry believed that the kingdom of God was a fundamental concept, about which disagreement led to an inchoate approach by evangelicals to engaging culture and politics (chapter 1).

The historical analysis manifests a clear centrism shaping theological positions across the evangelical spectrum. Three issues have been rethought based on the work of Henry and others: eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Each doctrine relates to the biblical theme of the kingdom of God. Thanks in large part to the work of George Eldon Ladd, most evangelicals now appreciate the inaugurated understanding of the arrival of the kingdom: already established, not yet fully consummated. Jesus has decisively routed the enemy, but he has not yet completely defeated his foes. So the timing of the kingdom's arrival is now and not yet (chapter 2). Ladd also shaped the evangelical affirmation of the holistic nature of the kingdom of God (and of salvation itself), largely because he understood the kingdom as shaped by Jesus (56). If the sovereign is a spiritual, bodily, relational being, the kingdom also permeates these aspects of existence. So the shape of the kingdom and the nature of Christian salvation must be holistic (chapter 3). The third area to which Ladd brought clarity was in the relationship of the kingdom to the church. In his view, the kingdom is larger than the church and cannot be identified with it, but the church is the outpost of the kingdom and serves as a microcosm of what is to come. Indeed, it is helpful to think of the church's celebration of the Lord's Supper as a foretaste and microcosm of the great wedding feast of the lamb to be shared someday in the New Jerusalem. Ladd and the evangelical consensus believe the church is critical to the kingdom, but they do not equate the church and the kingdom (chapter 4). So a new center has emerged on these issues: the now and the not yet, the spiritual and the earthly, the churchly and the cultural.

In three ways, then, an evangelical consensus or center has emerged. Of course, there are still divisions within evangelicalism over the kingdom itself and about engaging politics. Moore takes sides on some of these issues, and he largely avoids discussion of some others. He identifies with the premillennial position (64) and seems to favor progressive dispensationalists (or at least he seems to speak most glowingly of them: see 65). He raises the importance of ecclesiological issues for thinking about the kingdom, and here he takes a strong baptistic tact. He argues that the earlier evangelical consensus wrongly regarded ecclesiological and sacramental (a word he does not use) issues as minor. He says they do matter. The biggest weakness in the book relates to this discussion. He is surely right that the doctrine of the church matters’differences here relate to divergences elsewhere. One key difference worth exploring would be the differing notions of the church's corporate responsibility in engaging cultural spheres of activity. It is surprising how little space is given to consideration of "two kingdom" versus neo-Calvinist approaches here. Should churches speak to particular policies in politics (e.g., a health-care bill or a particular war strategy) or in family life (e.g., where to educate children)? Should churches speak only about principles? Do the sovereignty of God over all creation and the eventual redemption of the heavens and the earth mean that the church qua church should speak to every nook and cranny of the cosmos? Will there be a single Christian answer to any of these questions? These issues matter greatly and deserve attention, and any evangelical analysis should make greater use of the reflection of Augustine and Luther, as well as note the wider spectrum of sociopolitical implications of evangelical centrism on eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology (e.g., contra the claim of page 175, American evangelicalism does not vote as one).

The book will be useful for thinking about eschatology and appreciating the developments within the last few decades. Indeed, it is encouraging to see progressive dispensationalists and modified covenant theologians reading the Bible cooperatively. Furthermore, Moore makes some crucial arguments regarding the primacy of regeneration for cultural engagement (111, 126-28). While many have erred in the direction of reducing the kingdom to a spiritual reality and others have erred in conflating this spiritual reality with social and political engagement, it would surely be a mistake to simply coordinate spiritual nurture with social engagement as if they are disconnected hobbies of Christians or discrete callings of the church. Moore also makes wonderful use of some biblical scholarship that highlights the links between the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of salvation (96-102, 108): the Calvinistic wing of American evangelicalism has maintained (with Thomas Aquinas and others) that grace does not destroy but perfects nature. Finally, Moore shows us how far progressive dispensationalism and modified covenant theology have come in reading the promises of the Old Testament in a nuanced fashion.

Moore tells us how we have come from very divisive battles between classic dispensationalists and some staunch covenant theologians to a centrist approach regarding inaugurated and holistic eschatology. As a young theologian, it helped me appreciate the great contributions of scholars in the past two generations (Henry and Ladd, Clowney and Gaffin). As a Christian, it encourages me to expect more and more light to shine out of the King's constitution.

Friday, December 17th 2010

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