"What Is the Relationship Between the Institutional Church and Christ's Kingdom"

Herman Ridderbos
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Sep/Oct 2000

Liberalism's Dissatisfaction with the Institutional Church

For a long time … [in modernist theology, the] character of the kingdom of heaven was supposed to be incompatible with the idea of the ekklesia [the institutional church]. Thus, e.g., the liberal theology asserted that, as a visible gathering of believers with a certain amount of organization, the church lay entirely outside the field of Jesus' vision. Jesus was only supposed to be the prophet of the "inner" religion directed to every individual…. Only in a process of historical development (after Jesus' death) did his religion assume its sociological significance revealed in visible communities and organizations. It is true [concede the liberals] that from the outset Jesus' preaching was also directed to a community, but one of an ideal and invisible character, a jenseitsKirche (a church in the life beyond) as an ultimate goal. The church as a visible and organized unity is supposed to have been completely foreign to Jesus' world of thought and preaching. It was held to be of an absolutely secondary character, a human-sociological phenomenon.

… Instead of assigning the church a place in Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God, as is found in Matthew 16:17-19, it is thought [by liberals], rather, that the church is the consequence of the non-fulfillment of the parousia [Second Coming] of the Son of Man announced by Jesus. The church is then supposed to owe its origin to the fact that those who had been waiting for the coming of the kingdom in vain had no other alternative in the continuation of history than, as Jesus' disciples, to form an organization. [And thus there is supposedly this] great discrepancy between Jesus' preaching and the reality of history, viz., that Jesus preached the kingdom, and what came was … the church.

The Biblical Position

… [Yet against this liberal, "spiritualist" view of the Christian community, the Scriptures'] Christological motif again and again comes to the fore. To the Messiah belong a people. The church is not a merely sociological phenomenon originating from the will of men, but is the necessary revelation of the messianic people.

… In view of the total picture of Jesus' activities described in the gospels, it is impossible to understand how we could admit that Jesus founded a community of disciples to whom he had promised part of the inheritance of the kingdom, but that this cannot be considered as the beginning of the formation of the church. Undoubtedly, the revelation of this community during Christ's earthly life was in accordance with his self-revelation so that it did not have the explicit character of an organized messianic church. But those who accepted his words were essentially nothing else than his people, the people of the Messiah. And it is entirely in accordance with this fundamental thought that, upon the public confession of him as the Messiah by his disciples and his own announcement of his death and resurrection, Jesus immediately speaks in a formal sense of his ekklesia. When, presently, Jesus is proclaimed as the Messiah by the disciples, his church will also manifest itself as such.

… [It is possible] to summarize our view of the relation between the basileia [the Kingdom of heaven] and the ekklesia [the institutional church]. There can be no uncertainty about either the connection or the difference between these two fundamental notions: The basileia is the great divine work of salvation in its fulfillment and consummation in Christ; the ekklesia is the people elected and called by God and sharing in the bliss of the basileia. Logically the basileia ranks first, and not the ekklesia. The former, therefore, has a much more comprehensive content. It represents the all-embracing perspective, it denotes the consummation of all history, brings both grace and judgment, has cosmic dimensions, fills time and eternity. The ekklesia in all this is the people who in this great drama have been placed on the side of God in Christ by virtue of the divine election and covenant. They have been given the divine promise, have been brought to manifestation and gathered together by the preaching of the Gospel, and will inherit the redemption of the kingdom now and in the great future. This is no doubt why the kingdom is revealed in the ekklesia, viz., in its redeeming and saving significance, in all the gifts and treasures promised and granted now already in and through Christ. So there is no question of basileia and ekklesia as being identical. The former directs all our attention to God, to his consummative will, to the power with which he carries it out, to his virtues in the most comprehensive sense of the word. The latter is to a certain extent-i.e., as far as humanity is concerned-the soteriological goal of the former. To say that the ekklesia gradually replaced the basileia, that Christ came to inaugurate the kingdom but that a church arose in its stead [as liberals have argued], is an absolute misconception of the permanent eschatological perspective that encompasses the church on all sides in her expectation and service; a misconception also of the universality of the divine redemption and judgment in which the church is herself included. There is no foundation at all for the statement that the idea of the basileia as proclaimed by Christ is incompatible with that of the ekklesia because the basileia is either only present and spiritual or future and eschatological. For salvation bears both a messianic and a historical character. As it is messianic, it is inconceivable without a people (the new Israel, the people of the covenant); and as it is already being realized in history, the ekklesia is not only of an eschatological but also of an historical nature. The ekklesia is the fruit of the revelation of the basileia; and conversely, the basileia is inconceivable without the ekklesia. The one is inseparable from the other without, however, the one merging into the other.

1 [ Back ] Excerpted from Herman Ridderbos's classic The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962), pp. 335, 337, 340, 351, 354-55. Dr. Ridderbos was Professor of New Testament at the Theological Seminary of Kampen (Netherlands).
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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