Forty years ago, the doyen of North American New Testament scholarship, George Eldon Ladd of Fuller Seminary, published his big book on the kingdom of God, The Presence of the Future (1974). In it he had this simple yet profound thing to say about the kingdom, “The question of definition is fundamental” (p. 40). Four decades later, another notable New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight of Northern Seminary, has written a comparably big book on the kingdom of God, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, and sounds a similar note.
Definitions do matter, McKnight insists, especially when talking about the kingdom of God and its relationship to the church. “Precision begins with defining terms,” he says, here quoting Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. And this is what Kingdom Conspiracy is all about — defining just what we mean when we talk about the kingdom or doing kingdom work.
Indeed, this two-hundred-plus page book is one extended attempt to give definitional clarity to this all-important term; or, if you like, it’s a grand exercise in what McKnight would probably prefer to call the “fury of clarity” (citing poet Christian Winman). But, let the reader understand, this is not a pointless exercise in definition-wrangling or tedious hair-splitting. Instead, McKnight wants to clarify, once and for all, what the Bible means by kingdom in order to issue a clarion call to evangelical Christians to recover the centrality of the local church and its radical mission to the world.
Bottom-line, this is a good book. And, as a pastor who loves the church, as does McKnight, I found it helpful too. But for the sake of full disclosure, let me say upfront: I like Scot McKnight. I admire his scholarship, and I appreciate his ministry. In fact, I call Scot a friend; we’ve broken bread together on more than one occasion, contributed to common writing projects, and exchanged many an email, going back over a decade to when he, as editor of the Bulletin of Biblical Research, kindly accepted my article on the law of Christ. I’m not confessing any particular bias, just stating the facts. Make of them what you will.
So, as I was saying, this is indeed a good book. Of course, not everyone will agree with everything; some will be disappointed here and there, others annoyed by this or that. But that goes with the territory. To McKnight’s credit, he achieves what few would be able to do, or at least not do as well. He’s given us a book that is thoughtful yet accessible, learned yet unpretentious, and fair yet blunt, if not at times provocative. In fact, this is a good example of what my colleague and I like to call ecclesial theology; a book that is too ecclesially-concerned and pastorally helpful to be academic theology, but too thoughtful and au fait with scholarship to be popular theology. It’s a good example of the kind of thing pastor-theologians should do, for the good of the church.
In chapters 1-2, McKnight puts his project in context and help us understand why it’s so timely. These days, everyone is talking about the kingdom, and kingdom theology is everywhere. For McKnight, however, this ubiquitous kingdom talk tends to come from one of two crowds. On the one hand, there are what he cleverly dubs the Skinny Jeans folks, who see the kingdom in terms of social activism — good people (Christian or not) doing good works for the common good.
On the other hand, there are the Pleated Pants folks, who define the kingdom as God’s redemptive rule in the world; often, though, narrowly conceived of as personal salvation, occasionally with a social or political activist twist. In a word, when Skinny Jeans folks hear kingdom they think justice, while Pleated Pants folks think salvation. But, according to McKnight, neither are adequate definitions; both are reductionist, if not simplistic, and miss key emphases of Scripture — all of which has serious consequences for the mission of the church.
Having set the stage in the opening two chapters, McKnight is ready to give us a more holistic and biblically faithful definition of the kingdom. Chapters 3-4 begin by rooting his definition of the kingdom in the story of Scripture, a story which begins with Israel and culminates with Messiah Jesus.
Dissatisfied with the traditional Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation (CFRC) story, McKnight proffers an alternative ABA’ reading that arguably takes more seriously the actual unfolding of the biblical and canonical storyline, in particular, the ineradicable place of Israel in that story. When the story is told this way, it makes sense of why Jesus-as-Messiah is Scripture’s answer to its own question.
Chapters 5-7 take us to the heart of the book; those looking for a shortcut, enter here. This is where McKnight sets forth his strongest and most important conclusions about the kingdom. Let me summarize his main points in a few short sentences, conveniently reflected in the chapter titles themselves. First, kingdom is people, and cannot be reduced to a people-less abstraction like ‘dynamic rule’ or something similarly gauzy. Second, there is no kingdom outside the church. And, third, kingdom mission is therefore church mission, and vice-à-versa.
The lynchpin in all of this is McKnight’s contention that text after text in the Old Testament and Judaism use kingdom to refer to people, and that this provides the context for understanding how Jesus and Paul would have understood the kingdom. He takes this to be an open-and-shut case; candidly, I’m less convinced. But, bottom-line, he makes a very strong case for the people-centeredness of the kingdom, a point often inadvertently downplayed or simply overlooked in current discussions by both Skinny Jeans and Pleated Pants folks.
The remaining chapters go on to explore different aspects of the kingdom as “a people governed by a king,” beginning, naturally enough, with the King of the kingdom, Jesus. But McKnight includes here a strong emphasis on the kingdom as unleashing holistic redemption in the lives of people; the moral quality of the kingdom as a community of people defined by the cross, righteousness, and love; and the eschatological dimension of the kingdom as an object of hope.
When all is said and done, McKnight arrives at a fivefold definition of the kingdom: it is a complex of (1) a king (Jesus), who (2) rules and reigns (redemptively and holistically) over (3) a people (Israel expanded to include the church), in (4) a place with (5) a law (the law of Christ). Phew! A mouthful indeed, but when it comes to the kingdom, McKnight loathes unhelpful reductionist definitions and covets biblically holistic ones.
The remaining portion of the book helpfully provides a chapter of “kingdom theses” that summarize his view of the kingdom and the argument of the book, as well as two quite substantive, even scholarly, appendices that engage, first, the Constantinian Temptation to fuse the power of the State with the power of church, and, second, various scholarly currents of kingdom theology of both a Kuyperian and Liberation variety.
Now, I should confess my strong sympathy with McKnight’s chief concern in the book, even if I’m less persuaded of his main contention. As I understand McKnight, he’s deeply troubled by the decentralization of the church in contemporary evangelical Christianity. Folks are leaving in droves, so much so that one of McKnight’s colleagues at Northern Seminary declares the “end of evangelicalism” (Dr. David Fitch, to whom McKnight dedicates this book).
Here one thinks of George Barna’s 20 million “revolutionaries” who profess fidelity to Jesus but dispense with the local church. Even if this is a bit overstated, we still have reason for concern — not only for the viability of evangelical Christianity, but for the witness of the church to the world through the proclamation of the gospel.
There are, of course, sociological reasons for this growing disenchantment with the church and the resulting exodus. There are also more mundane reasons. The church can be a messy, unglamorous, tension-filled place; probably easier to sit in Starbucks on a Sunday morning sipping a latte and podcasting your favorite preacher.
But, in this book, McKnight exposes an oft-overlooked theological culprit for this ecclesial decentering: kingdom theology. Of course, he has no issue with kingdom theology per se, at least when properly defined, as his book attempts to do. But he is concerned with the consensus view of the kingdom, namely, that it is distinct from the church.
This position, McKnight says, has had a negative impact on the church. Here’s how. Millions of evangelicals have come to view the kingdom of God as an idealized expression of God’s will in this world: exciting, attractive, worth giving your life to. On the other hand, they see the church as a less-than-ideal, boring and bumbling gathering of sinner-saints making a mess of things—frankly, far less inviting of our devotion and allegiance, if not our presence. The practical upshot of this is simple: Why bother with the local church when you can do kingdom work without it?
McKnight, however, insists that kingdom and church can’t be divorced; in fact, the two are practically synonymous: “the kingdom is the church, and the church is the kingdom” (p. 206). You cannot have one without the other.
Again, as a pastor I very much appreciate all of this. McKnight’s zeal to emphasize the people-dimension of the kingdom is both understandable, in light of the biblical data, and commendable, in light of the flabby and fickle state of evangelical church life. After all, his definition effectively safeguards the importance of the local church as the people of the kingdom, and has the added bonus of disabusing folks of the notion that they can do kingdom work without or apart from the church.
Yet in his zeal to enfold people into the very definition of the kingdom, I fear McKnight has made an ill-advised move or two, with some unhappy consequences. For starters, we should probe his definition a bit. When McKnight turns to the Bible, he sees kingdom associated with people “over and over again,” he says. Fair enough. But this doesn’t establish the fact that kingdom is to be equated with people, as a matter of logical or definitional identity; only that kingdom is inseparable from people. McKnight makes a strong case for the former, but if he wants to maintain the latter, it will require a bit more precision and argumentation. The point is simply this. People may be a concomitant of the kingdom without constituting the essence of the kingdom.
This leads to a second issue. My concern is that McKnight’s stress on the people-aspect of the kingdom, in effect, denies or at least downplays the dynamic aspect of the kingdom. This is because, on his definition, kingdom is a static notion: it is people, in the first instance, not divine power or kingly activity á la Ladd. “The word refers to a people governed by a king — over and over and over . . . it is a people first and foremost” (p. 69, 74). With this leading emphasis, though, I’m not sure McKnight’s definition is as well-suited as others to handle the biblical data about the dynamic nature of the kingdom. Such texts won’t be reviewed here; a quick perusal of Ladd’s Presence of the Future will put you in touch with many of them.
But my concern extends beyond this, to a substantive theological, even Christological question. Because McKnight so emphasizes the people-aspect of the kingdom, even to set that over against the dynamic reign interpretation, he is left with an interesting dilemma for Christology. In the Ladd interpretation, where kingdom refers to the dynamic reign of God, the kingdom is active in the church, but more importantly, it is embodied in Jesus. For McKnight, however, Jesus is central to kingdom theology of course, but in a different way; Jesus isn’t the embodiment of God’s kingly rule, he’s the proxy or agent of God’s kingly rule. In McKnight’s own words, which sound like a refrain through the book, Jesus is the King of the kingdom. But, I might add, Jesus is not the embodiment of the kingdom itself. Yes, his person determines kingdom mission, his character shapes kingdom mission, and his story narrates kingdom mission; all these points McKnight emphasizes quite well.
But, I ask, is Jesus himself the presence of the kingdom? This is not intended to be gotcha; it has Christological consequences. Ironically, McKnight calls for a “more robust Christology” (p. 134), yet his downplaying of the dynamic reign interpretation has the effect of shifting the primary locus of the kingdom away from Christ and to the church. His definition of kingdom is more ecclesio- than Christocentric.
As a result, I suspect McKnight may struggle to give full weight to the robust things Jesus says about the kingdom in relationship to himself. Note, for example, McKnight only twice refers to Jesus’ powerful self-referential statement, “the kingdom is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21) — but neither time in connection with Jesus as the King of the kingdom, a notable miss in my view.
I have two more substantive critiques, both related to the overall shape of the book. First, I think the book would have been better as a focused critique of the Skinny Jeans folks and their kingdom theology. Of course, the Skinny Jeans vs. Pleated Pants framing of things is clever and, as a book opener, quite engaging. But, frankly, these don’t seem like two equal and opposite errors, the Scylla and Charybdis of kingdom theology, through which McKnight safely sails; rather, McKnight seems concerned primarily with what’s going on in the Skinny Jeans crowd—their decentering of the church and departure from it in search of kingdom work.
From my vantage, this seems like an important point, and I assume McKnight knows this better than I because he hangs with Skinny Jeans folks, whereas most of my time is spent with the Pleated Pants crowd (who, by the way, aren’t exactly known for decentering the church). Nevertheless, McKnight may have stretched his resources too thin by attempting a critique of the Pleated Pants theology at the same time; perhaps he would have been more effective waging war on only one front, not two.
Which leads to my second substantive critique about the shape of the book. If McKnight has a real hankering to take on the Pleated Pants view and dethrone Ladd, then Kingdom Conspiracy would need to be a more focused and disciplined frontal assault of Ladd’s dynamic reign view. As it is, I didn’t find McKnight’s critique overly persuasive, especially after I dusted off my copy of Ladd’s Presence of the Future and reviewed what he wrote four decades ago.
That said, McKnight’s critique of Ladd is substantial, and whet my appetite for more; in fact, I would have preferred he devote his considerable scholarly gifting to writing a twenty-first century counterpoise to Ladd’s Presence of the Future. As it stands, Kingdom Conspiracy has the right skeletal structure; it just lacks the muscle mass you find in Ladd’s magnum opus. To be clear, this isn’t a cheap critique of what McKnight has written, as much as it is an invitation for something even more substantive from his fertile pen — a beefy tome that engages Ladd and the surfeit of scholarship on this issue.
In sum, anyone who wants to engage seriously with McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy should do so with Ladd’s Presence of the Future close at hand. If you don’t own the latter, you should definitely buy it; and if you do own it, perhaps you need to pull it off the shelf. At the end of the day, I’m still convinced that Ladd has the better view: the kingdom is God’s dynamic reign, inseparable from but not identical to the church. Still, I would like to thank Scot McKnight for forcing me to think through this critical issue afresh. The stakes, as he so rightly insists, couldn’t be higher.
Todd Wilson is Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL, and co-founder of the Center for Pastor-Theologians
Editor’s Note: This work was also reviewed on our site by Patrick Schreiner.
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Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church