Today, we will hear from A.K.M. Adam:
It’s become a fad to distinguish a bad, imperialistic understanding of “the Kingdom of God” from a hip, open, “relational” understanding of “God’s Reign” — sometimes people even advance bogus arguments from the morphology of the Greek word basileia. While God no doubt frowns on imperialism, and is assuredly more open-minded than we can understand (“Many will come from east and west. . .”), an ordinary Greek-speaker would understand God’s basileia on the model of basileias they had experienced or heard about: monarchies wherein the will of the ruler determined the conditions within which inhabitants negotiated their daily lives.
The difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Herod (for instance) was not that Herod’s kingdom involved authority and entailed limits on who might share in the goods of the kingdom; God, the Creator of all that is, remains creation’s Author, and the power of sin will ensnare some who might otherwise rejoice with the people of God. The difference involves, among other things, the texture of authority and the criteria for participation in the Kingdom of God. Whereas Herod exercised authority by brutal coercion — and even the most benign empires of this world sustain themselves by the apparent temporal necessity of police and military power — God’s authority depends not on God’s power to damn or to impose on unwilling resisters, but on a love that knits willing adherents to God’s own will. The will of the Divine Ruler comes to the saints not as brutal threat, but always only as permission to rejoice — for the saints desire only what God will for us (which in turn is only our sanctity and well-being). As Augustine reminded the Pelagians, any freedom to choose something other than God’s will is not freedom, but turns to captivity to sin.
By the same token, the Kingdom of God differs from earthly kingdoms in terms of citizenry as well. Where temporal communities define their constituency by heredity, or by achievement, or other qualifications, the Kingdom of God is constituted solely by God’s grace. The people of God are not necessarily the most prominently pious (“many will say, ‘Did we not prophesy in your name?’ “), and certainly not the most powerful or predictable. Rather, the people of God are those who live in God’s way; some will have learned the Way from Scripture and the churches, but others will have discerned God’s Way on other grounds (“they show that they have the Law written in their hearts”).
So, yes, the Kingdom of God is utterly unlike any earthly dominion — but no, it’s not an undifferentiated, gauzy commune. The Kingdom of God is (and was, and ever shall be) a communion of people known to us and unknown, among whom the will of God determines the Way by which we shape our lives.
A.K.M. Adam teaches New Testament and Early Church History at Seabury; he has also taught at Eckerd College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and has served parishes in New Haven, Tampa, and Evanston. He has written and edited numerous books and articles, including What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (1995), Making Sense of New Testament Theology (1995), A Grammar of New Testament Greek (1999), A Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible: A Reader (2000), and Faithful Interpretation (2006) and is co-author of Reading Scripture With the Church (2006). He is presently working on a book that builds on his hermeneutical studies to present a theological and ethical reading of Matthew’s Gospel.