Few things are as controversial in Reformed and evangelical circles right now as “the Kingdom of God.” At least some Dispensationalists reject the notion that, in his incarnation and ministry, our Lord Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God. Others, not infrequently former Dispensationalists, run to the other extreme by adopting “full preterism,” which holds that, Jesus returned in A.D. 70. This last view is heresy against the catholic (universal) Christian faith. It is too close to the heresy of Hymenaeus, Philtetus, and Alexander, who were teaching people that the general resurrection had already happened (2 Tim 2:16–18; 1 Tim 1:20). Whereas at least some Dispensationalists, at least before the rise of “Progressive Dispensationalism,” had an under-realized eschatology, where everything was oriented around the restoration of national Israel and the incarnation of God the Son becomes effectively a means to that end, the full-Preterism is a grossly over-realized eschatology. Prior to the rise of Dispensationalism and the its attending reactions, the eschatological options tended to be less extreme. Historic premillennialism was looking for an earthly, literal, 1,000 year kingdom of Christ on the earth but it was not utterly tied to the restoration of national Israel. Until the early 20th century we tended to speak of the alternative view, that Christ had inaugurated his kingdom and would consummate it at his return, as “postmillennialism.” From the early 20th century we distinguished between postmillennialism and amillennialism. The great difference between post- and a- today tends to be the degree to which one expects the gospel to transform culture and society or the extent to which the broader culture will be converted to Christ prior to Christ’s return. These differences are too frequently and infelicitously designated “optimistic” and “pessimistic.” I reject these designations as question begging. E.g., I have heard and read modern (typically theocratic or theonomic/reconstructionist) postmillennialists talk as if Jesus is not actually reigning yet, because he has not yet realized his reign on this earth to the degree they expect to happen in the future. Of course they confess that he is reigning but they so associate his reign with certain states of affairs on the earth that it is almost as if his reign is, to a degree, postponed. Such rhetoric strikes me as quasi-Dispensational. As an amillennialist, I say that Jesus’ has consummated his reign, that he is reigning now, and everything that happens, whether the church is being persecuted as it was in the 3rd century or whether there is a new missionary impulse in the church as happened in the early medieval period, is the expression of his sovereign providence for the church.
This is the best way to read the Revelation given to the Apostle John by our Lord Jesus c. 93 AD. The churches of Asia Minor were greatly troubled by the growing pressure they felt from Jewish synagogues on the one hand and from pagans on the other. There was no yet an organized government-sponsored persecution of the church but were it happening today believers would probably use the word “persecution” to describe their experience. The Emperor Domitian (81–96), like his father Vespasian, thought the Christians were “atheists” because they denied the Greco-Roman pantheon. The period between 93–96 AD has sometimes been called the “reign of terror.” Flavius Clemens was martyred—even though some accounts deny that his death was a martyrdom. The function of the Revelation was to explain, in highly symbolic language, to the 7 churches of Asia Minor and to us, what is the nature of the relations between Christ’s present reign and the our frequent suffering in this life until Christ’s bodily return to consummate his kingdom. This is why postmillennialist and amillennialists reject the notion that the reign described in Revelation 20 should be read literally. In order to read it this way one must extract it from a highly figurative narrative. Figures of speech, analogies, and metaphors are all true but they are true in the way they are intended. If I say, “It’s raining cats and dogs” only a very small child thinks runs to the window to look for actual cats and dogs falling from the clouds. Everyone else realizes that it is a figure of speech. When the Revelation speaks of blood rising a high as horse’s bride for 1600 stadia (approx. 150 miles) it is speaking in symbolic language.
What this all means is that how one understands the kingdom is very closely related to one’s eschatology. This is the often unspoken assumption behind the too-often heated debate over the kingdom in confessional Reformed circles. Most everyone in the contemporary intra-Reformed agrees that Christ is reigning now, that he is sovereign now, but the disagreement comes over the implications of that reign. We all agree that the kingdom has been inaugurated and that it has earthly manifestations but where we disagree is where to look for those manifestations. Since the late 19th century, those who have been influenced by what has come to be called “neo-Calvinism” (neo is Greek for new) have sometimes argued that Christ’s reign is such that the kingdom is manifested in everything than any Christian does for the sake of Christ. This is a more expansive way of speaking of the implications of the kingdom of God than was traditionally used. Those who take the narrower view, tend to associate the manifestation of the kingdom of God on the earth with the visible institutional church.
A third factor in the discussion is what we might call the Constantine effect. From the early 4th century until the 18th century, the visible, institutional church tended to be closely aligned with and sometimes controlled by the state in a relationship that was called Christendom. When the Reformed Churches arose, during the Reformation, they assumed this Constantinian church-state complex (Christendom). They, like virtually everyone else in the 16th century, assumed that there must be a state-approved church (and sometimes a church-approved state). In the 18th century, however, as in the American Colonies, that consensus began to fall apart. The Americans set about setting up a federation of states in which there would be no federally approved church. There were still state churches for about 25 years but eventually even those gave way.
Today, however, because of the Enlightenment (Modernity) and its vicious child, Late Modernity (sometimes “postmodernity”), what began as an official approval of religious pluralism has become an unofficial and general cultural suspicion of organized religion. The tables have turned. Whereas in the 18th century it was the atheists and skeptics who were the dissenters who had to be tolerated by the religious majority. Today it is the religious who are asking for toleration from the culturally empowered and sometimes state-sanctioned atheists. If you doubt me, open up a flower shop, refuse to cater a same-sex wedding and see what happens. A piece of advice: get a good lawyer.
In response to the growing cultural marginalization of traditional Christianity, some Christians talk as if they would like to return to Christendom. It is not clear how this would work in a constitutional republic that is legally committed to religious pluralism. Postmillennialists look for a coming golden age on the earth, not unlike that of the historic premillennialists, when all will become as it should be, when there is a massive future conversion not only of Jews but of everyone. To this end, in the 1980s, reconstructionists (who expect a cataclysm before the glorious reconstruction) and theonomists actively worked toward the implementation of the Mosaic civil laws and punishments into American civil law. In the 1990s, however, this project was largely abandoned in favor of an ecclesiastical focus, which gave rise to the self-described “Federal Vision” theology (in by the grace of baptism, stay in by cooperating with grace).
Amillennialists typically agree with the American founders, that there ought to be no state-approved church. Whereas the reconstructionist/theonomic versions of postmillennialism (post-19th century) tend to read history as moving in a line, Amillennialists tend to see it moving in cycles. This is analogous to the interpretation of the Revelation. Most Amillennialists see it as a series of 7 cycles telling the same story from a slightly different perspective each time. This is why an amillennialist cannot answer the question,”where are we in the Revelation?” The question assumes a premise (that the Revelation is a linear book) the amillennialist does not accept. We are in the period, described in the Revelation, between the ascension of Christ and his bodily, glorious return. He is ruling the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2). He is accomplishing his purposes. He is putting the nations “under his feet” (1 Cor 15:25–27), which was happening when Polyarp was martyred, when Leo III crowned Charlemagne (800), and when the French crown revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685). Christ is Lord now. We are not waiting for him to become Lord. We are, however, waiting waiting for his bodily, glorious return, for the judgment, and for the consummation of all things.
Thus, when we pray the second petition there are a number of theological, historical, and biblical-exegetical questions in the mix. In Heidelberg Catechism 123 we confess:
123. What is the second petition?
“Your kingdom come,” that is: So govern us by Your Word and Spirit, that we submit ourselves to you always more and more; preserve and increase Your Church; destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against you, and all wicked devices formed against Your Holy Word, until the fullness of Your Kingdom come, wherein You shall be all in all.
In the next post, in light of this history, we will consider what it means to pray for the coming of the kingdom and what that means for some of the contemporary discussions about Christ’s kingdom and late-modern culture.