I plan to do a brief series on interpretations of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not of this world”) in the history of exegesis, especially focusing on Protestant commentators, because (1) it is extremely important for political theology 1 and (2), like anything else, it is open to misreading.
To paraphrase Aratus, let me begin with Hemmingsen, whom I never leave unspoken.
Dominus respondens ad interrogationem Pilati, non statim fatetur se regem esse, sed prius distinguit inter suum regnum et terrena regna: quae quia administrantur diversissime, non potest unum alteri impedimento esse per se, nec alterum alteri per se adversatur. ac si diceret Dominus: Si essem rex terrenus, haberem satellites armatos, qui me defenderent: quales cum non habeam, nec habere desiderem, facile scire poteris, me regnum mundanum non quaerere. Nam si regnum mundanum voluissem, non fugissem, cum populus totus regem me creare voluit. Verum hostes mei hanc calumniam fingunt, ut tu tanquam praeses Romanorum furore accensus, me e medio tollas.
Observandum est quod Christus non dicit, regnum meum non est in hoc mundo, sed non est de hoc mundo, et infra non dicit: Regnum meum non est hic, sed non est hinc. Nam regnum Christi est hic et in hoc mundo coetus credentium in Christum: qui coetus non est de hoc mundo, quatenus credit, sed est a Deo natus, ut supra Iohannes dixit: Dedit potestatem filios Dei fieri, quotquot credunt in nomen eius. (coll. 328-9)
The Lord, responding to Pilate’s questioning, does not immediately say that he is a king, but first distinguishes between his kingdom and earthly kingdoms; because these are administered in very different ways, the one is not able to be a hindrance to the other, nor does one in and of itself oppose the other–as if the lord were saying, “If I were an earthly king, I would have an armed retinue that would defend me; since I do not have anything of this sort nor desire to have it, you will easily be able to perceive that I do not seek a worldly kingdom. For if I had wanted a worldly kingdom, I would not have fled when all the people wanted to appoint me king. But my enemies fabricate this false report in order that you, as the Romans’ governor, once you have been inflamed with rage, might remove me from their midst.”
It must be observed that Christ does not say, “My kingdom is not in this world,” but “[My kingdom] is not from this world; and below he does not say, “My kingdom is not here, but “[My kingdom] is not hence.” For the kingdom of Christ is the company of those who believe in Christ here and in this world. This company is not from this world in so far as it believes, but is born from God, as John said above: “He gave the power to become sons of God, howsoever many believe in his name.” 3
Hemmingsen notes that Christ draws a distinction between the divergent ways in which the heavenly and earthly kingdoms are administered–the evidence for which is provided by the fact that Christ is not surrounded by an armed guard as any earthly king would be. His kingdom is not “worldly,” therefore, because it does not use worldly means to defend its king. Christ rules over his people and conducts himself in a different way. For this reason, they are not in and of themselves at odds with one another. This presumably is an important qualifier: there is nothing inherent in the duality of heavenly and earthly rule that of necessity draws them into conflict with one another. One should mark here an important difference from the “two cities” conception of Augustine, in which the heavenly and earthly cities (not “kingdoms”) are in irreconcilable strife until the eschaton.
Secondly, Hemmingsen is alive to the importance of the adverb. “My kingdom is not of this world” does not mean it has nothing to do with this world (more on this in a follow-up post); Jesus is talking about its source. There is a difference between “here” and “hence,” and the latter is the correct reading of Jesus’ words (as his own varied repetition later in the same verse makes clear). 4
Hemmingsen’s point about the kingdom’s source is, thirdly, related to how he glosses what the heavenly kingdom is. It is not, as he sets it out here, the visible or institutional church. It cannot be, because it is to be identified only with true believers (coetus credentium in Christum) and, as such, is constituted only by divine action (hence it is “not from this world”). Only God can make a man a Christian; it is his prerogative to give life to the dead. Everyone he so makes, moreover, becomes a son of the kingdom, for this is God’s gracious gift to those who believe. These “sons of God,” however, are in this world; in it they render their service to their Redeemer, and thus bestow on the kingdom a certain kind of visibility hic et nunc. More on this next time.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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