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Ecclesiastical Polity Ruben Alvarado Sacred Doctrine

The Kingdom of God and the Church

A. A. van Ruler

Address delivered in Hilversum, the Netherlands, on June 3rd, 1941, to the convention of emeritus and officiating clergymen.

Translated by Ruben Alvarado


The question of the relationship of the kingdom of God to the church is of major significance for the ecumenical question in the broad sense of the word.

Is the ecclesiastical accent inherent to the ecumenical notion? Can one speak of a full reunion of the churches if Christians come together in terms of affinity, common Christian reflection and activity, and intercommunion? What place in the ecumenical effort should be made for dogma, liturgy, church order, and church formation?

As soon as we understand that a sociological motivation for the ecumenical idea, whereby “ecumenical” can be translated as “international,” most definitely is insufficient, we immediately come face to face with these questions.

And further, as soon as we understand that every parallelization of the kingdom of God and the church as two similar entities, either in a coordinated or in an antithetical sense, is quite definitely in conflict with the basic relations of biblical thinking, then we can no longer avoid the ecclesiastical emphasis in the ecumenical question. In that case one can no longer flee from the disunity of the churches and proceed to the parallel concept of the kingdom. I therefore consider it to be a negative purpose of this discourse, to show that every parallelization of both entities as two areas is untenable. And I believe that one can only wish ecumenically, if one keeps a sharp eye on the disunity of the churches and continuously pays full attention to that.

Thirdly, one needs to get an eye for this, that the very idea of the kingdom brings about a significant reduction in the church concept, from the ecclesia triumphans to the ecclesia militans, and within the ecclesia militans a reduction from the ecclesia invisibilis to the ecclesia visibilis, and within the ecclesia visibilis a reduction of both the Gemeinschaft and the Anstalt idea, both of the church as organism and the church as institution, to the notion of the sign, by which, very soberly, the miracle of the very visible and very earthy and very tangible church is included in the series of Jesus’ miracles as signs of the kingdom. Only then, for one thing, can one not so isolate and absolutize the idea of community over against the institutional character of the church – such that one could be satisfied with a reunion of Christians while neglecting the division of church organizations – and for another, one cannot put forward such a gradation in the series: sacrament – dogma – liturgy – offices, that one e.g. sets such a high value on intercommunion, that thereby the question of the reunion of offices would be completely lost sight of, as if that were just human tinkering. In the isolation of the idea of community as the very essence of the visible church there always lurks the danger of slipping into sociology. In the absolutization of the sacraments as the essence of the institutional visible church, there always lurks the no less great danger of slipping into nature mysticism. And it is precisely the beneficial effect of the kingdom idea on the concept of the church, that it relegates the gathering and the sacrament to mere signs, albeit signs from God given in Christ. And in this field of signs there are also offices, and thus church order, and thus also liturgy, and finally also dogma. There is here, of course, gradation. But not a gradation of divine to human, not even a gradation of essential to incidental, but rather a gradation from central to peripheral (the gradation is more an ordering), and then such that even the periphery still belongs within the field of signs. The proposition, e.g., that the offices are given by Christ, cannot be yielded.

And it is obvious that with the ecumenical question these things are much more urgent in a national context than in an international context. The issue of offices, e.g., disturbs the catholicity of the church significantly less when it has to do with the Dutch national church vis-à-vis the Church of England, than in the case between the Dutch national church, the [Kuyperian] Reformed church, the Reformed Church in Restored Alliance, and the separatist Christian Reformed Church. In the latter relation, one simply cannot trivialize this issue. In such an ecumenical effort, one would then only be combatting the consequences of evil, not evil itself in its sources.

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I think that with these comments enough has been indicated as to where the immediate connection lies between our subject and the urgent question of the reunification of the churches. But I think that it would be good, before we enter into more detail on our subject, to widen the field of view a little, by identifying a few more relations.

The relation of the kingdom of God and the church is of fundamental importance not only for the relation between church and churches, but also for the relation between church and world. And that relation as well I conceive in the broadest sense of the word. I think, e.g., of the relationship between church and state, church and school, church and society. The fundamental question is again: is it not only possible, but is it also normal practice that the kingdom of God also takes a different shape on this earth than the shape it takes in the church? How far does the radius of action of the church extend in the life of the world? And which forces of the kingdom are made manifest within this radius of action in the world? And are there also other forces of the kingdom which are not put to use in this radius of action, and yet are made manifest? And how does the proper shape of the kingdom in the world relate to the shape of the church? Does the kingdom proceed from the church? Does the kingdom surround the church? Does the kingdom stand next to the church, with no immediate connection? Does the kingdom stand opposite the church?

How one answers these questions will also indicate, e.g., how one is to understand the relationship between church and state. Does the church have something to say to the state, or does the Christian have something to say to the state? Is the state to see in the church any character at all as the divine-human body of Christ, or is it sufficient that the state grants the church broad freedom, possibly with “other” moral persons? Speaking theologically, is the state there for the sake of the church or the church for the sake of the state? Should, in the practical dispute between church and state, the church seek to draw as much as possible toward itself (youth activity, education, etc.) and is it good that the state conceive of its task as more than attending to public order? Is the duality of church and state a contradiction or a division of labor? The answer to all these questions is actually decided by the vision that one has of the relation between the kingdom of God and the church.

And clustering thereabout are all the other questions which we summarize under the heading: the idea of Christian culture. Is there next to and roundabout the dogma of the church a characteristic, intellectual form of the kingdom in Christian science? And is there next to and roundabout the liturgy a characteristic, aesthetic form of the kingdom in Christian art? What sense does it have to organize a Christian Boy Scouts pack? What is a Christian high school?

And so on and so on. Finally, one arrives at the grand theme of ethics, the Christian life, the doctrine of sanctification. Can one in his Christian life posit more than one sign and can one achieve eternal life? And can one in the positing of signs ever actually get further than Sunday church attendance and the celebration of Communion?

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And actually it is not at all surprising that the decisive importance of our subject extends so infinitely far. It is not only in terms of principle but also of history a primal problem. It already makes itself felt in the Bible.

Because on the one hand, it must strictly be maintained that the preaching of the kingdom of God is characteristic of Christianity in the biblical sense. In the gospels, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven are clearly central to the preaching of Jesus. And well considered, it is no different in the epistles of the apostles. No doubt the apostles express it in other words, at least most of the time (because the word βασιλεία really is not confined to the synoptic gospels), but what they express in these other words, is essentially exactly the same as what Jesus most of the time described by the word kingdom.[1] *) It is simply 19th century myopia to detect in any way a contrast between e.g. the teachings of Jesus and Paulinism. And if one is entirely freed from this myopia, it must be said that, again and in the full sense in other forms, the Old Testament is concerned with the same things. The categories, not in the formal-logical but in the material-theological sense of the basic relations in the structure, remain the same throughout the Bible. One can safely say that, despite the very great differences in language forms, and in spite of the endless variety of accents and facets, the biblical witness is a unity. And one can suitably summarize this unity of content, at least in essence, in the notion of the kingdom of God.

But on the other hand it must be equally strictly maintained that all those, at first sight erratically appearing elements are not to be eliminated from the biblical witness, such as Word and people, witness and sacrament, confession and discipline, offices and worship service, as data which are on the earth but which are chosen, and chosen to be bearers on earth of the idea, the proclamation, the expectation, and the reality of the kingdom. And these data together constitute what with one word from the many words mentioned in the biblical testimony, is called qahal-ecclesia, and which in history has been consolidated as the church of Christ.

And it is therefore not more than at first sight, that the church seems to be an erratic entity in the preaching of the kingdom of God. It is already an unbiblical misunderstanding of the concept of the kingdom, when one believes that he sees this. In the biblical sense, the kingdom of God and the church pertain to each other with the obviousness of divine patience and divine election. That which Chantepie de la Saussaye noted[2] is true, that the idea of the kingdom lends an Israelitic character to the Christian faith, in that it penetrates it with the highly dynamic vision that the last and highest reality is not Being, but a living, acting Person. But it is equally true that precisely this Israelitic character of the kingdom idea can only be protected by the no less Israelitic idea of the chosen people of God as a sign, guarantee, pledge, and support of the kingdom, in the sense that even the participation in all truthfulness of one individual of the elect in the salvation of the kingdom, is not the thing itself, even in a partial sense, but only a sign of the thing, that namely the kingdom shall come upon all flesh. Without this church-idea, the kingdom is stabilized in this or that shape, robbed of its strict-dynamic, godly character, made static in an earthly-human dynamic, in a word, secularized.

The reverse can undoubtedly also be argued. That, namely, the election-, sign-character of the church can only be protected by the kingdom idea. Once the church is no longer involved in the kingdom, if it no longer wishes to be pars pro toto, it flees from the eschatological perspective, converts the promise into reality, no longer understands itself as a sign but as the thing itself. Exaggeratedly expressed, the kingdom without the church becomes history and the church without the kingdom becomes myth, while in terms of biblical categories, the kingdom is myth and the church is history.

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In this way my negative assertion, to wit, that the kingdom of God and the church cannot be parallelized in any form, neither in the coordinated nor in the antithetical sense, that therefore the kingdom of God should not be seen as standing alongside or as standing opposite the church, has already been bolstered with evidence. And after what has been said, it goes without saying that besides this parallelization, any identification must also be rejected. Neither the Roman Catholic idea that the kingdom of God is the church, nor the sectarian idea that the church is the kingdom of God, does justice to the remarkable Biblical, strained and yet again quite obvious duality of both figures.

If one would like to formulate this duality in more detail, then one would have to say that it bears a relation within itself of relativity, mutual commitment, which on the one hand carries a strongly perspectival but also a strongly centric character. By this I mean that the kingdom of God and the church are never two shapes, entities, equivalent areas, which can stand side by side or opposite each other, which can be compared with each other. Yet they are not one and the same, so that they can be equated with each other in one form or another. They are in relation to each other. The church is involved in the kingdom. And the kingdom is involved in the church. But not both in the same sense. The church is involved with the kingdom in a perspectival sense: the church lives here and now only in the perspective of the kingdom. That is the great light. And the kingdom is involved in the church in the centric sense: the kingdom lives here and now exclusively in the center of the church. That is the great darkness. The church expects the kingdom. And the kingdom is present in a hidden way in the church. The mystery of this duality rests in the great problem of pneumatology: the relation of eschatology and predestination.

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It is now about time that we entered into the question: what do we actually mean by “the kingdom of God”?

During the course of ages there have arisen questions which, in their posing of the problem, in my opinion all fell short of the mark.

I am thinking e.g. of the question of kingship and kingdom. The word מַלְכוּת and the word βασίλεια, purely philologically, doubtless have this double meaning, that they on the one hand refer to the position, the dignity, the authority of the king, and on the other, the region, the kingdom over which rule is exercised. In a word like graafschap [countship/county] we feel this double meaning of, first, the count, and second, the area over which one is count, very clearly. I am of the opinion that one should not take too much account of this issue, insofar as it involves an approach to the meaning of the phrase “kingdom of God.” Regardless of how one resolves it, it leads, I think, in its application to the biblical-theological concept of “kingdom of God” per se to a secularization of the concepts, either in an ethicizing or mysticizing sense (with the choice of the first meaning) or in a socializing or ontologizing sense (with the choice of the second meaning), or in an ecclesiologizing sense (with the choice of both meanings at the same time). One must distance oneself from this mapping out of the concepts. Therein already lies a reflection of the transcendent meaning of the term.

I think also of the more famous question of present or future. Twenty or 30 years ago, this question played an enormous role in the theological debate. Is the kingdom or does it come? This question is not so utterly inadequate to approach the biblical-theological meaning of the concept as the previous one. It certainly does not suffice to say that the kingdom is. The Bible, including in its specific New Testament parts, or rather precisely in those parts, is too full of eschatological expectations. However, nor does it suffice to say that the kingdom comes. The Bible, including in its specific Old Testament parts, or rather precisely in those parts, contains too much of the present reality of salvation. Nevertheless, in this case one can combine the two solutions and say that the kingdom is and that it comes. And there you have a fine paradox which beautifully reflects the actual characteristic of the kingdom.

This characteristic I seek, viz., in this definition, that the kingdom is eschatological-soteriological in nature. When we pray in one single prayer: Thy Kingdom come, and: For thine is the kingdom, precisely the same kingdom is intended both times. And since both times not only the same subject, but actually the same verb is intended, it is very sharp expressed in the virtually priceless notion that the kingdom is “at hand,” by which this duality is brought to a common denominator. Incidentally, we may note in consolation that with this opposition we have progressed little, so that we also may coolly drop it again.

Thirdly, in the footsteps of KL Schmidt[3] I draw attention to the remarkable fact that even the New Testament, in which this concept plays such a great role, is extremely sparing with the attributive and predicative descriptions of the kingdom of God. Schmidt cites as attributive descriptions only ἀσαλευτον (motionless), ἐπουρανιος (heavenly), and αἰωνιος (eternal), and as predicative descriptions the comments that, besides God, the kingdom is also of the people, but of those who are poor (in spirit) and are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” may naturally be dropped, since it should be explained by the late Jewish use of “heaven” to avoid the divine name. This austerity in the further characteristic is undoubtedly of great theological importance. It is a boundary line against all immanentistic misconceptions of the concept. It also saves us from picking the idea of the kingdom of God out from the totality of the Biblical witness and, as a manageable ideal, further using it in absolute solitude, or rather, in extremely worldly company. I mean to say that in light of the austerity of the characteristic, it is at least nonsensical to separate this idea of the kingdom of God from the absolutely logical Christological meaning of the New Testament, both epistles and gospels. If this idea must gain further detail for our thinking consciousness, then this must come from the context in which it occurs. And then one can put the matter quite simply in one formula: the kingdom of God = salvation in Christ.

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And with this I turn to the very core, the positive assertion which I would like to defend. The kingdom of God = salvation in Christ.

In support of this argument, I raise the following points.

Firstly, I refer to the exorbitantly large place that miracles, both quantitatively and qualitatively, take in the gospels. In addition to the words of Jesus, and then furthermore of course in the history of His suffering, death, and resurrection, the gospels are still virtually filled with miracle stories. And they are so in very close relation to the preaching of the kingdom. They are the illustration of this preaching; they themselves are the demonstration of the kingdom. Not its realization. The kingdom itself is realized in the resurrection. But indeed, they are its demonstration in this sense, that flashes of eternal light and eternal life, which commence in the resurrection, even now – in the miracles – go shooting through the darkness of this world. Well then, if it is true that miracles are precisely that in which the kingdom is most visible and real, then the soteriological character of the kingdom is thus already identified, here specifically aimed at the physical side of life (but physicality is in the biblical sense the actuality of being human), and then the eschatological character of the kingdom is also directly indicated, because it still only involves a few miracles, which together are not the healing of the world, but only define the field of the signs which refer to themselves and point beyond themselves. The kingdom is a salvation that comes, and is very near.

Secondly, I would refer to this, that it is impossible to keep apart the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of God – both figures are spoken of explicitly – in the New Testament witness. Perhaps Old Testament science rightly has difficulty combining the two figures of the Messianic kingdom and the kingdom of Yahweh,[4] – I do not now pretend to pass judgment on this, even though it seems to me that Old Testament scholars only need push through a thin wall to come, here as well, to the true, to wit, the Christological meaning of the texts.[5]  However, in the N.T. there is very clearly identifiable evidence of a commingling and even identity of the kingdom of God and His Christ. Now, both the fact that there is evidence of a kingdom of Christ and the fact that this is one and the same as the kingdom of God, signifies that it is a simple bypassing of the text, to find the bond between the kingdom and Jesus Christ only in this, that Jesus is the carrier, or – even more abjectly – the preacher of the kingdom. I know that many problems of New Testament scholarship are situated here. In a word: “die Tatsache, dasz Jesus als König bezeichnet wird, mündet ein in die Messiasfrage, in der ja Jesu Messiastum besteht” [the fact that Jesus is called king leads into the Messiah question, in which Jesus’ Messiahship consists].[6] But this is more than a New Testament problem; this is the problem of dogmatics par excellence; in fact, here lies the great question of human life as such: What think ye of Christ? And in terms of the New Testament, everything here is again relatively clear.

Thirdly, I refer to the very rich context of synonyms in which the concept βασιλεια occurs in the N.T. I refer to δικαἰοσυνη, εἰρηνη, χαρα, παλιγγενεσια, σωτηρια, δυναμις, ἐξουσια, δοξα, ἐπιφανεια, χαρις, ἐπαγγελια, ζωη, γνωσις. Alle diese Synonima zeigen, dasz Gottes βασιλεια als Gottes Handeln am Menschen eine soteriologische Angelegenheit ist.[7] [All of these synonyms indicate that God’s kingdom as God’s action to men is a soteriological matter.] Of course, one cannot say that all these concepts are fully covered by the βασιλεια-concept. But as opposed to the usual isolation and abstraction with which one normally exercises this concept, it is of exceptional importance to discover, firstly, that in the Scriptures the figure of the βασιλεια is inserted in this series of words so unforcedly, and also that it functions so excellently in this company, and secondly, that the word can also promiscuously be used with several of these other words without any problem. And now it is certain that the intention of the N.T. with these other words is for them to describe all the moments in the entirety of the gifts and treasures which we have received in Christ. All these things, peace, joy, salvation, strength, glory, revelation, grace, life, knowledge, justice, and thus the kingdom, have come in Christ. In particular, it is under this New Testament synonymy that I advanced the thesis: the kingdom of God = salvation in Christ. It is good in this context to relativize the word “kingdom of God” and thus to relieve it of its fetish character by which it mesmerizes everyone, by reminding oneself that it, too, is but a word, an image, like all the other words in biblical language, and then in this case a manner of speaking which is derived from late Jewish apocalyptics and rabbinism, albeit that the roots lie in Israelite prophetism.[8] One can certainly speak of divine primal words, but one should still remind oneself that in Scripture there is not one word taken up from human vocabulary which Scripture does not drop again, and we must continue to remember that every word that Scripture takes up it immediately places in a, taking all in all, very expressive and living whole of words. The phrase “kingdom of God” therefore cannot be stabilized, as though it could not be replaced by, e.g., the expression “righteousness of God” or “eternal life.” Finally, there is only one primal word that remains, and that is the name “Jesus.”

Fourthly, I would point out that the kingdom of God always and exclusively is presented in its coming as a gift of God. It is nowhere described as a product of the natural evolution of things. Nor as a result of human effort. It comes, because it pleases God to give it. Hence, on the side of man, to receive the kingdom as a child, in the attitude of expectation, in the form of an inheritance, entering into the kingdom through regeneration, the struggle to enter, the search for the kingdom – and to distance oneself from all those others. Sacrifice and patience are the foci of the ellipse of human potential with regard to the kingdom.

This turn in the development of theology during the last twenty years is so abundantly known that I need not go into it deeply. It underlines once again very strongly both the soteriological and the eschatological character of the kingdom.

Finally, I would point out that certain places presuppose the assimilation of the kingdom of God and Christ. Schmidt[9] mentions a number of these places, and then makes the observation that these places only provide a lexicological basis for a conclusion, which was already clear aus dem ganzen Sachverhalt heraus: das hereinbrechende Gottesreich weisz Jesus in seiner Person in die Zeit und in die Welt gekommen, was Johanneisch mit dem Satz: ὀρλογοσ σαρξ έγενετο ausgedrückt ist [from the entire situation: the onrushing kingdom of God refers to Jesus having come in His person in time and into the world, which in Johannine terms is expressed by the statement “the Word became flesh”]. Origen turned this into a wonderful formula when he spoke of the αυτοβασιλεια (self-rule).

And Marcion said in evangelio dei est Regnum Christ ipse. The incarnate, exalted Christ present in the church is the kingdom of God. In this respect, the fundamental fact is therefore clear, that, namely, only once (Rev. 1: 6) is the kingdom of God equated with Christians: Christ έποιησεν ἡρασ βασιλειακ (has made us to be a kingdom).

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With these five observations, it seems to me that the argument is sufficiently substantiated that the kingdom of God is equal to salvation in Christ, such as the whole N.T., indeed the entire Bible, speaks of it. In summary, I would like to quote from Skydsgaard: “If we ask the question: what did Jesus Christ want?, then the answer is: Jesus wanted this one thing: the kingdom of God. Everything in Him, His will, and the depths of His being, His preaching and miracles, were focused on this one thing: The Kingdom of His Father, the realization of God’s will, and the sovereignty and victory of that divine will. To this end he had come: to overcome the violence of sin, death, and the devil, to wrest people from the power of the Evil One, from futility, randomness, and the bitter, unjust suffering of this world; to create a new heaven and a new earth.”[10] The statement: the kingdom of God = salvation in Christ has thus become clear. And also the further definition: for that reason the kingdom is soteriological-eschatological in nature; this essential and solely valid characteristic is thus sufficiently explained. Its yet further unfolding would constitute a full explanation of all the main categories of biblical doctrine such as reconciliation and redemption, ascension and second coming, exaltation and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

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It seems to me essential, before we proceed to put the concept of the kingdom in relation to the notion of the church, that we rule out a few misconceptions, on the basis of the conceptualization of the idea of the kingdom of God we have now developed.

In the first place, the ethicizing conception. It shifts the focus to moral ideals and standards, and the disposition of men that focuses on this and tries to achieve it. This is already a very old misconception. But it is quite remarkable that it always originated in the Hellenistic world. One cannot find this view in the Old Testament. Rabbinism did not come to it either, even though it speaks of an assumption of the yoke of the kingdom of God, for it understands by this a confession of the monotheism of Judaism. But in the Hellenistic parts of the Septuagint the kingdom is already identified with the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, goodness, and courage, and in Philo we find this ethicizing in all purity; he refers the βασιλεια to a chapter in the doctrine of virtue.[11]

And so, one should also note that this view is not in the N.T. either. But the church had hardly entered into the Hellenistic world when it, with the Church Fathers, returned again to this ethicizing of the kingdom, by emphasizing the idea of judgment, making the coming of the kingdom dependent upon the conduct of the congregation, and thus seeking the solution in an ascetic-dualistic perfectionist ethics.[12] And still today the way in which the figure of the kingdom of God is used in theological discussion illustrates in the most startling way how Christianity is sandwiched in the deadly embrace of ethical idealism. Under this heading, one tends to pose the questions of Christianity and war, Christianity and society, Christianity and education! Both the fact that one thinks to categorize these questions under this heading, and especially the fact that they seem to think that this heading is exhausted in these sections, indicates how much the kingdom is identified with the idea of ethical normativity. This has fatal consequences for the relationship of the kingdom of God to the church. This ethicizing goes hand in hand with an individualistic way of thinking, preventing, in advance, a proper view of the concept of church: everything stands and falls with the single card of the moral disposition of the individual. This ethicizing goes hand in hand with a corruption of preaching, which is devoid of any element of prophecy and proclamation and proceeds in propaganda and admonition. The church becomes an aid organization, or – one step further – even an obstacle to the kingdom. Of course one cannot say that all ethical content must be purged from the idea of the kingdom. But this ethical content still only takes shape in a theocratic relativism around the sacrament of the Holy Supper. The Sermon on the Mount and the Civil Code are really not so diametrically opposed. The Christian lives in the light of preaching and sacrament, in a human healthy sense of moderation and civic decency (cf. the “ought” in the first baptism question).[13] This is quite certainly not the kingdom itself. Perhaps one could formulate it as: a telling reminder (now finally a decent man!) of the signs of the kingdom, in particular of the sign of the Holy Supper.

Secondly, I refer to the socialization of the idea of the kingdom. It is a variation of ethicization. Think of the social-gospel idea in America. Think also of religious socialism and related movements. However, think also in this connection of Abraham Kuyper, who made a mighty effort theoretically and practically to demonstrate the kingdom of God as a social force in all areas of life. The same objections apply here as those which I brought against the ethicizing conception of the kingdom. To be added to this is the grand fundamental objection, that in this manner the kingdom gains its own territory, its own shape alongside and opposite the church, by which one, respecting our subject, becomes entangled in hopeless difficulties (sphere sovereignty!). Against this view I would like to posit: Christianity is not a social phenomenon; insofar as it is a phenomenon in the world, it is rather a political phenomenon: in the field of signs it also erects, as a sign almost as important as the Holy Supper, the divine authority of the civil government as minister of God. One can indeed speak of a “politischer Gottesdienst” and, e.g., not, or with much more difficulty, of a cultural service of God. And in no case can one wish for the latter without the former. The only gate that leads from salvation to culture is that of the political order.

Thirdly, the mystical conception of the kingdom as a spiritual realm, hidden deep in the heart of the man and consisting in spiritual fellowship with God, must be rejected just as resolutely. One can arrive at the fascinating idea that there, in that spiritual joy and drunkenness of soul, a piece of the kingdom has become of reality, and thus the boundary line of the sign character of all things has been breached and exceeded. In respect of the relationship between church and kingdom, we have arrived at conviviality. Here all the questions are roused that relate to the work of the Holy Spirit. And there are few aspects of Christian thought in which everyone is so pleasantly and obviously a heretic, than precisely in this one. One must remember the provisional and the conservative and testifying character of the work of the Holy Spirit, in a word, that precisely the outpouring and the work of the Holy Spirit, in Scriptural context, is nothing more than surety, first fruits, in short, the sign par excellence of the kingdom, to be preserved, in very strict discipline of thought, from this mystic fallacy of the kingdom idea. The spiritual joy which we feel in our hearts is no more than a symbol in the biblical sense: a sign set by election, full of the matter which is secretly present.

The fourth conceivable misconception, the ecclesiological, I have already discussed. It identifies the kingdom and the church. I note it in passing.

Finally, there remains a curious case. I am thinking of the ontological-metaphysical conception of the kingdom. It assumes as something obvious, that God reigns. It substantiates this in the creation. And in order to connect to this the biblical elements of soteriology and eschatology which undoubtedly lie in the notion of the kingdom, they readily distinguish the kingdom of omnipotence, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. This leads to the emergence of such an awful lot of problems that I see no chance of forcing them into this short compass. Suffice it therefore to note that the cardinal error lies in the premise. Biblically considered, it is by no means self-evident that God reigns; that is precisely the cosmic question, by which heaven, hell, and earth are kept in a breathless tension and revolutionary movement. With regard to the relation of kingdom and church, the question here arises of the position of the church in the world as such, the extent to which the world can be regarded as suitable terrain for the church. However, for the actual problems raised by our subject, this question has no significance whatsoever.

In this way, I believe that I can maintain my contention in a polemical-negative manner as well, that the kingdom of God is soteriologically-eschatologically to be identified with salvation in Christ.

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And so, having come through this maze of problems, we now arrive at the simple, wide land of the actual case: the relationship between God’s kingdom and the church. Summed up in one word, one can describe this relationship like this: the church is the sign of the kingdom of God. And one will have to clarify further and say the church is the field of the signs of the kingdom of God. There is, and must be, something in the church of the disparate, the multiplicity, the contradiction of the signs. They can only be understood as signs and should therefore be deprived of a definitive meaning and substantiality. When one sees the signs as things, then indeed one comes face to face with the bewilderment of the concept of the church as a Paradoxenhaufe. The contradictions can no longer be borne. And one will then have to specify in more detail by saying that the church is the field of signs in which the kingdom of God is secretly present. In the light of these observations, take a look, e.g., at the classical definition of the Protestant church in the Lutheran confessions: the church is de communio or congregatio sanctorum et vere credentium, in qua evangelium recte docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta [of the communion or congregation of the saints and true believers, in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered]. Nothing of this is more than sign. What a multitude of signs. But in this manner we have the kingdom, here and now. Skydsgaard is right when he, by way of conclusion, describes the relationship of the two figures in this manner: the kingdom of God is partly the critical boundary line, partly the divine content of the church.[14]

One should delineate the concept of the church, approaching it from this angle, with the following viewpoints: 1. election; 2. miracle; 3. the cross; 4. the sacrament; 5. preaching. On each of these five, a few remarks.

That there is a church is a “von Gott gesetzte Sache, über die wir Menschen von uns nicht aus verfügen können und dürfen.”[15] [A thing established by God of which we humans cannot and ought not dispose]. Election is the heart of the church. This applies to the gathering of the people, to the sacraments, to preaching, even to the liturgy, and especially to the offices. Nothing in the church lies in itself. Nor does anything have an inward existence, objectivity in itself. It all is, because it is posited by God. This truth of election emphatically underlines the sign-character of the church. Provided one does not turn around and substantify election. Viewed from this truth of election, it is certainly not enough to speak of the church as the gathering of the called. One must go further and speak of the gathering of true Christ-believers, even of the church as numerus praedestinatorum. Provided one continues to remember that this numerus praedestinatorum only becomes revealed, becomes real, around sacrament, preaching, and office. And in this manner, the sign character also of election-in-the-individual-sense is emphatically maintained. The chosen one can only cross himself out and speak of the universality of salvation. One always needs to jump from one sign to the next.[16] This is what in our youth we called: step on the flounder.[17] But this truth of election adds a third element to the two already mentioned –  sacrifice and patience – in the relation in which man receives the kingdom, and that is sober obedience. I can only adhere to all the signs set by God, and allow space in my heart to grow to embrace them all.[18] Election presses a very deep love for the church into the expectation of the kingdom.

In addition to this element of election, the element of miracle must at once be posited. Today we speak – and rightly so – of “the miracle of the church.” One can only experience the church in this manner. That it is there, and that it is still there, and that it still is what it is – all of that, given the practice of the church, is simply a visible miracle of God. This puts the church on a level with all of the miracles of which Scripture tells us. And in order to see the significance of this, take note of one thing: Jesus rose from the dead, but in a glorified body; Lazarus, and the daughter of Jairus, and the youth of Nain rose from the dead, yet not in a glorified body. Herein is figuratively expressed the relation between the kingdom and the church. And thus in principle is also said what the position of the church is in the world: the church is everything in the world, the actual and the only, but: there is nothing special about it.

Thirdly, in addition to election and miracle, the cross. The church is the congregation under the cross. The ascension brings the church back into the situation of the cross. Christ is king, and as king He rules, but: He reigns from the cross. The crucifixion was a sort of elevation, a kind of ascension for Christ. Similarly, vice versa: the ascension is a kind of crucifixion for His congregation. This reminds the church very strongly: only sign, not the thing itself; only sign of the kingdom, not the kingdom itself. The kingdom is the critical boundary line around the church.

Fourth, immediately connected to this: critical boundary line, no doubt, but also at the same time divine content. Therefore, we must continue with the figure of the cross as well as the figure of the sacrament. This is not at all a contradiction. We know from our own baptism and communion forms, how closely cross and sacrament belong together. Yet now the emphasis is shifted, the tone changed. The cross says: only sign, “vilis et abjecta”  [low and reprehensible] (Calvin); the sacrament says: but therein truly a sign of the divine thing, and the church gains part of the depth and glory of the kingdom.

Finally, preaching. That is what everything runs to, if one thinks through everything connectedly, and in particular, if one sees the church in the light of the kingdom. The essence of the church lies in this: not that it has sacraments, but that it is the bearer of the gospel of the kingdom. The church is church of the Word.

In summary, I would say as a result of the argument: the kingdom of God is only – and then hidden – present in the church; the church is just a – and then hidden – sign of the kingdom of God. One therefore cannot escape from the church into the kingdom, but one can only, in the church, lift up his heart in the kingdom.


[1] Cf. K.L. Schmidt, in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1933?), vol. I, p. 584 (entry “basilea”?): “dasz es sich beim Gottesreich um das Ganze der Verkündigung Jesu Christi und seiner Apostel handelt” [the kingdom of God deals with the whole of the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His apostles]. Published in English as Gerhard Kittel et al., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964).

[2] Cited by Dr. G. van der Leeuw in Het oecumenisch gesprek der kerken [The Ecumenical Discussion of the Churches] (Boekencentrum, 1939).

[3] Schmidt, in Theologisches Wörterbuch, p. 583.

[4] Cf. von Rad in Theologisches Wörterbuch, vol. I, pp. 566-567.

[5] Perhaps this pressing through the thin wall is also reserved to preaching in the church, in which case preaching is more scientific, i.e., more tied to the matter at hand, than Old Testament science itself.

[6] Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, pp. 578, 581-582.

[7] Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, pp. 583-584.

[8] Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, p. 585.

[9] Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, pp. 590-591.

[10] Dr. K. E. Skydsgaard, “Godsrijk en kerk” [Kingdom of God and the Church], in Onder eigen vaandel: driemaandelijksch theologisch tijdschrift [Under Our Own Banner: Quarterly Theological Journal], 14 (1939), p. 116.

[11] Kuhn in Theologisches Wörterbuch, vol. I, p. 571, and Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, vol. I, pp. 574-575.

[12] Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, vol. I, p. 594.

[13] [The first question in the baptismal form reads as follows: “Do you acknowledge that our children, though conceived and born in sin and therefore subject to all manner of misery, yea, to condemnation itself, are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of his Church ought to be baptized?” Anglo-Genevan Psalter (Committee for the Publication of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, 1972), p. 499.

[14] Skydsgaard, “Godsrijk en kerk,” p. 124.

[15] Schmidt in Theologisches Wörterbuch, vol. III, p. 511.

[16] Also the ordering of the covenant of grace: the believer and his seed can, despite all truthfulness of its content, only be demoted and accommodated as a sign that has been posited by God. The notion of the national church should then be maintained, but it is stripped of all romance. Incidentally, the relation of the kingdom of God and the covenant is a topic in itself, which is not so simple.

[17] Scholletje trappen: “an exciting activity that warmed you up. A group of boys quickly go one after the other across a drainage ditch, stomping hard on the ice, until a floe comes loose, and then try to reach the other side on that shaky floe. At a certain moment the floe breaks into pieces, at which point the most fearless try to reach the other side with speed and as lightly as possible via several floes. The wider the ditch the more exciting it was. The game always ended with one or more boys with wet feet.” From Piet Nijmans, “Ijspret” [Fun on the Ice], available at http://goo.gl/gX6OAM.

[18] This is the meaning of Article 28 of the Belgic Confession, “that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church,” etc. It concerns an acceptance in obedience and love, and an embrace, of all of the signs that God has set. Only in this manner can one be high-church.

By Ruben Alvarado

Mr. Ruben Alvarado is an independent scholar, publisher, and translator living to the east of Arnhem in the Netherlands. His writings, which span a wide variety of issues, can be found at WordBridge Publishing, Common Law Review, and Common Law Economics.