A Review of “Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God”

While a number of volumes have appeared on the general theme of the kingdom of God, this work of Professor George E. Ladd, Ph.D., Associate Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, will take a unique place among them. It is, first of all, a work of a conservative scholar who debates on the high level of faith in the inspired Word of God. Secondly, it is a defense of premillennialism, in contrast to such works as Louis Berkhof’s The Kingdom of God and Geerhardus Vos’ The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church, which defend the amillennial position. Thirdly, it is a critique of the dispensational concept of the kingdom of God. To some this will be the most significant contribution.

The Scope of the Work

Dr. Ladd, whose articles on the kingdom of God in Jewish Apocryphal literature are appearing currently in Bibliotheca Sacra, presents in this volume the results of his study of the New Testament doctrine of the kingdom of God with the additional background of his studies in the Apocrypha. Beginning with the question, “Have the Problems Been Solved?” he outlines the teaching of ancient and medieval Christianity on the subject of the kingdom and follows with an analysis of the modern contemporary theology of the kingdom. In his discussion of the conservative doctrine of the kingdom, he distinguishes the postmillennial, amillennial, and premillennial points of view with a further division of premillennialism into dispensational and nondispensational. On the whole, these early chapters of the book present a sane and scholarly outline of the history of the doctrine which will be valuable to all students of the doctrine of the kingdom.

Upon this foundation, the author builds the structure of his work, discussing consecutively the problem of holding to both a present and future kingdom, the interpretation of the term kingdom of heaven, and the exegesis of Revelation 20 as it relates to this problem. Concluding the book is a consideration of objections to millennial interpretation. The work on the whole is obviously the careful work of a reverent scholar who is courteous to his opponents, endeavoring not to misrepresent an issue, and seeking the truth. To dispensationalists, however, it will prove to be a disappointment. Like most works of this kind, the real question lies in the theological presuppositions.

Theological Presuppositions

Dr. Wilbur M. Smith in his introduction to this volume cites one major criticism: “I think that Dr. Ladd, like many other writers on this subject, has not adequately pointed out the difference between the concept of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament and the Messianic Kingdom, the reign of Christ on this earth” (p. 11). This is borne out by the content of the volume. Although not a covenant theologian, Dr. Ladd’s view is similar to covenant theology which regards the whole purpose of God as essentially soteriological and concerned with the unfolding of the plan of salvation. This view conceives the purpose of God in the various dispensations as essentially one, or aspects of the same unity. Thus it is held that the church begins in the Old Testament and embraces Israel as well as New Testament saints. Likewise, the kingdom of Israel becomes a phase of the larger unfolding of God’s purpose and the Messianic kingdom is just another form of redemptive purpose. Dr. Ladd states on page 83: “The kingdom of God is therefore primarily a soteriological concept…. It is not the sovereignty of God as such.” In a footnote on the same page he states: “However, beginning with the ‘Protevangelium’ (Gen 3:15), the theme of redemption runs throughout the Old Testament; and the vision of God’s reign in the future will see the restoration of the knowledge of God and obedience to his will restored in all the earth (Isa 2:1-4).” In other words, the main idea of the kingdom of God is the unfolding of the plan of redemption rather than the sovereignty of God. He further identifies the kingdom with salvation itself in a more extended discussion (pp. 90-94). Ladd states in his summary of page 97: “Thus the kingdom is seen to be a single concept, the rule of God, which manifests itself in a progressive way and in more than one realm. It is Gods saving will in action” (italics in original).

Dr. Ladd is building, then, upon a concept of the kingdom of God derived from exegesis of the Old Testament which is assumed rather than discussed. He states further on page 83 in a footnote: “The limitations of these lectures do not permit the elaboration and application of this definition of the kingdom of God in its Old Testament setting.” By choice the author waives the Old Testament problem. But this is like ignoring the foundation of a building in order to concentrate on the superstructure. The reviewer believes that the crucial problem of interpretation of the kingdom of God does not lie in the New but in the Old Testament. Until this problem is faced, there can be little progess in the New Testament doctrine.

It is not the purpose of the present review to restate the opposition of dispensationalists to the covenant concept of the kingdom of God. Suffice it to say dispensationalists regard covenant theology as built upon amillennial theology, though many premillenarians claim to have harmonized it with their system. Historically, modern covenant theology had no connection with premillennialism either ancient or modern and is a post-Reformation development which came as a reaction against ultra-Calvinism. It requires spiritualization of the Old Testament covenants made with Israel in important particulars and unduly restricts the larger purpose of God to soteriology. The reviewer believes a more tenable position is that the larger purpose of God is the manifestation of His own glory. To this end each dispensation, each successive revelation of God’s plan for the ages, His dealing with the nonelect as with the elect, and the glories of nature combine to manifest divine glory. There is provided a unity to the plan of God which does not require merging Israel and the church or the present form of the kingdom of God with the future Messianic kingdom. These issues have frequently been discussed from the dispensational point of view in Bibliotheca Sacra during the last ten years. It is the reviewer’s opinion that Dr. Ladd already has assumed in his theological presuppositions much of what he is attempting to prove in this volume.

Problem of Definition

One of the major problems in the doctrine of the kingdom of God is definition. Dr. Ladd offers his definition on page 80 as follows: “If we may indicate our findings at the outset we may say that our study of the New Testament data has led to the conclusion that the kingdom of God is the sovereign rule of God, manifested in the person and work of Christ, creating a people over whom he reigns, and issuing in a realm or realms in which the power of his reign is realized (Italics in original). While this is a preliminary definition, it is singular that he has built so much upon the word for kingdom—βασιλεία, so little upon Biblical usage, or the Old Testament doctrine of the kingdom. It is also significant that his definition would be happily accepted by amillenarians as it expresses their concept exactly. The reason that dispensationalists prefer another definition is not simply “assumption” as he states on page 78, but on account of the doctrine in the Old Testament. From the Old Testament viewpoint kingdom was identified with Messianic kingdom, and the only kingdom Israel anticipated was the Messianic kingdom predicted by the prophets. The problem of kingdom truth is not solved by a general definition. The problem lies in the particulars.

Solution Offered to the Problem of Future and Present Kingdoms

Much of the content of the chapter attempting a solution of the problem of a present and future kingdoms is most helpful to premillennialism. Dr. Ladd points out how in Scripture there are repeated anticipations of a future kingdom. The moral issues of the present age cannot be dissolved apart from the sovereign intervention of God in the second advent. As has already been noted, however, the omission of some of the central aspects of the doctrine of the kingdom of God in its Messianic character will distress dispensationalists. While the author quotes Old Testament passages bearing on the general triumph of righteousness in the millennial kingdom, the fact that Christ reigns on the throne of David, that the kingdom centers in the nation Israel, and that it is political and theocratic rather than only soteriological is ignored completely. The reviewer questions whether the author has really proved his case. Has the essential governmental concept of the kingdom been fairly faced? The author does not even quote Peters’ monumental Theocratic Kingdom in this discussion, and refers to it only twice in the entire volume. The reason seems to be that he does not accept Peters’ concept. But is a classic work like this answered by ignoring it?

Interpretation of the Kingdom of Heaven

From the standpoint of proper analysis of the problem, one of the most serious difficulties is found in the two chapters on the kingdom of heaven. Dispensationalists have not always been clear in their own presentation of the kingdom of God, but the reviewer questions whether they should be blamed entirely for the misconstruction of that which is presented in these chapters. Dr. Ladd attempts to combine the controversy on the question whether the kingdom was postponed with the difference in definition of the kingdom of heaven. Actually, the two controversies are not related. While dispensationalists are apt to emphasize the term kingdom of heaven as relating to the future Messianic kingdom, the term also applies to the kingdom in the present age. Some of the quotations which the author includes show this. It is also true that the term kingdom of God is used both of the present age and of the future Messianic kingdom. In other words, neither the term kingdom of God nor kingdom of heaven is in itself a technical term applying to the Messianic kingdom. In the context of each instance it can be determined whether the reference is to the present form of the kingdom or the future Messianic kingdom. The issue is whether there is a future form of this kingdom as the premillenarians believe. In affirming that there is such a future form of the kingdom the author and reviewer concur.

Another major confusion in this discussion is the mistaken notion commonly held by nondispensationalists that the distinction often affirmed between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven is essential to the dispensational argument. Actually one could maintain this distinction and be an amillenarian or deny it and be a dispensationalist. The distinction, as usually presented is between the kingdom of heaven as an outward sphere of profession and the kingdom of God as a sphere of reality including only the elect. This may be debated on the exegesis of statements in John 3 that it is necessary to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. The tares of Matthew 13 in the kingdom of heaven, representing profession, though unsaved are indistinguishable from the wheat representing the elect. As far as affecting the premillennial or dispensational argument, in the opinion of the reviewer it is irrelevant. The issue is not whether the kingdom of heaven is postponed but whether the Messianic kingdom offered by the Old Testament prophets and expected by the Jewish people in connection with the first advent was offered, rejected, and postponed until the second advent. We believe the author is therefore incorrect in building the dispensational doctrine of a postponed kingdom on the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. It depends rather upon the distinction between the present form of the kingdom and the future form of the kingdom, which is entirely a different matter.

Much of the remainder of the chapter dealing with the issue of the postponement of the kingdom is logically non sequitur because of this inaccurate analysis of the issue. The author seems to ignore the fact which his own quotations bring out that if the kingdom of heaven is the sphere of profession and the kingdom of God includes the elect obviously there is much which is held in common. This explains easily every reference which is parallel using both terms. What is asserted in parallel passages happens to be true of both concepts of the kingdom. The author is guilty of an anachronism when he argues that because a rich man can easily join a church today profession for a rich man in Bible times was easy. As a matter of fact, it would have been costly even to profess faith in Christ in the first century.

Argument against Postponement View

The author restates with vigor the usual arguments against the postponement view. The reviewer’s position on this has frequently been stated in Bibliotheca Sacra and as recently as the last issue. The author does not discuss any of the principal Scripture references cited there to show that the only kingdom the Jews expected, even as late as Acts 1, was the Messianic kingdom. It is evident that a full comprehension of the postponement view has not been achieved. The only really pertinent discussion is found on pages 113-17.

The principal reason for the postponement view is the obvious fact, apparent even to a casual student of the Gospels, that the Jews, the disciples, and all the followers of Jesus even as late as Acts 1 were still expecting precisely the kingdom predicted by the prophets. They never dreamed of the present age intervening between the two advents as far as we can determine from the Gospels. Even when it became clear that Christ was going away, the very doctrine of the imminent return so universally held by the early church minimized the present age and caused it to be regarded as probably a short preparatory period for the millennial kingdom. The only way one can hold to the position advanced by our author is to show that the Old Testament prophets themselves predicted such a form of the kingdom as now exists.

Most of the author’s argument depends upon the fact that Christ needed to suffer before His glory and that misunderstanding on the part of the Jews proves nothing. The important fact overlooked is that Christ never contradicted the Jewish expectation and it was confirmed to Mary (Luke 1:32-33), and to the disciples (Matt 20:19-23; Luke 22:30). As late as Acts 1:6, in answer to the question of the puzzled disciples concerning their Jewish kingdom expectation, they were merely told that the time could not be revealed. The portions of the Gospels which anticipate the present age are always built upon a context of rejection of the kingdom message. There are problems to either concept which cannot be fully weighed in a review, but the reviewer questions whether this chapter meets the issue. The entire chapter on linguistic interpretation of the kingdom of heaven is beside the point as the main issue is the usage in Matthew which rests upon doctrinal rather than linguistic questions. As has been previously shown, the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven is irrelevant to either premillennialism or dispensationalism.

Revelation 20

In view of the fact that the preceding chapters have been chiefly a refutation of dispensationalism in which the author, though a premillenarian, will have the hearty approval of all enemies of premillennialism, one turns with some anticipation to the chapter dealing with Revelation 20. Again, there is a remarkable similarity to the approach taken by the amillenarian. The author insists that the principle of applying Israel’s promises to the church is proved by Hebrews 8:6-13. The reader is referred to the reviewer’s article on this point in Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March, 1946, pp. 16-27. Dr. Ladd reads into the passage precisely what Allis, an amillenarian, does, ignoring the fact that the argument hangs only on the promise of a new covenant as predicting the passing of the old, but not on the particulars. This passage never identifies the new covenant with Israel with the new covenant with the church.

The argument dealing with Revelation 20 is on the whole helpful. The author drives home with logic which to the reviewer seems irresistible that the passage stands or falls on the interpretation of the two resurrections. He states: “The crux of the entire exegetical problem is the meaning of the one word: ezesan” (p. 143). The reviewer pales somewhat, however, at the implication that the entire New Testament doctrine of the millennium hangs upon one word, and its literal interpretation. This is further emphasized by the author’s bold admission that the millennium may well prove not to be a millennium in duration after all: “The 1000 years may well be a symbol for a long period of time, the exact extent of which is unknown” (pp. 147-48; cf. p. 159). It should be clear to any careful student of premillennialism that the author has embraced only a relatively small part of the usual argument for premillennialism. For instance, he has omitted entirely the argument from the doctrine of the imminency of the return of Christ which practically all admit was held by the early church. This very doctrine makes impossible an interadvent period of 1, 000 years or more as held by Augustinian amillenarians and the postmillennial concept of a thousand years at the end of the interadvent period. The early church viewed the 1, 000 years as post-advent, which coincides with premillennialism. The principal arguments for premillennialism found in the Old Testament have not only been waived here but greatly weakened by admission of the amillennial principle that promises to Israel may be applied to the church.

Answer to Objections to Millennial Interpretation

Some of the deficiencies of early chapters in regard to support of premillennialism are met in the concluding chapter. The discussion of the charge that premillennialism is Jewish and therefore non-Christian is excellent. The author states the question: “Does the occurrence of a doctrine of a temporal kingdom in Jewish eschatology invalidate a similar doctrine in Christianity?” (p. 165). The author shows definitely that the charge is largely without ground as the idea of a millennial kingdom is not at all common in Jewish literature before the Christian era and similarities which may exist in later literature do not prove a causal factor in New Testament interpretation. The author could have included with more emphasis the obvious argument that such a kingdom was a natural exegesis of the Old Testament prophecies and even if found extensively in noncanonical literature, it still would not prove the view unbiblical.

The usual charge that the millennium is taught only in Revelation 20 is answered by pointing out that the postmillennial view is built largely upon the parable of the leaven, with the leaven interpreted as the gospel. From the reviewer’s point of view, this proves inconsistency on the part of postmillenarians who object to the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20, but does not prove the point in question. The author’s argument from the Gospels is much more convincing especially as supported by the Epistles and the other evidences for a future kingdom scattered throughout the volume. Even though the author has largely suspended the Old Testament contribution to this question, his New Testament evidence for a future kingdom on earth is well expressed.

Taken as a whole the volume will fill a place in interpretation midway between the amillennial on the one hand and the dispensational viewpoint on the other. Because of its limited objective, its nondispensational theology, and its fine literary form and scholarly language, it will serve to put ordinary amillenarians such as Allis, Berkhof, and Vos on the defensive. It is actually a compromise position which at once has the strength of modesty and the weakness of too many concessions to the opposition. The volume should be read and studied on its merits.

Dallas, Texas

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.