Revisiting George Eldon Ladd and Talk of the Kingdom

W. Jackson Watts

(This post originally appeared as part of Newsletter #62 at Churchatopia, a blog/website operated by Commission member Jackson Watts. It has been lightly edited and reposted here.)

Do you ever find yourself talking about the “already-not yet” when it comes to eschatology or most anything else biblical? Somewhere along the way, directly or indirectly, you probably derived this from George Eldon Ladd.

Ladd was a brilliant, prolific New Testament theologian, best known for his many books and years as a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was one of the intellectual giants of the mid-twentieth century neo-evangelical renaissance. His book The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God is one of my favorites. I couldn’t imagine my library without it, though it’s probably not as groundbreaking as other works, such as The Presence of the Future or A Theology of the New Testament.

Ladd’s greatest and lasting contribution is his work on the theme of the Kingdom. Here are a few quotations from The Gospel of the Kingdom:

“The Kingdom of God is basically the rule of God. It is God’s reign, the divine sovereignty in action.” (24)

“The life and fellowship of a Christian church ought to be a fellowship of people among whom God’s will is done—a bit of heaven on earth.” (23)

If you’ve been a Christian for some length of time, you’ve most likely heard these expressions or used them yourself. Ladd’s fingerprints are everywhere in contemporary evangelical discussions about the Kingdom. His work helps us refocus on the reign and rule of God, not primarily a realm, a theme that is less attenuated in the New Testament (at least compared to the amount of emphasis this typically receives).

This leads to a question that all Christians need to consider: are we responsible for building, growing, or expanding God’s Kingdom? I’ve revisited this question in my thinking recently as I’ve preached through Matthew 13. You can’t escape this question when you deal with such chapters. But I don’t think you can when you’re trying to lead people, either.

I would say that the mainstream evangelical sentiment is this: “any biblically consistent endeavor we undertake as Christians could be described as advancing or building the Kingdom. Certainly, church-related efforts, such as new ministries, new churches, and the like, could be thought of as helping grow the Kingdom.”

On one level, I think most people know the Kingdom and the church aren’t the same, technically speaking. On the other, I don’t know that most people have thought through the precise degree of overlap and difference.

Before returning to Ladd, a better question might be, does it matter? I think it does, for at least three reasons.

First, if we don’t use Bible words the way the Bible uses them, errors are bound to creep into our thoughts and obedience.

Second, as an extension of the first reason, if we set out to do what we’re not able to do, then we’re destined for failure, leading to discouragement and despair. If we set out to do what we’re not supposed to do, we’ll be guilty of disobedience. Moreover, we may make a mess of God’s good work.

Third, as Russell Moore recently noted, “Metaphors matter. They shape the way we see who we are, where we are, and what we do.” “Building,” “growing”, or “advancing” are all metaphors that show and shape how we’re seeing God’s Kingdom. Chalking this whole conversation up to semantics is exactly the point. Semantics concerns the meaning of words. Ergo, what we mean in what we say is everything.

I can conceive of other reasons why properly defining “Kingdom of God” may matter, but these three seem to encompass most of them.

Kevin DeYoung wrote a bit on this topic some years ago on his very good blog. In this brief article, he provides an excerpt from Ladd, which he takes as a way of chastening all the talk about the Kingdom being something that grows. From Ladd:

“The Kingdom can draw near to men (Matt. 3:2; 4:17Mark 1:15; etc.); it can come (Matt. 6:10Luke 17:20; etc.), arrive (Matt. 12:28), appear (Luke 19:11), be active (Matt. 11:12). God can give the Kingdom to men (Matt. 21:43Luke 12:32), but men do not give the Kingdom to one another.

Further, God can take the Kingdom away from men (Matt. 21:43), but men do not take it away from one another, although they can prevent others from entering it. Men can enter the Kingdom (Matt. 5:20; 7:21Mark 9:47; 10:23; etc.), but they are never said to erect it or to build it. Men can receive the Kingdom (Mark 10:15Luke 18:17), inherit it (Matt. 25:34), and possess it (Matt. 5:4), but they are never said to establish it. Men can reject the Kingdom, i.e., refuse to receive it (Luke 10:11) or enter it (Matt. 23:13), but they cannot destroy it.

They can look for it (Luke 23:51), pray for its coming (Matt. 6:10), and seek it (Matt. 6:33Luke 12:31), but they cannot bring it. Men may be in the Kingdom (Matt. 5:19; 8:11Luke 13:29; etc.), but we are not told that the Kingdom grows. Men can do things for the sake of the Kingdom (Matt. 19:12Luke 18:29), but they are not said to act upon the Kingdom itself. Men can preach the Kingdom (Matt. 10:7Luke 10:9), but only God can give it to men (Luke 12:32). ”

(The Presence of the Future, 193)

DeYoung proceeds to offer some more careful ways of speaking about the Kingdom. I think he’s mostly on target with both his usage of Ladd as well as his own take. I will say, however, that I still think Matthew 13:31-33 may be the best passage to challenge his view:

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

I tend to think that “impact” is a better word to capture what Jesus is describing here, as opposed to “growth” or “expansion.” Again, I suppose it depends on how precisely we’re defining these words. The key to understanding parables like these is (1) don’t focus on the wrong detail, (2) pay attention to crucial words such as “like” (different than “equals”), and (3) don’t read into the passage our modern way of seeing things.

On the whole, then, my antennae raise when I hear someone talk about “building the Kingdom.” I’m confident this isn’t how Scripture describes our task. As Ladd says,

“The Kingdom of God is a miracle. It is the act of God. It is supernatural. Men cannot build the Kingdom, they cannot erect it. The Kingdom is the Kingdom of God; it is God’s reign, God’s rule. God has entrusted the Gospel of the Kingdom to men. It is our responsibility to proclaim the Good News about the Kingdom. But the actual working of the Kingdom is God’s working. The fruitage is produced not by human effort or skill but by the life of the Kingdom itself. It is God’s deed.”

(The Gospel of the Kingdom, 64)

When it comes to notions like “growth” and “expansion,” I think there could be some limited usage of these which coheres with the New Testament. But if there is, it is limited—and probably different from how we’re used to talking about ministry!

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