What I’m Reading: The Promise and the Presence, or, So THAT’S Why Dispy’s Make Fun of “Already, Not Yet”

I’ve been reading Alva J. McClain’s The Greatness of the Kingdom, and I thought I’d compare it to an understanding of the kingdom that is a bit broader. To that end, I picked up another book that has been wasting away on my bookshelves for many a year and gave it a read. The book? The Promise and the Presence: Toward a Theology of the Kingdom of God by Isaac C. Rottenberg.

RottenbergRottenberg introduces the book by explaining his alignment with the World Council of Churches. (Yes, that was a warning, but I persevered, unfortunately.) As the title may already have indicated to the attentive reader, Rottenberg is promoting a view of the Kingdom of God that is “already” (hence, Presence) but “not yet” (hence, Promise). Now, I’ve argued that the Kingdom is spiritually present, and I’ve not yet been convinced otherwise. However, this book almost persuaded me to change my opinion. It’s liberal, it promotes strange views of the Kingdom, and it twists the Scriptures. Fortunately it’s only 100 pages long. (I’m one of those guys that can’t stop reading even a bad book once it’s started.)

Truth be told, it was actually quite educational, and I’m glad I was exposed to it. It was interesting to read the reasoning of those who not only believe that there is a spiritual Kingdom present today, but also that we’re responsible to expand it as we await the future earthly Kingdom. How do we participate in this expansion? Social activism. Now, in fairness, Rottenberg actually critiques the social gospel as being too narrow and ignoring the spiritual aspects of the gospel: what some in the 60’s and 70’s missed was that Jesus came to offer religion and social reform, not just social reform. On the other hand, he also critiques those who believe that the kingdom is entirely future, calling them “escapists.” Frankly, he criticizes almost everyone. Here are a few highlights from the book:

  • “[B]orn again Christians have commonly shown a significant lack of interest in kingdom theology. They love to talk about conversion, but they fear that emphasizing the kingdom of God will lead them straight into what they believe to be the horrible pitfalls of the ‘social gospel.’ Thus conversion theology and kingdom theology tend to go their separate ways, which is one of the major tragedies of Christian history, because it prevents us from dealing biblically with the social implications of the gospel.” (p. 20-21)
  • “A Christian hope that is based on a belief in the presence of the kingdom will not soon become escapist and other-worldly. Ours is not a passive hope. the power of the new age is being manifested in history; God is establishing his kingdom upon the earth; there is fulfillment and we receive a foretaste of the future. Therefore, hope becomes expressed in our mission to the world.” (p. 46-47)
  • “[W]hen the ‘not yet’ is stressed at the expense of the ‘already’. . . there is much talk about heaven and the hopelessness of any human efforts to establish a more just social order.” (p. 48)
  • Quoting from H. Berkhof’s book Christ the Meaning of History: “[I]n the glorification of this world God will add to what has been realized of the liberation of human existence.” (p. 61)
  • He quotes Walter Rauschenbusch approvingly: “It is for us to see the kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action. We walk by faith. Every human life is so placed that it can share with God in the creation of the kingdom or it can resist or retard its progress. The kingdom of god is for each of us the supreme task and the supreme gift of God. By laboring for it, we enter into the joy and peace of the kingdom as our divine fatherland and habitation.” (p. 73)
  • One more, this time quoting your favorite and mine, “the great American evangelist Charles Finney”: “Now the great business of the Church is to reform the world—to put away every kind of sin. the Church of Christ was originally organized as a body of reformers. The very profession of Christianity implies the profession and virtually an oath to do all that can be done for the universal reformation of the world. The Christian Church was designed to make aggressive movements in every direction—to lift up her voice and put forth her energies against iniquity in high and low places—to reform individuals, communities, and governments, and never rest until the kingdom and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High God—until every form of iniquity shall be driven from the earth.” (p. 96)

The good news? You can find the book on line for only $1. However, you could take that same dollar to McDonald’s and get a double cheeseburger. The latter is probably less likely to give you indigestion, which is saying something, I think.

Believing that there is a current manifestation of the Kingdom obviously doesn’t require or lead to these excesses.  Many Bible students who have no leanings toward the social gospel still hold the spiritual Kingdom position based simply on their understanding of NT Scriptures.  That said, I do understand more clearly at least one reason why many dispensationalists reject the belief so vehemently.


11 Responses

  1. ” . . . one reason why many dispensationlists reject the belief so vehemently” — So, you’re saying they’re reactionary? Liberals say something, we better say something else. Couldn’t agree more.

    Thanks for noting that many orthodox (as opposed to modernist/liberals like this author) believers hold strongly to the “already/not yet” understanding — because they see it in Scripture. Couldn’t agree more here too.

  2. How does a Kingdom be spiritually present?

    I more incline towards “not yet / not yet.” I am, and must behave like, a citizen of a Kingdom that is coming.

  3. What makes a kingdom? A king who reigns possibly?

    Is Christ not King? Does he not reign? If he is and he does, then don’t we already have a kingdom? If we don’t have a kingdom, over what does Christ reign?

    Of course, that kingdom is not yet present in its fullness — it is a growing kingdom. Christ chooses to work through means and through time. So, through these means and time, the kingdom will grow in territory and perfection.

    To roughly paraphrase C.S. Lewis from memory — The war has been won, but there’s still a bit of mopping up to do.

  4. Oh, yeah, one more question: How does one behave like a citizen of a kingdom that doesn’t exist?

  5. Ah. Then, on your set-the-Bible-aside-and-theorize view, since God has always been King, it was stupid to pray “Thy Kingdom come” the first time, too?

    To quote Paul exactly, rather than paraphrase, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9) How do you inherit something that’s present?

  6. No setting the Bible aside here. That is a tired dispensationalist acusation.

    God has always been king, but obviously it is not stupid to pray as Christ (who is God) taught us. It also does not seem to be a stretch, or unusual way to use language, to understand the request for the kingdom to come as a request for it to grow — a request for it to come in the fullness which is NOT YET here.

    The Lord’s Prayer also petitions for God’s will to be done — had that never happened before Christ uttered the prayer?

    As far as inheritting something that’s present goes . . . When my uncle dies, I’m going to inherit his house, a house that’s already present. When my mother dies, I’m going to inherit her house, a house that’s already present. When a certain family friend of mine dies, I’m going to inherit some cash, cash that is already present.

    The unrighteous will not share in the benefits of the kingdom when it comes in the fullness that is NOT YET here.


  7. FWIW, count me as a dispensationalist who preaches differing aspects of the eternal kingdom. So on this point I’m with you, Keith.

    This is one of those teapot tempests that has always struck me as extremely odd. It is like the ‘local only’ view of the church… a distinction that makes no difference and isn’t worth the energy of debate.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  8. Wow, Don and I on the same side of a friendly debate!

    Don, I largely agree with you about the relative merits of debating certain topics. However, I wonder . . . Would you not agree that there is a real difference in the praxis of those who actually do strictly adhere to the “local only” view of the church or the “strict dispensationalist” view of Scripture?

    I mean, I heard one strict dispensationalist claim that those with views like mine, “Are almost following a different religion.” And, “religion” wasn’t used to mean denomination or hermeneutic it was used to mean non-Christian. Further, I’ve seen these strict dispensationalists outlaw use of many passages of scripture because “that’s for the Kingdom age and we’re in the Church age.” I really think such positions do make a big difference.

    To clarify, I am not alleging that Dan Phillips holds such strict dispensationalist views — I don’t know. However, denying any present reality of the Kingdom is at least leaning that way. And, even though I have no trouble believing that even the strictest dispensationalists are brother Christians, I do believe that their position leads to non-biblical praxis.

    To clarify further, I am aware, and readily acknowledge, that there are many, many dispensationlists — like you Don and maybe like Dan — who aren’t “strict”.

  9. Hi Keith

    On this:

    I do believe that their position leads to non-biblical praxis.

    I would rephrase it to say “can lead to” rather than “leads to”. This is where I am somewhat averse to holding systematic theology to be the be all and end all of orthodox belief. The more precisely and dogmatically we define and hold our systems, the more we must exclude brethren from orthodoxy. I favor clarity on the fundamentals and fuzziness on the incidentals.

    I have a real problem with people pushing their system so hard that one’s failure to accept it = non-Christianity. I have seen this on almost every side of passionate theological debate.

    On the other hand, if some denies the deity of Christ, or the bodily return, etc… well…

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  10. I can say a loud amen to that.

  11. Sorry to start the discussion then bail, guys. I’m on vacation in Colorado. I hope to get back to t his topic with another post when I return home.

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