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Think the Kingdom-Cross Divide is Historical? Think Again! — An Excerpt from Jeremy R. Treat's "The Crucified King"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310516743 (1)In his new book, The Crucified King, Jeremy Treat addresses one of the most unfortunate separations that's affected Church teaching: the separation between the kingdom and the cross.

What's more, as they often do, this separation has bifurcated into an either-or choice: “Some champion the kingdom and others cling to the cross,” Treat writes, “usually one to the exclusion of the other.” (25)

While some may insist this division stretches back through history, Treat says otherwise. Through examining the history of interpretation of the kingdom-cross dynamic, Treat shows:

  1. “this division is an essentially modern (post-Enlightenment) problem;
  2. “the kingdom-cross interplay…has a rich heritage in the history of the Church.” (33)

We’ve provided an excerpt of this analysis so that you can maintain what Scripture and theology maintain: “atonement and kingdom belong together.” (33)

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


Although there has always been confusion with or resistance to the paradoxical integration of kingdom and cross, such a stark division has not always been the case. In the first century, Barnabas declared that “the kingdom of Jesus is based on the wooden cross” (Epistle of Barnabas 8:5). According to Augustine, “The Lord has established his sovereignty from a tree. Who is it who fights with wood? Christ. From his cross he has conquered kings.” Luther chastises those who “cannot harmonize the two ideas—that Christ should be the King of Kings and that He should also suffer and be executed.”

These representative quotes, along with the reasons given above for the kingdom–cross divide, reveal that this division is an essentially modern (post-Enlightenment) problem. Much of the church’s tradition, therefore, will buttress my argument, though with the understanding that the kingdom– cross interplay was present but hardly explained and that our current situatedness requires not simply a reformulation of previous thought, but a fresh approach in light of contemporary questions and aided by modern advancements.

How, then, have scholars responded to the modern divide between kingdom and cross? Some have given partial answers within broader discussions on the doctrine of the kingdom or the atonement respectively. Ridderbos, in The Coming of the Kingdom…asserts that the kingdom cannot be understood apart from the cross, nor the cross without the kingdom. McKnight weighs in on the recent atonement debates, seeking to shift the emphasis of atonement from personal salvation to God’s cosmic purposes for all creation…

The doctrine of the atonement is perhaps the most important place this discussion has played out, though not necessarily in the language of kingdom and cross. Among contemporary debates, the two most controversial approaches to the atonement are penal substitution and Christus Victor, each offering a different view of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Christus Victor emphasizes the cross as victory and the restoration of God’s reign over the cosmos, whereas penal substitution focuses on the reconciliation of God’s people. While many have attempted to use Christus Victor alone as a way to connect kingdom and cross, others have pointed to a more holistic approach that integrates penal substitution and Christus Victor

There is one particular area where the relationship of the kingdom and the cross has received a great deal of attention: the quest for the historical Jesus…In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright directly addresses the relationship of the kingdom and the cross in a sustained manner, arguing that “Jesus . . . believed that the kingdom would be brought about by means of his own death.” Wright’s conclusion is compel- ling, and his methodological aim unmistakable: this is “the mindset of Jesus.”

When considered within the field of historical Jesus studies, however, Wright’s contribution is not exactly novel. In response to Bultmann, who saw Jesus’ self-perception as inaccessible to historical inquiry and therefore irrelevant to the matter, many have attempted to demonstrate that Christ’s own view of his death is not only accessible but an “essential ingredient” to understanding Jesus. Of those who have undertaken this task, several have noted that no theory of Jesus’ own perception of his death should be taken seriously if it does not take into account the larger context of his preaching the kingdom of God. Jürgen Becker, in a matter-of-fact way, writes, “Since all of Jesus’ activity was dedicated to the kingdom of God, it would make sense that he saw his anticipated death as having some relation to that kingdom.”

Perhaps the most thorough and sustained explanation of this relationship comes from German New Testament scholar Heinz Schürmann. Schürmann begins his…God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ Fate: The Death of Jesus in Light of His Own Kingdom-Proclamation…by revealing the fundamental problem to which he devoted much of his career, namely, that there appear already in the New Testament two essentially different doctrines of salvation. While the post-Easter “staurological soteriologyfocuses on the atoning substitutionary death of Jesus, the pre-Easter “eschatological soteriology” emphasizes the kingdom of God. Schürmann insists these two conceptions of salvation, although seemingly distinct, must be understood as unified in Jesus’ self-perception, which was passed on to the apostles. For Schürmann, Christ’s death can only be understood “in the context of his kingdom-proclamation.

What do I make of this quest for Jesus’ self-perception regarding the kingdom and the cross? At the most basic level, it is simply attempting to answer a different question: How do the kingdom and the cross relate in the mind of Jesus? I am seeking to understand the kingdom and the cross in the Bible and Christian theology…Richard Hays’s critique of N. T. Wright’s method captures my concern: “Instead of attending to the distinctive portrayals of Jesus in the individual New Testament texts, [Wright] aims instead at something else: a reconstruction of the historical figure of Jesus behind the texts, including the construction of an account about Jesus’ intentions and his self-understanding.”…

In sum, although several have begun to ask the question of the kingdom and the cross, and some have proposed brief answers, there is little on constructively integrating kingdom and cross, and none that does so in tandem with biblical and systematic theology. What is needed is not only the assertion that atonement and kingdom belong together, but a biblically rooted and theologically formed articulation of how they relate. 

The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology

By Jeremy R. Treat

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