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King Jesus vs. Christ Crucified: 6 Reasons Why We've Separated the Kingdom from the Cross

Categories Theology

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What is the biblical and theological relationship between God's kingdom and the cross?

This question sits at the heart of The Crucified King, an important new book by Jeremy R. Treat that explores the interrelationship between the coming of God’s kingdom and Christ’s atoning death on the cross—historically, a relationship fraught with tension.

I understand this tension well. Having grown up in a tradition that clung to the cross, I shoved the kingdom well into the distant future. Later as a post-evangelical young adult I championed Christ’s kingdom often to the neglect of Christ’s atonement. My story exemplifies the split we’ve created between the kingdom and the cross.

As Treat reveals, entire books are written on the kingdom without any mention of the cross. Conversely, volumes on Christ’s Passion narrative ignore His kingdom message. More damaging yet, the two are often intentionally pitted against each other.

Treat asks the obvious question: “Why has such a rift developed between two of Scripture’s most important motifs?” (26)

He provides at least 6 reasons to help us understand why we've separated the kingdom from the cross and put King Jesus in competition with Christ crucified.

1) Kingdom-Cross Reactionary Debates

First the kingdom-cross wedge is largely the result of reactionary debates between those who emphasize the kingdom or the cross over against the other. 

The climax of such debates occurred early in the 20th century between the social gospel movement and the conservative response. Walter Rauschenbusch championed the kingdom at the expense of subsitutionary atonement. Conservatives reacted sharply by reclaiming the centrality of the cross and relegating the kingdom to the future.

The result is a “false dichotomy that truncates the gospel.” (26)

2) Fragmentation of Scripture

Another reason for the kingdom-cross divide stems from the Enlightenment’s fragmented view of Scripture.

“If the Bible is not a unified whole, then there is no need to integrate the seemingly incompatible ideas that God reigns and the Son of God dies.” (27)

Such fragmentation wasn’t limited to the Bible’s metanarrative, for entire books of the Bible were also affected. For instance, the bifurcation and even trifurcation of the Isaiah traditions severed the Messianic King from the Suffering Servant.

Such a disintegrated view of the Bible discourages kingdom-cross integration. 

3) Biblical Studies & Systematic Theology Split

Generally, systematic theology gives greater attention to the doctrine of the atonement but largely ignores the kingdom of God. Whereas biblical studies is dominated by the themes of the kingdom and gives less attention to the doctrine of atonement.

Treat suggests the kingdom-cross divide will be mended when the “ugly ditch” between these two areas of study themselves is mended by “incorporating insights from both disciplines for both doctrines.” (27)

4) Withholding Gospels as Theological Source

Fourthly, Treat maintains the kingdom and cross have not been integrated because the very place in the cannon where the kingdom is most explicit has been ignored as a genuine source for theological inquiry. 

He quotes N.T. Wright here to highlight this neglect: “Jesus as kingdom-bringer has been screened out of the church’s dogmatic proclamation.” (28)

When the Gospels are witheld as a source for theology and interpreted merely historically, interpreting Christ's holistic ministry is skewed.

5) Over-systematizing Certain Doctrines

Of particular interest for Treat is the over-systematization of the states and offices of Christ:

If Christ’s work is divided neatly into the two categories of humiliation and exaltation, with the cross being only in the state of humiliation, it is difficult to see how it could relate to the kingdom at all. If Christ’s death is interpreted only in terms of his priestly office, then it will be difficult to connect the cross to the kingdom. (28)

While these states and offices themselves are not to blame, Treat argues they have been used in a way “that draws a thick doctrinal line” between Christ the King and Christ the Sacrifice. (28)

6) Mistaken Kingdom-Cross Views

“[I]f one has a mistaken view of the kingdom or the cross respectively, then properly relating to the two will be impossible.” (28) Treat has in mind both liberals and conservatives, here.

For conservatives, when the cross is viewed entirely as the method to attain personal salvation and the kingdom is about the future, “then never the twain shall meet.” (28)

For liberals, when the kingdom is thought of as a utopian place and the cross is said to be an eschatological event, then they will be as difficult to relate.

It’s time to recapture a proper view of both so that the two properly relate to each other once again.

 

So what is the proper relationship between the kingdom and the cross? “The answer ultimately lies in Jesus, the crucified king, as properly understood within the story and logic of redemption.” (25)

Treat not only asserts the kingdom and cross belong together, but he provides a biblically rooted and theologically informed articulation of how they relate. Next week we’ll examine a section to illustrate how he accomplishes his noble task.

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Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.

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