Book Review: The Kingdom of God

Bright, John. The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning For the Church.  Nashville: Abingdon,1953.

If you like Graeme Goldsworthy, you will like John Bright; and if you come to John Bright’s book, The Kingdom of God, already familiar with Goldsworthy’s According to Plan, you will recognize some similar elements.  Bright unites the entire Bible along the lines of the kingdom of God, which he defines in many places as the people of God under the rule of God.  (He does not make quite as explicit the place of God, as Goldsworthy does).  Nevertheless, the two books share some common elements, which should not be entirely surprising because of the Union Theological Seminary connection, where Bright taught and Goldsworthy studied.

In the The Kingdom of God, Bright traces the kingdom from its origins in Israel to its already, but not yet manifestation in the Church of Jesus Christ, and in so doing he has aimed to assist the “general reader of the Bible” (11) understand the continuous aspects of the Scriptures.  Wary of the History of Religion school and the hyper-typology of those like Wilhelm Vischer, Bright’s hope is to do justice to the texts of Scripture while showing how the Kingdom of God resides in them all, “in one way or another” (11).  In short, his goal in writing this book is to be faithful to the Bible, stimulating to the church, and helpful for biblical theology.  Without being overly congratulatory, I think he hits his mark.

The book is broken down into 9 chapters.  The first six are devoted to the OT, while the last three address the NT.  Of these nine, the final chapter actually becomes sermonic and makes biblical application for the contemporary church (circa 1950’s).

In the first chapter, Bright moves from the Exodus to the reign of David tracing Israel’s religion, Israel’s historical development, and the rise of kingship in Israel.  Instead of speculating about the royal themes inchoate in Genesis, Bright moves right to the Exodus and the birth of the Israelite nation.  He sets up the context of the Ancient Near East, and the ways in which God elected Israel and made covenant with them.  With rapid succession, Bright moves to the Davidic Covenant so that Genesis – 2 Samuel are covered in the first chapter of the book.

In chapters 2, Bright moves to the Davidic Kingship under God’s judgment.  He outlines the history of the day, retelling the works of the Assyrian empire and the threat they brought to Israel.  He spends much time in the book of Amos, following the argument of the prophet, who shows that all nations are under judgment and failed attempts at ethical living can only postpone the judgment of God for so long.  What is needed is a new covenant.  In this chapter, Bright asserts the distinction between Israel and the kingdom of God–they are not coextensive.  This is something he will belabor throughout his work, namely that not all Israel is Israel.

In chapters 3-5, Bright moves from the judgment of Israel to the Exile and back again.  Showing an extraordinary grasp of the history, each chapter begins by setting Israel in its geo-political context.  He explains the rise to power of foreign nations and what effect this has on Israel’s kingdom.  In this historical context, he exposits the theological message of Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah (ch. 3), and then Jeremiah and Ezekiel (ch. 4-5).  He highlights theme of “remnant” that develops in this historical context, and from a barrage of biblical texts shows how the hopes of Israel are moving forward.  Eschatological anticipation is growing along with a hope for a promised Messiah to save Israel.  Simultaneous with this messianic hope is the hope and desire for a new covenant.

Finishing the OT and moving into the Intertestamental period (i.e. Second Temple Judaism), Bright recounts Israel’s return to Jerusalem and the minimal realization of the eschatological promises.  In chapter 6, Bright once again distinguishes himself as an excellent historian by showing how two inter-locking trends developed in the corporate mindset of Israel in the centuries leading up to Christ.  First, an apocalyptic hope emerged, whereby Jews began to believe and anticipate YHWH’s fiery intervention to establish his kingdom once again in Israel.  This was coupled with a second trend in which Israelites devoted themselves to the preservation (and expansion) of the law and the keeping of Torah.  The former is reflected in Daniel, the latter can be seen developing in Ezra and Nehemiah.  Both of these are also seen in other apocryphal literature, and manifested in the various Jewish sects present in Jesus own day (i.e. Qumran, the zealots, the scribes and Pharisees).  Bright’s analysis is that these two separate themes, apocalypticism and devotion to the law, actually served to support one another–the devotion to God’s law was thought to invite God’s intervention.   Likewise, these dual ideologies served to protect the national identity of Israel in the face of Hellenism and other foreign influences. 

It was in this historical millieu that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah was born.  In chapter 7, Bright surveys the gospel accounts of Jesus coming and fulfillment of OT promises.  Chapter 8 then speaks of the birth of the church and the way in which God’s people relate to the OT community and the Messiah himself.  Bright conceives of the kingdom of God as being already but not yet, and provides a good explanation of the way in which the kingdom is transferred from the Old to New Covenant, though his Presbyterianism comes out in that within the church itself, like ancient Israel, there remains a spiritual remnant.  He interprets the field of Matthew 13:38 as the church, not the world.  Other than this, his explanation is helpful.  Again, his strong suit is his painstaking historical detail.

Finally, chapter 9 moves from the lecture hall to the pulpit.  Bright applies the biblical, historical theology of the kingdom of God to the church today.  Unashamedly, he applies much of the kingdom theology to current political events in his era.  Thus communism and the Soviet Union get much attention, but really the evils of Red Russia serve as a foil to show how the judgment of God is coming on all nations of all time, because only the kingdom of Jesus Christ will eternally stand.

In the end, his book is very helpful, especially in situating the kingdom of God in the historical contexts of the Old and New Testaments.  Bright makes constant reference of his scholastic mentor, biblical historian, William Albright.  Albright’s influence is evident, as each chapter is started with many pages of historical notes and annotations.  Bright is faithful to the Bible, showing only occasional moderate leanings (i.e. Second Isaiah, a late dating of Daniel), but his unified project affirms the authority, inspiration, and unity of the Bible.  Moreover, his writing is very readable and he often incredibly witty, using common vernacular to explain scholastic points.  One final criticism, is his theological understanding of the church.  He abstracts the kingdom of God in the New Testament to be an spiritual, invisible community, much like the spiritual remnant of the Old Testament.  I suppose this is better than equating the church with the kingdom, but I believe George E. Ladd’s work on the church-kingdom relationship, where the church serves as visible manifestations of the kingdom, kingdom outposts, if you will, is a better conception.

All said, Bright’s work The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning For the Church is an excellent and enriching read, one that I highly recommend.  While other books on biblical theology do well to recapture the covenantal and literary structures of the Bible, you would be hard pressed to find another book that gives such rigorous attention to the historical details of the Bible.  At the same time, Bright’s emphasis on the later history of the kingdom of Israel during the time of the prophets stands out as an excellent treatment of that material. 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss