I don’t much like utilitarian reductionism. Overviews of the Bible are not exempt from that dislike. Perhaps it’s mostly aesthetic, but I suspect that if focused on too much, they can also lead to bad or incomplete teaching. I will grant they have their uses in the same way that buying a double cheese burger from McDonalds has an appropriate use. It’s utilitarian but not very nutritious. You know what you get. It tastes good. But you miss out on so much that you might have tasted.
What I mean by “reduction” isn’t a re-articulating of the grand-arch which is the story we live in now. John’s gospel does that and doesn’t use 66 books, and his is beautiful. What I am talking about is an excel-spread sheet filled in with words that fit the categories somebody has tried to reduce the story into, in order to provide an overview of God and his relationship to us as seen in the Bible.
So when the Bible (or Gods self revelation to us) is described as the story of “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule” and it becomes a mantra—we don’t think about it, we just apply the logic of it repetitively—dangerous things can happen. The harmless nature of the taste of the burger becomes the narrowed down palate of flavours which are the only ones we can taste. Please note the reduced pallet is not the problem, it’s the lack of engagement with the broader flavours that are of concern here.
The first and most dangerous misappropriation of the word of God through the mantra is that it places the focus of God’s special self revelation on “his people” rather than on the King of the Kingdom. (I am talking of the particular reduction that can be found here, which summarises Vaughn’s otherwise fairly helpful ‘God’s Big picture’)
If the focus is not on God it is not a minor problem and can lead to a myriad of problematic thought patterns and teaching. The Gospel of John starts off: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” As Christians this is where we must put our emphasis. Who God is matters.
In the Big picture reduction we find a helpful tablet-ty, table where we see that the Genesis account of creation is boxed-in to “Adam and Eve—Gods people”, “the Garden—Gods Place”, and “God’s word, perfect relationship—God’s rule and blessing”. Further, out of the 8 stages described under the reduction, this first stage is called “the Pattern of the Kingdom” and is summarised:
“In the Garden of Eden we see the world as God designed it to be. God’s people, Adam and Eve, live in God’s place, the garden, under his rule as they submit to his word. And to be under God’s rule in the Bible is always to enjoy his blessing; it is the best way to live. God’s original creation shows us a model of his kingdom as it was meant to be.”
Already we miss a vital part of the biblical narrative, namely we miss both the crucial beginning of the “anthropology” and more importantly we miss the essential component to have a true anthropology, which is a “theology”. In order to have an appropriate self understanding, we have to understand God. In Genesis we learn God is a creative. He is not monolithic but within him there is community and difference. Jesus is not the father, yet they are God. As the story goes:
“26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
In “our” image he created them, male and female he created them. The use of the plural here is no accident: “for it was not good for man to be alone…” the passage later continued. But Adam was not alone. God was there, so why Eve? Because we are communal beings, that reflect the image of God, and God is communal, and self sufficient.
The pattern of the Kingdom does not start with God’s design of the Garden of Eden, and the right ordering of relationships between his creation and the creator. It starts with God’s character and nature. Without understanding the King, how can we understand his kingdom?
Further, the focus of the reduction leaves little room for God’s self revelation through his creation. This is not to say that we can know God and who he is through nature. Or that we cane be saved outside of Jesus and the knowledge of him, but it is to reaffirm that there is a second book, namely Gods creation, which is bigger than where Gods people are, and the places in which God chooses to interact with his people. And if it is this part of Gods revelation that all human beings have access to, then understanding this revelation must be as important as understanding God’s special revelation to those that have ears to hear.
Of course special revelation is paramount to the Christian and the Church, but we cannot understand the book outside of creation. Nor can we really understand creation without the book. So we have a huge amount to offer the world that goes beyond the salvific story. My wager is also, that without what we have to offer otherwise, the salvific story will not make sense.
Making Gods people, in Gods place, under Gods rule a mantra, will not help us describe his Kingdom to people who only know his creation. But it is by using categories that all of us understand, which can be used by the Spirit of God to guide someone to acknowledge that their name is written in the book of life.
Placing the focus on God’s people and the places that God chooses to interact with them, takes away from the freedom God has to work outside of those places. It is through the spirit, through Gods very being, that creation, even fallen creation is sustained. By extension, Gods sovereignty must be remembered. The direct workings of the Holy Spirit—in a salvific, or non-salvific way in all of creation, including in both God’s people and those that are either not yet his people and might never be is part of reality. It is too easily forgotten in the self centered ‘reduction of the reduction’.
This point comes out in point 7 called The Proclaimed Kingdom. Here God’s place is said to be found in individuals and the church, the Holy Spirit is poured out as a gift from God to the Church and individual. While the importance of Pentecost should be highlighted, we must not forget the efficacy of God through his Spirit in the remainder of creation.
If we go back to the Genesis account, and look at the story before Adam and Eve came about, and before Eden was prepared for them, we understand that Gods Spirit hovered over chaos:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
I am told that the word to describe the Spirit here in Hebrew is Ruach, which is something like “the breath” of God. And it is through the Word, through God speaking that creation comes to be.
All of this leaves me questioning whether the nature of the King and the size of his Kingdom has not been lost in the reduction. It is all of creation that is Gods as he created. Even as we become members of Christ’s Kingdom, we participate in shaping the reality around us. While in exile in Babylon, we are told by Jeremiah to pray for the city, for through its blessing we too are blessed. This means that the fruit of the spirit in us, and the work of the spirit in creation, transforms the old creation even though it will not finally be the new creation we await for in Christ’s return.
So to bring these strands together and applying them as a critical prism to the reduction point 7, The Proclaimed Kingdom as articulated below is not quite enough:
“By his death and resurrection Jesus did all that was necessary to put everything right again and completely restore God’s kingdom. But he did not finish the job when he was first on earth. He ascended into heaven and made it clear that there would be a delay before he returned. The delay is to enable more people to hear about the good news of Christ so they can put their trust in him and be ready for him when he comes. We live during this period, which the Bible calls “the last days”. It began on the Day of Pentecost when God sent the Spirit to equip his church to tell the whole world about Christ.”
The above seems to be right, though finally it leaves a painful gap in at least two aspects. The first is that the articulation of the presence of God is only in individual and the church, but not in the agency of the individual and the church in the world, as those who pray for Babylon beyond telling people about Jesus, which is a reduction of a proper anthropology.
Second by insisting that Gods presence is focused in the individual and the church, and by articulating Jesus disappearing trick ‘to return later’, the ruled-over nature of creation in the now and not yet is diminished. Everything that is, was and will be is Gods, and was given to Christ to rule over. His final rule has started and though imperfection still is a reality Christ rules. Everything is his.
This is also a humbling reality, for even as we pray for the blessing on Babylon, we realize that it is only through Christ’s sacrifice that we can call ourselves members of the city of God, even as we find ourselves in Babylon. Moreover, despite the fact that the other creatures made in the image of God are not members of the city of God, they may well be those that Gods spirit uses to bless Babylon, just like he might through giving a secular biochemist the cure to cancer. It is our role to thank Jesus for his work through them, and call what their work is good.
We participate in the Kingdom of God now, inasmuch as we are capable of participating in being ruled by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. What is missing from the reduction, is that God is a triune God, the ruler over all creation and has commanded us to multiply, be creative and above all, not just passively wait for his return but participate in a community that is larger than our own.
Yes we are to tell people about the Good News of Jesus. But the good news is not only that we are forgiven and reconciled to God. That’s just the beginning of the anticipation of the feast now.