Book Review of “The Kingdom of God” by John Bright

I. Restatement

John Bright’s book arises out of a concern to find a unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament (p. 10) which will save the Bible, especially the Old Testament, from disuse and misuse (p. 9). The aim of his book is to show that such a unity exists. As the title of Bright’s book shows, he believes “that the biblical doctrine of the Kingdom of God … is the unifying theme of the Bible” (p. 244). “The Bible is one book. Had we to give that book a title we might with justice call it The Book of the Coming Kingdom of God. That is indeed its central theme everywhere” (p. 197). “The two Testaments are organically linked to each other. The relationship between them is neither one of upward development nor of contrast; it is one of beginning and completion, of hope and fulfillment. And the bond that binds them together is the dynamic concept of the rule of God” (p. 196ff).

The reason the second testament is called “New” is not that it contains an essentially different theology from that of the Old Testament.1 It is new in that “the Kingdom of God has become also the Kingdom of Christ, and that the Kingdom is actually at hand” instead of being only in the future as it was in the Old Testament (p. 198).2 In this way Bright attempts to save the Old Testament from disuse and misuse: it is Act I of an organically unified two-act drama without which Act II cannot be properly understood or appreciated (p. 197).

The way Bright goes about demonstrating that the Old Testament and New Testament are unified by “the dynamic concept of the rule of God” is to trace the development of this concept from its origin in the election of Israel (p. 28) to its fulfillment in the coming of Christ. The two questions whose answers become clearer and clearer as Israel’s history (and Bright’s book) unfold are:

  1. What is the nature of the Kingdom of God? and
  2. By what means will God bring it about?

The answers to these two questions are revealed partially in the Old Testament but find their clearest expression in the life and teaching of Jesus. This is so because the nature of the kingdom and the means of its establishment are but a reflection, or an out-growth, of the character of Israel’s God, and Jesus was “the express image of God” (p. 213).

While the prophets were granted insight into “the character of Israel’s God and the nature of his redemptive purpose” (p. 213), Jesus was the very incarnation of that character and purpose. Thus Bright can say of him, “All the hope of Israel and all the patterns which it assumed, are one, and are fulfilled in the Servant” (p. 214). Jesus, therefore, is God’s final answer to Israel’s age-long question: What is the Kingdom like and how will it come?

Accordingly, chapter seven, “The Kingdom at Hand: Jesus the Messiah,” is the climax (p. 187) of Bright’s book. Flanking this chapter on the one side are chapter one through six, which deal with the relationship of the Kingdom of God to Israel, and on the other side chapters eight and nine, which deal with the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Christian Church.

Negatively, the first six chapters may be summed up like this: “The Kingdom of Israel is not the Kingdom of God!” (pp. 67, 71, 89, 91, 98, 116, 122, 123); physical Israel is not true Israel (pp. 94, 123, 146, 225); the Kingdom of God is not coming by a “catastrophic intervention of God” as the post-exilic apocalyptic writers expected (pp. 162-170, especially 168); nor will the Kingdom be precipitated by Israel’s perfect obedience to the ordinances of post-exilic Judaism (pp. 170-178).

Positively, chapters one through six may be summed up like this: The people over whom God will one day rule in glory (pp. 18, 60, 92) are a transformed people (p. 92) from all nations (pp. 146, 149, 156, 160), who through suffering have been given a clean heart (pp. 108, 125, 142) and thus keep God’s covenant by obeying his will (pp. 133, 170). “The victory of that Kingdom … will be procured not by force or spectacular power, but by the sacrificial labor of God’s servant” (p. 149). “God proposes to win his Kingdom through the vicarious sacrifice of his servant” (p. 150).

On the other side of chapter seven lie chapters eight and nine, which discuss the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Christian Church.

Negatively, we hear a message like the one in the first six chapters: The visible church is not the Kingdom of God! (p. 236); “the churches are themselves prisoners of the present age” (p. 251); in one sense the Kingdom of God is still “a thing of the future and far from victorious” (p. 231). The consummated kingdom of God cannot be brought about on earth by human effort: “there is in all the New Testament no brave talk of winning the world for Christ and of ushering in his Kingdom—not so much as a syllable!” (p. 234); “the New Age cannot be produced by the visible churches in terms of aggressive action” (p. 251).

The positive message of these chapters, however, is that the kingdom of God is “a present and victorious reality” (p. 231) and all who obey the call of Christ are citizens of that kingdom (p. 264), the true church (p. 224), the true “Israel of God” (p. 227), the holy remnant (p. 225), the “new race of Christian men” (p. 256). Their task is not to bring in the Kingdom, but to be the people of the Kingdom, a people in whom the righteousness of the Kingdom of God rules (p. 271).

As Bright puts it repeatedly, “There shall no program be given you—except to be the Church” (pp. 253, 259), “the successor to the calling and destiny of Israel” (p. 253). But remember this was a calling to be “the people of the Servant” (p. 152), that is, to suffer and be humiliated with the Servant (pp. 93, 210). “The cross, therefore, has been and must be the Church’s path of victory … Whoever offers us the victory of Christ at a minimum of inconvenience to ourselves has suggested the worship of a false god!” (p. 268 ff).

How does Bright support these immensely important theological affirmations about the Kingdom of God, Israel and the Church? He does not argue philosophically from generally accepted truths; nor does he argue empirically from his own experience in life. Rather, he unfolds the witness of Scripture which he believes is the divinely inspired (pp. 8, 136 note 16) interpretation of God’s work in and through his people. His approach is therefore biblical and exegetical, and this could be illustrated at dozens of points.

One such illustration is pp. 146-153, where Bright expounds the meaning of the “suffering servant” in the so-called “Servant poems” of Second Isaiah3 (42:1-4, 5-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). On p. 148, Bright retells in a vivid and engaging way the role of the “Servant” in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. He does not pull rank as a scholar, but lets the text speak for itself. His reverent reaction is this:

We cannot but conclude that the prophet was given, by the inspiration of God, to gaze into the very mystery of the Godhead. It befits one to have his shoes from off his feet, with the recognition that he stands at one of those places where logical analysis does not suffice, where one is brought into the presence of the Mystery (p. 149).

His conclusion from the poem is that “God proposes to win his Kingdom through the vicarious sacrifice of his Servant” (p. 150). Can he offer any better support than simply to cite Isaiah 53:10-12?

Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him;
   he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
   he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand;
   he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
   make many to be accounted righteous;
   and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
   and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors.

Yet Bright is too good an exegete, too faithful to the text of Scripture, that he should view the Servant of the Isaianic Servant songs as a mere prediction of Christ. It is not so simple, for as he says, “the figure oscillates between the individual and the group” (p. 150). The Servant is often merely Israel (41:8; 43:10; 44:21; 45:4). Elsewhere the Servant is viewed as the remnant in Israel which leads Israel back to her destiny under God (49:5; 44:1; 51:1, 7).

But it is also “clear that sometimes this figure overshoots all that Israel, all that the true Israel, all that any individual in Israel ever was, and becomes a description of an ideal figure” (p. 150). While “Judaism never understood the Servant as a messianic figure at all” (p. 208), “the church clearly understood its Lord as the great Suffering Servant” (Philippians 2:7) and “Jesus both understood the parallel between his ministry and that of the Servant and intended it to be so” (Mark 10:45, p. 209).

This was only one illustration of how Bright goes about supporting his conclusions, but it suffices to show his method. He combines a devout respect for the greatness of the message in the text with a concern not to abuse its original intent. In this way he is enabled to lay open the deep things of God with a minimum of subjective distortion.

To sum up: Bright’s aim is to show that a unity exists between the Old Testament and New Testament which will save the Old Testament from disuse and misuse. The unifying reality is the Kingdom of God, the rule of God over an obedient people which will be vindicated in glory at the end of history (p. 18). In order to understand the realization of this Kingdom in the ministry of Jesus and his Church, one must see how the Kingdom had come to be understood in the Old Testament. The Old Testament points beyond itself and should be read as the necessary prelude to the New Testament. In this way, it is saved from disuse and misuse.

To demonstrate the unity between the Testaments, Bright describes the development of the understanding of the Kingdom from its origin in the election of Israel to its fulfillment in the coming of the Christ and in his Church. The two questions which guide Bright’s discussion are:

  1. What is the nature of the Kingdom? and
  2. How will it be established?

The answer to the first question is that the Kingdom is not to be equated with any human state, race or societal group, but rather is made up of a humbled people who obey the will of God who rules over them as King.

The answer to the second question is that the Kingdom does not come with signs and portents and the overthrow of earthly kingdoms, but rather in an unobtrusive, seemingly insignificant Servant who by suffering and death accomplished the decisive victory of God’s Kingdom. While these two answers were foreseen in the Old Testament, they were actually realized in the coming of Christ. He is, therefore, the fulfillment of all Israel’s hopes and it can be said that “the unity of Scripture is in Christ” (p. 10).

II. Talking Back

My overwhelming response to this book is positive, both because of its manner and its matter. I have only praise for Bright’s personal engagement with his material and the open statements of his passionate convictions (see especially p. 269 at bottom). Without any undue strain on the biblical text, he has shown the prophetic voice of the Old Testament and New Testament relevant to our day. He is one of the few men I have ever read who can make historical narrative interesting to me. He does this by a brisk, fast-moving style, vivid description and the omission of specialized jargon.

I am in substantial agreement with his conclusions as I have set them forth in part I of this paper. There is, however, at least one point where I would have liked him to say more. On p. 237 Bright admits that even in the Old Testament we see the “already” and the “not yet” of God’s kingdom. But when he tries to show how this “double manner of speaking” is different from what is true in the New Testament, he is unclear. Following is the problem passage:

The rule of God was always believed to be present fact in that it was not doubted that God was at all times in control, judging the affairs of men in the context of history and summoning men to his service. On the other hand, the rule was always viewed as a future thing to be consummated in the eschatological event at the issue of history. But whereas in the Old Testament and in Judaism these two aspects of the Kingdom are held in balance, in Christ they are brought together; the future thing is made present, the Kingdom is at hand here and now, and one may enter it and know its victory. Furthermore, so the New Testament declares, Christ—through his ministry, his death and resurrection—has made the triumph of that Kingdom sure. The victorious Kingdom is thus no longer a passively awaited thing, but a dynamically active one (italics mine).

What is the real contrast that Bright sees between “held in balance” and “brought together?” He expands “brought together” like this: “The future thing is made present, the Kingdom is at hand here and now, and one may enter it and know its victory.” But how is this any different than the way the remnant experienced God’s gracious covenant rule in the Old Testament? How is the “taste of the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5) experienced by the Christian different from the “justification” (Romans 4:6) and forgiveness (Psalm 32:1ff), and peace (Psalm 23:1) experienced by David?

And what of the last sentence in the above quote ("The victorious kingdom is thus no longer a passively awaited thing, but a dynamically active one")? Does it even make sense? There are two clauses: a negation and an affirmation. They appear to be parallel, but they are not. The first clause has to do with a person’s relation to the Kingdom—should one passively wait for it or (presumably) actively pursue it? The second clause does a nifty turn and deals not with a person’s relation to the Kingdom, but with the nature of the Kingdom itself—it is an active Kingdom as opposed to (presumably) what? A passive kingdom? We would have expected to read, “The victorious Kingdom is thus no longer a passively awaited thing, but an actively sought after thing.” But Bright didn’t want to say that because it doesn’t contribute to his purpose of distinguishing the Old Testament from the New Testament. What did he want to say? I don’t know.

My own approach would be to admit that the Kingdom of God, conceived as his gracious and saving rule in individuals’ lives, has always been a present reality, and has always been in tension with the “not yet” of the consummated Kingdom. In Christ, God’s rule entered historical life in a new way, for here was the King himself coming “to announce the decisive redeeming act of God, and to perform it” (p. 196). Here was the King openly demonstrating his righteousness for all to see in the death of Christ (Romans 3:25ff).

This was an utterly new thing, but God had decreed it before the ages (1 Corinthians 1:24, 2:7) and in view of it had exercised his righteousness to rule savingly over his ever-present remnant. This small band of faithful servants has always lived in the tension of the “already” and the “not yet.” They have always been “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, referring to the patriarchs; cf. 1 Peter 2:11, referring to Christians) because their citizenship is not here (Hebrews 11:10, 14; Philippians 3:20) but in the Kingdom of God, whose powers and blessings are present in part, but whose glorious consummation is yet future.

1 “We cannot dismiss the relationship of the Testaments by saying that Christ came to replace a covenant of works with a covenant of grace, as though we had to do with two different dispensations in which God dealt with his people in two essentially different ways” (p. 195). “The Old Testament covenant was always properly viewed, like the New, a covenant of grace” (p. 28).

2 See my criticism of Bright’s ambiguity on this point in part II of this article.

3 Bright holds that the prophecies of Isaiah 40 through 66 were not given by the same prophet that gave the prophecies of Isaiah 1 through 39. The former lived, he thinks, near the end of the fifth century B.C., while the latter lived two centuries earlier. He gives his main reason for this on p. 136, note 16. For a similar view, see Eissfeldt, O., The Old Testament, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, p. 304. Indeed, most Old Testament scholars hold this (or a similar) view. For the more conservative defense of the unity of Isaiah, see Young, E.J., An Introduction to the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1949, pp. 218-224; Harrison, R.K., Introduction to the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969, pp. 774-785. For Bright, the inspiration of the Scriptures is in no sense diminished by this discussion.