Volume 39 - Issue 3

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

by Jeremy R. Treat

Every once in a while a book comes along, and we think, “This book should have been written before, for it so clearly and compellingly answers a question being asked in contemporary scholarship.” Jeremy Treat’s revised dissertation written under Kevin Vanhoozer at Wheaton College is that sort of book, for he shows that the kingdom and the cross don’t belong to different universes but are part of the same story. Thus, the cross isn’t ancillary to the kingdom but integral to the coming of God’s kingdom, for the kingdom would not be actualized apart from Christ’s work on the cross. Treat’s work is quite impressive, for he demonstrates his skill in both biblical and systematic theology. The first half of the book makes the case from the standpoint of biblical theology and the second half by employing systematic theology. I don’t have any major criticisms of the book, so a brief tour of some the places visited follows.

When God created Adam and Eve, he invested them with authority so that they were to rule the world for God. Though Adam and Eve were commissioned to the rule the world for God, they squandered their rule because of their sin. Genesis 3:15 reveals, however, that such rule would be restored through the crushing of the offspring of the woman. Hence, the notion that the kingdom would become a reality through the cross appears in the earliest pages of the biblical story. Similarly, the covenant with Abraham, by which the kingdom would come, demonstrates that the kingdom will be actualized through the cross, for the new covenant, which is itself a fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, is established through the blood of Jesus.

Treat also emphasizes that the kingdom of God will become a reality only through a king. To be more specific, it will come through a Davidic king. The Davidic covenant is the means by which the promises articulated in the covenant with Abraham will become a reality. The narrative of David’s life, however, reveals that suffering is the pathway to glory so that humiliation precedes exaltation. David functions as a type and pattern of the greater king to come, and hence David’s life and rule point forward to the manner in which the kingdom will break in upon the world: the suffering and exaltation of Jesus the Christ.

The suffering servant of Isaiah also shows that kingdom and cross are mutually enriching, that the two are friends instead of being enemies. Isaiah emphasizes that the new exodus and the new creation (which are two different ways of speaking of the reign of God, Isa 40:9; 52:7), are accomplished through the atoning and substitutionary work of the servant of God (Isa 52:13–53:12). In Isaiah’s story, the suffering of the servant isn’t a sideshow unrelated to the redemption of Israel and to the breaking in of the kingdom. On the contrary, his suffering is indispensable, for if there is no suffering, then there isn’t a new exodus nor is there a new creation.

Treat also considers the relationship between the kingdom and the cross in the Gospel of Mark. The polarization between the cross and the kingdom tends to surface in the study of the Synoptic Gospels, and hence Treat’s analysis of Mark is vital to his thesis. Clearly, Mark is all about the coming of the kingdom; the kingdom permeates the Gospel from the beginning to the end. At the same time, the kingdom is intertwined with the cross. From the outset of the Gospel the passion narrative is foreshadowed, and through irony and other devices Mark features Jesus as the king. What stands out is that he is the crucified king, the suffering king. The kingdom becomes a reality through the one who is crucified and risen. Of course, the kingdom isn’t limited to the cross, for it was also present in Jesus’ ministry: his healings, exorcisms, preaching, and presence. We must beware of reductionism that sees the kingdom’s presence only in the cross. On the other hand, Treat rightly says that the kingdom is established at the cross; the cross is the central and defining moment in redemptive history. The cross, he aptly says, is the center of history; it is the means (along with the resurrection) by which the new age arrives. The kingdom, on the other hand, is the purpose of the history; it is where history is going. But the kingdom will not come without the cross.

Treat also emphasizes that Jesus was the king at his baptism and throughout his ministry. Hence, it is mistake to think that Jesus was crowned as king only after his death and suffering. Instead, he also reigned in his humiliation so that there is both exaltation in humiliation and after humiliation. The death of Christ, then, is both a priestly act and a kingly act; the offices of Christ shouldn’t be segregated from one another, as if his death is restricted to Jesus’ priesthood. Jesus death for sinners was a kingly death.

Treat’s discussion of Christus Victor and penal substitution is also illuminating and helpful. Once again, he pleads against an either-or, as if we have to choose one over the other. Instead, they are constituent parts of Christ’s atoning work. Treat argues, rightly in my judgment, that Christ’s victory over evil powers is rooted in and based upon his penal substitutionary sacrifice. Because Jesus paid for the sins of those who belong to him, Satan can no longer accuse them before the Father. They no longer fear death because the sting of death has been removed. Hence, Christ is victor (the kingdom comes!) through (not apart from!) penal substitution.

All of this means that the kingdom that is present today is a cruciform kingdom. The kingdom is revealed in the suffering and love of the people of God in this present evil age. The power of the Spirit manifests itself in the foolishness of the cross. Here Treat provides an insightful and stimulating discussion of Jurgen Moltmann’s theology, for Moltmann emphasized the cruciform nature of the kingdom. He stands out among systematic theologians in seeing the centrality of the kingdom and in emphasizing its cruciform nature. Unfortunately, however, Moltmann in making this move argues against God’s kingship, and Treat demonstrates that such a move counters the biblical witness and also fails to understand the nature of God’s kingdom.

Many other insights are found in this perceptive book that can’t be rehearsed here. We are reminded by Treat of the danger of holding onto a false dichotomy. We are all prone to see one pole of a truth and in doing so to diminish another theme that is equally important. At the same time, Treat doesn’t simply insist that both kingdom and cross are central. He explains how they relate and locates both themes in the biblical storyline. He goes on from there to explicate their role in systematic theology. Treat’s work, then, functions as a model for others. We can be grateful for a sterling example of doing theological interpretation of scripture on a matter that concerns both the academy and the church of Jesus Christ.

Thomas R. Schreiner

Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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