Book Review: Announcing the Kingdom, by Arthur F. Glasser

Review
03.03.2010

Those familiar with Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture will know the value of tracing the theme of the “kingdom of God” through the Scriptures. Arthur Glasser’s Announcing the Kingdom does the same, though in greater scholarly depth and from a missiological perspective.

Subtitled “The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible,” Glasser’s approach complements Christopher J. H. Wright’s excellent Grove booklet Truth with a Mission in which Wright calls evangelicals to read Scripture missiologically. Commenting on the Lord Jesus’ words in Luke 24:46-47, Wright says, “the proper way for disciples of Jesus of Nazareth (crucified and risen) to read their Scriptures is messianically and missiologically.”[1] Wright believes that, whilst evangelicals have been good at messianic readings of the Old Testament, they have been inadequate in their missiological readings. Glasser’s own life-work provides a major contribution to rectifying such evangelical inadequacies.

Having worked with China Inland Mission, Glasser became the second dean of the School of World Mission at Fuller where he has had an enormous influence over several generations of missiologists. Announcing the Kingdom will undoubtedly become a text book for many future generations, and for that reason alone is worth reading and reading carefully.

STRENGTHS

It is obvious from this book that Glasser is a man who takes Scripture seriously. This is seen in his rigorous handling of key biblical texts, and it is refreshing to see a book with a Scripture index twice as long as its subject index. Glasser’s high view of Scripture is evident not only in his commitment to individual texts, but also in the strength of his biblical theology. As he traces the theme of the ‘kingdom of God’ missiologically, Glasser follows the sweep of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in a way which honours the unity of the Scriptures and God’s progressive self-revelation. Glasser’s book is refreshingly free, in keeping with the Fuller tradition, from any dispensationalist confusion.[2]

Glasser offers many fresh insights by tracing the motif of God’s kingdom with a missiological approach. For example, he perceives the unity of humanity in the creation narrative, and then he uses this insight to warn against two threats to that unity: individualism and nationalism. Even cross-cultural missionaries can be prone to the latter in their “unconscious or sometimes even conscious assumed sense of racial or cultural superiority” (37). Then, commenting on the linguistic miracle on the Day of Pentecost, he writes,

Actually, no linguistic miracle was really needed for interpersonal communication on that occasion, for the probability is that the pilgrims and residents in Jerusalem were already able to communicate with one another in either Aramaic or Greek. But hearing in the vernacular brought power and precision to the message. A person’s heart language is always the best vehicle for gospel communication. (264)

Along the way Glasser also makes some helpful distinctions, such as the difference between the Old Testament’s focus on centripetal mission (winning people by attraction) and the New Testament’s focus on centrifugal mission (winning people through proclamation); the difference between an appropriate measure of NT contextualization and Israel’s fall into syncretism with the Canaanite religion; and the shift from “kingdom” language in the gospels and Acts to “gospel” language in the epistles, which Glasser says helped the epistles’ first readers avoid thinking that “the Christian message had subversive political overtones” (267). Whilst explaining these nuances, Glasser does well not to make too much of them. For example, we would not want to lose the centripetal (winning people by attraction) aspect of the New Testament church’s witness. The church, too, is to be a display of God’s glory which attracts unbelievers. Also, we don’t want to abandon kingdom language for gospel language just because the epistles emphasize the latter.

At times, however, one wonders if his missiological framework forces some of his readings of the biblical texts. For example, commenting on Genesis 14, he writes, “When the people of God are in mission, they need to be alert to the possibility of encountering “Melchizedek people.” What are those? “People like Melchizedek may worship the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, though they may never have heard the name of Jesus Christ. We should not deny the possibility of surprises, for he is most eager to draw people to himself” (63).

Is that really what the Lord intended us to learn from the Melchizedek narrative? Certainly that’s not how Hebrews 7 interprets it, and it does raise questions about Glasser’s approach to the fate of the lost, which we will consider in a moment.

A great strength of Glasser’s book is that it reminds us that the Scriptures reveal a God who is a missionary God, that the church is to be a missionary community, and that God’s people are to be missionary people. In other words, the whole Bible is a missionary book, a fact that all of us need to learn and live out. Otherwise, we end up like the Essenes who “saw themselves as a ‘saved’ community not a ‘saving’ community” (173). Understanding this will rescue mission from something we do and make it into something we are, wherever we are.

Throughout the book, Glasser addresses various contemporary missiological issues. He has an excellent section on the reality of the spiritual powers and forces, which includes helpful observations on “signs and wonders” and “power evangelism.” He clearly repudiates the notion that signs and wonders are a necessary accompaniment to evangelism and argues that, according to Romans 1:16, “power evangelism” is preaching the gospel.

CAUTIONS

Whilst I would recommend this book, I would do so with some cautions. The first concerns Glasser’s ecclesiology. In my experience on the “field,” the perennial danger is for missiology to drive ecclesiology, and this would seem to be true in Glasser’s case. He drives an unnecessary wedge between the kingdom of God and the church of God. Of course, as Ladd has made clear, the church is not the same as the kingdom.[3] But in giving so much priority to the kingdom motif, Glasser is in danger of underplaying the significance of the church in God’s purposes for the world. His statement that “On the basis of Jesus’ explicit teaching, there is not a great deal of evidence that he had the church in mind” (221) does not sit comfortably with the rest of the New Testament’s teaching (e.g. Eph. 5:25, Rev. 19:7). Doesn’t Paul say that it is through the church—not the kingdom—that God intends to declare the glory of his manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10)? Reading Glasser’s bibliography, it is surprising that the most recent book listed was published in 1991 and the majority of the books come from the period 1950 to 1980. This may seem an unfair criticism of an octogenarian author, but given that the book was written with the help of some younger scholars, the absence of any interaction with more recent literature on ecclesiology does seem strange.

Another concern is that of Glasser’s approach to the fate of the lost. Glasser has an excellent section on “there is salvation in only one Name” where he stresses the uniqueness of Christ and makes it clear that he is not some kind of Barthian closet-universalist. That said, he does seem to leave the proverbial cat flap swinging. In his treatment of Acts 17, for example, Glasser writes, “Paul addressed people, reaching out to the hungry hearted, the groping…The altar and its inscription [in Athens] revealed to Paul the ultimate agony of idolatry. But it was a hopeful sign” (282). To describe the Athenians as “hungry hearted” and their idols as “hopeful” is surely much too generous. What would the prophet Isaiah have made of Glasser’s comment, “Paul saw no point in blasting the worship of idols, exposing to ridicule its foolishness, and scolding the Athenians for their stupidity. Why give needless offence through assaulting head-on the radical errors of idolatry” (282)?

Moreover, he ends his book by endorsing J. N. D. Anderson and John Wesley’s approach to other religions, an approach which in my opinion makes too much of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in allowing the possibility of people to be justified without having heard the good news of Christ (see 372). In doing so, Glasser is perhaps in danger of undermining the urgency of the church’s mission to bring God’s word to God’s world.

This is a long book, but an important one. Its message that the whole Bible is not just messianic but also missional is a valuable reminder of Jesus’ great promise that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). May this book encourage many more to be involved with God’s mission.

1 Truth With a Mission (Grove Books, 2005), 4. Only available in the U.K. In the United States, see The Mission of God (IVP Academic, 2006).

2 As George Marsden points out, the seminary abandoned dispensationalist theology early in its history, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1995)

3 George E Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (New York: Harper & Row, 1964)