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The Third Kingdom by Louis Berkhof (repost from 2011)

"Miracle, in short, is the normal frontier phenomenon."

The Third Kingdom is a paper written by theologian Louis Berkhof in the 19th century (hence when he was much younger). Here's a summary of each paragraph of the essay, 32 paragraphs or so in all.

Note: The title refers to there being three kingdoms: the 1st Kingdom being the Inorganic; the 2nd Kingdom being the organic (where human beings live); and the 3rd Kingdom being the Spiritual, or Kingdom of God.

1. That God was preparing or drawing a people out of the Second Kingdom is a main fact of the ancient world. The Israelites believed this to the extent that they refused to have an earthly king, believing their King to be of the Third Kingdom.

2. This longing for a more perfect Kingdom of God burned through the history of the Israelites up until the advent of Jesus Christ.

3. Jesus announced Himself as the King of this promised Kingdom. He gathered to Himself the first few subjects and assumed Sovereignty and framed a constitution and throughout his life the fact of the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) was foundational to all He said.

4. (Here it gets tricky. Berkhof had not yet developed an understanding of the theory of evolution - the theory of evolution itself nor the theory of evolution vis-a-vis the Creation account - at the time of writing this paper. He is clearly in a naive state regarding it. So you have him using the language of evolution and championing Science - capitalized - as leading the way to greater understanding of the Bible and the Kingdom, etc.; yet you also have to know that in his naivete on the subject he thinks, for instance, that atheism has been forever done away with by Science in his day and by the theory of evolution [you have to read his other essays contemporaneous to this one to see this]. To see what the mature Berkhof thought of evolution go to his Systematic Theology, pages 160-164, and pages 183-188, in the Eerdman's edition.) OK, so he sees science even seeing nature as a kingdom, in ascent, kingdom rising upon kingdom, to an apex yet unseen. The whole creation groaneth and travaileth, waiting for the redemption of the creature.

5. So what is this Third Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, which all creation strives for in some evolutionary sense (leave soteriology out of this here, Berkhof is not making those kinds of distinctions in this essay).

6. This paragraph I will just paste whole: 'The form of the question which chiefly interests us in the present inquiry is, Does the Kingdom of God [i.e. the Third Kingdom] propose to do anything abnormal, extravagant, or unintelligible? Is it a new and unrelated effect that is to be wrought on the subjects of this Kingdom [i.e. the Second Kingdom in which we human beings live], or is it something still consistently in line with continuity? Certainly if it could be shown that the aim of the Third Kingdom was in harmony with all that has gone before, it would go a long way to remove any prejudice that may exist against it on the ground of what men call its unnaturalness and "other-worldliness."' Here it sounds like he's appealing to scientists to cast off their materialism and naturalism and not be prejudiced toward the Kingdom of God.

7. Keep in mind that in this essay Berkhof is exploring the border region (or even overlap region) between the Second Kingdom and the Third Kingdom. It's unusual because it is not a common subject for a Reformed theologian to explore. Even the metaphor of three kingdoms, as he's using it, if you want to label it a metaphor, is foreign to theology in general. In this paragraph he's trying to convince Science of the existence of the Third Kingdom (or Spirit Kingdom, or Kingdom of God) by appealing to its naturalness as an object - evolutionary object - of life, a summum bonum, a chief end of man. Philosophers from ancient times have held it as the goal, etc. It's 'unnatural' to deny it.

8. This paragraph I'll paste whole: "Now as a matter of fact the aim of Christianity, in its general direction, is the aim of all philosophy. Christianity fell naturally into the stream of evolution which was carrying the world through kingdom after kingdom to a high and perfect development. Its idea of development was immeasurably loftier than that of philosophy, and the means for carrying out the process were altogether different; but the goal in either case, though not the same, lay in the same general line. I have defined the aim of philosophy to be the moral development of the race. When it is said, however, that this is also the aim of Christianity we must attach a higher significance to the term moral. Morality is a word of the Second Kingdom. In the Third we look for its evolution. We shall still recognise the old quality, but it will really exist in a form so greatly developed that we may be justified in substituting for morality the word spirituality. At the same time it must again be repeated that the development of the spiritual from the natural man is not a case of simple evolution. The natural character does not simply grow better and better until a pitch of excellence is reached such as finally deserves the distinguishing name of spirituality. Spirituality and morality differ qualitatively as well as quantitatively. The natural development can never pass the barrier separating the Second from the Third Kingdom. The transition is secured, just as in the case of atoms passing from the First to the Second Kingdom, by means of something not inherent in the lower Kingdom but communicated ab extra."

9. This paragraph kind of makes a distinction following from the above paragraph that is not so important to repeat here.

10. Here Berkhof speaks of the impressiveness of Christianity and how he won't go too much into it proper because it's not the subject of this essay to do that.

11. He concludes the above paragraph by suggesting if someone wants to investigate the Third Kingdom from this angle he read the Sermon on the Mount and the seven petitions in the Lord's Prayer.

12. Same as above.

13. "While the design of the Third Kingdom coincides somewhat with the purpose of Moral Philosophy, its apparatus and methods are widely different. And they are different mainly in respect of two things already mentioned. Christianity provides an ideal which is the highest possible, and equips the subjects of the Kingdom with powers in every way adequate to realize that ideal. The problems connected with the ideal will be referred to again, but the question of the powers of the spiritual Kingdom may now be dealt with under a separate head."

14. "The fundamental difference between the Second and Third Kingdoms consists in what, for want of a better name, may be called their Energies." He distinguishes in this long paragraph between the natural man's notion of a higher third kingdom with the reality of it as Christianity reveals it. The need to be born again first, etc.

15. He furthers explains that the Third Kingdom requires Spiritually being born again, which has not to do with biology, etc. (He's speaking to scientists, apparently, who aren't familiar with biblical revelation. I suppose. I don't know who the audience of this paper or talk actually was.)

16. Here he continues to speak of the very different nature of 'life' in the Third Kingdom.

17. He's here describing the difference of the power of the Third Kingdom and the Second Kingdom. 'The sum of New Testament doctrine is that there is an immediate action of the Spirit of God on the souls of men. In the New Testament alone the Spirit is referred to nearly three hundred times. And the one word with which He is constantly associated is Power. If we are asked to define more clearly what is meant by this Power we hand over the difficulty to science. When science can define Life and Force we may hope for further clearness on the nature and action of the Spiritual Powers. At the same time we are forewarned that with our present faculties we can never pass far beyond the threshold of these hidden things. Their very power of evading the senses is the mysterious token of their spirituality. It is the test of the Spirit that thou canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. If we could tell, if we could trace it naturally to its source, if we could account for its operations on ordinary principles, if we could define regeneration as the effect of moral persuasion, we should be dealing not with the Unknown but with the Known. It is from the analysis of natural religion, where the elements can all be rationally accounted for, that men derive their chief argument against the supernatural. But in analyzing spirituality the effort to detect the Living Spirit is as idle as to subject protoplasm to microscopic examination in the hope of discovering Life. When the Spiritual Life is discovered in the laboratory it will be time to give it up altogether. It may then say, as Socrates of his soul, "You can bury me—if you can catch me."'

18. "While the Powers of the Third Kingdom evade analysis their Energy is not less real. The activities of the Third Person of the Trinity have always been described as dynamical. The Spirit is the executive of the Godhead, carrying out the sovereign Will by operations as irresistible as they are subtle. To this omnipotent agency are to be referred ultimately all changes which take place within the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the Source of Energy for the Third Kingdom."

19. "[Let's]inquire for the evidence of the spiritual operations themselves... It will assist us, however, in understanding the evidence, as well as in defining the kind of result to be looked for, if we take one more backward glance at the two earlier Kingdoms. Suppose we take our stand for a moment on the confines of the Inorganic Kingdom. What order of phenomena will strike us first? Shall we see the Second Kingdom act on the First, and if so, in what particular way?"

[The next three paragraphs are given in full because they show where the essay is going.]

20. "As we take our first survey of the Inorganic Kingdom we seem to be surrounded by the dead. Every Atom obeys the law of inertia, or yields to simple changes induced by polar, molecular, or other forces. But presently, into this dead world, an unknown Power descends, feels about, seizes certain Atoms, and manipulates them in unprecedented ways. This mysterious Power is the Power of the Kingdom next in order above. To that Kingdom, indeed, the operations of Life, as facts of everyday occurrence, are not mysterious. But to the Atoms they are unintelligible and very wonderful. Here is one Atom raised from the dead. Here is another refusing to bend its will to the attraction of gravity A third, subject to crystalline forces from the beginning, suddenly defies them and takes its place as a part of the higher symmetry of a living organism. As their Fellow-Atoms observe these extraordinary changes, from time to time occurring around them, they have only one word which adequately describes them—they are Miracles."

21. "Taking our stand now on the confines of the Organic [the Second Kingdom], shall we not be presented with the same strange spectacle? Once more we are surrounded by the dead. Once more a Power descends out of another Kingdom—a Kingdom just in order above—and manipulates Organisms in unprecedented ways. Here is one Organism raised from the dead. Here is another refusing to bend its will to the attraction of sin. A third, subject to deforming forces from the beginning, suddenly defies them, and assumes a high and noble spiritual symmetry. And as their Fellow-Organisms observe these changes, their word again is Miracle."

22. "This, then, is what meets us first at the portals of the Third Kingdom—Miracle. We find an order of phenomena strange and inexplicable to the lower Kingdom, but as normal within its own sphere as are the operations of Life in the Organic. As the powers of the Second Kingdom master the First, so the powers of the Third master the Second. But this is not what is usually called Miracle. Miracle is a much narrower thing—so very narrow a thing that up to this point we have scarcely even come in sight of it. To single out a few specific wonders authenticated by ancient documents, and to attach to them the epithet Miracle, is a limitation so monstrous and unwarranted that the protest against it cannot come too soon."

23. So miracle describes the presence of the Third Kingdom. (Berkhof, by the way, I think without realizing it, is speaking in the language of cosmoses.) And miracles are much bigger than mere acts of healing or whatnot. The fact of a Christian itself is a miracle. The play of the Spiritual power upon the soul, etc. If you deny the existence of the Third Kingdom miracles have to become delusion or fraud.

24. "If, on the other hand, one accepts the Third Kingdom, the miraculous becomes not only credible but necessary The Third Kingdom would not be the Third Kingdom if it could not operate on the Kingdom beneath it in a way which to the Kingdoms below would seem miraculous. The Second Kingdom is the Second Kingdom because it can operate on the First in a way which to the First must seem miraculous. It is superior to the First in virtue of the superiority of its powers and the corresponding complexity of its organisms. In precisely the same way the Third rises superior to the Second."

25. "[If] one runs his eye over the boundary line dividing the Inorganic from the Organic, and finds the whole frontier abounding in similar activities, like the seaward margin of a coral reef fringed with the living polypes, he receives a new impression of their character and relations. He sees that these marvellous reactions are at that point no longer the exception but the rule. Miracle, in short, is the normal frontier phenomenon."

"Along the line of junction, again, between the Natural and the Spiritual a similar set of activities are carrying on their ceaseless work. Contemplated from the bottom of the Second Kingdom, where on an isolated group here and there these activities are operating on grosser material, the phenomena are exceptional, unintelligible, and miraculous. But on the frontier they are the normal actions of the Third Kingdom on the Second, demanded by Continuity, justified in the magnitude and gathering potency of their operations by Evolution and susceptible of the same kind of proof."

26. "That they are so little observed in the higher reaches is due to a peculiar law of their being. The Kingdom cometh without observation."

27. "But in the first days of Christianity the invisibility of its forces formed a drawback to its development. If not essential, it was at least advisable that the outside world should become at once aware of its pretensions. And if the secret operations of the Spirit in regenerating men were then insufficient to attract attention, it became necessary for the manifestation to descend to what some might call a lower plane. [...] And although it is proper to notice the striking and suggestive fact of the extreme conservation of this power in the life-work of Jesus, it is equally necessary to bear in mind that He continually did works which no other man did, and periodically appealed to these as a ground why the members of the Natural Kingdom should accept the Spiritual."

28. Berhkof says that we can't use the miracles in the New Testament to continue to make claims for Christianity and it's higher powers, but we have to recognize the miracles that are happening now (this paragraph is a bit difficult to decipher, Berkhof isn't turning charismatic on us here).

29. "Now, if Christianity ceased to act with the first century, I do not see that we can argue for the miraculous. Unless we include the Third Kingdom in our conception a miracle is certainly a violation of the laws of nature. And if the Third Kingdom has passed away miracles may be interesting, but their occupation is gone—there is nothing for them to attest to me. On the other hand, if the Powers of the Third Kingdom are working around me now I am independent of them. I have the superior credential of the "greater works" which Christ's disciples were to do in His name."


30. This is an interesting paragraph, and I'll paste it whole: "But I have said the denial of miracles is due mainly to defective observation—mainly, however, not wholly. The members of the Third Kingdom have something to answer for themselves here. They have failed to provide due materials for observation. Energy may be potential as well as kinetic. Were a visitant from a distant planet who had read "The Correlation of the Physical Forces" or Ganot's "Physics" to land on the coast of Labrador and demand of the Esquimaux to be shown the energies of electricity or the powers of steam, his credulity in his authorities would certainly be shaken. And even if he were informed by a passing Nordenskiold that many of the physical forces were available at Labrador, only the people had never utilized them, his bewilderment would not be lessened. Those who read the Christian's Book hear in like manner of faith to remove mountains, of love stronger than death, of limitless powers to be had for the asking of all the fulness of the Godhead placed at man's disposal. And when they turn to those who know this Book, who profess to believe it, who contribute themselves to the literature of the Third Kingdom, expanding and enforcing its ideas, and almost forcing them on men's attention, what do they see? Is it any satisfaction that a courteous Nordenskiold assures them that these forces are there withal, only the members of this frigid province at the moment do not happen to employ them? For does not the critic see multitudes of individuals met every week for the ostensible purpose of receiving these powers, down on their knees by the thousand crying for them to come? What is he to make of it? Is he dreaming or they? Or does the Kingdom come—but without observation? No; the Kingdom does not come. On the large scale it does not come. The splendid machinery of Christianity is standing still. The Church is paralyzed. When the Second Kingdom asks the Third for its credentials it remains silent. It has something to show in the past; it points sadly to the early centuries. But for the present nothing stirs; it is all as frozen as Labrador."

31. "So men tell us the spiritual energies are a myth—which is as inconclusive as the statement that the physical forces are myths where they are not utilized. The scepticism of the age nevertheless lies at the door of the Church. That there are individuals, and here and there churches, witnessing to the powers of the Third Kingdom is not to be gainsaid. No man who really desires to satisfy himself of the reality of the Spiritual World will seek in vain for a demonstration of the Spirit and of Power. But the appeal is not going forth to all the earth and arresting men by a testimony triumphant and irresistible. The Power that operated at Pentecost is no longer a mighty and awakening force. And even the ethical light which the subjects of the Third Kingdom were admonished to "let shine among men" is all but too dim to see."

32. 'Now, whatever may be the state of matters at present within the Visible Church of the Third Kingdom, let us not blind ourselves to the unspeakably important fact that the Spiritual World contains forms of energy infinitely more powerful than those of the First and Second. It has never been sufficiently realized how much greater they are—how much greater they must be, even from analogy. One might almost speak of an Evolution of Energy going on as we rise from higher to higher Kingdoms. By this, of course, is not meant that the higher energy is in any sense evolved from the lower, but that the potency—whatever may be the source of the increment—is found gradually becoming stronger and stronger. As a matter of fact, while the energy within each Kingdom is constant, the organic powers are greater than the inorganic, the Spiritual than either. And the one thing requisite at once for the attestation of the Third Kingdom and the further evolution of the Second is that the subjects of the former should give heed once more to the offer of its King and Founder, "If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask it."'

+ + +

OK, so this early essay of Berkhof's is interesting for his use of the language of cosmoses (whether he knew he was using that language or not), and his dagger in the heart of the visible church in not making use of the higher powers of the Kingdom of God. It's also interesting to people who connect with a language of inner development that conforms to Calvinist, or Reformed, doctrine, which is just to say apostolic biblical doctrine. Here is a very Reformed theologian touching on such matters. A rare thing. And though he mentions that Christianity not only presents the ideal but also gives the means to attain the ideal Berkhof nevertheless doesn't go into that aspect of the faith, other than: "...much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask it." Yet how this manifests the mockers and the eternally piously shallow will never recognize. I give hints throughout this blog. Take them if you're of a mind to...


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