This is a translation of Gerhard Lohfink’s keynote address on November 21, 2015 at a conference commemorating Eberhard Arnold.

There are statements so ­bewildering that they are quoted again and again. Among these is a remark, now a century old, by the French biblical scholar Alfred Loisy: “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God – and what came was the church.”1 I’ll leave to the side the question of what Loisy himself meant by this sentence. Rather, I’ll focus on how it’s understood by those who gleefully quote it. Usually, they understand it as bitterly ironic.

Here, on the one side, is the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed: the immense, all-comprehensive, yet incomprehensible trans­form­ation of the world under God’s reign – and there, on the other side, is the church that came after Easter: a finite body with all the limitations of any other social structure. Clearly, then, there’s a gaping chasm between Jesus’ proclamation and the post-Easter reality! Here the glory of the kingdom of God; there the bitter paltriness of the actual existing church.

I’ll say immediately what merit I find in this approach: None. None at all. For it rends open a cleft between the will of Jesus and the reality of the church in a way that does injustice to both Jesus and the church. How so?

First of all, because it was Jesus himself who characterized the onset of the kingdom as small and utterly inconspicuous. Think of his images of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30–32), of the yeast (Matt. 13:33), of the endangered seed (Mark 4:1–9), or of the seed that grows in secret (Mark 4:26–29).

Second, because the kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus never lies removed from society. Repeatedly, of course, people have attempted to turn it into that, seeking to project the kingdom into the far-off future, or into absolute transcendence, or into the depths of the human soul. But for Jesus, the kingdom of God is a concrete social reality. God’s basileia (kingly rule) has its starting point in a real people. The transformation of the world through the reign of God must begin in Israel.

To be sure, the kingdom of God and the people of God are not identical. But they are strongly connected. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us to ask for the coming of the kingdom. But just before, he has us pray for the gathering and sanctification of the people of God. That is what is meant by the words, “Hallowed be your name.”2 Behind this request is the theology of the book of Ezekiel.3

Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God and announces its coming. Even more, he initiates, right in the midst of Israel, the practical transformation of the world that God’s reign signifies. His announcement of God’s kingdom is connected to the gathering of Israel.4

Since the church is nothing other than the Israel that listens to, follows after, and is made holy by Jesus, the kingdom and the church are very closely connected. The fact that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, and what came after Easter was the church is no tragic fall, no bitter irony of history, no perversion of Jesus’ will; rather, it follows directly from the social dimension of Jesus’ kingdom proclamation.

Against this background I would like to explore whether the early church understood what Jesus wanted and whether it lived it out. I realize, of course, that such a broad subject actually demands far more space. From among the many possible approaches, I will examine three sample topics: (1) nonviolence, (2) love of neighbor, and (3) the imminent expectation of the end of the age. In each case, I will give my reasons for selecting that particular topic.


  1. Alfred Loisy, L’Évangile et l’Église, 2nd ed. (Bellevue, 1903), 155.
  2. G. Lohfink, Das Vaterunser neu ausgelegt (Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2013), 51–59.
  3. E.g., Ezek. 20:22, 41, 55; 36:22–28.
  4. G. Lohfink, Jesus of Nazareth (Liturgical Press, 2012), 39–58.
  5. C. W. Troll, “Quran, Gewalt, Theologie,” Christ in der Gegenwart, no. 43, (2014) 485–486.
  6. G. Lohfink and L. Weimer, Maria – nicht ohne Israel (Herder, 2012), 223–229.
  7. G. Lohfink, Wem gilt die Bergpredigt? (Herder, 1988), 42–45.
  8. See M. P. Maier, Völkerwallfahrt im Jesaja-Buch (Walter de Gruyter, 2015).
  9. Lohfink, Wem gilt die Bergpredigt?, 161–192.
  10. Sources in G. Lohfink, Wie hat Jesus Gemeinde gewollt?, rev. ed. (Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2015), part 4.
  11. E.g., Tacitus, Annals, XV 44:2–5.
  12. Athenagoras, Legatio 11, trans. George Kalantzis.
  13. Sources: A. v. Harnack, Militia Christi (Tübingen, 1905; Darmstadt, 1963); H. v. Campenhausen, “Der Kriegs­dienst der Christen in der Kirche des Altertums,” Universitas 12 (1957), 1147–1156; H. Karpp, “Die Stellung der Alten Kirche zu Kriegsdienst und Krieg,” Evangelische Theologie 17 (1957), 496–515. Especially: H. C. Brennecke, “‘An fidelis ad militiam converti possit?’: Frühchristliches Bekenntnis und Militärdienst im Widerspruch?”, Die Weltlichkeit des Glaubens in der Alten Kirche, ed. D. Wyrwa (De Gruyter, 1997), 45–100.
  14. Tertullian, De corona 1 (solus fortis inter tot fratres commilitones), 42–43; Tertullian, Apology 5,6; 37,4; 42,3; Eusebius, Church History VI 41:22–23; VII 11:20; VII 15–16; VIII 1:7.
  15. Campenhausen, “Kriegsdienst,” 1148: “Not one single church father expressed doubts that in the world as it is, wars must be fought, and they therefore found no reason to single out the military profession for condemnation.”
  16. Apart from Origen, see Tertullian, De corona und De idololatria 19; see also Lactantius, Institutiones divinae VI 20,15–17. Thus the discussion of whether a Christian may be a soldier first starts in the third century.
  17. Origen, Contra Celsum VIII 68.73.75.
  18. By contrast, the canons of Elvira are silent on the question of military service by Christians, although they address in detail questions of Christian life amid pagan society. See Brennecke, “Frühchristliches Bekenntnis,” 93.
  19. In the Roman empire, civil and military authority were not separated. The term militia can mean either. Miles normally refers to a soldier, but can also refer to an armed imperial official.
  20. Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes.
  21. No ancient Jewish texts juxtapose love of God and love of neighbor as Jesus did, thus connecting them and making them central to the Torah. The text that comes closest is “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” although it is disputed whether these are Jewish-Christian writings or a Jewish base text with Christian interpolations.  For the juxtaposition of love of God and love of neighbor in ancient Judaism, see A. Nissen, Gott und der Nächste im antiken Judentum (Mohr, 1974), esp. 230–244. Nissen notes, “Nowhere in all of ancient Jewish literature prior to the Middle Ages do we find a Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 connected together” (241, n642).
  22. E.g., 1 Thess. 5:15; Gal. 6:9–10; 1 Pet. 2:17.
  23. Justin, First Apology 67; trans. Robertson-Donaldson.
  24. Eusebius, Church History VII, 22:7–10; trans. Robertson-Donaldson.
  25. Julian, Epistola Nr. 39, in B. K. Weis, Julian: Briefe  (Heimeran: 1973).
  26. Julian, Epistola 48, 305 C.
  27. Matt. 12:28; Rom. 8:18–30; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Heb. 6:4–5.
  28. 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20; Didache 10:6.
  29. Ad Donatum 4; trans. Roy Deferrari.