Thursday 8 November 2012

An Apology for the Word ‘Kingdom’

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

Michael O'Brien, Allegory on Seeking and Striving

The court of þe kyndom of God alyue       The court of the Kingdom of God alive
Hatȝ a property in hytself beyng:          Has in itself a property, being:
Alle þat may þerinne aryue                 All that may therein arrive
Of alle þe reme is quen oþer kyng,        Of all that realm is either queen or king.
– Pearl

The word “kingdom” is familiar to English-speaking Christians. We speak of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, and pray, “Thy kingdom come.” “Kingdom” is the traditional way to translate the New Testament term βασιλεία and is consistently used in English translations of Roman Catholic liturgy. However, these days, many use the word “reign”, when possible, in order to stress the primary meaning of the Greek word as used in Sacred Scripture. The entry for βασιλεία in my New Testament lexicon is: “reign, rule; kingdom, domain”. Hence, the thinking goes, “reign” more aptly emphasises the active ruling of God, whereas “kingdom” has misleading geopolitical connotations, making us think of a territorial place rather than the sovereignty of Almighty God.

While I do not think that the use of the word “reign” should be outlawed, I much prefer “kingdom”. Here are four reasons:

1. “Kingdom” has the meaning of “rule” at its root. The suffix -dom is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “an abstract suffix of state”. It indicates a disposition, an influence, a condition (think of words like “wisdom”, “serfdom” or “freedom”); the Anglo-Saxon the word dom means, among other things, “judgement”, and is the origin of the modern English words like “doomsday”. Thus, “kingdom” originally meant the judgement, rule and authority of a king, or the state of being a king, rather than a political territory. Today, it has lost this original sense―except when used to refer to God’s kingdom, in which case, if we speak and think intentionally, we are true to the word’s core meaning.

2. “Kingdom” also indicates a territory. The full semantic range of βασιλεία includes the meaning of the territory over which a king rules, as the lexical entry quoted above indicates. The popular meaning of “kingdom” preserves this nuance. (While the word “reign” might have been used this way in the past, its meaning narrowed after the eighteenth century.) Keeping the geographic connotation of “kingdom” helps prevent us from hyper-spiritualizing the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus announced his kingdom in a particular time in a particular land, and instructed his disciples to extend it to the ends of the earth. In Revelation, the New Jerusalem is not physically abstract but descends from heaven and is established on earth, with Christ dwelling as King in its midst.

3. “Kingdom” reminds us that there is a King. True, the word “reign” is distantly related to the Latin word for king, rex, but the word “kingdom” evokes the notion of a king much more readily. We are reminded that the Kingdom of God has a King, and it is that King that we are to follow. Fittingly, the English parallels the Greek word, for βασιλεία comes from the same root as βασιλεύς, meaning “king”.

4. “Kingdom” sounds better. This is undoubtedly an aesthetic predilection, but aesthetics are important, especially in religious language. The word “kingdom” is an ancient word in our language, at least as old as the seventh century. It is sonorous, grave and noble. The word “reign” probably entered the language in the fourteenth century from the Latin via the French. It is less native to our language; it sounds flatter and less portentous than its Anglo-Saxon counterpart.

Language evolves, but its evolution is within our control, and how we use language affects how we think. If we are to use the word “kingdom” and be true to our faith, we need to be intentional about what we mean. I for one think that it is well-worth the effort.

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