Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 6

In recent years eschatology has come into much greater prominence among theologians.  It used to be just one more topic, or locus, that was addressed at the end of the discussion, and the substance of eschatological discussion usually pertained to sorting out millennial views.  But now eschatology has become central to the whole task of Christian theology.  As Michael Horton rightly argues in his book Covenant and Eschatology, eschatology should be considered a lens, not just a locus, of theology.  In other words, all of theology should be viewed through the lens of eschatology.  Eschatology sets the framework within which all of theology is done. 

What accounts for this recent change?  There are a number of factors, but I believe the most important one is the discovery of the “already/not yet” tension within the New Testament.  This is what is known as “inaugurated eschatology,” and I don’t believe one can understand the New Testament without, in some sense, understanding this concept. 

Here is a brief historical background.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liberal New Testament scholars argued that Jesus was basically a moral teacher who went around throwing out one-liners and parables as timeless, pithy principles for living.  He did not believe himself to be the messiah or Son of God.  His main purpose was to teach people how to love each other.  The church later distorted Jesus and turned him into a messianic figure and then even a divine figure.  Albert Schweitzer came along in the early twentieth century and rejected this line of thinking.  Although he adhered to the liberal methods of study, he argued for a very different Jesus.  Schweitzer argued that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic figure who proclaimed the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the Kingdom of God, and this was all bound up with himself.  But here’s the catch: Jesus was wrong.  He thought he was bringing in the Kingdom, but he ended up dying a martyr’s death instead.  In one memorable passage, Schweitzer writes this:

“In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man He lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close.  It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it.  Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them.”

Schweitzer rightly identified the strong apocalyptic element in Jesus’ teaching, but his conclusion, one must admit, does not inspire much confidence in Jesus.  Schweitzer’s Jesus is a deluded failure, on par with Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite.  Is this the Jesus that we see on the pages of the New Testament, the Jesus who has been worshiped by millions around the world for two-thousand years? 

Around the middle of the twentieth century, scholars began to identify a theme in the New Testament that Schweitzer had not noticed: inaugurated eschatology.  This theme allows us to agree with Schweitzer that Jesus was a strongly apocalyptic figure who proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God without following Schweitzer into the unfounded idea that the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed never materialized.  W. G. Kuemmel was among the first among non-evangelicals to argue for this theme, and George Ladd was the pioneer among evangelicals.  Today it has become a virtual consensus among New Testament scholars and theologians that through the coming, ministry, and redemptive work of Jesus, the Kingdom has come, though not in its fullness.  There is an “already” aspect to it as well as a “not yet.”  History is divided into two ages, and right now we are living at the point where these ages overlap.  The old age of sin, darkness, and death persists even as the new age of life, redemption, justice, righteousness, and peace has broken in on it.  The Kingdom of God was established at Jesus’ first coming, but we await his Second Coming for the fullness of it and the complete end of the old age. 

I believe the New Testament clearly teaches an inaugurated eschatology, in contrast both to the postponement theory of dispensationalism and to the “Jesus-as-deluded-failure” idea of Schweitzer.  Classical dispensationalists argue that Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel but then postponed it when they refused.  I see no offer of the Kingdom in the New Testament.  I see an announcement of the Kingdom.  In Mark 1:15-16, Jesus’ message is summarized as this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe in the good news!”  Jesus does not say, “The Kingdom will come if you will have it.”  He says, “It is coming, and that places an obligation upon you.  Repent now and be a part of it, or persist in your sin and be consumed by judgment.”  The evidence of the Kingdom comes about through Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and especially of casting out demons.  The powers of the old age are routed as the King comes to claim his throne. 

But Jesus did not establish the Kingdom the way Israel expected.  He came as a suffering servant, a crucified Messiah whose purpose was to redeem sinners.  Nevertheless, through his resurrection and ascension he has been exalted to the right hand of God, where he now reigns as King over all things.  Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  By calling Christ the “firstfruits,” Paul identifies the resurrection of Christ as the beginning phase of a much bigger event.  In the resurrection of Jesus, the general resurrection of the dead has begun.  The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all people are not two separate events but are two aspects of the same event.  They may be separated in time (already now almost 2,000 years), but in God’s timetable they are one extended eschatological event.  This means that the whole of the present age is eschatological, since Christ has already been raised.  We have been living in the last days ever since Christ came (Hebrews 1:1-2).  Eschatology must be the lens of theology because all theology must focus on the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Christ, which is an eschatological event. 

The framework that I set out in the previous posts now comes into play.  In recent years, as a result of the “already/not yet” emphasis of New Testament scholarship, different camps in the millennial debates have made significant progress in coming together.  Dispensationalists used to view eschatology completely as a “not yet” category.  The Kingdom was postponed and will not resume until the millennium.  Covenant theologians (amillennialists), on the other hand, used to focus almost exclusively on the Kingdom as “already,” and they tended to spiritualize it completely.  Now, with the virtual consensus of both “already” and “not yet” as major New Testament themes held in tension, progressive dispensationalists and modified covenantalists have come to a measure of eschatological agreement.  Now you will find both premillennialists and amillennialists arguing that Christ’s Kingdom has already been established, that Christ is now reigning at the right hand of the Father in fulfillment of the messianic promises, and yet that we are still waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom to come at his return, when the Kingdom will be experienced in much more than a “spiritualized” manner.  Amillennialists have become much more “earthy” in their views of the Kingdom, and premillennialists have become much more open to the present dimsensions of the Kingdom under Christ’s present rule.  I have not studied the history of postmillennialism enough to know whether significant changes have been made among postmillennialists in this regard, but I have seen postmillennial theologians making some of the same observations about the “already/not yet” dimensions of the Kingdom.  For a full discussion of this trend, see Russell Moore’s excellent book The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.

So what does this all mean?  It means that we are seeing greater theological unity on the most important matters of eschatology, which in turn relativizes the elements that divide among different views.  What are these most important matters?  I would list them as follows:

1. The Kingdom of God was established through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus Christ now reigns as King at the right hand of the Father; this is in fulfillment of the messianic promises that one of David’s descendants would rule forever.

3. The present rule of Christ has major implications for the way we live now on this earth; we are to seek to live out a Kingdom way of life in a world that is in rebellion against God.  This way of life consists primarily of gospel proclamation, but it also extends to all aspects of life including social ministry, economics, art, politics, etc.

4. While the Kingdom has been established, the present evil age continues to persist, and the two ages overlap.

5. This means that we are still waiting for Christ to return and gain final victory over his enemies.

6. The return of Christ is the hope to which we must look as we suffer in this present age, and we must be ready for it at any time.

7. The ultimate hope for believers is not a disembodied existence in heaven but a renewal of this creation. 

I believe that if one holds to these elements (of course, presupposing all the essential elements of a Christian eschatology that I outlined in part 1), then questions about the millennium tend to recede into the background.  However, I do believe that questions about the millennium are important and should be answered biblically.  In the next post I will finally reveal what position I hold. 

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3 Responses to “Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 6”

  1. ali Says:

    Hey Aaron, I appreciate you taking the time to write these posts.

    I have a question. Would not the historic post-millennialists (I understand Jonathan Edwards held that position – or am I wrong) have held to an “already-not” yet position long before it was discovered in the 20th century?

    My understanding is that posties believed the world gradually gets more Christianised until Jesus returns – is that not “already-not yet”?

    I’ve always understood Daniel’s vision of the rock covering the earth to indicate such a progression – but I guess it doesn’t have to be read that way. My position is actually half way between post-, pre- and a-millennial. In other words, I still don’t know what I think. I’m definitely not a fan of “Left Behind” eschatology.

  2. Jason Says:

    I have enjoyed reading these posts. They read like a good book. (on eschatology)

    😉

    Jason

  3. fenderpooh Says:

    Ali,

    You are right that Jonathan Edwards was a postmillennialist. He was hopeful that the revivals in North America and Great Britain during his lifetime signaled the beginning of the millennium, the golden age of Christianity.

    I also think you are right that in some sense the “already/not yet” concept was around prior to the 20th century, only as a more implicit than explicit idea. Recent developments, however, include not only the explicit working out of these ideas but also a virtual consensus among covenantalists, progressive dispensationalists, and just about everybody in between that has led to major steps forward for all sides. There are still some traditionalists on both sides who are holding on to their older ideas, but they are becoming fewer and far between.

    Jason,

    Thank you. Maybe I should put up a copyright notice on here and try to have this published. 😉

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