The Theme of Road to Emmaus, Resurrection, and New Creation: A Critique of Barth’s Conception of Resurrection and the Eschaton

The Road to Emmaus has to be my favorite setting and theme in the whole of the Bible; other than Revelation 21–22. So when I come across studies that engage with this theme I am always enthralled by it. I just finished Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway (an excellent study and read!). Because I am severely time-pressed I won’t be able to adequately engage with the critique he offers of Barth on resurrection, but I at least wanted to share a short revealing passage of the way van Driel’s critique works. Full disclosure: I agree with van Driel in regard to his critique of Barth’s conception of time and how that implicates a doctrine of resurrection and new creation. Indeed, this is the theme I am so enthralled by; i.e. New Creation! After much prior development, here is, in a nutshell, van Driel’s critique of Barth and the idea of resurrection as it functions in Barth’s theology of time and recreation:

Eschatological human beings are thus embodied creatures—Christ as the firstborn, than, in the general resurrection, followed by all others. If this is true, it will not do to say, as Barth does, that the being of Jesus Christ was perfect and complete by the time of his death, and that resurrection and ascension are no more than the revelation of Christ as the man he had been. Nor will it do, as Barth’s recapitulation model does, to conceptualize eschatological consummation as the preservation of the lived life, instead of the continuation of the creature’s temporal life. Embodiment implies a continuation of time. Bodily actions are, essentially, temporal events. Breaking bread, eating a fish, embracing a friend—these are actions that cannot take place in a timeless existence. Further, a life that still unfolds in time cannot be called completed. Therefore, Christ’s being, Christ’s life and identity cannot be presented as completed by the time of his death, nor can the resurrection be analyzed as solely a revelation of a life lived. A completed life has no future, but Christ does. A life lived no longer participates in time, but Christ does. The recapitulation model needs to be rejected: it falters on the embodied nature of the resurrected One. The eschaton is not the conservation of a life definitively ended by death. Instead, the eschaton is the harvesting of a new life; a life born out of the old as the crop is born out of the seed.[1]

As I noted, we won’t have time to address the technicalities that van Driel has treated in a much fuller and developed form; prior to this critique. But suffice it to say, I think van Driel is right to critique Barth on this front. Don’t worry, I still love Barth; but I don’t want to read anyone uncritically.

In summary: Barth thinks things in terms of an actualist and completed event; including Christ’s parousia. When applied to certain doctrines this does things to them; sometimes I find it helpful and beneficial for the theological task, other times I do not. The point van Driel is raising contra Barth is a point at which I think Barth’s theology falters indeed. I think actualism, by-and-large, is the better way to go; I think Barth’s “post-metaphysical” narratival mode (attempting to think things as narrated in the history of salvation as attested by Holy Scripture) is still the better bend we can take in the road of theological methodology. But at certain points I think we must demur; or at least I must.

[1] Edwin Chr. van Driel, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 148-47.

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Terry Eagleton’s Jesus Quested Jesus: Responding to an Atheist’s Understanding of the Parousia of the Risen Christ

When you read atheist authors (or at least agnostic ones), and this is surely what Terry Eagleton is—someone recently told me, on FaceBook, that Eagleton had returned to the Catholic church, but clearly from his writing in this book, he is still in the clasped fist of Marx and the Devil—you will assuredly run across things, as a Christian reader, that kick hard against the goads. While I am being enriched by many of the insights Eagleton has written, even in exposition of Scripture, I ran across one of those paragraphs where it becomes clear that Eagleton hasn’t, as of yet, repented and bowed the knee to the living God in the Risen Christ. In the following quote from him you will see his view of Jesus’s ability to predict the future (an attribute of God), and actually what I take to be a very facile reading of Jesus’s voice in the Gospels. I will respond laterally, and point out the sort of petitio principii (circular reasoning) Eagleton engages in. Here he is talking about the specter and reality of death, and how an ethics can be nobly wrought even in its unrelenting teeth.

To take no heed for tomorrow is possible only by living in the knowledge of that ultimate tomorrow which is death. It is an invitation not to forget about time, but to be mindful of the end of time. Jesus, along with some of those who preached his gospel, seemed to have imagined that the kingdom of God was imminent, which proved to be a rather sizeable error. To their mind, history was simply eschatology. The church had simply to stand fast, surrendered in faith to the Lord who was soon to return. Even so, to live as if the Day of Judgement were at hand, and thus as if the only pressing matters were justice and fellowship, is not an ethics to be scorned. If there is to be any eternity, it must surely be here and now. ‘Eternal life’, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘belongs to those who live in the present’. And since to live in the present, were it possible, would mean to live out of time, it is a way of anticipating one’s death. It is another sense in which, in Eliotic phrase, the moment of death is every moment.[1]

First off, I think Eagleton, just for his own health, would do well to put down his stein of continental spirits, and instead pick up, at first, the chalice filled with the pure milk of the living Word of God; only later to move onto meatier things. But beyond that, let’s respond further.

Clearly, Eagleton is imbibing the Quest for Jesus inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer, back in the day; you know, the eschatological Jesus who was clearly wrong and in ‘sizeable error’ about his imminent return. Further, and this is where we recognize the petitio principii, Eagleton presupposes that Jesus is ‘clearly’ just another [hu]man, which thus delimits the foresight of Jesus’s predictive pronouncements to the ‘near’ future. In other words, since Eagleton starts with his conclusion about Jesus being in ‘error,’ he uses his conclusion about Jesus as his major premise in regard to who Jesus is and his capacities. What these leads to is the conclusion not only that Jesus is just another man, but that because of this, Jesus could err; because to err is human after all. What if Eagleton started with orthodox grammar and premise about Jesus; what if he started with the Chalcedonian settlement and homoousion? If Eagleton started with the premise that Jesus was (and is!) both fully God and fully human, he might not have concluded like the original Jesus Questers did; he might have avoided the very limited notion of ‘time’ and ‘space’ that someone who happens to be God in the flesh could be operating with. This is my response: Jesus wasn’t mistaken about his imminent return, instead his vision of time/space and the future is at least as long as Yahweh’s in the Old Testament. Or did Terry forget that Yahweh had been preparing, through his covenant people Israel, for millennia, with Jesus’s first advent in mind. Do you see the analogy I’m drawing? God took thousands of years, when referring to his covenant people, to layer tradition upon tradition, prophecy upon promise, about the first coming of the Son. If Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh is it strange to think that when he spoke of his near and imminent return, that within his economy of things two thousand years, or a million years, are rather short spans of time for the eternal God; the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever? But that’s what Eagleton gets when he presumes that the Jesus he is looking at looks like him staring back at him in the mirror, rather than the living and eternal God.

It is an interesting corollary, the second part of the Eagleton paragraph refers to eternity being now, and only in the horizontal immanence of the concrete present. I mean what is one to do if you reject any hope in the Risen Christ? You might as well attempt to make the best of now, even live your best life now, and write books about the virtues of Marx’s theology for the masses. I’ve seen this turn made by someone else; David Congdon has unfortunately arrived at this same conclusion about eternity. He has bought into the radically existentialized Jesus of Bultmann, and uncoupled concrete history from any sort of antecedent (eternal) reality in the living God. There are many sophisticated ways to live in unbelief (with reference to the living God Revealed in Jesus Christ), and unfortunately Marxist atheists, like Eagleton, or Existentialist theists, like Congdon, have found those ways. Moral: Don’t follow their lead. God’s Not Dead.

 

[1] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 1476, 1483.

Secular Eschatology; Secular Salvation

Part of the human condition is living in a world wherein teleology is an inescapable reality. What I mean is that in-built into our creatureliness is an innate notion that nature, or creation is heading somewhere; viz. that it has some sort of end. It isn’t just Christians who have an eschatology as part of their doctrine of creation [or as the mainstay of their doctrine of creation]; it isn’t just Christians who have a belief in last things, and how the cosmos, and the earth therein ends. The secular, because of the human condition, because ‘eternity has been set in our hearts’ (Eccl. 3.11), has a view towards the way the natural order will come to an end. True, the Christian versus the Secular view is dissimilar in some radical ways, but this is to be expected just as some can call Christ, LORD, and others cannot; because the others do not have the Spirit. This dissimilarity notwithstanding, creatures build intellectual and even spiritual constructs based upon the hollowed-out material left to them in the old-fallen-creation; insofar as the old creation has God’s ratio, some might want to call it Logoi replete within it, here concepts of nature’s finitude and transitoriness help supply the secular with its own versions of the eschaton. These versions, the secular’s, are only able to be developed as a result of a sort of parasitic siphon on the actual eschatological reality as that has been Revealed in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Within the webbing of this Revelation the secular is given conceptual/intellectual access that helps illumine further what remains for them in the old-fallen-world order. In other words, it’s not as if the secular has no exposure to the Revealed reality of God in the taxis of the intellectual world order of ideas. Indeed, the secular has been shaped, ‘innately,’ even as that is only given pressure for the secular in mostly unconscious ways, by the conceptual seeds broadcast this world over by the kerygmatic in-breaking of the Christian witness, as that has ruptured the horizon of this old-world-order with the Light of God’s own beaming Eschatos in the face of the Christ; it is in this new horizon that that old-horizon can faintly sense orientations that remain dead to them, insofar as the Spirit has not hovered over them bringing the sprout of new life—the seed imperishable.

All of the aforementioned to say: The world order itself, as broken man experiences it, provides for a schema of the ‘end’ that ultimately bears witness to the fact that humanity has never nor will ever be alone. Fallen humanity, the secular, lives in a world that requires a response to its stimuli. The stimuli of this world is a reality that is extra nos (outside of us), a reality that is external to us grounded in the heavenly session of the Son of Man seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This pressure, even for the fallen humanity, makes such humanity squirm under the Light of God’s forbearance; under the reality that this fallen humanity lives under the No of God’s Yes in Jesus Christ. Such contradiction to the secular’s attempt to create a life out of the world’s perceived nothings is precisely the point wherein humanity feels compelled to construct accounts of the ‘end’, as they couch that in their concepts of the ‘Beginning’ (protology), such that they hope to ‘innately’ mimic the reality pressed upon them without bowing the knee to this Ultimacy which they cannot escape. The secular has a concept of the beginning correlating to an end; not just in a linear sense, but in an apocalyptic sense. Colin Gunton helps illustrate what I’ve been getting at thus far,

When we seek to speak of the eschatological dimension of creation theology, we should be careful to define what it is that we mean theologically. There are in currency a number of what can be called secular eschatologies, often scientific theories of the end of things in the observable universe, taking the form of the disappearance of everything in an immense black hole, a heat death of everything or the equivalent death by extreme cold. In response, some scientists have attempted to salvage from the wreckage some form of secular salvation, supposing that a kind of immortality might be attainable for the human race if something could be projected into eternity in computerised form. It must be said of all these that they are not truly eschatological, in the sense we shall explore, because they are simply or largely projections on the universe of forms of this-worldly experience. It is possible that some of them may signal an end of all things in a more radical sense, but it remains the case that the end of things as we know them is not necessarily identical with the End, just as speculation about the ‘big bang’, or whatever, is not the same as the doctrine of creation out of nothing.[1]

Gunton helps to reinforce some of my own inklings, and at the same time brings even greater precision as he notes the role that human projection plays in constructing naturalistic concepts of the beginning and end.

For my part, what I want to drive home, in the main, is that no man or woman can escape the conditions which they have been born into. And the harder they try the more precision they will offer in regard to the sort of mimicry they will achieve when they attempt to explain reality under the new world order within which they exist (but do not live); i.e. the New-Creation. I think this is important: The Secular animal only proves the reality of the cross of Jesus Christ as they attempt to continue to find some sort of harbinger in its Shadow side. What I am pressing is the idea that humanity is objectively oriented to God by the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; whether they will acknowledge that or not. In their disacknowledgement of that they only ironically bear witness to God’s No over them, and their fallen condition, while not participating in God’s Yes for them in Jesus Christ. As a result, they live from the ‘kingdom of darkness’ and attempt to create a reality, even an eschaton for the human story, that is given fiery breath from their doomed father, the devil. The devil has been attempting to construct a kingdom out of the rot of his own choice to be against Christ rather than for him for millennia untold. Is it any surprise that his progeny in the dark underworld of this fallen world bears witness not only to the No of God, but to the tactics and tics of the devil himself?

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 2961, 2966 kindle.

A More Responsible Way to Think About Biblical Eschatology: Engaging with Karl Heim Through TF Torrance

In North American evangelical circles when you hear the word eschatology your mind typically races to The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series. Or, if you’re old enough, you might even think about all the artistic charts providing a linear timeline for biblical prophecy and eschatological events. But when we engage with this word from a more historical and Christian Dogmatic frame of reference, indeed, if we engage with this word and its conceptual matter from the New Testament itself (by engaging with its inner theo-logic) a different sense emerges. The ‘end’ is certainly in view, but the way that transposes with the now supplies us with a very different frame for thinking things eschatological. Clearly, for the Christian our hope is that Jesus Christ will return bodily (just as he ascended Acts 1.8), and usher in the new creation in consummate form unending; this is indeed the eschatological hope. What this ought to do for us though, in a broader less idiosyncratic frame, is cause us to ponder the relationship between time and eternity; and maybe wonder what the latter has to do with the former.

This is sort of pondering actually didn’t happen in earnest until the modern period; or at least the modern developments re-ignited a focus on the biblical understanding of the eschaton that was certainly present in the Patristic period. But what happened in the modern period under the pioneering work of someone like Albert Schweitzer and his Jesus Quest was to recognize just how central eschatological thinking was to the whole of the New Testament. It was in fact the rise of historic-critical tools that developed as a result of Enlightenment forces, that caused this focused engagement with the text of the New Testament that made its critics, Schweitzer among them, recognize the lacuna of previous scholarship in understanding just how central the eschatological was to the New Testament project. While Schweitzer was unable to follow through with his identification of the eschatological as the inner reality of the New Testament witness, vis-à-vis the apocalyptic, it was his work along with some others that brought the need to re-examine the New Testament witness in the light of eschatological reality.

Thomas Torrance offers some important delineation of the impact of this re-focused emphasis on eschatology as he surveys the work of theologians following this sort of New Testament studies revolution. He first identifies the early Barth and his commentary on Romans as taking Schweitzer’s insights to their theological conclusion; taking Schweitzer where Schweitzer himself failed to go. TFT then notes how Barth later corrected some of his early thinking as he matured into the Barth of the Church Dogmatics. But I don’t want to focus on TF’s survey on Barth; instead I want to highlight his sketch of Karl Heim’s work. I find the analogy that emerges in Heim’s thinking to be quite compelling in regard to the way we might think of time’s relationship to eternity in a christological frame. Torrance writes (once again at length):

Even more significant that the work of Althaus, however, has been the work of Karl Heim. On the one hand, his significance lies in the fact that he stands in a closer relation to the biblical message, working out an eschatology in terms of justification and forgiveness, and bringing into history the acute tension manifest in the death of Christ in the contradiction between the powers of evil and the holy love of God. On the other hand, Heim’s significance lies in his efforts to break with the idealist conception of time that has for so long done violence to our understanding of the biblical message. For help in his interpretation, Heim turns partly to Bergson and partly to the changes in modern notions of time due to the new physics, and certainly he manages to introduce into his views something of a Heraclitean tension.

Critics argue that this is only to understand primitive mythology in terms of modern mythology, but although it is not always easy to understand or agree with Heim’s notions of time, particularly when they are influenced by transient scientific theories, he has done us great service both in thinking eschatology and soteriology into each other, and in overthrowing what he calls a static (stabil) view of time in favour of a dynamic (labil) view as the time-form of the Ego. The latter means that he works out a view of eschatology in close association with the life of the church, for our Christian view of time must inevitably be bound up with God’s action in history through the church as the place where eternity is so to speak within time. Eternity does not stand forth only at the end of time but is the frontier of time all along the line. It is the other side of time and beyond time, the final reality that bears upon time. That reality is supremely manifest in the incarnation, and through the death of Christ and through the church in her proclamation of the gospel, it gets to grip with time in the matter of guilt. Thus history, particularly history in relation to the church, is read in terms of the contradiction of sinners against the man of Calvary, and the whole panorama of time has its meaning unfolded there in terms of a dynamic tension so acute that every time is seen to be the last time. Heim does not think in terms of alternatives such as realised eschatology or a future coming of the kingdom at the end of time, but in terms of both.

It is characteristic of Heim that he speaks of these difficult matters again and again through illustrations. Thus he likens the church of the New Testament to a vast iron bridge which spans the torrent of time with a single arch supported by only two pillars, the cross of Christ which stands on this side of time and the coming of Christ in power which stands on the other side of time. The church of Christ in history is maintained from age to age by these two supports and its very being is bound up with the essential unity of these two events, the perfected event of the death and resurrection of Christ and the future event of the parousia. It is because the very being of the church is proleptically conditioned by a new creation to be revealed at the parousia, the return of Christ, that she lives in dynamic tension here and now at the very frontiers of eternity.

This tension is through the tension that lies at the heart of justification, the relation that exists in the conflict between guilt and the power of evil (in which Heim sees behind the outward façade of world history the embattled array of Satanic forces) and the redeeming purpose of God. It is because that struggle was supremely concentrated in the cross, and because Jesus Christ emerged there as absolute victor over all evil that God confronts time through Jesus Christ by whom at last the world will be judged and all history brought to its great consummation. But because it is through Jesus Christ that God confronts the world in its history, history will inevitably repeat on the full scale of humanity the conflict of the cross, but it will be a conflict or cataclysm in which Jesus Christ will emerge triumphant with his new creation of heaven and earth. Because we are concerned through all of this with a dynamic or fluid (labil) view of time we cannot think of the consummation by a lengthening of time but in terms only of God’s moment fulfilling and ending our time. Hence we cannot say in what day or hour the parousia will take place. All we know is that we are confronted now through the gospel with God’s will and with eternity as though this were the last time.[1]

The illustration Torrance shares from Heim is instructive in regard to the hangars of time; hangars that pivot on the first and second advents of Jesus Christ. Biblical eschatology in this approach starts with the res (reality) of Scripture, with Jesus Christ; as if there is a cosmic battle taking place, but one that has been won by the risen Christ. The way the eschaton conditions time and our daily nows is through the proclamation of the Gospel by the witness of the church. It is the reality of new creation known by faith, and given power by the resurrection that the church serves as the witness to the mediator between time and eternity in the hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ. There is a great conflagration inhering in the Christian’s life, of an eschatological vector, as the Christian lives in and from the Omega of God’s eternal life as that implicates the Alpha made present in our daily lives in this mundane world as the Christ’s church.

What we see presented in Heim’s thought, according to Torrance, is a better and more biblical-theological way to think about eschatology. The Bible does not lay out a line of biblical prophetic events that must take place in a domino sort of fashion; it does not give us a code waiting to be decoding by the newspapers, per se. Instead, a biblically rich understanding of the eschatological is to think it in the sort of terms that Heim does; to think it in and from the terms laid out by the incarnation of God, and the obedience of that reality in Jesus Christ as he made a public spectacle of the devil and his demons at the cross. The church, as she bears witness to this powerful reality, in union with Christ by the Spirit, is involved in living the eschatological life that is God’s life in confrontation and destruction of the principalities and powers at work in this ‘world system.’ This is what the eschatological entails; not charts.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 312-14.

How to Read the Book of Revelation: Against Modern Day Astrological Numerology and other Aberrations

Given that according to some prognosticators the world is facing certain apocalyptic and cataclysmic reorientation starting in September 23rd, 2017, I thought I would reshare something I wrote awhile ago that engages with how to interpret the book of Revelation. Since these prognosticators are tying their predictions and prognostications to their interpretation of Revelation 12, it only seems fitting to test such an approach against a critical baseline for how the book of Revelation was originally composed, and for whom. If we push into this “baseline,” I contend, that what we will find will show these modern day prognosticators for who they are; i.e. hucksters (maybe even with good intentions) who haven’t taken the proper time to understand basic hermeneutical rules when it comes to interpreting biblical literature. So in an attempt to help address this issue, I give you the following (realizing that this is only a blog post with major space limitations; so a fuller development cannot be provided here, but hopefully it will provide enough grist for the reader to have some critical hooks to hang their hats of discernment on in this evil age).

Richard Bauckham’s books The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy are resources that all Christians should avail themselves of. Let me provide an introduction, of sorts, into the basic argument of Bauckham’s book[s].  And of course, given the nature of my blogging pattern and style, I will also be reflecting upon the theological and exegetical issues that Bauckham’s writing is touching upon—as well as the more applied and correlative issues that Bauckham’s work only implicates, that is, the popular issues of dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, & postmillennialism. That said, let me wade us into what Bauckham thinks constitutes the basic trajectory and original purpose for writing the book of Revelation (which will implicate all kinds of things). Here is what Bauckham writes on the original audience and purpose of the ‘Epistle of Revelation’, and then a bit on how Bauckham thinks this reality cashes out in application (theologically and pastorally):

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realized that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.[1]

We leave off from Bauckham with a bit of a teaser; he goes on and provides some examples of what he describes in the quote paragraph of above. Suffice it to say, it can readily be observed that Bauckham, even in the small notation above (the quote), is getting at two popular, and I would say, erroneous, ways of reading the book of Revelation. Bauckham is getting at a naked idealism way of interpreting Revelation (as it has been in the history) which usually involves a presupposition of dualism; meaning that the book of Revelation is often construed as an ethereal book that depicts a cosmic struggle between good and evil. While there is an aspect where this is true for Bauckham, we can obviously see that he sees much more particularity, unity, and concreteness to the message and theology and history that make up this book than the classic idealism approach does. And then in the next breath, we also see Bauckham challenging what I will call the futurist, premillennial, dispensational reading of Revelation (the kind given popular expression in ‘The Left Behind’ series of books by Lahaye and Jenkins). He thinks it is in error to read Revelation as if its primary semantic and conceptual pool is predictive in nature; in other words, he sees it as highly problematic to read current events (like ours) into the book of Revelation, as if this was what John and the Holy Spirit had in mind when it was originally penned. Bauckham does not see the book of Revelation as a secret code book awaiting the decoder key (current events) to, in fact, decode it. No, he sees all of the events, people, and picturesque language of Revelation as grounded in a labyrinth of inter-related complexities that bubble up from the Old Testament apocalyptic genre (like that found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.); and then he sees this context being applied to the ‘current’ events of the Roman empire of which the seven churches addressed in the Revelation are located.

There is much more to Bauckham’s thesis about the book of Revelation; like he sees the point of the book of Revelation as most pertinent to the Christians in the Roman empire who were suffering great tribulation and suffering, to the point of martyrdom. He sees the point of the book as primarily something to provide comfort and perspective for those being killed by the Roman persecution of the Christians. He sees the vindication of the Christian martyrs as the crux for understanding the composition of Revelation; and all of the apocalyptic language in the book, as providing God’s perspective over against the secular, mundane Roman perspective which these Christians were inhabiting. Bauckham sees the book of Revelation as predictive, in the sense that God’s people (all of us) will be vindicated at his coming (the second time, based on the first), as he crushes the powers of the nations, but not as the world would think, but as ‘the lamb slain before the foundations of the world’. So we see Bauckham’s vision of Revelation as correlative with the trajectory already set throughout the canon of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature; something like Daniel 2 comes to my mind:

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands —a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

It is this kind of motif that Bauckham thinks shapes the book of Revelation, but not in light of its promise (like we leave it in the book of Daniel), but in light of its fulfillment, and thus reinterpretation ‘in Christ’. There is much more to say (and I will), but this should be enough for now.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 19-20.

 

The Second Coming of Christ: Reorienting How We Think of That Through Eschatology and Apocalyptic

Like many evangelicals I grew up under the pale of Left Behind Theology (i.e. Premillennial, Pretribulational, Dispensational theology). Attendant with this type of approach is living with a kind of futurist ‘apocalyptic’ dread (yet at the same time excited anticipation). It is this mood that I would contend has largely created a lot of what we have been seeing Hollywood produce in their dystopian or ‘end of days’ zombie apocalypse types of thrillers; they do so because there’s a market for it. Living this way, the person interprets every hurricane, earthquake, massive tornado, geo-political kerfuffle, and war as portending of the rapture of Jesus Christ for his church. The focus of this mood only gets heightened when things appear to be kicking off in the nation of Israel; since Left Behind Theology believes world history, according to God’s prophetic timetable, is all about the nation of Israel. Proponents of this approach will often refer to Israel, and in particular, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, as God’s prophetic timepiece.

I thought writing a post on this issue would be timely given what’s currently going on in the world. Don’t get me wrong, my reading of Scripture, and Jesus’s teaching in particular, lends itself to the idea that things will only be getting worse (like birth pangs) right up until the end. And given my current belief (as an amillennial advocate) that we are in the tribulation Jesus spoke of, and the idea that right before he comes a second time there will be unparalleled tribulation (gk. thlipsis) worldwide, what is unfolding in the world as I write this does raise the antennae a bit. It is the intensity of it all; the convergence of seemingly a million points. Now, some of this sense of intensity could be because of our instant exposure to everything, as it is distilled for us via social media. But I think the conflagration of so many things at once—natural disasters, wars, global economic upheaval, genocide, moral rot, super-diseases—does or should suggest that this world, given to the unwilling futility that it is (cf. Rom. 8), is ready for the reality of the sons of God to be revealed in Jesus Christ; in other words, she seems ripe for the return of Jesus Christ.

With the above said, and in an attempt to bring sobriety to this issue, I thought I would try to give another twist on how we approach two key terms that are used to speak of ‘end times’; i.e. eschatology and apocalyptic. Neither term is all that easy to define, particularly because of how they have been used in various contexts. Both terms are Greek in origin, eschatology simply meaning: ‘the study of last times’ and apocalyptic meaning ‘the unveiling’ (in Greek this is the word we get ‘Revelation’ from, as in the biblical book Revelation). But there’s more to it than just these types of lexical or denotative definitions, and it is this range of meaning, per the Christian theological context I want to alert us to. In order to do that I will refer us to TF Torrance to help us get a fuller, more theologically attuned grasp for how the term eschatology and apocalyptic can be used. After we get more depth understanding on this terminology, we will then return to a discussion about the second coming of Christ, and hopefully be able to integrate this thickening measure (by appeal to Torrance) into our discussion. Admittedly, this is probably not what you were expecting when you clicked over to a post on the second coming of Christ, and after reading my first two paragraphs; but bear with me.[1]

Here Torrance gives us a kind of genealogy of how the language of eschatology and apocalyptic have been used; and how he thinks they have been co-opted in an unfortunate way by Left Behind Theology. Within his kind of bemoaning of how this language has come to be used in ill-advised ways, we will also see how he thinks the terminology has and should been used within the history of the church. It is this that I want to draw our attention to, primarily, and what I will respond to further as we pick this discussion back up on the other side of Torrance. Torrance writes (at length):

(a) The loss of mainstream eschatology and the divorce of apocalyptic from prophetic

The main teaching about the last things in the West (apart from isolated thinkers like Bengel) has largely been left to sects whose roots go back into the Anabaptist tradition. Although the extremes of those early Schwärmer have not been repeated to the same extent in modern times, it still remains true that their modern successors have developed an eschatological emphasis that is one sided in its divorce of the apocalyptic view of the kingdom as other-worldly, coming at the end of time, from the prophetic view of the kingdom as breaking into the midst of time and involving history, and therefore that is constantly on the brink of becoming fantastic. Against this apocalyptic eschatology divorced from actual history, the church will always be in revolt, for apocalypse can only have Christian meaning in the closest association with present history.

(b) The relegation of eschatology from the centre to the end of dogmatics

When the church came to formulate her teaching about such doctrines as death and judgement, the life everlasting and the return of Christ, she tended to append it to the end of dogmatics rather uncertainly, failing to grasp these doctrines aright in themselves, and failing to take up the New Testament stress upon eschatology as integral to the very heart of the gospel and to every doctrine of the faith. With a tradition such as this in the church, the words of H.R. Mackintosh have great relevance and point: ‘It is a just and illumining thought that every system of theology should be read backwards at least once, commencing with the last things, since it is in the conclusion that we find the truest index of the whole.’[2]

Okay, let’s try to rein this rather academic sounding stuff back into accessible discussion, and within a context about the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Let’s start with Torrance’s point b, and work into his point a from there. I am going to oversimplify all of this with the hope of making this more understandable for a broader audience; and also with the hope of bringing a broader audience back into a more sober thought process when it comes to “eschatological” or ‘end times’ discussions; a sobriety that I think is lacking in the broader North American evangelical church. In Torrance’s second paragraph (“b”), he is referring to the Apostle’s Creed,[3] he’s critiquing, through his former teacher, H.R. Mackintosh, how even early on ‘end times’ stuff (i.e. ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting’) is essentially annexed or appended to the end of the creed rather than foregrounding it. This, in Torrance’s mind, has the unintended effect of making it seem like creation has been moving in a linear/progressive march forward till we come to the end; but for Torrance, and really for much of the church’s history, this isn’t how end times stuff was thought of (at least not in an Athanasian stream of thought). What Torrance wants to re-emphasize is what another Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, says so well, “The world was made so that Christ might be born.” In other words, what most Christians, of today, think is coming at the “end” of history, in fact was what motivated the beginning of history to begin with; i.e. that creation’s purpose (telos) has always already been conditioned by and for the reality of God in Jesus Christ.[4]

This brings us to Torrance’s point a. Torrance is concerned, and so am I, that because ‘sects’ of Christians (like those who promote Dispensational inspired popularly called Left Behind Theology) have separated thinking about eschatology (in a dualist fashion) from this present [historical] reality, and relegated it to an apocalyptic understanding of things as we see it in the movies; and thus eschatology has more to do with an ‘unveiling’ or apocalypse that is solely futurist oriented (i.e. at the ‘end’ of history), and grounded in some sort of non-worldly (ethereal – Platonic) reality, when in fact an actual Christian understanding of eschatology is grounded in the idea that God in Christ has always already been breaking into the world apocalyptically (dramatically) from the moment he decided to create and give the world its purpose in and from and for his Son incarnate (incarnandus), Jesus Christ. In other words, from Torrance’s perspective, and from much of the church’s perspective in the history (although not as articulate and ‘modern’ as Torrance’s accounting), world history, ‘natural’ history, ‘creational’ reality has always been tensed and conditioned by the apocalyptic in-breaking reality of God’s freely elected life to be God Immanuel (‘with us’) in Christ. Torrance, as do I, sees all of history from an apocalyptic reality; meaning that it has always been grounded by and oriented for the unveiling of his life for the world in Jesus Christ.

This is apocalyptic (!), that the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Dan. 2) stands behind and indeed over the kingdoms of this world in such a way that as we read the book of Revelation, for instance, we ought to see all of that imagery, the imagery that finds its reality in God’s ineffable life for the world in Christ, as what this world has always already been up against.[5] Apocalypse, I would contend, along with Torrance, in a properly Christian eschatological accounting of things, understands that creation has always been about recreation in the resurrection of God in Christ; and recreation thus was the impetus for creation to begin with. I.e. the apocalyptic reality and idea that humanity would forever be and stand with and participate in and from the Triune life of God in and through the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I absolutely failed at making this accessible; it’s still quite academic and dealing with many theological themes, that unless you have the proper context, remains, I would imagine, rather inaccessible. But let me leave us with this: what I am hoping has come through is that as Christians the sensational and ‘fantastic’ reality that orients our whole existence as Christian persons before God is that creation has been infused (not pantheistically or panentheistically mind you) with the dramatic and apocalyptic reality that we were created to be recreated in Christ, in such a way, that we might behold the ‘face of God’ in and through Jesus Christ as the very ground of our lives; as such human history has always been suffused with the apocalyptic reality, in and from the eschatological hope that creation would eventually realize its ultimate purpose as she met her end as a new beginning in the recreation of all things made new in Jesus Christ.

What this should do, at least in my opinion, as far as posture in the world as Christians goes (think of II Peter 3), is that we should live in an expectant state; realizing that even as we see the world apparently unraveling at the seams, we understand that creation, on the analogy of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ always had to go through the rupture of creation to recreation in order to realize its actual purpose for living. The consequences of the Fall, the consequences that the Son of Man entered into for us in his assumption of a fallen humanity, have not left us, but we indeed live with the reality that the eschatology of God’s life in Christ has provided the kind of apocalyptic outlook that we need to maintain as we engage with a world that indeed has no hope but to make it through the next hurricane or big earthquake or threat of WW3. That is, we already, by faith, participate in and from the apocalyptic reality of God, as he entered the drama of human history, culminating in death, and then resurrecting to new life in the resurrection of Christ. As Christians, as an apocalyptic people, as we walk by faith, we need to bear witness to the world that eventually faith will give way to sight. This is the eschatology we live from; from the apocalypse of God’s life made known to the world in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] I’m thinking you were hoping for something more sensational, something more “apocalyptic.” I’m hoping after you read this post you will come away with a new sense for the sensational and fantastic when it comes to thinking about eschatology and the apocalyptic; precisely because you’ll see how central Jesus Christ is to it all. Not just with reference to the ‘future’, but how that future reality has been shaping the beginning (protology cf. Gen. 1.1) from before the beginning; how Jesus has been the reason from time before “time” in regard to what this world was created for to begin with (just look at my little sidebar anecdote from David Fergusson).

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 303-04.

[3] I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

[4] This has to do with what is called in the Greek protology, or “the study of first things” (e.g. original creation).

[5] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, for further biblical theological context.

Messianic War Against this World System: Gaining Perspective on the Presidential Election 2016 from the Book of Revelation

If you’re an American, and unless you live in a corner, something that cannot escape you at the moment is the intensity of the presidential election (as I write this only two days away). Like many of you, I have been involved in various discussions and debates about who the best candidate is or isn’t; my conclusion is that there is no better candidate (between Trump or Clinton). They are both going to promote policies and aims that are anti-thetical to the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and as such it is impossible for me to vote for either one of them (from an ethical perspective as trumphillarya Christian). The reality is, is that they both have more in common than not. They both promote a horizontal vision of society and the world, whether that be an absolute form of nationalism (Trump), or an absolute form of anglo-globalism (Clinton). They both endorse policies that involve racism— whether that be informed by an inward obsession with Americana, and certain conceptions of what it means to be an American (Trump); or whether that be informed by supporting the House of Saud, radical Muslims in Syria, and elite globalists (Clinton). They both, like Israel, as the prophet Isaiah noted about Israel, have a covenant with death (Is. 29); Clinton, in this regard, more so than Trump, in some ways. They both are continuing the vision of ancient Babylon which is one of empire, and self-promotion (whether that be focused on the homeland [Trump], or globally [Clinton]).

What this presidential race has illustrated to me is how corrupt human government and politics are. It has concretely shown me that this world has been placed under a curse which it longs to be relieved of by the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8). Both Trump’s and Clinton’s visions of reality are purely informed by horizontal paradigms of thought, and have appeal only to the base impulses of natural humanity wherein the individual and its self-preservation is elevated to god-like status. But the good news is that there is hope; hope to come, and hope in-breaking currently.

Richard Bauckham, in his little book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation provides prescient insight into the emphases and themes of that often misunderstood book. As he works through the theology of the book of Revelation what he unveils is a vision and hope for the world that is other-worldly, while being radically this worldly. He masterfully shows how the book of Revelation is a book precisely for moments like we are currently experiencing here in the States as we, as Christians, are attempting to maintain perspective relative to the “choices” we have in front of us for our leadership.

In the following Bauckham works through three themes that he sees at play in the book of Revelation; it will be the first theme that we will highlight in this post. This theme gives me much perspective as the reality of how messy of a thing humanward politics actually are in this present evil age. The victory has already been won by Jesus Christ; the victory over evil, horizontal conceptions of human government, and how that gets expressed in the world. As we will see, Bauckham underscores how the theme of messianic war in the book of Revelation functions, or should, as a place of hope and perspective for the Christian attempting to navigate through this evil age. What is presumed, of course, is that as Christians we do indeed live in a violent world, under the control of violent governments who we ought to take a militant posture towards. Note I said ‘militant,’ not violent. The only violence that has any purchase in the Kingdom of the Lamb of God is the violence the Lion of the Tribe of Judah already endured for the world at his cross. It is this reality wherein we as Christians, according to the Revelator, can take a militant stand against this world system. We stand in the power of God, which is the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), and this is the victory we have to proclaim to the world. It is a prophetic word that God’s judgment has already come, and been realized for us in Jesus Christ on the cross; that the heart of human self-destruction and violence has been crushed with Jesus as he put it to death with him (Rom. 8:3) at the cross. And that there is good news of final victory, wherein the final enemy, death, will finally be put under Jesus’s feet as he comes again in his second advent (I Cor. 15). By proclaiming and living out this reality we participate in the victory of the Messiah by capturing the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, of every race, tongue, and nation inhabiting this world. We also bear witness to the fact that indeed a violent, but final end is coming, the final realization of the death of death (cf. John Owen), when the Lamb of God comes with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 19) finally crushing the kingdoms of this world (Dan. 2) by the Stone of his Kingdom; which is the Kingdom of kingdoms. It is this posture and place that we as Christians, according to the book of Revelation, have in this current world system. It is one of fighting, and the church militant; and our weapons of warfare are not fleshly but spiritual (II Cor. 10) through both word and deed, by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who will.

Here is what Bauckham has to say:

The first is the theme of the messianic war. This takes up the Jewish hope for a Messiah who is to be a descendant of David, anointed by God as king and military leader of his people. He is to fight a war against the Gentile oppressors, liberating Israel and establishing the rule of God, which is also the rule of God’s Messiah and God’s people Israel, over the nations of the world. Essential to this notion, it should be noted, is that the Messiah does not wage war alone: he leads the army of Israel against the enemies of Israel. Many Old Testament prophecies were commonly interpreted by first-century Jews as referring to this expected Messiah of David. The identification of Jesus with the Davidic Messiah was, of course, very common in early Christianity. It is very important in Revelation, partly because for John, as a Jewish Christian prophet, it is one of the ways in which he can gather up the hopes of the Old Testament prophetic tradition into his own eschatological vision centred on Jesus. But it is important also because it portrays a figure who is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by defeating the pagan powers who contest God’s rule. As we shall see, John carefully reinterprets the tradition. His Messiah Jesus does not win his victory by military conquest, and those who share his victory and his rule are not national Israel, but the international people of God. But still it is a victory over evil, won not only in the spiritual but also in the political sphere against worldly powers in order to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Insofar as the hope for the Davidic Messiah was for such a victory of God over evil Revelation portrays Christ’s work in continuity with that traditional Jewish hope.

The prominence of Davidic messianism in Revelation can be gauged from the fact that, as well as the two self-declarations by Christ that we have already considered (1: 17– 18; 22: 13), there is a third: ‘I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star’ (22: 16). The first of these two titles comes from Isaiah 11: 10 (‘ the root of Jesse’) and is used of the Davidic Messiah (‘descendant’ interprets the meaning of ‘root’, rightly giving it the same sense as the ‘branch’ or ‘shoot’ of Isa. 11: 1, which was more commonly used as a messianic designation). The second title refers to the star of Numbers 24: 17, which (in the context of 24: 17– 19) was commonly understood to be a symbol of the Messiah of David who would conquer the enemies of Israel. ‘The root of David’ is found also in Revelation 5: 1, alongside another title evoking the image of the royal Messiah who will defeat the nations by military violence: ‘the Lion of Judah’ (cf. Gen. 49: 9; 4 Ezra 12: 31– 2). Further allusions to the Messiah of Isaiah 11, a favourite passage for Davidic messianism, are the sword that comes from Christ’s mouth (1: 16; 2: 12, 16; 19: 21) with which he strikes down the nations (19: 15; cf. Isa. 11: 4; 49: 2) and the statement that he judges with righteousness (19: 11; cf. Isa. 11: 4).

One of John’s key Old Testament texts, allusions to which run throughout Revelation, is Psalm 2, which depicts ‘the nations’ and ‘the kings of the earth’ conspiring to rebel against ‘the LORD and his Messiah’ (verses 1– 2). The Messiah is God’s Son (verse 7), whom he sets as king on mount Zion (verse 6), there to resist and overcome the rebellious nations. God promises to give this royal Messiah the nations for his inheritance (verse 8) and that he will violently subdue them with a rod of iron (verse 9). Allusions to this account of the Messiah’s victory over the nations are found in Revelation 2: 18, 26– 8; 11: 15, 18; 12: 5, 10; 14: 1; 16: 14, 16; 19: 15. To what is explicit in the psalm it is notable that John adds the Messiah’s army (with him on Mount Zion in 14: 1) who will share his victory (2: 26– 7). Probably also from the psalm is John’s use of the phrase ‘the kings of the earth’ as his standard term for the political powers opposed to God which Christ will subdue (1: 5; 6: 15; 17: 2, 18; 18: 3, 9; 19: 19; 21: 24; cf. 16: 14).

Also derived from this militant messianism is Revelation’s key concept of conquering. It is applied both to the Messiah himself (3: 21; 5: 5; 17: 14) and to his people, who share his victory (2: 7, 11, 17, 28; 3: 5, 12, 21; 12: 11; 15: 2; 21: 7). Once again we note the importance in Revelation of the Messiah’s army. That the image of conquering is a militaristic one should be unmistakable, although interpreters of Revelation do not always do justice to this. It is closely connected with language of battle (11: 7; 12: 7– 8, 17; 13: 7; 16: 14; 17: 14; 19: 11, 19) and it is notable that not only do Christ’s followers defeat the beast (15: 2), but also the beast defeats them (11: 7; 13: 7), so that this is evidently a war in which Christ’s enemies have their victories, though the final victory is his. We should note also that the language of conquering is used of all the three stages of Christ’s work: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3: 21; 5: 5), his followers conquer in the time before the end (12: 11; 15: 2), and he will conquer at the parousia (17: 14). Thus it is clear that the image of the messianic war describes the whole process of the establishment of God’s kingdom as Revelation depicts it. Revelation’s use of this image incorporates the fundamental shift of temporal perspective from Jewish to Jewish Christian eschatology. The messianic war is not purely future. The decisive victory has in fact already been won by Christ. His followers are called to continue the battle in the present. The final victory still lies in the future.[1]

Conclusion

In light of the perversion and corruption attendant to this presidential election, I hope this perspective, indeed, provides perspective. I see too many Christians settling, or even compromising for what they shouldn’t be compromising for; for the kingdom of man rather than the kingdom of Christ. The reality is, as the book of Revelation makes very clear, is that being human means being political; the issue is where we are going to get our politics from. Are we going to get them from the horizontal, or instead are we going to get them from the vertical? It is clear that the politics of heaven intersect with the politics of this fallen earth, just as God’s person in Christ intersects with our humanity in his assumption of ours. As such it is important, I would contend, for us to remember that we are at war; not with people, per se, but with the principalities and powers which inform the politics of man. We need to bear this in mind as we, as Christians, attempt to negotiate our ways through the muck of this world system. We need to keep in mind that earthly policy-makers all work from a vision of the world, at this point, that is informed by impulses that are indeed anti-thetical to the aims of the Kingdom of God. Thus it behooves us, as soldiers in Christ, to take a stand, and engage this political system with the weapons of our warfare which is to proclaim the Gospel of peace and hope for all who will hear.

It is always tempting to begin to conflate the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, we see Israel engaging in this type of syncretizing activity over and again with the nations that surrounded them. But again, as the book of Revelation makes clear, we are part of another nation, a heavenly Zion (Heb. 12), which thinks from heaven rather than earth; it thinks from other-worldly and even foolish norms relative to the policies and “ethics” of this world system (I Cor. 1). Let’s remember that we are ambassadors for Christ (II Cor. 5; Eph. 6), and that our primary job as Christians is to bear witness prophetically that Jesus is King, that he has won the victory through his shed blood (I Cor. 6:18,19; Acts 20:28). Let’s not compromise the integrity of our positions as ambassadors for Christ by fighting for a kingdom, this world system, that has already been put to death by the cross of Jesus Christ. Let’s remind this world system that there is real power and real hope available in and from the One who was dead, but now lives (Rev. 1). Let’s remind our politicians that God wants us to choose life, not death (Ez. 32). As far as I can tell, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton have chosen Life, instead they have both chosen death; as such their political policies and practices will only portend that. Policies that Christians, as part of God’s Kingdom, ought to be at war with, not in bed with.

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition), 68-70.

 

Communism’s, Fascism’s and Other ‘isms” Problem of Scapegoating Considered through Thomas Torrance’s Revelation 6

We live in a time of great upheaval, a time unbeknownst to history before! Yes, the world has waned and travelled ever since the frustration of the original creation occurred (Genesis 3), but we live in an unprecedented time. We live in an interconnected universe through the internet, smartphones, planes, trains, automobiles, and a global community that flits and flutters upon the winds of the atombombslightest geo-political breezes to the disruptive gales of turbulent socio-economic jet-streams. We live in a time of religious and intellectual turmoil such that it is hard to keep track of exactly who’s who and what’s what; to the point that people quit caring unless somehow someone else’s beliefs impinge upon their personal space, their personal self-flourishing. In the 20th and 21st centuries we have seen the rise of fascist to communist dictators, from oligarchic democratically elected officials to self-proclaimed caliphs of Islamo-facist states. We have seen human evil spawned in the supposedly civil and modern age at such levels that no centuries past could hope to counter; we have come to the brink of self imposed destruction through atom bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and seen that realized in WW2. As the Apostle Paul declares, we live in an ‘evil age,’ but we do so among a people, enslaved to their own affections and desires, who can’t imagine that all of this has been brought about by their own human inclination. As such people will reek destruction at the highest levels, with mass scope of ruin, and then sit back in self-rationalization and try and find someone else to blame; they could never imagine that what they have done could be construed as evil—Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Mao, the Industrial Military Complex (IMC), among other people and groups come to mind.

Thomas Torrance in his sermon on Revelation 6 as he contemplates on the fifth seal has this to say about such things:

More terrible than the sword, more terrible than pestilence and famine and death, is the spectacle revealed by the fifth seal: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony which they held” (v. 9). That is the heart-rending fact about human history, the ingrained enmity to the Word of God, and that all who profess the Word are attacked and wherever possible done to death. That is the apocalypse of evil, the unveiling of the secrets of world-evolution. At the heart of it all there is a malignant evil that hates God and is bitterly opposed the servants of God and of His Word.

In the opening of this seal we have revealed an attempt to eradicate the Church and to uproot the people of God. And what does that mean? It means that after the terrible calamities the powers of the world have brought upon themselves, they try to disown the fact that they are the cause of all the evil and commotion and so they turn upon God’s people and vent their rage upon them as scapegoats. Surely that is what the Nazis did in their persecution of the Jews and the Christian Church upon whom they put the blame for the chaos of the world. That is what militant Communism is still doing in its bitter and subtle attack upon the Christian faith and all that it stands for. But to solve the riddle of chaotic history by slaying Jews and Christians is only a desperate attempt to break open the seal of God’s book of destiny to discover by force the secrets of history, and by force to master the fate of the world. Such a course of history is bound to fail. In Germany we have seen already how it has shattered itself upon the rock of the Christian Church against which not even the gates of Hell can prevail. Have no fear, the same will be true of every new menace. Communism also will shatter itself upon the purpose of God. All such things are to be understood in the light of this chapter. Although the main trend of world history is revealed to be fighting against the divine predestination, God Almighty will not be thwarted. He is patient and merciful and holy. He will deal righteously with all wickedness, but at last He will bring the purpose of His holy love to prevail over every affliction, and every tongue shall praise Him.[1]

We all have this impulse in our natural hearts. But of course this is not the end of the story as the Christians know. Nevertheless, we continue to perdure through a season of time in world history where we see world leaders and the common man growing from worse to worse. We continue to see this pattern of scapegoating that Torrance highlights; and typically the Jews and the Christians remain at the top of this scapegoat list—at least globally considered. But that’s okay, because the Lamb slain yet alive is coming; this world is his, and the last enemy will finally be put under foot!

 

 

[1]Thomas F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clarke&Co. Limited, 1960), 54-5.

Who is the AntiChrist? Post Reformed orthodoxy’s Answer and Other Traditions

Eschatology in the realm of systematic theology often means something different from eschatology within a biblical exegetical frame of things. Maybe it isn’t that it means something different, per se, but its focus is broader and more hermeneutical; i.e. it doesn’t necessarily get into the nitty gritty exegetical minutiae of trying to figure out what millennial scheme we should hold (i.e.
leoxpremillennial, postmillennial, amillennial, etc.), or who the anti-Christ might be, so on and so forth. Richard Bauckham summarizes this different emphasis well when he writes:

Traditionally, eschatology comprised the ‘four last things’ that Christian faith expects to be the destiny of humans at the end of time: resurrection, last judgement, heaven, and hell. They formed the last section of a dogmatics or a systematic theology, a position they still usually occupy. But in the twentieth century, eschatology ceased to be merely one doctrinal topic among others to be treated after the others; it became something more like a dimension of the whole subject matter of theology. Karl Barth famously claimed in 1921, ‘If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ’ (Barth 1968: 314; cf 1957: 634-5). While the content given to the term ‘eschatology’ has varied considerably over the subsequent period, in which Barth’s claim has become a favourite quotation in discussions of eschatology (e.g., Moltmann 1967:39; Pannenberg 1991-8: iii. 532), the indispensable role it attributes to eschatology has been widely endorsed. Moltmann writes, ‘From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day’ (Moltmann 1967:16).[1]

I largely subscribe to Barth’s view that Christianity is eschatology through and through. I subscribe to the cosmic nature of Christianity, of the reality that all of creation has its telos from, in, and for Christ. I affirm the reality that this world is God’s world, and this world is the theater wherein God breaks into it through the Son, Jesus Christ, and sets to right all things according to the order of His Kingdom come.

But because I am an evangelical I have grown up in a Christian sub-culture that has given (and continues to give, in some sectors) an inordinate amount of focus to working meticulously through the details of the books of the Bible such as Revelation, I&II Thessalonians, and other prophetic books with a gaze towards answering all of the various “bible prophecy” questions (you know what I mean). This exegetical approach, funded in many instances by an overly wooden-literalistic engagement with the text, has attempted to provide exegetical conclusion to a variety of interpretive questions in regard to such things as: the millennium, who the anti-Christ is, if there is such a thing as the rapture (within the dispensational approach), how current events relate to biblical prophecy and its fulfillment (within the dispensational approach), and many other like foci. To be honest, as much as I have moved away from much of that, it still interests me at some level; even if that interest, at points, is at the level of social-curiosity.

Given my curiosity, I found it very interesting to run across how Richard Muller defines what the Latin language for anti-Christ, antichristus, entailed in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries). Muller writes at length:

antichristus (from the Greek, ντίχριστος): antichrist; scriptural use of the word is confined to the Joannine Epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where a distinction is made between (1) the many antichrists now in the world, who work to deceive the godly and who do not confess Christ, and (2) the Antichrist who is to come who will deny Christ and, in so doing, deny both the Father and the Son. John also speaks (1 John 4:3) of the “spirit … of the antichrist” which “even now … is in the world.” Following the fathers, the medieval doctors, and the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox identify the final Antichrist of the Johannine passages with the “man of sin” or “son of perdition who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God” foretold by Paul in 2 Thess. 2:3-4. The orthodox can therefore distinguish between (1) the antichrist considered generally (generaliter), as indicated by the plural use of the word in 1 John and by the “spirit of antichrist” now in the world, and (2) the Antichrist considered specially (specialiter et kat’ exochen), as indicated by singular usage. The former term indicates all heretics and vicious opponents of the doctrine of Christ; the latter, the great adversary of Christ who will appear in the last days. Of the latter, the Antichristus properly so called, the orthodox note several characteristics. (1) He arises from within the church and sets himself against the church and its doctrine, since his sin is described as apostasia (q.v.), or falling away. (2) He will sit in temple Dei, in the temple of God, which is to say, in the church. (3) He will rule as the head of the church. (4) From his seat in templo Dei and his position as caput ecclesiae, he will exalt himself above the true God and identify himself as God. (5) He will cause a great defection from the truth so that many will join him in his apostasy. (6) He will exhibit great power and cause many “lying wonders,” founded upon the power of Satan, in a rule that will endure until the end of time. On the basis of these characteristics the orthodox generally identify the Antichrist as the papacy, the pontifex Romanus. Some attempted to argue a distinction between an Antichristus orientalis and an Antichristus occidentalis, an Eastern and a Western Antichrist, the former title belonging to Muhammad, the latter to the papacy; but the difficulty in viewing Islam, or any form of paganism, as an apostasy, strictly so-called, led the orthodox to identify Rome alone as Antichrist. They also reject the identification of Antichrist with the imperium Romanum, the Roman Empire, on the ground that the Antichrist is not a secular power or a result of pagan history. Finally, they also reject the identification of any single pope as Antichrist on the ground that Antichrist’s rule and power extend farther and endure longer than the rule and power of any one man. Thus, Antichrist is the institution of the papacy which has arisen within the church and which assumes religious supremacy over all Christians, seats itself in the temple of God, and builds its power on lies, wonders, and apostasy.[2]

Clearly, for the Post Reformed orthodox, the papacy as an institution represents the office of the eschatological Antichrist. I would imagine that this still holds true today, particularly for Orthodox Presbyterians, and maybe the Presbyterian Church of America; i.e. that the papal seat and Vatican city, and what they represent, serve as emblematic and as the embodiment of the personal Antichrist. It isn’t just the Post Reformed orthodox, and the Reformed in general who held, and may continue to hold this view; we once attended a Lutheran church (Wisconsin synod) that made a point to emphasize that they see the Roman See as the embodiment of Antichrist. More sensationalistic than this, evangelicals, of the dispensational sort (like Dave Hunt, Chick tracts, etc.), have also seen the papacy as a potential candidate for fulfilling the role of the Antichrist.

Attempting to answer this question, of the identity of the Antichrist, is not a bad thing in my view; it reflects a people who take the Bible and its various teachings seriously. I may have given the impression, earlier, that I find such things pedantic; I don’t. What I do find pedantic is when people become consumed by the sensationalistic aspects of all of this, and fail to miss the bigger picture of eschatology, theologically and hermeneutically, and what that is all about. It is about God’s Kingdom, come, and coming every day. We live in a world that needs to hear and know that good news. Within that framework, we can attempt to work through the exegetical questions and various biblical foci; but never losing sight that we ought to be living as those who are simply looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, “Eschatology,” in John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance eds., The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 306.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 39-40.

The Imminent Return of Jesus Christ in Barth’s Theology. Where’s Jesus?

Even as a little kid, Baptist Fundamentalist that I was, I believed in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. I remember one summer day, in the Pacific Northwest, as a seven year old I was laying out in a field of grass hay that had yet to be cut. I was looking up into the sky with its white cumulous clouds made ever so much more vibrant by the bright blue background of the sky with the sun
resurrectionjesusrays ever so ubiquitously breaking through and hitting me on the face. As I lay there I thought to myself “this would be a perfect day for Jesus to come back.” I pondered that reality for awhile that day, and I haven’t quit pondering since.

As I stated, as a kid, I grew up Conservative Baptist, as such the attendant theology with that was of the typical North American variety: I was a Pre-Tribulational, Pre-millennial, Dispensational Christian (some folks only know of this “type” of “theology” through LaHaye’s  and Jenkins’ best selling series Left Behind). A central pillar of that hermeneutic is the belief that Jesus could come again ‘at any moment,’ as such adherents to this perspective read current events and socio-cultural and geopolitical movements through the lens of Jesus’s “any-moment” return; believing that the worse things get, particularly in the Middle-East and Israel, the more likely Christ’s return is upon us.

Without getting further into that stream of thought I will simply say that I have since repudiated the dispensational hermeneutic that gives rise to the pre-mil/pre-trib-rapture theology embedded in it. What I haven’t given up is the biblical and orthodox belief that Jesus is indeed coming again; the belief that his return is imminent and upon us. Karl Barth had this belief, in his own way, informed by his own theory of history and revelation; it is rather apocalyptical and actualist. But even without getting into that too deeply, I simply want to share the way Robert Dale Dawson describes Barth’s ‘imminent return of Christ theology.’ Dawson writes:

The Imminent Return of Christ

With the perspective gained by this insight we are able to see more clearly why the unshakable and persistent hope of the New Testament community was for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. If Jesus Christ was the resurrection and the life, if he was the King who is the fullness of the kingdom, how could the kingdom be anything but close at hand? As Eberhard Busch has it: ‘In joyful hope, we may expect in the future the One who has come already. Thus, or waiting upon him – impatient and at the same time patient – is “expectation of what is near”.’ Claims Barth, ‘If this is the One whom we expect, we cannot expect Him the day after tomorrow, but to-morrow.’ We must not grow weary in hope as did some according to 2 Peter. Having forgotten the promise of the yesterday and today of the Lord, they grew suspect of an imminent expectation of tomorrow. We must rather eagerly await the summing up of all things in his return:

Like the apostles and prophets, like Christians themselves, the angels wait for the consummation of the process inaugurated by the resurrection – a consummation which according to I Pet. 4:7 will also be ‘the end of all things.’ The word used to denote the ‘looking into’ of the angels (parakufai) is the same as that which in Jn. 20:5 is used of Peter when he looks into the empty tomb.

Hence Barth’s eschatology takes shape as a further development of his threefold depiction of the perfect time of Jesus Christ. He is really past, present and future, but now in a way more specific to the perspective of the church – He is past in his Easter time, present in the time of his Spirit and future in the time of his consummate parousia.

According to Barth, once we recognize that the event of Easter and that of the parousia are different moments of one and the same act, we will see that the supposition that ‘there was unforeseen delay in the parousia, or that hope in the parousia was repeatedly deferred, or that the primitive Church … [was] disillusioned or mistaken on the subject in consequence of an exaggerated enthusiasm’ is baseless and ‘condemned from the very outset.’ The New Testament has no need for recourse to such a ‘thoroughgoing eschatology.’

But what then shall we say of our present experience of the kingdom of God? According to Barth:

The kingdom of God is real but not operative. It has come, but not come. It has still to be prayed for. It is present in reality, but not in revelation. To the extent that the New Testament contains good news, but not yet Easter news, the prophetic history of the Old Testament is continued in the New.

The Gospels, says Barth, look not only to the past revelation of Jesus but also to his future revelation. According to Barth, the goal of Jesus was not the saving event of his death alone, but also ‘the subsequent revelation of the meaning of His death, and therefore, the putting into effect of the salvation won in Him for men, for the community, for the whole world.’ We must not see the death of Jesus as an end in itself, but rather as the securing of his kingdom which is yet to be made visible in glory. Busch aptly explains that for Barth the ‘Kingdom of God’ might be called the ‘revolution of God’ for it introduces something entirely new vis-à-vis the given world, ‘something that inaugurates its total renewal.’ For Barth, the New Testament community of believers exists in the movement from commencement to conclusion. That is, ‘it has the completion of inaugurated with the resurrection of Jesus as a driving force behind it and the consummation in His parousia as a drawing force before it.’[1]

What we see in Barth, according to Dawson, is a theology of the Return of Christ shot through with the ‘now/not-yet’ conception of the Kingdom of God in Christ. What we get though in particular with Barth is an emphasis upon the continuity of the coming and resurrection of Christ; such that Easter resurrection is corollary and one-for-one in actuality with what will happen when Jesus comes again. In other words, it is the same primal event—Incarnation, Easter, and Parousia—but with different aspects and thus realized consequences for those living within the event of God’s life in Jesus Christ.

A Personal Turn

Because I like to read theology for spiritual and discipleship reasons, primarily, let me opine a minute on the way this theology of the imminent return of Christ impacts me; particularly in the way that Barth understands it. The same point, although much more raw when I first started contemplating it, that Barth holds to in regard to the continuity between Christ’s “comings” and “resurrections” is a conclusion that was impressed upon me back twenty-one years ago or so. I went through a horrific season (over a span of years) of anxiety, depression, doubt, and spiritual warfare; of the type that I can only now describe as “apocalyptic.” I would have such deep doubt about God’s existence that reality itself seemed to be slipping from me; this would, of course, throw me into deep anxiety and depression—unbearably so. But over and over again, as I walked through this season of dark nights, Jesus always showed up, he always broke through the dower-ness of my heavy and besmirched soul and brought times of refreshment; he would give me a peace that was indescribable. What I came to realize was that this same resurrected Jesus who was breaking into my life personally was the same Jesus who resurrected from the grave, and the same Jesus who would someday break into this world and bring times of refreshment unending.

I see this type of correlation between Easter hope and Second Advent reality in Barth’s theology. I think Dawson has done a good job describing something that sounds technical, but in all reality is very personally oriented in regard to the implications of what Barth is rightly developing in his theology. Maranatha.

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 80-1.