Easter and Eschatology: Is Premillennialism Different from Amillennialism?

12 April 2009

In the last post, I quoted Jim Jordan to the effect that amillennialism is racist, and pre- and postmillennialism have more in common with each other than they do with amillennialism.  I then noted that the ecclesiastical, organizational and confessional lines tend to be drawn the other way, lumping amillennialism and postmillennialism together on one side of the fence, with premillenniallism on the other.

Some people — I know a number — have fled to the premillennial side of the fence precisely because they were unable to make their peace with amillennialism.  Usually the point of serious discontent is the way amillennialism spiritualizes away the promise of kingdom victory over the evils of this world.

However, it has to be said that a great number have fled the other way, from premillennialism to postmillennialism, for very similar reasons.

Premillennial thought understands that Messiah’s kingdom only comes about when Messiah Himself is personally present to set it up.  Until then, human sinfulness presents an upper boundary to the world’s maturation.  That thought, taken by itself, lends itself to a story in which the world descends into the abyss until Messiah appears to save the day and set up His kingdom, and thence to a lifestyle not unlike the amillennial mentality Jordan skewered in last week’s post.  Hence the great number of dispensational premil folks who are “just hanging on until the Rapture.”  They don’t get involved in cultural endeavor because that’s “polishing the brass on a sinking ship.”

This breeds a defeatism, a sense that the gospel cannot have meaningful impact on a whole culture.  The depressive Christianity that comes of this drives people from the premillennial camp to postmillennialism, because they can’t believe that the gospel could be so ineffective.

They’re right to be repulsed; defeatist Christianity is biblically false, historically unsustainable, intellectually stultifying, morally bankrupt, and just plain nauseating.  You’d have to be a gnostic to find any encouragement in it at all…and hey! Guess what?  Most conservative American Protestants are closet gnostics, so there you go.

If the only choices were culturally vibrant postmillennial Christianity and defeatist premillennial gnosticism, I’d be a postmillennialist too.

But these are not the only choices.

Consider the mentality that gives rise to premillennial defeatism: “We’re not going to bring about the kingdom in any case, and Jesus will do it when He comes no matter what, so why invest in culture now?”  Suppose a Christian were to approach his personal sanctification the same way: “I’m not going to become perfect in this life anyway, and Jesus will make me perfect in the next in any case, so why struggle against sin now?”  The biblical answer, of course, is that we are supposed to anticipate and image the life to come in our lives now — and that answer applies at a cultural level as well as an individual level.

But is that compatible with premillennialism?

Sure — just as a sanctified life is.  Premillennial eschatology sees that Jesus’ presence on earth as king is necessary to setting up His earthly kingdom, and nothing less will suffice.  But it’s a far cry from that to saying that obedience to the dominion mandate now is worthless.  Jesus is Lord, and He knows far better than I what value my cultural contributions may have, so simple obedience is sufficient as a motive.  But beyond that, consider: what has been the impact of Christianity on Western culture?  Is Western culture measurably better than those cultures that have never had the benefit of 1500 years of Christian cultural hegemony?

It is.

Cultural endeavor is not polishing brass on a sinking ship after all; it’s continuing repair and improvement of a ship that will always need bilge pumps until the Lord returns.  Sometimes she floats pretty well; other times, she’s listing to starboard and the water line is two feet above the deck.

Presently, the ship of Western Christendom is a shattered ruin, and even what remains is slowly falling apart.  But Christendom gave us the neonatal respiratory ventilator, modern science, and an outpouring of philanthropy unparalleled in the history of the world.  God is pleased when those made in His image snatch the helpless from the jaws of death.  God is pleased when we cultivate the earth as He commanded.  God is pleased when we care for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.

But what if it all disappears?  What if the whole culture sinks beneath the chaotic sea as if it had never been? I mean, isn’t that what premillennial eschatology tells us?  I’m not certain that it is, necessarily, but let’s consider it as a worst-case scenario: Christendom 1.0 disappears as if it had never been, and “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”  Then what?  What was the point?

Then we will know that the words Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes are true, that all our labor under the sun really is shepherding wind.

By the same token, we will know that to fear God and keep His commandments is man’s all, and we will be glad to have done it.

So let us labor as Solomon labored to build the temple, now long destroyed.  If it was worth doing then, it’s worth doing now.  We are the church of Jesus Christ; we believe in resurrection from the dead.  We live in light of eternity, and can afford to wait and see how God will resurrect all that has died to a brighter and yet more glorious future.

He is Risen!


Election, Racism, and Millennial Views

29 March 2009

In the next three posts, I’d like to address two accusations of racism that crop up when discussing different views of the millennium.  One of these accusations is common; the other less so.  One is legitimate; the other not.  Together, they form an interesting contrast, and a useful point of departure for considering what’s really important in eschatology — and what is not so important.

The common accusation is leveled against premillennialists, based on their view that Israel has a privileged place in the kingdom.  The argument goes that God has made all one in Christ, and since there is no more Jew and Gentile in the Church, neither can there be any such distinction in the Kingdom.  To maintain such a distinction is therefore racist.

The irony is that the people who accuse premillennialists of racism are nearly always covenantal, Reformed theologians.  They are Calvinists.  They have accepted already that God chooses who goes to heaven (and, at least implicitly, who does not).  They are quite all right with this, and indeed will get very indignant on God’s behalf if someone dares to challenge God’s right to have mercy on whom He wills.

So, adding it all up, it’s perfectly all right to maintain that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, but it’s racist to maintain that God chooses who has a position of prominence in the kingdom.

Come again?

“Well, come on,” they will want to say, “The one choice is for God’s sovereign ends, and the other is just based on familial descent.”  To which one could reply with a hearty “So what?”  If God has mercy on whom He wills, and He wills to have mercy on the seed of Abraham — not exactly a novel concept — then who are we to gainsay His choice?  Does not the potter have power over the clay?

Of course, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in the church, in a certain sense.  But then, in exactly that same sense (and taken from the same sentence in Galatians 3:28), there is neither male nor female either.  Yet God reaffirms gender distinctions and distinct roles for the genders in the Church now, and — since Jesus remained a “he” after the resurrection, and not an androgyne — God will maintain different genders in eternity.  We will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but we will be male and female.  So where’s the problem with being, in a similar sense, Jew and Gentile? And come to think of it, where’s the fulfillment of passages like Deuteronomy 32:43 or Revelation 22:2 unless there are identifiable Gentiles?

This is not racism, it’s the biblical doctrine of election worked out in the history of the nations.


Re-learning to Speak Biblically: Another Riddle

18 January 2009

I posed a riddle from Psalm 99 a while back.  In the course of my Greek class last fall, I came upon another one in 1 John 2:3-4:

Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.  He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him.

The thing Free Grace folk usually talk about here is the definition of knowing God — what does that mean?  Is he talking about eternal destiny, or is he talking about something else?

Let’s skip that very important question and talk about something even more basic, that often gets missed.  Whatever knowing God might be, is it achievable?  Knowing what the commandments are — and John is at some pains to make sure the more demanding aspects of the commandments remain uppermost in our minds — how could anyone ever claim that they know God?  And if they can’t claim it for themselves, how could they claim it for anyone else?  We all violate the commandments every day.

So then here’s the riddle: How can John say, just a few verses later in 2:12-14:

I write to you, little children,
Because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.
I write to you, fathers,
Because you have known Him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
Because you have overcome the wicked one.
I write to you, little children,
Because you have known the Father.
I have written to you, fathers,
Because you have known Him who is from the beginning.
I have written to you, young men,
Because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you,
And you have overcome the wicked one.

He says to those he addresses, three times, that they have known (already!) God.  He says it twice to “fathers” and once to “little children.”  This is significant because he addresses his whole audience as little children in a number of other places in the epistle (see, for example, 2:18, and also the synonymous uses in 2:1, 28, 3:7, 18, 4:4, 5:21).

How can he say to his audience “If you keep God’s commandments, then you can say you know God” and then say to them, only a few sentences later “You have known God”?  Given human sinfulness, how can he do that?

We would not dare, most of us, to speak this way to one another.  And because we would not dare to speak biblically to one another, we will find ourselves compelled to speak in truncated ways that do not match the Scriptures.  The solution is to come to terms with speaking biblically.  And to do that, we must solve this riddle.


Competent to Counsel?

11 January 2009

Within the evangelical, Bible-believing, American church in the last four decades, an awful lot of things have happened which I fervently hope my grandchildren will have a hard time believing.  But among a truly embarrassing heap of incongruous strangenesses, there are a few that really stand out, and I’d like to talk about one of those.

Starting in the late sixties, our counselors — those specialists in explaining to us how people in disagreement can sit down and have a peaceable discussion like grown-ups — divided into two camps that were, for the most part, utterly incapable of peaceable dialogue.

Let me say that again: Our conflict resolution specialists could barely speak to one another, let alone resolve their intramural conflicts.

And these are the people who are supposed to help us get along with our in-laws.  “Tell it not in Gath…”

David Powlison unfolds half of the sad tale in Competent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement.  As the title indicates, Powlison is writing a history of the biblical counseling movement, not a history of the debate between it and the evangelical psychotherapists. As far as the debate goes, this is hardly the whole story.  But thus far, it is the only serious, scholarly attempt to chronicle the biblical counseling movement — which is valuable in itself, and addresses the conflict from one side in any case.

Why does it matter?

Because if we want to avoid similar decades-long battles in other areas — like, say, over the exact content that one must believe to be saved — then it is helpful to see what our brothers have done wrong (and what they have done right) in past conflicts.

Just one example:  When Jay Adams began writing and speaking about counseling, he almost completely bypassed the evangelical psychotherapists and went straight for their constituents.  His message was “The Bible has the answers for problems in living; seek the answers there.  Don’t listen to these guys; they’re not basing their responses on the Bible, and in any case they are an illegitimate secular pastorate and their function needs to be returned to the church.”  (My paraphrase, but he was at least that blunt.)

Now, the response was predictable as sunrise: the psychotherapists fought back tooth and nail, or ignored him.

Adams had to know that was going to happen.  He seems to have made a decision that he was unlikely to win them over in any case, so he would take his argument to the broader church as fast as possible, using deliberately inflammatory rhetoric to make friends quickly where people agreed with him — at the cost of making enemies quickly among the psychotherapists.

Now, I think Adams had an important message, and the wider church needed to be brought into the discussion.  But the biblical standard for engaging fellow believers is “Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds….”  Instead, Adams chose a course of action practically guaranteed to maximize animosity and bad deeds among the evangelical psychotherapists, with predictable results that largely persist today.  While there are pockets of biblical counseling here and there, the evangelical world as a whole has weighed it and found it wanting.  The reasons for that state of affairs would fill a book, but it surely hasn’t helped that while bringing much biblical content to bear on problems in living, the movement simultaneously behaved unbiblically toward one group of fellow believers.

For those of you conversant with the present gospel spat, this ought to sound familiar.  Think we can learn anything from history?


If You Can’t Base Doctrine On Experience…

20 December 2008

It is a truism universally acknowledged — at least in my incestuously small circles — that you can’t make doctrine from experience.  We often say it exactly like that: “You can’t make doctrine from experience.”  Or in the disclaimer form: “I realize you can’t make doctrine from experience, but I’ll tell you, I’ve found that…”

Of course this position is perfectly understandable.

I think of a man and a woman, both married to other people, who were committing adultery together.  (By the way, this is a true story.)  They justified their adultery on the grounds that they always knelt by the bed first and prayed together that if them coming together was not God’s will, He would step in and prevent it.  He never did.  On the strength of God’s non-intervention, they concluded He must approve, that their ‘love’ for each other must have somehow sanctified their illicit relationship.

See?  You can’t make doctrine from experience.

Countless abuses, errors and rank sillinesses are being avoided, at this very moment, by people who are having strange experiences, but who, on the strength of this dictum, will not try to make doctrine out of it.  This is a Good Thing.

But…

…is it true?  Is it really as simple as “You can’t make doctrine out of experience”?

I submit the following example for consideration:

Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.  How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith….

For those of you who haven’t recognized it, that’s Romans 4:9-13.  Paul is arguing that an uncircumcised person — i.e., a Gentile — can be found righteous on the basis of his faith.  How does he prove his point?  Note the portion in bold. Paul argues on the basis of Abraham’s experience.  We use the word “history” instead, but that just means it’s really old experience.

The comeback, of course, is that Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Romans as Scripture; not being similarly inspired, we can’t interpret experience in the same way that he could — and anyway, he’s interpreting Old Testament Scripture, not his own personal experience.  I think there are good responses to both objections, but let’s bypass them for the moment and look at another example:

If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.

That’s Jesus speaking in John 10:37-38.  He challenges his hearers that if they don’t find His words convincing, then they ought to believe His works — i.e., His miracles.  But these are events which they have seen and heard themselves, that is, personal experiences.  From these personal experiences, Jesus’ readers should derive a christological conclusion.  That is once again getting doctrine from experience.

But perhaps someone will say, “That’s all well and good for the people who see supernatural events like the miracles Jesus is talking about there, but you can’t make doctrine out of the events of ordinary life.”  Really?  Let’s look at a third example:

You shall truly tithe all the increase of your grain that the field produces year by year. And you shall eat before the LORD your God, in the place where He chooses to make His name abide, the tithe of your grain and your new wine and your oil, of the firstborn of your herds and your flocks, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. But if the journey is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, or if the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, when the LORD your God has blessed you, then you shall exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.  And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household.

This is from Deuteronomy 14:22-26, but particularly note the clause in bold.  It’s an instruction on the conduct of the festival year, and the disposition of the ‘party tithe.’  At the appointed time, they are to gather up 10% of the previous year’s income, go up to the place God designates, and throw a party.  They are to do this every year.  No miracles, no supernatural events — just the ordinary rhythms of life, like a Thanksgiving dinner, the Super Bowl, and watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.

They are to throw this party, Moses tells them, so that they will learn to fear God always.

This rings strangely to our ears for a number of reasons that I’ll pass over here.  We should notice, however, that the theological conclusion comes in the doing of it, that is, in experience.  Again, it is precisely in experience that they are to learn their doctrine.

Does this mean that we can have a strange experience and use it to justify any theological nonsense we want?  Of course not.  There are controls — interpreting experience by what God has said — but that’s a discussion for another post.  For the time being, note: our modern dictum that “you can’t get doctrine from experience” would ring very strangely in the ears of the men who wrote the Bible.  They plainly did not believe any such thing.

Neither should we.


If You Confess Your Sins, You Should Pick Up Litter, Too

7 December 2008

One of the enjoyable sidelines I’ve tried to develop here at Full Contact Christianity is a ferocious intolerance for theological inconsistencies.  It’s one thing to just be wrong; it’s quite another, much more irresponsible thing to believe (1) A, and (2) Not-A — and loudly declaim on both topics.  Granted, the two proclamations don’t usually take place at the same time.

I’d like to address a doozy this week — the idea that one can be so taken with “spiritual” matters like relationship with God or sharing the gospel with the lost that one simply has no time for “peripheral” concerns like caring for the world we live in.  After all, it’s all going up in flames anyhow, and then God recreates it, so why worry about it?  Where’s the contradiction, you ask?  Just watch.  Much as I would enjoy an opportunity to do some first-hand mocking,  N. T. Wright said it better than ever I could, so with no further ado, here he is:

I’ve spoken about God’s ultimate intention, that through the renewed human beings in Christ, the cosmos itself would be renewed.  This strikes very hard at those of us who grew up within some kind or other of a pietistic tradition which actually had a low social concern because it said that was just oiling the wheels of a machine which was going to go over the cliff:  What’s the point in tinkering with the structures of society?  What’s the point in worrying about global warming, or whatever it is, because we know that the world is going to be jettisoned, and that we the saved will go off to be with God elsewhere.

Romans 8 ought long ago to have given the lie to any such idea.  God loves the world that He’s made and wants to renew it.  He sees it groaning in travail, and the answer to something groaning in travail is that the new is going to be born out of the womb of the old, not that the groaning person or world is going to be left to groan forever until it dies — No!

Where does that then leave us at the moment?  There are many people who will see this picture and then will say “That’s great; we’re going to get that renewal one day when the Messiah comes back.  When God renews everything then it’ll happen, but there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.”

Now listen, many of you are pastors – probably the majority of you are pastors, that’s why you’re here.  [Suppose] somebody came to you and said, “I’m having a real trouble with holiness, with this sin problem.  I just find I sin all the time, and I see well there is this thing called holiness, but there’s really no point in me trying very hard after it, because after all, one day, God will raise me from the dead and give me a beautiful new life in which I will never sin again.  That’s going to happen, so why should I worry about it now?”

I hope that if somebody came to you like that, you would hit them with a fairly heavy dose of inaugurated eschatology.  You mightn’t express it quite like that, but what you would say is, “God wants you right now in the present, to live as nearly as you can in the power of the spirit to that lovely fully human creature that you’re going to be one day.  Of course you will constantly be saying ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’  But He has given you His Spirit so that you can anticipate in the present what you should be in the future.  “

Now, should we not say the same about our responsibility for creation, for the world which God made and which He loves so much?  Of course we should.  And if we get our soteriology right, we can go to that task without any of those snide remarks that this is a derogation from our gospel duty.  It is part of our gospel duty.”

(This is from Session 6 of the 2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, available for $1.99 here, at about the 57:30 mark.)

An additional note for those of you who are interested in (or furious about) Wright’s position vis-a-vis the New Perspective on Paul.  In this particular conference, Wright is addressing an audience entirely conservative, and mainly composed, from what I gather, of Presbyterian pastors.  If you’ve read some of the caterwauling about how Wright is striking at the vitals of the Christian religion, this is a good place to see what he has to say for himself to a group of people who will share your concerns.  He delivers five lectures (Richard Gaffin does the other five) and participates in three Q&A/discussion sessions, so there’s quite a bit of material, and some good interaction as well.