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!


A Primer on Worship and Reformation

9 November 2008

If you’re one of those true believers that honestly thinks mainstream Evangelical worship is in the midst of a new rebirth of wonder, you’re going to spend the first chapter of A Primer on Worship and Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan wondering what in the world is eating Doug Wilson.

Composed more as a corrective than an indictment, Primer assumes from the beginning that the reader has at least begun to suspect that North American Evangelical worship is largely hollow and bankrupt.  If you’re not there yet, the first chapters probably won’t convince you, but keep reading.  The latter chapters provide a basis for comparison, and against that vision, the status quo may never look the same again.

I’ve spent a couple of really delightful evenings with this book, so let me give you a more detailed picture of its contents.  As so many Canon offerings do, the book begins with a broadside. It doesn’t even wait until the first page of text.  By the time I’d read the table of contents, I had already caught the heady scent of sacred cow on the barbecue — the first chapter is titled “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Schlock.”

…modern evangelicals have a…deep and covetous hunger to be cool–and so we have bestselling authors, Grammy award winners, trademark lawyers, Designer Bibles with Study Notes for just about everybody, rock bands with guys filled with middle class white guy angst, earrings, and tattoos to match, rock bands with Christian women as sexy as it gets, for that special born-again T & A market niche, and onward into the fog.  The biblical name for all this is worldliness.  And to paraphrase the late P. T. Barnum, there is a sucker born again every minute. (p. 12)

All this is not just so much baptized misanthropy.  First of all, it’s true.  Second, worldliness is the correct label, and that’s an important point in itself.  Third, Wilson is headed somewhere even more central:

Now what does all this have to do with worship, or the reformation of worship?  All cultures have a cultus at the center.  The center of every culture is its worship.  There is no such thing as a religion-less culture, and the same is true of all sub-cultures. (p. 12)

Therefore, he says, the wreckage that is mainstream evangelical culture is the result of a decay in evangelical worship.  Wilson has written elsewhere that in order to engage in, let alone win, the culture wars, it will be necessary for Christians to have a culture.  Here, he takes it one step further: in order to have a reformation and renewal of Christian culture, we must first have a reformation of Christian worship.  Wilson further supports his contention with a historical review of how we got into the desperate straits in which we presently find ourselves, followed by a chapter devoted to defining and defending the stance he’s dubbed “high church Puritan.”  To my eye, these two chapters are largely summaries of ideas found in Reformed is not Enough, so if the ideas intrigue you, there’s more where it came from.

Where Primer really shines is in the chapters that follow.  Here, Wilson describes the reformation of worship that he advocates, and it’s nothing short of glorious.  He offers a brief chapter each on evangelism, liturgy, Scripture, the Lord’s Table, the Psalms, Feasting and the Sabbath, and rearing children as part of the church.  In each chapter, the pietism, revivalism and individualism of modern Western Christianity come in for a good whipping, and the unity of Christ’s body and the corporate nature of worship are the threads that hold these seemingly disparate subjects together.

I find myself agreeing that we should reject what Wilson is rejecting, but sometimes hesitant to accept what he offers in its place, although I would happily attend a church that worships in the way he describes.  Which is to say that in general, I believe he’s on the right track and making productive suggestions.  I’m not going to go through them all — for that, you can buy the book — but let’s consider a three sample points: evangelism, the Sabbath, and the Scriptures.

The chapter on evangelism offers an end to guilt-driven, weird evangelistic encounters where Christians with no talent for it trap a random stranger in the park and try to tell him about Jesus before his dog finishes peeing on the swingset and he walks away.   Wilson states that the Bible gives to the church the responsibility to preach Christ, and to individual believers it gives the responsibility to be ready to give an answer when asked (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Although we should reject the gawky and ham-handed approaches that Wilson is trying to avoid, a more nuanced handling of the Great Commission is called for here.  In it, Jesus commands His disciples to make disciples who will, in turn, obey all His commands including the Great Commission.  While the church is certainly to do this corporately, every individual has a part to play.  When confronted with a believer, the job is to stir him up to love and good deeds, so that he becomes a better disciple.  Likewise, when confronted with an unbeliever, sharing the gospel with him is required of us, in the best way we can.  There are no exception clauses for people who don’t have the gift of evangelism.  But it may be in a given instance that the best way we can share the gospel with an unbeliever is to simply do honest business with the guy.  The situation calls for a more realistic view of human interaction than what usually obtains in church seminars on evangelism.  Most people don’t go to the park to meet random strangers, and don’t care to be accosted by someone taking a survey on the ten commandments, or whatever the favored pick-up line might happen to be this week.  There are people who can get away with it anyway, and people who can’t.  The only way to find out which you are is to give it a shot.  But if you’re not one of these people, find a better way of sharing your faith, and don’t let someone guilt-trip you into bad stewardship of your time and energy.  If the whole body is not an eye, neither is it all a big mouth.

I would also take this a step further and say that a believer living the sort of life described in 1 Peter 3:8-17 is going to get asked why he lives that way — so if nobody’s asking, you’re doing it wrong.  I suspect, though, that such a person will also be oozing Jesus out every pore, and he’ll initiate telling people about Jesus in ways that turn out to be surprisingly appropriate, because that’s who he is.  But that’s the real thing of which the youth group trip to the park is a fun-house mirror’s demented reflection.  You just can’t fake it if you don’t yet have the character for it.

An astute reader will notice that although we may construct the case differently, for the most part Wilson and I arrive at the same practical result on the subject of evangelism.  I find myself in similar accord in a number of other places in the book.

I am not in accord, however, with the sabbatarian strain that runs through both “Covenant Renewal” and “Feasting and the Sabbath.” To separate the observance of one day (either the first or the seventh) as necessary obedience to the Fourth Commandment stands in blatant disregard of several direct statements in the New Testament, not least Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-17.  Both passages clearly make mandatory observance of the Fourth Commandment a thing of the past.  To further buttress the position by appeal to the sabbath rest of Hebrews 4 (p. 36) misses a very large point in the immediate context.  Theologians have long argued about how to understand the sabbath rest denied the exodus generation (vv. 3, 5-6), and which yet remains for God’s people (v. 9).  Some — myself among them — argue that it’s millennial rest; others argue for some sort of spiritual succor here and now.  What is blindingly obvious, though, is that it cannot possibly be the weekly Sabbath observance, because the Exodus generation actually did that, even after God turned them away from the land (Numbers 15:32-36).

I am sure that Wilson has thought about these things, and I would like to know what he says about them.  I don’t know, because in Primer; Wilson more assumes his position than argues it.  He seems to be raising passages that he regards as persuasive, without taking the time and space to explain why they should be persuasive, or to anticipate and answer common objections.  But this is entirely fair; detailed defense for the position is clearly beyond the scope of this book.  Primer‘s purpose is to paint a picture of what Sabbath observance could look like, and it does this job very, very well.

The resulting portrait is undeniably attractive.  I love what Wilson has to say about feasting in general, and the concept of resting one day in seven is both wise and completely in accord with the way God designed the world — and man — to work.  I observe a day of rest myself (on Saturday — pastors work on Sundays), and he paints a wonderful picture of a day brimming with both rest (Feasting and the Sabbath) and worship (Covenant Renewal).  It’s glorious, and I have no doubt that a Sabbath spent at Chateau Wilson is a day well spent indeed.

With regard to the worship service itself, “Covenant Renewal” offers a badly needed prescription for coherent worship.  Wilson advocates a pattern that, to my eye, has been observed more often than not in the historical Christian church, although I’m not sure it has been so clearly articulated as it is here (for further details, see The Lord’s Service by Jeffrey J. Myers).  The modern church desperately needs to return to its roots in this area, and the practical, pastoral aspects of making the change would be worth a book-length treatment (hint, hint).  In the meantime, Primer offers any reader a glimpse of what it could be like.

“Thundering the Word” addresses the preaching and interpretation of Scripture, and it’s a treat.  The precision-worshiping hermeneutical “science” of the Enlightenment church comes in for a bad beating as Wilson champions the so-old-it’s-new idea that the Scriptures themselves teach us how to interpret the Scriptures. Having recently taught a ten-week course designed around that insight myself, I obviously don’t disagree.  Some of the places Wilson goes with that insight, however, make me nervous.

When I first read his exposition of the Church as the last Eve (pp. 48-53), I wasn’t ready to agree, even if the Bible does say that Christ is the last Adam, and that He’s a bridegroom, and that the Church is His bride.  Having considered it for a while, though, I find the evidence undeniable, and the pastoral applications quite edifying.  I would now put down my initial reluctance to a lack of time in grade: I only made the switch to biblical hermeneutics a few years ago.

Other places I still don’t see a good reason to go.  Wilson invokes Luke 24:25-27 in support of christological/typological interpretation.  While there’s a sane way to do that, both the passage and the overall principle have been mightily abused.  At the level of generality in Primer, it’s difficult to tell whether Wilson is advocating sanity or not.  I am also reluctant to agree that “the New Testament set[s] the meaning of every Old Testament passage it addresses.”  I’d prefer to say that the Old Testament is the foundation of the New, and therefore it limits what the New Testament can mean (Romans 1:16-17//Habbakuk 2:4), and the New Testament offers a variety of uses of the Old Testament: enlightening commentary on what the Old Testament does mean (Matthew 5-7), allusive analogies and parallels (1 Corinthians 10), additional insight not available from the Old Testament account (Hebrews 11:10), and brilliant narratival syntheses exposing themes and messages only latent in the Old Testament text (Romans 4).  Here again, I suspect that we agree more than not, but at times it’s difficult to tell in a work of this length.

These three general areas by no means exhaust what I want to say about this book.  It’s that kind of book: a discussion-starter, the sort of book that fits in your pocket, but keeps you in good conversation with like-minded believers for months.  So buy it, and let’s talk.

Liturgy, Part 2: Unity and Music

21 September 2008

The second in a series of papers on liturgical matters, Unity and Music: Five Hills to Die On addresses five specific areas of concern as our church tries to find its way, musically speaking. It starts out like this…

One of the worst things about Christians is our tendency to feel that because everything is a matter of principle, everything is equally important. Consequently, we often waste time and resources fighting over trivial things when there are really serious issues in play. Nowhere is this more true than in church music. I have, to my considerable shame, been a combatant in some really stupid arguments over Read the rest of this entry »

Censorship versus Patronage

20 July 2008

A lot of the behavior that elicits cries of “censorship” is actually nothing of the kind; it’s actually denial of patronage. It is to the advantage of artists — particularly the ones whose oeuvre consists entirely of pretentious, morally outrageous (and sometimes literal) crap — to conflate these two categories. It is very much to the disadvantage of the rest of us to let them get away with it.

Censorship is when someone with a degree of regulatory authority uses that authority against the work. This is the stuff of obscenity laws, book burnings, and so on. It is *not* the same thing as someone in the production/distribution chain refusing to participate, e.g., a gallery refusing to display a painting, a bookstore refusing to sell a book, or a member of the public refusing to buy, or even look at, either one. It is also not the same thing as refusing to give the artist a grant, whether of private or public funds. These are all denial of patronage, not censorship.

When an artist comes to someone with hat in hand, asking for something — a wall to display his work, shelf space to sell it, the purchase price of a sculpture, money to support himself while he works on his next project, etc. — he is asking for patronage. Whether he gets Read the rest of this entry »

Black & Tan

25 May 2008

If those who hate the Word of God can succeed in getting Christians to be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God, then that portion will continually be employed as a battering ram against the godly principles that are currently under attack. In our day, three of the principal issues are abortion, feminism, and sodomy. If we respond to the “embarrassing parts” of Scripture by saying “That was then, this is now,” we will quickly discover that unembarrassed progressives can play that game even more effectively than embarrassed conservatives can.

This gem comes to us from Douglas Wilson’s Black & Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America. Weighing in at less than 120 pages, this is definitely not the last word on slavery or culture war. But then, it isn’t trying to be. Rather, Wilson raises some much-neglected points and offers a valuable corrective to typical contemporary evangelical sensibilities. Read the rest of this entry »

Calvinist Evangelism and Dispensational Culture

16 May 2008

Introduction: Calvinists and Evangelism

Often non-Calvinists claim that evangelism is inconsistent with Calvinism. If all and only the elect are saved, and if God does the electing and the saving, and if even the person thus saved has no determinative role in the process, then what role is there, pray tell, for some third party? The elect will certainly be saved, whether I do anything or not; the non-elect will certainly be lost, no matter how many times I tell them the gospel. What difference does it make? Why ought I to evangelize?

Certainly some Calvinists have made the same arguments, and have chosen not to evangelize for exactly these reasons. But many others have had better sense. Scripture plainly instructs that believers proclaim the gospel, and since God is not the author of nonsense, they have sought a rationale for doing so.

[I should insert a disclaimer here: I am not a Calvinist of any stripe, following neither Dort nor the Remonstrants — it’s their common assumptions that are the problem. However, I read Calvinists and have Calvinist friends, and what I’m about to relate as Calvinist motives for evangelism is what they tell me.]

Their answer is twofold. First, God ordains means as well as ends. The means that God has ordained to bring about the salvation of the elect includes the proclamation of the gospel. God has ordained that His people proclaim the gospel, in order that the elect will certainly hear the gospel and be saved. It is the privilege of God’s people to be part of the means by which He brings His saving message to elect sinners. God’s people, of course, have no idea who is elect and who is not, and therefore simply proclaim the gospel to everyone — as God has instructed them to do.

But this, I think, is only part of the answer. Consider the implications if this were the whole answer. Suppose I were planting particularly bad corn, with a germination rate of only 20%. Not knowing which seeds would germinate, I would plant each seed. I would tend the ground where each seed was planted. I would water them all equally, and so on. But the earth is cursed because of sin, and 80% of my tender care would ultimately be wasted: 80% of the seeds would rot instead of sprouting.

Compare this to evangelism. Let us say that 20% of the people I evangelize will ultimately be saved before they die. If “God ordains means as well as ends” were the whole answer, then I would have to conclude that 80% of my effort would ultimately be wasted.

Yet my Calvinist brethren do not conclude this. If God is pleased to regenerate this man as he hears the gospel, then it is the aroma of life to him, and he is saved, to the glory of God. This much is obvious. However, if in His infinite wisdom God has not elected this person, then my proclamation of the gospel is a stumbling block and a foolishness to his ears, and to him it is the stench of death. This, too, my Calvinist brother insists, is to the glory of God. He may not be able to explain exactly how-although some have tried-but he nonetheless insists that it glorifies God. It is not wasted effort, because nothing done to the glory of God is ever wasted.

This brings us to the idea of calling. God has ordained that believers should preach the gospel. In God’s great plan, this preaching may be a means to an end, but since He has called us to do it, for us it is an end in itself. We need no further inducement than that God has called us, and we exult in doing His will, for ends that, many times, remain a mystery to us. For me as a believer to joyfully fulfill my calling is never a waste of effort; it is always worth doing.

Thus, although a superficial case can be made that Calvinists ought not to have motivation to evangelize, in fact they do, first because God ordains means as well as ends, and second because that which an obedient believer does to the glory of God is never a waste of effort.

Godly Culture: An Outgrowth of Consistent Dispensationalism

With these things in mind, let us turn to dispensationalism and culture. We dispensationalists are often accused of having no theology of culture, and making no real contributions to culture. To our considerable shame, the accusation is true at times. In fact, it is true often enough that our opponents-particularly the postmillennialists-have come to view abandonment of, and antipathy toward, culture as a necessary consequence of premillennial, dispensational theology.

I will grant at the outset that there are dispensationalists who hold exactly this position, and use their theology as an excuse to disobey the clear commands of Scripture, just as there are Calvinists who use their theology as an excuse not to evangelize. But I suggest that these are parallel cases in other respects as well. In both cases, the reasoning is specious, and for very similar reasons.

Let’s examine the reasoning. According to dispensational premillennialism, human efforts at cultural righteousness are ultimately doomed in the sense that the cultures of the world will some day inevitably descend into the conflagration of the Great Tribulation, only to be redeemed by Jesus returning to set up His Kingdom. “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” the dispensational barbarians ask.

Because the fact of the Great Tribulation is not all that the Bible says about culture. Since Adam, tending and keeping the earth has been the task of humanity, a task renewed and intensified in the Noahic mandates to include eating animals and executing criminals. We are all children of Adam through Noah, and therefore subject to these mandates. For so long as the Holy Spirit restrains the wickedness of the world, culture can only get so bad, and for so long as Messiah tarries, culture can only get so good. We will not descend into the Great Tribulation of our own accord until God permits it, and we cannot ascend to the Kingdom of our own accord in any case. However, between these two great boundary conditions, there is a lot of play, and between these two great boundary conditions, believers are to “do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [their] God.” This cannot but include submission to God’s first command to tend and keep the earth, which is the root from which all culture springs. Engaging all of life in a Christian fashion — in other words, righteous culture — is the task of God’s people, and always has been. Therefore, there is no discipleship without righteous cultural engagement.

Is that polishing the brass on a sinking ship? From one perspective, it is. The culture I improve today may descend into the abyss tomorrow, or in the next century. But does that make my work a waste of time?

It is not obvious that it does. God ordains means as well as ends, and it isn’t hard to see that a production such as Handel’s Messiah adorns the gospel with musical beauty. Surely the number of people who were first attracted to Christ through this and other artistic productions is not insignificant. A Christian political and socioeconomic philosophy, even when imperfectly implemented, similarly adorns God’s message to the world (see Deuteronomy 4:5-8, 1 Kings 10:4-9). Solomon’s implementation of the Law was obviously imperfect, and yet by God’s grace it still had the desired effect. Christian cultural development need not be perfect to be productive; we need not speak of abstract, hypothetically perfect cultural development untainted by sin, and unfortunately unobtainable in this world. There is great utility in the creations of flesh-and-blood, sinful saints working to the glory of God.

Second, and I think more important, is the idea of calling. We are the children of Adam through Noah, and their mandates are ours as well. Thus, to be human is to be called to culture.

To be sure, our cultural production will descend into the conflagration of the Tribulation, if it is not destroyed or forgotten long before. But Solomon, too, was well aware that the attempt to create enduring cultural institutions is grasping the wind, and that didn’t stop him from doing it. I doubt the Queen of Sheba considered it all a waste of time. Should we?

Moreover, we must remember that while various Christian cultural innovations may die out in history, the Christian creators of those innovations will live on in the resurrection, perhaps carrying their sanctified inventions with them. Certainly we will sing many songs in the Kingdom; who is to say that “Amazing Grace” or “Shout to the Lord” will not be among them? Failing all this, if we cannot quite make out what eternal value our cultural production might have, we need only reflect, as our Calvinist brethren do, on the fact that nothing done to the glory of God is ever wasted.

We are called to culture. We may not be able to explain God’s plan for our cultural productions as well as we would like, but we may nonetheless exult in fulfilling our calling to the best of our ability. Though in our fallenness we may not understand yet, and in our finitude we may never fully grasp our place in God’s plan, in our obedience we do better than we know.