When the World Council of Churches at its Evanston assembly two years ago revived the theme of the Christian Hope, the religious world was given notice that Modernism’s disinterest in eschatology was undergoing wide revision. On all sides Protestant theological conversation turned with new zest to the theme of the end of the age.
This sixth decade continually confronts the human race with the threat of end-time. One tyrant’s lust for world power can advance the clock of history from the scientists’ “five minutes to twelve” to the moment when the Great Appraiser alone can assess the carnage. Little wonder that the human spirit feels driven to ask whether other options of end-time exist besides this one.
Ever since Christianity’s impact upon the West, successive generations have restudied the biblical doctrine of last things in times of conflict and crisis, while glossing over it in times of serenity and security. Historical circumstances and philosophical biases more than once have lulled the Christian community into the notion that Christ’s First Advent instituted a world so favorable that the Second Advent was dismissed as a distraction. Contemporary Protestantism registers an advance, therefore, in recognizing once more that eschatology is no mere pagan import into the Hebrew-Christian religion; that biblical prophetic revelation cannot be simply dismissed, but is an integral element in Hebrew-Christian revelation; that beyond the new order Hitler and Marx envisaged stands the new age already inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
The recent resort to eschatology differs considerably, however, from earlier approaches. The Church now lives in a world seeking the harmony of scientific and biblical images of reality. This yields a plurality of views, varying according to which philosophy of science is exalted. Equally important, different motives shape eschatological concerns of Christians under totalitarian rule and in the free world. Interest in the Christian doctrine of the future rises for the former from the shadows of religious persecution, if not from exposure to martyrdom for the Christian witness. Elsewhere the revival of eschatology finds much of its basis in quite other factors than missionary zeal. The sheer threat to material possessions, and the possibility of a general destruction of humanity through global warfare, is a major stimulus. Western Christendom runs the danger today of detaching eschatological interests from spiritual priorities, of subordinating them to the longing for material success and earthly security. Spared the experiences of suffering and persecution, American Christianity tends to turn its respite into an abnormal approach to last things.
Unless the Church properly turns her vision toward the future, she cannot properly face her problems in the present. The urgency of centering end-time reflection in the person and work of Jesus Christ is therefore apparent. Christ himself is the heartbeat of Christian hope. Beyond the when, and what, and where, and how, stands the who and the why. Rightly presented, eschatology always magnifies Christ.
Should the hydrogen bomb mushroom this earth to oblivion, the awesome climax of history is nonetheless assured. Mankind will survive the pulverizing heat of any atomic explosion. God will survive; the Ten Commandments will survive; the judgment throne of Christ will survive; and the blood of the Lamb will retain its power for all who have put their trust in him. Those billows of atomic dust will reveal Christ standing in the shadows, keeping watch above his own. This life and this world are not all there is. They are a prologue, a foreword—and the climax is yet to be revealed. Christ’s revelation and work are still to be completed. Neither man nor atoms shall frustrate the climax to which the Logos leads this world, as agent in its creation, preservation, redemption, sanctification and judgment.
If modernist theology neglected the Christian doctrine of the end, fundamentalist theology often cheapened and distorted it, thereby somewhat unwittingly provoking a reaction. Its failure has been twofold: concentrating theological interest on debatable issues rather than on the undebatable emphases of Scripture, and considering eschatology largely in terms of future events quite in isolation from the spiritual privileges of the present life.
Our generation, happily, is free of fanatical date setting reminiscent of the Munster excesses. Even the boldest prophetic teachers today are more cautious than a decade or two ago in the matter of identifying antichrists. Nonetheless, some fundamentalist Bible conferences and churches (perhaps a few Bible institutes also) would have to shut their doors were they to cease from eschatological polemics, their main stock in trade. The Church in the early chapters of Acts was a Hebrew-Christian Church, vibrant with eschatological hope, but Hebrew-Christian conferences today often disclose an imbalance of interests that apostolic Christianity would think strange. Quite apart from the dogmatic detailing of events, and from the tendency to major on disagreements and to minor on agreements, the fundamentalist exposition of eschatology has been prone to swerve from the person and work of Christ to an emphasis on times and seasons and programs as the center of the Christian hope. These extremes have brought the preaching of last things into disrepute, and in some quarters have led to suspicion of all eschatological interest.
The connection of eschatology with present-day problems has also been neglected. Assuredly there is to be a future climax of history, and this end is in the hands of Christ. But this end is also somehow within history itself, especially in sacred history. One fact that stands out clearly in the New Testament is that the weight of eschatological realities cannot be shifted wholly to the future. As the early Church knew from the outset (Acts 2:17, 2 Tim. 3:1, Heb. 1:2, 1 Pet. 1:20, 1 John 2:18), “the last days” are already in some sense dramatically underway. Christ as the end of history will impinge upon the present transcendently, but that consummation also has immanent anticipations. Yet “the last days” await their climax in the future. The outlines of the New Testament hope cannot be mythologized into mere picture presentations of the believer’s confidence in the final triumph of faith. Nor can they be dismissed as mere dramatizations of the believer’s “new being” in Christ in contrast with the old life. The biblical teaching of “the last days” requires a dramatic future course of events centered in the personal, visible return of Jesus Christ.
The conflict between amillennialism, postmillennialism and premillennialism turns largely on the manner of relating to history the immanent and transcendent manifestation of Christ. Dispensational premillennialism tended to lose the connection between the Second Advent and the Kingdom of God as a present reality; postmillennialism, in the secular evolutionary form it acquired in modernist circles, tended to detach the present Kingdom in history from any necessary dependence upon the Second Advent for its climax. While biblical theology depicts history as moving toward a goal, it does not locate its telos exclusively outside, nor inside, history. History is indeed eschatological; in some sense Christ’s Kingdom is already present, the Holy Spirit as its surging dynamic. But while the ‘eschaton’ has been advanced through Christ’s First Advent from the future to the present, we are not to rule out a transcendent future to which even this present must be related.
Modernist and fundamentalist theology, regrettably, reacted to extreme and objectionable statements of the connection of history to Christ its goal. There were varieties of the modernist view, of course, as of the fundamentalist, but two antithetic positions often contended for the mastery.
Modernism spoke in this mood of history itself as the enlarging Kingdom of God. As Wilfred Monod of the Divinity School of the University of Paris put it in 1902, “The supreme manifestation of Christ is subordinated to human liberty which is called to collaborate with his Spirit in order to make the Parousia possible.” The American “social gospel” was a reflection of this expectation that the Kingdom of God would reach its climax as humanity increasingly walks in the way of social, intellectual, moral and religious progress. The visible and personal Second Advent of Christ became tangential to the full manifestation of the Kingdom. The miseries of World War I punctured this optimism, and the agonies of World War II exploded it.
Fundamentalism, at least in its dispensational form, located the Kingdom only in the future; Kingdom-truth was millennium-truth. This one-sided future orientation of the Kingdom-teaching not only neglected vital elements of New Testament teaching about the present age, but it obscured the important emphasis of the Gospels that in the First Advent the Kingdom was already at hand in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This detachment of Kingdom-teaching from the First Advent of Christ and from the Risen Lord’s ministry in this present age is now being widely challenged from the standpoint of fresh New Testament studies.
The New Testament sketches the revelation of the power of Jesus Christ in terms both of his future and present manifestation. It holds in view more than the personal and visible return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, the sanctification of believers in their conformity to the image of Christ; it stresses a fulfillment of life, a present sharing in the life fit for eternity, a shaping of the believer’s daily existence, in view of a distinctive relation in which the disciples of Christ now stand to their Redeemer. Since the Risen Christ is head of the body, believers united to the head in some vital sense have already passed through death and judgment, and are privileged to participate now in the spiritual realities of a resurrection life. Linked to Christ by the Holy Spirit, through whom the Lord reigns in the lives of his followers, the Church in some vital sense shares in advance, as an earnest of its future inheritance, certain distinctive powers and blessings of the age to come.
No exposition of coming events, however orthodox, can compensate for a neglect of these emphases of biblical theology so determinative of the ethical dynamic of Christian existence in this present age of grace. This phase of eschatology, no less than the next, develops what Christ does and expects of men. The climax of history involves a movement from this present work of Christ to its future work. An awareness of this will prevent the interest in eschatology from deteriorateing into a pious parroting of the phrase “the Lord may come today,” or into a mere quest for “inside information” about future events. For the believer’s whole attitude and conduct is to be enlivened by the great realities of the Christian hope. The early Church lived its daily life within this hope. All the troubles of life in this world provided for them an opportunity to detect Christ’s presence in their affairs, and to fix their eyes upon him as the Lord of history.
Eschatological sensitivity accounted for more than a deepening of moral achievement in the early Church; it also enlivened missionary interest and responsibility. And a renewed contemplation of the Christian hope will result in our day in the world proclamation of the Gospel to which Jesus assigned a divine priority. Any type of Second Coming teaching that dulls enlistment in the Great Commission is precluded by the New Testament itself. For, alongside the biblical interest in the events that herald the end of this age stands an unrelieved emphasis on the urgency of a global sounding of the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners.
This is not, as we have already made plain, the only valid interest in eschatological revelation. The New Testament itself has a fuller future look. The Christian minister bears the awesome responsibility of encouraging and comforting God’s people, caught in this generation’s uneasiness about a foreboding future, through an emphasis on the Lord’s triumph and return. It is a time for the pulpit to sound the promises of the Lord, to inspire Christ’s followers with a lively confidence in the blessed hope. The New Testament faces the rapidly approaching future as a series of great end-time events that enlarge this hope.
Prophetic preaching, unfortunately, often falls into disrepute through the neglect of biblical proportions, the elevation of secondaries to priority, the failure of many ministers to distinguish personal opinion in debatable areas from dogmatic teaching with a basis in revelation, and the fruitless quibbling over details. This tendency regrettably encourages multitudes of believers to seek categorical answers to questions to which even revelation may not provide a solution. One need not, however, fall into the contemporary quest for eschatological unity by dismissal of the literal truth of all prophetic pronouncements, and their comprehension merely as picture-images of the ineffable—a device which devoutly retains the vocabulary and sound of eschatological teaching but evaporates its content.
The Church needs to plant its feet again upon the rock of revealed truths in its exposition of the Christian hope. Thus in a troubled time the twentieth century Church can rise in new victory over all the times of dark despair that threaten its existence and effectiveness in the age between the Lord’s First and Second Advent. The Lord himself had warned that this period would be darkened by religious deception, by political disturbances, by natural disorders, yet he assured his disciples that even in this turn of events they could rely upon the outworking of the redemptive purpose of God that would reveal him at last as the judge of all mankind, the Savior of the Church, and the Lord of nature and history. Today this message belongs high in the list of pulpit priorities.
That Jesus will come “in the fullness of glory,” that on that “crowning day” he will receive “his own,” that “then shall the dead in Christ arise,” that saints and sinners will be parted “right and left,” that ours may be the generation when the saints “go without dying,” that believers must be ready and waiting, and must “haste to prepare the way,” that Christ returns “to reign victorious,” that “Satan’s dominion will then be o’er,” that Christ’s Kingdom “spread from shore to shore” is one wherein “Western empires own their Lord, and savage tribes attend his Word”—all this and more is a reflection of the final hope that survives in the familiar hymnody and song of the Church. If it is proper in the Church at worship, it is indispensable in pulpit proclamation. In many ecclesiastical quarters the sounding of the final hope is noised out by the clatter of the day, although the times are awesome enough to ask whether angelic hosts may be warming up the trumpet of the Lord.
D. M. BAILLIE
Late Professor of Systematic Theology, University of St. Andrews
I am convinced, and have long been convinced, that we ought to be preaching Christian doctrine much more than we are. I have sometimes said, during the last dozen years, that when I look back to the days of my regular pastoral ministry, one of the things I regret is that I did not more faithfully try to make my ministry a teaching ministry; and that if I had to begin again I would set myself to give more definite teaching from the pulpit … I am convinced that the preacher … ought also to be a teacher; and still more he must remember that what he has to preach is not simply whatever fancies or even whatever great thoughts come into his head, but the Christian message—and that really means Christian doctrine … I should like to suggest that our preaching of doctrine should be truly Biblical, not simply in the sense that we should be true to Bible teaching, but that as a matter of method in preaching we should let the doctrine spring out of the Bible.—In The Theology of the Sacraments, pp. 141 ff., published posthumously by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.
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