Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Different Gospels

There is a “Christian” ethos that poses a fundamental objection to postmillennial hope. This spirit expects that the vast majority of mankind will be damned, assuming it as a biblical given. We are not to expect the conversion of the nations. As proof of this, biblical passages are mustered which appear to teach the great difficulty of finding salvation and how few will actually find it. On this view, the world is a field of tares in which a few wheat stocks grow.

The doctrine of election is used in this context to argue that God is within his right to save some and reject the majority. His goodness is evidenced by the very fact he has had mercy on any at all. After all, he might have let us all perish (which is perfectly true, of course). Some people seem to take perverse pleasure in being part of a minority group that is “in the know” and are always seeking to distinguish themselves from others who “deny the gospel.” This is a common characteristic of gnostic-sectarian religion. Read Nevin’s Antichrist; the Spirit of Sect and Schism (1848) for development of this insight.

According to the sectarian worldview, the history of the people of God must always be a story of a persecuted minority that has been preserved by God despite the odds. A small flickering light shines in the terrifying darkness, but is never snuffed out despite all Satan’s efforts, whose evil sway remains the dominant force in history.[1] Furthermore, Satan’s power is always increasing, because the tendency of things is always to go from bad to worse. The institutional (especially Roman) church is usually cast as the villain in this drama and God maintains his elect only as a remnant within it. I identify this way of conceiving redemptive history as the Remnant Theory of history.

This bleak view of things has very little to offer indeed. The only gospel remnant-Christianity can proclaim is that the elect are justified by faith alone. Sola Fide[2] is stressed as the essential content of the Gospel. The sectarian is always ready to trumpet his devotion to Christianity by affirming it. But the Gospel encompasses so much more: the uniting of God and man in Christ Jesus as one divine life that sustains and brings to fruition the salvation—the glorification—of the world. This has ever been the faith of the catholic Church. In the words of St. Athanasius, “For He became man that we might become divine; and He revealed Himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father.” I would further argue that postmillennialism is a logical development of this Gospel in light of the Calvinistic doctrines of grace. It is only in its postmillennial form that Calvinism becomes a truly catholic[3] (and biblical!) system that accounts for the universalistic Gospel texts.[4]

The sectarian gospel places the instrument of justification (faith) rather than the efficacious ground of justification (Christ) at its starting point, thus subtly replacing God with man as the center of its message. Programmatically, justification by faith in Christ alone (Sola Fide) is replaced by justification by faith in justification by faith alone (Solo Fide).[5] Faith is the one moral activity that cannot be compromised or doubted: “I believe, therefore I am elect.” Luther[6] can be interpreted to anticipate Descartes by subjecting all received tradition to radical doubt. Once the autonomous subject has determined his elect state, he proceeds to determine what he can believe. The structure of Christian belief is then re-organized to directly correlate with the individual subject’s chief priority: how am I made right with God?[7]

This is a mistake that must always be guarded against because it is at root the practical reduction of Christianity to the assertion of individual autonomy against all external laws and means—it is gnostic antinomianism.[8] Thus, the transition is made from objective public religion (covenant) to private spirituality.

The Bible presents salvation as a communal deliverance accomplished in the person & work of a corporate person (i.e., a covenant head). We must relate our view of individual justification to God’s purpose to redeem his people in one body, in Christ Jesus.[9] The essence of our proclamation is primarily the ground of our justification and only secondarily the instrumental means of our justification.

Despite the occasional “optimistic amillennialist,” amillennialism largely falls into the antinomian error because it spiritualizes the Old Testament promises so that salvation is reduced to invisible spiritual or future benefits: escape from hell, and life in heaven. Nothing bodily can be consecrated to God in order to be redeemed, and the whole world must remain in a profane state alienated from God. Kings cannot (on principle) bow the knee to Christ, and demons cannot be cast out.[10] Everything in “this present evil age” has been irredeemably corrupted by sin, and the only reign of God is in [some] men’s hearts. In amillennalism, nothing at present can be included in the sphere of redemption except the individual soul.[11]

The justification of the individual sinner becomes everything; the redemption of the world is lost sight of. For the amillennialist, “Peace on earth, Good will toward men,” is a utopian fantasy only to be achieved by the powerful display of God’s wrath at the eschaton. Christmas and Christendom are integrally related, for the social observance of Christmas is a legacy of Christendom. Sectarians hate each equally. The amillennialist will always downplay the significance of Christmas (if he celebrates it at all) in favor of a yet future economy of things that will follow the Second Advent.

This necessarily demands a two-stage fulfillment of the New Covenant where some blessings were given in the apostolic era only to be rescinded shortly afterward, while others are presently only partially enjoyed. The present time is construed only as an anticipatory period that foreshadows the real glory of the future. This is contrary to the Old Testament expectation of the New Covenant and the apostolic proclamation.[12]

The question is not whether Christ’s reign is absolutely co-extensive with his realm. It isn’t.[13] The question is whether his reign can in principle be legitimately excluded from any part of his realm at present. A supposed separation between Christ’s providential and redemptive reigns cannot solve the problem here. This sophistry falls because Jesus was exalted with all power and authority as reward for his redemptive obedience.[14] He holds no other royal office than Messiah.[15] His rule is by definition redemptive: his priesthood is royal and his kingship priestly. He reigns in order to subdue all sinful opposition[16] and to bring all things into a glorious unity.[17] It is in and through the Church this wonderful goal will be accomplished.[18]

While gnostic-sectarian Christianity shares some elements of the Christian world view with postmillennial Christianity, the two are so radically opposed to one another that they can be considered separate religions. Only one of the two can claim to accurately reflect biblical expectation. A Christian’s mind may be almost entirely controlled by eschatological pessimism so that the strength of his faith in the covenant promises is severely weakened, yet I would not suggest the presence of eschatological pessimism to be indicative of faith’s complete absence.

As mentioned in note #6, many great Christians have held both the remnant and catholic tendencies in tension with one another. This is due to the misperception that a remnant must *always* exist, being the faithful core of the larger body (whether Israel or the visible Church). But a remnant must not always exist. The remnant exists to preserve true faith for a better day. The whole point of a remnant at all is that someday the whole will be saved, else why should true believers stay within the corrupt body?[19] To make the remnant the perpetual rule is to limit our expectations and limit the good news of salvation. It is really to embrace another gospel.[20]

The ideological sectarian who opposes the sacralization of culture, who disbelieves in the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all nations,[21] who minimizes the prospect that the Lord’s name will be great among the nations,[22] who denies that kings should come to the light of Zion,[23] shows how far he has wandered from biblical faith. Let all who call themselves Christians and who claim to represent the King of kings proclaim to all everywhere, without equivocation, that Jesus Christ is LORD!

End Notes

[1] Someday, I’d like to make the case this was true only of the era before Christ.
[2] To be precise, faith set forth as the only thing we need for salvation. Church and sacraments are ancillary.
[3] I take “catholic” to mean “the truth that all secular powers and principles, all powers of society and of individuals, must be made subordinate to the religious principle… Christ said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ [John 18:36], precisely because it is not of this world but is higher than it. The world must be subordinate to Him, for Christ also said, ‘I have overcome the world’ [John 16:33]” from Vladimir Solovyov, Lectures on Divine Humanity, (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1995) p. 15. The use of “catholic” to refer only to the doctrinal authority of the ecumenical creeds apart from their ecclesial context is an ahistorical use of the word. The ecumenical creeds are products of the Constantinian Church and broadly, the project of Christendom. The authority of the ancient creeds rests on the legitimacy of the legislative councils that approved them. Modern sectarian churches that still use the creeds ought to formulate their own creeds that more adequately reflect their doctrinal priorities and egalitarian politics.
[4] John 3:16, 17. See Benjamin B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, (Avinger, TX: Simpson Publishing Co., 1989) pp. 89ff.
[5] With apologies to Keith Mathison. See Steve Schlissel’s comments in “A New Way of Seeing?” The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cos, (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004) 22.
[6] Luther, like St. Augustine and many other great Christian minds, was trying to incorporate both remnant and catholic elements in his reforming project. I would point out that early on, the great Reformer was allied with some Anabaptist groups before rejecting them and embracing a more society embracing reform in cooperation with secular power. See D .P. Kingdon, “The Anabaptists,” Puritan Papers,Vol.Four (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004) pp. 22ff.
[7] The problem is not Sola Fide per se, but a narrowing of theological concerns to privatized soteriology.
[8] The tendency is to downplay the role of the church in salvation. I am seeking to describe a spirit or tendency in this analysis. Critics do the same when they decry the Romanizing tendency of FV.
[9] Eph. 2:4-6, 16.
[10] Amillennialists are in principle opposed to Christendom, and must hate it.
[11] Consequently, there can be no real continuity between the old creation and the new.
[12] At Pentecost, Peter announced that Joel’s prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit was being fulfilled (Acts 2:16ff.). Hebrews 8 teaches that the New Covenant had been enacted (v. 6), but that the old was passing away (v.13). We know that at the A.D. 70 judgment, the old covenant was finished. The intermediate period of covenant transition ended then. The New Covenant is now completely in force—the “law of the land”—so to speak. We should expect that all of its blessings and obligations are now given and progressively being realized in this age. I envisage the eschaton slowly breaking into history, with creation gradually being renewed as the New Jerusalem descends out of heaven (Rev. 21:1, 2). We are still at a very early stage of this process.
[13] I.e., only in the sense that his reign hasn’t been fully established yet—it is progressively being established now.
[14] Phil. 2:8-11; Matt. 28:18
[15] Comprehended in this office are the royal priesthood of Melchizedek and the inheritance of David’s throne (Monarch of Israel). See Ps. 110:4, Heb. 5:10; 2 Sam. 7:12-16. This is the single theocratic office that succeeds Adam’s royal priesthood, designated by the title Son of Man. The author of Hebrews combines the offices of prophet, priest, and king under the single inheritance of “Son” (Heb. 1:1ff.). “Son of Man” and “Son of God” are basically equivalent, with the first emphasizing Christ’s succession of Adam as federal head of all creation and the second highlighting his divine appointment (and divine status!).
[16] 1 Cor. 15:25
[17] Eph. 1:10
[18] Eph. 1:20-23
[19] Many sectarians have come to this conclusion and have schismatized to form their own pure community. Believer’s baptism (the rebaptism of those who were baptized in infancy) is a common practice in such groups. The fact that Reformation churches historically accepted Roman Catholic Baptism is indicative that they viewed themselves in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church, and an unspoken admission that Rome is still part of the Church (though fallen). Postmillennialists should expect the rift between Reformed and Catholics to someday be healed somehow (by God’s grace).
[20] It is ironic that justification has been impressed into the sectarian agenda because it was understood by St. Paul as the great ecumenical rationale for including Gentiles in the Church.
[21] Gen. 12:3; 18:18
[22] Mal. 1:11
[23] Isa. 49:7; 60:3; Rev. 21:24-26

No comments: