Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Unpopular Eschatology: Covenantal Realism

Dr. Darryl Hart, a notable scholar of American Reformed Christianity, has taken the time to explain his concerns about what he perceives as an erroneous view of Christ’s kingship. He is concerned that construing Messiah’s Kingdom in such a way that obliges nations to formally recognize the rule of Jesus is a way of prematurely “immanentizing the eschaton.” Thus, Dr. Hart thinks either the eschaton is not immanent (present) or, he thinks it is not immanentizing (progressively dawning) during the present stage of redemptive history.

Please consider the following text, which shall serve as the theme of this post:

The path of the just is as the shining light that shines more and more unto the perfect day.
Prov. 4:18

This verse means much more than that believers experience sanctification in their lives. When considered in light of Rom. 8:18ff., we see that Solomon speaks prophetically of the veiled glory in the saints that will someday be revealed at the regeneration of all creation.

We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). All the angels and saints surround us in God’s light, the Shekinah glory, which fills heaven and earth (Isa. 6:3). Someday the elements will melt with fervent heat as God's glory shines through the fabric of the old creation, purifying and renewing, as the old gives way to the new (2 Pet. 3:10-12).

At the still point of destruction
At the center of the fury
All the angels, all the devils
All around us, can't you see?
-Gordon Sumner

“The kingdom is among you,” said our Lord to the Pharisees (Lk. 17:21), speaking of the reality of the present kingdom. By this, Jesus did not mean that the kingdom is a moral suasion, or mere faith (which existed in the world prior to the Gospel, and therefore cannot exhaust the content of Jesus’ new proclamation). Jesus was speaking of a spiritual reality that had become inherent, immanent, in the world. And because he was addressing the unbelieving Pharisees, he was not merely referring to a private sanctification process relevant only to his followers.

If Dr. Hart rejects the immanence of the Kingdom, he has rejected a significant aspect of Jesus’ Gospel. This is what I mean by the term “Covenantal Realism” in the title of this post. The Bible everywhere militates against a nominalizing theology that recoils from the objective Reality of the Kingdom. The Kingdom may be hidden, but it is as real as anything that can be apprehended by the senses. Nominalism is nominal religion, “a form of godliness that denies the power thereof.”

If Dr. Hart does not in fact reject the immanent Kingdom, I would challenge him to explain why he feels nations ought not to walk in the light of the New Jerusalem but only according to some stark rule of “eye for an eye” justice, and how an attempt to do so is contrary to the spirit of the New Testament.

Perhaps Dr. Hart does accept an immanent kingdom of sorts, but contends that its reality is strictly limited to the corporate worship of the Church and the subjective sanctification of the elect. Perhaps it is more correct to say he opposes the encroachment of the Kingdom in all non-ecclesiastical spheres of life, the so-called realm of common grace. This is the very definition of secularism, which he says he is not in favor of, but which I cannot avoid thinking his position entails.

All that has been said so far is to prepare you, dear reader, to understand what is at stake when I advocate for a hermeneutic of covenantal realism, as opposed to one that spiritualizes away the content of prophetic expectation.

The rest of the posts in this series entitled "Unpopular Eschatology" will progress along a chain of questioning: What covenant did Jesus claim to inaugurate? What was the prophetic expectation of this covenant as recorded in the pages of the Old and New Testaments? Which events did the New Testament writers attribute as the fulfillment of these prophecies?

The questions above flesh out how we are to understand the person and work of the Lord Jesus: Jesus offered a real sacrifice and has been endowed with an actual high priestly office, of a real sacerdotal order, exemplified in the royal priest Melchizedek. He ascended in a real resurrected body to a real place, the heavenly Mount Zion. He sits on a real throne in the midst of all the angels and saints. He actually rules the world authoritatively, providentially, spiritually, morally, and politically as Lord and Christ.

Covenantal realism expresses the conviction that what happens in heaven has cosmic metaphysical ramifications for the life of the world. Nothing would ever be the same once Jesus came bringing a new covenant, a new commandment, and a new life. There can be no return to the pre-Incarnation phase of history.

Now someone may object that I am being unfair. Don’t all Christians who take the veracity of Scripture seriously believe in these supernatural realities? Well, certainly we believe that miracles did happen a long time ago, that Jesus will come “some day,” and we have belief in the “principalities and powers.” But, dear reader, when was the last time you heard of an exorcism being performed? Isn’t our belief in the supernatural realities largely theoretical? When was the last time, if ever, you thought of the Church's mission to the world (Jn. 20:21) as redemptive, rather than a limited rescue operation to save a chosen few? Hasn't the salt lost its savor?

Again, we talk, talk, talk about faith, how it is the alone instrument of justification. However, faith is much more than knowledge, assent and trust. “Faith has come” (Gal. 3:25), i.e., it is an objective reality. How about hope and love? Do we really understand that Faith, Hope and Love are literal realities in which we “live and move and have our being?”

And then, there’s the New Covenant. What does Scripture say it is? What is its purpose? What does Scripture say it is supposed to accomplish? What are its characteristics?

Finally, there is the present habitation of the Lord Jesus. It’s called the “Jerusalem that is above, our mother.” It’s called New Jerusalem and the Heavenly Mount Zion. Why is it identified by these terms? What is its relation to the earthly Jerusalem and this world in which we live? Why does Scripture describe it as descending out of Heaven?

I am raising all these questions because preoccupation with the "millennium" is a red herring. Whether one thinks Jesus is coming before or after a glorious 1000-year period, or whether one disbelieves in it, the important questions remain unanswered, because unasked: What is the covenantal basis of this so-called millennium? What is the expected covenant God has or is expected to implement? What promises did God make that he has promised to fulfill? Has Scripture indicated that the age of fulfillment has arrived or not?

In this post I have made a brief case for the immanence (presence) of the eschaton, the goal toward which all history is tending. In subsequent posts, I am going to make a case for the progressive nature of the Kingdom’s development in the world.

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