Thursday, August 04, 2005

Already and not yet

After a few days' respite here at Westminster, I'll be on the road again today--heading up to Princeton to pick up my daughter from running camp and then back to Charlottesville by this evening. But I should at least begin to deliver on my promise to continue discussing Russell Moore's interesting book, The Kingdom of Christ...

A few posts ago I mentioned Moore's claim that a kind of consensus on the kingdom of God had emerged within evangelicalism. Rejecting a liberal kingdom theology that only seemed to identify the kingdom with enlightened political or social reform, evangelicals also began (according to Moore) to overcome the deep division within their own ranks. Moore claims that this has been achieved (again, mainly at the scholarly level) by a close attention to the biblical character of the kingdom of God, one which is both eschatological and Christocentric. Moore's second chapter picks up the first of those two emphases: "Toward a Kingdom Eschatology: The Kingdom as Already and Not Yet."

Enough ten dollar theological terms? Let me back up and explain some of what all this means. First of all, eschatology is simply a fancy word for "last things." So, typically, when folks have talked about eschatology in the past, they've been referring to things that happen at the end of your life or of the world--things like going to heaven when you die, the second coming, the resurrection, the final judgment, and so forth. If this is what you mean by "eschatology," then of course it has to do with things that haven't happened yet. Eschatology in that understanding has to do with the "Not Yet" side of things.

Classic dispensationalism had its own strong twist on this "Not Yet" understanding of eschatology ("the last things"). For those of you who haven't heard the term "dispensationalism," you'll probably be familiar with some aspect of its teaching. Though it does teach that history is divided into a number of "dispensations" (hence its name), its main distinctive is its emphasis on national Israel. In sum, God's people throughout the ages has been Israel, to whom he promised an earthly kingdom. Jesus offered this kingdom to Israel when he came as its Messiah, but Israel rejected its proper Messiah and so the (earthly) kingdom was postponed. Instead, the church age began, which is itself a parenthesis in God's plans for Israel. At the end, however, the church will be taken up to heaven (the rapture) and God will resume dealing with earthly Israel. Eschatology, then, has to do with all those things that happen at the END, right before the rapture and then afterwards. The church age (presently going on) NOT YET the end. You may recognize this kind of understanding if you're familiar with, say, the Left Behind series.

On the other side of the divide within evangelicalism is the understanding of eschatology (the last things) found within covenant theology. In strong contrast to dispensationalism, covenant theology has always seen continuity between Israel and the church. The church isn't a parenthesis or pause in God's plans while he waits to resume dealing with earthly Israel. Rather, the church is already the fulfillment of God's plans and purposes for Israel, so that there are distinct ways in which God's end-time, eschatological purposes have already begun. This "covenantalist" way of thinking tended to emphasize the ALREADY dimension of God's fulfillment of his purposes in the church, at least vis-a-vis Israel. Of course, it never denied that more was still to come: the second coming, the final judgment, and so forth. However, many of the things dispensationalism reserved for the future (regarding the fulfillent of God's promises to Israel), covenant theology saw as already fulfilled in the present existence of the church.

This brings us then to new evangelical consensus on the already AND the not yet. As we'll see, that perspective emphasizes both dimensions in a more thoroughly biblical way. But that will have to wait for the next post. I need to get up and get busy. I have a full day of driving ahead of me and an apartment to straighten up in the meantime.

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