The Bible is Drama and Doctrine

Eugene Peterson, in his new volume “Eat This Book” follows Karl Barth and the so-called neo-orthodox brand of liberal theology, by pitting the dramatic story of the Bible against a dogmatic, propositional reading of the Bible. But the Bible is drama and doctrine. The Christian doctrine emerges from the saga of Redemptive History.

The Bible contains doctrine though it cannot be reduced to doctrine as if it were a systematic theology text book. Luther in “the Bondage of the Will” argued persuasively that Christianity is a religion of assertions and assertions are essential to Christianity. If you take away assertions/propositions you take away Christianity. If you take away doctrinal statements, nothing is left of Christianity.

Dr. Michael Horton rightly recognizes that the Christian doctrine arise out of this dramatic plot. This dramatic plot is an unfolding revelation of our Triune God working to save us from our sins. God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit created the world in the space of six days and all very good. On the sixth day, God created man in his image and likeness, placed him in the Garden of Eden and set life and death before him. If Adam would eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. Adam was supposed to tend and keep the garden and eventually eat the fruit from the tree of life.  Adam’s wife Eve gave into the serpent’s temptation and chose to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam chose death, following his wife, and ate the fruit of the very tree God had commanded him not to eat. Through this one man, sin, death and corruption entered into the world. Adam’s guilt before God, and his corrupt nature would be passed on to all his children. From there beginning in Genesis 3:15 God cursed the serpent and indirectly promised Adam and Eve that he would send a savior, to save them from ultimate death, eternal punishment in hell. Scripture then proceeds as an unfolding drama where God, who exists in three persons Father Son and Holy Spirit, would work out in history a way to bring man to a right relationship with God and attain eternal life, by faith.

Scripture is filled with, poetry, narrative, apocalyptic imagery and Scripture communicates a doctrine and life. Scripture is for our salvation. The Bible teaches us all those things necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation. The Bible teaches these things in a way that anyone who makes diligent use of ordinary means can attain to a saving knowledge of the Gospel.

It is true that Scripture is not merely doctrine, but scripture is not less than doctrine. Paul is clear when he tells Timothy to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrine. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16) and to “follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me” (2 Tim 1:13). And Jude, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

This has significance for the way we read Scripture.  We should read Scripture so that we might come to a saving knowledge of God, the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, the Holy Spirit and their Trinitarian work for us that we receive by faith alone. Basically put, we read Scripture so that we might know God, receive eternal life and grow in grace. We read so that we might live a life that is pleasing to God, glorifying him before the world. If we are to know God know God and live a life that honors him, we must have an understanding about God. To know God is to know something about God. To know something about God is doctrine. Without doctrine, knowledge about God, it is really silly to say that I know God. We are to have a child like faith, but not a childish faith. So reading for understanding involves engagement, reflection and practice. We are to engage ourselves in the unfolding drama, so that we might reflect on its meaning and significance for our lives and the life of the church in the world. Then we must seek to live in light of this new understanding.  Through engaging Scripture, reflecting upon its meaning and significance with an eye toward practice we come to know God in a saving way. In this way, engagement, reflection, and practice we are not merely hearing the word and walking away forgetting what we heard having only a faint impression of it, but we become doers of the word with a mature understanding of who God is and how we might glorify him everyday.

Interpreting the Book of Revelation

The book of the Revelation is a book that many Christians get fantastically wrong. The strange images are often molded by the “prophecy expert” to fit current events. But then world events change and stretch the model to the breaking point, when the so-called expert sees fit to revise his model to fit a new set of current events.

On January 27th, at Redeemer Church, we will begin a chapter by chapter, verse by verse study of the book of Revelation. Here is a preview of what we will cover in the first lesson, an examination of Rev 1:1-8, which gives us a strategy for interpreting the rest of the book.

1. Revelation is meant to reveal.

“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it.” John wrote these words to the first century churches of Asia Minor. The implication is that they were able to understand the book, and apply it’s teachings to their lives. This means that the book of Revelation is not written in a code with the cipher of future events revealing its long hidden meaning. I am amazed that so many Christians seem to think that the meaning of Revelation was hidden until very modern times.

2. Revelation is meant to be seen/visualized.

Revelation is a book of symbols in motion. Oftentimes the symbols are explicitly identified. Sometimes we know what the symbol is by what it does. One thing should be clear: a “literal where possible” approach to this book defies common sense. A “symbolic where possible” approach is more on target. To understand the symbolism of Revelation, there are two prerequisites: 1) an understanding of the Gospels and Epistles, and the end times teaching they contain, and 2) familiarity with the Old Testament, since most of the symbolism can be traced back to the Prophets of Israel and Judah. If these prerequisites are met then interpreting the symbolism of Revelation is no big deal, and actually rather easy.

3. Revelation concerns “what must soon take place”

There is clearly a futuristic element in the book. It does tell us about the end of history. But it also tells us about things that have happened and things that characterize the present. Revelation presents to us the ordinary struggles of the church with symbols, revealing to us the meaning that lay behind the course of history.

4. Revelation reveals Jesus Christ, his second coming, and the end of the age

Yes, Revelation is about the final, visible, return of Jesus Christ, the King of kings, who will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. This return will not be “spiritual” or “symbolic” or “secret.” Christ’s return is not something that already happened in the first century. “Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” I must also add, however, that date-setters will be disappointed.

It is important that we keep our eyes on the big picture of the book of Revelation. That big picture message is that the victory belongs to God and to his Christ. Revelation is a book punctuated throughout with songs of praise and celebration. This worship is offered equally to God the Father and to God the Son. It celebrates God’s redemptive triumph through the Lamb that was slain. We celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over his enemies, and the final vindication of his persecuted Church, and the inauguration of the new heavens and earth. This hope motivates the suffering church to endure tribulation and the tempted church to remain as a pure bride for her groom.

Renaming Amillennialism

Part 1 of … not sure yet

For better or worse the main end-times theories are named after the idea of Christ’s millennial reign, and whether it is immediately before or immediately following the second coming, or whether this whole question is confused to begin with. Premillennialism is the belief that Jesus returns first to set up a millennial kingdom on earth and reigns for 1,000 years before he brings in the final age – the eternal state. Postmillennialism is the belief that the millennial kingdom is established before the physical return of Christ. Amillennialism is something else altogether. Amillennialism is the belief in the general concurrence of the great end-times events: the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the just and the unjust, the Day of Judgment, immediately followed by the age to come.

“Amillennialism” is sometimes called “Augustinian eschatology” and probably represents the majority position throughout church history. Yet the term “Amillennial” is as recent as the 1930s. Clearly something is amiss when an ancient view is called by a modern name. “Amillennialism” literally means “no millennium.” Like the term “anti-choice” to describe those who are “pro-life,” the term “Amillennial” is a disparaging term.

Jay Adams suggests the new name “realized millennialism” to communicate the truth that Christ reigns from heaven now. More recently, Michael Horton tried to improve on this by suggesting “semi-realized millennialism” to distinguish the way Christ rules the church now through Word and Spirit and the absolute rule of Christ when he comes in glory. The real problem, as I see it, is that we have allowed the millennialists to frame the debate in terms of our millennial expectation. I believe this approach gets us on the wrong track.

I prefer to frame the Amillennial position as “Two-Age Eschatology.” This “Two-Age” model is fundamentally different than the pre and postmill schemes. Premill and postmill are agreed that there are three ages. There is “this present evil age” that we now inhabit, a future “golden” age and utopia – which is a hybrid of this age and the final age – and then the “age to come” which is the eternal state.

The two age structure is the pattern presented in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt 12:32). Regarding his disciples who have forsaken all for the sake of the Gospel will receive back blessings “now in this time… with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). When answering the Sadducees their question on marriage and the resurrection, Jesus replies that “the sons of this age marry and are given in marriage” but marriage does not apply to those who are of “that coming age” who are the “sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34).

In the parable of the weeds the good seeds are the “children of the kingdom” the weeds are “the sons of the evil one” who are consumed by the “cares of this age” (v. 22). The harvest is “the close of the age” where the weeds are “gathered and burned with fire” (Matt 13:40).

This comparison is implicit when Jesus teaches that “For the sons of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). “Light” here is certainly not a mere figurative characterization, but points to the element pervasive of the future age, the “kingdom of light.”

When we move from Jesus to Paul we find the same eschatological two-age structure. Paul celebrates that Jesus has been exalted in his resurrection and is “far above… every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come” (Eph 1:21). Wherever this comparison is not explicit it is implicit. Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4). Satan is “the god of this age” who “has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4). Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” who rules over those who follow “the course of this world” (Eph 2:2). But we are called to live “godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:12). And in Hebrews, everything in “the world to come” will be subjected to Jesus Christ and his absolute rule (Heb 2:5).

While Paul frequently uses the phrase “this age” or a variation of it, Paul does not often use the phrase “age to come.” He prefers to speak of the age to come as the coming of the “kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:15; Gal 5:21; 2 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; 2 Tim 4:18). What is more is that Paul correlates the kingdom of this age with Adam and the kingdom of the age to come with Jesus Christ. Jesus is the “eschatos Adam” (the last Adam), who has become the “life giving Spirit” who will at the last day give life to our mortal bodies (1 Cor 15:45). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfuits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom of God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:22-24).

The resurrection of Christ is the “firstfruits” of the age to come. By faith we now enter into the power of Christ’s resurrection in that we are a “new creation” in Christ and even now live lives of new obedience. But the true fullness of this kingdom awaits his second coming.

Think for a moment how this understanding illuminates Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom of God. Many students of the Bible find Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom to be confusing. Has it arrived? Is it yet to come? On the one hand, many passages speak of entering into the kingdom by repentance and faith. The kingdom has arrived with the presence of the king (Jesus), in the casting out of demons, in the miracles wrought by the power of God, in Jesus’ power to forgive sins. On the other hand, Jesus frequently speaks of the kingdom as that which is future: the Son of Man appearing in Glory; the judgment of the wicked; the righteous wait for Jesus to return with his kingdom.

The best way to understand the Biblical teaching on the kingdom of God is to understand the tension of the kingdom being “already-and-not-yet.” The kingdom, properly speaking is God’s glorious kingdom described in the book of Revelation, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). In this fullest sense, our redemption awaits the resurrection and the renewal of all things. Yet even now we experience some of the blessings of the kingdom in a limited sense. We have recognized Christ as king. We partake of the “Righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” which characterizes God’s kingdom (Rom 14:17). In a limited and imperfect way, we seek to live out the ethics of God’s kingdom even now.

The author to the Hebrews has a great way of expressing this “already-not-yet” aspect of the kingdom. In chapter 9 he argues that the temple and its regulations are “symbolic for the present age” (9:9), but that Jesus has appeared “at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” and he will appear “a second time” to “save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:26, 29). But even now believers get a glimpse of this age to come. In chapter 6 he speaks of professing Christians who have been “enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (6:5; see also 1 Cor 10:11).

Therefore the New Testament consistently locates believers in the New Covenant as living in the penultimate age. We are in the “last days” of this “present evil age.” At Pentecost Peter quotes the prophet Joel and declares that the resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of these “last days” (Acts 2:17). The author to the Hebrews tells us that “in these last days he [God] has spoken to us in his Son” (Heb 1:2). The Apostle John even characterizes this age as “the final hour” (1 John 2:18).

Many of these texts are not what come to mind when Christians study the topic of the end times, but they should be. If this age is characterized as “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4), that is, in some sense, under the influence of the Devil (2 Cor 4:4), if the age to come has dawned in the resurrection of Christ, and its light is beginning to shine in the ministry of Christ’s church, persecuted though it is, and if the coming of Christ in glory ushers in this age to come in its fullness, then we have no room for the intermediate age of a millennial kingdom. This age ends in the cataclysm of judgment to usher in the age to come.

Yet what type success can we expect for the Christian church in this present evil age? Are things getting better and better, or is everything going downhill and getting worse and worse? On this question Amills may vary. I believe the parable of the weeds provides the correct picture. In this parable the wheat continues to grow and bear fruit until the end of the age. The wheat represents the kingdom of God. The weeds grow right along with it. This is the kingdom of Satan, or the kingdom of this world. Therefore, in terms of the continuing power of the Gospel to convert sinners I am optimistic. The gates of hell will never prevail against the church. In every age God will call a people to himself. Yet the Bible never teaches that the world-as-system will be Christianized before the return of Christ. Therefore, in the realm of politics and cultural influence I am more pessimistic. Power and influence in this present age is not the Christian hope. Rather we confess that the “form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:21). Our true optimism awaits the glorious, physical return of Christ to bring in the age to come, the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:13)!

Note: The Orthodox Presbyterian Church considers the three “classic” views on end-times to be within the pale of orthodoxy, and all three views are represented in our denomination.