Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fun with Predestination, Pelikan, and Post-millennialism

I've been working on and wrestling with some pretty rich and thought-provoking material since I last posted. Of course, Calvin's Institutes has been my constant companion throughout this year and has continued to provide depths of profundity for my soul to glory in and my mind to contemplate.

I have also been recently engaging patristics beyond the encounter with the Church Fathers I have found in Calvin (He's a bit too heavily reliant on Augustine but also liberally references Chrysostom, Cyprian, and Ambrose, among others). For those interested (as you should be:) in the development of Christian doctrine immediately following the biblical period and continuing on into the Imperial Church and beyond, Jaroslav Pelikan's first volume, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600, of his landmark four-volume series, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, is essential reading. I think Pelikan was still a Lutheran when he wrote this, but he eventually became Eastern Orthodox, so reader beware! Exploring patristics as thoroughly as Pelikan did might just blow up some sacrosanct Protestant presuppositions, not to mention certain Roman Catholic ones as well. I just might return to blog about some of the gems from Mr. Pelikan's doctrinal history in the coming weeks.

The other thing that has really flipped my lid lately is Peter Leithart's The Kingdom and the Power: Recovering the Centrality of Church. In relation to Alexander Schmemann's enchanting classic, For the Life of the World, Leithart's book is a distinctively Reformed and biblical continuation of the former's theme of the realization of the Kingdom of God here and now in the Church and its centrality in God's broader, ongoing economy of cosmic consummation. Schmemann's prophetic focus in For the Life of the World is addressing the challenge of secularism in general to the authentically Christian worldview embodied in Orthodoxy. Leithart, on the other hand, writing in the early 90s, speaks a prophetic word to American evangelicals about their exclusively political response to the “culture war,” urging them to respond as the Church rather than as a political interest group, since our hopes for cosmic renewal are caught up neither with America—the "Redeemer Nation"—and its political and military operations nor in some impending dispensationalist scenario. No; our hope is in Christ and His Kingdom as it is already being realized in the teaching, worship, sacraments, discipline, and the spiritual and cultural dominion of the Church.

I think Leithart makes a very strong exegetical argument that I am compelled for the most part to agree with, but I am unfamiliar with and not entirely on-board with the amillennial/post-millennial preterist interpretation he puts forth of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew, Paul's discussion of physical Israel's rejection of Christ in Romans 9-11, and the events in the book of Revelation. Leithart is of the opinion that the events foretold and fulfilled in these famous passages are the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the Jews’ dispersal by the Romans that followed.

Leithart is not making a concession to Higher Criticism in this position, being in agreement with those who date Revelation prior to 70 A.D. I think it doubtful Revelation was composed before the fall of Jerusalem, but having Christ's prophecies refer to the fall of Jerusalem is satisfying for those otherwise left wondering why the events He told His disciples they would see fulfilled in their generation did not come to pass. At any rate, Leithart asserts that the destruction of the Temple was God's judgment on physical Israel for rejecting Christ and that this event heralded the arrival of the Kingdom of God—Christ's "millennial" reign over the world through the Church until He returns to bring in the full consummation. This is not the literal millennium in Revelation but a metaphorical one between Christ's first and second comings; hence Leithart is technically an "amillennialist" rather than a "post-millennialist," though his scheme is admittedly more of a hybrid of the two than purely one or the other.

These are certainly new ideas for those of us reared on popular Dispensationalist evangelical eschatology. I will simply say that these ideas are new to me but already seem more plausible than the eschatological scenarios the snake oil salesmen have been peddling to us for years. Admittedly, though, I don't need much reason to reject eschatological scenarios that are overly pessimistic, escapist, and just generally Gnostic, especially since these are invariably the ready handmaidens of individualistic, radically anti-materialistic, and consequently world-denying, Church-minimizing, and sacrament-less theologies.

That being said, the view that Leithart puts forward has some problems for me, especially in the characteristically-Reformed assertion that God's covenant with Abraham has been transferred completely from his physical descendents—Israel according to the flesh, the Jews—to his spiritual descendents—the new Israel in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, the Church. I would argue, of course, that Christ, the Gospel, and His Church fulfill the Law and the conditions of God's covenant with Israel, indeed that for the most part the Church has superseded physical Israel in God's economy of earthly and cosmic consummation. However, I too cannot shake Paul's firm conviction that "all Israel will be saved" on the basis that "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:26, 29). God is not through with unbelieving Israel because He is the God who "has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all" (Romans 11:32).

The central passage for resolving what God has revealed to us concerning the physical descendants of Abraham is Romans chapters 9 through 11. It is also the central passage for discussing the biblical teachings on predestination, election, and reprobation. As a recent post of mine indicates, this too is an issue I have been thinking a good deal about lately as well, thanks to my engagement with Calvin’s treatment of predestination in his Institutes. The questions relating to election and reprobation are closely related to the question regarding God's ongoing plan for Israel, as it is specifically in the context of Paul's teaching regarding the unbelief of Israel that his lengthiest and, historically, most doctrinally-decisive treatment of predestination takes place. I will address both issues as I attempt to begin a brief exegesis of Romans 9-11 in my next post.

No comments: