Introducing Theological Eschatology

Article by   August 2015
I. The Eclipse of Heaven

Sometimes you can see a trend by noting the exception. 

In his well-regarded book How (Not) to Be Secular, the philosopher James K. A. Smith observes that the Reformation's celebration of the theological significance of the ordinary not only served as a remarkable element of lay renewal in Christianity but was also "the camel's nose in the tent of enchantment -that somehow the Protestant Reformation opened the door to what would become, by a winding, contingent path, exclusive humanism" (p. 39). Throughout that book, Smith not only offers a brief and accessible genealogy for this trend toward an exclusive humanism but also prompts his readers to consider the need to think beyond the "immanent frame" and to keep in mind higher or greater ends. 

Smith's diagnosis is stark as he speaks of an "eclipse of heaven" and a focus upon ends that are material and earthy, not spiritual or transcendent. Notice that, in so doing, he does not merely address ills outside the church, or even maladies marking the revisionist churches or the skeptical or nominal Christian, in ecclesiastical or sociological terms. Rather, he says: "So even our theism becomes humanized, immanentized, and the telos of God's providential concern is circumscribed within immanence. And this becomes true even of 'orthodox' folk: 'even people who held to orthodox beliefs were influenced by this humanizing trend; frequently the transcendent dimension of their faith became less central...' Because eternity is eclipsed, the this-worldly is amplified and threatens to swallow all" (pp. 49-50). 

As mentioned above, a trend can be seen by observing the exception. Smith, a professor at a leading institution in the neo-Calvinist or Kuyperian world, has addressed a naturalizing tendency and pointed again to the need to have hopes beyond the mundane and the material. That is no small thing. Ever since Kuyper articulated the significance of all things, all spheres, all facets of life for one's vocation before Christ, the churches, institutions, and social world influenced by neo-Calvinist thought have focused its significant intellectual vitality heavily (and, regularly, with very sharp polemics) against spiritualism and for creation, materiality, sociality, and all things humane. To see a leading light in the Kuyperian world then speaking up for heaven is a significant matter. 

It is also no small thing that this emphasis arose in this particular book by Smith, for How (Not) to Be Secular is a volume subtitled Reading Charles Taylor. Smith here performs yeoman's work in accessibly and thoughtfully conveying many of the intellectual analyses provided in the work of the Roman Catholic philosopher, in particular as found in his A Secular Age (a tome which, like his earlier Sources of the Self, is both profound but also inaccessible to many ordinary readers). In previous works, Smith has not emphasized this kind of spiritual transcendence with anything like the regularity found in How (Not) to Be Secular. Footnotes suggest that the input of Hans Boersma's book Heavenly Participation (released only in 2011) may have played a formative role there. But it seems obvious and straightforward to note that a Roman Catholic has suggested the significance of what those participating in parallel discussions in the neo-Calvinist world have not addressed on their own. 

II. Augustinian Naturalism

A variety of authors in recent years have sought to draw Christians away from the dangers of segmenting their lives. The maladies can be described under varying terminology: sometimes Gnosticism is the label for such dualistic divisions of our lives; sometimes Platonism or Platonizing serves as the moniker for this mishap whereby we seek flight from our context; sometimes spiritualism depicts a malformed view of God's involvement with his creatures, as if the triune God only interacted with us in certain liturgical or religious moments and nowhere else. 

Abraham Kuyper famously declared a century ago that there is not one square inch upon this earth of which Jesus Christ does not say "Mine!" We might expand, as he and his followers have done so, by paraphrasing that there is not one nook or cranny of human existence over which Christ does not claim Lordship. This insistence on the sovereignty of Christ in all things and in all areas of life has prompted development of worldview thinking and has underwritten numerous educational initiatives in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, not only within the Dutch Reformed community (in places like Calvin College, where Smith teaches) but also well outside that ethnic and ecclesiastical world (as evidenced by the way in which Arthur Holmes and Wheaton College would famously describe their educational and missional commitments with language that "all truth is God's truth" or "the integration of faith and learning"). 

The vitality of Kuyperianism has been that centrifugal energy whereby classic Christian and even Reformed theology has been applied to new disciplines and arenas of life. A principled ethics has been articulated across the board; I say this ethics or this sense of calling is principled, because it flows from fundamental commitments about the gospel and, more widely, about biblical teaching regarding humanity: our nature and our ends. Specifically, Kuyperianism in its various iterations has emphasized our creation as holistic beings - embodied, social, intellectual, etc. - and our destiny as not only redeemed but even restored sons and daughters of the Most High - resurrected, at peace with one another, wise, etc. A particular eschatology has marked this strain of theological and ethical development. 

Surely the greatest theologian of the neo-Calvinist tradition is Herman Bavinck. His four volume Reformed Dogmatics continues to have the most sizable impact of any text from that tradition, at least in the realm of doctrine. One of the great traits of Bavinck's work, across its wide terrain, is its evenhandedness in judgment: the theological master had a keen sense of balance, proportionality, and, thus, did not tend to overreact to one thing by falling too far elsewhere. While maintaining Protestant and Reformed distinctives not only with vigor but also with an uncommon clarity, Bavinck manages to glean more from sources traditionally engaged only by Roman Catholics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century context (e.g. the Thomist tradition of reflection on nature and grace). Interestingly, however, Bavinck's eschatology, which forms the culmination of his fourth volume, focuses not only narrowly but also polemically upon the notion of the new creation over against more spiritual emphases found elsewhere in the Christian tradition. A polemical concern (some sort of escapist hope that has little or nothing to do with human existence here) seems to mark his reflections in an uncharacteristic manner. 

In recent years neo-Calvinists (like Richard Middleton) and those influenced by that tradition (e.g., N. T. Wright, strongly influenced by Brian Walsh) have spoken in even sharper terms regarding the earthy nature of the Christian hope. Richard Middleton's recent book A New Heavens and a New Earth is subtitled "Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology." Clearly it suggests that a biblical vision of our hope has been lost, and it identifies the problematic early on when speaking of "the problem of otherworldly hope" (pp. 21-34). The author suggests heaven is not our destiny (e.g., pp. 236-237) and speaks of popular songs or expressions of piety that suggests such as being "lies" (p. 27). Middleton not only says next to nothing about the spiritual or heavenly reality of our hope, but he critiques or openly mocks those who do.

I find the term "Augustinian naturalism" useful to depict this tendency within the neo-Calvinist tradition. It is not a term adopted by any of its proponents, of course, and I mean the term "naturalism" only in a very specific manner. With regard to the telos or end of our hope, a significant strand of modern theology, influenced by the worldview of Kuyper, has articulated that hope in a naturalistic or materialistic manner. Charles Taylor and James Smith have noted this as well, so I am not venturing a thesis alone. I do think it is worth reflecting on how strange it is, though, that this immanentism would settle in to the conservative or traditional Reformed world. These are Augustinians who believe in divine sovereignty and effective divine agency behind not just Christian salvation but all human history, providentially speaking. They have as wide and deep a notion of divine presence throughout our world and generations as exists in the Christian world. But when it comes to the climax of redemptive history, neo-Calvinists have often turned from focus upon communion with Christ, the presence of God, or the beatific vision (the classical image for the eschatological spiritual presence of the Almighty) to focus instead upon the resurrected body, the shalom of the city, and the renewal of the earth. Naturalism is no surprise in modernity, as Taylor explains, but Augustinian naturalism is a big deal. 

III. Toward a Systematic Theology of Evangelical Hope

Alert to Taylor's assessment and mindful of Smith's prompt, to this trend toward what I'm calling "Augustinian naturalism," then, I offer a series of reflections here regarding how we might consider the Christian hope in a way that does acknowledge the breadth of Reformational and even neo-Calvinist reflection without losing sight of the spiritual center of that hope in life with God. I do so as one who identifies with the neo-Calvinist movement autobiographically and theologically. I went to a Christian high school in Miami where the baseball may have been marked by Alex Rodriguez, but the philosophy of education was shaped by its Dutch Reformed and Kuyperian heritage. I benefited from a systemic model of Christian education at Wheaton, where its liberal arts model and theological identity has been influenced over the past century in numerous ways by the neo-Calvinist world. And, as a seminary professor, I continue to assign Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics more than any other single text written in the modern age. 

I do think, however, that the neo-Calvinist emphases upon the new creation and the earthiness of our hope can and has morphed at times from being productive Reformed corrections to the catholic faith and instead have become parasitic to the basic lineaments of the Christian gospel. Too often a desire to value the ordinary and the everyday, the mundane and the material, has led to what ought to be common-sense to any Bible-reader: that heaven and the spiritual realm matter most highly. Too rarely do we speak of heavenly-mindedness, spiritual-mindedness, self-denial, or any of the terminology that have marked the ascetical tradition (in its patristic or, later, in its Reformed iterations).

In the posts which follow, I will not be sketching an entire eschatology, of course, but I will be seeking to outline some fundamental moves that would shape such a project. In four subsequent posts, I will attempt to gesture at four moves that are methodologically significant: honoring the priorities of the Bible, thinking across categories or doctrines to pursue an integrative and coherent theology, attending to the breadth and diversity of biblical teachings, and, finally, observing the way in which action or ethical behavior is always drawn from scriptural description of reality. In each methodological maneuver, I will try to note how a particular material feature of biblical eschatology comes to light, presenting the basic structures of an evangelical hope that is: centered upon the covenant presence of God, calibrating that presence in a Christ-centered way, locating that presence in the new heavens and new earth in which not only God but also his resurrected children reside, and, finally, highlighted the way in which that hope is one which shapes our living, according to the scriptures, predominantly by how it calls us to die and to sacrifice for the sake of a greater hope and life (thus reclaiming an evangelical asceticism, in the tradition of Calvin and the Puritans).  

Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida
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