An Eschatological Culture
I read John Webster’s The Culture of Theology a few weeks ago. There is much to discuss in this penetrating book of the Thomas Burns Memorial Lectures he gave, but I thought I’d just share a small nugget and some reflection on it:
The culture of Christian faith is an “eschatological” culture. That is to say, it is a culture which is generated, sustained, and perfected, and also exposed to radical questioning, by the utterly gratuitous presence of God in the risen Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit’s working. By speaking of Christian culture as “eschatological,” I am referring to much more than simply the fact that Christian belief includes reference to such themes as Parousia, that last judgement and vindication of the elect, or life everlasting. Rather, “eschatological” refers to that single, perfect reality which is the basis and ends of all realities, that absolute which, as the origin of all that is, is pure, free, ungraspable, approachable only by virtue of its own prior approach to us in a kind of loving devastation. For Christian faith, that “absolute” is nothing other than God’s great “I am,” declared in the covenant and uttered supremely in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead: “I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:17-18). He, the risen Jesus, the new (counter-) creation, is the presence of the eschaton, and it is because of him that Christian culture is eschatological. Brought into being by his disruptive presence and thereby pointed toward its proper end, the world of Christian faith is the strange cultural space in which the re-creative work of God is confessed. (53)
The Christian culture is one made up of new creations, inhabited by the Spirit of God doing his re-creative work in us by his word, in communion with his people, as we are headed for glory.
The goal or end of Christian culture is Christian difference as teleology. The telos of Christian culture is the lordly rule of Jesus Christ in all things. Christian culture stretches out beyond itself to a future which is the manifestation of God’s glory, the utter radiance of God, who is all in all. (54)
“Being in this culture means simultaneously being put to death and made alive” (55). Martha sees this in her talk with Jesus when her brother died. When Jesus tells her in her despair, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die,” he then pressed home even more important words for Martha: “Do you believe this?” (see John 11:17–27). That question changed everything. His miraculous raising of Lazarus would demonstrate that the answer to this question brings life from death. It’s a question not only for Martha but also for all of us. It’s a question that reorients our lives now so that we live for the life that is to come. It is a question that moves us from living our lives so as to preserve our own kingdom to living so as to persevere in Christ’s kingdom. It is a question that requires the work of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears before we can even see his beautiful grace and majesty, see our own depravity and vanity, and hear this good news.
Jesus’ gracious and confrontational question revealed that they weren’t talking about the death of her brother anymore; they were talking about Martha’s life and death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the only way to eternal life. Martha responds, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (v. 27).
In the everyday life of faith and obedience, we remember our baptism in Christ and mortify sin. Being in this culture is painful stuff. As my friend Anna said, “we can struggle to get everything we want in this life, only to find it was in all vanity in the next. We wasted our lives kicking against the pricks.” We hold on to self and we hold onto the dirt of this earth that the first Adam was created from. But the woman was not created from the dirt, but from Adam’s side, representing his telos as Christ’s bride. If we are Christ’s, he will disrupt us in our selfward gaze. And we learn that it hurts so good to die to sin and reach to touch his garment, even if we only see him from behind, as it were, in this already and not yet space. “The radiance of God's glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word” is really the one who is reaching out to us (Heb. 1:3).
In Revelation we see the whole Christ, that is, Christ and his bride. I wrote a little about this in my upcoming book.
We see something beautiful regarding the church as the bride of Christ in Revelation. She is radiant like her groom (Rev. 21:9–11, Heb. 1:3, see also Ps. 34:5). And she has a prophetic speaking function. In Revelation 22:17 we see that the church is to add her voice to the Spirit’s, saying, “Come!” G. K. Beale connects this verse to Revelation 19:10, with “brothers and sisters hold[ing] firmly to the testimony of Jesus” as fellow servants with the angels in this prophetic work. In the three calls to “come” in Revelation 22:17 we first see the prophetic leaders (19:10) calling the whole church collectively, and then all of us who hear join in, individually exhorting “other believers who are still dull of hearing.”* I can’t help but think of Mary Magdalene as the first picture of this, a typology of the church adding her voice to the Spirit (who revealed Christ to her), testifying to the apostles (her brothers), Come! He is risen! (John 20:11–18).
Yes, Christian culture is an eschatological culture.
They looked to Him and were radiant, And their faces will never be ashamed. (Ps. 34:5)
* G. K. Beale with David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 407, 523.