It may be profitable to review before going on. Hope is a characteristic unique to man. Only man plans for the future, seeking to immortalize himself through his creative skills. As Solomon notes, only man has eternity in his heart. Hope has at least two characteristics, it is future and it defines what we consider to be important.
People have short, middle, and long range hopes. Eschatology is the study of what God says we can expect in the future, especially during the time of Christ’s return. Eschatology, therefore, defines what God says is a legitimate hope. Eschatology defines hope, an essential component in the Christian life. So we see that eschatology is an extremely important subject.
The church, however, has had a problem agreeing on a biblical eschatology. This has caused great confusion among the people of God. This series seeks to identify the reasons for this disagreement and lay the foundation for arriving at a genuinely biblical hope.
In this issue I make two applications: The influence of culture and the importance of chaos.
INFLUENCE OF CULTURE
Culture plays a far more significant role in shaping our thinking than we care to admit. The Patristics were children of their age, influenced by their cultural melieu. None of us realize the extent, nor do we understand the areas in which it impacts us. If we did, we would monitor culture’s influence and prevent it from having any adverse impact.
Much of what culture teaches is benign and therefore non-essential. Missionaries tell us, when we visit them overseas, “The way they do things is not wrong, just different.” Often the frustrations we experience when entering a culture different from our own are the product of our not understanding the “rules” by which they live. We call this culture shock.
Much of what culture teaches, however, is unbiblical, ungodly, and therefore destructive. All of us are disturbed by the profound negative shift our culture in the United States has taken. This motivates many conscientious Christians to become involved in seeking to correct the ills of society.
In those areas that are benign we seek to adapt to culture, following the model of the Apostle Paul: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law–though not being myself under the law–that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law–not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ–that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” In essence, Paul says that he will do anything short of sin to influence people for Christ.
In those areas that are destructive to both ourselves and our relationship with God, Paul tells us we must resist and become non-conforming: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This statement forms the heart of Biblical application. Instead of running the Bible through our cultural grid and conforming to the world, we are to run our culture through the Biblical grid and be transformed “by the renewing of our minds.”
This mixture of “good and bad” in culture makes it difficult to respond properly to the pressure of the world. What is unbiblical vis a vis being “all things to all men?” Looking in hindsight, we can see with relative ease the mistakes the Church made in conforming to culture. It is more difficult to see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes as we sort through our own cultural melieu.
The Patristics afford us a frightening example. Jesus was a Jew, as were the apostles. The Old Testament Scriptures clearly teach a future for Israel. The persecution and rejection the Patristics received at the hands of Judaism caused them to run the Bible through their cultural lens and conclude that God had abandoned the Jews. Whatever else you read in the New Testament, you will not find Jesus’ disciples arguing for the permanent rejection of the Jews.
Let me suggest a two-fold application: First, we must be ever vigilant regarding the pervasive influence of culture. Although much of culture is innocent, we do well to hold all of it suspect. Each time you expose yourself to the Word of God, prayerfully covenant to challenge everything life teaches in light of Scripture. Recognize that the natural tendency is to do the opposite, to interpret the Bible in light of culture.
Second, take heart with the assurance that God listens to our prayers with a stethoscope. We only get into trouble with God when we are willful. A lot of things can hurt us temporally, such as ignorance, but only being willful with God can hurt us eternally. No where in the Bible, that I am aware of, does God say that He delights in theological purity. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
IMPORTANCE OF CHAOS
Many of us have talked about this before; God purposely creates chaos to keep people dependent upon Him. I believe God purposely kept the Patristics from seeing clearly the theological issues and the profound impact they would make in shaping their world view.
We are given a remarkable insight into this aspect of God’s character in the Tower of Babel. When the “whole earth was of one language and of one speech,” the people decided to demonstrate their prowess by creating a tower to heaven. “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Astonishingly, God says if “They” do not stop them “nothing that they propose to do will be impossible.” Man is never more prone to independence and rebellion than when things are going the way he wants. Man’s quest for autonomy can either be left unchecked, in which case he goes to hell, or God intercedes in a way that forces him to understand his need of Him. Because of His grace, He does the latter.
Through the years I have tried to be a student of myself. If correct, I am a perfectionist living in an imperfect world. This has caused me no small amount of consternation. I hate dirt, disorder, and dysfunctional things. So I spend a great deal of time and energy cleaning, organizing, and fixing. God creates an entropic system, dirtying, disorganizing, and breaking. I become frustrated until I remember that His love and grace created the chaos.
I often feel like Charlie Brown when he faces Lucy with the football. I am tempted to conclude that God pulls away the football each time I seek to kick it. In one sense this is a correct perception of God. He never does it maliciously, but He does frustrate my efforts to keep me humble. In the Old Testament God frequently brought chaos into the lives of His people to keep them looking to Him.
So too in theology. God will never allow anyone to understand anything perfectly. We all “see through a glass darkly.” God wants it no other way. Each generation of the Church thinks that it understands more fully the heart and mind of God than the generations before, only to have succeeding generations discover gapping holes in their thought processes. God is not as committed to theological precision as is His people!
This does not mean that we should “make a shrine of our ignorance.” Accurate theology does influence how we live. This is the purpose of our study in eschatology; your view of the future plays a profound role in how you live your life. In part, God will judge His people on their diligence in studying and applying His Word.
I recognize that I am far more disturbed with the tangent the Patristics took than God. At least that is what I am lead to believe in studying the Bible. God will accomplish His work. Our accuracy/inaccuracy, faithfulness/sloth, etc., will not influence it. He said He will build His Church and He is right on schedule, with or without our theological precision. We have the privilege of participating with Him in His work, but we cannot alter it. God’s work unfolds in history.
The Patristics are a good example of God’s superintending history. Although they embraced a faulty hermeneutic, causing the church to misunderstand God’s future for Israel, they were mightily used by God in preserving Orthodoxy in its doctrinal formulations.
Let me suggest a couple of applications: First, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. “Our God is in the Heavens and He hath done whatsoever He had pleased.” Theology is serious business, but not that serious. When judged by God, I would rather be wrong with a pure motive than right with an impure one. With God, ignorance is an excuse.
Second, do not allow the sovereign control of God to lull you into thinking that your actions have no consequences. Granted, you cannot destroy another person’s life, but you can negatively influence the quality of your eternity with God. Every action, thought, and intent has consequences, if not in this life, then for sure in the life to come.
CONSEQUENCES TO YOUR ESCHATOLOGY
There must be pragmatic reasons for embracing any doctrine. Lacking practical application, a doctrine will be either neglected or compromised. Your eschatological convictions will influence: 1)- Your understanding of the grace of God in that His promises to Israel are inviolable and not dependent upon reciprocity. 2) – Your view of the church (ecclesiology) as we have seen with the Patristics embracing an OT view, seeing themselves as the New Israel. 3) – Your view of the mission of the church as seen by the fact that when the Church ceased being a persecuted minority and became a triumphant majority, it saw itself as a counterpart to the theocracy of Israel with a temporal rather than eternal view of ministry. 4) – Your view of whose job is the ministry as seen by the early church gradually embracing an Old Testament mind-set with priests, an altar, and a clergy-laity distinction. 5) – Whether you are confused regarding the role of the Mosaic Law in the life of the Church. Although this was not so much a problem among the Patristics in that they, by and large, did not see themselves as under the Law, it became a problem among the amillennialists as they refined what being the New Israel looked like. 6) – Your hermeneutic and whether you allow for a less than literal interpretation of Scripture, which in turn leads to heresy.
The connection between these six issues and eschatology may not be immediately apparent, with the exception of interpretation which we have discussed earlier in this series. I hope, during our remaining sessions, to make the other five applications obvious.
Yours for a life of obedience,