Against Sawdust Theology

While I studied for a recent sermon, which was titled “Singing the Ballot Blues: What Should a Christian Think About Voting?” I browsed through some systematic theologies to read what they have to say about hope in the context of eschatology.

Hope in a better time. Hope in a better king. Hope in a better place. Hope in a better future. Hope in a restoration of all things. Hope in judgment, mercy and holiness.

Hope that there’s something better than this place, and the 2020 election.

I’m disappointed at what I find.

I generally find sawdust.

I find sterile treatises trying to plot the timeline of events in the last days. I see dry, scholastic discussions about eschatology. I see lots of dogma, but no heart. No soul. No excitement. I see academia at its worst, and no joy in the age to come.

Ironically, I find the most joy, the most hope, the most irrepressible, starry-eyed vision of Jesus Christ’s return in European theologians commonly considered “liberal” or otherwise “neo-orthodox” by many conservative evangelicals.

So, I shall quote Jurgen Moltmann for a taste of this joy and hope. I think you’ll enjoy it (The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997; Kindle ed.], KL 67-97):

Eschatology is always thought to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act: God has the last word. But if eschatology were that and only that, it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether; for ‘the last things’ spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones, and the dreamed of, or hoped for, end of history robs us of our freedom among history’s many possibilities, and our tolerance for all the things in history that are unfinished and provisional.

We can no longer put up with earthly, limited and vulnerable life, and in our eschatological finality we destroy life’s fragile beauty. The person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself. If eschatology were no more than religion’s `final solution’ to all the questions, a solution allowing it to have the last word, it would undoubtedly be a particularly unpleasant form of theological dogmatism, if not psychological terrorism. And it has in fact been used in just this way by a number of apocalyptic arm-twisters among our contemporaries.

Isn’t this right? Aren’t Revelation, and Isaiah’s visions, and Micah’s prophesies about so much more than “the end?” Aren’t they, in fact, about a new and better and oh so glorious new beginning?

But Christian eschatology has nothing to do with apocalyptic `final solutions’ of this kind, for its subject is not ‘the end’ at all. On the contrary, what it is about is the new creation of all things. Christian eschatology is the remembered hope of the raising of the crucified Christ, so it talks about beginning afresh in the deadly end. ‘The end of Christ - after all that was his true beginning’, said Ernst Bloch. Christian eschatology follows this christological pattern in all its personal, historical and cosmic dimensions: in the end is the beginning.

This has to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve read. Revelation 22 is not the end. It’s the end of the beginning. I don’t know if Moltmann was deliberately channeling Winston Churchill here, but it works. And, he’s right.

That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer took leave of his fellow prisoner, Payne Best, in Flossenburg concentration camp, as he went to his execution: `This is the end - for me the beginning of life.’ That is how John on Patmos saw the Last judgment of the world - not as annihilation, a universal conflagration, or death in a cosmic winter. He saw it as the first day of the new creation of all things: `See, I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21.5).

If we perceive it in remembrance of the hope of Christ, what is called the end of history is also simply the end of temporal history and the beginning of the eternal history of life. Christ can only be called `the end of history’ in the sense that he is the pioneer and leader of the life that lives eternally. Wherever life is perceived and lived in community and fellowship with Christ, a new beginning is discovered hidden in every end.

Amen and amen. What a vision. What a taste of the future that’s so much better than the sawdust scholasticism that characterizes too many Reformed systematic theologies. We need more of this.

I will close with Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, as he discusses hope:

When God in Christ says to man: ‘I love you,’ He says to him: ‘I have loved you from eternity and will love you to eternity.’ A love that does not long to be boundless is not love at all. Every laying down of limits is a denial of love, the proof of its lack of seriousness.

The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Dogmatics vol. 3, trans. David Cairns (Philidelphia: Westminster, 1960), 344.

Love is the object of our existence. It’s what God created us for - community based on love with Him and one another. This is why Brunner sees the Church as the brotherhood of faith. So, our hope is a total restoration of those relationships by perfect communion with God in eternity.

Brunner continues:

Hope is the certainty that this love lasts for ever and that it will not rest until is possesses us wholly. It does not possess us wholly so long as we are imprisoned in the ‘body of death’ and determined by the ‘form of this world.’ God’s glorifying of Himself which is identical with His self-communication in love only reaches its goal by dissolving this form of the world and transforming the world into the form of glory.

Ibid.

So, the Cross is the beginning of the end, just as Moltmann says. It’s where the Son accomplished the redemption of everything, even as we wait here for it to happen. “As an expectant mother carries within her the child that is to be born, and awaits with certainty the event of its birth, so faith carries the future within it. This future the believer expects wholly and solely from the coming of Jesus Christ,” (Ibid, p. 342).

So, Brunner writes, the Cross is where the world as God meant it to be becomes visible:

In the justification of the sinner the world that has become a stumbling-block to faith for the unbelieving man is also justified. In spite of all the cruelty and senselessness of the world, faith sees it as the creation transfigured in the fulfillment of the divine purpose, restored and approaching its consummation. the Cross as the eschatological turning point is the only theodicy possible and permitted for the Christian - the hope of the Consummation which the Creator and Redeemer God will Himself accomplish.

Ibid, p. 355.

This is the kind of hope we need. Not more end-times charts. Not more arguments about the minutiae, no matter how well-intentioned. We need some good, old-fashioned common ground to celebrate and rejoice about the hope all Christians have. This is theology with heart. With soul. With love.

Again, we could all do with some more of this.

1279 reads

There are 3 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Enjoyed this.

Wanted to note that I think there are some pretty good "salvation history" writers in the Reformed ballpark that have some similarly inspiring emphases, minus the liberal/neorthodox taint.

Unfortunately, I can't name or link to any at the moment, but maybe someone who's been reading them more recently can help out with that?

Because of their "big picture" emphasis, they look at "end times" from a very high altitude and tend not to dive into the "what comes before what for how long" analysis.

I think that kind of analysis has value--it's theology. But I also think it's important to regularly step back and look at the grand scope of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, and look at "eschaton" as purpose more than conclusion.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Fred Moritz's picture

Tyler,

Please email your email address to me.  I have some work on "hope" that I did several years ago.  I'll share it with you.

Moritz

 

M. Osborne's picture

@Aaron:

...look at "eschaton" as purpose more than conclusion

Once upon a time I mused that eschatology would be better named teleology. Not sure if I could sell it.

@Tyler: we probably share the same concerns that if the church doesn't live in hope for what God is doing and will do, and instead gets bogged down in politics, the world will have nothing distinctly Christian to be attracted to.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.