The Folly of Indiscretion
It has become fashionable for Seminaries to act as though Eschatological themes are certain when the reality is, this could not be further from the truth.
The study of the end-times.
The belief that Jesus’ physical return will occur prior to the inauguration of a literal thousand-year reign.
The belief that biblical history is a series of defined periods in which God has given distinct administrative principles specific to that time period alone. This means that Biblical history should be seen as discontinuous in the way that God has dealt with humanity over time with particular emphasis on the distinction between Israel and the Church.
All enterprises that are entered into with indiscreet zeal may be pursued with great vigor at first, but are sure to collapse in the end.
Tacitus c. 55 AD
A table for four
Not too long ago I found myself at a table set for four. My invitation had indeed been a happy accident as I had agreed to represent one of my colleagues to the newly appointed President of the Seminary he had graduated from years ago. My colleague was not able to attend, and so sent me instead as the purpose of the breakfast, I was told, was to get an idea of how this particular Seminary might recruit from each of the attendees respective ministries. The school had designed the President’s trip to include follow ups with Seminary graduates who had gone on to direct ministries themselves. And I found myself in similar company, surrounded on three sides by a Pastor of a large church, his college ministry director, and finally our presidential host; a man whose jovial personality filled the room to capacity. The only thing that made me different from my companions was that I had not graduated from the Seminary under discussion.
Conversation was minimal as our host filled our ears with the goals and new opportunities that his school would take its students. I followed it closely as I regularly recommend Seminaries to my students and it was an unexpected treat to be able to glean from our host the role this particular school would serve. I already considered it an excellent option for my soon-to-be formally trained apologists in the making. All very exciting indeed until the topic moved suddenly due to a nonchalant comment regarding eschatology. Our host, without skipping a beat, remarked that he was not interested in hiring any professors who were not firmly Premillenial Dispensational.
My companions nodded.
I did not.
I was stunned. Should I say something? Would that be rude? After all, every school certainly has the right and responsibility to be clear with their theological stance but is it really wise to be dogmatic on a topic that God himself had determined to reveal in a vision as opposed to outright? Isn’t this the one topic we all agree is something we ought not to be dogmatic about? Is the accident of my presence this morning providential? Doesn’t taking such a stance imply a certainty to a topic that over the course of Christian history has been agreed is the most deeply esoteric material we have to deal with? How could a man who has just spent the past hour establishing his credentials and level of experience within the Church allow such a cavalier statement to exit his lips?
I must be missing something, I concluded, as I sipped my coffee to keep my tongue occupied.
Fast forward to earlier this past week when news broke that another well-known and exceptionally gifted school of theology was planning on not renewing any teaching contracts for Professors come the Fall semester unless they were willing to sign their names to a piece of paper stating that Progressive Premillenial Dispensationalism was an eschatological certainty.
It seems I may have made a mistake staying silent that day. Here I thought I was choosing a polite humility but the reality, it seems, was I was rationalizing a failure of nerve.
A debilitating mistake
It is my desire to amend that failure that I write to you today, loved ones. Let me be clear: it is a debilitating mistake to attribute certainty to any of the positions on the end of the world. It doesn’t matter if you are persuaded by Postmillenialism, Amillenialism, or Premilenialism. It does not matter if you are a student of Supressionism, a Covenant kid, or a Dispensational dude. It doesn’t matter if you are an Idealist, Futurist, Historicist, Preterist, Partially Preterist, or Pantelist. It doesn’t matter if you are Pre-Tribulation or Post-Tribulation Rapture. It doesn’t matter if you hold that the Rapture is actually of the wicked and not the righteous. It doesn’t matter if you have not even heard of half of these positions let alone are able to articulate them. The only thing that is certain is that Jesus is coming back. And the reason I say this is as obvious as obvious could be:
We do not attribute certainty to eschatology because the Scriptures do not attribute certainty to eschatology. There is no other reason. God in flesh, took the time and effort to speak to us about the end of the world. He chose non-exhaustive statements, metaphors, parables and visions to do that. We know that the God we serve is sovereign, holy, and good. Which means that his decision to remain unclear about this subject was a sovereign decision that is both holy and good as well.
It is a marvelous endeavor and a fun meditation to discuss all of the myriads of possibilities that help explain these things. It is a necessary endeavor to remind ourselves of the myriads of holes and inconsistencies in each of respective traditions. And it is perfectly acceptable to be persuaded by one of the many camps personally while reminding oneself that a humble acknowledgement of the potential for error here is high.
Certainty where there is none
What is not alright is to add certainty where there is not any as though it were there. It may very well be that God allows us the knowledge of the answers to these questions when we are called home to be with him. And it may very well be that it just so happens that Darby, Scofield, and Moody were the only theological minds of merit in this discussion. But that has yet to be seen. And I am very certain that it is quite a gamble to ignore nineteen previous centuries of eschatological development in favor of the newest one.
Please, I am begging you, do not fall prey to the fashion of the day. To do so would be to mistake zealous hubris for bold fortitude. Do not allow our newest institutions to begin planting flags where flags need not be planted without significant pushback and analysis of why they feel the need to die on hills that don’t require dying. And do not allow your students to leave your classrooms under the impression that God inspired two thousand years of eschatological error but now, in our modern era, we just so happen to be so enlightened that we finally got it right.
Eschatological certainty is a feature of smug presumption. And the last thing that the American church needs more of is that.