According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power
is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. - anon

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Kingdom of God as PreMillennial

http://rogereolson.com/2011/05/09/premillennialism-revisited/
Premillennialism revisited

by Roger Olson
posted May 9, 2011

This is an addendum to my recent post “The Kingdom of God as critical principle.” Some have asked me to elaborate on the millennial kingdom.

There is no single premillennial view of the details of the thousand year reign of Christ on earth. For the most recent discussion of historic premillennialism that compares and contrasts it with dispensational premillennialism see The Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology edited by Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Baker Academic).

I grew up premillennial and dispensational. I still have my mother’s Bible which was on her bed when she died at age 32 when I was 2 years old. It is a leather bound Scofield Reference Bible. I sometimes joke that we (my family and church) tended to regard the study notes of that study Bible as equally inspired with the text.

Here are the words to a song we sang at church. I doubt most of you have ever heard it. I don’t think I’ve sung it since I was 10 or so. It’s called Our Lord’s Return to Earth:

I am watching for the coming of the glad millennial day,
When our blessèd Lord shall come and catch His waiting bride away.
Oh! my heart is filled with rapture as I labor, watch, and pray,
For our Lord is coming back to earth again.

Refrain

Oh, our Lord is coming back to earth again.
Yes, our Lord is coming back to earth again.
Satan will be bound a thousand years; we’ll have no tempter then,
After Jesus shall come back to earth again.

Jesus’ coming back will be the answer to earth’s sorrowing cry,
For the knowledge of the Lord shall fill the earth and sea and sky.
God shall take away all sickness and the sufferer’s tears will dry,
When our Savior will come back to earth again.

Yes, the ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion then with joy,
And in all His holy mountain nothing hurts or shall destroy.
Perfect peace shall reign in every heart, and love without alloy,
After Jesus shall come back to earth again.

Then the sin and sorrow, pain and death of this dark world shall cease,
In a glorious reign with Jesus of a thousand years of peace.
All the earth is groaning, crying for that day of sweet release,
For our Jesus shall come back to earth again.

I long ago discarded the dispensationalism of my church and family, but I’ve never found good reason to discard the premillennialism (of the faith of my childhood and youth). It seems rooted in Scriptures such as Isaiah 11 and 65 and Revelation 20. Most of the so-called “minor prophets” also make some reference to an earthly millennium during which the messiah will rule and reign over “peaceable kingdom.”

Now, some have tried to argue that Isaiah 65 (for example) is about heaven, not about an earthly messianic kingdom at the end of history. However, that doesn’t work because verse 20 refers to people dying during this time.

Second century church father Irenaeus wrote much about this earthly millennium in Against Heresies, Book V, chapters XXVII-XXXVI. He steadfastly rejected any allegorical interpretation of Revelation 20 or the prophets’ descriptions of the kingdom of God on earth. He clearly distinguishes between the earthly kingdom of God AFTER Christ returns and the “supercelestial” kingdom of the new heaven and new earth after that. Irenaeus traces this teaching about an earthly kingdom of God with Jesus reigning as messiah on earth to John the Apostle through Papias and Polycarp whom he knew personally.

Now, the details of this millennial reign of Christ on earth are sketchy both in Scripture and in the church fathers. Some of the description may very well be figurative. But THAT there will be such an earthly millennium of peace and justice seems clear–both in Scripture and most of the church fathers before Augustine (with the exception of Origen). It was Augustine who overturned premillennialism and influenced the church to adopt what has come to be called amillennialism (no earthly, visible, political rule and reign of Christ except in the church).

Reinhold Niebuhr famously quipped that we should not want to know too much about the “furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” I would say the same about our knowledge of the millennium. We have to be satisfied with what is given in Scripture and, perhaps, in the earliest church fathers such as Irenaeus. The rest is speculation.

It seems like reverent speculation, however, to suggest that the righteous and unrighteous will both be citizens of that kingdom of God on earth with the unrighteous serving Christ unwillingly.

For me, belief in the millennium serves two purposes. First, it tells me that God’s salvific concern is not just for souls but for society. Second, it gives me what I call the critical principle for deciding what I can be comfortable with now and what I cannot be comfortable with now–in terms of social conditions.

Some have argued in the past that premillennialism encourages quietism and otherworldliness among Christians. I disagree. If understood correctly, premillennialism does just the opposite. IF poverty, injustice, oppression, cruelty, etc., will not be part of Christ’s messianic reign on earth, then my task as a Christian, as a citizen first and foremost of that kingdom, is to do my best to abolish those things here and now in anticipation of that future. Also, if God plans to establish his kingdom on earth, then he cares about the whole world including nature. That gives us motive to be “keepers of the garden” until he comes.

Personally, I cannot see any reasons to discard historic premillennialism, rightly understood, except anti-supernaturalism or otherworldiness. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has recognized this and the political advantages of premillennialism and adopted a version of it for his own eschatological theology. This is made clear especially in his book The Coming of God.


Justice in the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God as critical principle

by Roger Olson
posted May 7, 2011

Underlying everything I wrote about the distinction between “justifiable” and “just” in my previous post is my belief that the coming Kingdom of God on earth is the Christian’s and the churches’ critical principle for discerning whether something (such as a violent act) can be celebrated.

I have adopted Isaac Watts’ 1793 hymn as my anthem for the coming messianic Kingdom on earth:

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Behold the islands with their kings,
And Europe her best tribute brings;
From north to south the princes meet,
To pay their homage at His feet.

There Persia, glorious to behold,
There India shines in eastern gold;
And barb’rous nations at His word
Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.

To Him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown His head;
His Name like sweet perfume shall rise
With every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on His Name.

Blessings abound wherever He reigns;
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blessed.

Where He displays His healing power,
Death and the curse are known no more:
In Him the tribes of Adam boast
More blessings than their father lost.

Let every creature rise and bring
Peculiar honors to our King;
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud amen!

Great God, whose universal sway
The known and unknown worlds obey,
Now give the kingdom to Thy Son,
Extend His power, exalt His throne.

The scepter well becomes His hands;
All Heav’n submits to His commands;
His justice shall avenge the poor,
And pride and rage prevail no more.

With power He vindicates the just,
And treads th’oppressor in the dust:
His worship and His fear shall last
Till hours, and years, and time be past.

As rain on meadows newly mown,
So shall He send his influence down:
His grace on fainting souls distills,
Like heav’nly dew on thirsty hills.

The heathen lands, that lie beneath
The shades of overspreading death,
Revive at His first dawning light;
And deserts blossom at the sight.

The saints shall flourish in His days,
Dressed in the robes of joy and praise;
Peace, like a river, from His throne
Shall flow to nations yet unknown.

Now, I might quibble with a few lines in the poem, but, in general, I think it well describes the coming millennial reign of Jesus Christ on earth. (I do not know whether Watts was a premillennialist, but the poem definitely implies a millennium on earth ruled over by Jesus Christ which would make it before the New Heaven and New Earth. I would argue it is a premillennial vision whether Watts explicitly embraced premillennialism or not.)

The poem seems to me to bring together the imagery of the messianic Kingdom scattered throughout the prophets and apostles. For a systematic theological explanation and defense see the many writings of George Eldon Ladd especially The Presence of the Future.

My point is this: I cannot be comfortable with or celebrate something unless I can envision it being present in the earthly millennial Kingdom of God in the future. And I think the church is called by God to prefigure that Kingdom in the present as much as possible.

Will there be violence in that Kingdom? If so, it will be God’s and not humans’. Watts writes about God treading the oppressors in the dust. I don’t know exactly what that means. I would interpret it as God forcing oppression to cease. I don’t take it as necessarily referring to violence. But even if it does, and even if God himself does violence, I cannot be comfortable with or celebrate human violence. I can only condone it as sometimes the lesser of two evils here and now–before the Kingdom comes.

The same is true of poverty. I cannot imagine why any Christian is comfortable with poverty (by which here I mean a condition in which people lack what is necessary to live a fully human life) as it will clearly be abolished in the Kingdom of God on earth.

So, for me, at least, the Kingdom of God on earth, Jesus Christ’s messianic reign at the end of history, serves as the critical principle for determining what social arrangements, conditions and practices I can celebrate. I celebrate them only when I see them as foreshadowing something about that messianic Kingdom.

Now, someone will no doubt argue that America’s killing of bin Laden is a foreshadowing of God’s treading the oppressors in the dust. But America is not God. True, God has given the “sword” to the state to hold back evil, but I can’t imagine that will be true in the Kingdom of God which will be a “peaceable Kingdom” and not one of violence. IF there is violence there it will be carried out righteously by God himself. That is God’s prerogative. I do not recognize any human violence as God’s own violence. And I’m dubious about whether violence will be present in the Kingdom of God at all. I prefer to think of God’s treading the oppressors in the dust as God’s making them stop their oppression. But if he uses violent means to achieve that end, that is his business and not mine to judge.


The Meaning of Love and Justice, Part 2


The difference, theologically, between “justifiable” and “just”

by Roger Olson
posted May 6, 2011

Several people have asked me to clarify what I mean when I say that an act may be “justifiable” but not “just.” The background is my post about the killing of bin Laden which I suggested might be justifiable but not just. Someone said that it is okay to celebrate bin Laden’s death (something I denied) so long as one is celebrating the justice in it and not the killing per se. I cannot bring myself to celebrate something that is less than just. Hence the question.

I agree with theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr who argue that true justice is inseparable from love even if, in our sinful world, it is often at best an approximation of love. And in this sense, “love” is being defined by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians 13 (etc.) as selfless benevolence to the other.

In Christian tradition, going back at least to Augustine, love and justice are the twin and inseparable Christian ethical principles. Well, that raises the question, what about when there is a conflict between them? Ultimately, they cannot conflict in reality because they are both rooted in God’s character (from a realist, not a nominalist, perspective). However, from our finite and fallen perspective there does sometimes seem to be tension between them.

Niebuhr helpfully distinguished between “perfect justice,” which would be love in action (e.g., tough love) and “proximate justice” which is love compromised in the face of the reality principle. For example, in this fallen world there is such a thing as the “lesser of two evils” that must be done–at least by governments. (A difference between Niebuhr and Yoder is whether Christians can rightly participate in this practice. Niebuhr said so and Yoder said no.)

When I say that something can be “justifiable” but not “just” I mean in Niebuhr’s terms. A war can be justifiable but is never truly just in the highest and best sense of just. The highest and best sense of justice must be restorative and not retributive–if it is indeed inextricably linked to love. War is rarely restorative. Restoration may come after war (e.g., the Marshall Plan), but during the bombing one can hardly call it restorative.

I simply wish to preserve the distinction between true, perfect justice, which is, for example, tough love, and proximate justice which is something less than perfect love. It is love accommodated and may even be love approximated but not achieved.

I cannot call a killing “just” because when I think of something being or not being “just” I think of love as the norm. However, in this sinful, fallen world some killing may be justified–e.g., when it is absolutely necessary to preserve innocent life.

I cannot celebrate any killing or death. I can’t even celebrate the justifiable nature of it because that is, at best, a necessary evil. I can only celebrate true justice which I see achieved, for example, in rehabilitation of a criminal or restoration of a broken relationship.

I can think of one possible exception, but I’m not sure it’s really an exception to my rule. That is when someone lays down his or her life to be killed to save someone else’s life. But then it is not so much the actual killing I celebrate but the act of selfless love that was involved in it. So, for example, I celebrate the cross of Jesus Christ as the Son of God’s selfless sacrifice for us, but I don’t celebrate the act of the executioners. I realize that’s a fine distinction. Some will no doubt call it a distinction without a difference, but it makes sense to me. Even Jesus prayed for his executioners’ forgiveness, so he must not have thought their act was a good thing in every sense.

Now, having said all of that, the theologian in me kicks in and I have to say something that is not obvious but may be necessary: that there is really only one ultimate ethical norm and that is love. Since perfect justice is normed by love, it is not really a separate ethical norm. Love is God’s nature. Scripture says (in 1 John) “God is love.” It does not say “God is justice.” Justice, then, is always at best some manifestation of love. I conclude that restorative justice is love in action in the social realm whereas retributive justice is a necessary evil because of the fallenness of the world. Christians should always aim at restorative justice because of Jesus. When they have to participate in retributive justice (e.g., in the violent defense of a weak neighbor under attack), assuming that is ever the case, repentance rather than celebration is called for because of the “new law” Jesus delivered of indiscriminate, selfless love that includes non-resistance.

Where I find myself caught is between Niebuhr, who argued that Christians must not always avoid compromise of the law of love (because that would require withdrawal from society) and Yoder who argued that Christians ought always to keep the law of love even if it means a certain withdrawal from society (not geographic or physical withdrawal but social non-engagement). Yoder seems right ideally while Niebuhr seems right realistically. So far, anyway, the only way I can see to mediate this difference is to advocate and practice repentance when involved in doing the lesser of two evils to avoid withdrawal from social responsibility.

The case study is, of course, Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer himself, apparently, did not think killing Hitler was a righteous thing to do. He saw it more as a necessary evil and was conflicted about it. I cannot imagine him celebrating Hitler’s death if the conspiracy had been successful. I can only imagine him repenting while at the same time experiencing a certain satisfaction that a terrible evil had been removed.


The Meaning of Love and Justice, Part 1

http://rogereolson.com/2011/05/03/should-christians-celebrate-death/

Should Christians celebrate death?

by Roger Olson

One thing Yoder (Anabaptist) and Niebuhr (Christian realist) would agree on is that Christians should never celebrate killing–however justified it may be. Anabaptists like Yoder probably think no killing is truly justified. Christian realists like Niebuhr probably think some killing is justified, but no killing is righteous. I find myself leaning toward the Christian realist view on this, but when I read the Sermon on the Mount and think about what Jesus would do I have trouble believing a Christian ought ever to kill.

However, even Anabaptists believe God gave the sword to the state and so some killing is justified even if it is sin. But it is never justifiable for the Jesus follower to kill. It is not God’s will for his people to kill.

Christian realists believe sometimes God’s people must hold their noses and kill. But even when killing is absolutely necessary (e.g., in the case of Bonhoeffer participating in the plot to kill Hitler) the Jesus follower must not celebrate. The appropriate response is instead to repent and trust God for forgiveness.

These last two days America has been in a frenzy of celebration over the killing of one of our and humanity’s worst enemies (Osama Ben Laden). Personally, I’m glad he’s dead IF that is the only alternative to him engineering more horrendous deaths through terrorism. Apparently it is. But I can’t celebrate. And I can’t understand Christians who do celebrate death–especially when there is “collateral damage” as in the case of the woman used as a human shield.

What I can celebrate is the end of terrorism, but I don’t see that coming just because of this one death.

Now, the Niebuhr in me wants to pat the Navy Seal on the back who killed and say “Good job!” “Now let’s pray for forgiveness.”

The Yoder in me wants to say “Now let me talk with you about being a peace maker instead of a killer.”

I live in a city where the majority of people consider themselves serious Christians and where I see lots of bumper stickers that raise doubts about whether all who think they are really are. One that I see a lot says “Thank God for our soldiers–especially the snipers.” I would prefer one that said “Thank God for our soldiers–especially those who do non-combatant alternative service.” (I guess that would make for a big bumper sticker or else print too small to read!)

A few years ago I attended a “God and Country” Sunday morning “worship” service at a large evangelical church. The whole service was devoted to celebrating the military. They sang the “hymns” of the various branches of the military and had people who served in those branches stand as the congregation sang and as an honor guard marched down the center aisle carrying the military flags.

I wondered when they were going to have conscientious objectors who performed alternative or non-combatant service stand to be honored. They didn’t. I can only call that “service” an orgy of militaristic, nationalistic jingoism. There was no hint of sorrow for innocent lives lost in war or repentance for our numerous military incursions into non-combatant countries to defend our “national interests.” (The US has, without invitation by legitimate governments, militarily intervened in Latin American countries about 150 times.)

In conclusion, while I’m glad the snake has been decapitated, as a Christian I can’t celebrate any violent death. I can only breathe a sigh of relief and pray “God have mercy.”