Craig Blaising's Review of Russell Moore's Eschatology

Here is a good review of Russell Moore's fantastic chapter, "Personal and Cosmic Eschatology" in A Theology for the Church edited by Danny Akin:

"Many of today’s students of theology are ambivalent about eschatology. The topic is placed at the end of the loci of theological topics in both published volumes, such as the one under consideration, and in the order of themes in the typical survey course on systematic theology. In the latter, it is sometimes barely treated at all since there is so much to cover in such surveys. Furthermore, the tendency is to focus on controversial issues in eschatology, often for the purpose of downplaying them, leaving the student with the impression that eschatology deals with matters that are only of secondary importance, a collection of issues that can be ignored in the primary task of building up the body of Christ.

Russell Moore’s essay, “Personal and Cosmic Eschatology,” in A Theology for the Church, indicates why this ambivalence must cease. Aside from the very practical matter that funerals are inevitable in the ministry and that death confronts us in our familial, social, and personal experiences, making “personal eschatology” immediately relevant, the fact is the topics of “personal eschatology” are themselves part of a greater revelation of the plan of God in which all of the loci of theology are integrated. Eschatology is the study of this plan of God seen in terms of its fulfillment. Moore’s essay, although understandably brief, demonstrates this fact as he masterfully highlights the interconnection of personal hope in Christ with the divine plan for the recreation of all things.

Like (most) other chapters in the volume, Moore follows a given structure, answering four questions: What does the Bible say? What has the church believed? How does it all fit together? and, How does the doctrine impact the church today? His essay is well written, demonstrating familiarity with the breadth of relevant topics and issues, presented in a clear, cogent, and engaging style. He begins with a funeral service and ends in a graveyard. In between, his answers to the four questions place the particularity of individual death with its threat of emptiness, meaninglessness, and forgetfulness into the overall plan of God in which the particular is redeemed.

The section on the Bible is divided logically between Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament sets the basic parameters of the divine plan as cosmic in scope, covenantal in form, and kingdom in terms of its actual order and structure. From the very beginning, Moore develops the Bible’s “new creation” eschatology, which stands in contrast to spiritualist interpretations that are common in the history of Christian thought and that degrade the substance of Christian hope. The kingdom of God is the integrating order in which the cosmic renewal will be manifest and in which the covenant promises will be fulfilled. New Testament eschatology is presented in terms of kingdom fulfillment—both as present, or “already,” in the ministry of Jesus prior to his coming in glory, and as future, or “not yet,” which will be ushered in through that coming. The “already/not yet” structure is key to New Testament theology and forms a logical division for the section. Throughout, the biblical foundation is laid for one of Moore’s primary points: eschatology is inherently Christological.

The section on what the church has believed offers a historical grid in which to place a number of eschatological topics, such as millennialism, the nature of the intermediate and eternal states, the eternality of the judgment, and the Roman Catholic doctrines of purgatory and limbo. Moore also provides some historical background to the question of Israel’s identity and future in the divine plan. The historical survey begins with four writers from the patristic period: Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine. Aquinas and Dante are briefly noted from the medieval era. The Reformation survey primarily focuses on Calvin’s dispute with Anabaptists and moves quickly to note the rise of Covenant theology and postmillennialism in the post-Reformation period. Moore notes the rise of liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, and revisionist/liberationist theologies in the modern era and then moves to modern evangelicalism highlighting the rise of dispensationalism, the neo-evangelical emphasis on social ministry, and the erosion of eschatological orthodoxy in left-wing evangelicalism. This is followed by a helpful excursus tracing the history of eschatological thought among Baptists, primarily Southern Baptists.

A theologian faces a challenge in the systematic arrangement of theological topics. In the section on how it all fits together, Moore chooses his thematic structure from Revelation 11:15: The kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of Christ. Under the heading, “kingdom of the world,” Moore arranges the topics of tribulation, Antichrist, and hell. Under “kingdom of Christ,” he treats the matters of heaven, the second coming, the restoration of Israel, the millennium, and the new earth. The length of this review does not allow for a point by point examination of these doctrinal topics. Some are treated more extensively than others. While Moore’s essay style does not always yield clear doctrinal definitions, the survey does serve as a helpful introduction to the topics covered. A student of theology should be motivated by the reading to pursue further study on the topics, adding to the reading a good theological dictionary and then pursuing the issues by comparative readings in other systematics and in theological monographs.

There are, however, a couple of issues which this reviewer will note. Moore’s own eschatological position is a variant of what he terms “historic premillennialism,” which, as he notes, is a non-dispensational form of premillennialism. He sees the rapture as posttribulational, but he believes one should not be dogmatic on that point. He does note that imminency in 1 Thessalonians 5 is a strong argument for pretribulationism. His weakness, in the opinion of this reviewer, is that he does not consider the tribulation as an extended cohesive pattern in biblical theology, seen in the themes of the day of the Lord and Daniel’s seventieth week. The tendency of many posttribulationists, including Moore, is to divide the tribulational pattern historically, assigning part to the history of the church and part, usually only the last part, to the future coming of Christ. The contention of most pretribulationists is that the tribulational pattern functions typologically in the history of the church while the pattern as a cohesive whole unfolds as the context for the future coming of Christ. The imminency of the rapture with respect to the day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 would then more clearly favor pretribulationism. G.E. Ladd understood this and consequently attempted to redefine imminency as “nearness.” Although many posttribulationists like Moore identify with Ladd’s “historical premillennialism,” they are not futurists like Ladd—that is, they do not expect the future fulfillment of the entire tribulational pattern. Consequently, they do not appreciate the full import of the imminency argument.

Another concern for this reviewer has to do with Moore’s view of Israel. Moore repeatedly draws attention to the typology of Israel applied to Christ in the Gospels. However, he interprets this typology along with Paul’s statements concerning the seed of Abraham and inheritance “in Christ” in a radical way. In Moore’s view, Christ himself has replaced corporate Israel in the plan of God. He alone is Israel—a remnant consisting of one Jewish man—and consequently, the promises of Israel are fulfilled to him alone. However, Christ in turn grants the status and privileges of Israel in a derivative sense to Jews and Gentiles who by faith are “in him.” In this derivative sense, the entire body of the redeemed—both Jews and Gentiles—fulfill the corporate meaning of the term Israel. Since the body of the redeemed is the church, this is simply another way of saying that the church, albeit in a derivative sense only, has replaced Israel, understood in its ethnic and national sense. The crucial point is that there is, for Moore, no other sense, subsequent to the appearing of Christ, in which a corporate Israel exists.

The application of Israel typology to Christ is an important feature of New Testament theology. Moore is correct to note that the New Testament sees the fulfillment of the biblical covenants taking place in and through Christ. However, it is not necessary to conclude from this that the Christ, considered as a single individual, is the sole fulfillment of the national and political promises to ethnic Israel. The consistent pattern of kingdom prediction in Old Testament prophecy is a ruler from the house of David who rules Israel (considered corporately and nationally) and also Gentile nations. Even when the ruler is designated with the name “Israel,” as in the servant song of Isaiah 49, that “Israel” will bring Israel (not himself, but the corporate Israel) back to God. He will then also gather in the Gentiles. The picture is the same: the King, then Israel (not another name for the king, but the corporate body, the nation, over which the king rules), then Gentile nations. Within the structure of the covenants, the Davidic covenant functions as the means to the fulfillment of the other covenant promises to corporate Israel and as the means of extending covenant blessing to the Gentiles.

Moore’s restrictive view of Israel creates problems in a number of New Testament texts. The corporate meaning of the term, Israel, cannot be eliminated from the Gospels without creating textual incoherence. Moore’s reading of Romans 11 ignores the use of “Israel” in that chapter which is not the olive tree, but a [covenantly] “beloved” enemy whose restoration is illustrated in the regrafting of natural olive branches, bringing riches to the world. When the disciples asked Jesus in Acts 1, prior to His ascending, whether He at that time would restore the kingdom to Israel, they were not asking, after 40 days of instruction on the kingdom, whether He would restore Himself, but whether He—considered singularly as the king—would restore the kingdom to Israel—considered corporately, consistently with the pattern of biblical prophecy. Jesus’s answer, that the time has been fixed by the Father, is elaborated on by Peter in Acts 3, when He speaks of “the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” Without doubt, the restoration of Israel corporately, nationally, and politically, is a key feature among “the things about which God spoke by the mouth of the holy prophets.” And, it is consistent with this that Peter in Acts 2 calls upon all the house of Israel (undoubtedly corporate) to know Jesus as Lord and Christ.

Finally, one should note the irony that Moore’s view of future Israel creates for his new creation eschatology. Certainly, Moore expects and explicitly asserts that the redeemed in the millennium and in the everlasting order of the new earth will be sub-grouped and gathered as nations. This of course fulfills the corporate dimension of anthropology as it is taken up into redemption. Moore also notes that the redeemed will include both Jews and Gentiles. However, he is quite clear that there will be no national Israel among those nations receiving as an inheritance the covenantally promised land. The inescapable conclusion, and ironic in light of the whole thrust of restoration prophecy, is that the Jewish redeemed are permanently dispersed among the Gentile nations. Leaving aside the whole question of who exactly occupies the promised land in this realistic millennial or new earth scenario, do we really think that a redefinition of “Israel” to mean either Christ alone or, in a derivative sense, this whole dispersed condition satisfies the prophetic hope?

We come now to the last section of Moore’s essay in which he addresses the relevance of eschatology for the life and practice of the church today. This is especially important since so many consider eschatology irrelevant to present-day concerns. Moore’s extrapolation of new creation hope to the matters of grief, burial, and aging is excellent. The topics listed under “personal ethics” include some surprises. One might not think of “parenting” as an obvious inclusion. However, Moore makes the connection clear and the application compelling. Following biblical emphases, one could add to the topics of eschatological ethics a number of other qualities, such as steadfastness and endurance in Christian faith and character. Once again, the reader is reminded of the limitations of space even in a volume of this size.

Moore has written elsewhere on the implications of eschatology for social ethics, and his choice of topics here addresses a number of major concerns—social welfare, care for creation, anti-semitism, respect for life, and a warning against modern utopianisms that drive social and political discourse. His comments here are very helpful. In the final section, “Eschatology and Corporate Witness,” Moore touches briefly on the theme of the church as itself a society set within the broader society/societies of the world. This is a theme that is particularly tied to the “already” aspect of New Testament teaching on the kingdom, and one that is rarely addressed in evangelicalism today.

I am grateful to Russell Moore for this fine essay expounding new creation eschatology. Not all will agree with every aspect of his presentation, but the new creation orientation is a major advance over a number of other theologies and affords a better framework in which to pursue the differences that yet remain. The reader will appreciate the clear, inviting literary style that offers up a rich feast of biblical, theological, and cultural considerations. This is characteristic of the writings of Russell Moore, to which, it is hoped, there will be many more additions in the years to come."