So it appears that I owe N.T. Wright an apology. For years I have read him as a postmillennialist who wouldn’t admit it, one who inexplicably wouldn’t use the standard terminology. But it now seems that this is not accurate at all — he is more like an amillennialist who won’t use the standard terminology.
Here is a salient passage.
“The time-lag between those two victorious moments, to be explored presently, is one of the most obvious and significant characteristics of his worldview. We should not imagine, as in Cullmann’s famous image of D-Day and V-Day, that Paul supposes the present time to be a matter of a steady advance, with the world gradually getting better and better as God (or even the church) engages in a kind of ‘mopping-up operation’, eliminating bit by bit pockets of resistance to the restorative justice which God has established and is establishing in the Messiah. Any attempt to read church history that way is manifestly doomed to failure, but, more importantly, there is no sign of such a ‘progressive kingdom’ in Paul. Instead we find the analysis of ‘what’s wrong’ focusing on the fact that the Messiah’s reign, though emphatically present, is not complete. The ‘last enemy’, death, remains as yet still powerful, though defeated in principle through the resurrection. There is no progressive overcoming of death; it isn’t the case that, because of the work of the gospel, people die a little less, or that death is less unpleasant. The ultimate resurrection will not be the final coping-stone on a building that has been steadily growing up to that point. It will be as sudden, new and shocking as was Easter Day itself” (N.T. Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Kindle Locations 16089-16098).
In short, the reign of Jesus Christ over this earth does not register in any significant or identifiable ways in the course of earthly history. I am glad to set the (my) testimony straight on this point, but it really is a mixed bag because Wright’s contributions on the principle of cultural engagement was one of the reasons why his writings could be used in a really profitable way. But now it turns out that he didn’t really mean it. What good is cultural engagement if the culture is never supposed to notice?
If Christ is Lord, then Caesar isn’t. This is a glorious truth, but one of the reasons that it is a glorious truth is that Caesar notices us proclaiming it. This is really and truly odd, given how strong Wright has been in echoing the biblical language at so many points.
The oddity is that if we triumphantly proclaim that Christ is Lord over all (in a spiritual sense) and that the nations are streaming to Him (because I feel like they are streaming to Him in my heart) and that The only theological name I know for this sort of thing is gnosticism. The world goes on the way it always has, and yet I have this secret knowledge in my heart of higher, nobler, heavenly things, but this knowledge doesn’t take incarnational form until after human history is over? That’s gnostic.
But Wright says that young earth creationists are the gnostics. In The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Wright says this:
“If we can study Genesis and human origins without hearing the call to be an image-bearing human being renewed in Jesus, we are massively missing the point, perhaps pursuing our own dream of otherworldly salvation that merely colludes with the forces of evil. That’s what gnosticism always does” (p. 179).
But what Wright says about nothing really changing until the eschaton is the ultimate in otherworldly salvation. This is really unfortunate.
But of course, in the last analysis, what matters is what Scripture teaches. And, more to the point of Wright’s comment, what matters is what Paul teaches. So let us look briefly at that. Is it true that “there is no sign of such a ‘progressive kingdom’ in Paul”? Not exactly. There are quite a few signs, and so let consider just a couple.
In defense of his mission to the Gentiles, Paul said this:
“And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust” (Rom. 15:12).
So Christ will rise up to reign over the Gentiles. This is not to be equated with Him reigning over the Gentiles in such a way as to have them never notice. The Gentiles, for their part, will trust in Him. To what extent will they trust in Him? What will be the nature of His reign over the Gentiles? The answer to that question is found in the immediate context of the passage from Isaiah that Paul is quoting from. Here it is:
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, As the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, Which shall stand for an ensign of the people; To it shall the Gentiles seek: And his rest shall be glorious” (Is. 11:9–10).
In what day will Paul’s mission to the Gentiles occur? It will occur in the day when hurt and destruction will be banished from the holy mountain, in the day when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The Bible teaches in multiple places that the growth of the kingdom will be gradual and slow, and the Bible also teaches that the process will be inexorable, and the end of the process will be exhaustive.
The mopping up operation that Wright dismisses is exactly what Paul describes.
“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Casting and bringing are participles, and participles are one of the very best tools to use when conducting mop-up operations.
Christ must reign, but how long will He reign?
“For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:25–26).
Christ’s reign will progressively put all His enemies under His feet, and when all them (death excepted) are under His feet, He will return and destroy that final enemy standing. Notice that on Wright’s understanding, with the Eschaton happening as suddenly as Easter, this means that death will be the first enemy destroyed, not the last one.
Arguments that show Paul is in full harmony will the rest of Scriptures on this point would not be difficult to assemble, and perhaps I will get to that at some point. In the meantime, while I used to be able to say “go with Wright on this point,” I am still able to say “go with what Wright usually sounds like.”
Daniel’s vision has a stone topple the statue of earthly kingdoms, and then itself grow into a mountain that fills the whole earth. Jesus describes his kingdom as a mustard seed that starts as the smallest of seeds but grows in to a plant as large as a tree – bigger than anything else growing in the garden. If you take Wright’s above comments as regarding death only, then he is pretty much correct. However, if he is talking about the kingdom in relation to the world and all of God’s enemies in general (rather than just the last enemy),… Read more »
Pastor Wilson wrote:
1. The Bible teaches in multiple places that the growth of the kingdom
will be gradual and slow,
2. and the Bible also teaches that the process
will be inexorable,
3. and the end of the process will be exhaustive
2 and 3 I see. What is the support for 1?
Mustard seed parable, leaven parable; Mt 28 Great Commission, y’all go teach all the ethnic groups to obey all My orders, go walking and sailing (not “beam us out Scotty”); stone grows into mountain…
But of course there can be limited sudden advances (and retreats), e.g. the conversion of a whole–village?–of the Motilone tribe when Bobby sang in Bruce Olsen’s BRUCHKO to take one small example. Fall of the Iron Curtain not directly Christian, but a sudden major change, mostly good. George Otis’s transformations on various scales village to city to country.
Also there is (in Daniel) the stone that grows into a great mountain that fills the earth.
Easter Day was sudden, new and shocking, but it was also the final coping-stone on a building that was steadily growing up to that point. Things come suddenly out of wombs and tombs, but not without much preparation.
“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave[e] and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” Revelation 6. So who are these people any why haven’t they submitted to God? Let me lay out a… Read more »
And by Christ’s kingdom growing as souls are won, I mean gathering in the intermediate state, in the Lamb’s book of life, etc.
I am persuaded of postmillennialism myself, but I think you lay out a very reasonable possible scenario for the biblical viability of different eschatology. In your scenario, the passages that seem to support an “optimistic” kingdom development would refer to the steady building/increase of the kingdom in the sense of the “invisible church,” (or what Doug calls the eschatological church), rather than a steady increase of the visible church (or what Doug would call the historical church – if I remember his terminology from “Reformed Is Not Enough” correctly).
That passage IS a reference to 70 AD. Postmil does not simply posit a continuous, daily upward trajectory in which the arrow on the graph is straight and aimed for the upper right corner. It’s a series of ebbs and flows – two steps forward and three steps back at times – and is made up of deaths and resurrections.
Well said, Douglas. I very much appreciate your continuing interaction with NTW’s writings. And “odd” is exactly the right word for Wright on this subject. He can’t seem to connect his own dots—dots which he has drawn more effectively than just about anyone: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Vol. II, pp. 1482, 1485: “Gnosticism believes in the failure, not the faithfulness, of Israel’s God.” “This focus on an essentially Platonic ‘spiritual heaven’, discontinuous with this world and only related to it by the tangential mechanism of soul-saving and soul-making, has for a millennium radically distorted the western Christian hold… Read more »
I would say that it is Postmillennialism that I see meshing very well with Enlightenment thought. The Presbyterians in my congregation seem to believe in exactly the kind of optimistic “end of history” trajectory of things as my secular friends with “because of Jesus” tacked on. I don’t think its an isolated way of thinking since Cornelius Plantinga, Jr, the formed president of Calvin Theological Seminary has a similar understanding in his book “Engaging God’s Word”. In that book a combination of beach cleanups, honest vocational efforts, and social justice are redeeming God’s creation. I’m always suspicious of any Christian… Read more »
I have to agree with Barnabas on this one. I am in no way settled on the post-pre-a mill debate, but the plainest sense of scripture tells me of a day that is unlike any other where most of the world is unwelcoming and in rebellion to Christ reigning as King on the terrible Day of the Lord. But I fully grant that the plainest sense of the text is not necessarily the correct one.
I’m always suspicious of any Christian concept that looks just like the things the secular culture says.
In my case it is because I have been lied to too many times and the fruit bitter whereas God talks and deals to/with me at the place where actions originate and from that place the actions follow.
Cleaning up a beach is nice; why we do is of critical importance to our Lord.
grace and peace
Some individual presbyterians may think that way if they have a truncated view of the eschatology, but postmillennialism doesn’t offer a sort of last minute Jesus band-aid tacked on at the end of an otherwise secular “sanctification” of humanity throughout history. If one advocates that, then indeed they are not truly understanding a biblical postmillenialism. It’s certainly not what Doug or folks like Ken Gentry or Keith Mathison, or Jonathan Edwards teach. I don’t think Doug’s gnostic comment was meant to suggest that true restoration from God at the end of history is *itself* gnostic. I don’t think he’s saying… Read more »
I have adopted Amillennialism as a provisional eschatology while continuing to weigh the matter. I am a believer in steelmanning an argument that I think I disagree with and there is probably more to the Postmill position that I’m not getting.
Matt, could you name something earthly that has been redeemed over the last 2000 years and that has stayed redeemed? Does asking that question show some fundamental misunderstanding of the claims of Post-millennialism on my part?
No, I think that’s a totally fair question, and actually a good one that postmillers need to reckon with. As a quick aside let me say that I think I very much share your disposition and temperament on this issue, I just happened to have ultimately come down on the other side. But it’s complex and I’m still weighing the matter too. I just want to distinguish what postmil posits – as distinct from whether there’s good “historical” evidence for it. One might say that postmillennialism doesn’t seem to be panning out in history, and thus, it may not be… Read more »
Thanks for your well reasoned response. Time will tell I suppose.
One almost gets the impression that Wright is not writing to us, but is writing indirectly under the critical gaze of some other party. It’s like he intends to give himself cover in the eyes of a previous audience, and he is loath to scare them away, or injure his credibility with them.
To go along with Wilson’s citations from Paul, we have: “Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” — Romans 11:12 “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” — Romans 11:15 “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;” —… Read more »
When Christ was asked for the sign of His coming. He mentioned it would be as it was in the days of Noah. What was it like in the days of Noah? Every man was doing what is right in his own eyes. Sound familiar?
The passage in Romans quotes several OT verses. The Isaiah one mentioned, and also Psalm 18:49 by David, Deut 32:43 by Moses, and Psalm 117:1. While the Isaiah passage has eschatological implications, it is not clear that the other 3 passages do. So Paul uses these passages to justify that Christ is the hope of the Gentiles, but to use what Paul was saying to then gain chronological implications is not obviously justified. By this I mean, if Isaiah is consistent with a non-postmillennial eschatology, Paul can still use this passage in Isaiah to justify that the Gentiles’ hope is… Read more »
‘In short, the reign of Jesus Christ over this earth does not register in any significant or identifiable ways in the course of earthly history.’ I don’t think your read fits easily with his section on eschatology in the same book. ‘This brings us to another feature of Paul’s eschatology which bears strongly on the question of present Christian behaviour: the kingdom of God. Though this is normally, in Paul, a future reality (and will therefore be covered in the next sub-section), Paul can also speak of it as a present truth to which behaviour must conform. This is clear… Read more »
Currently reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God – came across a passage that I would peg as fairly postmillenial: “The death and resurrection of the Messiah have convinced [Paul] that what he had seen as the battle, and the zeal to conduct it, had to be transposed into a larger theatre of war altogether. On the cosmic scale, Israel’s God, the creator, had already installed Jesus the Messiah as king over the universe; but he was at present ruling in the way we might imagine a rightful prince to rule when, recapturing his own territory after long years in… Read more »