Theology in the Modern Era: Malcom B. Yarnell III on Eschatology

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Malcom B. Yarnell III serves as research professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Introduction

Eschatology literally means “the doctrine of the last.” In the modern era, however, eschatology has become known as the doctrine of “last things.” This is unfortunate, for Scripture never uses that terminology. Scripture speaks rather of God or Christ as the One who is “the last” (Hebrew ’acharon; Greek eschatos), just as he is also “the first” (Isa 44:6; 48:12; Rev 1:17; 2:8;22:13.) With a similar focus on God in Christ, the New Testament refers to the “last day” or “last days” as beginning with the first coming of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; Jas 5:3) and concluding with Christ’s resurrection of the dead and final judgment of unbelievers and scoffers(John 6:39–40, 44, 54; 11:24; 12:48; 1 Pet 1:5, 20; 2 Pet 3:3; Jude 18). As we shall see, the shift from an emphasis on God in Christ to an emphasis on the things of this world has resulted in significant controversy regarding the order of events that accompany Christ’s second coming.

Historical Overview

Eschatology has become a subject of intense interest to modern Christians across the theological spectrum, from liberal to conservative. This intensity has manifested itself in various controversies, some of which have detracted from the primary aspects of eschatology. Nevertheless, eschatology is not the preserve of modernity but can be found throughout Christian history. One may find important eschatological themes within the writings of the early church fathers, within the ruminations of the medieval theologians, and within the Reformation.

The development of eschatology among modern Protestant theologians must take into account that it was downplayed to a great extent after the initial excitement that accompanied the genesis of the Reformation. For instance, the leading second-generation Reformer, John Calvin, only cursorily treated the doctrine within his highly influential Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin included a chapter on eschatology titled “Meditation on the Future Life” in book 3 of that influential work. However, it was a very short chapter and was primarily concerned with advancing the individual’s thoughtful existence within contemporary life. Although Calvin famously issued extensive commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of John is notable in its absence from his published body of works.

In spite of the confessional and systematic diminution of eschatology, there were signs at the popular level of continuing concern for the biblical picture of the future.

There were positive and negative aspects to the recovery of eschatology in the British Isles. In the late seventeenth century, both independent and Baptist theologians, among others, concerned themselves with eschatology.

After the restoration of the British monarchy, the leading eighteenth century Baptist theologian John Gill (1697–1771) encouraged Baptists and evangelicals in general to recover a more detailed eschatology. Gill has been labeled a High Calvinist, but he diverged from Calvin’s legacy of diminished eschatology. Unlike Calvin, Gill wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. And unlike many Calvinist theologians, Gill included a fairly comprehensive eschatology in his systematic theology. For example, in the seventh, final, and lengthy book of his Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Gill affirmed that “Christ will have a special, peculiar, glorious, and visible kingdom, in which he will reign personally on earth.” This personal reign of Christ will be “with the saints” and for “a thousand years.” Gill’s recovery of a robust eschatology foreshadowed an eschatological renaissance. Gill did not remain alone, for Jonathan Edwards added his influential voice (see Case Study 1).

Case Studies

1. Jonathan Edwards – Three Eschatological Tendencies within Protestant Liberalism – The Destructive Legacy of Historical Criticism

2. Albert Schweitzer – Mainline Contributions to the Revival of Eschatology – The Origin of Modern Millennialism

3. Three Classic Dispensationalists  – Premillennial Dispensationalism – Other Forms of Modern Millennialism

4. George Eldon Ladd – Positive Developments in Contemporary Eschatology

5. Jürgen Moltmann – Negative Developments in Contemporary Eschatology

For the Church

Christian attitudes to eschatology can err in two directions. On the one hand, some exhibit an “eschatomania,” where they become entirely consumed with creating charts, setting dates, or judging others through their own imposed paradigm. On the other hand, often in reaction to the previous error, some develop an “eschatophobia,” preferring to live in the here and now, focusing exclusively on the Christian mission, and neglecting to teach the Bible’s many important teachings regarding eschatology. The best attitude may be found in a third stance, that of “eschatophilia,” which expresses an appreciation for the doctrine of “the Last” as it remembers its proper Christological center and Trinitarian end.

Although discussions regarding the millennium remain important, for it is an explicit biblical teaching, it is not the only aspect of eschatology worth discussing. Next to the recovery of Christ as “the Last” and the beatific vision of the triune God as the goal of redeemed humanity, Christians should also be careful to affirm the severity of death, the certainty of the bodily resurrection, the intermediate state, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the final judgment, the new creation, and the eternal states of heaven and hell. We have much to learn about what God has done, is doing, and will do. May God build up an undiminishing hope within you as you hear his promises.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021