January 20, 2009

I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement

Based in part on his 2004 F. F. Bruce lecture at Highland Theological College, this great little book is an important and even-handed look at the atonement. Its four chapters entail three major foci. The first two chapters deal specifically with the doctrine of penal substitution through a careful look at its two constituent parts, with a careful study of the penalty for sin in chapter 1 and a sustained look at substitution as it relates to the atonement in chapter 2. Throughout these chapters, Marshall carefully takes into account recent critiques of the doctrine as well and weighs them against a careful investigation of the biblical basis. Through this study, he demonstrates the importance of the doctrine of penal substitution but also how it could be better formulated to avoid excesses and misrepresentations. Thus, he carefully critiques and also defends this important doctrine. He looks specifically at issues of violence, wrath, and suffering, as these often come up in critiques of the doctrine. (A proper trinitarian understanding of God and God's action plays a central role here.) In all, he forcefully demonstrates that the fundamental ideas behind the doctrine of penal substitution are important and essential facets of a doctrine of atonement.

In the third chapter, Marshall sets out to investigate how the resurrection of Jesus relates to atonement. While much thought rightly focuses on Jesus' death as the location of atonement, too often this is done without giving necessary attention to how the resurrection likewise plays an important role. Through a sustained look at Romans 4:25 (Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification), Marshall shows how the resurrection can and should play a helpful and central role in our thinking about atonement, especially as it is connected with the them of new life, and how it should be seen as an essential part of God's work of justification.

In the fourth chapter, Marhshall puts forth reconciliation as a helpful overall scheme for thinking of the atonement. While reconciliation and its attendant word forms are not prevalent in the New Testament, Marshall shows how related themes of forgiveness and peace, which play an important part in the NT, point toward reconciliation as an important and helpful way of thinking about what the atonement accomplishes.

I greatly enjoyed this very readable little book. Marshall is very sensitive to modern critiques of the doctrine of penal substitution, and both shows the value in the critiques and also the enduring value of this historic doctrine. For any who are interested in this ongoing debate, I highly recommend this book. It is also very valuable for its second half, with a great discussion of resurrection and of reconciliation. In all, this is a great exposition of the doctrine of the atonement.

January 13, 2009

More on the Millennium: Why?

I must admit that one of my principal objections to the idea of a millennial kingdom has always been that it seems so pointless. It is a doctrine that is only taught specifically in one place (Rev 20), and even there the precise reading is contested. It is consistent with some other themes and teaching in the Old and New Testament, but it certainly isn't required by other discussion of the end times elsewhere in Scripture. So this has always raised the question for me of why there should be a millennium. Why not go with a simple (essentially amillennial) approach that understands Jesus return to be immanent, with his return inaugurating the final judgment, the resurrection to the life to come, and the new creation. And I must admit, even in my recent study on the topic of the millennium, and my own movement toward a "premillennial" position, this has been a nagging objection.

But in my continued reading, I've read what G. E. Ladd has to say about the Apocalypse in A Theology of the New Testament (the discussion is at pp 630-31 in the first edition, and quotations come from there). And there, he discusses very helpfully how we might begin to understand a millennial reign of Christ--he puts some logic to it.

(Now I admit that we don't certainly only believe things that we fully understand, and just because I don't see the reason for something doesn't mean that God can't or shouldn't do something that way; and some things we read in Scripture are that way--God reveals to us his ways and plans. So don't read too much into my objections. But in this case, it is of a bit more validity because the question arises of how we should read Rev 20 in relation to the rest of the NT and of the Bible, seeking to shape the reading of one based on the other, so a fuller canonical understanding of eschatology certainly comes into play at some level.)

Anyway, on to the logic of the millennium. Ladd writes, "There should be no objection to the idea of such a temporal kingdom in principle . . ." And he goes on to explain. First, the idea of a temporal reign (that is, Christ reigning within history and not only beyond it) fits with the fact that Christ is currently reigning now in the church age. There is now a sense in which that reign is not fully revealed or realized, but it is still a reality. And this is one of the theological reasons Ladd points to for thinking about a millennial reign: it is the consummation of Christ's reign on earth, the realization of that which is now only partly manifest. And this reign is millennial (and thus only temporary in some sense) because Christ then turns over his glory and sovereignty to the Father in the age to come. (I admit that there is a certain logic to this, in light of various biblical discussions about the end, but I need to do some more reflection on the trinitarian implications of this, including the idea that Christ is in eternal and final subjection to the Father instead of an eternal coregnant.)

The second logical and theological reason Ladd explores for the millennium has to do with God's justice. The millennial reign of Christ will be a time when Satan is bound and the social environment will be "as nearly perfect as possible." But at the end of this time, Satan will be loosed and will again deceive the nations. Thus, the logic for God's justice goes something like this. Some may say that humans are at least in part not to blame for their sin and their harness of heart due to the environmental and societal factors that come into play. But this objection will be truly and finally demonstrated as false as the millennium demonstrates the true wickedness and hardness of the huaman heart. Ladd writes that "in the final judgment of the great white throne every mouth will indeed be stopped and every excuse voided, to the vindication of the glory and the righetousness of God." In a sense, the millennium is the final proof of God's justice, and provides the backdrop for God's final judgment of all people for all time.

While the logic may not "require" a millennium, it helps make some sense of what God is about. It is certainly food for thought.

January 11, 2009

Revelation and the Millennium

The EFCA has recently revised its Statement of Faith (see my earlier comments here). One of the major modifications was the inclusion of "premillennialism" in the statement. I must admit that I initially met this inclusion with some skepticism--do we really need to enshrine that particular belief in our statement, especially considering the number of Christians holding varying opinions.

Our church (Oxboro Ev. Free Church) is going to be looking at the changes to the statement in the coming weeks, so I thought I'd begin doing some homework. And though I've studied and read about Revelation and issues surrounding the Millennium before, I've never really delved deeply into it, and never really come to any opinion on it myself, even a provisional one. And I figured this would be a good time to get working. So I pulled a number of books off my shelves and got to reading. At first, I was struck by the breadth of the views I was finding. It seemed that each position had some positives and some negatives.

So I sat down and read Revelation from start to finish, essentially non-stop. (I must say I highly recommend this, especially after perusing an introduction or two to get your bearings.) And was struck by how powerful the words would have been to its first audience, Asian Christians facing persecution. It seems we all too often forget that they are the adressees of the letter! I must admit that this doesn't easily and quickly solve any of the thorny and complicated exegetical issues of the book, but it does immediately and powerfully open up the main thrust of the book: God is holy, mighty, powerful, the Savior! He was and is and is to come. And despite how things may look at the moment, he's got the whole world in his hands, and his judgments are just. We can expect some tough times, difficult persecutions, maybe even death for his name. But don't be fooled--God is on the throne, and he is coming again to vindicate the righteous and to set the world right.

So there's a thumbnail sketch of Revelation. It is easy to see why this book has inspired so many songs, poems, and prayers. (Think Milton, for one easy example.) But what about the Millennium? Like I said, I didn't come up with any easy answers to the thorny questions. But. After a lot of reading (from commentators like Robert Mounce in the NICNT to Craig Koester to Ben Witherington, from the NT theology of I. H. Marshall, and from theologians like Donald Bloesch and Wayne Grudem), I am more and more convinced that while I may have some type of affinity with an amillennial position (more for aesthetic reasons than anything else, I think), I keep being lead toward premillennialism. Though it is also abundantly clear that this is not an obvious road to take (a commentator as responsible and mature as I. H. Marshall essentially dismisses premillennialism out of hand in his NT Theology). And right now, the most clear and convincing piece of the argument goes back to where I started in my exploration, thinking about the original audience. Amillennialism and Postmillennialism may seem like equally viable options now, two millennia later, as we look over the past and possible future. There's a church age, that may be somehow related to the millennium (amillennialists would say it has been and is the "millennium" and postmillennialists would say something like it is becoming or will become the millennium). But, what of the original authors, who didn't have that church age behind them. In fact, one of the clearest and probably most secure pieces of NT data we have is that the NT authors didn't expect a long and extended "church age." They expected Christ's return at any moment. In Revelation, for instance, just turn the page from Revelation 20 and the discussion of the millennium and you get to Revelation 22: Come Lord Jesus! And the same expectation permeates Paul, the Gospels, and the other NT writings as well. Jesus is coming again; soon! While this may not be a totally secure argument for premillennialism, (and while it argues more persuasively against postmillenniallism than amillennialism) it sure makes good sense of the data in a very natural way.