I imagine my testimony as a restless, young Calvinist is probably similar to the testimonies of a lot of other restless, young Calvinists.
I was spiritually reared in the typical red-state evangelical church, where the preaching from the pulpit was not overly spectacular, perhaps a bit too simplistic, and certainly not theologically deep. Depending upon the personality of the youth directors, the high school/college ministries were filled with sanctified fun and games. They preached lots of messages about finding God’s will for your life and gave exhortations to remain a virgin until marriage. Many of the churches had visitation programs on Tuesday or Thursday evenings, and at least twice a year the congregation was united around the performance of a passion play or a Christmas concert. In that church matrix I was saved, and there I began my walk with the Lord.
Then something marvelous happened. Some have even likened the experience to being “born again, again.” I became a Calvinist in my views of salvation.
The process began when I discovered the writings of A.W. Pink and one of the first serious Christian books I read was the Baker edition of his The Sovereignty of God. I absolutely loved it. Then my college pastor loaned me his copies of Loraine Boettner’s, The Reformed Doctrines of Predestination and Thomas and Steele’s classic work, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Documented, and Defended. Those three books, coupled with the expository preaching of John MacArthur, along with other similar preachers, aimed the trajectory of my thinking about God, and brought me to fully embracing the doctrines of grace, or what is otherwise called Calvinism.
I experienced a personal revival in the way I viewed Scripture, and most importantly, how I worshiped and served my Lord.
Embracing Calvinism, however, was not without its drawbacks. I wanted to learn more about the history and development of the Reformation. I was particularly interested in reading Puritan authors whose sermons were rich in theological content. The problem for me was such books were near impossible to find. My local Christian bookstore certainly didn’t carry them. They carried fluffy books on enriching marriages and an endless supply of the latest Christian rock music. But nothing by Thomas Watson or Stephen Charnock.
I found out about some mail house Christian book companies like Scripture Truth, who would send out a monthly list of discounted Reformed books, but if I wasn’t financially prepared to order what I wanted the moment I received the list, they would be sold out in just a few days.
On top of the famine of good theological books, I quickly discovered that the regular church goer didn’t care for the doctrines of Calvinism. It wasn’t as if they just had no interest, as if Calvinism was some old boring doctrinal stuff. When pressed, they had a full out hatred toward the notion that God alone was the one who chose men to salvation. They became especially hostile when I suggested man’s will was dominated by sin and a person would never choose to believe upon Christ unless the Spirit of God regenerated his heart to believe the gospel.
In spite of the bumps, I did manage to navigate around those obstacles. Yet, where I wasn’t necessarily prepared was with the engagement of Reformed eschatology.
Historically, the Reformers who articulated a Calvinistic understanding of salvation also held to amillennialism and postmillennialism. As I already noted in my first post on this subject, I had been reared on dispensational premillennialism. The theological heroes of mine like A.W. Pink, R.C. Sproul, Lorraine Boettner, and others I read who shaped my thinking about Calvinism, were ardent non-dispensational, non-premillennialists.
When I first encountered their eschatology, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Surely they had read Revelation 20? The text clearly says Satan would be bound for a 1,000 years and the saints would come alive and reign with Christ 1,000 years. I read the counter-point book called Four Views of the Millennium so as to figure out why different groups believed what they did about eschatology. It gave me some insight but not enough. I learned a bit more about various eschatological positions when I came to seminary, but by then, the subject was on the back-burners of my mind and I wasn’t particularly interested in it.
But then I became more involved with internet discussion groups where I encountered various proponents of amillennial and postmillennial thought. They would challenged what they called my “default” dispensational premillennialism presuppositions on a regular basis. Additionally, I met new friends through those groups who had similar backgrounds to me. They came to love Calvinism like I had, but rather than maintaining their dispensational distinctive they did a complete overhaul of their entire theological views, including abandoning premillennialism.
When I inquired with them as to the reason for the change, I received a variety of responses. Some saw their former premillennial eschatology as something of an embarrassment. It represented a time when they were attending a wacky fundamentalist church, or maybe a shallow Calvary Chapel style, non-denominational church. They already had parted ways with them regarding Calvinism, now their change to Reformed eschatology was a final break.
Others had academic reasons. The really good theology was to be found in the books of Reformed Presbyterians like Warfield, Berkhof, Hodge and Reymond. Those guys are all non-dispensational, non-premillennialists, and if they make persuasive, biblical arguments for other areas of theology, they must be correct with their views of eschatology.
As I interacted with those folks, I began to get the impression I was no longer in the right camp. In order to be a really good, pure and clean Calvinist, I had to dump the premillennial dispensationalism. Granted, I had a few internet acquaintances patronizingly tell me how there were godly men who attended their churches who were premillennial, even some who were elders. But I got the feeling, however, that under their breath they were whispering, “bless their idiot hearts.”
Seeing how I was often at the end of the cutting remarks in those debates, I determined to do some serious study. Not just popular level books, but heavier stuff that got down into the machinery of why an eschatological position was what it was. With that bit of background in mind, I would like to present what I have learned over the course of my studies with a series of articles. I can say right now, I have no idea how long it will take me to complete.
To begin, I believe the foremost overarching issue defining the differences between systems of eschatology is hermeneutics – those principles which direct and facilitate a person’s understanding of scripture. Most certainly, adherents from each group would affirm that assertion. Allow me to sketch out three broad areas of hermeneutical disagreement and then I will return to address each one in subsequent posts.
The Priority of the NT Over the OT: This principle suggest – rightly to some degree (and I will explain that comment later) – that the Old Testament is supposed to be reinterpreted through the lens of the New Testament. This is also called the apostolic or christological hermeneutic by Reformed minded students, because it is argued that reading the OT with the greater revelation of the NT was practiced by Christ during His ministry and the Apostles in the epistles they wrote.
Others call this principle the historic redemptive hermeneutic because the focus of the entire Bible is the redemption Christ accomplished on the cross. The most complete revelation of God’s redemptive purposes is the NT, and that revelation sheds greater light on the OT with regards to prophecy and eschatology. Christ even affirms that principle in Luke 24:27 where it says, And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Here we have Jesus Himself interpreting Moses and all the prophets with regards to His historic person and redemptive work.
Typological Approach to Understanding Prophecy and Fulfillment: Following after the principle of the OT being re-read by the NT, the typological approach views the OT and the NT in a series of types and anti-types. In other words, what would be a picture/symbol = fulfillment. For example, the OT passover lamb was a picture, or a type, of Jesus who is the fulfillment, or anti-type in the NT. The book of Hebrews speaks to how Jesus was a greater fulfillment of the original type He was fulfilling such as the high priest.
One sub-category in need of being mentioned is the idea that prophetic genre is to be interpreted and applied differently than other genre in scripture like historical narrative. The reason being is because prophetic genre, like Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel, are filled with much symbolism that they are books not intended to be read literally. To read them literally would be absurd. No one believes a literal, seven-headed monster will come out of the sea and attempt to destroy the world like in epic scale Hollywood monster movie (Revelation 13:1ff.).
That typological approach, coupled with the idea of prophetic genre being interpreted differently than other portions of scripture, allows for a greater spiritualization of the text as it pertains to eschatology. More about that at a later time.
No Distinction Between Israel and the Church: This hermenutical principle sees no genuine distinction between the OT Israel and the NT Church. God, it is argued, had one, redeemed people who believed God by faith. Though Israel was an ethnic, theocratic nation, the “true Israel” were those Jews who trusted God’s promises of salvation by faith.
In the NT, those who trust God’s promises by faith as revealed in the work of Jesus Christ, can also be considered a “true Israel.” Physical, ethnic considerations were really never a part of true salvation to begin with. Hence, even if one were circumcised as a Jew so as to be identified with Abraham’s covenant such an act did not guarantee salvation. Jesus confronted the pharisees about that very point in John 8:31ff., and Paul wrote of the importance of being “circumcised in heart” in Romans 2:25-29 in order to be a true Jew.
It is understood that because of Christ there is no longer any distinctions between Jews and gentiles. Both are now one redeemed people of God. Whereas in the OT, the redeemed were limited to believing Jews and a few converted gentiles, the New Covenant Jesus initiated with His death and resurrection grafts in the gentiles, expanding God’s redeemed people from being a small people in the land of Israel to now including people from the entire world.
The OT title of those truly redeemed people was “Israel,” but now they are called the “Church” or the “Body of Christ.” Any attempt to create a distinction between Israel and the Church is artificial and unbiblical. That distinction divides the people of God into two groups risking the danger of suggesting two ways of salvation for each of the separate groups.
Now, with those points in mind, I will return with future posts addressing each on in turn as the pertain to specific scriptural contexts and theological ideas.