Cessationism and the last days

A fascinating post from Mark Lauterbach about The Gospel Age and Continuationism. It’s great to see someone else doing some thinking in this area (and thanks to Adrian for flagging it up).

There’s a great deal about Mark’s post that makes sense, and it’s a very helpful summary of what a lot of folk are starting to believe. Let me give you a flavour:

The new age, according to Joel and Peter’s quoting of him at Pentecost, is the age of the pouring out of the Spirit… The end of the former age and the beginning of the new took place at the resurrection. Christ is risen, the first-fruits of those who sleep… Classical cessation-ism theorizes that there is an apostolic era, a transitional time in the beginning of the age, after which certain gifts fade. But this is to place the transition at the wrong point in time. It is not the apostles presence that marks the age. It is the empty tomb.

What’s good about Mark’s post is that he points out much that is wrong with the traditional cessationist view. He’s right, it is not the apostles’ presence that marks the new age. There’s not sufficient time to develop my response in one post, so I’ll no doubt return to it (and Mark’s other excellent entries) at a later date. But let me at least start.

Mark is quite open that this view stems from his realized eschatology. In other words, the prophecies given in the Old Testament (he particularly mentions Isaiah 61-66) are being fulfilled right now. He used to believe “that the focus of all these promises was in a future millennium. But I think the focus is in the cross and the empty tomb.” That’s a very helpful comment. (Incidentally, I’ve never understood why Grudem – or anyone else for that matter – can be both pre-millenial and charismatic, but that’s another story.) But is Mark really saying that the focus of all the promises is the cross and the empty tomb? I mean, isn’t there something that’s really quite important on the redemptive-historical plane that every one of us is eagerly expecting? And won’t that event have quite a major impact?

And that is why I think that this theology is an over-realized eschatology. If classical cessationism underestimates the significance of Pentecost and the age of the Spirit, then this view is in danger of underestimating the significance of the return of Christ. Let me take you through part of Mark’s post to show you what I mean. He’s talking about God’s timeline of history:

There is the Fall of man and the resulting disorder of the cosmos… The whole creation groans in the pains of childbirth. See Romans 8:18-25. In the midst of these, God gives a promise of the reversal of the curse of sin… Few sections of Scripture speak more clearly of this than Isaiah 61-66… I think the focus [of the prophecies] is in the cross and the empty tomb… Jesus triumphant sacrifice and resurrection begins the new age.

It seems Mark is saying that:

  1. During creation’s groaning, God promised the reversal of the curse.
  2. Jesus came, died and was raised.
  3. We’re now in the new age tasting what was promised.

The problem, of course, is that we’re not enjoying the new age and the reversal of the curse, are we? Look at Romans 8:18-25 again, the passage that Mark quotes. Remembering that it was written after the resurrection, that is it was written in these ‘last days’ in which we also live:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

What do you notice?

  1. Paul is presently suffering.
  2. Creation will be liberated. (future tense)
  3. Creation is groaning up to the present time.
  4. We are groaning as we wait eagerly and hope.
  5. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In other words, Paul’s eschatology is not very realised at all.

Now that doesn’t mean that the cessationist position is correct. Far from it. But, in my view, it does mean that the ‘realised eschatology’ position is wrong.

I will develop this further in later posts, or possibly as comments to Mark’s other articles, but briefly stated, my position is not that there are two ages (before the cross/resurrection and after the cross/resurrection), but three.

Simply, there is the old age (before the cross/resurrection). There is the age of the Spirit (between Pentecost and the Parousia). And there is the age to come. Mark is absolutely right that the prophecies of Joel show clearly that this, our age, should be characterised by the work of the Spirit. But that is not to say that the OT prophecies have been fulfilled, and we are tasting the glories of the age to come.

From the perspective of the stages of redemption-history, the events at the beginning of the first century could be described like this: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” (Churchill)

I will develop this further soon. But in the mean time, your comments, as always, are greatly welcomed.

Comments

  1. Mark Lauterbach says:

    Excellent comments — thanks for that. It helps me refine my thought.

    Realized eschatology is NOT the view that we have a large taste of the future glory — Romans 8 is clear on that. But it insists that the gift of the Spirit is the down payment — and that there are aspects of that new age we do enjoy — certainly the most obvious is our present standing with God. I died and my life is hidden with Christ in God. I have stood before his final judgment seat and am declared righteous.

    My main point was that cessationism ends up with a focus on the wrong transition. If we taste 3% of the future age, then this entire age is such a time and not just the beginning.

  2. Your term “realized eschatology” is a new terminology to me. I was wondering if you’ve encountered preterism at all, and if so, how is that system of theology different from “realized eschatology?”