In my last post I noted the beginning of a shift in the way younger evangelicals, and specifically those connected with Calvary Chapel, viewed eschatological issues. Today, let’s look at three important factors which seem to be influencing a move away from a dispensational type of eschatology:
1. The influence of “the New Calvinism” and the resurgence of reformed theology among younger evangelicals.
Theological discussion seems to swing on a pendulum. When Calvary Chapel was new, the prevailing energy in many places (at least in the American context) was behind something closer to what Calvary pastors taught. This included both our soteriological stance (our teachings regarding how someone is saved) and our eschatological stance. In soteriology Calvary tended to be non-Calvinist at least, if not espousing the category of full-fledged Arminianism. It should be said that it stood in the center of what was new and “happening” theologically. The last fifteen years or so have seen a shift in Western Evangelicalism. The rise of many excellent pastors and university professors who teach from a Calvinistic framework has led to a resurgence of reformed theology among younger evangelicals. Partly this seems to have been a response to the rise of movements like the Emergent Church—the New Calvinists played an essential role in championing a return to serious, faithful, and vibrant bible reading and mission. Many of us under 40 have drunk deeply from the wells they uncovered, both old and new—from early Reformed and Puritan works to the work of John Piper and the Gospel Coalition. Their ministry has been so effective and prolific that Reformed theology has amassed a large following among younger Americans who wish to take the bible seriously (something, it must be said, that historically has been the hallmark of young people associated with Calvary Chapel).
One of the less-discussed results of this resurgence is the shift in many people’s eschatological views that resulted from espousing Reformed soteriology. Since many (though certainly not all) of the teachers in the New Calvinist movement hold an eschatology other than dispensationalism, their views on the end times seem to become part of the package—if you like their teachings in other areas, why not go with their end-times views?
Of course, part of the draw of the New Calvinism is the excellent scholarship and writing they have been doing in the last 20 years or so. Pick up any of the recent commentaries written at a middle or advanced level, and chances are a reformed thinker wrote it. And their output of books, articles, and other media is impressive, and collated on some of the best websites around. When you have a question, it’s usually a good move to check out what they’ve collected. You’re probably going to find a thought-out, well-documented, well presented, up-to-date, and thoroughly biblical answer. For those of us who were making our way through the early years of bible study, it was sometimes hard to argue with a lot of what they had to say.
2. The strength of the Biblical Theology movement and focus on the story line of the canon of scripture.
This point is connected to the rise of New Calvinism, but not identical with it. Many of the scholars who are active in current Reformed circles champion a method of biblical interpretation that seeks to do justice to the story-line of the scriptures as a whole, interpreting the Bible as the unfolding revelation of God himself and his plan of redemption. The term used to refer to this discipline is Biblical Theology, to distinguish it from Systematic Theology. In Biblical Theology, we seek to understand the message of salvation by learning and telling the story the bible tells—from Creation to New Creation. We also study the unique contributions each book of the canon makes to the scriptures as a whole, and trace the main themes of scriptures through Genesis all the way to Revelation. Not only does this lead to a thorough and practical understanding of the whole bible, it presents a way of articulating biblical truth that is tailor-made for our generation of westerners, who are largely ignorant of anything scripture teaches. You’ve got to start at the beginning—one God, who made absolutely everything—if the Gospel’s going to make sense.
Again, the scholarship here is admirable. To hear men like D.A. Carson and Graeme Goldsworthy tie the bible together back and forth across the whole of revelation has been, for some of us, massively helpful. Personally I have devoured countless hours of Carson’s teaching, and have only been helped and deepened by it.
Eschatology is more directly affected by the Biblical Theology movement than by the New Calvinism, since Biblical Theology clearly aims to both arrive at and describe the end of the story. This is significant for our discussion because, as is true of New Calvinism, many of the teachers in this vain hold a non-dispensational eschatology. The result seems to have been that many younger evangelicals have come to think that a focus on the story line of scripture necessarily entails a certain view of eschatology.
3. The influence and popularity of N.T. Wright.
British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has assumed a particular prominence in eschatological discussions among younger evangelicals. Wright’s focus is similar to those in the biblical theology movement, and we might simply include him in the second point, but he is so frequently mentioned in discussions of eschatology that he bears individual mention here. Though most of Wright’s work has not focused specifically on eschatology, he has written and spoken on the subject. If you’ve heard or read any of that material, you know that he’s been a particularly sharp critic of any eschatological system which includes the distinctives we noted in the first post, especially the idea of a rapture. As a sign of Wright’s influence, it’s not uncommon to hear someone simply cite his name as a reason why they no longer believe in, for example, an imminent coming of Christ or his thousand-year reign on earth.
Moving Forward in This Climate
Of course we might say more, but for those of us who’ve been working out our theology in the last couple of decades, these factors account for a large part our theological climate. I include myself in this group—I grew up after the early days of Calvary (born in 1978), and I’ve swam at length in the waters fed by the streams of the New Calvinism and the Biblical Theology movement. In other words, to all of you younger evangelicals who feel like you can’t hang with prophecy charts and A Thief in the Night, I feel your pain.
My own experience is that, as much as I have benefited from the teachings of many of those I mentioned above, I haven’t been convinced by their eschatological conclusions. In my final post I will attempt to explain why.