Note: This article spotlights the work of John Taylor, an individual faculty partner in the Oikonomia Network.
One of the persistent tensions in Christian theology and practice has been between under-realized and over-realized eschatology, which could also be called the balance between realized and future eschatology. The question is how much the final eschatological blessings are experienced now, in this age, after the coming of Christ and before the Lord’s return. At one extreme, too little recognition of the eschatological blessings being experienced now leads to world-rejecting pessimism, where little good can be expected in this age apart from the blessing of forgiveness and the hope of heaven. At the other extreme, when too much of the future is reckoned to be present, the result is world-affirming optimism, which expects the kingdom of God to be fully realized through continual progress in this age.
It is possible to plot theologies on a line somewhere between these two extremes. In the under-realized camp, we might place a lot of alarmist end-times prophetic teaching, along with traditional dispensationalism and forms of cessationism. In the over-realized camp, we might place the prosperity gospel, preterism, dominion theology (on the Right) and liberation theology (on the Left). Of course, this is a matter of opinion, and certainly an over-simplification. Some theological traditions might tend to under-realization in some areas, but over-realization in others. And much depends on how one defines under- or over-realization.
But the tension is real, and the faith and work movement has to negotiate this issue. The emphasis within the movement on human flourishing – especially on the theological value of work – and the importance of economic progress for the alleviation of poverty is a healthy corrective to the sacred-secular divide and the minimalist just-get-me-to-heaven view of salvation prevalent in much of the church. But, as with so many other movements in church history, we have to resist the temptations of an over-realized eschatology, lest we become content simply with improving life in this age. As important as improving this world is, we can’t neglect to testify “of repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
I am going to suggest three key areas of theological balance which I hope will help the faith and work movement in the evangelical world keep a healthy, scriptural focus – essentially, a broad biblical theological perspective.
First, the balance between creation and fall. Much of the biblical research focuses on the theology of creation, and this is a real strength of the movement. A recovery of the significance of the role of humans as bearers of the divine image in the world is vital. However, neglecting the foundational Genesis narrative of the fall and sin, how that event affects human work and how that is worked out through both Old and New Testaments, creates an over-optimistic view of human nature and the capacity of humans for self-improvement and progress. The need for redemption is too easily forgotten.
Second, the balance between Old and New Testaments. Much of the biblical exploration on work concentrates on the Old Testament, and understandably so. In addition to the creation account, the Old Testament lends itself readily to discussions of economic activity, law, land use and work, because it concerns Israel’s life as God’s people in the land. And this practical concern is evident in the law, the histories, the wisdom literature and the prophets. By comparison, less has been done in this area with the New Testament. That is why a few years ago, while I was teaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, we ran a colloquium on the New Testament and economics, with scholars from around the country, encouraging evangelical New Testament scholars to write in this area. It was followed by a similar event on the Old Testament, and recently by a combined Old and New Testament colloquium. A number of the papers from the first two colloquia have been published, including several in a recent issue of the Southwestern Journal of Theology. Some New Testament themes have been brought into the contemporary faith and work discussion, pioneered by Miroslav Volf’s Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, and others such as Darrell Cosden’s A Theology of Work: Work and the New Creation and Ben Witherington’s Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor. This small trend needs to continue and grow, so that the influence and message of the faith and work movement is invested with key New Testament theology, especially in areas such as Christology.
Third – to return to our initial discussion – the theological problems of over- and under-realized eschatology need to be named and dealt with directly in their own right. The notion of “realized eschatology” came from the work of C. H. Dodd at Cambridge University. He argued that much of the New Testament saw the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and so the eschatological promises were already realized. But he overstated his case. George Eldon Ladd at Fuller Seminary emphasized instead what he called “inaugurated eschatology.” The kingdom of God has been inaugurated through Christ but not completed. We live in the already-but-not-yet kingdom, awaiting its full realization at Christ’s return.
An over-realized eschatology too often leads to the neglect of evangelism and missions. A balanced view of faith and work affirms the absolute necessity of preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth, and finds ways to integrate mission and gospel proclamation into the good work of promoting human flourishing – and vice versa. On the other hand, an under-realized eschatology can minimize the present reality of the new creation in Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit, thus over-emphasizing the discontinuity between this age and the resurrection to come. As a result, human life and culture in the present become relatively meaningless.
As a graduate of both Fuller and Cambridge, for many years a missionary with Youth With A Mission, and now teaching at the very mission-minded Gateway Seminary, I am determined, with the Lord’s help, to maintain this balance.