Eschatology is the anticipation of Christ’s multifaceted historical works of salvation from creation to new creation
By Fernando Canale
Although we cannot know the future, we certainly try. Knowing what the future holds fascinates us. Not surprisingly, prophecies about the end of the world captivate even postmodern minds. Simple curiosity attracts us to biblical prophecies. In our eagerness to anticipate future events, we often forget the strong connection that exists in Scripture between eschatology and soteriology. As a result, we may fail to understand both.
Eschatology (from the Greek) literally means “the doctrine of the last things.” As a theological discipline, eschatology appears as the final section of the creeds and systematic theologies. Soteriology (also from the Greek) means “the doctrine of salvation.” As such, soteriology is “the section of Christian theology which treats of the saving work of Christ for the world.”1
Usually, Christian theologians see the relation of soteriology with eschatology from the side of soteriology. For them, eschatology is the consummation of the kingdom of God and Christ’s work of salvation inaugurated at the Cross. In this view, the understanding of salvation is independent from, and a condition of, prophetic interpretation. Eschatology assumes soteriology.
Is the relation of eschatology to soteriology so simple? Should soteriology be understood from the side of eschatology instead? Can we properly understand Christ’s work of salvation in isolation from prophetic interpretation? Could the study of biblical prophecies of end times provide the broad context from which Christians should understand Christ’s work of salvation? More specifically, can our prophetic interpretation influence or condition our understanding of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ? Does salvation assume an end of the world?
Late Emergence of Eschatology
Early Christians did not develop systems of eschatological understanding probably because “when the end of the world did not come as expected in the early Church,” Eschatology “became peripheral to most Christian theology.”2 However, dispensationalism and historicism as contemporary schools of prophetic interpretation find representatives in early Christian thinkers. Using the same neoplatonic ontological assumptions, Augustine produced a significant shift in prophetic interpretation of salvation and the end of the world. He claimed that prophecy refers to spiritual rather than historical realities. Consequently, for him the church is a symbol of the kingdom of God and the millennium a symbol of the Christian era.
As Protestant reformers slowly turned from tradition and philosophy to Scripture a millennium after Augustine, they used historicism as the method of prophetic interpretation. They did not, however, connect eschatology with soteriology, nor did they interpret the work of Christ from their historicist interpretation of prophecies. The Reformation stands on soteriological grounds.
In the early 19th century, there was a great revival of interest in Christ’s imminent historical return of Christ in contrast with the then-dominant view that He would come only after a future millennium. Three centuries after the Protestant Reformation, study of biblical apocalyptic prophecy intensified around the world. Using the Lutheran version of justification by faith, evangelical theologians developed the dispensational model of eschatological interpretation. The dispensational model is based on the assumption of God’s “divine ordering of the affairs of the world.”3Systematic dispensationalism seems to fit best the Protestant interpretation of salvation. In this system, evangelical thought moves from salvation to end times.
About the same time, and springing from the same worldwide interest in prophetic interpretation, Seventh-day Adventism was born. Adventism originates and stands on the historicist interpretation of biblical understanding of eschatology. Adventism came into existence as a result of the study of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation (1844–1850). A few years later, attention turned to salvation (1888). Historicism, then, permeated not only their eschatology but also their soteriology. Adventist thought moved from biblical historicist interpretation of the end times to salvation.
With the passing of time, however, later generations of Adventists forgot the eschatological approach to soteriology implicit in early formative Adventist thought. Consequently, in the 21st century, an increasing number of Adventists understand soteriology in disconnection from eschatology. Some even use soteriology as presupposition to interpret eschatology.
Dispensational interpretation of biblical prophecy claims to use a “literal” method of prophetic interpretation. “Literal” does not mean paying attention to the literal meaning of biblical prophetic texts but to the referent to which prophetic statements apply. Concretely, this means that unfulfilled Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel will find their future fulfillment in ethnic rather than spiritual Israel.
The literalistic hermeneutics of dispensationalism, then, assumes a dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments, Israel and the church. This ecclesiological assumption leads dispensationalists to turn away from historicism and embrace futurism. In practice, this means they assume that biblical prophecy speaks about future events rather than ongoing historical developments.
Moving from soteriology to eschatology, dispensationalism assumes a radical discontinuity in the history of salvation. Conversely, moving from eschatology to soteriology, historicism implies a radical continuity in the history of salvation.
Dispensationalists interpret “the Bible—and indeed all history—in terms of a series of God’s dispensations.”4 By “dispensation,” they mean a historical framework or pattern through which God chooses to administrate His salvation to a specific group of human beings. These patterns include “different revelations and conditions by which God will test humanity.”5
Dispensationalists trace the various dispensations back to the biblical covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ). Although the number of dispensations varies depending on the theologian, all “include the old dispensation under the law of Moses, the present under grace, and the future during the millennium.”6
Why do dispensationalists understand biblical covenants as discontinuous? Probably because they believe God operates salvation in two different and discontinuous ways: The Old Testament way of the Law administered to Israel, and the New Testament way of grace administered to the church.
Yet why do they assume there is a discontinuity between law and grace? Because they believe, incorrectly, that the New Testament teaches that Christians should keep Christ’s law of love and no longer expects them to keep the Ten Commandments.
We can see how soteriological and ecclesiological assumptions play a leading hermeneutical role in the dispensationalist interpretation of biblical prophecy. Moreover, prophecy relates to the realm of history, in which God’s eternal plan for humanity unfolds with mathematical precision. Prophecy does not relate to the realm of the spirit, in which God operates the gospel for the salvation of human beings. According to this view, then, the interpretation of biblical prophecy cannot influence our understanding of the gospel or our experience of salvation.
Clearly and forcefully, Hans La Rondelle has shown how the ecclesiological and soteriological discontinuity between law and grace, Israel and the church, on which dispensationalist hermeneutics stands does not respond to biblical evidence. Instead, the New Testament teaches that the Church as spiritual Israel forms the New Testament people of God.7
Moreover, the hermeneutical centrality of God’s salvation in both Old and New testaments strongly suggests the historical continuity between Old and New Testaments, Israel and the church. The historical nature of biblical thinking strongly backs the historicist method of prophetic interpretation.
Historicism is the school of prophetic interpretation “that conceives the fulfillment of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as covering the historical period from the time of the prophet to the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.”8 Although the Reformers followed the historicist method of prophetic interpretation, they did not use their eschatological views as hermeneutical principle from which to understand the gospel. Very probably this was so because in their times the historicist understanding of prophecy was still in its infancy.
Eschatology and Hermeneutics
Moving beyond the advancements made by the Reformation, Adventists pioneers did apply their eschatological views as hermeneutical principles to discover new biblical truths.
C. Marvin Maxwell explains this historical and theological fact well: “Luther and some other Reformers honored the historicist interpretation of prophecy, including the year-day principle; but Seventh-day Adventists pioneers, having arrived by the same route at the conviction that the second advent movement was a fulfillment of prophecy, used that fulfillment as a hermeneutical principle in the further development of their message. Once established as scriptural, the fulfillment of prophecy in the second advent movement became a hermeneutical tool for helping establish the Sabbath, sanctuary, spiritual gifts, true church, second advent doctrines, etc.”9
The historicist interpretation of prophecy led Protestant believers to turn their eyes and hopes to Christ’s eschatological consummation. As a result, they expected Christ to return on October 22, 1844. Yet, as it is widely known, their expectations resulted in great disappointment when Christ did not return.
The disappointment drove early Adventist pioneers to apply their eschatological knowledge as hermeneutical presupposition. Up to that point, their efforts concentrated in the study of the prophetic text. They had assumed the purification of the sanctuary referred to earth’s cleansing by Jesus’ second coming.
After the disappointment, early Adventists assumed as correct their eschatological understanding of the Book of Daniel. From that eschatological assumption, they searched for the referent of the purification of the sanctuary that Daniel 8:14 speaks about. Their conclusion was groundbreaking: Daniel speaks about Christ’s work of atonement in heaven after His resurrection, ascension, coronation, and seating at the right hand of the Father in heaven. This conviction led them to recognize the organic interrelations that exist between apocalyptic prophecies and the sanctuary doctrine. Eschatology not only includes apocalyptic prophecies, but also God’s historical actions in His sanctuary. Adventists have not yet unraveled all the consequences of this discovery.
Adventist Eschatological Hermeneutics
During the formative years that led to the establishment of Seventh-day Adventism (1844–1850), historicist interpretation of apocalyptic prophecies began to blend with the extensive biblical information about God’s sanctuary and ritual in both Old and New Testaments. In the minds of early Adventists, these assumptions became hermeneutical presuppositions, launching a historicist reinterpretation of Christian theology that remains unfinished.
At the time, probably few understood the full implication of their hermeneutical assumptions. Ellen White was one of the few who realized that “The subject of the sanctuary was the key which unlocked the mystery of the disappointment of 1844. It opened to view a complete system of truth, connected and harmonious, showing that God’s hand had directed the great advent movement and revealing present duty as it brought to light the position and work of His people.”10
In this way, the integration of the historicist interpretation of biblical prophecy and the sanctuary doctrine became the hermeneutical perspective from which Adventists interpreted the entire building of Christian theology and discovered their own place and mission in the history of salvation.
Eschatology and the Atonement
Christian theology views salvation as atonement. Evangelical theologians usually understand the atonement as “man’s reconciliation with God through the sacrificial death of Christ.”11 In their view, eschatology and salvation become essentially disconnected.
Yet in Scripture eschatology and salvation are essentially connected. On the side of eschatology, the broad reaching prophecies in the Book of Daniel include God’s central acts of salvation: the Cross (chap. 9), the investigative judgment (chap. 8), and the Second Coming (chap. 2). On the side of salvation, God operates salvation historically within the flow of created human time. Salvation embraces God’s redemptive acts from predestination to new creation.
Eschatology and salvation, then, belong together since Christ’s first promise of salvation to the human race after Adam’s and Eve’s fall (Gen. 3:15). Until the final restoration of creation, God’s history with human beings is redemptive history. Promise and fulfillment are always redemptive. Prophecy is not mere anticipation of historical facts disconnected from God’s works of salvation.
Biblical eschatology involves more than the consummation of Christ’s atonement (classical Christianity) or the anticipation of the last historical events on Planet Earth (dispensationalism). Eschatology predicts the continuation of Christ’s works of salvation in human and cosmic history. Consequently, we cannot separate eschatology from the salvation without distorting the meaning of both.
Eschatology anticipates the progressive execution and development of God’s atonement before and after Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross. By focusing on Christ’s high priestly, mediatorial work in the heavenly sanctuary, eschatology reveals that there is no discontinuity between God’s old and new covenants and provides the background for a proper understanding of Christ’s atonement.
Moreover, eschatology involves an ontological commitment. For centuries, Christians have recognized New Testament imagery about Christ as High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary present in the books of Hebrews and Revelation. Yet, Roman Catholic and Protestant ongoing commitment to non-biblical principles of reality (ontology) prevents them from accepting the existence of a spatial and temporal heaven.
For all practical and theological purposes, leading Christian theologians assume that after His resurrection, Christ became a spiritual divine being outside space and time. For them, the “history of salvation” does not take place from creation to new creation but from Christmas to Easter. Conversely, a careful listening to the historicist interpretation of apocalyptic prophecies opens to view the inner historical coherence that exists between eschatology and the Genesis history of creation in seven days. The harmonious flow of salvation history from creation (biblical redemptive history) to new creation (historicist interpretation of biblical apocalyptic prophecies), provides the proper ontological/historical context for Christians to understand the atonement and the gospel.
In Scripture, eschatology is not the consummation of the work of Christ from Christmas to Easter, but the anticipation of Christ’s multifaceted historical works of salvation from creation to new creation. Because eschatology provides a broader context for understanding Christ’s work of salvation, we should study the doctrine of salvation from the perspective of prophetic interpretation and not the other way around.
Christians should use the historicist interpretation of biblical prophecy as hermeneutical presupposition to guide their understanding of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Soteriology should assume and develop in the light of eschatology. The message of Seventh-day Adventism springs from this conviction. The success of the global eschatological mission of the remnant church depends on how faithfully and consistently Adventists would be in using the historicist interpretation of apocalyptic prophecy as the hermeneutical key to interpret the eternal gospel and preach it to the world.
Fernando Canale, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 1530.
2. Ibid., p. 563.
3. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Dispensational. Accessed May 19, 2013.
4. Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds., The Encyclopedia of Christianity(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999-2003), vol. 1, p. 854.
5. Jacques B. Doukhan, The Mystery of Israel (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2004), p. 49.
7. Hans La Rondelle, “Israel in Biblical Prophecy” Ministry (January 2007).
8. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 698.
9. C. Mervyn Maxwell, “A Brief History of Adventist Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 4:2 (YEAR):214, 215.
10. The Great Controversy, p. 423.
11. Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, op. cit., p. 124.