Making All Things New: Inaugurated 65 Eschatology for the Life of the Church
Adam Perez and Glenn Stallsmith are Th.D. students in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.
One of us (Stallsmith) had a high school chemistry teacher who displayed a bumper sticker in her classroom: “What in the world ISN’T chemistry?” Benjamin L. Gladd and Matthew S. Harmon would like pastors to ask a similar question when it comes to eschatology. They suggest, following the work of their teacher G. K. Beale, that all of what the church does should be understood as taking place in relation to the eschaton, that is, the “latter days.” Specifically, Making All Things New is Gladd and Harmon’s attempt to translate Beale’s work on eschatology into an accessible format, one aimed at serving the church pastor.
The book’s three parts, each including three chapters, lay out specific ways for local church leaders to practice their ministries with an eschatological perspective: the “already-not yet.” G. K. Beale contributes chapter 1 as a distillation of his larger work, A New Testament Biblical Theology, which describes the eschatological nature of this present age as the time between Christ’s first and second comings. The time preceding Christ’s death and resurrection—a past age—and the time following the second coming—the age to come—bookend the age we currently inhabit. The “already” aspect of this present age is “inaugurated” by Christ’s death and resurrection but “not yet” consummated in Christ’s final coming. This perspective provides the framework for the book’s basic argument, which is stated early and often, beginning with this declaration by Beale on page 13: “Every major doctrine of the Christian faith is eschatological in nature and must be seen through the lens of the inauguration of the latter days.” Harmon and Gladd then carry on this statement of purpose in the remaining chapters of Part I. Chapter 2, by Harmon, addresses the eschatological nature of the church by reviewing God’s history of salvation throughout the Old and New Testaments; chapter 3, by Gladd, focuses on the already-not yet condition of individuals, wherein our future bodily resurrection has been accomplished and promised by Christ’s own.
The three chapters of Part II provide guidance for pastors charged with leading congregations, using a framework of Feed, Guard, and Guide. Chapter 4 calls preachers to proclaim what God has already done through Christ, resulting in an “indicative-imperative” pattern, suggesting that the “should”—that is, human work and service—is always responding to what has been revealed in scripture about God’s saving work. A preacher therefore proclaims the truth (indicative) and then implores the congregation to live into it (imperative). Chapter 5 addresses the challenges of false teaching that arise in the latter days, characterized by the “man of lawlessness” in II Thessalonians 2, and the antichrist of I John 2. Chapter 6 calls the pastor to lead and make disciples by setting an eschatological vision and living as a “new creation”—that is, as an exiled people whose place in the world is not fully apparent in this age.
Part III outlines an eschatological framework for worship (chapter 7), prayer (chapter 8), and mission (chapter 9). Much of the material in these final chapters cycles back through exegetical material that was already presented in the first two parts. For instance, chapter 7 on worship resembles the indicative-imperative rhythm of preaching that was described in chapter 4, arguing that human acts of praise are responses to what has been revealed about God’s saving activity. Consequently, all worship sites—whether the Garden of Eden, Moses’s tabernacle, or the heavenly worship described in Revelation—are grounded in the covenant that God established, and this is the same responsive remembrance that the preacher evokes. Chapter 8 on prayer also provides a helpful recapitulation of the book’s purpose, showing that the prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23 models human gratitude, providing a hopeful (not yet) vision of the end that is based on the (already) demonstrated power of the resurrected Christ. The final chapter is a review of salvation history, much like what was presented in chapter 2, which traces the mission of God through both Old and New Testaments: God’s work was begun in creation, it was accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it will continue to its end through God’s Spirit-filled people.
Gladd and Harmon describe the project of Making All Things New as “an extension of Beale’s project, an attempt to flesh out in practical terms how inaugurated eschatology should shape pastoral ministry and the life of the church” (xiii). Knowing that Beale served as an academic mentor to the authors during their doctoral work (xii) renders the book a kind of co-authored hommage to Beale’s biblical theology (14). The book is clearly addressed to pastors, and the Baker Academic imprint, along with various popular culture references such as the Left Behind book series, indicates that evangelical Christians are the primary audience. Gladd and Harmon attempt to translate Beale’s work for this audience in practical terms by employing a similar structure for each chapter in Parts II and III: an opening section of exegesis, along with a review of its “implications,” is followed by a short set of “practical suggestions.” Both the “implications” and “practical suggestions” elaborate on the exegesis and exhort the reader to “study,” “discern,” and “teach” using the same methods of study modeled in the book.
Iterations of the book’s central claim that all major Christian doctrines and all the life and ministry of the church should be, and are best, understood through the lens of eschatology (see 4, 14) remain impressively consistent throughout, reappearing in virtually every chapter. Thus, any reader who walks away not knowing that pastors should lead their churches with an eschatological vision was not reading closely. Yet despite the many, repeated claims that biblical theology (Part I), church leadership (Part II), and the facets of Christian ministry (Part III) should be understood in eschatological terms, we remain unconvinced about the force of the “already-not yet” nature of Gladd and Harmon’s argument. In fact, it seems that the authors could have written these chapters without relying on eschatology as a framework at all, instead making rather straightforward claims about pastoral ministry drawn from an almost entirely literal reading of the New Testament epistles. In other words, simply repeating the claim that one’s pastoral ministry will be transformed just by grasping and understanding eschatology in scripture does not make it so, nor does it make clear what kind of transformation will take place.
The failure to describe the influence of eschatology on ecclesiology is rooted in Gladd and Harmon’s definition of the “already-not yet.” The hermeneutic presented in Making All Things New is essentially a linear “this, then that” perspective of God’s salvation history. The timeline on page 9 makes this clear: the time from creation to Christ’s advent occupies the left side of the line; the middle is our current age; and the right side is the “age to come.” In such a view, we know that time moves inexorably from left to right—we just do not know how much longer we have to travel until the second coming and the advent of the new age. Thus Gladd and Harmon offer a perspective that is primarily a common-sense progression through the scriptures, one that starts in Genesis and ends in Revelation. This linear presentation of salvation history so thoroughly underpins the book that a canon-wide sweep of God’s work shows up in the exegetical presentation of most chapters—particularly in 2 and 9, as noted above.
What is wrong with such a reading, you might ask? Nothing, on the surface. But we would argue this is not a very radical eschatological perspective. A linear view of God’s work—one that acknowledges an “already” that is followed by a “not yet”—fits with every modern conception of time. There is nothing especially Christian in the assumption that time moves consistently in one direction, eventually coming to some end or conclusion. We would argue instead that the Hebrew and Greek scriptures actually challenge a simplistic “this-then-that” perspective, and they contain genres of literature that problematize a linear view of God’s work in history. In particular, the genre of apocalypse wraps together past, present, and future by showing that God’s past acts rhyme with God’s present power and future consummation of all things, with the books of Daniel and Revelation serving as the primary examples. Frankly, Gladd and Harmon’s promise to present an “already-not yet” reading of the scriptures caused these reviewers to expect a deliberate engagement with the genre of apocalyptic literature. We were therefore surprised to see that the word “apocalypse” makes not a single appearance in the book (with the exception of referring to Revelation as “the Apocalypse of John”). Admittedly, attending to literary genre may go against the grain of Beale’s “biblical theology” method and its primary use of word study (exemplified and modeled throughout this book) as a hermeneutical tool for meaningful interpretation.
While Making All Things New makes its point by relying on several broad, linear sweeps through the scriptures. We would have preferred an approach that honed in on one of the key passages from Revelation or Daniel, thereby fleshing out the authors’ perspective on the end times. Both of these apocalyptic books are clearly referring to events that had already happened as well as to events that had not yet happened at the time of their writing. By looking at how God was at work in all things, regardless of their place on the left or right side of a timeline, Gladd and Harmon could have perhaps provided a framework through which to read all of scripture. Take, for instance, the 12th chapter of Daniel, with its account of a future resurrection. This is clearly an event that has both “already” and “not yet” components, but this prophetic account is not so clearly parsed on a timeline—there is an overlap and collapsing of events related to Israel’s return from exile, the advent of the Messiah, and a future end of the ages. Revelation picks up all these themes and adds the resurrection of Jesus Christ (including all those who are in Christ) and the timeless worship of the Lamb, still without providing a clearly linear progression of past and future.
This apocalyptic perspective has some compelling advocates. Most significantly, N. T. Wright views apocalyptic literature as a description of the “now-ness” of God’s power in the church of this age, not simply a prediction of future events. Wright’s perspective is not without controversy, and he certainly has his share of critics, but Gladd and Harmon’s unwillingness to engage this important perspective—one that likely has been encountered by most of their evangelical readers—is a missed opportunity. A meaningful engagement with this kind of alternative perspective on already-not yet eschatology would help to clarify the significance of the moves Beale and Gladd and Harmon are attempting in Making All Things New. Doing so would not only force these authors to defend their scholarship among other prominent scholars, but would give them greater force in attending to the pastoral-theological needs of their intended audience.
We believe that Gladd and Harmon’s approach not only misses some key opportunities to provide an overall hermeneutic, but also results in less than satisfying applications. Over the course of Part II, we found ourselves writing “How?” in the margins at every mention of “if pastors fully grasp this already-not yet … it will greatly influence their approach to ministry.” Instead, the authors simply appeal to some unarticulated sense that this shift in thinking will have an obvious change for pastoral ministry, so obvious that it need not be outlined. For example, in discussing the practical suggestions for the ministry of marriage counseling, the authors simply state with minimal qualification, “Christian leaders must first understand these eschatological concepts [husband and wife as growing in love] and then make these connections in counseling. It will be a tremendous help to meeting the needs of the congregation” (112). But which needs of the congregation will be satisfied by recommending the virtues of love and patience, and how does understanding these virtues eschatologically make a difference in their cultivation?
More so, we need to examine the irony created by the repeated exhortations to intellectually grasp an already-not yet eschatology. This is especially apparent in Part II of the book, which treats the pastoral work of teaching (chapter 4), preaching (chapter 5), and discipleship (chapter 6). Throughout these chapters, and especially in the sections of “practical suggestions,” the relationship between biblical study and pastoral practice is (again) vague, simplistic, and apparently self-evident. In the experience of these reviewers, the only self-evident aspect of the relationship between scripture and the complex contexts of Christian ministry is that they are not simple or self-evident.
This book works best when it takes a break from a broad full-canon exegetical sweep and pauses to drill down into one specific passage. There is a hint of this when the chapter on prayer stops for a while to examine one of the best descriptions of God’s past-present-future power, the prayer in Ephesians 1:15-23. The power described in these verses connects the already completed aspect of Christ’s resurrection with our present position in Christ, which will be fully realized in a future inheritance. Here the purpose of prayer is not to make something new happen so much as it is to see with “your heart enlightened” (1:18) the hope which already exists. A “this-then-that” perspective, based on a linear timeline, would teach us that we can pray for outcomes because we have seen a preview of things to come, that is, in Christ’s resurrection. That is not necessarily wrong, but Gladd and Harmon seem to emphasize the gap between past and future more than these reviewers would like. Instead, we find the beauty of the language in the Ephesians prayer in the description of the triune God who ties together the times. The power of the risen Christ transcends the moment of resurrection: “not only in this age but also in the age to come” (1:21). Gladd and Harmon call on us to pray because we have seen a preview of the future; the writer of Ephesians would have us look for that power in the present. The difference in waiting for a future event and searching for a present power has significant implications for the pastor and congregation, but the tension between those two perspectives remains unexplored in this volume.
Though we find the goal of Making All Things New worthwhile and affirm its interest in making eschatology accessible to pastors, we are hesitant to recommend this book for such an audience. Rather than avoid addressing secondary sources and other important popular voices as Gladd and Harmon have done here, we think much could be gained from a breadth of resources. One such study could be to read G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology alongside N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.1 Doing so may indeed accomplish what Gladd and Harmon set out to do—that is, to spark an interest in inaugurated eschatology within the pastoral imagination, one marked not by exegetical to-do lists but by an open-ness to what the Spirit is doing in and among the church as she waits for the full consummation of the already-not yet kingdom of God.