What is the unifying principle of the diverse emphases in the theology of the New Testament? The diversity must be clearly recognized and not glossed over. According to the Synoptic Gospels, the central message of Jesus was the coming of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes he asserted that the Kingdom of God had come in the midst of history in his own person and mission (Matt. 12:28; Luke 17:20, 21); sometimes he looked forward to its coming at the end of the age and taught his disciples to pray for its coming (Matt. 6:10; 8:11; 13:43). When this eschatological Kingdom comes, the redeemed will enter into the eternal life of the Age to Come (Mark 10:23–30). In the Synoptic Gospels eternal life is never referred to as a present possession; it will be the inheritance of God’s people in the eschatological Kingdom of God (Matt. 25:34, 46).

The Gospel of John has a very different emphasis. Jesus’ references to the Kingdom occur infrequently there (John 3:3, 5, and 18:36). The central message of Jesus, according to John, is eternal life (3:15; 4:14; 6:40; see 20:31); and this gift of eternal life is a present possession (5:24; 6:47; 10:10) that men may now receive through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Book of Acts records a number of brief reports of the early apostolic preaching. These sermons say little about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3; 8:12; 19:8; 14:22; 20:25; 28:23); and eternal life is mentioned in only one place (Acts 13:46, 48; “life” is spoken of in 3:15; 5:20; 11:18). The apostolic message in Acts is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Because God has raised the crucified Jesus from the dead and exalted him to his own right hand, men are called upon to repent, be saved, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Luke, in telling the story of the expanding Church, is primarily interested in the working of the Holy Spirit who was given on the Day of Pentecost to unite believers into the fellowship that constituted the Church (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:1–39; 4:31; 8:15–17; 10:44; 19:2, 6), not in the indwelling of the Spirit in individual believers.

In the epistles of Paul we find a still different emphasis. Paul has little to say about the Kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20; 6:9; Eph. 5:5); and although he mentions eternal life a few times (Rom. 2:7; 5:21; 6:22, 23; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16) and speaks frequently of life, this theme is not the central focus of his theology. Reformed theologians have made justification by faith the center of Paul’s thought, while the modern tendency has been to place the emphasis upon Christ’s indwelling the believer through the Holy Spirit.

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Yet there is no reason to view these two great Pauline doctrines as mutually exclusive; they are in fact complementary, expounding the objective and the subjective aspects of redemption. Justification has to do with the sinner’s relation to God, who is the righteous Lawgiver and Judge. The obverse of justification is condemnation. The righteous man is justified—declared right—acquitted from all guilt by the righteous Judge; the sinner is pronounced guilty and justly condemned as a sinner (Rom. 8:33, 34). The unique element in Paul’s doctrine of justification is that God acquits the sinner not by his good works nor by the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

However, the man who is justified by faith is also indwelt by Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is the subjective side of salvation. God justifies the believer through faith on the ground of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:20, 21); and through the same faith, God imparts the Holy Spirit to indwell the believer (Gal. 3:2). The indwelling of the Spirit is also the indwelling of Christ (Rom. 8:9, 10), for the Spirit is the Spirit of the exalted Lord (Rom. 8:9).

This diversity of New Testament theology, though it cannot be here further illustrated, is unmistakable. The Kingdom of God (the Synoptics), eternal life (John), the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit to form the Church (Acts), justification by faith and the new life of the Holy Spirit (Paul)—what do these diverse theologies have in common?

This question was brought forcefully to my attention when a recent book of mine was understood to have the purpose of “unifying all theological thought in the New Testament around and in a single motif,” namely, the Kingdom of God. It is easy to understand how this impression was gained from the book, for its subtitle, “The Eschatology of Biblical Realism,” may seem to suggest that the totality of biblical eschatology is to be subsumed under this single theme. But this conclusion is not necessary any more than it is necessary to conclude that the widely used terms “consistent eschatology” and “realized eschatology” apply to the eschatology of the entire New Testament. The “eschatology of biblical realism,” like the two terms just mentioned, is meant primarily to designate the eschatological perspective of our Lord, not of the entire New Testament.

The paragraphs above indicate that I do not believe that the theology of John, Acts, and Paul can be accurately subsumed under the Kingdom of God. In fact, such a harmonizing procedure would, in my judgment, do violence to the rich diversity of emphases of these other writings.

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Where then is unity to be found? I believe that it appears in the common eschatological structure found in these several biblical writers: promise, fulfillment, and consummation. This was, in fact, my original choice for the title of the book.

The entire New Testament assumes the Old Testament’s prophetic promises of an eschatological day of salvation and judgment. This promise appears in different forms in the several prophets; but common to all is the conviction that God, who had revealed himself as the living God in delivering Israel from Egypt (Exod. 6:6, 7), in constituting Israel his people (Amos 3:1, 2), and in leading her both in grace and in judgment (Amos 4:6 ff.), would finally bring his redemptive purposes to a glorious consummation that would include the destiny not only of Israel but also of the Gentiles (Isa. 11:10; 66:18). This eschatological salvation would not only establish God’s rule effectively among men but also accomplish the redemption of nature (Isa. 11:6–9; 55:12, 13).

No single pattern of redemption can be found in the Old Testament. Sometimes God’s reign will be accomplished through a Davidic messianic King (Isa. 9; 11), elsewhere by a supernatural heavenly figure (Dan. 7); elsewhere a servant of the Lord redeems his people through humiliation, suffering, and dying (Isa. 53). Frequently, the prophets speak of no messianic figure; God himself will reign among his people (Isa. 40; Ps. 102; 138). The Old Testament does not explain how these several forms of the messianic hope are related to one another.

The entire New Testament reflects the conviction that these prophetic promises have been fulfilled in the person, mission, words, and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth within history; but the consummation of the promises awaits a further eschatological event that will establish the eschatological rule of God in all the world. In other words, the New Testament writers see the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises in two great redemptive events: the earthly person and mission of Jesus, and his glorious appearing at the end of the age. The New Testament explains how the several messianic personages of the Old Testament are related to one another in God’s plan of redemption. The Messiah appears first as a man within history to fulfill the mission of the Servant of the Lord in suffering and death, but he will later appear at the end of the age as the glorious heavenly Son of Man in both judgment and salvation. In the biblical perspective, these are not two separate events but two acts of a single drama of redemption.

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This tension between fulfillment and consummation is illustrated in each of the several theologies outlined above. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Kingdom of God is an eschatological event belonging to the Age to Come when the redeemed will enter into eternal life. However, this eschatological event has already invaded history in the person and mission of Jesus, offering to men in advance of the eschatological consummation the redemptive blessings of forgiveness, righteousness, and fellowship with God. While the Kingdom is essentially eschatological, it has had a real fulfillment in history. The Old Testament hope has been fulfilled before the consummation; eschatology has become history.

The same tension is found in the Gospel of John, although the emphasis is different from that of the Synoptics. Eternal life in the Synoptics is the eschatological life of the Kingdom of God in the Age to Come; and in the Fourth Gospel, life is also an eschatological blessing (John 12:25; 4:14; 6:27). But even as the Kingdom of God has come to men in history, so has the life of the Kingdom come to them as a present experience. In a real sense, the concept of the Kingdom of God and of eternal life are inseparable, for life is the life of the Kingdom; and as the Kingdom is present among men, it has brought to them one of its most significant blessings—eternal life. This tension of fulfillment within history and consummation at the end of the age enables us to preserve the evident diversity and yet find a basic unity. The Old Testament hope (Dan. 12:2) has been fulfilled before the consummation; eschatology has become history.

The Book of Acts looks back upon the completed life and mission of Jesus and places its emphasis upon the significance of his resurrection and exaltation rather than upon his deeds and words. The reason for this is that the eschatological fulfillment present in the person, words, and deeds of Jesus finds an even deeper dimension in his resurrection and exaltation.

The Blurry Age

I shuffled down into the smoke-filled room where glistening bodies writhed to the wail of jumbled sounds. A bleary one dripped with sweat behind his drums while the trumpeter weaved and the woman closed her eyes and shrieked of love.

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I climbed the marble steps to the Museum of Art and viewed canvases of splashes, zig-zags, swirls, and blobs. A twisted crescendo of drunken checkerboard towered over me, and an ecstatic blob of emaciated people-things glowered in the corner.

I paid the lady in the glass cage $1.75 to see on the screen scattered shreds of life, photographed out of focus and spliced together with masking tape.

I went to a Conference on Relevance, and I didn’t know what anybody was talking about.

I attended a Joint-Committee on Theology where they said theology isn’t necessary.

I read a book on God which said there isn’t any God.

I read a book on morals which said there are none.

Then I turned to the Word of God and read, “The things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

—THE REV. LEROY KOOPMAN, Berwyn, Illinois

The early Christians proclaimed “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). It is strange that this message should have so grievously annoyed the Sadducees, for this doctrine was also held by the Pharisees. The point is that the early Christians were not teaching a doctrine of resurrection at the end of the age; they were proclaiming an eschatological deed that had occurred in history. They were not teaching a truth; they were witnessing to an event. The same idea is expounded more clearly by Paul, who speaks of the resurrection of Christ as the “first fruits” of the eschatological resurrection at the end of the age (1 Cor. 15:23). First fruits in an agrarian economy were the beginning of the harvest itself. The resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated event; it was not merely promise of a future event; it was itself the beginning of the future event. The first act of resurrection had already occurred in the resurrection of Jesus, and this placed the Christian proclamation in a new and startling light.

The same eschatological dimension is found in the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit in Joel belongs to the eschatological consummation of God’s redemptive purpose (Joel 2:28 ff.) at the Day of the Lord. When God finally redeems his people and makes himself known as God in all the world (Joel 2:26, 27), one of the gifts of his eschatological salvation will be the outpouring of his Spirit. This event, Peter declared, has now occurred in history (Acts 2:16 ff.), because Jesus has been exalted to heaven and enthroned at the right hand of God as messianic King (Acts 2:30 ff.). The blessings of Messiah’s reign no longer belong exclusively to the Age to Come and the Kingdom of God; they have come to men in history to bring into existence God’s new people—the Church. The Church is therefore an eschatological community, a people who not only are destined to inherit the consummated Kingdom but also have already experienced the powers and blessings of that Kingdom through the coming of the Holy Spirit in history. The Old Testament hope has been fulfilled before the consummation; eschatology has become history.

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Paul interprets the significance of the eschatological event of Jesus Christ primarily in terms of justification by faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Here again, although in yet different terms, Paul expounds the meaning for believers of the eschatological dimension of what had happened in history in Jesus Christ.

Justification focuses attention upon the meaning of Jesus’ death. His propitiatory sacrifice on the cross is the ground of justification by faith. Justification, as we have seen, is the decree of the divine Lawgiver and Judge that a man is free from all guilt and condemnation. As such, it is an eschatological event that belongs to the day of judgment at the end of the world. This is clearly seen in a saying of Jesus: “On the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36, 37, RSV). Acquittal or condemnation in the eschatological day of judgment—this is the destiny of all men.

The death of Christ has provided the basis for the acquittal of men in history. Before the day of judgment, before the end of the age, the righteous Judge has rendered his decision. The man of faith is acquitted of all guilt; he is justified by his [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). In effect, the eschatological event has already occurred in history; the Judge has rendered his final decision. The man of faith is freed from all condemnation.

Accompanying this eschatological event is another: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to impart new life. That this gift of the Spirit indwelling every believer is also an eschatological event is shown by the words Paul uses to describe it: first fruits and down payment. The Holy Spirit is the first fruits (Rom. 8:23) of the final redemption. Creation is in bondage to decay, and believers share the burden of pain, suffering, and death. Both await the eschatological glory of consummated redemption. But God has given more than hope and promise; he has imparted the Spirit of life in the midst of corruption and decay, thus providing a beginning of the eschatological consummation.

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The Holy Spirit is also called a down payment. The King James Version renders the word “earnest,” and the Revised Standard “guarantee.” The word arrabon in popular Greek meant a down payment that not only guaranteed the final full payment but also provided an actual but partial payment. Thus so the Holy Spirit is a partial experience of the believer’s eschatological inheritance until he will finally acquire full possession of it (Eph. 1:14; see also 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). This means that everything that the Holy Spirit does, both in the fellowship of the Church (Acts) and in the lives of individual believers, is a real anticipation of the life of the Age to Come. The Old Testament hope has been fulfilled; eschatology has become history.

All New Testament writers look forward to an eschatological consummation of all that was promised by the prophets. The Kingdom of God, eternal life, the resurrection of the dead, the vindication of the righteous in the day of judgment, and their transformation by the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:26, 27) all await the Age to Come. Yet because of the person, mission, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, all these eschatological events have witnessed a fulfillment in history. The Kingdom of God awaits the Age to Come; but it has invaded history in the person and mission of Jesus. Eternal life will follow the resurrection at the end of the age; but in the resurrection of Jesus, the eschatological event has begun and eternal life has come to mortal men in history. The day of judgment will introduce the Age to Come; but by virtue of the atoning death of Jesus, the judgment of acquittal has already been pronounced on men of faith. The eschatological redemption will mean “spiritual”—that is, spirit-transformed—bodies for the redeemed (1 Cor. 15:44; Rom. 8:23); but the transforming gift of the Spirit has already been given to men in history.

Here is the striking unity in the rich diversity of the meaning of the total person and mission of Jesus: hope fulfilled in history without being emptied of its eschatological content at the future consummation. The several theologies of the New Testament are diverse ways of describing the redemptive significance of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ in its relation to the eschatological consummation. The totality of God’s redemptive working in salvation-history cannot be subsumed under any single doctrine: the rich diversity must be preserved within the basic unity of promise-fulfillment—consummation of God’s self-revelation and redemption.

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