Undoing The Curse In This Life?

Over the last week, on social media, there has been some discussion of an essay entitled “The Second Eve: How Christian Women Undo The Curse.” This expression, “undo the curse,” is a provocative way to speak and is used in modern authors in two ways: 1) with reference to Christ’s work for us; 2) with reference to our work in this world. The New Testament scholar James M. Hamilton uses the expression “roll back the curse” in a couple of places, e.g., Work and Our Labor in the Lord (2017) and in the essay, ‘The Mystery of Marriage” in a 2010 Festschrift for John Piper, both times with reference to the work of Christ for us. One sees this expression used this way here and there (e.g., a 2013 study guide on Isaiah by Drew Hunter). In conjunction with Fathers’ Day 2019, however, Russell Moore used the same expression to describe the benefit of fathers in “How Fathers Help Roll Back The Curse.” Jankovic’s essay then, may be considered a sort of Mothers’ Day companion to Moore’s. The latter’s essay focuses on the ways fathers mitigate the effects of the curse, though the title might seem to promise more than that. Jankovic’s essay, however, seeks to combine the two notions, Christ as the one in whom the curse is rolled back and women who contribute to that work:

Ultimately, the curse is broken in the person of Christ Jesus. In his death we see what we deserved; in his resurrection we see what we have been given in him. We have a final answer to the curse. But God did not undo the curse in one moment — rather, it is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour (Matthew 13:33). It works its way out slowly, constantly, without ceasing.

This is a kind of inaugurated eschatology. That is a mouthful that needs an explanation. Eschatology is the study of last things. It is also, however, the study of the relations between heaven and earth. It is closely connected to the study of the unfolding history of history of redemption, the study of how the promises, types, and shadows of the Old Testament were fulfilled in the New Testament.

To inaugurate is to begin something. When a president is elected he is sworn into office and gives an inaugural address. This is the formal beginning of the new administration of the federal government. Jankovic here seems to say that Christ inaugurated or began the process of undoing or rolling back the curse but we participate in that process too. To understand why she speaks thus we need some background.

Three Kinds Of Eschatology

Broadly there are three Christian views of eschatology:

1. Chiliasm.

Traditionally the chiliasts looked for a literal, earthly millennial (1,000 year) reign of Christ on the earth. There were notable chiliasts in the early church, who took Revelation 20:6 to refer to a literal millennial period: “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (ESV). After the first millennium passed, it became a little more difficult for some to hold to chiliasm but the belief persists to this day. There are multiple varieties of chiliasm (or premillennialism) today: historic premillennialism (ancient chiliasm) and the more popular varieties associated with Dispensationalism, e.g., pre-tribulation premillennialism. This version is more elaborate and looks forward to a secret rapture, multiple returns of Christ, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, and the re-institution of memorial sacrifices while Christ sits on the throne for 1,000 years.

2. Amillennialism.

Though the category “amillennial” (lit. “no millennium”) did not exist formally until the early 20th century, the idea has existed since the early church. Contrary to the story that many learned about the early church, not all the orthodox Christians in the early church were chiliasts. Some were non-chiliasts and those we today call “amillennialists.” They read Revelation 20:6 to be one symbolic expression among a sea of symbolic, figurative expressions in the most consistently symbolic book in the entire Bible. Amillennialism became widely held in the medieval and Reformation eras. According to amillennialism, Revelation 20:6 is a figurative reference to Christ’s present reign over his church, which shall be consummated at his return. They do not anticipate an earthly golden age but reserve that state entirely for the new heavens and the new earth.

3. Postmillennialism.

The third type of Christian eschatology which has waxed and waned, particularly since the early 17th century (when chiliasm also made a comeback in orthodox Reformed circles) has come to be known as postmillennialism. There is some confusion about postmillennialism since the formal category amillennial  did not exist until the early 20th century. Thus, anyone who was not chiliast is categorized as postmillennial. Retrospectively, we can now see that some of those who were once designated as postmillennial were actually amillennial. To be sure, there are ways in which it can be difficult to tell the two apart. Both take Revelation 20:6 to be figurative. Both hold that Christ is reigning now, that, by the power of his Word and Spirit he is calling his elect to new life and true faith. Some of the distinguishing characteristics are the circumstances surrounding their eschatology. The postmillennialists tend to be very optimistic about the consequences of Christ’s present reign for this world. Whereas some of the Reformed looked forward to a future mass conversion of Jews to faith in Christ, the postmillennialists look forward to a mass conversion of humanity to faith in Christ and to a kind of glorious age on the earth preceding the return of Christ. In this respect, the postmillennialists are like the chiliasts. To muddy things a bit, there are those who call themselves “optimistic amillennialists” who substantially agree with the postmillennialists.

There have been roughly two kinds of postmillennialists in the modern era: liberal and theonomic-reconstructionist. Liberal-progressive Christians around the turn of the 20th century accepted the Enlightenment-inspired higher critical view of Scripture and of the Enlightenment view of human nature, and future human progress. They thought that through social engineering and the so-called social gospel they could bring about a kind of earthly glory age.

In the post-World War II era, however, the most prominent sort of postmillennialism has been associated with the theonomic-reconstructionist movement (and with allied movements such the neo-Pentecostal inspired “dominion theology” associated with the New Apostolic Reformation and other such groups). Confusingly, the category “Dominion Theology” is also used by adherents of the theonomic-reconstructionist movement.

Like the early twentieth-century liberals, the theo-recons, as I call them, have a kind of social gospel and social plan. They are Reconstructionists because they anticipate the coming collapse of the West or the globe out of which will arise a new society reconstructed along Christian lines. They are theonomists because they believe that God has ordained the re-institution of the Mosaic judicial laws as the pattern for civil society. Part of what attracts Christian to the movement is their prescription for this-worldly culture, politics, and family life.

Critique

As near as I can tell (or as far as I can tell—is there a difference in meaning?) “undoing” or “rolling back the curse”  is not a traditional Christian way of speaking. I do not recall seeing this expression in my reading of the early Christian fathers nor do I see it in the Reformers. For example, in his commentary on Genesis, when Calvin discussed the curse imposed by God as a consequence of sin he never referred to human cultural or religious activity, not even divinely-inspired activity, as rolling back or undoing the curse. It is always Christ who is said to relieve sinners of the curse.

He, with the broader Christian tradition, as did his orthodox successors, taught a doctrine of “common grace” whereby the effects of the fall are said to be restrained or mitigated but not of “rolling back” or “undoing” the curse. Nor is this a way of speaking one finds in the confessions of the Reformed churches.

It seems as if Moore is thinking about mitigation of the effects of the fall but Jankovic is writing under the influence of the theo-recon vision of the future, which is the millieu in which she writes and in which was catechized (she is the daughter of the leading theo-recon writer and Federal Vision advocate, Doug Wilson). This is the point of her simile of leaven. This imagery occurs frequently among theo-recon, postmillinnial writers.

Indeed, it was this way of thinking that inspired the so-called Federal Vision theology. After decades of a direct assault upon American cultural and political institutions (see the resources below for some background), many of them abandoned that program for a sort of religio-cultural flanking movement. If the theo-recons could not “take back” America for Christ directly, they would conquer it indirectly by subverting the culture through the church. In Moscow, the leadership of what is known in the region as “the Kirk” has sought to create an alternative, theo-recon culture, featuring classical education (as mediated through the theo-recon, postmillennial grid), patriarchal family structures, and what James White has called a “sacerdotal” approach to ministry. Like the Marxists, the Muscovite theo-recon postmillennialists are “playing the long game.”  Sacerdotal refers to a priestly sacramental system of whereby there is said to be a two kinds of election, decretal and “covenantal.” Under the latter, baptism is said to confer temporary, conditional  election, union with Christ, justification, adoption etc. The Muscovite theo-recons (and their satellites, e.g., the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, AL and Apologia Church, Tempe, AZ and in every “classical school relying upon the curriculum supplied by Moscow) believe that they are “rolling back” the curse and instituting (or preparing for the institution) of a glory age on the earth where Christians reign until Christ returns.

It is one thing to speak of the mitigation of the effects of the fall. It is quite another to speak of human cultural or religious action as rolling back or undoing the curse. As Herman Ridderbos explained in The Coming of the Kingdom:

[The] absolutely theocentric character of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ preaching…implies that its coming consists entirely in God’s own action and is perfectly dependent on his activity. The kingdom of God is not a state or condition, not a society created and promoted by men (the doctrine of the ‘social gospel’). It will not come through an immanent earthly evolution, nor through moral action; it is not men who prepare it for God. All such thoughts mean a hopelessly superficial interpretation of the tremendous thought of the fullness and finality of God’s coming as king to redeem and to judge.

Jesus is he who rolls back the curse. He conquered death, hell, and Satan on the cross but the rolling back of the curse is not promised before the consummation. This is how our Lord Jesus taught us to think and speak in Luke 17:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:26–35).

We need not guess at how to interpret this passage since the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Peter to do it for us in 1 Peter 3:19–21 and in 2 Peter 2:4–10. In both places it is Jesus, not we, who shall roll back the curse and that rolling back is not done by us not even with the help of the Holy Spirit. Rather, Christ shall do it by his sovereign power as we watch and wonder. Noah did not help roll back the curse before the flood. He announced the coming judgment and the gospel of salvation. God saved his elect, in the ark, in the midst of the flood waters.

The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated. Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and he has  ascended and is reigning now but Christians are not the Christ. We are citizens of the Kingdom. The visible church is Christ’s embassy to the world. His preachers are his ambassadors. They announce his moral law and his gospel of free salvation by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). Together Christians serve the risen Christ in every sphere of life, as appropriate to that sphere but with the understanding that Jesus is the Savior and we, who believe, are merely the saved.

RESOURCES

Credit

Thanks to Bob McDowell for his editorial help on this and many HB essays.

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6 comments

  1. What’s your assessment of Marcellus Kik’s postmillennialism? Does it differ from that of Rushdoony?

    • Hi Peter,

      It’s been a long time since I read Kik, but as I said to Greg (see that reply) there is overlap re their optimism about the future but I don’t recall Kik advocating the theorecon agenda. I do recall them citing Kik, however. I don’t write this with a lot of confidence, however. That was a long time ago (30+ years).

  2. Hello Prof. Clark—

    Peter Herz asked about the post millennialism of Marcellus Kik; there are other names which could be added…going back to even Jonathan Edwards; names such as Hodge, and more recently, the irenic scholar Loraine Boettner, as well as Keith Mathison. I’m happy to stand corrected, but didn’t R.C. Sproul entertain preterist views in his mature years?(to be sure, not a full-blown, hyper-preterism). While Wilson (and Rushdoony) have been cited here, it seems to me that the most important theonomic apologists for a thoroughgoing post millennialism along those lines were David Chilton and Greg Bahnsen—and by extension, Kenneth Gentry (a former student of Bahnsen’s). It’s beyond obvious that Boettner, say, and Chilton are coming from completely different places, but that’s the rub…are they?? A couple of questions: is the postmillennialism of the theonomic variety a more rigorous extension/application of the older model—taken to its logical resting place? Added to this…what was to be the engine/fuel to bring about this “Golden Age” in the minds of the older postmillenialists? (clearly, it’s the Kuyperian model for the current ones). Next, should the entire thing be framed around epistemological/philosophical concerns, or exegetical ones? Premillennialism always wants to take you to the “proof texts”, but while theonomic postmillenialists come at this seemingly more through abstraction, they also do interpret the so-called “pessimistic passages” very aggressively, leaving the Dispensationalists, especially, very flustered and disoriented. The final consideration: of whatever variety, is postmillenialism faithful to the historic confessions? Should it be seen as another viable “stream” in Reformed thought? Theonomists aside, it seems to me there have been great and noble Reformed/Presbyterian men who have held this view…and when you read them re: mustard seeds and leaven…to say nothing of many of the Psalms…they seem very compelling in their remarks. I know this is a lot! Please make of it what you will!

    • Greg,

      there is a distinction to be made between theo-recon postmils and non-theorecon postmils. Yet, the non-theorecon postmils are among the headwaters of the theorecon versions. Indeed, there are Kuyperian versions of “optimistic” amillennialism which are hard to tell from postmillennialism.

      I don’t think that the theorecons are the logical extension of the Boettner version of postmillennialism but they share a common vision of the future. Were we making a Venn Diagram there would be significant overlap.

      The theorecon ethic is contrary to the confessions, especially the Second Helvetic Confession, which condemns “golden dreams” (contra chiliasm) and WCF 19. The Boettner version of postmillennialism is within the boundaries of the confessions.

  3. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Dr. Clark.

    My sort of half-baked thoughts on this are that 1) the work of Christ is the decisive event in which HE “reverses the curse” (the way I’m more use to hearing it than the ways stated by those mentioned in the post) on man (the elect) and creation; and 2) the elect, along with creation, await the full measure of this blessing in the consummation. I think Paul captures both of these ideas in Romans 8:18-25. Then, at the end of the book, he encourages the church to continue following Christ by pointing us to the guarantee of Satan’s doom and our exalted status in Christ wrought by God’s grace and power—it is God who reverses the curse and gets glory for it, not us. All glory be to Christ.

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