Some years ago, while explaining Heidelberg Catechism 114, on the moral law, I wrote, “Paul was not a Gnostic, a Valentinian, an Anabaptist, a Familist, nor an Antinomian. He was a sinner saved and justified freely through faith alone, a Christian living in union and communion with Christ, seeking to bring his life into conformity to all of God’s holy moral law.”
A reader wrote to ask what this paragraph means. It is a loaded with historical references that would take some time to explain but each of these represents some kind of over-realized eschatology. By that I mean someone who thinks that he has or can have heaven on earth right now. In order to have it each of these groups changed the rules of the game. In one way or another they got rid of God’s moral law, God’s grace, or God’s church.
The Gnostics (including the Valentinians) did by getting rid of God himself and by making themselves into gods. This is probably the dominant theology of our age. The Anabaptists certainly had an over-realized eschatology. They were not content to be mere Christians. They wanted to make themselves into apostles and fancied that they were super-spiritual—perhaps they were the Super Apostles of the sixteenth century?—who both mastered the law and were free from it. They did not need justification and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone and the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone—the first generation of the Anabaptists rejected the Reformation solas. They fancied that they had the apostolic gifts and powers including tongues, being slain in the Spirit, and continuing revelation. They were the true precursors of American evangelicalism from 1800 to today. The Familists was a movement founded in the 1540s, in Emden. They were precursors to the early Pietist movement of Jakob Boehme (1575–1624). They were radical subjectivists who rejected the sacraments. Their views were adopted by the Quakers. Again, this is a manifestation of an over-realized eschatology.
Each of these groups, in their own way, tried to change the rules of the game: we are humans made in God’s image and placed in God’s good world. In Adam’s fall we all fell into sin and death. The law is the irrevocable moral standard of God, grounded in his nature and revealed in nature and in grace. Christ is the Savior of sinners, who have transgressed God’s law and thus incurred the death penalty. He has given the ministry of Word and sacrament to his church. Believers and their children are incorporated into Christ’s visible church and the Christian life is one of being slowly, gradually, graciously conformed by grace alone, through faith alone, to Christ. The moral law is norm of the Christian life.
This is not heaven and there are no shortcuts. There is only Christ for sinners, divine favor, true faith, the law and the gospel, the sacraments, mortification of sin and vivification.
Paul knew this. This is why he was not afraid to be what he was, a sinner saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Read Romans 7 slowly and carefully. This is the pattern he left for us, who are not apostles, who have not seen the risen Christ, who are not receiving continuing revelations nor being slain in the Spirit. We are to be what we are: mere Christians redeemed and sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone, and seeking to live according to God’s moral law, in union with Christ, out of gratitude for God’s free favor in Christ—not in order to be justified and saved but because we have been justified and saved.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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There were Anabaptists and there were Anabaptists among the first generation. There were the Swiss Brethren who had been colleagues of Zwingli and had participated with him in studying the Gospel of Matthew in Greek. They were committed to Scripture alone, to Christ alone, grace and faith alone for God’s glory. On the other hand, there were Anabaptists who believed what you described above, such as those who were at Munster. Hans Denck led a separate movement characterized as spiritualism. It is important to recognize the different movements within Anabaptism.
I’m aware of the diversity among the Anabaptists, but on the major point here, over-realized eschatology, they were united.
The first Anabaptist reader I’ve seen advocate something vaguely like the Reformation doctrine of justification is Menno.
I’ve not seen the Zürich Anabaptists teaching the Reformation doctrine of justification. We may not use their temporary alliance with Zwingli (Or, or accurately, his temporary alliance with theme ) to turn them into Protestants. They weren’t.
I do not think that all of the Anabaptists were Pentecostals but more of them were that is commonly recognized.
I am not being unfair.
Ps. The Zürich Reformation, in the years when the Swiss Brethren were active, was not particularly advanced soteriologically. We can’t just assume that Zwingli was where Luther was in re imputation or even sola fide.
Consider Zwingli’s 67 Articles of 1523. Articles 50–56 cover soteriology. They are only vaguely Protestant. There is no clear confession of sola fide or imputation. His Short Christian Instruction is more mature re sola fide and the nature of grace but imputation isn’t terribly clear. Luther was articulating imputation much more clearly by 1523.
So, even were we to impute, forgive the pun, Zwingli’s theology to the Swiss Brethren, it doesn’t help that much, at least not in that period.
Reading this column gave me a bit of an “Aha” experience. I’ve been reading Michael Allen’s book “Grounded in Heaven”, and it appears that at least something like this over-realized eschatology has made a shift in the way hope is perceived. It’s become suspicious in their eyes to intimate that God is the meaning of the Christian hope, when there is so much that “we can do now.”
Thoughts, Dr Clark?
Recently I was listening to a theonomist/reconstructionist describe his eschatology as being attractive because it was “optimistic.” I don’t think that is the way we should arrive at our eschatological position, but it is very revealing as to our impatient flesh being attracted to an over-realized eschatology. Why wait when you can be about making the Kingdom arrive in full now? I find it not surprising that many of the men attracted to the Moscow Kirk are likewise enthusiastic entrepreneurs and community planners—they believe they are literally building a Kingdom on earth. That’s heady stuff.
1. Love your avatar.
2. This is a great point. Thank you. It is a form of rationalism to decide a priori what the outcome should be (e.g., “optimistic”) and then pick an eschatology because it has the desired, happy outcome. It would be just as rationalist to pick a pessimistic outcome a priori.
The questions should be hermeneutical:
a) How does the New Testament read the Old?
b) How does the NT teach us to read the Old?
c) Is there any basis in the NT for thinking that there will be an earthly glory age before Christ returns?
Too many people assume that unless Christ’s present reign is manifested in some sort of earthly glory he is not truly reigning. This is a Dispensational assumption. Was Christ reigning when Christians were being arrested and martyred in the 2nd and 3rd centuries? Yes he was. He sovereignly ordained those persecutions.
Thanks, very encouraging! Guido De Bres’ work on the Anabaptists has similar points.
That’s where I learned it. His critique changed my mind substantially about the ABs. See the lecture linked in the comments.
Thanks Dr Clark. I listened today.
The pursuit of an over-realized eschatology: a QIRE example?