To some European Christians in the sixteenth century, it felt like the end of the world. Controversies between Roman Catholics and Protestants over church authority and therefore biblical interpretation were painful and peaking, with implications for every aspect of life - familial, political, economical, social, educational - on the line. Efforts were also underway to unite warring Christian factions to form a unified military front against a massive army of Muslim Turks aggressively marching north toward the lands of Luther and Calvin. In general, sickness and disease were the norm of daily life, not the alarming exception. In these profoundly stressful times, Martin Luther was getting all fired up while Calvin was keeping it relatively cool.
Martin Luther was perhaps anachronistically channeling his inner “Left Behind” as he saw every new cataclysm as evidence of the end of days. Calvin, though, showed signs of a consistent amillennialism - an eschatology for all seasons - and essentially said, “Get used to it." (As this biased oversimplification implies, I’m a Reformed a-mill kind of guy. Calvin’s steady notes of sardonic, slightly bitter resignation sing sweetly to my soul.) Now to the more serious point lying behind these (likely lame) attempts at levity in an increasingly stressful time. Both historically consequential theologians were men of great courage; both approached their troubled times with a gravity commensurate to the calamities; and both saw the same realism reflected in the Scriptures.
Though Luther and Calvin differed on how to read the times via the Scriptures (theirs was not a day of finely developed eschatological systems), they agreed that the Scriptures gave real and realistic instruction for all times. The Scriptures understood the ages and every age because they understood and explained the basics regarding the people who populate history, humanity's cataclysmic rebellion against God, and the cursed cosmos in which God's stunning plan of redemption plays out. Scripture’s essential purpose and therefore primary principle of interpretation is to tell of Jesus the Christ, the God-man, through whom all things exist (John 1:1-5;14) and the Savior in whom all things are being summed up (Ephesians 1). In fact, though Scripture certainly contains its difficult to understand portions - eschatology divides even very like-minded believers - and while confessing Christians throughout church history have had their multiplicity of opinions on all kinds of biblical issues, the Reformed in particular have historically emphasized the clarity of the Bible (Luther, too, in his own way and context represented a hermeneutical move toward the "plain" meaning of Scripture which was ever Calvin's goal in interpretation), especially on the “necessary matters,” or as we might say it, on what matters most in any and all times and circumstances. But we have to be careful how we understand and handle the Bible's simplicity and clarity regarding the big-picture basics of knowing and living for God.
Sometimes conservative Reformed Christians view Scripture with a bit of the same kind of marginalization and truncation forced upon the text by those with a “higher critical” approach, who see nothing really supernatural about the text but might nonetheless find some lessons for good moral living here and there among a scattershot, sometimes contradictory compilation of texts the church decided were sacred. So much of the Rationalism and then Enlightenment era anti-supernaturalism which fueled this critical approach, though it lives on in various ways, has been discredited by a postmodern society that has judged it, ironically, an irrational and certainly ethically irresponsible way to think and live. But having bid good riddance to religion from on high, what’s left are shouts of hardline atheism but mostly a chorus of agnostic voices, either affable or antagonistic. Both approaches often belie a gnawing, growing sense of cosmic aloneness that’s already pandemic in popular culture, and that feels particularly chilling due to the mandated "social distancing" now dominating headlines. The Bible is no longer considered a help in such matters, deemed incapable for the most part of engaging pressing social matters in relevant ways. Or, Scripture is considered to be a major hindrance to the kind of progress society needs to make. A theologically conservative view of Scripture objects to religious agnosticism and all of the above views of the Bible, strongly asserting Scripture's supernatural nature and practical relevance. But do we who make such assertions actually put to practice the conviction that Scripture speaks with divine power and authority, clearly and powerfully to our day? To find out, there’s an easy, but uncomfortable, question we can ask of ourselves, especially as distressing news metastasizes: How much are we worrying?
By "worrying," I don’t mean being deeply concerned, or feeling very heavily and personally the weight of what’s going on in life. The Bible sanctions and sanctifies all of that; just see, and better yet sing, the Psalms! I mean worrying – “fretting,” conjuring and then trembling about all kinds of hypotheticals and unanswerable "what if's,"adding the additional weight of worry to the already heavy burdens we and society may be shouldering. How much time have we spent worrying lately about matters personal, local, national, global? Aren't the Scriptures clear that we are not to worry? Yes, in many places, most famously perhaps in Matthew 6:24-34. Jesus says, "Do not worry about your life ..." That's quite clear. But are we his disciples treating our Lord as if he knows what he's talking about? As if his words are realistic, and therefore really relevant?
When the Reformers emphasized the Bible’s clarity – ironically, the theological term for clarity is perspicuity – with regard to the things necessary for salvation, they were not telling us that the Bible’s clear teaching only has to do with the life after this one, and that if you want to go to heaven, the Bible will help you out – but for life down here, you’re on your own. The Reformers understood that the church must ever deal with, and minister to, the often plague-ridden, politically volatile days in which they, and the majority of humans in the world prior to them, had always lived; they understood that the Bible's teaching about salvation had every bit as much to do with present tribulations as it did with future glory.
Our culture and our era in the wealthy West are abnormalities in history and in the majority world today. So it’s an irony particularly telling of our spiritual timidity that escapist eschatology is so very popular among those who, broadly and historically speaking, have so very little to flee from. Why would Christians who are among the most materially blessed people in the world and in human history be the ones so adamant about an eschatology that gets us off the planet before “things get really bad”? Try selling that view of the “end times” to the Christians in Rome’s gladiatorial arenas! Or now, to Christians in North Korea.
Perhaps we've held the Bible too close to our screens; as news of current events ticks by, we nervously look for the signs of the times. We try to decipher secrets from the biblical text apparently withheld from millennia of Christians who’ve suffered this fallen world’s woes and who could have told us, who did tell us in fact, along with the Scriptures themselves, that hard life in a pained world is the norm. We should expect that at particular times and places, things will get "really bad." If some Christians hold their Bibles too close to the screen to read God's words rightly, others who criticize escapist eschatology hold the Scriptures too far from our hearts to believe God's word fully. We might not be looking for a miraculous rescue or evangelistically urging people not to be "left behind", but does our worry about personal pain and global trauma reveal a practical eschatology even less grounded in actual trust of God's word?
Such days as ours, and the calamities which come to mark and even define them, do not catch the Scriptures off guard. The Bible anticipates and prepares us for such times, and so many of the biblical authors lived in such times. Sometimes the Bible is criticized for being “so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good,” but that’s just not the Bible. This word from heaven is replete with gritty, down-to earth realism. Others find the Bible too earthy, ancient, backwards and downright brutal. G.K. Chesterton, prior to becoming a Christian observed that the Bible must be a rare book indeed for critics to so vehemently assail it from all possible angles, evidencing in their bluster what he called “the self-contradiction in the skeptical attack” – i.e. mutually contradictory criticisms which in effect cancel each other out and leave the Bible standing relatively pristine in either one of two positions: Either (impossibly) wrong about absolutely everything or very right about very important matters whose moral weight presses the biblical critics into such ridiculous logical contortions in their seemingly sophisticated but often quite irrational and sometimes just insipid invectives. Nor was Chesterton unaware of a possible third option, that the Bible was a “patchwork quilt” document which could be attacked from all sides because it said so many contradictory things. The mutually contradictory critics were complaining in many cases about the same passages, or often the whole theme or tenor of the Bible as a whole. Such theories were quite popular in his day and would be answered so substantially by the likes of J. Gresham Machen in the decades soon to come with his supremely scholarly battle against theological liberalism, and within Chesterton’s genre of Christian apologetic efforts by C.S. Lewis as he engaged the critics of Christianity in his day, often with a Chestertonian flare for irony, satire, and paradox. The criticisms come and go, but the word of the Lord remains, ever ready to serve us, “at such a time as this.”
Our Lord tells in Matthew 6 that our heavenly Father will provide for all of our needs in the midst of circumstances that threaten not only to suspend comfortable suburban activities and accouterments, but which make us legitimately afraid for our lives. Jesus calls us to focus not on our worry, but on our work. Our priority is to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33-34). In these days, what are the most practical ways we can pursue righteousness? That we can love the Lord with all the more of all that we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves? Jesus promises that as we seek to make his kingdom more manifest in this world, our heavenly Father will provide us every day of our lives with all that we need to make that day's kingdom-seeking successful.
In our day, bearing the trials of our times, let us get to kingdom work. Let us look to and listen to, and put into practice, the word of the one who inhabits eternity, and who therefore has just the right things to tell us, right now.