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Al Mohler’s Theological Triage: Is Eschatology Really a Third-Order Doctrine

June 20, 2011

I have posted previously concerning the amount of scripture that teaches eschatology, or last things, as compared to the amount of scripture concerning so-called secondary doctrines important enough to divide fellowship over:  baptism and the Lord’s supper.  See this quote for S. Lewis Johnson’s observations concerning the number of verses that teach these doctrines.

I recently had a brief discussion with someone who still maintains, like Al Mohler, that eschatology is actually a third-order doctrine, less important than even baptism and the Lord’s supper.  He put forth the following reasons for such, which I would like to respond to here:

  1. “Regardless of how much the Bible teaches about the end times it is still rather speculative. The main point is Christ is coming back and so be prepared.  Yet Baptism and the Lord’s Supper has everything to do with defining the nature and boundaries of the church and thus is a second level issue.”    — and —
  2.   those second-level issues have “only been a defining character of fellowship since the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies.”

In reference to the specific words from S. Lewis Johnson (referenced above), this person acknowledged familiarity with Johnson, and just said that Johnson over-emphasized certain teachings whereas others have taught more concerning ecclesiology.

If his first point referenced only the timing of the rapture, I would certainly agree that such discussions can get too speculative: the rapture timing can only be inferred.  However, the context of this discussion concerned overall future things including viewpoints on the millennium and the nature of Israel and the church — and his point that “no matter how much the Bible teaches … it is still rather speculative.”

Having read so many biblical texts throughout the Old and New Testament, I cannot see that the Bible is at all unclear in its many references, especially considering the many passages in the Old Testament that speak of the future restoration of Israel, as well as describe a time that will be somewhat different from our world yet during which sin and death will still exist (such as Isaiah 65).  If words mean anything and are not merely wasted platitudes about the gospel going forth during the glorious church age, such a type of world has never existed yet, neither does it fit with the Eternal State.  Such passages are only unclear if one plays loose with words, and thinks that perhaps the word Israel doesn’t really mean Israel — and to do so is to wreak havoc with basic hermeneutical principles and head down the path towards unbelief and rejection of many other biblical doctrines.   Historic premillennialist J.C. Ryle well observed that he simply could not understand how anyone reading their Bible could not see these things, things that are so plainly set forth and as clear as a sunbeam.

Regarding his second idea, that these second-level issues were never really considered important for fellowship until the fundamentalist movement (early 20th century) — I answer from a general knowledge of church history.  Luther and Calvin and their followers, in the 16th century, parted ways over differing ideas of the Lord’s Table — and so we have Lutherans as distinct from the other Protestant denominations that followed Calvin.  The Anabaptists, also of the 16th century, sharply divided with all the Reformers over the matter of baptism:  believers baptism only for Anabaptists, versus infant baptism for the Reformers.  The Reformation period shows many other instances of the divisions amongst all the differing Protestant denominations, so to say that these divisions only occurred in the early 20th century is also quite misguided.

Finally, if some theologians “over-emphasized” certain teachings and neglected ecclesiology, it can also be justly said that the reason why these men “over-emphasize” the Second Coming, is precisely because so many other teachers have neglected that.  Someone has to over-emphasize, to compensate for the vast majority of teachers who practically ignore the prophetic word.

  1. June 20, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Lynda,

    Since you’re interacting with me I figured I should respond since I think you misunderstood me.

    First, I do accept the Scriptures teach a pretribulational, premillennial scheme of eschatology. Yet, the hermeneutics involved obviously differ from those who disagree with that position. Yet, orthodox Christianity has never maintained that one had to hold to a specific position as long as one believed that Jesus had to come back in bodily form. For instance, the “Fundamentals” books never dealt with details of eschatology since it wasn’t a primary issue.

    Second, I never intended that things like baptism and the Lord’s supper never divided. That was my point, they were of extreme importance as they had to do with the nature and boundaries of the church. Those though are second-level issues. You’re maintaining that eschatological issues are not tertiary but secondary and what I am arguing is that details of eschatology were not areas of disagreement until recently, specifically during the Fundamentalist/modernist controversy.

    The point, besides you’re misunderstanding of my brief statements in a Facebook thread, is that the important thing ultimately is that Jesus is coming back. Details of the coming are up to disagreement as they have never historically been first order issues. Why they should be so now is beyond me. While we teach it in our churches, it should never divide our churches. Issues of the Gospel/Salvation and fundamental issues are first and should be first. But issues of timing of eschatology are not first order.

    So, to take a few brief comments I made interacting and not actually asking me what I meant by the details is not helpful.

  2. June 20, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Hi again Allen,

    It appeared that the Facebook thread was finished, seeing as you left the group after that unrelated incident, so there wasn’t further opportunity to discuss it there. Here I am not really trying to interact with you personally, so much as exploring some of my own further thoughts on the matter, in response to the specific statements that were made in the Facebook thread. I had not heard such particular responses before, and as I later posted on that thread, having the discussion was good for overall “iron sharpening iron” and thinking through and understanding my own position better.

    Obviously we’re going to disagree on this, but I was responding to the specific statements made. What was said was a claim that those differences of baptism and Lord’s table had never caused differences in fellowship UNTIL the modernist/fundamentalist era (early 20th century) — that people did not divide over that issue until then; yet history shows otherwise — people did split over those differences going back to the 16th century. I was responding to that statement, regardless of who had said it, and I’m sorry if I misunderstood what you had meant to say. If you are now saying differently, that’s fine. Since you referenced an online article regarding that point, perhaps others have thought or said similarly.

    I understood your “important thing” that Jesus is coming back. I disagree with the idea that no matter how often the Bible mentions eschatology, it is always speculative. Considering that you do in fact affirm premillennialism and a pre-trib rapture, I have a difficult time believing that you really think that; such types of comments (about it being highly speculative) are what I usually see from non-premills, especially pan-mill believers. I concur with Matt Weymeyer, who observed this rather playful “pious agnosticism,” and that God has revealed too much in His word for us to remain in such agnosticism.

    As to the history of “orthodox Christianity” and eschatology: the early church (ref. Justin Martyr) did hold that all who were of right-minded belief held to the literal future 1000 year kingdom. Certainly, though, church history from the time of Augustine on down down-played eschatology, with Augustine’s church replacement and amillennialism becoming the defacto standard for the next 1000 years of Roman Catholicism — and as is well known, the reformers only reformed soteriology and just carried forward other Catholic doctrines, unreformed. What the reformers started — literal hermeneutic — needed to continue, hence the “always reforming” saying. Appealing to tradition and saying that “just because” believers throughout much of church history thought one way, doesn’t make that way right — we must go back to what scripture mentions as important, including approximately 1/4 of the Word related to the Second Coming.

  3. June 21, 2011 at 9:09 am


    Yes, my intention in the comment about divisiveness until the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy had to do with issues of dividing over eschatology (i.e. third level issues) not baptism (i.e., second level issues). If that was not clear, my apologies. People did not begin to make eschatology the issue it was until rather recent. Issues like baptism and the Lord’s Supper have always been issues (even since the early Church Fathers).

    I did not also mean that eschatology is always speculative, but that the general tenor of eschatology is speculative. Even the prophets did not grasp the nuances of a “two-stage return” and the disciples had to be taught over and over again the nature of what was to come (they even waited for His immediate return, wrongly). So, for us to be absolutely dogmatic on timing issues is really not helpful. Your very point that it has been debated throughout church history makes that clear enough. While I think the Scriptures teach a pretribulational, premillennial return of Christ (and clearly so) it does not mean that everyone will think so, therefore we should clearly not divide over the issue. Whereas issues of first level importance (the fundamentals) should be divided over, and even second level issues (like the nature of the church and who belongs in it) will surely divide (just ask Jonathan Edwards!)

    Facebook threads are at best weak opportunities to debate intense theological issues (which, as you will recall, I was not debating at all, simply trying to encourage people to be charitable).

    So, I hope that clarifies my thoughts, whether you agree or not.

  4. June 21, 2011 at 10:49 am


    Thanks for your further comments. I certainly have never thought of Facebook threads as places for theological debate, either, and am not interested in such … but such places are great for discussing general ideas, from which to springboard and blog further thoughts on.

    I’m not sure what you mean about being “dogmatic on timing issues.” Could you please clarify the extent of what you mean by that? I mean, I know the folly of those who try to predict specific or even general dates for Christ’s return — as well as the folly of the “newspaper exegesis” done by preterists with 70 A.D. And I recognize that valid arguments can be put forth regarding different ideas of when the rapture takes place. But the overall distinction between Israel and the Church, and the premillennial return of Christ, are so plainly set forth in scripture (I don’t see how they could be any clearer), so just wondering.

    Regarding the idea that eschatology was not always considered important, again a lot of that does go back to the stranglehold that Catholicism held over Christianity for so long — and yet such was clearly within God’s decretive will for this age, as even scripture offers many hints that at the time of Christ’s return people will be sleeping and not eagerly looking for Him, going about their daily affairs in this life, and so it has come to pass.

    Again, though, just because it wasn’t an issue historically, is not valid reason to say that differences in understanding of eschatology are no obstacle or limitation on fellowship. Arminianism as I understand is also a relatively recent development, and yet differences in understanding do limit the level of fellowship there, and thus Arminians fellowship separately, and Calvinists tend to feel uncomfortable in Arminian churches (especially when the Arminian preacher speaks against Calvinism, but even in the general handling of ideas concerning election and God’s sovereignty).

    I would agree that among those believers who have not fully studied eschatology and don’t think it’s important, fellowship is unhindered; they are at the same level in their walk and maturity. Yet when some believers have studied the matter and have greater understanding, that does limit the level of fellowship with those who either a) haven’t given it much thought or b) have contrary ideas. To those who do fully understand premillennialism, though, differences in preaching do come out when listening to non-premillennarians. I can notice the differences in the preaching of many different parts of scripture, since understanding of the church and Israel and the coming literal kingdom come out in so many scriptures, not just in the “classic” eschatology passages that everyone thinks of like Daniel or Revelation etc. So I contend that these differences in how we interpret various scriptures, have far greater impact on church fellowship (including what is being taught at that church), at least as much as differing views concerning baptism and communion. Again, since so few passages actually touch on those doctrines, those doctrines really don’t come up all that often in a particular church’s sermons or other teaching; yes, they come up in a particular church’s practices of actual baptism and communion, but not as much in the sermons… for which reason I also have greater spiritual agreement with J.C. Ryle, for instance, because in the preaching and teaching and the writings left after the man himself is gone, eschatology is far more important than the ordinances observed at a particular local church.

  5. June 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    I think we continue to talk past each other. I am not sure you follow what I am saying so I must drop it. Blessings.

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