The Corinthian Church: Over-Realized Eschatology


Continuing through S. Lewis Johnson’s 1 Corinthians series  come some quite interesting observations from 1 Corinthians 4: the Corinthians’ eschatology.  I had read through Paul’s comments to the Corinthians at this point — where Paul sarcastically refers to them as already being kings, and wishing that they really were kings so that “we might reign with you” – but hadn’t really thought about the eschatological views implied in this section.

I don’t think the modern-day term “futurist premillennialism”  had yet been coined when Dr. Johnson delivered this message in 1994 (his last sermon book series), but here he gives an instructive overview concerning “futurist eschatology” and the then-new idea of “realized eschatology”:

 In theology, there is what is called futurist eschatology in which we look toward the future.  To see what the Bible has to say about the future we read Daniel.  We read the Book of Revelation.  We read the prophetic portions of the gospels and those prophetic portions of some of the epistles of the New Testament, the second epistles like 2nd Thessalonians and 2nd Peter, those epistles that seem to major on eschatology.  And we look into the future.  And our imagination sometimes takes over, and we seek to set dates for the things that lie ahead of us.  … one point that’s been made constantly: we do not seek to set dates.  But futurist eschatology is eschatology that centers on the coming of our Lord.

Now, theology today has invented a new term called ‘realized eschatology’, or ‘inaugurated eschatology’.  It’s very common, very popular with more liberal professing Christian professors, teachers, and preachers, because it’s an attempt, in one sense, to fight the emphasis on the future and the talk about the coming of the Lord, which to some people is a mistake — it’s not a mistake to me.  I think that’s something we ought to talk about.  We ought to have as a sense of imminence in our — imminency in our thinking about the coming of the Lord because the apostles did.  But there is a way in which we can overdo that.

And so in order to combat that, those who have held to this view have sought to stress those passages of Scripture that stress what we have already — what has already happened to us as a result of our Lord’s work on Calvary’s cross.

Fred Zaspel’s The Theology of Fulfillment is a good resource as well, concerning what we have now, along with an important caveat from Zaspel:  So in all of this “realized eschatology” we should not lose sight of the future. What we have today is the glorious realization of the OT hopes. But what lies ahead is more glorious still.  A significant hermeneutical guide arises out of all this also. That a promised blessing is realized here and now does not, ipso facto, rule out its fuller realization later. For example, there is nothing here that rules out the premillennialist’s hope of the future manifestation of the kingdom—nothing at all. That the age to come is present and coming is a matter of simple Biblical statement. And if there is already a realization of these blessings within history we should not be surprised to learn of a still fuller manifestation of them.

Colossians 1:13-14 is a good example of what we have now in “realized eschatology,” which  emphasizes our position (now) in Christ. From SLJ again:

Your position is in Christ, and you’re in the kingdom because you’re under His authority.  And that is, of course, a truth.  The balance between the emphasis on the future and the promises made to the Nation Israel and the promises made to the church in relation to Israel are very important, in the word of God; but it’s also important to realize the things that have taken place because the blood has been shed; atonement has been accomplished.

Moving past the idea of realized eschatology, we find the Corinthians – in their arrogance and puffed-up state – thinking that they have actually arrived, that they now have everything of the Christian experience: an overrealized eschatology.  S. Lewis Johnson’s comment here indicates that the term “overrealized eschatology” already existed by this time (1994) but did not originate with him:

 So evidently the Corinthians had what some of the interpreters have called an over-realized eschatology.  They not only looked to the future and looked to the present, but the present is so significant for them that they have already begun to reign.  They’re in the millennial kingdom right now, is the idea the apostle is underlining here. …

They should have been looking to the coming our Lord Jesus Christ and the entering into the kingdom of God upon the earth.  But already these individuals are in the kingdom.  Already they are full.  And so the idea of the kingdom was a place — was a kingdom in which men would have the things that they lacked.  They would have all the food, all the pleasure, all the luxuries, and they are in that kingdom before we are.  This is really an overrealized eschatology.  They thought they were in the kingdom already.

This lesson is certainly applicable to believers today, to keep the proper focus, that we have not yet arrived, that we do not yet already have everything of the Christian experience. As we look at what the New Testament says, including this passage in 1 Corinthians 4, we also affirm that this life is not the kingdom:

 what Paul regards as the present life is anything but a kingdom, in the sense in which they understand it.  He says:  “God has displayed us last, the last of the apostles, as men condemned to death for we have been made a spectacle to the world both to angels and to men.” The only glorious line — the only glorious thing that one can say about this is that we are following in the same train of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and that would be glorious.

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  1. Pauline
    April 19, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    I thought it at have been one of his last series Lynda. His voice is tired and he sounded rather slowed down. What a shame I wish he could have lived on to give us more of his wonderful insights into truth. Such a blessing to have found him.

    • April 19, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      Yes, his voice definitely sounds older in this series — though he still did some conference lectures for several years after that point. A great teacher, indeed, for the many teachings he did give us.

  2. April 19, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    I have often referred to 1 Cor. 4 in reference to what appears to be an incipient form of theonomic postmillennialism, preterism, the “health and wealth gospel”, or all of the above. The errors involved with the “over-realized eschatology” you refer to may be common to each of them, although other errors including false teaching regarding perceived fulfillments of unfulfilled prophecies are also necessarily involved.

    • April 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm

      Yes, a good summary of many different and yet related errors, false teachings still with us today.

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