The Promise of The Future
One of the many privileges of my seminary education was to sit at the feet of Dr. Cornelis P. Venema, professor of doctrinal studies at, and recently named president of, Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.
Seminary professors are really amazing phenomena. Although you hear them lecture for only three or four years, they remain your teachers for life. Like a bad dream – only good in this case – you can’t get their lectures and lessons out of your mind, no matter how much you try. As I read and study, teach and preach, there’s always one of them, it seems, peering over my shoulder, poking his nose in my business, whispering in my ear things I need to hear and sparing me from exegetical, theological, homiletical and pastoral blunders, which still occur far too frequently for their liking, I’m sure.
I recall Dr. Venema as a theological wizard, an astute, comprehensive, organized thinker and teacher of the doctrines of God’s Word. My reading of The Promise of the Future (Banner of Truth, 2000, 538 pp.) proved the accuracy of my recollections. Among all the theological treatises being marketed by the Christian book distributers of the world, this one is among the best and for many reasons, chief of which is Venema’s approach which refreshingly consists “primarily of biblical exposition” (xvi).
Venema’s objective in “The Promise of the Future” is to “present a comprehensive survey of the Bible’s teaching regarding the future following the traditional sequence of topics in eschatology” (xvi) which is “aimed at the biblically and theologically informed lay person” (xvii). For those who regard themselves as theologically uninformed, the book does contain a helpful glossary of terms. The book is divided into six parts, the first of which deals with the future as it is progressively unveiled in redemptive history. Here Venema functions as a tour guide in a walk – more like a sprint! – through biblical revelation, showing how some promises regarding the future have been fulfilled while others have not.
The second part deals with the future between death and the resurrection or what is often dubbed “the intermediate state.” Venema correctly insists that, biblically speaking, our hope is not merely in the immortality of the soul – an idea which tends to diminish the centrality of the bodily resurrection in the believer’s expectations – but in the immortality of the whole person in his or her perfected state, the state of resurrection glory (41).
In this second part, Venema also examines a number of unbiblical viewpoints regarding the intermediate state–namely, annihilationism and soul-sleep, before presenting the biblical perspective in which 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23 receive special attention. This section concludes with a fine critique of the Roman dogma of purgatory.
Venema makes the shift in the third part of his book from personal eschatology to general eschatology by focusing on the second coming of Christ. In this section, Christ’s second advent is correctly presented as the revelation of the triumph of Christ’s mediatorial reign which believers await with both enthusiasm (in view of present helplessness) and vigilance (in view of coming judgment).
With an array of biblical texts and themes, Venema defends the conviction that Christ’s return will be a consummating event in which the present age comes to a close and the new heavens and the new earth are introduced. As far as the timing of this return is concerned, Venema steers the reader pastorally through seemingly contradictory texts before concluding that Christ’s return, especially from the vantage point of the apostles, was both near (the next major event in history) and distant (to be preceded and delayed by certain events). Venema concludes this section with an exhortation to resist all temptations to predict the time of Christ’s return.
The fourth section deals with what are commonly called the “signs of the times,” the reminders or signposts that the day of the Lord is near. Venema deals first with the signs of God’s grace, of which the preaching of the gospel to all the nations is primary. Venema goes so far as to assert that the preaching of the gospel is “perhaps the single most important sign of the times” since it is “the evidence of the triumph of God’s gracious purposes in history” (126). As such, the church should never fall prey to any spirit that would diminish the glory and power of preaching.
The second sign of God’s grace is the salvation of “all Israel.” Although I disagree with his conclusions – I take “the fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:25) to refer to the consummation of history – this section convincingly demonstrates that Venema’s doctrinal allegiances are to Scripture and not to the theological tradition from which he comes and in which he moves. The position he defends, relatively uncommon in the Dutch Reformed camp, is most often associated with Scottish Presbyterianism and postmillenialism – namely, that in Romans 11 Paul envisions a future conversion of ethnic Israel.
I also wish that Venema would have interacted with Cornelis van der Waal’s view that Paul in Romans 11 is speaking about the Jews of his day, prior to the destruction of the temple in AD 70, when ethnic Israel was still addressed in terms of the covenant.
Venema’s treatment of the signs of grace is followed by an analysis of the signs of opposition and judgment. As far as the description of these signs in Matthew 24 is concerned, Venema believes that they “refer primarily and immediately to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70” but have “a secondary and more remote reference to the events that will characterize the present age until Christ’s coming” (145). He argues that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to restrict the application of these verses to the events around AD 70” (153).
Venema believes that the signs of tribulation and apostasy will issue into periods of great tribulation and great apostasy (164). In this context, having noted that the church’s greatest enemy arises from within her own ranks, Venema issues a warning to the church to be vigilant against temptations, among which one of the “deadliest” is denominationalism (165). “Whether rooted in nostalgia, sentiment or wishful thinking, such blind loyalty has no place in the life of the believer” (165).
Part five of the book is dedicated to the different millennial views. Venema begins by giving concise and helpful introductions to historic premillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, postmillennialism and amillennialism. The position Venema cogently and winsomely defends is amillenialism, making it clear to the reader that he wishes to be known as an “optimistic amillennialist” (360). Venema also suggests that we replace the term amillennialism, which literally means “no millennium,” with nowmillennialism (235).
The remainder of this section is devoted to critiquing premillennialism and postmillenialism with a fine exegetical chapter on Revelation 20 sandwiched in between. Venema’s comprehensive and convincing critique of premillennialism, which includes discussions on hermeneutics and the relationship between Israel and the church, is extraordinarily valuable for critiquing dispensationalism as a whole and not just its eschatology.
In his critique of postmillennialism, Venema helpfully restricts the term to the view that there will be a golden age of unprecedented blessings some time prior to Christ’s second coming (341). This restricted definition, as Venema realizes, effectively renders that brand of postmillennialism found among many Christian reconstructionists, such as Kenneth Gentry, almost indistinguishable from amillennialism.
Venema acknowledges, however, that while the reconstructionist position is formally similar to amillennialism, in that many believe the millennial period encompasses the entire time from Christ’s first to second advent, its distinctive emphasis upon the progressive realization of the kingdom of Christ warrants the label postmillennialism, although it is, in Venema’s estimation, “a hybrid version of postmillennialism” (342).
In his critique, Venema argues that postmillenialism is guilty of, among other things, muting the biblical teaching about the fellowship in suffering between Christ and his disciples and altering the focus of the believer’s hope from Christ to the millennium itself (355). Here I wish that Venema would have taken into consideration the postmillennial views of James B. Jordan and Peter Leithart who speak of the church “limping to victory,” her triumphs disguised as disasters.
The last section in The Promise of the Future deals with the things that will accompany the return of Christ at the end of the age. Here Venema deals first with the resurrection of the body by reviewing the Bible’s teaching before critiquing the aberrations of Murray J. Harris, who teaches that the resurrection body of Jesus was immaterial and invisible, and answering some pastoral questions regarding the resurrection of the body.
In dealing with the final judgment, Venema makes it clear that the judge will be Christ and the judged will include both believers and unbelievers. This judgment is not an occasion for undoing the confidence believers now enjoy but it may serve as a legitimate encouragement for diligence in fighting against sin in this life (402). Venema also discusses the place of eternal rewards, the prospect of which he likewise regards as an encouragement to believers.
Venema then deals with the doctrine of eternal punishment and ably handles the objections to this difficult doctrine before concluding the book with a discussion of the new heavens and the new earth in which he defends the traditional Reformed position that the new heavens and earth will be substantially similar to the present heavens and earth.
This attractive and nicely bound hardcover from the Banner of Truth Trust has all the marks of a great treatise. In addition to its sound theological presentation and clear biblical exposition, The Promise of the Future is pervaded by a spirit of genuine humility and pastoral concern. Venema repeatedly shrinks back from being dogmatic on points that are simply unclear in biblical revelation and often encourages the reader to exercise the same caution and humility. Here and there you will hear Venema breathe a sigh of concern for the church in her too frequent mishandling of Scriptural passages.
In conclusion, let me say that I was invited by the editor to regard this book review as an opportunity to grade one of my professors. I would therefore like to use this occasion to communicate to Dr. Venema the message he often scribbled in the margins of my exam papers: “You should have written more.” But I must concede that whereas his concern with me was a deficiency which left him unsatisfied, my concern with him is a sufficiency which has whetted my appetite for more. Do yourself a theological favor: Buy this book and read it.
Rev. William De Jong is pastor of the United Reformed Church in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada. This review was published in “Christian Renewal,” October 8, 2001, and is reprinted with permission.
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