‘Have you heard the one about the end of the world?’

Or: Why Study, Part 1

This is the first in a series of five posts seeking to encourage pastors to engage in serious theological study beyond the commentary work required for preaching. The posts are by Garry Williams, with input from the Pastors’ Academy team.

You can listen to this post here.

Most of the church circles I have moved in have been amillennial, with a smattering of postmillennialism (of the non-literal millennium type). Perhaps these labels are baffling to you. Even the most end-times-minded pastor probably struggles to keep all the changing varieties of dispensational premillennialism straight in his head. Faced with the complexities of eschatology, and mindful of how obsessive some people can become over it, it is tempting to react with the common joke. After a pastor preaches, say on Mark 13, someone asks him a question about his position on the millennium. The pastor replies: ‘There are three main positions: pre-, post-, and amillennial, but I am a panmillennialist – I believe it will all pan out alright in the end!’.

This tired quip can be a light-hearted prelude to a proper answer, in which case it is perhaps harmless. But more often than not the questioner’s question is being laughed off and the message is that we are all meant to move on. At its worst, The Joker (for that is how he has cast himself) speaks with the suave confidence of the charming leader who intends to convey in no uncertain terms that the question itself is a faux-pas in our (or rather, his, for that is what he thinks they are) circles. ‘Now my dear brother, we don’t want to get too intense around here – if you want to get on you’ll need to move beyond such questions.’ And in that moment an entire branch of systematic theology is lopped off, vital hermeneutical questions about how Scripture coheres and therefore how it should be preached are dismissed, and a troubled soul is left both unsatisfied and belittled.

It could be that The Joker has studied eschatology in some depth. He may have pored over Daniel 9 and Matthew 24 and Revelation 20 and read his Charles Ryrie, George Eldon Ladd, Cornelius Venema, and Keith Mathison. It may be that having done the work he has conscientiously concluded that the question is truly unworthy of consideration or is unresolvable. But I doubt it. In fact, I find it inconceivable that anyone could study even some of the basic texts of eschatology and genuinely conclude that the issues can safely be dismissed. The Joker’s response is very unlikely to be the informed verdict of an expert. It is far more likely to be the legerdemain of ignorance trying to conceal itself, or of laziness unwilling to do hard theological work. As its worst, it represents a resolved indifference to the teaching of Scripture from one who professes to be above all things a Bible-teacher.

Sadly, it is also possible that the refusal to engage with the question reveals not just an indifference to Scripture but also a world of prejudice. In Britain many view eschatology as the unhealthy obsession of unhinged Americans who read trashy airport novels about the rapture, or of bearded (yes, bearded, and so definitely non-U) theonomist troglodytes inhabiting the basements of the Pacific Northwest. If they were honest, they would say to the questioner: ‘My dear chap, it is all just so infra dig.’

It should not be so. Standing up to preach implies that you know what you are doing as a teacher and preacher of the word of God, that you have a significant degree of theological competence. People rightly look to their pastors as theologians. They bring their theological struggles to them hoping to receive some help. They come asking questions that may touch on some of the most sensitive matters of their heart and soul. In particular, eschatological questions revealing a premillennial perspective often stem from teaching deeply imbibed years ago that has had a profound structural effect on their theology.

We owe it to the Lord’s precious people to help them with these kinds of questions, and that means we must be ever-growing in our own expertise as theologians. Sinclair Ferguson comments that the demise of respect for pastors among Christian people is due to the fact that Christian ministers are all too rarely experts in the very fields in which they ought to be experts. As he puts it: ‘your whole ministry has got to do with being a theologian’.

Enough of the joking around, let’s get serious about growing our own theological expertise.

At the Pastors’ Academy we seek to provide teaching that fosters genuine theological expertise, and we try to model taking questions seriously and answering them well. We do this through a range of offerings, from study hours to study projects to our ThM degree with PRTS. Do get in touch to discuss how we might help you.