“Already But Not Yet”: When Does the “Already” End? When Christ Returns or When Jerusalem’s Temple Was Destroyed?

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Within my lifetime, not only academics but lay people also have become increasingly familiar with “the already but not yet”—the biblical concept of the overlapping of two ages—the present age and the age to come. This became evident when “Progressive Dispensationalism” emerged with the publication of Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (1992). A feature that distinguishes this newer form of dispensationalism is the belief that Christ Jesus already reigns, fulfilling the promise to David (Psalm 110), but not yet are all his enemies put under his feet. Hence, concerning Christ’s reign, “inauguration is present, but consummation is not.”[1] While distinguishing their view from “Classical Dispensationalism,” they also contended that their “formulation of ‘the already, not yet’ kingdom” was different from George Ladd’s.[2] Nevertheless, they set in motion rapprochement with non-dispensationalists that accelerated profitable conversations among scholars from both views throughout the past thirty years.[3]

1. Darrell L. Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ,” Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 51.

2. Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ,” 54.

3. Mention of one recent interaction must suffice. See Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas, eds., Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture, Spectrum Multiview Book Series, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,  2022).

“Already But Not Yet”—The Overlapping of Ages Between Christ’s Comings

Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (edited by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock) engages with George Ladd, but never mentions Geerhardus Vos. Ladd learned from Vos “the already but not yet” structure of the New Testament writers’ presentation of Christ’s inaugurated reign that awaits consummation. Vos extensively developed Christ’s “already but not yet” dominion in The Pauline Eschatology, where “eschatology” is not a reference to “the last things” as a systematic theology category. Rather, Vos uses “eschatology” to encompass the entirety of the Apostle Paul’s theological teaching concerning redemption in Christ Jesus.[4] Thus, Vos teaches us to recognize that when the OT prophets saw in advance the Messiah’s sufferings and subsequent glory, they were not given the insight that the salvation they prophesied would arrive not in one, but two phases (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10–12). So, at the Messiah’s advent, the glorious realm the prophets anticipated would reach its exhaustive fulfillment in fact did not end. Instead, Christ begins this new creation (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). He set in motion the age to come without ending this present evil age (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:21). All who are in Christ Jesus are already inhabiting the age to come in as much as God the Father “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).

4. Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, Princeton University Press 1930 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 11.

New Testament readers, whether Reformed or non-Reformed, Protestant or Catholic, have recognized this “already but not yet” structure and dynamic. This “already but not yet” dynamic concerns the presence of the future which is bound up fully with Christ’s advent. Thus, we should not speak of the “already but not yet” as a matter of degrees. It is not as if the coming age of salvation (brought forward into the midst of history when Christ came) is already partially here and partially not yet come. Instead, the perspective the NT writers present is that Christ Jesus has already inaugurated the new creation, which he will fully consummate when he returns. Thus, the glorious blessings of the coming age come to us in two phases. The already phase is anticipatory of the not yet phase. As the new moon anticipates the full moon, Christ’s first coming is a portent of his second advent (Acts 1:11). We are already inhabiting the inaugurated phase of the promised age of salvation while we await the consummated phase when Christ returns. We already experience the resurrection life in the resurrected Christ even as we inhabit this present evil age (Gal 1:4). By way of the preaching of the good news, through faith in Christ, we already receive the justifying verdict in advance of the Day of Judgment as we “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Gal. 5:5; cf. Matt. 12:36-37).

Focusing on the Apostle Paul’s letters prompts us not only to recognize how frequently we come upon “the already by not yet” dynamic but also how instructive it is. Consider the following.

5. Cf. David Briones, “Already, Not Yet—How to live in the Last Days: If we are to live biblically in between the times, we must trust indicatives and obey imperatives.” Republished at Desiring God.

Vos teaches us, then, to conceive of two ages or two realms coexisting with one another since the advent of Christ Jesus. With his resurrection, Christ brought forward the powers of the coming age (cf. Heb. 6:5), including resurrection and judgment, activating these powers within this present age.[6] Many have reproduced Vos’s charts that portray how the age to come now overlaps the present age since the advent of our Lord.[7] Readers of the ESV Study Bible will find a variation of Vos’s two diagrams.[8] Below is my own representation of Vos’s portrayal of how the OT prophets anticipated the salvation that Messiah’s coming would bring, followed by the structure updated by Christ’s coming.

6. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, 37–38.

7. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, 38.

8. The diagrams in the ESV Study Bible were with permission, adapted from my diagram. Crossway Bibles, ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version, ESV text ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007), 1804. 

“Already But Not Yet”—Only Forty Years of Overlapping Ages?

Recently, partial preterists, who embrace post-millennialism, have modified this portrayal of the NT’s teaching concerning “the already and the not yet.” Consider, last month’s podcast with Doug Wilson concerning the nature of Christian Nationalism. Among various pertinent questions asked of Doug Wilson, David Schrock inquired,

What for you is the mission of the church and, connected to that, how does your understanding of the two ages fit with that? Is there an already and not yet understanding? Certainly in things that I’ve read from you, you’ve said the overlap of the ages took place between the ascension of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem. Help us understand that and the mission of the church (Interview with Doug Wilson on Christian Nationalism).

Doug Wilson replied,

Okay, so very quickly on the ages. I think the Old Testament era—I call it the Judaic age—ended cataclysmically in 70 A.D. I think the Christian Aeon, or the Christian Age, was inaugurated 40 years before the Judaic Age ended. It was like a baton exchange in a relay race.

So, there were roughly 40 years when the two ages were running concurrently, and then the temple was destroyed, and we were into the Christian aeon. I would say that the already-not yet aspect of it has to do with the eternal age to come, so after the Lord Jesus returns. The Lord has been raised from the dead so that the end of the world happened in the middle of history. That’s the already. But then the general resurrection of the dead is the not yet.

So that’s the general pattern of the sketch for the ages.

Given Wilson’s response, the chart below illustrates what he believes concerning the “already but not yet”:

On his own blog, Wilson fills out some details concerning “the not yet” aspect. He explains that because of Adam’s disobedience, the Creator afflicted the created order with corruption. Creation’s liberation from this bondage will come about only when we, Christ’s people, receive our “not yet” adoption as God’s sons (Rom. 8:23). Thus, the entire creation groans with the pains of childbirth, pregnant with expectation, eagerly “longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). Wilson says,

This is the world that is pregnant with a future glory. So we do not believe that an external force is going to come down at the end of time and zap everything to make it different. We believe He already came down, and He already rose in the middle of history, such that things are already different—just as a pregnant woman is already a mother and not yet a mother. The transformation of the cosmic order is working its way out from the inside. A decaying world was infected with radical life and the infection site was a tomb outside Jerusalem.

Wilson believes the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple ended what he calls “the Judaic age” in A.D. 70. Consequently, the overlapping of the two ages spanned only about forty years. So, Wilson significantly reconfigures Vos’s conception of the two realms or ages. His version of Vos’s schema terminates the line representing this present age at A.D. 70, instead of at Christ’s second advent. Wilson relabels the time of Christ’s death and resurrection to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. as “the Judaic age,” instead of “this present age.” Likewise, he labels the time of Christ’s death and resurrection until the second coming as “the Christian Age,” instead of “the Age to Come.” Hence, his diagram does not capture the intersection of the vertical and horizontal dimensions as Vos’s does. Nevertheless, Wilson insists that Christ’s resurrection already invades the present with transformative power.

A decade ago, Uri Brito wondered how using the language of “already but not yet” was beneficial to the postmillennial explanation of “the victorious promise of the gospel.” He suggested that

It has not been helpful at all in the postmil eschatological proposal. When the amil advocate uses the language—and the language was coined by amillennial advocates—he means that though we taste a bit of the world to come now, we ought not to expect any type of cosmic manifestation in power and might of the gospel until the Second Coming.”[9]

9. Uri Brito, “Avoid the Language of ‘Already, and Not Yet’.”

Brito offers this:

Instead of the “already, and not yet” language we may choose to refer to our hope as the “already, already, but not yet,” emphasizing that we will not just taste of the world to come, but also experience the world to come in this world. Obviously this is a long-term strategy. Postmillennialists are not naive to suggest that this Spirit-blessed Gospel will cause world-wide transformation over night, rather this is a long-possibly millennial- project. A double “already” emphasizes the reality of this Gospel vision in history. Further, it emphasizes that we are not simply tasting of the world to come individually, but corporately as a people.[10]

10. Uri Brito, “Avoid the Language of ‘Already, and Not Yet’.”

Recently, at Kuyperian Commentary, Kendall Lankford conceived of “the already but not yet” similar to, yet different from how Wilson does.

Instead of the final fleeting moments at a cataclysmic end to human history, when the Bible talks about the “Last Days,” it means the last days of the old covenant era. It refers to the winding down of that redemptive epoch where priests mediated between God and us, temples were where you traveled to meet with God, and animal blood sacrifices stood between you and the almighty. The “Last Days” picture the close of that significant era and the dawning of the final chapter of human history, where the world will know God through His one and only Son.

To argue his case, Lankford focuses on Acts 2:17–21, advancing Ten Proofs The Last Days Are In The Past” spread over two published articles. His initial article features the passage in Acts 2. He concludes:

The last days began in the first century and ended with the end of Jerusalem and her temple. That isn’t to claim that the Bible contains nothing in our future; it does. But when we consider this text and the ones that have come before, we can conclusively conclude that these events have already happened.

Throughout his second article, Lankford draws heavily from Josephus’s Jewish Wars. He concludes, “These last days, the final moments of the Jewish temple era, were recorded with precise and exacting detail in the Scriptures and secondary accounts like Josephus.”

Conclusion

Geerhardus Vos’s formulation of the New Testament’s framework for understanding the relationship between the two realms-ages—the present evil age and the age to come—still endures. However, various partial preterists find Vos’s presentation and representational diagrams less-than-helpful to give proper expression to how they conceive of the apostolic teachings. Brito finds the expression, “already but not yet,” too anemic to account for his expectation that he will “experience the world to come in this world.”

Lankford’s approach seems to reach beyond Brito’s and take a distinctive step toward full preterism by insisting that “The last days began in the first century and ended with the end of Jerusalem and her temple.” This fixation on Jerusalem and the Temple radically reorients the Christian’s focus from Christ’s second advent— which Vos features in all his New Testament writings and especially in Paul’s eschatology—to the demise of the apostate nation of Israel.

Though Doug Wilson agrees with Lankford that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple signal the end of an era he calls “the Judaic age,” thankfully, he does not indicate that A.D. 70 is the end of the last days. Nevertheless, by labeling Vos’s two horizontal lines “the Judaic age” and “the Christian age,” and by placing A.D. 70 as the endpoint for the lower representative line, Wilson so significantly reorients Vos’s helpful schema as to render it unhelpful.

How is it not readily obvious that “the present evil age” continues, that we Christians inhabit two realms simultaneously—the present age and the age to come? Indeed, we are already participating in the new creation by virtue of being already raised with Christ Jesus as we await the not-yet-arrived resurrection. I plead with our Christian friends who subscribe to partial preterism. Retain with us Vos’s tried, tested, rich, and wonderful portrayal of “the already but not yet” eschatological framework of the New Testament. His schema accounts for not only the temporal dimension but also the two realms that Christ’s people inhabit, both the earthly and the heavenly. From the latter, we receive the new life that invigorates us to continue to serve our Lord on earth in God’s good creation, which he shall redeem for our eternal abode.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Ardel Caneday

    Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.