September 6, 2009

In my second article titled Now You See Them, Now Your Don't I pointed out that the most popular view of the second coming of Christ and the prophecies which surround this view is a recent innovation!  It began in the late 1820's in England and Scotland and spread to America in a matter of ten years.  Since, the end of World War II and the constituting of Israel as a nation in 1948, it has become the most widely held and commonly accepted view of the evangelical world.  Before I continue to critique and (hopefully) dispel this view, let me make clear that I believe that many who hold this view of prophecy are indeed Christians.  I am not attacking the Christian character of those with whom I differ.  I owe a great debt to many who hold the view I will be criticizing.  However, the fact that they are Christians does not mean that they are right or that our differences are unimportant.  Some men's hearts are better than their heads.  What is in their heads may still be dangerous to others.

With the remaining articles of this series I believe that I must do a thorough job of convincing people of the error of the popular view of Christ's Second Coming.  Of course, I must do this mainly through opening up the clear teaching of the Word of God.  Before I do that, however, I must attempt to remove a prejudice in favor of the popular view and against what I will teach.  The view I criticize has been popular since at least rise of Hitler and World War II.  This makes it seem to many to be the historic view of the Christian Church.  Anything else thus appears to be novel.  Therefore, in order to test the validity of the claims for the popular view of our day, we will have to study a little church history.  With this article (and the next) we will look at the history of eschatology (that means, the study or doctrine of the last things).  I will then have to respond to a question that may begin to pop up in your mind:  "If what I have been and will continue to teach is true, how can so many people be so wrong?"

The First Response:  The view most popular today is only one for four basic views that have been held and are held by evangelical Christians today!

The prophetic view popular today has a name.  It is called Dispensationalism, or more fully, Dispensational Premillennialism.  Dispensational Premillennialism (as the name suggests) is a form of premillennialism.  Premillennialism is the view that Christ is to return before the millennium prophesied in Revelation 20:1-10.  The term, millennium, is simply the Latin for 1000 years.  The 1000 years of Revelation 20 is a time in which Christ reigns and Satan is bound.  Premillennialists take this to mean a personal and physical reign of Christ on earth after He returns to a literal 1000 years.

Dispensational Premillennialism is the form of premillennialism that emphasizes that history is divided into different dispensations.  Of course, all Christians - no matter their eschatological persuasion - allow that in some sense this is true.  Dispensationalism is more specifically the view that God is pursuing alternating programs in these different dispensations.  As the chart below suggests, God alternately pursues His plan for the Jewish nation, on the one hand, and His plan for the Gentiles and the church on the other.

Closely related to this Dispensational scheme of history and, in fact, built on it is the secret rapture theory of Christ's second coming.  As we have seen in previous articles, this theory has been spectacularly popularized by the special effects of the Left Behind, The Thief in the Night, and The Omega Code movies, is the view that Christ's return will be in two stages.  The first of these will be secret and will remove the church from the world prior to the Great Tribulation.  The second will be glorious and will bring an end to the reign of the Antichrist and usher in the millennial reign of Christ with the Jewish nation over the world.

It is important to emphasize that the unique and distinguishing feature of Dispensationalism is the consistent separation between Israel and the Church that it maintains.  This is called the Church-Israel distinction.  It is this point that most clearly distances Dispensational Premillennialism from the next view to be described.  That view is often called Historic or Covenant Premillennialism.  This view holds, in common with Dispensationalism, a premillennial view of Christ's return - without the secret rapture.  Premillennialism, as just noted above, is the view that says that Christ is to return before the millennium prophesied in Revelation 20:1-10.

The name Historic Premillennialism is a loaded term.  It claims for this view that it is the historic view of the premillennialism to be found earlier in the history of the Church.  It implicitly claims that Dispensationalism is not to be identified with the premillennialism found in the early centuries of the church.  In fact, Historic Premillennialism was a commonly accepted view of the second coming of Christ from the second and especially the third century onward.  We will come back to this claim later in this article.

This view has also sometimes been called Covenant Premillennialism.  The name, "Covenant Premillennialism" associates this view of the end times with so-called Covenant Theology."  Basically "Covenant Theology" does not separate Israel and the Church the way Dispensationalism does.  Rather, it sees the Church as "The New Israel" of God and rejects the Church-Israel distinction of Dispensationalism.  It follows that by rejecting this distinction this form of premillennialism has no need for a secret rapture theory.  Note here this differences in the table below:

The Church & Israel The Church is the true and new Israel The Church is distinct from Israel
The Second Coming One return and Post-Tribulational Two-stage return with a secret rapture and Pre-Tribulational coming first

Amillennialism literally means "no millennium."  In one sense this name is accurate, and in another it is not.  It is accurate in that the millennium has usually been defined as a great golden age of material blessing on earth before the eternal state in which evil is suppressed and righteousness is triumphant.  It is true that in this sense amillennialism holds no millennium.  Amillennialists, however, are Bible-believing Christians and view Revelation 20:1-10 as divine truth.  Thus, they do believe in the millennium of Revelation 20 and associate this period of time with the gospel or church age between Christ's first and second advents.  They teach, consequently, that Christ returns after this millennium is completed.  At His return the general judgment and general resurrection occur and the eternal state commences.  It is best diagramed like this below:

As you have probably guess from the previous articles, this is the view that I accept.  This view was also widely accepted by students of the Apostle John and their students as well and was popularized in the late fourth century by Augustine.  It was the most commonly accepted view of the Second Coming at the time of the Reformation Movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and was the accepted eschatology of our early Baptist forerunners, the Anabaptists and with those who were a part of framing the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (the first Baptist creed).

The fourth view held by evangelical Christians today is called Postmillennialism.  As its name indicates, postmillennialism teaches that Christ will come back after the millennium.  In contrast to amillennialism, it does believe in a great, golden age of spiritual and material blessing on earth before the eternal state.  In contrast to premillennialism, it believes that this great golden age is brought to pass through spiritual means before the return of Christ.  This view was quite common among Roman Catholics in the Middle Ages and through the eighteenth centuries and was held by many Puritans and those of the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.  This view is now the least held among Christians today.

These are the four views of eschatology that have been held throughout church history with the first one (Dispensationalism) being the newest modal, and yet, the most accepted today.  These millennial views can be classified in different ways.  For instance, they can be classified by their view of the relation of the return of Christ to the millennium:

Dispensationalism Amillennialism
Historic Premillennialism Postmillennialism


They may also be classified by means of their view of the relation of the return of Christ to a future tribulation:

Dispensationalism Historic Premillennialism

These views may also be classified by means of their view of the relation of the Church and Israel:

The Church is Distinct from Israel
The Church is the New Israel
Dispensationalism Historic Premillennialism

Finally, these views may also be categorized by way of their view of a future millennium before the eternal state:

Dispensationalism Amillennialism
Historic Premillennialism  

The main point of this brief overview is to show that Dispensationalism is not the only view held by evangelical Christians.  The idea that, if the popular view is wrong, then the Christian church has been wrong, assumes something that is simply mistaken.  Evangelical Christians today hold each of the above views.  Each of the views discussed above, with exception of Dispensationalism, has been widely held by Christians in past centuries of the Church.  Dispensationalism is prominent in our day, but each of the other views has had its day in the church.  The point is this: Dispensationalism is not the only Christian alternative!

The Second Response:  Could those who sat at the feet of Christ's Apostles and third, fourth and fifth generation Christians (Church Father's) be wrong about the second coming of Christ?  Dispensationalism says: "YES!"

As I have pointed out, many have the impression that the Dispensationalism widespread today is the historic view of the Christian church.  This impression is sadly mistaken and based on a remarkably nearsighted view of church history.  It is true that Dispensationalists have made extraordinary claims with regard to premillennialism in the early church.  One noted Dispensationalist by the name of Dr. Charles Feinberg, has asserted, "The entire early church of the first 3 centuries was Premillennial almost to a man."  There are, however, three problems with Dr. Feinberg's claim.

1 - Even if his claim were true, it would do him little good.  As we have noticed above, there is a great deal of difference between Dispensationalism and Historic Premillennialism.  In fact, in a number of respects Historic Premillennialism has as much or more in common with Amillennialism and Postmillennialism, that it does with Dispensationalism.  It is indisputable that the Premillennialism found in the early church was Historic rather than Dispensational in character. 

The proof of this is to be found in the first church father in whose writings we find premillennialism.  This father is known as Justin Martyr.  Justin's writings date from about the year 160.  He was clearly a premillennialist.  In his Dialog with Trypho, the Jew, he says:

        But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.  (chapter 80, cf. chapters 76-81)

The difficulty with Justin's premillennialism for Dr. Feinberg is that in this very work he bears explicit and repeated testimony to his complete rejection of the essential feature of Dispensationalism, the Church- Israel distinction.  One of the main themes of his Dialog with Trypho, the Jew is that Christians are God's true Israel.  The following statement from chapter 11 is representative of many:

 For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham ... are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ....

None of the early premillennialists manifest any understanding or commitment to the crucial distinctive of Dispensationalism, the Church-Israel distinction.

2 - Dr. Feinberg's claim that the early church was premillennial almost to a man is simply false!  We know this for a number of reasons.

In what are arguably the two earliest references to premillennialism it is clear that some early Christians were not premillennial.  The first reference has already been mentioned.  In the same chapter cited above in which Justin Martyr affirms his premillennialism, Trypho, the Jew, cross-examines Justin about his belief that Jerusalem will be rebuilt during the millennium.  Is he really serious, asks Trypho, in affirming a doctrine held also by the Jews?  Justin replies:

I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing and think another.  I admitted to you formerly that I and many others are of this opinion, and believe that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.

In this amazing statement we learn that even in the early church people that Justin viewed as genuine Christians (many who are of the pure and pious faith) disagreed with him about the subject of premillennialism.

The second person of these two earliest references to premillennialism is associated with the name of Papias.  Papias claimed to be a student of the Apostle John.  Though none of Papias' books survive, excerpts of them are recorded in the church history of a man named Eusebius.  Eusebius lived between 260 and 340 and he interspersed his own comments throughout his excerpts of Papias.  Eusebius' comment about Papias is relevant to our point.

The same person, moreover, has set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Savior, and some other things of a more fabulous nature.  Amongst these he says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth.

Eusebius' comment makes clear that he regarded Papias' premillennialism as beyond strange and actually fabulous.  From this it is clear that Eusebius himself was not a premillennialist.  This is another clear indication that Feinberg's statement about the early church being premillennial to a man in its first three centuries is simply unwarranted.  Clear and important evidence, then, flatly contradicts Feinberg's claim.

3 - The impropriety of Feinberg's claim is shown by the fact that it is Dispensationalism itself that is the novel in church history.  Far from being the historic position of the church, there is clear evidence that the particular form of premillennialism known as Dispensationalism only developed in the first half of the 1800's.  To review:  Dispensationalism was born in the cradle of what is called futurism.  This was a theory of the interpretation of prophecy and especially the Book of Revelation that assigned its events mainly to a future period of tribulation. 

The genesis of futurism among Protestant premillennialists must be traced to the influence of one Edward Irving.  In 1826 Irving came into the possession of a book written by Emmanuel Lacunza entitled The Coming of Christ in Glory and Majesty.  As might be expected from one converted out of a Jesuit background, the method of prophetic interpretation utilized by this author was futurism.  Concerning the developments leading up to the emergence of dispensationalism, the primary significance of Lacunza's work lay in its futurism with reference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation (not only regarding the millennium of chapter 20 but also the tribulation of chapters 6 to 19).

The futurism popularized by Irving is the backdrop and context of the development of the Dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby.  Though there were futurists who were not dispensational, Dispensationalism grew and could only grow on the futurist ground plowed by Irving.  If you read the second article of this series you will remember that the revivalists movement of the 1820's and 30's along with the rise of cult and occultism produced a growing influence in the study of the last things.  From the writings of Irving, the visions of Margaret MacDonald and the preaching of John Darby, dispensationalism was born.  The secret or pre-tribulational rapture theory emerged from within this context.

For Feinberg to claim any historic precedent in the earlier ages of the Christian church is completely inappropriate and wrong.

In the next article, we will continue with the study of the Millennium by answering the question of how to best interpret prophecy.  I will expose the error of the Dispensational method of interpretation and offer the alternative which is both historic and Biblical.

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