VI. What Does the Reformed Tradition Say?
After I read a number of descriptions of the Tribulation, the Rapture and the rest, I had the uneasy feeling that Hollywood had taken over the religious scene. What movies these would make -- for those who like scary special effects on the screen! This graphic and dramatic detail is absent in the teaching of all the historic churches -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. How do we account for this difference of style as well as content? A basic reason is that we read the Scriptures differently.
A. Scriptures and divine intervention. The work of Christ affected humanity; Christ opened wide the gates of heaven so that now all kinds of people may enter in.
When you read the above sentence, I assume you understand the phrase "opened wide the gates of heaven." From the beginning of Paul’s mission the church gratefully recognized that God who worked especially with the people of Israel, the family circle of the Messiah, included the rest of humanity in the divine plan. So the non-Jew from Jerusalem to Rome, the known world of the day, also could hear the gospel. The gates of heaven were opened wide.
If you now begin to ask: are there gates on heaven? how many? what are they made of? which ones are open and when? -- you miss the whole point. I would have to say: Even if there is no gate at all Christ still opened wide the gates. The truth in the above sentence does not depend on whether the parts of it are actually true. Or think of a parable Jesus told, the good Samaritan or the prodigal son . Did it happen just this way? Even if it never happened, the truth of the parable remains.
This principle clearly is not applicable to historical material. If there never was a King David, if Jesus was not born, then we cannot find a truth remaining, because the story is not based on actual events. That is why it is essential to know what kind of literary material we are interpreting. If it is historical narrative, we ask questions about time and correct descriptions. When it is poetry, metaphor, allegory, parable, proverb, apocalyptic vision, then we search for the meaning, the truth for which the words are vehicles.
One of the basic disagreements between us and the millennialists is over the matter of biblical interpretation, especially the interpretation of Daniel, the book of Revelation and prophecies in the Old Testament. The millennialists read these as history. The dispensationalists among them insist on the "literal" interpretation of Revelation as well as of the rest of the Bible. This position is not reasonable. In the 1981 Bible Study of United Presbyterian Women and Women of the Church, "Called by Grace to a Life of Love,"
William Chalker speaks wisely about the fallacy of literal meaning:
The difficulty with this position is the simple fact that words have no "literal" meanings. (Consider the word rose. Does it mean a flower? A color? Is it someone’s name? Is it the past tense of the verb rise? Only the context tells us. Such words as prayer, obedience, sacrifice, praise and salvation have one meaning in the context of idolatry and another in the context of Israel’s faith.) Those who interpret passages "literally" are, in fact, supplying contexts themselves to give the passages their meaning. But if we are faithful stewards who want to hear God’s Word and not our own in Scripture ... we will diligently and prayerfully seek, with all our minds, for the meaning intended by the biblical texts .... (CONCERN, Spring 1981, pp. 29-30).
This is the perspective of the Reformed tradition.
The problem becomes even more complex when we turn to a special genre of literature, apocalyptic writings. The Reformer John Calvin, who wrote commentaries on almost every book in the Bible, did not write one on Revelation.
Daniel is the only apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament, and Revelation the only one in the New Testament. A number of others were written: the three books of Enoch, the Second Book of Esdras, the Ascension of Isaiah, and later the Apocalypse of Peter. Daniel, which influenced them all, was itself influenced by Zoroastrian teaching on the Last Judgment, the battle between good and evil in which humans and angels participate, the punishment of evildoers by fire, elements not present elsewhere in Old Testament tradition. The material in the Book of Daniel was put into a collection, according to Jewish and Christian scholars, in the mid-second century B.C. The book was addressed to the Jews at a time when temple worship and even the existence of Jewish faith was threatened. The time was the Maccabean revolt (165 B.C.) of a group of Jews against Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who dedicated to Zeus Olympus the second (rebuilt) temple in Jerusalem. The book, especially chapters 7-12, gives hope to the rebels. However dark it is now, God is aiding them, they are nearing the end of the fight and approaching a golden age.
The kind of prediction about the future in Daniel differs from prophetic fore-telling. Here the future is not the result of past and present actions, of faith or unbelief, repentance or sin, but a complete reversal of what would be expected. The reversal is brought about by the imminent, supernatural intervention of God.
This apocalyptic world view influenced Jewish culture. Jesus’ hearers were familiar with it, and the early church retained the view; see I Thessalonians 4, and the "little apocalypse" in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21. But the major New Testament representative of this view is Revelation.
To the persecuted Christian believers the Revelation to John brought hope, as the Book of Daniel did two centuries earlier. Christ appears as an omnipotent being, executing God’s judgment, in himself the supernatural intervention of God in history. He reverses history to the relief of the suffering believers. The essence of apocalyptic is the affirmation that God who is in control will one day deal with evil radically; God will go to the roots and pluck it out. However much destruction and punishment this might entail, God will do it. And you who have been faithful will stand with God in a world of justice and peace. That is what apocalyptic is all about: God’s sovereignty in spite of the present power of evil and God’s final vindication of the faithful and just. The clearest and best example of reading Revelation as it was read in the first century, as God’s assurance to the suffering Christian community, is Allan Boesak’s recent book Comfort and Protest.
In the first two centuries of the Christian era, the early church sustained the reassuring note of apocalyptic expectation about Christ’s imminent return with the kingdom. But when persecutions became intermittent, and some areas were not affected by them at all, the needs of the community changed. Origen, one of the giants of Christian thought, helped the church in the third century to perceive the rule of Christ in the life of the believer, not in the external world. The conversion of Constantine in the fourth century altered the picture -- the state or the Emperor was no longer seen as the Antichrist.
Throughout the centuries individuals here and there revived millennarian expectations, but no serious impact was made. During the Reformation, in spite of the suffering of very large numbers of Protestants and later Roman Catholics, neither the Reformers nor the Roman church turned to the hope of a future millennium. The only exceptions in the 16th century were among the radical reformers involved in the Peasant’s Revolt (1524-25), and the militant Anabaptists of Muenster (1534)
.In the midst of persecution and martyrdom it might have been "helpful" to believe that God would intervene and miraculously rescue God’s own. But no such hope was raised. The Christian hope is not in an interventionist God. There were five young Frenchmen who studied at the (Protestant) School of Theology in Lausanne. While traveling in France, where Protestantism was illegal, in April 1552, they were arrested and later condemned to death. The Swiss cantons protested and petitioned the French court, sending messages and representatives. Calvin wrote to them throughout the year. His letters are testimony to the faith of the five students as well as his own. Hope is in the faithfulness of God, not in a happy outcome.
"If He has promised to strengthen with patience those who suffer chastisement for their sins, how much less will God be found wanting to ... those whom God employs on so worthy a mission as being witnesses to God’s truth. You must therefore keep this sentence in mind, that the One who dwells in you is stronger than the world." (1 Calvin, to the five prisoners of Lyon, 7 March 1553, from Letters of John Calvin, selected from the Bonnet Edition. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Press, 1980, p. 144.) It is Calvin who writes in May that year: "My very dear Brothers: the king has peremptorily refused all the requests made by Messieurs of Berne...All earthly hope is gone; they will be executed: "...let enemies do their utmost, they never shall be able to bury out of sight that light which God has made to shine in you..." (Ibid., p. 148, 150). And that light shone. According to contemporary records, the five were burnt at the stake together, saying to each other: "Courage, my brothers, courage." No intervention -- no Millennium, no Rapture -- promised or expected.
Calvin’s understanding of the book of Revelation is reflected only in references to it in other writings, since he wrote no commentary on it. Checking out the references to Revelation in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, I found that Calvin quoted Revelation far less than any other book of comparable size in the Bible. Reading each reference, it is clear that Calvin treated it as apocalyptic literature, written for the comfort of the suffering, persecuted church in the first century and that he found in it notes of comfort for every age. He found also general teaching in it, applicable to our daily life. On Revelation 19:10 and 22:8-9, where the seer’s reaction to the angel is, "I fell down to worship," Calvin comments: "We are not to bow to anyone but God, not even angels." (l.xii.3). Divine glory belongs to God alone, he affirms (lxiv. 10). No great millennial scenarios, just teaching to live by.
In the 17th and 18th centuries there were Reformed theologians in Britain and North America who spoke with more fervor about the coming kingdom, approaching a millennial expectation. But it was not treated as a doctrine, nor was it a major element in their teaching; they were not predicting the future and were not distorting the Scriptures. Only in the latter part of the 19th century, once again in Britain and in the U.S., was there a real revival of apocalyptic interest that was nurtured into almost a distinct religion.
About the last things, the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition teaches, together with the historic churches, only the four themes witnessed to in the New Testament:
— the return of Christ;
— the resurrection;
— judgment; and
— eternal life.
B. The Millennium. The Millennium, a centerpiece of the various scenarios, is an erroneous expectation. It is based on only two verses, and those are in Revelation (20:2,4). Calvin comments on it "...the chiliasts limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years. Now their fiction is too childish either to need or to be worth a refutation. And the Apocalypse, from which they undoubtedly drew a pretext for their error, does not support them. For the number ‘one thousand’ (Rev. 20:4) does not apply to the eternal blessedness of the church...On the contrary, all Scripture proclaims that there will be no end to the blessedness of the elect..." (Institutes,III.xxv.5).
Yet the Millennium is vital to the dispensationalist scheme. Once the decision is made
— that the two apocalyptic writings in the Bible predict the end time,
— that they are to be interpreted "literally," and
— that any prophecy anywhere in the Old Testament may refer to the end time,
then one cannot avoid the thousand-year reign of Christ. As we saw one cannot avoid even the loosing of Satan at the end of the thousand years, one of the strangest, most frightening and also contradictory notions. As we noted, the blessedness of the Millennium was not all that blessed for those who were "forced to obey" in Swaggart’s description.
We need to be careful how we read Scriptures.
C. The Rapture is similarly missing; the word does not even occur in the New Testament. The passage to which rapturists point is I Thessalonians 4:17. It is helpful to read the whole passage, verses 13-18. The theme is the Second Coming of Christ, which Paul relates to the certainty of Christ’s resurrection and ours. Paul’s purpose here is not to expound a doctrine, though he does that too. He wants to allay the fear of those who expected, as he did, the early return of the Lord, yet in this time of waiting their loved ones had died. What will happen to those who will not be here when the Lord comes? So Paul assures them: "...we who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep...the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (vv. 15-17). This passage has been interpreted through the ages as speaking of the return of Christ, the resurrection and eternal life, three of the themes of Christian eschatology.
Rapture has not been heard of until quite recently. A young woman living in Port Glasgow, Scotland, Margaret MacDonald (1815-1840), had a vision in which she saw a two-stage coming of Christ, first for the church, then with the church. She later wrote down her vision, but visions normally allow various interpretations, and this vision is far from clear. The influence of Margaret MacDonald on John N. Darby, who first taught the Rapture, has been traced. Some fiercely reject the connection, trusting Darby’s claim that his idea came from the Bible. In either case, the doctrine is a latecomer which the rest of us do not find in the Scriptures.
D. Tribulation, another of the major themes, pictures the horrible seven years of suffering on earth, with the church present, or leaving in the middle of the horror, or absent entirely. That Tribulation is "the time of Jacob’s trouble," i.e., primarily concerns the Jews and takes place mainly in Israel, or that it is worldwide, are variations on the theme. Is this concept biblical, and if so why has the church not always heard it?
Tribulationists refer to the ninth chapter of Daniel. The first two verses recall the prophecy of Jeremiah on the length of captivity -- 70 years. After a long and beautiful prayer in verses 3-19, Gabriel appears to give wisdom and understanding to Daniel. Then Gabriel speaks of "seventy weeks of years," not 70 years but seven times 70 or 490. By varied and complex interpretations tribulationists insist that the last seven-year period has not yet been fulfilled. When it starts, it will be the great tribulation spoken of in Matthew 24:15-28 and corresponding passages and in Revelation 7:14.
For us such contortions of both Scripture passages and historical contexts raise more questions than they answer. Why do proponents of these methods go to so much trouble? With a very tidy mind, if one can have a large overall picture, pieces can be found to fit in and fill the details. This is not a conscious misleading, one can be carried away with logical constructions. That is the kindest way I can look at the dispensationalist structure.
What do we say to all these themes? We see no biblical basis for a literal, earthly Millennium, or for a Rapture or for the Tribulation. We find that the central error of dispensationalism and all millennial speculations is that they fail to take seriously the work of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit and the kingdom.
The Christian hope has reference to the future, but also to that which is now past -- Christ has already accomplished our salvation. The New Testament indicates that the believers were convinced that the hope of Israel has been fulfilled. In Christ, in his death and resurrection, God "has visited and redeemed" God’s people. Christians speak not only of the future but affirm that God "has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of God’s beloved One, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col. 1:13,14). God’s reign has been inaugurated.
The church in its diverse streams, with varying depth and zeal, has proclaimed throughout the ages, in the administration of the sacraments, that believers participate here and now in a reality that is beyond the visible and experiential. To baptize is to seal the believer for the day of final redemption. To break the bread and to pour the wine is to share a foretaste of the Messianic banquet: God’s then breaks into our now, time and timelessness is spanned. It may not be surprising that the sacraments are not mentioned in millennialist/dispensationalist circles. Yes, the church awaits the fulfillment, but it lives by God’s grace and Spirit, as participant in God’s work in the time between the ushering in of the kingdom of Christ in the incarnation and the revelation of its full glory. For that we all wait together.
The 118th General Assembly (1978) of the Presbyterian Church U.S. adopted an interpretive study, "Eschatology: The Doctrine of the Last Things," consisting of twelve theses and a position paper. The text is printed in the Minutes of that Assembly (pp. 208-231) and it is profitable reading.
The study, written in response to millennialist teaching, reaffirms and also publishes an earlier (1944) position of the Presbyterian Church U.S. on dispensationalism So it is a helpful paper on the issues we are discussing. Since its writing we have been inundated with TV preachers’ imaginative contributions -- hence the need to look at the matter once more.