What Shall We Believe? by Aurelia T. Fule
Aurelia Takacs Fule is a former staff member of the Program Agency of the United Presbyterian Church and later Associate for Faith and Order in the Theology and Worship Ministry Unity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is retired and living in Santa Fe, N.M. What Shall We Believe? was copyrighted by Aurelia T. Fule in 1987 and is used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
III. What Is the "New Teaching"?
We referred to the fifth-century Council of Ephesus, which condemned belief in a future, historical millennium. Clearly the idea is very old. But with a lot of added features, it has become popular in the U.S. only very recently. We speak about the New Right in religion, as well as in politics, only since the late ‘70s. The preachers of these "new" teachings are the leaders of the new religious right. We will start our survey with a more moderate and serious view.
The Pre-millennialist picture. As we defined this teaching it holds that the Second Coming of Christ will be followed by a thousand years of Christ’s earthly reign. George Eldon Ladd of Fuller Seminary, an exponent of this view, writes, "...the New Testament for the most part does not foresee a millennial kingdom"; and again, "The New Testament nowhere expounds the theology of the millennium, that is, its purpose in God’s redemptive plan" (in The Meaning of the Millennium, op. cit. p. 39). Having made this careful statement, Ladd outlines the whole program to the end.
Before you read any further, I urge you to read Revelation 19:11—20:15 and take notes. This is important so that you yourself can judge and are not left between Professor Ladd’s and my perceptions. For your independent view read the passage carefully: what happens, to whom, who does what? What are you reading about? What does it all mean? Try to visualize what you read. Then come back to this text and find out if your notes agree with what follows.
The Second Coming, says Ladd, brings Christ as conqueror who now destroys his enemies: first the Antichrist and all his supporters, then the one behind the Antichrist -- the dragon, or Satan, who is bound and imprisoned for a thousand years. The "first resurrection" of the saints takes place, they share Christ’s millennial reign. At the close of this period Satan is released and finds supporters among the unregenerated who are prepared to stand against God. A final, eschatological war ends with the devil being cast into the lake of fire. The second resurrection -- of those not raised before the millennium --takes place, and they stand before God’s judgment throne.
Finally death itself is vanquished; like the devil and the wicked, it is thrown into the lake of fire. To most of us this, as a prophecy about the end of time, is all new. How is it that some Christians know this much about the "program" of the end times while the rest of us do not? They are reading the book of Revelation, from chapter 19, verse 11, to the end of chapter 20, a sequence of apocalyptic visions, as if they were prophecies. And inevitably they interpret those chapters. If you read Revelation 19:11—20:15, did you find all of the above? I did not, and needed the interpretation of millennialists to make "sense" of some of the events. Millennialists like Ladd are restrained interpreters because they hold that apocalyptic literature is about the end time -- and as we noted, they read apocalyptic as if it were prophetic fore-telling. But they do not turn other passages into end-time predictions.
Dispensational approach. The restraint noted above is singularly lacking in this school of thought. John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and C.I. Scofield following him, developed a scheme of dispensations. They taught that God has two distinct plans for two distinct communities. God has an earthly plan for Israel and a heavenly plan for "born-again" Christians. The rest of humanity has the possibility of joining one or the other. This view was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.
In the 1917 edition, Scofield writes in the introduction: "...the dispensations are distinguished, exhibiting a majestic, progressive order of divine dealings of God with humanity, the increasing purpose which runs through and links together the ages from the beginning of the life of man to the end of eternity."
Darby and Scofleld claimed to have discovered a doctrine of ages or dispensations in the Bible. The past is seen as a line of distinct, distinguishable periods; the present and the future are also part of the scheme of dispensations. They have discovered seven distinct dispensations:
1. Dispensation of innocence -- which ends with Genesis 3.
2. Dispensation of conscience -- ends with the flood.
3. Dispensation of human government -- ends with tower of Babel.
4. Dispensation of promise -- ends with Abraham’s descendants going to Egypt and slavery.
5. Dispensation of law -- ends with the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
6. Dispensation of grace -- ends with Second Coming of Christ.
7. Dispensation of the kingdom that will bring .history to an end.
The endings of the first five ages indicate that humanity failed completely and God thought up another dispensation and gave another opportunity in which humanity failed once again. Scofield warned of ruin, disaster, catastrophe to the end. There is no possibility of peace on earth until the millennium. Only true Christians need not fear because they will be with Christ. These and a number of other characteristics present in Scofield’s dispensationalism became stronger and more obvious among his followers.
Dispensational interpretation of Scripture. Any passage from the prophets or apocalyptic writings can be used by dispensationalists as if it were speaking about the millennial reign of Christ. There is no justification for this, least of all by people who claim to interpret the Bible literally. The original meaning of the text -- that is, the intention of the writer in the historical, cultural context of the writing -- is disregarded by dispensationalists.
It is true that Jesus and the early Christian community reinterpret some texts, in the light of the Christ event and only in that light, not with reference to something yet to come. Matthew 2:15 reinterprets Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt have I called my Son." Philip reinterprets Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch as speaking of Christ (Acts 7:30-35). But no other figure or event save Christ -- his cross and resurrection -- is ground for reinterpretation.
One example may show how differently biblical texts can be handled. We will look at Daniel 7:7-8, as commented on by John Calvin and C.I. Scofield. The verse speaks of the fourth beast, a dreadful creature with ten horns and "among them another little horn." When interpreters get to the little horn, says Calvin, they quickly point to the Pope or the Turks, that is, whoever opposes or threatens the faithful in their own day. But Calvin rejects this, because "they think the whole course of Christ’s kingdom is here described," but instead God is showing to the prophet "what should happen up to the first advent of Christ." The convulsions of the age before Christ were too many, says Calvin. Dominion in the Near East went to the Persians, then the Macedonians -- "afterwards those robbers who made war under Alexander suddenly became kings" -- and strife and hostility were experienced. Then the Roman Empire took over. "Thus this vision was presented...that all the children of God might understand what severe trials awaited them before the advent of Christ." Daniel "does not embrace...the whole kingdom of Christ" (Commentary on Daniel 7:8). As here, so Calvin reads the entire book of Daniel as addressed to contemporaries at the time of writing with understandable historical and social references, therefore relevant for those who first hear or read it. It is speaking about the time before the first coming of Christ and needs to be interpreted in its historical context
According to Scofield the vision speaks of the end of Gentile world-dominion. The "little horn" is identified with "prince that shall come" (Dan. 9:26,27), the "king" (Dan. 11:36-45), "the abomination" (Dan. 12:11 and Matt. 24:15), the "man of sin" (II Thess. 2:4-8) and the "Beast" (Rev.13:4-10). What a horn!
Scofield’s end of the Gentile world-power is still in the future. "The 10 kingdoms, covering the regions formerly ruled by Rome, will constitute, therefore, the form in which the fourth or Roman empire will exist when the whole fabric of Gentile world-domination is smitten by the ‘stone cut out without hands’ = Christ." How did Scofield know this? What reason can one find to say this is prophecy about the end of this world? None, according to the rest of us -- outside dispensationalism. That Scofield is really speaking of the end time he makes clear both by the phrase "Gentile world power" and by cross-referencing the Daniel 7 passage with a footnote to Revelation 16:14: "The time of the Gentiles is that long period beginning with the Babylonian captivity of Judah...to be brought to an end by the destruction of Gentile world-power,...i.e., the coming of the Lord in glory (Rev. 19:11,21). Until which time Jerusalem is politically subject to Gentile rule (Luke 21:24)." And again on Daniel 2: "Gentile world power is to end in a sudden, catastrophic judgment," that is, in Armageddon
Three questions are unavoidable:
— What did the book of Daniel say to all its readers throughout the centuries if all these chapters are about an already determined future far, faraway?
— How does one know which passage is addressed to Israel or the early church, as well as for our own learning, and which is about the "end"? (Note the connections made between Daniel -- Matthew -- II Thessalonians --Revelation.)
— Whatever we do, war is inevitable until the end. Is that really God’s message to us?
Dispensational determination is another strong characteristic. While the prophets address Israel and Judah with a choice ("Unless you turn") and Jesus comes with a call ("Repent and believe" -- that is, the kingdom is at hand; are you at hand for the kingdom?), in the dispensational pattern, choices made today make no difference to the final outcome. If Presbyterians have problems with predestination, they must stand agape before this utterly boxed-in future. We will see details of this shortly
This closed-in future has two consequences. It greatly dilutes human responsibility by its what will be, will be scenario. Humanity is so hopelessly helpless that God will accomplish everything in spite of us. At the same time the tone of dispensationalism allows an insidious individualism to develop. "I am saved and safe," while the whole world, including loved ones, may perish. In a predetermined future, dispensational millennialists know they are on the right side and need not fear.
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