March 26, 2009

Dealing with the End of the World

Yesterday and today I attended a seminar at my church dealing with the end times. Indeed, my pastor is doing a full series which is likely to last a few months, though this seminar itself was only the two days. It is very clear that my pastor is a dispensational, and though I have a great deal of respect for him, this is one area that I disagree.

Dispensationalism

For those who don't know, dispensationalism is the teaching that God has made a particular number of covenants with the people of the earth, and with these covenants He dispenses certain graces, laws, and powers. Thus the time periods within which these covenants are in "operation" can be defined by what graces are dispensed with it, often called dispensations.

Within the movement of dispensationalism there has developed a unique and currently popular eschatological view, which is a form of premillennialism, which takes the various apocalyptic texts in Scripture allegorically. This means that the various symbols and images are taken as simple symbols that each point to a singular identifiable and describable reality. This view then takes that base assumption, as well as a view that Revelation is a chronological historical account of the eschaton, and construct a precise, linear, and propositional reimaging of the book of revelation interlaced with other eschatological biblical texts. However, I cannot agree with this view.

My Issues

Now there are many things about the premillennial view that I do agree with. Essentially, I am a chilialist, mostly because I think it is the most natural reading of the text. The primary problem that I have with dispensational eschatology isn't so much it's eschatological views, but its hermeneutics, as well as its ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology: The Relationship Between Israel and the Church

My essential ecclesiology is what is know as the corporate election view of the church (I highly recommend the work of Brian Abasciano).

According to dispensationalism, God made a covenant with Abraham and Moses, and through those covenants He dispensed certain graces to the particular nationality of the Hebrews. When Christ came, God made a new covenant with Christ to replace the old covenant, and under this covenant, God is now, for a time, working with the church instead of Israel, until the "full number of the Gentiles has been saved". After that, during the Great Tribulation, God will return His attention to the Hebrews.

However, I don't think this jives with what the epistles say about the relation between the church and Israel, and I don't think it jives with Revelation either. Often, dispensationalists will call any theology that believes that the church has received the full promises of Israel as "Replacement Theology" (i.e. the church has replaced Israel). Well, I cannot say that such a theology does not exist, but this is not the corporate election view.

My primary understanding of the relation between the Church and Israel is derived from the metaphor found in Romans chapter 11. There, Paul takes up the analogy of a olive tree, which represents Israel, and says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the vine. Additionally, the Jews are referred to as "natural branches" even after they are cut off.

I do not think that the church is separate from Israel, and I do not believe that the Church has replaced Israel (or is the "true Israel"), but the Church is an extension Israel in that Israel includes the Church. Those who were elect through Abraham are still elect, but those of us who are elect through Christ are grafted onto the vine of Jacob. As Paul says, the Jews are enemies in terms of the gospel, but they are still loved in election, for we are both part of the body of Israel, and God's covenants are ever lasting (Romans 11:28).

Hermeneutics: Appreciating Apocalyptic Literature

One of the basic problems with dispensational eschatology it that it treats Revelation and Daniel as if they were written in a vacuum. In reality, this style of literature was blossoming before the coming of Christ (IV Ezra 3-14, Enoch, and more) and was taking up by the church afterwards (the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and more). What this means is that we can discern the manner in which these texts are meant to be understood by considering other examples.

In my present understanding, which was gathered mostly from the tutelage of Dr. Timothy Dwyer (though I do not assume I remember it perfectly, so don't judge him too much for my memory), the assumption of apocalyptic literature is that there is a earthly plane, and a spiritual plane, and that the events in one influence the other. Indeed, the events in one are the same as the other, for it is not really dualistic, as much as it sees spiritual realities as an aspect of the tangible. As such, the prophet is given visions of what is going on in the spiritual realm, which he then records.

Already we see a divergence away from the dispensational allegorical view where every image or thought merely represents a physical (or literal) reality. Instead, it is a different way of viewing the world that sees the forces beyond what our eyes perceive. In such a construction, one cannot expect that every image as an exact physical counterpart, but that the spiritual and its physical manifestation constitutes a complex relationship. It is viewing things as a one-to-one relationship that is often the problem.

Indeed, apocalyptic literature is not historical in mode, but rather expository, as it attempts to explain the realities behind historical events, rather than merely record the events themselves in an artistic manner. I am sure many preterists are loving me so far.

However, just as the text explains the realities behind historical events, those historical events are not necessarily past or present. The one thing that I do agree with dispensationists about is that the events that we read about, or at least their physical manifestations, are future events. To say otherwise, in my opinion, is to deny the validity of much of the message. Whenever Revelation is read by a group under similar calamities as the original audience, it is always understood as a great "tribulation" which ushers in the physical and final return of Christ. This is the most natural reading of the text and must be maintained.

But the doggedly exact interpretation of the dispensationalists defies practicality and almost always results in a form of dogmatism. Additionally, such interpretations are continually refined as history progresses and past assumptions become impossibilities.

My View

As I said before, my view is a form of chilaism, or many of you may prefer millennialism. Dispensationalism itself is merely a form of chilaism, and despite what many have argued, chilaism is a very old view of Revelation (see Justin Martyr and Irenaeus). However, I take up a number of preterist sensibilities in terms of hermeneutics and understanding Revelation through the eyes of general apocalyptic literature.

As such, here is a brief outline of some of my current thoughts in this area (You may notice that some of these thoughts are more specific, while others are more broad. Additionally, most of these thoughts are still very new and therefore up for debate within my own mind):
  1. The 7 churches of the first three chapters were seven literal churches from John's time to whom John was writing this book for encouragement
  2. The principal themes of the book are not defining the end times, but addressing the issues of the 7 churches as described in chapters 2-3.
  3. The 3 sets of 7 judgements are not chronological. Instead, they are a retelling of the same stretch of time.
  4. Indeed, they are probably not chronological within themselves either, but instead represent a thematic progression.
  5. The 144,000 witnesses are the exact same body as the Great Multitude mentioned right afterward. The same literary device is used here as used with the lion and the lamb in chapter 5.
  6. I do believe in the concept of a single global leader that could be called an antichrist, and that he is represented as the beast out of the sea.
  7. I believe that Christ will reign in a millennial kingdom sometime in the future, though the actual number 1,000 may not be literal.
  8. I have a theory, though I cannot validate it with any sources yet, that the white horse from the first scroll represents captivity and slavery. The idea of taking slaves is often associated with the idea of conquering in the Old Testament.
  9. The events described after chapter 3 all take place in the future.
  10. That the primary points of the book are:
    1. Remaining loyal to Christ in the face of persecution.
    2. Remaining separate from the world and the world's values. Especially depending on earthly wealth.
    3. Remaining vigilant in your passion for Christ for the end is near.
    4. That despite the power of the world around us, God will ultimately win.
These are currently my thoughts. Naturally I have more, but this is the stuff that swims through my head. I figure, though, that many of my eschatological thoughts will change in the upcoming years.

11 comments:

bethyada said...

I don't have strong eschatological views. I usually say that I have some sympathy with both preterism and futurism, though not a great understanding of them.

I tend to think there will be a reigning of Christ on earth before the final judgment. There seems some logic in us ruling ourselves for 6000 years or so, and seeing the mess, then seeing what the world can be like with Jesus at the helm for another 1000.

But it also seems to make sense with other passages such as Jesus coming as a suffering servant then as a king; rewarding men who are faithful with leadership positions. Also prophecies such as Isaiah and Zechariah about a future peace. It seems to be the earth rather than heaven in these passages.

In terms of dispensationalism and covenant theology, I have never fully grasped these. I heard a helpful comment that the first emphasises the differences between pre and post Christ and the latter emphasises the similarities. I think perhaps one doesn't have to hold either firmly, but accept there and similarities and differences.

I tend more toward covenant theology more myself. All men everywhere at all times are saved by faith.

Jc_Freak: said...

I've never really looked into what constitutes "covenant theology", but I dont think that I hold to it. I've never particularly liked the name since every theology says something about covenants.

Mason said...

JC, I must say that your take on those points in Revelation seems quite reasonable, even where I may see it a little differently.

I'd be curious if as a chilialist who isn't dispensational you'd fall more in line with Ladd and other 'historic premillennialists'? I picked up new book by Blomberg on Historic Premillennialism, and I find my sympathies to be an amalgamation of Historic Premil and preterism, though with more of the later.

The classic old school Dispensational eschatology (ala Ryre and the rest) with its excessive literalism and pre-trib additions and its take on Israel and a number of other distinctive always seems to be doing violence to potential eschatological texts, Revelation in particular due to the poor handling of the apocalyptic genre.

bethyada said...

Sorry jc_freak, I may have got those 2 back to front. Like I said, I never fully grasped these (or studied them actually). Anyway, apparently one emphasises the similarities and one the differences.

The 2 of them on wikipedia. dispensationalism and covenant theology

bethyada said...

Okay, I have read the 2 wikipedia articles I linked to. Obviously only a brief overview.

The problem I have is that one can view the nature of works versus grace differently from Israel versus the church; and though these are related, the systems perhaps force connections. The article on New Covenant Theology has a somewhat middle ground though I think one can hold to a stronger or weaker concept of Israel within this.

I tend to think that the entire Law was dealt to at the cross, not just the ceremonial.

Jc_Freak: said...

Mason,

I am unfamiliar with the historic premillenialist position, but the name of it sounds a lot like what I believe. It is possible that I can identify with that position if I read more. Are there any works you would recommend?

Jc_Freak: said...

bethyada,

I would have to examine those things with more detail before I could really comment. Like I said, I don't know much about covenant theology. It has always seemed to be associated with Calvinism, so I haven't really looked into it for that reason, since I know there are other things that I'm already going to disagree with. Additionally, this is one area which I am rather comfortable with my views, and though I am willing to look at someone else's opinion, I have not real compulsion to set other topics aside that I am wrestling with to engage it (unless I run into someone who is really into it).

pchurcher87 said...

Hi Jc-Freak,
Interesting post as always. fow what its worth here are my thoughts:
I am an historic amillenialist. In other words I agree with you pretty much up to the literal thousand year reign. I believe the 'Anti-christ' as he is often know (although that term is never used in the book of revelation) is actually Nero and empire (Rome). I believe that you are correct in the teaching that it was written to seven literal churchesd under persecution and that revelation is a collection of heavens perspective on literal, present (at the time) events with various re-tellings of the same story. I am not expecting and millenium or 'rapture'.
I belive that the church has been grafted into Israel, so that in a way we are the new Israel, the new Jesusalem (Rev 21).
I would also call myself a covenant theologian but one does have to be careful as there are various forms of this.
Thanks again,
Peter

Jc_Freak: said...

Just for the sake of recording, I went back through and reedited this post a bit. Mostly, I corrected some grammar, which I often miss (sorry about that). However, and this is the only thing which you guys might want to review) I added a point to the list in the last section. In what is now point 9, I mentioned that I view the events in Revelation as primarily taking place in the future, not the past (with the exception of the birth of Christ or course). I was worried that I wasn't clear on this point, and that this is a rather important point.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jc_Freak: said...

To anonymous,

Please look at my blog rule provided here: Some Simple Rules of Engagement. I agree with you that Darby and Dispensationalism are wrong, hence my comments above, so I actually agree with your comments. But as you can see under the third rule, your comment (which is more of an essay) would amount to elephant hurling/lecturing. Additionally, since I am not sure whether or not you are Dave McPherson, it may also plagiarism.

In the future, please provide a link to any relevant material, such as that essay, along with a brief synopsis and your thoughts on the matter.

I thank you for your interest in my blog, and I do encourage you to share your thoughts on the matter.