Saturday, May 23, 2009

An Alternative to Dispensational Premillennialism

Okay, I have finished reading the free excerpt of A Case for Historic Premillennialism edited by Craig L. Blaising and Sung Wook Chung. I have avoided reading books on the rapture and the millennium ever since taking two back-to-back semesters of Eschatology. The first semester was at a dispensationalist school and the second semester was a class audited at a reformed school. The text book required at the dispensationalist school was not worth the time or money spent. It was out dated, over-simplistic, and full of broad generalizations and mis-characterizations. I won't even mention the title. The best feature of the class was a reading list of some of the major work from the various millennialist and rapturist camps. One of the major flaws of the reading list (and of the class) was the lack of discussion of historic premillennialism and progressive premillennialism (the later being a recent development at that time).

I spent most of my time reading the non-pretrib and non-premill positions because they were the most unfamiliar to me. Many of the authors were disappointing because they continued to resort to ranting against scholars and teachers who espoused opposing viewpoints. Many spent more time tearing down opposing positions than exegetically substantiating their own. Many authors engaged in so many "exegetical gymnastics" that it was next to impossible to reproduce their arguments with any confidence. Of all the books I read, George E. Ladd offered the most help. His books, The Blessed Hope and The Last Things where two that I read for the first semester. I found in Ladd a scholar interested more in careful study than in bombastic and irrational tirades against those who held to different positions. This is not to say that he does not engage in criticizing the other positions. He certainly does. But it was the tenor of his writing that went a long way with me. To that, he took the time to carefully deal with the various texts, consulting each texts immediate and Biblical context.

Ladd states in his little book, The Last Things, that his eschatological position was derived from a recognition of progressive revelation and a conviction that the Old Testament is to be interpreted by the New Testament. He explains further that,

Dispensationalists usually refer to this as covenantal theology because it emphasizes the element of unity between the Old and the New Covenants. However, the present writer who supports this method does not do so because he was raised in covenantal theology; in fact, in his earliest years he was a Dispensationalist. it has been through his own inductive study of the Bible that he has become convinced that the Old testament must be interpreted (and often reinterpreted) by the new revelation given in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. (p. 10)
This posture won me over. I was tired of the intricacies of the dispensational system. I had questions about many of the details that no one else answered convincingly. So much of the system depends upon major presuppositions. More so, a major factor in the system is an emotional appeal.

The second semester of eschatology launched me into Anthony Hoekema's The Bible and the Future and Herman Bavinck's The Last Things. These two books were challenging and helpful, and are among the few best textbooks I ever purchased for any class. Reading through these major works was very helpful and Morton H. Smith was a gracious and competent teacher. During this semester, I found myself going back and reevaluating the dispensationalist position I had been taught thus far. I had not fully cast it off, so I struggled to attempt to answer the difficult issues we discussed by re-reading the key Biblical texts and checking them with some of the major dispensationalist authors.

In the end, I must admit that I was exhausted. However, I'm glad that I went through this struggle. I was not convinced that either amillennialism or postmillennialism had better answers, and I did not fully drop my premillennial position. What I was most certain about is that good and sound people will always disagree on these issues, and that the real key is how we reflect the grace of God in our study and discussion of these matters. Morton Smith facetiously commented on a number of occasions that he was a pan-millennialist: he believed that it would all pan out in the end. His point in this is that Christians must be gracious with one another in the negotiable details of eschatology.

I've written all of this to say that I'm very glad for what I've seen so far in A Case for Historic Premillennialism edited by Craig L. Blaising and Sung Wook Chung. These men have provided for the church a helpful resource that I believe is more exegetically and theologically sound than the other premillennial alternatives. This book follows in the tradition of George E. Ladd both in scholarship and tone. Timothy Weber's essay "Dispensational and Historic Premillennialism as Popular Millennialist Movements" is thorough, critical at points and reserved at others, and compelling.

In this essay Weber surveys the millennarian landscape providing an overview of its major epochs. The most pertinent sections are the final two: "The New Premillennialism Comes to America" which chronicles the rise of Darbyism and the Niagra Conference; and "Comparing Dispensational and Historic Premillennial Movements" which shows how dispensationalists have been able to capture the imagination of the masses (from the commoner to top world politicians) by its "ability to link prophecy with current events" (p. 17). Weber continues,

With the Bible in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other, dispensationalist teachers have been able to make a case for their view of the world and what is going to happen next. No millennialist movement retains its audience for long unless it is able to do this consistently or else adjust its system when history takes an unexpected turn. Dispensationalism has always been able to do both. (pp. 17-18)
Once dispensationalism was wed to Fundamentalism, historic premillennialists found few options among them. I have seen this first hand.

Once fundamentalists put dispensationalism on their list of orthodox nonnegotiables, they in effect hung out a sign: “Nondispensationalists need not apply.” (p. 19)

Dispensationalism maintained its hegemony as long as the fundamentalist movement stayed strong and united. But maintaining unity was not a fundamentalist strong suit. By the 1940s many second-generation fundamentalists began calling for reforms, and by the 1950s many openly advocated a new evangelicalism that toned down some of fundamentalism’s less appealing features, such as its separatism, legalism, anti-intellectualism, and general bad manners. The new evangelical adjustments frequently included the reconsideration of eschatology, which opened the door for people such as George Eldon Ladd, probably the greatest historical premillennialist of them all. (p. 19)
Two key works by Ladd gave rise to historic premillennialism's "comback":
  1. Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952)
  2. The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956)
Of course he and others, as Weber explains, paid a heavy price for their nonconformity. John A. D'Elia provides a glimpse into this fact in A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Weber concludes his essay but detailing the major differences between dispensational premillennialism and historic premillennialism. The following excerpts stood out to me:

They believe many of the same things about the future that dispensationalists do, but they do not spend their energy figuring out elaborate scenarios or creating prophetic charts or battle maps of future wars. They host not a single Post-tribulational Prophecy and the News program on cable television, nor do they sell board or video games based on their view of the future. In comparison to dispensationalists, they do not seem to be trying very hard. (p. 20)

Most writing on historic premillennialism is not intended for the masses; most of it is written by scholars for scholars. In contrast to most dispensationalist writing, it aims high and thus misses a more popular audience. Every successful millennialist movement has both highbrow and lowbrow elements. (p. 20)

It is very significant that the best-selling dispensationalist books of all time are fictionalized accounts of the end-times scenario: no careful exegesis there, no laborious comparisons with other alternatives, just a ripping good story told well. (p. 21)

As separatist fundamentalism has lost ground to a more inclusive evangelicalism, so has dispensationalism to historic premillennialism. When once fervent dispensationalists tire of their movement’s lowbrow excesses or can no longer accept its exegetical arguments, they move to historic premillennialism, which is the most logical fallback position for those who want an alternative. More and more evangelicals are coming to the conclusion that dispensationalism is not the only way of being premillennialist. (p. 22)
Some of these statements may seem a bit severe, but I believe that they are fair, and I'm glad to finally see a work like this made available.