How Did Our Protestant Forebears in the 16th and 17th Centuries Think of ‘The Last Day’ and End Times?
I thought it might be interesting for anyone who might come across this post to see how the Protestant Reformed orthodox Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries thought of ‘end times.’ I came across an interesting sketch of that provided by Richard Muller as I continue to work through his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology. The ‘eschatological sketch’ comes as Muller is providing a definition for the Latin term dies novissimus. He writes:
dies novissimus: the last day; viz., the inauguration of the heavenly kingdom of God consisting in the second visible coming of Christ (adventus Christi, q.v.), and the ordained ends of the elect in eternal blessedness (beatitude aeterna) and of the reprobate in eternal damnation (see damnatio). The scholastics also note the signa diei novissimi or signa temporis, signs of the last day or signs of the time. Although they decry the attempts of the crass or gross chiliasts (see chiliasmus) to predict the exact date of the end by means of the signs of the last days revealed in Scripture, the orthodox do allow the existence of the signs and permit their careful use for admonition, edification, and hope of the faithful. They therefore classify the signs into categories of signa remota, or remote signs; signa propinqua, near signs; signa propinquiora, nearer signs; and signa proxima, proximate signs. The signa remota are often identified as the events connected with the opening of the first six of the seven seals (Rev. 6:1–17): wars and conflict, famine and pestilence, persecution and earthquakes. The signa propinqua mark more clearly the approach of the end; chief among them are the great apostasy and the accompanying increase of worldliness and unbelief. These are followed by the signa propinquiora, which include the increased the lawlessness and indifference to religion resulting from the great apostasy, great political disturbances and the beginnings of the gathering together of Israel. The signa proxima, finally, include the completion of the mission to the Gentiles, the further increase of political disruption accompanying the manifestation of the “beast” of Revelation 13 and 17, the so-called “abomination of desolation” and the great tribulation that lead to the full development of the power of the Antichrist (antichristus, q.v.), and the last battle, Armageddon. These signa proxima immediately precede the adventus Christi and the dies novissimus.
This was all couched within an amillennial framework, and articulated with that type of Augustinian viewpoint in mind. It is interesting to think about the fact that there was no such thing as pre-tribulational, premillennial, dispensational thinking on the scene at this point; that wouldn’t come on the radar until the 19th century through John Nelson Darby.
What I find more interesting, and this at the popular/pastoral level, there are some out there, especially among the ranks of particular Calvary Chapel pastors (like Jack Hibbs et al.) who straight out call the amillennial framework I just presented through Muller’s definition, heresy; even worse (according to Paul Wilkinson), blasphemy. Again, they maintain the synonymy between ‘replacement theology’ and ‘amillennialism proper.’ But we don’t see that when we actually dig into the history of amillennial thought; even here in Muller’s brief sketch we see him refer to national Israel’s re-gathering. We don’t see any sort of ‘replacement’ thought in the Protestant Reformed orthodox’s amillennialism, we simply see a perspective that stands at odds with the latterly developed system of interpretation known as Dispensationalism.
I think it behooves people making charges, particularly as they make those in and among church people who don’t have access to the critical material (at least not consciously in most cases), to be much more careful; to actually do your homework (Paul Wilkinson, Jack Hibbs, David Hocking, et al.) when it comes to this issue. Were there “amillennialists” in the history who were proponents of replacement theology (i.e. the idea that the church replaced the nation of Israel as God’s covenant people)? Yes. But, again, it is a sweeping generalization to sweep all amillenialists into that approach. Be careful.
 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 92.
I have just recently watched a couple of videos/interviews done by Pastor Jack Hibbs with Paul Wilkinson (here and here). Paul Wilkinson has his PhD from the University of Manchester in the UK; in fact he is an Associate Pastor of a church in the UK, where Christian Zionism is a central part of the teaching, apparently. His PhD, based upon what he has communicated in his interviews, is on what he calls Christian Palestinianism. What he is referring to is the impact that he believes, what he calls, ‘replacement theology,’ has had upon many Western evangelical and Reformed churches. The result being, for Wilkinson’s view, these churches have placed the Palestinians into the historic role of the Jews—the oppressed and victimized—and the Jews into the place of the victimizer. His main focus is on the mainline denominations involved in the divestment movement, a move to not have any dealings with any Israeli businesses, with the hope of engaging in a type of economic terrorism on what these churches consider Israel to be; an apartheid state.
But the primary premise of Wilkinson’s critique is a theological hermeneutical one. He lays all of the blame for this at the feet of the Covenantal amillennial approach. He asserts that this interpretive lens requires that the adherents of this view believe that the church has replaced Israel; as such, and if this is so, he maintains that as a result of this belief it makes it easy to continue to elevate Israel as the enemy of Christ, and all those who fit into the oppressed category in the world. One might discern that Wilkinson sees replacement theology as a framework wherein ‘Israel’ becomes a symbol for what it means to be oppressed rather than an actual people who have been and are being oppressed and persecuted by the world.
I agree with Wilkinson, that any move to see Israel as an apartheid state, and consequently attempt to ‘divest’ from any engagement with the nation of Israel as a result of this is folly. What I don’t agree with Wilkinson on is that so called ‘replacement theology’ is the necessary culprit. In fact I would contend that most mainline churches don’t elevate scripture to this sort of authoritative level when it comes to constructing their ethical framework. In other words, so called ‘replacement theology’ is not even on the radar of most mainline thinkers; they have other theopolitical theories afloat in their universe, something more along the lines of a neo-Marxism or Democratic Socialism.
And the churches who are amillennial in approach (which Wilkinson maintains are churches that promote replacement theology) are typically quite evangelical and theologically conservative in every way. It’s just that they have found a hermeneutical framework—usually covenantal—that leads them to the eschatological belief that the church historical has held for millennia. This in itself does not speak to the veracity of the amillennial interpretive lens, but it does, at minimum suggest, or it should, that there is a greater more careful sobriety to this teaching than Wilkinson wants it to have. He can’t lay all the evils of the nations towards Israel at the feet of the amillennial interpretation; as if it is the church and Christendom against the nation of Israel. Indeed, historically, many, if not most amillennialists have not held to what Wilkinson et al. claim. Amillennialists are not ‘replacement theologians,’ this is a pejorative caricature, and sweeping generalization that does not withstand historical nor theological scrutiny.
Personally, I have moved back and forth between the amillennial and historic premillennial position over the last nine years (prior to that I was a card holding dispensationalist, of one stripe or another). At the moment I think the amil position makes the most sense. But I have never held to a ‘replacement theology’ in the midst of these views, nor is it incumbent upon me to do so. I do see Jesus as the reality of Israel, and all of scripture about Jesus, not Israel per se. But this is not so radical, at least not any more radical than what Jesus believed,
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, – John 5:39
Jesus maintained that the Hebrew Bible (indeed the only scriptures Israel had at that point) wasn’t intended to terminate in the nation of Israel, but instead it was intended to point to God’s terminus and telos for all of creation in his dearly beloved Son. This is why I see Jesus as ‘Israel,’ indeed a national Jew, but the One for the many in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. He went to the Jews first, and then the Gentiles; as did the Apostle Paul. The basis of the New Covenant, and what we have as the Apostolic Depositum in the New Testament writings, is indeed a very Jewish ground; a ground not superseded by the church, but a ground nonetheless that was and is and always will be about Jesus, the man from Nazareth. Within this reality, the reality of expansion, the Jew and the Gentile have become one new human (Eph. 2:1-12) in the new creation of God in Christ. Within this reality the promises made to the fathers (Rom. 11:29) indeed are irrevocable, and so it will be. But this does not mean that there are two distinct people of God, as Wilkinson’s view maintains (classic Dispensationalism); at least not according to the Apostle Paul, and the implications of the Abrahamic Covenant itself. What it does entail is that, again, Israel’s purpose was always one; to mediate God’s salvation to the nations. As such, there are certain promises made to the nation of Israel that indeed have been and will be fulfilled; it’s just that those promises are no longer seen as exclusive to the nation of Israel, but instead as exclusive to the Son of Israel, Jesus Christ. As such, all those who are participants in his life, the Jew from Nazareth, will also be partakers, along with the ‘fathers’, of the promises made originally to Abraham. I think though that it’s important to note: in Romans 4, the Apostle Paul made it very clear, as part of his argument, that the promises made to Abraham were prior to the circumcision; in other words, the promises themselves were not exclusive to the nation of Israel, but instead to the ‘seed’ (Gen. 3:15; 49:10) that the nation of Israel would mediate to and for the nations.
I think Paul Wilkinson, Jack Hibbs, and all the others who claim that ‘replacement theology’ is the vice they maintain that it is, should reconsider. For one thing replacement theology is almost a straw man these days; for another it involves a serious sweeping generalization that does not withstand critical scrutiny. Unfortunately it is these types of representations that continue to be made in large swaths of American evangelicalism (and British, to a lesser degree). I do agree that we ought to be more sensitive to the Jewish background and reality of the Christian faith, but we ought to allow that to be tempered by the fact that the ‘flesh’ itself is not the end, instead the God-man, Jesus Christ is. We cannot think of Jesus as non-Jewish, but in that, we ought also not think that his Jewishness is the terminus of God’s program; instead what is the terminus is the salvation that God has brought, in his Son, to all the nations.
Addendum: I will write a follow up post to this one where I make a distinction that Wilkinson, Hibbs, et al. do not make. Indeed, Wilkinson engages not only in the fallacy known as ‘sweeping generalization,’ but he also engages in the fallacy known as ‘reductionism’ and ‘caricature.’ He equivocates on the term ‘replacement theology’ and presumes, by assertion, that replacement theology and amillennialism are the same things; but they are aren’t. More importantly, and this is the distinction I’ll make in a later forthcoming post, Wilkinson fails to identify that most amillennialists, at least contemporary ones, are not supersessionists, and thus definitionally cannot be ‘replacement theologians’ who claim that the church has replaced or superseded the nation of Israel in God’s economy; this is utter rubbish and non-sense.
Let me try not to be so negative about Dispensationalism. I can remember a time where I almost reveled in the themes of dispensationalism, I am sure like many others. Indeed, I will have to admit, that dispensationalism has not fully left me, nor do I think it ever really will. I am too much of the belief that various hermeneutical systems that claim to have a pigeon hole on the truth and reality of Scripture are over confident. And even though, and admittedly so, dispensationalism is quite idiosyncratic (but which system isn’t?), it still works from pretty standard and Evangelical hermeneutical assumptions; it just presses them in a kind of way that gets a little eccentric—to say the least.
But what is it that I can say that is positive about Dispensationalism?
- It wants to take the Bible very seriously.
- It wants to believe that God communicates clearly, and in a straightforward way.
- It believes that God is still acting in history, ordering events toward their ultimate reality in the coming of Jesus Christ as the Son of David.
- It has a strong emphasis upon the nation of Israel (this is positive because unlike some theologies, dispensationalism sees the nation of Israel as essential to the identity of God’s mediated work to the nations in the world).
- It has an excitement about the second coming of Christ.
- It is comprehensible to the common person.
- It interprets Scripture through the grammatical-historical lens (even if that is through the LGH, or Literal Grammatical Historical lens).
None of the above is in any particular order of priority. But, having been trained, born and bred in this system, I do think there are some of these positive things consisting within the dispensational framework. I know, because I know many of its best scholars (my former professors), that these scholars are quite capable in the craft they ply; they have a strong handle of the biblical languages; and they have a desire to communicate that in a way that is literal (in a very straightforward way) and accessible for the masses of Christianity; and in a way that believes that God not only gave his Word back then, but that when He gave it back then, He gave it for now and the future as well. Indeed, this is a major underwriting theme for dispensationalists (one that I still hold; i.e. the theme); that is, that dispensationalists work from a futurist mode of operation. They believe that many of the biblical prophecies had a historical, typological referent, but that there is an ultimate eschatological anti-typological referent that will be realized in some time future, at the ‘end of time’ (as it were). So, attendant with this, then, the dispensationalist views biblical-prophetic history (as they would say) as very linear and progressive; as something that unfolds in stages, or even ‘dispensations’, if you will.
So there are still elements of dispensationalism that are present, deeply so, in my own approach to interpreting scripture; and in particular, the way I understand biblical prophecy. But I am of the opinion that what is called historic premillennialism is the better way, and that dispensationalism would do better to go that way, instead of the way they have. That said, as I opened this post up, I am not at all opposed to the idea that dispensationalism could be more correct, in the end, than it is not (I doubt that it is). But we will see.
I don’t have time to write this post in the way it should be, but I still wanted to post something.
The oracle concerning Damascus.
“Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city
And will become a fallen ruin.
2 “The cities of Aroer are forsaken;
They will be for flocks to lie down in,
And there will be no one to frighten them.
3 “The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim,
And sovereignty from Damascus
And the remnant of Aram;
They will be like the glory of the sons of Israel,”
Declares the Lord of hosts.
Given the sine qua non of Dispensational hermeneutics, that the Bible ought to be interpreted in its most literal sense (meaning a kind of wooden, straightforward literalism), this particular prophecy of Damascus is still waiting to be fulfilled. And so given the precarious situation we find ourselves within; given the reality that the United States of America is most likely going to strike Damascus, militarily; many dispensationalist interpreters believe that this prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Indeed, it would be a fulfillment of this passage that would further attest to the dispensationalist that Jesus’ rapture of the church is just about to happen. In order for God’s prophetic plan to be legitimate, this fulfillment must happen in a kind of end times scenario that sees Damascus fitting into the broader schema of dispensational understanding. The fall of Damascus might signal that things are about to get very real very fast.
So an ethic that gets pressed here, a reading ethic, is that geo-political concerns become the lens by which the scriptures become interpreted. It isn’t the suffering Servant who become the primary lens, it isn’t the widows and orphans who become the primary lens; it is the fulfillment of geo-political realities upon the ground. So even though many dispensational interpreters will recognize the terrible plight of the people in Damascus and elsewhere, their primary mode of consideration isn’t really the broken people; but instead, it is the fulfillment of abstract geo-political realities that fit into a tightly wound understanding of the end times.
I really would like to say more, with more substance (I mean quotes and more depth), but this will have to suffice for now.
You have probably been wondering for quite some time on what basis people hold to the Pre-Tribulational rapture theory, within Dispensational/Pre-millennial Theology; in fact I bet you lost sleep over this very question last night ;-). In reality, I would suggest, that even though most doctrine is waning in North American Evangelical churches, that if pressed, what informs people’s views, hermeneutically, politically, and even ethically, is still informed by the method of biblical interpretation that funds Pre-Tribulational theology (by the way, if you are ‘Pre-Trib’ you will also be Dispensational and Pre-Mil). And so, I still find it highly relevant to engage with this issue, at least at the and for the popular level; which is where most Christians live on a day to day basis (I realize that Christian academics, by and large, completely repudiate all of this stuff, and so for them, and in their world, this stuff is boring and even beyond passé—and so just realize, scholar guy or gal, I am not writing this for you, but I hope you read along and contribute too 🙂 ). So without further lead in, let me quote one of the most well known classically oriented Pre-Tribulational thinkers from its formative Dallas Theological Seminary past, J. Dwight Pentecost; here, in a nutshell, he is giving a sketch of how a Pre-Tribulational adherent becomes an adherent, hermeneutically (or through the way they do biblical interpretation). He writes:
[P]retribulation rapturism rests essentially on one major premise—the literal method of interpretation of the Scriptures. As a necessary adjunct to this, the pretribulationist believes in a dispensational interpretation of the Word of God. The church and Israel are two distinct groups with whom God has a divine plan. The church is a mystery, unrevealed in the Old Testament. This present mystery age intervenes within the program of God for Israel because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah at His first advent. This mystery program must be completed before God can resume His program with Israel and bring it to completion. These considerations all arise from the literal method of interpretation. [J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come, 193.]
Obviously, when Pentecost says all of this ‘arise[s] from the literal method of interpretation,’ he obviously has something in mind; a certain way to be “literal,” in fact a wooden-literalness, that is literal right up until the point that being literal makes absolute non-sense (i.e. when Jesus says he is the ‘door’, he obviously does not mean a literal wooden door). One oversight with this, though, is that being “literal” in biblical interpretation (and in the way the NT authors are), does not cash out in the way that Pentecost and Pretribulationist presume that it does. But we will deal with this later.
So for the Pretribulation position, it becomes quickly apparent, that the ‘church age’ we currently inhabit, was more like an after-thought, or plan B for God; and the nation of Israel and her salvation as His covenant people have always been God’s plan A (and still are). Ironically, dispensationalism, in its classic and revised versions, sounds a lot like the ‘Open’ theology and theory of God (that God does not have determinative knowledge or causation of the future, that God’s knowledge and act is contingent upon the contingencies of creation and the world); but I digress. So in order for God to get back to His original plan A, He needs to finish up with His plan B (the church), get us out of here, and get back to His real business, with dealing with His earthly Covenant people, the Jews.
This is problematic, biblically, on many fronts. We will have to engage with this further at a later date.
I am going to re-open this blog that I started quite awhile ago. I will be focusing on exactly what I said I would in the introduction to this blog. This stuff still intrigues me as a North American Evangelical, and I actually think it has interesting political and ethical implications for Christians. I won’t just be writing on dispensationalism, but also the alternative views, like the amil or historic premil position[s] I move back and forth between—it depends on what I have eaten that day ;-). So stay tuned. Will see if this blog lives or flops (like my other intended blogs of late) in the days to come.
Here is something I wrote a few years ago, picked up by monergism.com:
The Amillennialist affirms that the people of Israel have not been cast off or replaced, but rather, that the Gentiles have now been included among the Jews in God’s Covenantal promises. In other words, not replacement but expansion. God’s redemptive plan, as first promised to Abraham, was that “all nations” would be blessed through him. Israel is, and always has been, saved the same as any other nation: by the promises to the seed, Christ. Amillennialists, do not believe in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth after His second coming. Rather, they affirm that when Christ returns, the resurrection of both the righteous and wicked will take place simultaneously (see John 5), followed by judgment and and the eternal state where heaven and earth merge and Christ reigns forever.
Strong points of Amillennialism
* It is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic)
* It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants
* It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel)
* It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff)
* It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then)
* It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history
* It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation)
Many classic Dispensationalists say that amillennialists hold to what they call “replacement theology;” meaning that, as they say, amillers believe that the Church has replaced the promises made to Israel. In fact most amillers do not believe this. The ultimate reality is that Jesus fulfilled, as the Jew, “The Seed” the promises made to Abraham and Israel. So He is Israel, but of course not without the Nation. Dispies miss this all too frequently. Dispies, in many ways, function like the Jewish zealots of old did; they are looking for a political kingdom set up on earth, and a political Messiah. God’s intention has never been to be political.
Let me just sketch my own view on all of this stuff. As you know I grew up as a classic Dispy, and then converted to Progressive Dispy; with both approaches, in regards to the Tribulation, I was always Pre-Tribulational. Now, within the last couple of years, I have converted once again to Historic Premillennialism and Post-Trib, for my Tribulational view. Let me explain a bit about what this means.
I believe that there is one people of God (cf. Eph. 2:11ff), not two people of God — so classic/revised dispy . . . progressive in a qualified way. I follow what some might call a christocentric hermeneutic, so that all of the Old Testament is re-interpreted as if all of its reality is signifying, Christ (cf. John 5:39). Having said this, I do believe that tied to this; that the promises made to ethnic Israel (or the ‘Father’s see Romans 11:29) will also be realized in the millennial kingdom Christ will set up upon his second coming wherein the Church (both Jew and Gentile) will rule and reign over creation with Christ. Further, in regards to my ‘trib’ view, I follow the post-trib perspective now because it makes the most straightforward sense of the text. Pre-trib is inimically tied to the hard distinction between Israel and the Church (articulated by dispies); once the “Church-Age” is done (time of the Gentiles), this time (parenthesis), or dispensation is over, and God takes his ‘mystery kingdom of people’ (the Church, his ‘Heavenly people’) out of this earth. Then the Lord gets back to what he always intended for salvation history and prophetic history, that is his ‘earthly people’ the Jews (‘Jacob’s Trouble’ starts Jer. 30 Daniel’s 70 Weeks). So it can be seen that Pre-Trib is a necessity in this scheme, since the Church really was never intended to be part of God’s salvation plan; the mechanism of Pre-Trib solves this problem. Since I reject this hard distinction between Israel and the Church, I also reject the Pre-Trib position; since it is really only a mechanism added in order to make the broader dispy system work (w/o it, it cannot!). As I also said, I am post-trib because it simply makes the most straightforward sense to me of the text.
There you have it, a quick sketch; I’ll have to elaborate more later.
If you are still unaware of how classic dispensationalism looks in an applied way, here is a discussion between Chuck Smith (founder of Calvary Chapel — I attended his church in Costa Mesa, CA for about 4 years), Don Stewart (one of Chuck’s right-hand men), and then Wayne Taylor (pastor of a Calvary in Seattle, WA). It lasts for 47 minutes:
According to Charles Ryrie here are the 3 most basic ingredients that must be present in order for someone to pop out as an Dispensationalist:
[T]he essence of dispensationalism is (1) the recognition of a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church, (2) a consistent and regular use of a literal principle of interpretation, and (3) a basic and primary conception of the purpose of God as His own glory rather than the salvation of mankind. (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 45)
This provides the rubric from which dispensationalism flows (esp. in its Classic and Revised forms). Each of these points require further explanation, and development; but for now I will just state them up front like this, just in case you are unaware of some of these basic points upon which dispensational theology pivots. In the same flow, let me also list the 7 dispensations usually articulated by both Classic/Revised dispensationalists; again, we will hear from Ryrie:
1.) Name: INNOCENCY –> Scripture: Genesis 1:3–3:6 –> Responsibilities: Keep Garden, Do not eat one fruit, Fill subdue earth, Fellowship with God. –> Judgment(s): Curses, and physical and spiritual death.
2.) Name: CONSCIENCE –> Scripture: Genesis 3:7–8:14 –> Responsibilities: Do good –> Judgment(s): Flood.
3). Name: CIVIL GOVERNMENT –> Scripture: Genesis 8:15–11:9 –> Responsibilities: Fill earth, Capital Punishment –> Judgment(s): Forced scattering by confusion of languages.
4.) Name: PATRIARCHAL RULE –> Scripture: Genesis 11:10–Exodus 18:27 –> Responsibilities: Stay in Promised Land, Believe and obey God –> Judgment(s): Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings.
5.) Name: MOSAIC LAW –> Scripture: Exodus 19:1–John 14:30 –> Responsibilites: Keep the law, Walk with God –> Judgment(s): Captivities.
6.) Name: GRACE –> Scripture: Acts 2:1–Revelation 19:21 –> Responsibilities: Believe on Christ, Walk with Christ –> Judgment(s): Death, Loss of rewards.
7.) Name: MILLENNIUM –> Scripture: Revelation 20:1-15 –> Responsibilities: Believe and obey Christ and His government –> Judgment(s): Death, Great White Throne Judgment.
— Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 54
Do these sound familiar? Maybe not all of these, but I would imagine the last 3 that many of you are quite familiar with; at least if you are an American Evangelical. You can see how the cycles of “stewardship” work between each new dispensation. There are certain responsibilities given to humanity in each dispensation; when this group of people fail, they experience God’s judgment, which then also becomes the trigger for the next dispensation to start. Interestingly, the end of the 6th dispensation would come about by unbelief in Christ (by much of the Church); which for the Apostle Paul (like in his epistles to Timothy) coincides with the “Great Apostasy” that will typify the end of days (which many believe we are experiencing right now).
Let me know what you think . . .