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December 20, 2014

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Baptist scholars differ on what the Bible says about end times

By David Roach
Southern Baptist Texan

Fort Worth, Texas—When it comes to the end of time, at least one thing is certain: Southern Baptists have a variety of opinions.

And according to leading Baptist theologians, nearly all of those opinions fall within the bounds of orthodoxy.

“On the whole Baptists have been model kingdom citizens when agreeing on the essentials of a doctrine of last things without attempting to press one another unrelentingly on the particular details,” wrote Paige Patterson in the book “Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America’s Largest Protestant Denomination.”

Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained that the committee charged in 2000 with revising the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of faith articulated the Bible’s core teachings on last things—also known as eschatology—without mentioning the secondary details on which inerrantists disagree. He listed 12 beliefs one must hold to be orthodox.

Beyond those essential beliefs, Christians disagree significantly. Theologians are divided on such issues as what happens to believers between their deaths and Christ’s second coming, the nature of the resurrection body and the number of resurrections to occur.

“Frankly, I find some Christian eschatological interpretations embarrassing,” guest lecturer Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity School said during a discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “There are some pulpiteers, TV evangelists and popular writers who think they’ve got this all figured out.”

When asked his interpretation of Bible prophecy from references to the armies of Belial, armies of Satan and a mention of Magog, Evans said, “I just say to be cautious about that because we don’t always know what’s going on. Some of this is metaphorical, poetic and so forth, and to bring a scientific precision to it and pigeonhole everything, I think that’s a very questionable approach.”

The only views that qualify as unorthodox are those that deny a future coming of Christ, noted Russell Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

“Any view that does not hold to a future day of what the church has called ‘the resurrection of the flesh’ is outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy,” he said. “Christians have and will continue to disagree about whether some of the events of Matthew 25 or Mark 13 or the book of Revelation were fulfilled at the fall of Jerusalem. That can be a disagreement among brothers.

“We, of course, will continue to disagree about the meaning of the millennium in Revelation 20, probably until the millennium itself. We cannot disagree, however, about the future bodily coming of our Lord and the future resurrection of both the just and the unjust. This is clearly and indisputably taught in the Scripture and is essential to the Christian faith.”

Among Southern Baptists, differences of opinion arise on the nature of the millennium referenced in Revelation 20. The passage describes a 1,000-year period, known as the millennium, during which Satan is bound. Disagreement occurs regarding the timing of Christ’s return relative to the millennium and whether the number 1,000 is literal or symbolic.

Premillennialists believe Christ will return prior to a literal 1,000-year period.

Among premillennialists, there are varied opinions on whether Jesus will remove Christians from the earth prior to a tribulation preceding His return. Some, known as dispensational premillennialists or dispensationalists, believe in such a rescue for Christians. Others, known as historic premillennialists, believe Christians will not be taken out of the world until Jesus returns. A minority of premillennialists believe Christians will be raptured halfway through a period of tribulation preceding Christ’s return.

Postmillennialists believe the 1,000-year period will occur before Jesus returns. Adherents of this position generally believe the millennium will be a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity under the lordship of Christ. Although postmillennialism has enjoyed proponents such as Jonathan Edwards and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H. Carroll, the view has faded from Baptist life in the last century.

Amillennialists believe the number 1,000 is figurative and that we currently are in the millennium (some premillennialists and postmillennialists also believe 1,000 is figurative). They argue that Satan was bound by Christ through His finished work at the cross and has limited power until Christ returns. Thus, the millennium refers to the current era when Christ reigns in the hearts of believers without Satan’s interference. Christ’s return will mark the close of this era, amillennialists believe.

James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern Seminary, said these millennial positions have a long history of interaction in the SBC. For the first half-century following the convention’s founding in 1845, premillennialism and postmillennialism were the two dominant viewpoints, he pointed out.

“Heaven and hell, the bodily resurrection, final judgment, the second coming and all of that was pretty well set in the confessions of faith,” Garrett said. “But on the millennial question, which has become so important in America, there was a tendency at the beginning to be postmillennial and to have a continuous historical view of the book of Revelation so that the pope and others could be identified as various marks or symbols.”

Humility is essential in end-times debate

By Melissa Deming
Southern Baptist Texan

Grapevine, Texas—While the majority of Southern Baptist seminary faculty members are premillennialists, some professors are re-examining their eschatological positions. In a survey conducted by the staff of the Southern Baptist Texan newspaper, some premillennialists indicated they did not hold their positions as adamantly as they previously did.

A handful of faculty members in Southern Baptist seminaries believe amillennialism best represents the biblical witness regarding last days. Of the Southern Baptist Convention’s six schools, half reported having faculty members who hold this minority view. Although the number holding to amillennialism pales in comparison to those holding to premillennialism, the existence of a minority view could signal an overall trend of decreased dogmatism in Southern Baptist life over eschatology.

David Beck, professor of New Testament and Greek and associate dean of biblical studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said he holds to a premillennial and pretribulational view of last things, but with less certainty than he once did.

“I was raised in a somewhat dispensational context and taught a pretribulation, premillenial eschatological view as if it was the biblical position,” Beck said. “When I first began my theological education I discovered that the Bible was not that explicit on the timeline of eschatological events. Nothing in my study led me to change my view, but it caused me to realize a biblical argument could be made for other interpretive positions.”

David Allen, academic dean of Southwestern Seminary’s theology school, said diversity on secondary doctrines such as eschatology can be a “healthy pedagogical tool.”

Of the respondents from Southwestern Seminary’s theology school to the Texan survey, 20 held to premillennial and posttribulational views, 15 professors held to premillennial and pretribulational views, three held to amillennialism, and two abstained from comment.

“For faculty, having a variety of eschatological views creates healthy dialogue and fosters respect for those holding differing views,” Allen said. “For students, exposure to faculty with diverse eschatological positions minimizes the risk that students will accept a particular viewpoint merely or primarily because all faculty support the same position.”

Although each offers his own reason for holding to his particular millennial commitment, premillennialists and amillennialists agree that absolute certainty about the specifics of the kingdom’s final consummation does not exist.

“I came to the conclusion that if honest biblical scholars who shared a commitment to inerrancy could not agree on the interpretation of the timeline of eschatological events, then perhaps that is not the purpose of the eschatological teachings of Scripture,” Beck noted.

“We find these texts difficult and confusing because we are asking them questions that they were not written to reveal,” he added. “If we let them speak for themselves, their message is not difficult to understand, but very clear: God is sovereign, His judgment against sin is both terrible and inevitable, the righteous will be vindicated, believers are exhorted to persevere and continue in faithfulness.” (BP)

Amillennialism’s origins often are traced to the fifth-century North African bishop Augustine of Hippo, but the view rose to prominence in the SBC between the 1930s and 1980s as postmillennialism died out. Many scholars date the decline of postmillennialism to World War I, when it seemed evident that the universe would not gradually improve leading up to a glorious millennial kingdom.

The late Oklahoma pastor and former SBC president Herschel Hobbs helped popularize amillennialism along with seminary professors H.E. Dana, Ray Summers and Edward McDowell. At Southwestern Seminary, amillennialism was the dominant position among the faculty from the 1930s until the 1990s, Garrett said.

But not all sympathized with amillennialism. R.G. Lee, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., from 1927 to 1960, quipped that he refused to say “ah” even at the dentist—and many agreed.

Dispensational premillennialism arose as the major competitor to amillennialism in the 20th century. Initially developed by the Brethren Movement in early 19th century Britain, C.I. Scofield popularized dispensationalism by teaching it in the notes of his Scofield Reference Bible first published in 1909. Subsequent editions of the Scofield Bible continued to teach dispensationalism in revised forms.

Dispensationalism teaches that history is divided into different periods, or dispensations, in which God deals with humans differently. While all evangelicals agree that God acted differently in different periods of history, dispensationalists hold some distinctive views of the dispensations which earned them their title.

In the U.S., the Moody Bible Institute, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) and Dallas Theological Seminary played important roles in spreading dispensationalism. Gradually other schools and even entire denominations embraced it. Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley and W.A. Criswell were among the most prominent Southern Baptist dispensationalists.

Although dispensationalism likely is the most popular eschatological position among Southern Baptists today, Garrett noted that it was a new development in the 19th century with no antecedent in the Baptist past.

“You had Graves, you had (Fort Worth, Texas, pastor) J. Frank Norris, and then you had W.A. Criswell espousing dispensationalism,” he said. “But nobody back behind that period was at all inclined. And I would argue the reason is because it didn’t come before ... the 19th century in Britain.”

By the mid-20th century, dispensationalism and amillennialism appeared to be hopelessly at odds in the SBC and the larger evangelical world. But a movement led by Baptist theologians Carl F.H. Henry and George Eldon Ladd brought the two poles together.

Henry and Ladd argued that both groups got something wrong. Dispensationalists, they said, viewed the kingdom of God as entirely a future reality to be established during the millennium. On the other hand, amillennialists, who often fell in the Reformed tradition of “covenant theology,” argued that the kingdom was entirely a present spiritual reality.

So Henry “combined the ‘already’ kingdom emphasis of the covenant theologians with the ‘not yet’ kingdom expectancy of the dispensationalists,” Moore explained in his book “The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.” The resulting view, known as inaugurated eschatology, argued that the kingdom already is present as Christ reigns spiritually in the hearts of believers, but also is a future reality in which He will reign over the physical universe perfectly and eternally.

Because of Henry and Ladd, evangelicals who disagree on minor details of eschatology now agree on the overall “already/not yet” framework of God’s kingdom, Moore wrote.

“In a reaffirmation of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, covenantalists and dispensationalists have reexamined their respective systems in the light of biblical theology and have come to strikingly similar conclusions,” he said. “Thus, the topic of eschatology no longer serves to threaten the evangelical coalition, but actually may contribute to its doctrinal cohesion.”

Golden Gate Baptist The-ological Seminary’s John Shouse, a Christian theology professor, is one who adopted Ladd’s view, describing himself as “premillenial, posttribulational and decidedly not dispensational.” Shouse told the Southern Baptist Texan: “I would hold the amillennial view if I could, however, I hold to the historic premillenial view of George Ladd, among others, as this does better justice, in my opinion, to the entirety of the biblical witness than do any of the other views.”

One position to emerge from the new consensus developed by Henry and Ladd is progressive dispensationalism. Developed in the late 20th century, this position agrees with older varieties of dispensationalism that God divided history into different eras and that there will be a secret rapture of the church prior to a period of tribulation on earth. However, progressive dispensationalists disagree with classic dispensationalists’ assertion that God has different plans of redemption for Israel on the one hand and the church on the other.

Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern Seminary, coauthored with New Testament scholar Darrell Bock a pioneering book on progressive dispensationalism.

“The appearance of the church does not signal a secondary redemption plan, either to be fulfilled in heaven apart from the new earth or in an elite class of Jews and Gentiles who are forever distinguished from the rest of redeemed humanity,” Blaising wrote in “Progressive Dispensationalism.” “Instead, the church today is a revelation of spiritual blessings which all the redeemed will share in spite of their ethnic and national differences.”

Patterson, himself a dispensationalist, told the TEXAN that progressive dispensationalism brought valuable correction to older forms of dispensationalism and he categorized himself as holding a position similar to Blaising’s.

“The problem with ‘revised dispensationalism’ (an older variety of the position) is that its advocates may actually hold that Israel and the church are forever separated,” Patterson noted. “I see them instead as one people before God in the eternal state. The key to this, to me, is the 24 elders who appear before the throne in the Book of Revelation who seem to be representative of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb—hence, Israel and the church.”

Despite minor disagreements, Patterson urged Southern Baptists to remain united on the beliefs articulated in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

“What may be seen as most remarkable about the 2000 statement is that within a postmodern ethos, which generally desires to skirt issues of judgment, the Southern Baptist Convention has maintained the emphasis from former years on the certainty of the judgment of God, associating that judgment with the return of the Lord, insisting that there are two classes of people—the righteous and the unrighteous—and that people will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.” (BP)

Western Recorder issue date: January 12, 2010

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