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