Sunday, June 07, 2009

Revelation and Dispensationalism

Dear N.,
You raise a most important question and one that has particularly vexed Traditional Anglicans in recent years. False understandings of eschatology and the Four Last Things, death, judgement, heaven and hell, abound in our age, an age which seems obsessed with questions about the End. Dispensationalism is rife and has infected even the most traditional churches. With the popularity of the Left Behind series and the Omega Code, and other sensationalistic 'end times' motion pictures and books, the errors of the dispensationalist movement have permeated every part of American Christianity. We are certainly called to be vigilant and to 'test the spirits' where such teaching is concerned.

It is possible that some orthodox teachers have come across protestant texts on the Book of Revelation and have embraced the teaching contained in them, innocently, but perhaps uncritically and unwarily. I am sure many such teachers intend to teach orthodox doctrine, but I am the first to admit that the Book of Revelation is a complex and difficult text to explicate and interpret, and should best be left alone by the greater number of parish teachers for that very reason. Revelation is easily susceptible to misinterpretation and speculation. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Church considers Revelation to be canonical Scripture, but prohibits the reading of it in public worship and the Liturgy, for precisely the reason that it can be so easily misunderstood and misapplied. I think the Orthodox, as usual, are probably right about that centuries-old discipline and prohibition; it would seem to be validated by the spectrum of heresies produced out of the Book of Revelation in our own time. It may be that some teachers are unwittingly presenting a wrong interpretation simply because the interpretation is so very common today. I would venture to say such teachers have obtained their material from frequently-used modern books.

The most reliable boundary of orthodoxy on eschatological doctrine is primarily located in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. So long as a teacher clearly and unambiguously affirms the Second Advent of Our Lord - a single Coming Again of Christ publicly and visibly at the end of time in which all men will be judged and in which the Kingdom of God will be ushered in and at which the Last Judgement and the General Resurrection of all men, good and evil, will occur - then there is some room for theological or pious opinion, theological belief outside that which is de fide tenanda, that is, that which must be believed for salvation and is proven from Holy Scripture. Such views are theologumena, or theological opinions privately held. But one may never teach a pious opinion as a dogma or truth of the Gospel. For example, Anglicans are free to believe that Our Lady was conceived without original sin and was bodily assumed into heaven, but these pious beliefs do not constitute saving faith and are not to be taught as essential Articles of the Catholic Creed.

Likewise, one may hold speculative views on the so-called 'tribulation period' at the end of time or the schedule for the arrival of the Anti-Christ, so long as one does not teach these concepts as necessary doctrines, and so long as one does not contradict the established teaching of the Church found in the Creeds and the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Several of the early Church Fathers, including Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, believed in a premillennial coming of Christ to earth in which Our Lord will rule on the earth for a literal one-thousand year period before the inauguration of the Eternal Kingdom. But even for Fathers of such magisterial authority, these were but theological opinions based on ideas at the time, and the doctrine of a literal 1,000 year reign of Our Lord on earth before the coming of the Age to Come was decisively and forever condemned at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople I in AD 381: the Council added the phrase, 'and his kingdom shall have no end,' to the Universal Creed deliberately to refute the heresy of chiliasm or the literal Millennium. The Millennium is symbolic of the Church Age, which is not limited to a particular number of years or time period. The number 1,000 represents completeness and perfection - hence the perfection and completeness of the Church's life and mission on earth. The Millennium is the Church. Tribulations and Anti-Christ itineraries are, at best, pointless conjectures, and, at worst, stumbling-blocks to the faith of God's People.

All in all, one could say that certain theories and speculations which do not contradict the general meaning of Scripture received by the Church may be postulated so long as one does not enforce them as being of the substance of the Catholic Faith. Were one to deny the teaching of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, one would have stepped over the line into heresy.

Our eschatological faith comes out of the classical patristic and Western Catholic milieu on the subject. Saint Augustine of Hippo as well as the later Greek Fathers were all amillennial. The Church has been definitively amillennial since the golden age of patristic theology. If a Bible study continues to cause concern, I believe it would be appropriate to approach one's teacher and ask about the primary sources used, delicately and charitably. Dubious instruction on eschatology may not lead souls astray into heresy, but it could needlessly disturb consciences and generate fear, which things are most unhealthy and unnecessary. Dispensationalism is a religion based purposely on fear, as it is meant to frighten people into conversion, and it has no place in the Catholic Faith.

1 comment:

Tim B said...

I have two personal observations to make:

1) If a person is really convinced they're "saved" to begin with, the person would be on the first bus out here whether Christ was going to only make one more appearance or was going to make two. It wouldn't make a difference. Perhaps those individuals who teach "Dispensationalism" should take St. Paul's advice (as well as Christ's Himself) and convert by showing charity towards others instead of trying to intepret prophecy. After all "For no MAN knows when the end will come".

2) I don't recall who it was, but an Anglican priest once said to a Puritan in response to the Puritan's objection to the Apocrypha being included as part of Holy Scripture: "And what about those infathomable sermons you listen to. Be they the word of God?" The point being, if some of the most esteemed Holy Apostolic Fathers, who were closer to the original source to begin with, could not completely and accurately comprehend Revelation, what gives the interperetation of the likes of Tim LaHaye and others more credence?

In conclusion, not only will God will take care of the "End Times" in whatever way He chooses or He sees fit to allow to happen, but He will take care of His own when the time comes for the end to happen. He does not need our help to figure it out. He had it all worked out even before He created us!

45th Anniversary of Saint Barnabas Atlanta

What a sheer joy to celebrate today the 45th Anniversary of   Saint Barnabas Anglican Cathedral, Atlanta, Georgia!