still missing the point

I recently began reading a book by Alistair Donaldson on the problems with Dispensationalism (see pic). screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-11-20-40I’m about half-way through and it’s been a fair treatment of the subject so far; I’ll have to wait and see if these things hold true till the end. Two things have been encouraging about the book: (1) much of what Donaldson argues is in line with a number of conclusions that I’ve reached on my own on this topic; thus, it’s good to know that I’m in good company in my thinking. And (2) Donaldson clarifies a vital need when talking about Dispensationalism, and that is: most discussions tend to say, “Dispensationalism has come so far from its origins, and a number of scholars–even Dispensational ones–are showing how the classical form is no longer viable or even biblical. So there’s no real need to debate or look at the older forms of Dispensationalism.”

But the problem is, as Donaldson points out, that recognition is almost exclusively a scholarly perspective. In other words: scholars are the ones who have accepted the advances made; the classical (and even modified) form of Dispensationalism still exists and is taught in many churches, and thus still finds is way into popular Christianity. Therefore, while we are safe to exclude treatments of the older version when talking about it at the scholarly level, there is still a need to include them at the popular level. Here is a case in point:

Over at Beliefnet.com (a site that I only know about in a passing way, which is to say: I try to avoid it as much as possible), Lesli White composed an article entitled, “5 Important Facts About Jesus’ Second Coming”. Sounds intriguing, to be sure. The tagline is (an attempt to be) equally captivating: “While we don’t know every detail, The Word promises these five things will happen when Jesus returns again.” Sounds promising. Except for one thing. Some of what she lists is not what “The Word promises…will happen when Jesus returns again”, rather it’s what Dispensationalism (because of its idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic) promises will happen. To be sure, the general points in her list do parallel the teaching of the NT–e.g., Jesus’ coming from heaven, our complete ignorance about the timing, the return will be obvious, and the second will be different from the first. But the parallels stop there. On the surface. Once we start to dig into the specifics of her individual points, we encounter not only a Dispensationally marinated theology but also some basic problems/flaws/inconsistencies.

For example: White’s second point proceeds–without justification, mind you (but that’s the old Dispy’s MO)–with the assumption that “While the two are often confused, the second coming is not the rapture”, and then goes on to explain why the two are meant to be kept separate. Hence, White is advocating a two-stage Second Coming of Christ–one where he sort of comes back, but not really; and a second (/third), where he means it this time. Not only that, but White proceeds on the (equally unproven) assumption that “the church” is a completely separate entity in God’s salvation plan–and by that it is meant, “the church” is neither the Jews nor the Gentiles (i.e., the unbelieving world). By implication from the rest of what she says in this point, this means: at the so-called “rapture”, the church alone is rescued while everyone else is screwed and has to endure 7 years of “wrath” and “great tribulation.” Sorry, but neither of these two teachings is not found in the NT; they are especially not found in (or even supported by) texts like 1 Thess 4.13-18 or (I’m assuming she meant to write) 1 Cor 15.50-54. These ideas, however, are two of the essential pillars for Dispensationalism, so one can easily find them there. And only there.

White’s third point also has some concerns. Two are worth mentioning. First, she is very cautious in how she chooses to word her claims. When talking about the unexpectedness of the event, White focuses her attention on “the return” of Christ. While (seemingly) benign to most everyone else in the church, this phrasing is necessary for the Dispensationalist system of interpretation, which in turn formulates the Dispensationalist’s theology. By focusing on “the return” as an unknown event, White is emphasizing the so-called “rapture” and not Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming. Thus, for the Dispy, at the word level: “return” = “rapture”. And she has to follow this notion, partly because, of the two events (wrongly) assumed to be a part of Christ’s two-stage coming, the so-called “rapture” is the only one that is described as unknown, unannounced, without warning, blah, blah, blah. And the other part is because, if this event (supposedly) precedes Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming, all one needs is simple math to work out when the Second Coming will take place–i.e., 7 years after the so-called rapture–thus making it a known event. That’s the first cocnern in her point. The second one is easier stated: the passage she ropes in to support her case (Matt 24.36) not only says nothing about a so-called rapture–either before it or after it–but also is, as Dispys typically argue, focused on the Second Coming.

And that brings me to the final¹ concern in White’s case. In her fourth point, White is correct in describing the return of Christ as “visible and audible”. This is a breath of fresh air from the otherwise dank claims of older Dispensationalism which tends to advocate a “secret rapture” (cf. this). But the relief stops there, for White immediately launches into a treatment that leaves one rather puzzled. I say that because, in speaking of Christ’s “return” we are left with the impression that White is still referring to the so-called “rapture”–an impression that is encouraged by references to texts like 1 Thess 4.16, a passage that some have rightly defined as “one of the noisiest” in the NT.² But right alongside this are references that Dispys typically use to speak about not the so-called “rapture” but Christ’s final Coming–i.e., Matt 24.26-27, 31, and (from the previous point) 36. This would suggest, at the very least, that White–in her exuberance to make a point–accidentally conflated the two ideas into one. Or it would at least suggest that the (wrongly) assumed two-stage Coming of Christ is not as important or necessary or clear-cut as White so adamantly claimed in an earlier point. Or, at best, it would begin to expose the fact that Dispys have no biblical case for a two-stage Coming of Christ, but that they have to make such a case in order to sustain an idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic–one that created a rather idiosyncratic and flawed theological perspective³–and in making such a case, they simply get things wrong. And they get things wrong, because they’re missing the point: the final Coming of Christ is not about the rapture. Not even close. It’s about so much more.

¹ Well, the “final” one to be noted here.
² S. Wohlberg, End Time Delusions (2004), 22.
³ My problem with Dispensationalism, especially the Classical and Modified/Revised forms of it, is twofold: it surreptitiously (1) questions the  NT writers as inspired advocates of God’s truth, and ultimately (2) downplays the full scope of Christ’s salvific, redemptive, atoning, and fulfilling work.

birds of a feather

At present I am reading through a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (by Mark Howell), sent to me by B&H Publishing for review.¹ In many respects, it’s clearly written, contains minimal footnotes so as not to distract the reader, and it’s not over-burdened with protracted exegetical discussions, thus making it a useful commentary for the majority of pastors and interested church members. However, it must be said, the treatments on the eschatological portions of the two letters quickly reveal that this commentary’s usefulness and appeal will be rather limited. By that I mean: if you’re a Dispensationalist (particularly of the non-Progressive type), then you’ll enjoy this commentary–especially the bits on 1Thess 4.13–5.11 and 2Thess 2.1-12. If, however, you’re outside the Dispy camp (and outside of the US, for that matter), then you’ll either be confused, frustrated, or completely unconvinced. As I’ve read through Howell’s treatment, these outcomes have been my experience. Here’s one example as to why.

In his discussion on 1Thess 4.13-18, Howell adheres to the usual Dispy line concerning the so-called rapture of the church (see 116-24). Specifically, he follows the rapture view as espoused by Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism, which is: Christ returns–but never touches down on the earth (so it’s not the real second coming; that happens later)–raptures the church (i.e. true believers), they all head off to heaven for seven years while all hell breaks loose upon the world and the unlucky sods left behind. However, in his discussion on 2Thess 1.6-12 and 2.1-12, Howell appears to depart from the usual Dispy line when he speaks about those who will both experience/witness the revelation of the “man of lawlessness” and be present at the final (real) coming of Christ (see 198-206 and 216-32). Howell says it will be the church, the believers, the faithful, etc. In some cases, Howell makes certain we see that Paul is saying these things directly and specifically to the Thessalonian believers–i.e. the church. You know, the audience who was earlier promised a rapture at Christ’s (not-really-the-)second coming.

This is odd partly because most Dispys see the description of 2Thess 2.1-12 as that which occurs at the end of the tribulation period (i.e. seven years post-rapture) and thus involving only those not raptured (i.e. not the church), but also because Howell has already said the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation–à la 1Thess 4.13-18. But he’s also suggesting the church will be present on earth post-tribulation. How are we to account for this? Moreover, it should be noted, Howell does revert back to the usual Dispy line by seeing the “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7 as the Holy Spirit (see 228-29), which is occasionally taken as justification for situating the rapture of 1Thess 4.13-18 in 2Thess 2. I’m thinking of David Dean’s argument in particular, who makes a similar claim.² The (apparent) problem remains, however: how can there be believers, faithful followers of Jesus, or a “church” post-rapture when the Holy Spirit is out of the way³–since, theologically speaking, the Spirit is means by which one is sanctified before God–and the (true) church is already in heaven waiting for the seven years of hell-on-earth to end?

Howell appears to account for this by dropping in the random claim: “Since the Holy Spirit is God, His removal from the scene does not indicate His complete absence. Rather, it points to a deliberate lessening of His suppression of evil” (229). From this, I get the impression that Howell is (implicitly) following a line of reasoning similar to what Gleason Archer uses for his “mid-tribulation rapture” reading (as found in Gundry, ed., Three Views on the Rapture [1996], 115-45). Specifically, Archer declares:

It is argued by most advocates of the pre-seventieth-week Rapture theory that the reference in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 to the restraining power of the Holy Spirit as being removed from the world empire of the Beast points to a total removal of the church as well. That is to say, the Holy Spirit resides within the church as the spiritual temple of the Lord (1 Peter 2:5), a status that pertains to each individual believer as well (1 Cor 6:19). If therefore the Holy Spirit is removed from the earthly scene, it necessarily follows that the church will be removed likewise. But a more careful examination of the text and of related passages make it clear that this was not the meaning intended by the biblical author. In the first place, 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 does not say that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world scene during the seventieth week. What it does say is that His restraining influence will be removed.

–Archer, 126-27

Archer makes sure that this distinction (i.e. removal of restraint and not presence) explains how those “left behind” are able to accept the gospel during the tribulation period (see 127). And it might be this distinction that allows Howell to speak of faithful believers on earth post-rapture but pre-Millennial reign (i.e. the real second coming of Christ). While there are a multitude of issues with Archer’s argument and the possibility of Howell following/relying on it, let me point out the most problematic.

  1. The arguments of Howell and Archer are predicated on the assumption (one that is never proven) that “restrain” is the appropriate translation of the Greek; the failure to acknowledge–let alone interact with–the more likely translation, “prevail” is unfortunate and unfair. (See here for a brief treatment on this issue).
  2. Contrary to both Howell and Archer, it is never (nor can it be) proven that the Holy Spirit is the (so-called) “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7; the claim that it is is nothing but conjecture.
  3. On a careful examination of the text, one thing is abundantly clear: Paul, in 2Thess 2.6-7, never names the Holy Spirit and never says anything about a “restraining influence” (contra Archer)–that is purely an interpretative translational gloss that borders on eisegesis. All Paul says is: καὶ νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ. τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας· μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται (emphasis added). Even if we accept “restrainer” as the subject, the focus of the final clause is on the removal of him as an entity (or person) and not some abstraction associated with them.
  4. But most glaring, and this applies to both Archer and Howell: from a careful examination of the claims made, it becomes quite clear that the arguments presented are not given in service (let alone obedience) to the text; they are expressions of advocacy for a particular (and rather idiosyncratic) theological position. In other words: they are letting (or allowing) their theology to influence–if not determine–their exegesis. And that’s never a good thing.

¹ I’ll post the review on this blog, once I finish–hopefully in the next few weeks.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168.670 (2011): 196-216.
³ This is all the more problematic when we take into consideration the notion of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, where the possibility of receiving forgiveness (e.g. salvation) has a definitive end-point–either the person’s life or the end of the age.

a confused Walvoord?

As expected, in his little commentary on 1-2Thessalonians, John Walvoord expends considerable time (comparatively speaking) unfolding a rather minor detail in 1Thess 4–a detail that even Paul himself tucks away in the paraenesis. As expected, though not explicitly stated, the reasons for committing such time are a loyalty to and a defense of the Dispensational system of interpretation. As expected, in unfolding the details of the passage a number of questionable hermeneutical moves are made (e.g. reading the passage through the lens of [at least] two unsupported/unproven presuppositions), yet such moves are necessary in order to sustain the system. And as expected, the end result of Walvoord’s efforts is something that would cause people like Darby, Scofield, and Chafer to stand up a cheer.

But what was totally unexpected (at least for me) was a comment made in a paragraph that was doing the expected:

The Thessalonian passage [i.e. 4.13-18] continues with another tremendous revelation. “The dead in Christ shall first first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [i.e. the raised dead] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” This Scripture does not reveal where we are to go with the Lord, but, as has been already indicated, John 14 tells us plainly that when Christ comes for us He will take us to the Father’s house in heaven. When we meet the Lord in the air, we shall assemble in the atmospheric heaven and from there go to the third heaven, which is the immediate presence of the Father. This is indicated in the last part of the preceding chapter where Paul speaks of our being in the presence of God Father, unblamable in holiness.”

–J. Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles (1967), 44-45–emphasis added

For a text that doesn’t specifically reveal anything about the destination of where resurrected and “raptured” saints go, Walvoord seems fairly confident (if not definitive) about the text’s intended reference. But that aside (and the logical and theological flaws within his argument), Walvoord’s assertion that the saints go with Christ “to the third heaven” and that this place “is the immediate presence of the Father” was a bit out of the blue and admittedly strange.

Is Walvoord thinking in terms of some ancient views, where the “third heaven” is the highest level in a layered created universe and thus the place of the God and the angelic hosts–separated and undefiled? If so, all I can say is: Seriously? You’re going to advocate a cosmology that, when applied to the biblical text today, winds up sounding like a revived Gnosticism? Or is Walvoord thinking in terms of Second-Temple (and later) Jewish notions of heaven as tiered? If so, it worth mentioning that three is only one of several supposed layers. Moreover, while three is fairly common (cf. T.Levi 2.7-10), so is seven (cf. Apoc.Abr. 19.1-9; T.Levi 3.1-4). And there are certainly other suggested options beyond three and seven. In fact, they number as many as 365. So, Walvoord, which cosmology are you following and why? Are you using “three” because it’s the most convenient for your argument, or because Paul uses it?

Thus: is Walvoord thinking of the only time Paul uses the phrase, “the third heaven” (2Cor 12.2), which he then relabels as “Paradise” (2Cor 12.4),¹ which can then be linked with Jesus’ promise to where the thief on the cross will be after death (cf. Lk 23.39-43)–since both texts use the same term? Thus, “Paradise” is “the third heaven”, or at least a part of it, which is attested in other Jewish sources (cf. Adam and Eve, 40.1; 2En 8.1-6). This would seem to make the best sense, at least for Walvoord’s argument, for the promise given by Jesus to the thief reflects the promised hope articulated in Walvoord’s description–i.e. the third heaven as “the immediate presence of the Father.”² If this is the view Walvoord has in mind, we have a few problems:

  1. Descriptions about “the third heaven” are somewhat varied with respect to its nature. Sometimes it is the place of God’s throne room; sometimes it is the Garden of Eden redux, where the righteous saints reside; sometimes it is a type of angelic barracks, where warriors angels wait to do battle at the final judgment; sometimes it is the abode of an evil dragon, who brings havoc upon the earth and feasts on wicked people; and sometimes it is the location of Hell.
  2. While “Paradise” is sometimes synonymous with “the third heaven”–as the very presence of God–sometimes it’s not. In fact, as Margaret Thrall points out, 2Enoch indicates a distinction between “Paradise” and God’s primary abode–i.e. 2En 8.3 shows God walking in “Paradise” (=the Garden redux), but 2En 20-22 show God’s primary abode as in the seventh heaven (cf. Thrall, 2 Corinthians, 2.789). Thus, on this reading, “Paradise”/”the third heaven” is not the immediate presence of the Father; it is only the place he frequents from time to time.
  3. Moreover, “Paradise” is not only portrayed as a heavenly locale (T.Abr. 20.14; 3Bar 4.6) but also described as on earth in the eschaton. This would seem to create problems for Walvoord’s view and his specific claim that once “raptured” off this earth and whisked away to heaven (thank you very much, neo-Gnosticism), that heavenly abode in Paradise/third heaven is where we/believers “shall…ever be with the Lord.” Unless, of course, he means to say: eternal existence in the presence of the Father is unhindered, even when Paradise is brought to earth. If that was his point, he should have made it more clear.
  4. The idea of the (now) heavenly Paradise being populated by the righteous dead (cf. 3Bar 10.5; 2Esd 3.5-11; 2En 9.1; T.Levi 18.10-11) would also seem to create problems for Walvoord–especially his Dispenationalism. According to these (extra-biblical) sources, the righteous dead are essentially Jewish; but according to Dispensationalism, the (secret) rapture and (partial) resurrection only includes saints of the church–i.e. Christians (=non-Jewish folk). Thus, in the Dispensational system, Paradise is populated by Christians while the earth (for seven years) is populated by pagans and Jews–both of whom are about to receive an intense divine butt-kicking.
  5. On a slightly different note, but equally problematic, there is the decision to use extra-biblical Jewish sources to substantiate an idea that is otherwise ambiguous in what Walvoord would certainly see as the only and truly inspired revelation of God–i.e. the (Protestant) canonical Bible. I say “ambiguous” because “Paradise” is only mentioned three times in the entire NT (i.e. Lk 23.43; 2Cor 12.4; Rev 2.7), and not one of these references–let alone all three of them together–is able to offer the picture Walvoord desires.

¹ Or should we follow Ambrosiaster, who saw the two references in 2Cor 12 as two separate “raptures” and thus two different places?
² I’ll overlook (=ignore) the rather odd Trinitarian view that results from joining these two promises. Prima facie, it looks like Modalism.

feeling feisty

Ever since a well-meaning individual tried to convince me of the merits of Dispensationalism,[1] I have done my best (when I have the spare time) to become acquainted with its ideas/teachings/hermeneutic/etc. I do this because I want to be sure that I am either accepting or rejecting something for the right reasons. That study began just over 6 years ago, and I’m sure it will continue for many more–and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with are the repeated attempts by some Dispensationalist scholars to (try and) substantiate a position or interpretation that is otherwise passé or even unsustainable. In particular, I am thinking of the twin (and necessarily linked) ideas of: 1) a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, and 2) the pre-tribulation rapture of the Church. To put it mildly: both of these are crap (especially the second one) and there is no biblical support for either one–or both. The only way one reaches something remotely close to these ideas is if one presupposes the “truth” of both and then imposes them onto a small handful of text(s) that supposedly teach them.

However, throughout 6 years of studying Dispensationalism and reading through countless books and articles on the subject, I cannot begin to recall the number of times I’ve seen people still trying to uphold these two points and claiming them as taught/supported/proved in the Bible. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this sort of thing persists. The only guess I can fathom is that such scholars are seeking to preserve loyalty to Dispensational teaching rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. (That may be a tad extreme…). One fairly recent example should suffice, which comes from an article by the late Zane Hodges (1933-2008).  Please note the assumptions and presuppositions driving his entire line of argument:

A growing number of evangelicals question the doctrine of the Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church, claiming that the New Testament nowhere teaches it.  Even proponents of the Pre-tribulation Rapture often defend it as if it results from a series of inferences drawn from scattered biblical texts.  Or, they may cite a few isolated proof-texts (like Revelation 3:10).  Unfortunately, few pre-tribulational expositors attempt to justify this doctrine by appealing to a coherent exegesis of an extended passage of Scripture.  Yet, the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as a deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

–Z. Hodges, “1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and the Rapture,” CTS Journal 6 (2000): 22

There are so many things I could say about this paragraph, but for the sake of my own sanity I will confine my remarks to Hodge’s final point: “the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.” Let me see how I can say this… Paul teaches no such thing–not in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 or anywhere!  (I think that works). In order to say that Paul does teach such a thing, one has to presuppose a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, which further presupposes (and requires) separate divine agendas for each, and then read 1Thess 5.1-11 through that lens.  Moreover, one has to do all of this in spite of the fact that Paul would never endorse that twofold presupposition–in fact, his arguments (elsewhere) about “Israel” and the church obliterate the foundation for such a distinction. Thus, if Hodges is going to follow the principle of “interpreting Scripture with Scripture”, then he’s going to have a difficult[2] time squaring what Paul does say about “Israel” and the church with what Dispensationalism assumes the Bible/Paul says about them.

I’ll finish reading Hodges article, primarily because I already started it but also fairness dictates I consider the whole of his argument. However, I have terrible suspicion that it’s going to be nothing but a Dispensationally-driven eisegesis of a Pauline text that deserves more respect than that.

[1] I should point out that, based on several conversations with the individual noted, the “Dispensationalism” in question is an amalgam of the Classical and Revised (or Modified) varieties.
[2] On this point, I’m being kind.

there and back again

This video has been making the rounds in the blogosphere.* I saw it first on Jim West, then Joel Watts, and then Gavin Rumney (a new blog to me). The main reason why I’m reposting it is because Rossing provides an explanation that needs to be considered, at least as a beginning point for a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches. I’m also a tad sadistic in that I enjoy seeing weak/poor theology being smacked around.

* I would have uploaded the video here, but I’m not exactly sure how to do that–or even if I can, seeing that I have a basic [i.e. free] version of wordpress.