Those Pesky Premillennialists

NickOfTime

Disagreeing with someone’s perspective is one thing, but dismissing it is something else. People can disagree respectfully. Respectful disagreement involves listening carefully to other individuals in conversations, understanding their positions, and considering carefully the arguments that favor them (or that weigh against one”s own position) before replying. When a perspective is dismissed, however, it is rejected as so implausible—and perhaps so damaging—that it does not warrant a hearing. Dismissiveness is often accompanied with derision.

In certain theological circles, premillennialism, especially in its dispensationalist varieties, is almost habitually dismissed and derided. A recent example involves a sermon preached by a well-known evangelical pastor. The sermon, which was partly addressed to premillennial pastors, was mainly an exposition of Revelation 20. To be clear, the sermon contained much useful teaching. This influential pastor, however, began his treatment of the text by repeating a quip that Revelation is not “for the armchair prophets with their charts of historical events and their intricate diagrams of the end of the age.” He then continued, “This is not rightly dividing the Word of Truth,” a clear allusion to dispensational theology. He insisted that the purpose of the book of Revelation is to provide “warning and reassurance” to “harassed, subsistence-level Christians,” to “encourage them in their struggle,” and to “liberate them from fear of the enemy within and without.” In other words, the purpose of Revelation is to hearten persecuted believers, not to disclose details of an eschatological timetable.

Those two activities, however, are not mutually exclusive. Granted, the purpose of the Apocalypse really is to encourage perseverance among believers who are facing oppression. Even so, that does not imply that eschatological chronology or detail is necessarily absent from the book. Indeed, it is at least possible that the details of eschatological chronology might be revealed in order to provide motivation for perseverance.

At this point, a concession is in order. Even if eschatological detail and chronology are important, not every use of these details is necessarily helpful. In fact, two uses of prophetic schematizing are damaging. These uses ought to be an embarrassment to every responsible premillennialist.

One bad use of biblical prophecy is to satisfy mere curiosity about the future. Some people experience a kind of nosiness about things to come. To satisfy this desire, unscrupulous individuals have created an entire occult industry that purports to peer into the future. Some people read biblical prophecy for much the same reason that others read Nostradamus or consult their daily horoscopes. This practice surely misses the point.

A second bad use of prophecy is to turn it into a source of entertainment. Some dispensationalists have invented a literary genre that could be called “prophetic fiction.” In their novels and movies, they surround biblical prophecies with action-packed story-telling and extra-biblical speculation. Treated this way, prophecy becomes fantasy. Some people read Left Behind for much the same reason that others read Harry Potter. Turning prophecy into amusement almost invariably debases it.

Such uses of prophecy are harmful, but they do not count against the suggestion that biblical prophecy reveals eschatological chronology or detail. Whether or not Scripture includes those details can only be determined by examining the Scriptures themselves. If the text actually communicates eschatological chronology and details, then chronology and details must be important and ought to be studied.

Not surprisingly, the dispute over eschatological detail soon turns into a dispute over the proper way of reading prophetic passages. Those who deride eschatological detail often assume that prophetic texts should be read in a non-literal way. Contrapositively, those who read the texts in a literal way usually affirm the importance of eschatological detail.

The word literal, however, lends itself to misunderstanding. Premillennialists (especially dispensationalists) have sometimes contributed to this misunderstanding by failing to clarify what they mean by their use of the term. Too often, “literal” seems to be opposed to “literary,” disallowing any figurative or symbolic uses of language.

Responsible premillennialists know better. They are fully prepared to grant the multiple levels at which ordinary language communicates. What they are not prepared to concede is that biblical prophecies ought to be read in a way that wholly exempts them from the ordinary use of language. Premillennialists are not prepared to concede that figurative or symbolic uses of language authorize the wholesale spiritualization of prophecy.

Premillennialists-—particularly dispensationalists—-note that biblical prophecy may be divided into two broad classes. Some prophecies have been wholly and indisputably fulfilled. The fulfillment of other prophecies remains wholly or partly in the future.

The prophecies that have already been fulfilled provide a convenient way of understanding how prophetic language works. By noting how these prophecies were fulfilled, interpreters can develop a hermeneutic for interpreting prophecy. The same hermeneutic may then be applied to unfulfilled prophesy.

If interpreters do engage in that exercise, then what conclusions will they draw? The answer is that they are very likely to become premillennialists. Indeed, this kind of reading is what premillennialists mean by “literal” interpretation. Incidentally, the habit of reading prophetic Scriptures in this way is one of the marks of dispensationalism.

Prophetic chronology and eschatological detail are not antithetical to spiritual encouragement. Interpreters will be able to determine whether prophetic passages include detailed chronology only by studying those passages. As they explore the prophetic, unfulfilled prophecies ought to be understood in the same way in which fulfilled prophecies have received their fulfillment. If prophetic passages, when interpreted in this way, actually do include eschatological details and chronological markers, then those things are part of the whole counsel of God. Whatever is in the Word of God is worthy of being studied, believed, and taught.

So what about charts? Would non-dispensationalists really be happier if dispensationalists simply refused to use charts? It seems unlikely.

All sorts of people, including theologians, use charts, diagrams, and graphic representations to help them visualize all sorts of things. Biblical geography can be represented cartographically. Greek and Hebrew professors expect their classes to do sentence diagrams. The history of Israel is often taught using charts and diagrams. The relationships of biblical characters can be charted in a family tree. Charts can be very useful in distinguishing doctrines such as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation.

Many non-dispensationalist teachers use charts for a variety of purposes. Charts can be used to help people conceptualize geographical, grammatical, historical, genealogical, and soteriological relationships. Why should they not be used to help people conceptualize eschatological ones?

Premillennialists use charts. So what? They see detail and chronology in eschatological passages. So what? They think that eschatological details matter when those details are taught by the Word of God. So what?

None of these considerations constitutes a real objection to premillennialism or even dispensationalism. None of them constitutes a legitimate, prima facie warrant for dismissing premillennial eschatology. A more appropriate response would be to treat premillennialism as a responsible alternative within the theological matrix, even if one must disagree with it.

Holy Sonnet XII: Why Are We By All Creatures Waited On?

John Donne (1572-1631)

Why are we by all creatures waited on?
Why do the prodigal elements supply
Life and food to me, being more pure than I,
Simple, and further from corruption?
Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou, bull, and bore so seelily,
Dissemble weakness, and by one man’s stroke die,
Whose whole kind you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe is me, and worse than you,
You have not sinned, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater wonder, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue,
But their Creator, whom sin nor nature tied,
For us, His creatures, and His foes, hath died.


This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Dennis Clemons's picture

Dr. Bauder, thank you for your article. I am again encouraged by reading your measured and honest viewpoints on mattes about which you write. I would like to challenge your thinking on a couple of mattes that I have pulled from your post as well as one that I have long observed about the premillennial perspective.

First, it is not the term literal so much as, you observed, the premillennialists themselves that cause misunderstanding.

Dr. Bauder wrote:
The word literal, however, lends itself to misunderstanding. Premillennialists (especially dispensationalists) have sometimes contributed to this misunderstanding by failing to clarify what they mean by their use of the term. Too often, “literal” seems to be opposed to “literary,” disallowing any figurative or symbolic uses of language.
Responsible premillennialists know better. They are fully prepared to grant the multiple levels at which ordinary language communicates. What they are not prepared to concede is that biblical prophecies ought to be read in a way that wholly exempts them from the ordinary use of language. Premillennialists are not prepared to concede that figurative or symbolic uses of language authorize the wholesale spiritualization of prophecy.

The charge that non-chiliasts make about the literal interpretation is well founded. But one example in many is their general redefinition of the Lord’s repeated assertion to John that the events of the Revelation were just about to occur. (Rev. 1:1; 1:3; 22:10) But a responsible premillennialist must be genuine too. And in his genuineness, he must acknowledge that, in the above passages, by either definition of “literal”, it cannot mean other than those events happened in the First Century or else we are left admitting that the Lord was wrong. In this, I find the premillennialist is the one that wholly exempts himself from the ordinary use of language.

The same is observable regarding the last trumpet statement in 1 Cor. 15 and last day statements about the resurrection in the Gospel of John.

Second, I find your following statements to condemn the premillennialist’s interpretation more than to defend it.

Dr. Bauder wrote:
The prophecies that have already been fulfilled provide a convenient way of understanding how prophetic language works. By noting how these prophecies were fulfilled, interpreters can develop a hermeneutic for interpreting prophecy. The same hermeneutic may then be applied to unfulfilled prophesy.

Consider how the premillennialist inconsistently applies language about fulfilled prophesies regarding the fall of Babylon (Isa. 13:10), Egypt (Eze. 32:7-8), Idumea (Isa. 34:4) and Israel (Joel 2:10) to their understanding of the same language in the Olivet Discourse. But take away a future Great Tribulation and the premillennial house proves to be a house of cards.

So, to answer your question,

Dr. Bauder wrote:
If interpreters do engage in that exercise, then what conclusions will they draw?
Something other than premillennialism.

In general, I find the premillennialist to be satisfied with the above contradictions rather than seeking a unified Bible. There is no reconciliation between the principles that your article laid out and the problems that I have cited above. The postimillennial and amillennial perspectives by contrast are dramatically more consistent by understanding as figurative, much of what the premillennialist sees as literal and seeing as literal, much of what the premillennialist sees as figurative.

Again, thank you for your article. Although intending to be frank, I mean no malice by my assertions above. I am confident that we will all be enraptured to see it all clearly, as face to face on “the last day”. Wink

Dennis

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. ~ Proverbs 18:17

Bob Hayton's picture

Bauder points out an example of a dismissive attitude toward premillennial dispensationalism. Of course, another big message by a well known evangelical pastor at a church pastor's conference, displayed a dismissive attitude toward amillennialists.. Both sides can be dismissive, and I agree with Bauder that such dismissiveness is out of place.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Joseph's picture

Being dismissive as such is not a problem; being dismissive without reasons or arguments is, as Bauder himself seems to indicate.

When people say "He was very dismissive," which is almost always a negative description, they normally also have made the judgment "for no good reason," which is actually often an unjustified assumption. The idea, for such people, is that if in whatever context they heard or read so-and-so being dismissive, he did not provide arguments or reason, then their dismissal is unjustified. But of course this is false. Imagine a doctor who specializes in drug treatment and is aware that many of the stereotypes about drug addiction are false. He may, during lectures or conversations, give people the impression that he is dismissive of these stereotypes - because he is. But someone in the audience would be utterly unjustified in thinking, "Well, he was awfully dismissive [and unjustifiedly so ] in not taking my claim about how hard it is to stop taking drugs seriously" precisely because the doctor's dismissal was rooted in his research in just such areas (cf. Theodore Dalyrmple for a real life example).

This distinction is worth making because people like to hold others to unwarranted standards, like that they always in whatever circumstances must present themselves so that someone who disagrees with them will know the extent to which their disagreement or dismissal is grounded in reasons. But, again, this is an unwarranted and impossible-to-realize expectation.

Behind the discussion of "dismissiveness" is a further distinction that needs to be made. It's that between dismissing positions and dismissing persons; I think that is partly what is at issue here, and what people most dislike and get upset about, is when they themselves feel dismissed. Most Fundamentalists, for example have no qualms about being personally incompetent in science but perfectly confident in dismissing the conclusions of those who highly competent. They would argue this kind of dismissal is warranted. Perhaps it is; even so, it's obviously a very bad strategy for dealing with the public perception of the issue or for dealing with any persons who happen to hold an evolutionary position. If someone has a question, or makes a statement, that reflects, say, a dispensational outlook, they should not be dismissed personally. It's a real question to them, or a true position, and so the teacher or whomever ought to take that seriously. However, people ought also to realize that people may have good reasons for not taking the position they hold seriously.

A final relevant thing to note, which seems closest to what Bauder is actually writing about, is the rhetorical function of dismissivenesst. It's quite pernicious to use dismissiveness as a way of ending a discussion, or indicating to one's constituency that such and such a position need not be regarded, or that it may be safely laughed at. This is the kind of tactic that produces group think, caricatures, and, eventually, a kind of discrimination, even if it's mild, that is wholly baseless because it's founded on caricatures.