Friday, January 6, 2012

A Horse of a Different Color: Non-Dispensational Premillennialism

Although it isn’t a topic that I usually spend a lot of time discussing, over the past couple of weeks I have ended up in a few different conversations about the end times (eschatology). Those conversations have me thinking about some assumptions we often make when discussing theology. We all have a tendency to try and fit the people we are talking to into categories that we are already familiar with. Sometimes this causes us to jump to conclusions that may or may not be correct.

I noticed that in at least a couple of these conversations some of the people were only aware of one premillennial position. They assumed that all premillennialists were dispensational and held to something similar to the Left Behind kind of scenario for the end times. This is incorrect on multiple accounts.

First, there are a number of differences within the dispensational school, many of which do not hold to the particular view popularized in the Left Behind series. Second, it is true that the most common forms of premillennialism in our time have been dispensational varieties but historically there have been forms of premillennialism that are not dispensational. In fact, non-dispensational premillennialism is one of the oldest documented millennial positions in church history. This is why many people who hold to this view refer to it as historic or classic premillennialism.

I knew that non-dispensational premillennialism was a minority position but I did not realize how many people had simply never heard of it. This is surprising to me because although it is a minority position it has been very well represented by a number of influential teachers. Of course, you cannot assess the truth of a theological position by counting noses but the fact that these teachers are from various denominations and that many have been recognized as capable Bible scholars should at least call the view to our attention. The following is a list of a few of the more recognizable names throughout church history that have taught non-dispensational forms of premillennialism (in order of birth year):

Papias                                                 (Early Father) 60’s - 155
Justin Martyr                                       (Early Father) 103-165
Irenaeus                                              (Early Father) ?-202
William Twisse                                   (Puritain) 1578-1646
Jeremiah Burroughs                            (Puritan) 1600-1646
John Gill                                              (Baptist) 1697-1771
Benjamin Wills Newton                      (Brethren) 1807-1899
Henry Alford                                        (Anglican) 1810-1871
Charles Spurgeon                                (Baptist) 1834-1892
James Oliver Buswell                          (Presbyterian) 1895-1977
Gordon H. Clark                                   (Presbyterian) 1902-1985
R. Laird Harris                                     (Presbyterian) 1911-2008
George Eldon Ladd                              (Baptist) 1911-1982
Francis Schaeffer                                (Presbyterian) 1912-1984
J. Barton Payne                                   (Presbyterian) 1922-1979
John Warwick Montgomery                (Lutheran) 1931-
Walter Kasier Jr.                                  (Baptist) 1933-
James Mongomery Boice                    (Presbyterian) 1938-2000
John Piper                                            (Baptist) 1946-
Al Mohler                                            (Baptist) 1959-

Of course just like dispensationalism and any of the other eschatological system there is a wide variety of particular views. For example; there are major differences between the dispensationalism of Scofield vs. Ryrie vs. Bock. Likewise, the covenantal premillennialism of George Ladd, for example, is different from the historical-redemptive system taught by Walter Kaiser Jr. They all share, however, the essential elements of a premillennial theology. That is; the recognition that Christ will return to defeat Antichrist and usher in a literal earthly reign of peace and righteousness.

Unlike the dispensationalists, however, non-dispensational premillennialists tend to see a greater unity among the people of God in the Old and New Testaments. Whereas dispensationalism stresses the discontinuity between Israel & the Church the non-dispensational view tends to stress the unity (although many still hold that there is an important distinction). The second major difference is that the dispensational view is that God will rapture His church so that they will not suffer the Wrath of God in the Great Tribulation. Non-dispensationalists typically teach that the Church will be present on earth at that time and that the “catching up” is a description of the events that occur as part of the events at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They tend to see the rapture and the second coming as simultaneous events at the end of the tribulation. There are other distinctions but these two tend to be the major differences.

My purpose in this article is not to argue for the correctness of this or any other particular view. I just want to point out that there are various views within the broader “end times” categories, each of which must be judged on the basis of its own harmony with the scriptural data. This cannot be done, however, if we are unaware of the various views and how they are supported biblically. I was surprised how many Christians interested in “end times” issues were unaware of one of the major historically held views on the topic. Anyone interested in the doctrine of eschatology would do well to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major views including this one, even if only to better understand their own.

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