END TIMES: Humility essential in debate
GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--While the majority of Southern Baptist seminary faculty members are premillennialists, some professors are re-examining their eschatological positions. In a survey conducted by the staff of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, some premillennialists indicated they did not hold their positions as adamantly as they used to.
A handful of faculty members in Southern Baptist seminaries believe amillennialism best represents the biblical witness regarding last things. Of the Southern Baptist Convention's six schools, half -- namely, Southern Seminary, Southwestern Seminary and Midwestern Seminary -- reported having faculty members who hold this minority view. Although the number holding to amillennialism pales in comparison to those holding to premillennialism, the existence of a minority view could signal an overall trend of decreased dogmatism in Southern Baptist life over eschatology.
David Beck, professor of New Testament and Greek and associate dean of biblical studies at Southeastern Seminary, told the TEXAN he holds to a premillennial and pretribulational view of last things, but with less certainty than he used to.
"I was raised in a somewhat dispensational context and taught a pretribulation, premillenial eschatological view as if it was the biblical position," Beck said. "When I first began my theological education I discovered that the Bible was not that explicit on the timeline of eschatological events. Nothing in my study led me to change my view, but it caused me to realize a biblical argument could be made for other interpretive positions (though I did not find them convincing)."
Commenting on the changing views of end times in evangelical life, Southeastern President Daniel Akin said such views are not usually measures of orthodoxy.
"I think you will find a continuing commitment by the overwhelming majority to premillennialism, but an unwillingness to draw swords over the tribulation issue," he said.
David Allen, academic dean of Southwestern Seminary's theology school, said diversity on secondary doctrines such as eschatology can be a "healthy pedagogical tool."
Of the respondents from Southwestern Seminary's theology school to the TEXAN survey, 20 held to premillennial and posttribulational views, 15 professors held to premillennial and pretribulational views, three held to amillennialism, and two abstained from comment.
"For faculty, having a variety of eschatological views creates healthy dialogue and fosters respect for those holding differing views," Allen said. "For students, exposure to faculty with diverse eschatological positions minimizes the risk that students will accept a particular viewpoint merely or primarily because all faculty support the same position."
For those who participated in the poll at Midwestern, all but one of the nine respondents were premillennialists with two specifying historic premillennialism and another holding to amillennialism.
Jerry Johnson, academic dean of Midwestern Seminary and professor of ethics and theology, explained his position by saying, "I am premillennial for emphasis, and pretrib for details. By that I mean the main eschatological emphasis of the Old and New Testament is the return and rule of Christ, and that should be our main emphasis in confession and preaching. The rapture, and especially its timing, is a footnote in the biblical material and not to be our focus. In other words the primary message is about who is coming (Christ) and not who is leaving (the Church)."
AMILLENNIALISM: A MINORITY VIEW
Amillennialism is one such orthodox option of last things. Amillennialists interpret the 1,000-year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20 symbolically. The millennium, then, is not a future event but is being fulfilled in the present age in which Satan is restricted as the Gospel goes forth among the nations. Because the present age ends at Christ's second coming, amillennialists do not understand the nature of the millennium as the period of time between Christ's first and second comings.
As with other orthodox views of the eschaton, amillennialism affirms two resurrections. Within amillennialism opinions vary, but the first resurrection generally is understood to be spiritual, referring to the regeneration of believers. The second resurrection is physical, referring to the resurrection of both believers and unbelievers that will occur at Christ's return.
Like premillennialism, amillennialism has a rich heritage dating back to the early church. But it was Augustine who codified the belief for much of church history.
Even into the 20th century, the position was held by a significant portion of Baptist academia. Despite the popularization of the dispensational and premillennial views, amillennialism was the dominant position among "working theologians" for much of Baptist history -- a point suggested by Southern Seminary theology dean Russell Moore in his chapter on eschatology in the systematic theology "A Theology of the Church," edited by Southeastern Seminary's Akin.
During the modernist controversy, amillennialism became largely associated with liberal theology, a connection that contributes to misconceptions regarding the position today, said Southwestern Seminary's Paul Wolfe.
Wolfe, associate professor of New Testament and an amillennialist, teaches a course on Revelation at the Fort Worth seminary.
"There is an unfortunate link in the mind of many that amillennialism is a first step toward or an indicator of latent liberalism. This is partly due to the unfounded link of premillennialism and inerrancy," said Wolfe, pointing out that orthodox believers throughout church history often have advocated this view. "In other words, amillennialism is not tied to a certain view of salvation, the person and work of Christ, etc."
Commenting on the perceived link between the amillennialist position and liberal theology, David Allen pointed out there are numerous conservative amillennialists as well as non-premillennial inerrantists.
"It would be inaccurate to say that amillennialism entails (in the philosophical use of that term) liberalism, just as it would be inaccurate to say that inerrancy entails premillennialism," Allen said. "However, I do think the case can be made that a majority of those who reject inerrancy and who would classify themselves as liberals would also identify themselves as amillennialists. Perhaps this is the reason for the misconceptions."
THE CASE FOR AMILLENNIALISM
Adding that he is not 100 percent committed to the position, Wolfe believes amillennialism best represents the New Testament picture of believers being presently engaged in an interim Kingdom, awaiting the final consummation of God's Kingdom.
"Other than Revelation 20, there is no mention of a possible second interim Kingdom," said Wolfe, suggesting that the burden of proof for a literal reign of Christ lies with premillennialists.
Moreover, Wolfe believes the amillennial position harmonizes with a traditional Baptist way of life in three ways:
First, amillennialism heightens the mandate for evangelism, he said, adding that "there is no second interim Kingdom during which repentance is apparently possible."
Second, amillennialism heightens the view of the church as the "highest and clearest manifestation of God's Kingdom short of the consummation."
"The realities associated with a millennial Kingdom -- for example peace, a radical ethic of godliness and love, creation care -- are to be exercised in and through the church here and now. It is the church through which God is revealing His wisdom between now and the judgments," the professor said, referring to Ephesians 3:10.
And third, Wolfe said, amillennialism encourages social engagement.
"This would make a radical difference in our churches and individual lives. Our priorities, use of resources and engagement with the world around us would all be transformed from the present situation," he said. "It was not unusual for the early church to think of the millennial Kingdom as a time for the saints to discipline ourselves for life in heaven. Amillennialism says that time is now. What difference should that make in how we live now?"
But beyond the practical implications of the amillennialist view, Wolfe said he holds to the position because he believes it remains faithful to the nature of the Book of Revelation.
"Given the New Testament emphasis apart from Revelation 20, and the fact that Revelation is a message encoded in symbols as John himself makes clear in Revelation 1:1, I find it more appropriate to understand Revelation 20 in a symbolic fashion in keeping with the patterns and emphases throughout the remainder of John's vision," he said.
Radu Gheorghita, associate professor of biblical studies at Midwestern Seminary, holds to amillennialism for a similar reason.
"I believe the most attractive aspect of this school of interpretation is that it matches the characteristics of the apocalyptic genre of the book of Revelation, a literature rich in symbolism, imagery and similes, a genre chosen by John to venture into the spiritual territory which Paul himself chose to avoid (2 Corinthians 12)," said Gheorghita, who recently took two years to memorize the entire Book of Revelation.
As such, attempts to "decode" Revelation raise the professor's suspicions, he said.
Gheorghita believes another attractive tenet of amillennialism is it solves potential theological issues, such as the rapture.
"If John provides in Revelation a map of the events associated with the eschaton, he would have surely included all the major events that will usher it, including the rapture of the church," Gheorghita said. "I read, reread and reread the book hundreds of times. I did not find the rapture in the Revelation. As I faced this reality, I had two options: either insert the rapture at various potential stages in the book (chapter 4, chapter 11, etc.) or, alternatively, I would have to conclude that John's map of final events does not include it."
In looking solely at the information provided in Revelation, Gheorghita said it seems "more exegetically honest" to conclude there is no rapture mentioned in the book.
Formerly a premillennialist, Gheorghita said he is still working out his own understanding of the book.
"I hope I will not ossify my position too early, but continue to let my interaction with the text and with Revelation scholars continue to shape its outcome."
Although each offers his own reason for holding to his particular millennial commitment, premillennialists and amillennialists agree that absolute certainty about the specifics of the Kingdom's final consummation does not exist.
"I finally came to the conclusion that if honest biblical scholars who shared a commitment to inerrancy could not agree on the interpretation of the timeline of eschatological events, then perhaps that is not the purpose of the eschatological teachings of Scripture," said Southeastern's Beck.
"We find these texts difficult and confusing because we are asking them questions that they were not written to reveal. If we let them speak for themselves, their message is not difficult to understand, but very clear: God is sovereign, His judgment against sin is both terrible and inevitable, the righteous will be vindicated, believers are exhorted to persevere and continue in faithfulness," Beck said.
"This leads me to where I no longer focus on the issue of what happens when, but are we living as God's Word demands us to be, alert, watchful, always seeking to please Him, always proclaiming His truth, and ready whenever He chooses to send Jesus back to take us home?"
Melissa Deming is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.