Saturday, September 16, 2017

Reformation’s Return to Premillennialism III

     Many who held Martin Luther's convictions preceded him. He was after all an Augustinian Monk, an official order of the Roman Church since AD 1244.  The Czech priest John Huss (Jan Hus. c. 1369-1415) was a well-known literal interpreter whose popularity after his martyrdom only increased as the Hussites defeated the papal crusades five times between 1420 and 1431. Huss was greatly influenced at the middle-age university  in Prague by the writings of the great John Wycliffe (1320-1384). John Wycliffe was an English seminary professor at Oxford. Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate (New Testament) into Middle English in 1382. The result was the famous Wycliffe Bible. While the doctrines of predestination and other Augustinian doctrines were part of their literalism, it was the corruption of the church, the doctrine of the Eucharist, the veneration of the saints, the sale of indulgences, and apostolic papal authority that became the main issue and the main charge against these martyrs.

    The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally accepted the literalism of Saint Augustine. While not all orders of priests accepted Augustine’s doctrines of salvation, they all embraced his doctrines of the Church as they found support for a strong authoritative church and Pope.  Augustine interpreted the doctrine of salvation literally, yet in his next breath interpreted things he related to the church as allegory.  A positive comment of Israel was turned into a spiritualized statement of the church. In the City of God (c. AD 426), “Augustine saw the Book of Revelation as a description of the history of the church, not prophecy of the end time. The millennium in his view was the present church age.” (Richard Kyle, “The Last Days are Here Again”).  Indeed Augustine, like his predecessor Origen (Mr. Allorigism, 185-254) spiritualized the millennium claiming the church on earth to be both the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. It is Augustine’s nonmillenarian theology that dominated the middle-ages. Indeed the church's condemnation of premillennialism can be seen when in 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned as “superstition” the belief of a literal millennium!

       The allegorical approach to interpretation of the Scriptures moves in the middle-ages to mystical as the “Scriptures were read mainly for instruction in morals and ethics." As Dr. Tan says, “Victor of St. Hugo affirmed: ‘First learn what you are to believe, and then go to the Scriptures to find it there.” (Paul Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, p. 52).  As you can imagine, the abuses of this technique are numerous. The clergy used the technique to justify all manner of sins. It is this type of sloppy handling of the Scriptures that brought many within the Church to seek reformation and a return to a normal reading of the Scripture.    So important was John Wycliffe that he is known as the morning star of the English Reformation. Wycliffe’s followers were known as Lollards and continued long after his death. It is then, through the university system of the west during the middle-ages that the return to the literal method finds traction within Christendom.  Condemnation by a church council or not, truth is truth, and the only way to find pure truth is in the literal method. There is only one way to read - that is, the normal, historical, grammatical method, not the three-fold or four-fold method (literal, tropological, allegorical, and analogical) the church had hung its coat on.  Dr. Paul Tan gives the following illustration of the middle-age fourfold interpretation using Genesis 1:3. Let there be light.”(1) historically or literally – An act of creation; (2) Morally – May we be mentally illuminated by Christ; (3) Allegorically – Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically – May we be led by Christ to glory” (Paul Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy).

      In 1356 Wycliffe produced the work “the Last Age of the Church.” In it Wycliffe proposed the idea that the 14th century marked the end of the world. He saw the church as corrupt and apostate. He saw the Pope as the Antichrist. John Hus also saw the pope as the antichrist, but it was Hus’s “radical wing” followers , called the “Taborites” (taking their name from Mount Tabor, the mountain where they believed Christ foretold His second coming), that believed only in the literal method and rejected anything that could not be found in the Bible.  That included all theological speculation, including priestly ordination. However, they did speculate on the return of the Lord, predicting the return to be in 1420. When that did not occur, they turned to violence as warriors of God fighting God’s battle.

    The middle-ages found the church confused, fighting each other, and also with the Muslim Turks that had conquering the middle east and moving their fight into Europe. With all this brought speculation concerning the end times and a desire to find what was happening from the Scriptures. What that meant was getting back to the Bible and specifically to the literal interpretation of the Bible – back to the normal reading of the Bible. However, what resulted was a highly speculative historist view of prophecy where the Pope was generally seen as the antichrist, the invading Muslims as the invading army of Ezekiel. But the interpretative door was open. How can one read a legal document one way then turn around and read the Bible using different rules? John Calvin provided guidance with interpretation when he wrote, “It is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say” (Paul Tan). 

     This interest together with the persecution of the Jews brought the literal interpretation of the Jewish literal school together within the university with the Augustinian school back to a firm belief in premillennialism. But it was a different form of premillennialism for this premillennialism did not hold to the day-age belief of the ancient church. The early church was exclusively premillennial following the belief of the Jews. Believing there were 6000 years of human history, then 1000 years of millennial rest, then the end. Instead, the premillennialism of the middle-ages is dominated by premillennial historists who set dates for Christ’s return for His church. It is the period of the great Dutch language scholar Erasmus (c. 1466-1536), Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) in England, and Reuchlin (c. 1455-1522) in Germany, that one finds the natural convergence of the literal, historical grammatical method. All three were language experts and actively promoting the need for the clergy to know the original languages in order to interpret the Bible as it was meant to be interpreted and with an interpretation that anyone who reads could understand. No secret messages, no mystical interpretations, just the plain truth of the Word that was given for all to read. Erasmus compiled the most important Greek manuscript of the day, while Reuchlin produced the most important Hebrew grammar of the day. It is out of the original language study that the literal school naturally takes off. All those coming out of the universities of the late middle-ages were becoming influenced, not by philosophy which dominated the past, but by grammar – what does the original language say? How did the original audience understand what was written?

       By the 1600s, the reformation had split the Roman church, and the literal method had caused those in the academic community to examine anew the literal, grammatical, historical method.  The great premillennial scholars of the day began to look at prophecy anew. Joseph Mede (1586-1639) was a huge influence in England as he taught at Christ’s College, Cambridge. While as a noted mathematician, he taught Greek and Hebrew. Indeed it is not a mistake that Isaac Newton (1642-1726) was also a premillennialist for he too ended up at Cambridge. But it was the great Baptist scholar John Gill (1697-1771) whose massive commentary on the whole Bible using Jewish resources that brought the Jewish perspective and the historical method of the Scripture back to light. For too many years, the Greek philosophers had dominated Christian education, now the historical method was unleashed and the question was not what made logical philosophical sense, but what did the Scriptures mean to the original audience, and how did the original audience understand what was written? 

     Joseph Mede for example wrote in his work on the Book of Revelation (Clavis Apocalypticae, “Keys to the Revelation”) that the Jews would be miraculously converted to Christianity before the second coming.  His book, “took England by storm and became the most popular book of its time. Christianson states:’ Upon Mede’s shoulders must rest the primary responsibility for the revival of millennial thought in England.” (Ed Hindson, in Mal Couch, Dictionary of Premillennial Theology).

        The premillennialism that was widespread in England moved throughout Europe and across the ocean to America. In France, the literalism and premillennialism, of the Huguenots moved the Roman Church to move against these Protestants in the most brutal of attacks. In 1681, a new law even gave the Roman church the authority to convert all Huguenot children and remove them from their parents. In 1685 Huguenot ministers were ordered to leave the country within fifteen days. Many fled, many made their way to America bringing with them their literal interpretation and Huguenot premillennialism. 

     It is no mistake that by the time of  the early 1800’s that John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) developed his important and popular  dispensational premillennialism. Darby was born in London, trained in Ireland at Trinity College, ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1826, but by 1831 left to join others in Plymouth, England who were opposed to denominationalism. Darby wrote his important work called “Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.” The work reflects what might be called a biblical theology (Mal Couch, Dictionary of Premillennial Theology). As a trained lawyer, he was naturally driven to the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation. The popularity of Darby and his incredible energy saw a dramatic growth in dispensational premillennialism as it spread to America and eventually into the most unconventional work, the Scofield Study Bible in 1909 by C.I. Scofield. 

     In closing, we return to the prophetic heritage of the Jews. The period of 900 – 1500 has been called the golden age of Jewish prophetic interpretation. Among the greatest Jewish sages of this period was the great Maimonides (1135-1204). Moses Maimonides was born in Spain and when the Islamic invaders came to Spain all Jews and Christians were given a choice, conversion to Islam, death, or exile. Maimonide’s family chose exile. He  ended up in Morocco, then Egypt. His commentary on the Mishnah is still highly acclaimed. But his Messianic hope served to solidify the plain literal prophetic method within Judaism. It is the Jewish writings that contribute significantly among the Christian community towards the literal method and the premillennial Messianic hope that one finds in dispensational premillennialism today. Though some Jewish writers of this period were addicted to allegory, others held strong the literal method. And the most important works were those that described the four kingdoms in the Book of Daniel. Though Jewish prophecy was the premillennialism of the ancient church, they saw the Pope as the antichrist and Rome as the last kingdom on earth. They looked to their great Messianic hope to save them and return them to the land of promise (Deut. 30:3-5). It is the separation of Israel and the Church that Joseph Mead saw when he claimed all Jews would turn Christian at the Second coming. It is this separation of Israel and the Church that moved the dispensationalist Darby to declare we have a heavenly destiny and all Israel will be saved in the last day to enter the promised Messianic Kingdom on earth in Jerusalem.  All one has to do is interpret Scripture normally to pull out of the text these great promises. This is not the literal, historical, grammatical, theological method that stresses “we know what we believe, so find it in Scripture.” Rather they pushed the idea to come to Scripture and pull out what it said to the original audience. This is the literal, historical grammatical method, the only valid method. God gave communication with all its fundamental rules to mankind in order to communicate His greatness, His holiness, His grace and mercy, so that all are able to read for themselves the way of salvation through His Son.