The Heritage of the Bible Church [part 2]

Over recent years, I have learned that the name of “Bible Church” carries with it a more significant amount of history, and one of far more theological and historical import, than that of which I had previously been aware. The history of the Bible Church Movement is a history of which I am proud to be a beneficiary, and which impels me to treasure and cherish the title of “Bible Church,” which connects us to the rich history of a tradition of independent, conservative teachers and churches who have held up the Word of God as the ultimate and inerrant authority for the past 140 years, and in so doing have, to a very real degree, preserved conservative Christianity in America as we know it today.

The heritage of the modern Bible Church is traced not primarily to the Reformers, but to the dissenting tradition—the radical reformers, as they are sometimes called.[1] This included groups such as the Quakers, Methodists, Congregationalists (Independents), Baptists, and Presbyterians. The dissenters, (later called non-conformists for their stand against the Church of England) believed the Reformers had not separated from the Roman Catholic Church enough, and were persecuted by the Reformers themselves for their disagreements over believer’s baptism, the nature of the Lord’s Supper, regenerate church membership, and separation of church and state. It is within this dissenting tradition that one can consistently find upheld, even when lost in other traditions, the absolute authority of Scripture, the autonomy of the local church, the importance of personal piety and regenerate church membership, as well as certain dispensational distinctives such as the future salvation of Israel and a literal millennial reign of Christ.

In the 19th century, during the twilight of the trans-denominational shift toward theological liberalism, believers from the dissenting tradition, primarily Independents, Baptists, and Presbyterians, began to hold interdenominational Bible conferences across England and the U.S., which provided the laity with deep, sound Bible teaching—a dwindling phenomenon within the mainline denominations. As Hannah puts it, “with liberal theology making inroads at the same time, conference attendees became more and more zealous for the type of teaching only available to them in the summers.” [2]

One solution for this search for more consistent Bible-teaching was in the establishment of Bible institutes and colleges, which served to train lay workers, rather than professional ministers. However, believers came to desire and value a pastoral ministry defined by the deep study of the Word, and some Bible colleges became seminaries, of which Dallas Theological Seminary became one of the most prominent, geared specifically toward the training and equipping of men for vocational ministry. Hannah points out that Dallas Seminary was in a way “the institutionalization of [the Bible conferences’] ideals, methods, and beliefs.”[3] Eventually, Christians began to separate from their denominations and form their own independent churches, led by men trained under the great teachers of the Bible conferences, such as Darby, Scofield, Ironside, Moody, Torrey, and Chafer, committed to the expository teaching of God’s Word. [4]

Naturally, many within the denomination, especially the leadership, did not look on the Bible conferences, colleges, and new churches as a positive move for Christianity. From the viewpoint of the denominations, as Churchhill puts it, the abandonment of the denominations for the Bible churches, with their widespread “dispensationalism, antinomianism, and Arminianism,” was seen as an abandonment of orthodoxy: “The church was not destroyed, but the strength of its theology was diminished.”[5]

Of course, from the viewpoint of those within the Bible Church Movement, full-throated orthodoxy was not lost, but regained. That being said, however, I do at times grieve the reaction of some within the Bible Church Movement against historic Christian heritage. Perhaps because the Bible Church Movement was seen as novel, and a rejection of the denominations (which were seen as traditional), many within the Bible Church tradition have learned to devalue tradition and heritage, which has indeed (though I don’t grieve it quite in the way Churchhill does) resulted in a tragic disconnect from, or rather, an ignorance of, historic orthodoxy.

The fierce independence which characterizes the Bible Church Movement can be viewed as a positive, and indeed, it certainly can be. The autonomy of the local church can be defended both Scripturally and practically. However, it can also be seen as a potentially negative consequence of the Bible Conference Movement, resulting at times in anti-intellectual, anti-denominational, and even anti-authority sentiments within the Bible Church movement. [6]

Although some Bible churches have no outside affiliations whatsoever, there are many who have joined voluntary fellowships and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, or the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (with which the seminary I attend is affiliated). [7]

The Bible conference movement supported, and in many ways formed, fundamentalism in America (another despised but extremely valuable movement), [8] produced the Bible institute movement, which birthed seminaries to train faithful pastors, and this revived a craving thirst within Christians for the truths of Scripture, and a network of conservative, independent, faithfully Bible-teaching churches was formed—the Bible churches. [9]

As Bible churches consider the possibility of excising the “Bible” from their name, in an effort to remove unwanted affiliations, I pray they do not strip themselves of either the authority of the Bible, or of the valuable traditional affiliations associated with the name of a Bible church.

I believe it is valuable to consciously retain fellowship and connections not only with like-minded churches today, but also with the faithful churches and Bible teachers of yesteryear who have upheld the Biblical distinctives we now so cherish within the Bible Church Movement—a tradition of faithful, Bible-teaching churches vital to the preservation of conservative Christianity in America.


Notes:

1] Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 11.

2] John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 285.

3] Hannah, 286.

4] Paul C. Wilt, “Bible Church Movement.” Pages 137–138 in Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 138.

5] Robert K. Churchhill, Lest We Forget (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), 36.

6] Hannah, 285.

7] Wilt, 137.

8] Sidwell, 76.

9] Hannah, 287.


Sources

Churchhill, Robert K. Lest We Forget. Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986.

Hannah, John D. An Uncommon Union: Dallas Theological Seminary and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Sidwell, Mark. “Come Apart and Rest a While: The Origin of the Bible Conference Movement in America.” DBSJ, no. 15 (2010): 75-98.

Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.

Wall, Joe L. Bob Thieme’s Teachings on Christian Living. Houston: Church Multiplication, 1982.

Weber, Timothy P. “Bible and Prophetic Conference Movement.” Pages 136–137 in Dictionary of Christianity in America. Edited by Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Wilt, Paul C. “Bible Church Movement.” Pages 137–138 in Dictionary of Christianity in America. Edited by Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

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Dispensationalism in Church History

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently about the history of Dispensationalism as a system. His point was basically this:

Darby (sometimes referred to as the father of Dispensationalism) was, in fact, Covenantal in his theology at first. Covenantal folks claim that because he feared Christians could take the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works too far in either direction, Darby created Dispensationalism. At the same time however, modern dispensationalists claim that Dispensationalism was not created by Darby, but in fact that dispensational ideas and interpretations of Scripture had been around long before Darby systematized the various doctrines into what we now call Dispensationalism. What do you say to all this?

Here’s my extended response:

It’s a rather interesting question of interpreting someone’s motives. The question is: was it because Darby just totally made up an erroneous theology in order to safeguard against a possible error of taking correct theology too far? Or was it because he simply began to adjust his views to fit with what he thought he was seeing in Scripture?

Also, whether you want to call it dispensationalISM or not, if you go to primary sources, there have clearly been what we would now identify as “dispensational” perspectives in regard to certain areas of theology since the ante-nicene era. For example, church fathers and apologists such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all clearly held firmly to a premillennial kingdom hope.

In fact, here’s a list of church fathers from about 100–270 who were premillennialists: Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Pothinus, Justin Martyr, Melito, Heisippus, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Commodian, Coracion, Victorinus, and Lactantius.

Here are a few sample statements:

Papias (d. 155):  According to Eusebius’ “Fragments of Papias,” in ANF, I, 154:  “Amongst these he [Papias] says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth.”

Justin Martyr (d. 162):  “But I and whoever are on all points right-minded Christians know that there will be resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and the others declare” (“Dialogue with Trypho,” in ANF, I, 239).

Irenaeus:  “But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire, but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the rest, the inheritance, in which kingdom the lord declared, that ‘many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . .  The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionable to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead.”

Tertullian:  “But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after their resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem” (Against Marcion,” in ANF, 3, 343).

No father was an amillennialist until the third century, as far as we know (and there are no postmillennialists until Joachim of Floris, a twelfth century Roman Catholic, though sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between amillennialism and postmillennialism, historically; Daniel Whitby [1638-1726] was the modern day founder of postmillennialism). The earliest example of an amillennialist is a presbyter in Rome in the third century, named Gaius, who also denied the canonicity of the book of Revelation. After that, the Alexandrian school gave rise to several amillennialists in the mid-third century, with its emphasis on allegorical and spiritual hermeneutics.

Covenant theology didn’t start to be systematized until the 4th or 5th century, when allegory became the primary hermeneutic, so I could easily say that Covenant Theology started “late” as well… Alright, not as a late as the systematizing of dispensationalism as we know it, but my point is simply that Covenant Theology is not the pure and eternal orthodoxy handed down to the first generation from the apostles themselves, as we sometimes can be led to believe.

The system of dispensationalism was dependent upon the reassertion of literal hermeneutics, premillennialism, futurism in the book of Revelation, and some difference between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the church, so it took time to form as a systematized theology. Dispensationalism as a system was “refounded” around 1830 when a group of Bible students (under the leadership of J.N. Darby) came to believe in a literal hermeneutic, which lead to taking the biblical covenants at face value, which lead to a distinction between programs for Israel and for the church, a pretribulational rapture, a literal future kingdom, etc.

Now, the fact is that just because dispensationalism wasn’t really systematized until Darby (and even then, primarily without the moniker of “dispensationalism”) does not mean there wasn’t anything in the theology of the early church that would line up with what we now refer to as dispensationalism. “Dispensational” understandings of different issues have been around all along, and all the way through history — including the Reformation, with the Dissenters preserving views that the Reformers rejected in their own systematizing of their theology.

Here are some thoughts from other writers on the subject:

“The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment.  It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II, 614).

“The early church was distinctly premillennialist in her cherished expectations of Christ’s second advent.  His coming and Kingdom were her constant hope.  The Apostolic Fathers anticipated a future Kingdom in connection with the Redeemer’s Advent” (Leroy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, I, 207).

“What must we conclude?  (1) That the common faith of the Church was Chiliastic, and (2) that such a generality and unity of belief could only have been introduced by the founders of the Christian Church and the Elders appointed by them” (G. N. H. Peters, Theocratic Kingdom I, 496).

What happened then? What gave rise to the amillennial predominance? Here are several explanatory factors Dr. Larry Pettegrew offers in response:

  1. The increasing influence of the allegorical method of interpretation.
  2. The influence of Gnosticism’s doctrine that matter was ultimately evil.
  3. The antagonism between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
  4. The union of church and state under Constantine
    1. The supremacy of Christianity in the Roman empire was seen as a fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
    2. Magnificent church buildings began to be built throughout the empire, “fulfilling” Isaiah 35.
    3. Constantine rebuilt Jerusalem and called it the New Jerusalem.
    4. Feast for Bishops, foreshadowed the kingdom, specifically the marriage supper of the lamb.
  5. The influence of Augustine (the father of dualism in hermeneutics)
    1. The stone of Daniel which rolls down the hill has already become a mountain and is presently filling the earth.
    2. “I cannot overemphasize Augustine’s impact; and after him, the church in the main was amillennial through the middle ages.”

On Gaining Wisdom from the Past

Quite frankly, while it’s certainly helpful to be able to look to and to lean on the tradition of the church, even Covenant theologians can’t point to all of church history and say, “our theology, as it stands today, has been the reigning theological system throughout church history — therefore you should accept it.” The truth is that aspects from both dispensational and covenantal systems have always been held to, often intermixing and being held by the same person — in a way that would make it hard for us to put each person in a “camp” today.

But the fact of the matter is, I really don’t have to be able to point to church history and say, “my understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this issue has been the traditional view upheld by all the famous church fathers (who are often famous, not because they were leaders in overall orthodoxy, but rather simply because they made a big impact, or we have their writings still) and that gives undeniable credence to my position.” The fact is, there are many things we (Dispensationalists, Covenantalists, Arminians, Calvinists, etc) would disagree with the church fathers on — as well as things to which they held that we would agree with… That doesn’t really make our position untenable or totally unworthy of being heard. If it can be shown you that something really does seem to be what Scripture is teaching on a subject, then that doesn’t really change depending on whether I can or cannot find some influential people in history that agree with me.

That being said, I do think it’s true that on these important issues, the biblical view will have been found and held by someone in the past. My point is simply that that argument can’t really be used against dispensationalists, because the truth is that whether it can be called dispensationalism, or whether it was systematized before Darby or not, the views that are held by what we now call dispensationalists have been held by Christians throughout all of church history.

It is also really important to remember that dispensationalism is a theological system, and that system, or we could say certain aspects of that system, will inevitably result from a particular hermeneutic. So the issue looking at history really is, were they using a grammatical-historical interpretation, or were they (as many clearly were) using a more allegorical and spiritualizing hermeneutic. Depending on which view of Scripture and interpretation you use, you will naturally arrive at various positions on certain issues. The location of discussion then should not really be at the symptom alone (the theological view on an issue), but on the root of the theological outworkings — the hermeneutical foundation (see here for further discussion of the import of hermeneutics on this theological issue).

For further study into the history of dispensational though, I would encourage you to start here…

Calvinism, Prophecy, and Premillennialism — MacArthur

The Early Witness to Premillennialism — Vlach

Jesus and the Millenium — MacArthur

The History of Dispensational Theology — Ice

…and then look over this big list of resources if you’re really serious about it. Good studying!

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