Monday, January 02, 2006

Methods of Interpretation

Or, Leaving Dispensationalism Behind II

What peaked my interest, and led me away from Dispensationalism was the discovery of just how recent a doctrine it is – and that there are rival methods of interpretation! Those who already knew this may well be amused at my surprise, but I have gone to church and actively participated in Bible Studies, etc, for almost twenty-five years and it was all news to me!

And I know I am not alone here. I know people who are unfamiliar with the name Dispensationalism, even though they are very familiar with its teachings, because they have never heard it discussed as a school of thought. To them it is simply how one interprets Bible prophecy. Everyone knows that!

But before John Darby and the Plymouth Brethren – in the 19th century – no one believed or taught it! I know some have tried to disprove that fact, but their “proofs” don’t stand up to investigation. Some try to argue that because the early church was Premillennialist it was also Dispensationalist, but there is no necessary link between the two teachings. Being a Premillenialist does not imply you’re also a Dispensationalist. I am very much a Premillennialist. (Maybe I’ll get into those differences in another post.) Others try to link it to Futurism and the 16th century – read on for more about that – but while Dispensationalism is a form of Futurism, its teachings include a lot more than Francisco Ribera, the founder of Futurism, taught. Others have looked for a precedent in the writings of an 18th century American Baptist named Morgan Edwards, but his writings only lend support to the idea that there will be a tribulation lasting three and a half years.

Some critics of Dispensationalism have taught that its origins can be found in the teachings of a Scottish teen named Margaret McDonald. She did teach that the church would be “raptured” out before the tribulation, and Darby did meet with her before he began teaching Dispensationalism, but if he was influenced by her, it was only in that one teaching. There is a lot more to it than that.

What other forms of interpretation are there?

The Spiritualist method, which relates the book of Revelations to symbolism and typology, is the oldest formalized way of understanding it, and dates at least as far back as the second century. This has been the predominant way reading prophecy for the last two thousand years. The Historicist method dates back to Martin Luthor and the Protestant Reformation. It views the Book of Revelations as a panoramic overview of church history, and links the Beast, Anti-Christ, etc, with Catholicism.

While the Spiritualist approach pre-dates Constantine and Nicea, you could generalize and say that it has historically been seen as the Catholic interpretation and Historicism as the Protestant. But these are generalizations. There are Protestant Spiritualists.

Some Catholics responded to the criticism contained in the Historicist approach by proposing alternative ways of interpreting prophecy. One is the Preterist approach. First formalized by Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613), it views the events described in Revelations as referring to things that happened in the first century, such as the fall of Jerusalem and the Church’s persecution by Rome. In other words, the prophecies were directed to the Apostolic Church, and should be read today much as you would read Isaiah or another Old Testament prophet. This method has some historical merit. We know, for example that many Church Fathers did see the pagan Rome in the Beast, etc. There are also many Protestant Preterists.

A second response is the Futurist approach. First proposed by Francisco Ribera (1537-1591), it teaches that everything following the letters to the churches refers only to events at the end of history, and to no other time. Dispensationalism is a form of futurism, making this teaching, originally created to rebut the Protestant teaching of Historicism, the most popular form of interpretation today! Interestingly, Seventh Day Adventists, who are Historicists, condemn Dispensationalism as a Catholic doctrine.

Well, I suspect I’ll be making at least a couple more posts before I am done with this subject!


Anonymous said...

David, your material on leaving d-ism behind caught my eye. Thought you might like to know what I came across on the web. Go to Yahoo and type in "Pretrib Rapture Diehards" (note the LaHaye hypocrisy under "1992"). And type in "Scholars Weigh My Research" to see how top scholars endorse MacPherson's research. Instead of hearing the "trumpet" sounding so soon, perhaps we'll be hearing funeral bells tolling even sooner for the death of the pretrib rapture fantasy! You are a great writer and thinker, Brother; hope you keep at it! Lord bless! Jon

David Bird said...

Thanks! And thats for the site. I've bookmarked it for further reading.

I'm glad you enjoyed it, because I was thinking about what still has to be outlined and it looks like there will be several related posts to come.

Secret Rapture said...
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