20 September 2010

Advancing the Kingdom- (Part 4) The Parsing of American Evangelicalism: Dispensationalism, Dominionism, Americanism, and Chiliasm

I ended the last piece with this question.

So why do I find it particularly strange this radio preacher was teaching about the Cultural Mandate, a doctrine which urges the Christian to try and conquer every facet of the Earth?

Finding its origins in 19th century England, Dispensational Premillennialism teaches this world is doomed, headed for The Tribulation and the manifestation of Antichrist. The dominant Pre-tribulational form of this system teaches the Church will be Raptured (1 Thes. 4) out of this world, an event they distinguish from the 2nd Coming. Once the Rapture occurs, the plan of God will revert back to the Jewish people and nation centered in the modern nation-state of Israel. This Tribulation period will last seven years and after much warfare and destruction, Christ will return (for the 3rd time), destroy Gog and Magog (often interpreted as a Sino-Russian-Persian alliance) and establish a 1000 year physical geo-political hegemonic Kingdom on the earth. These views first became popular in the United States in the Bible conferences of the late 19th century, but the real turning point was the publication of the Scofield Bible in 1909. This study Bible with Dispensational notes quickly became a best seller having a profound effect on American Christianity.

Now why would this theology which views the end as near, embrace the Cultural Mandate, or as it sometimes called the Dominion Mandate? For those unfamiliar, let's take a quick look at the pertinent text. This teaching is derived from Genesis 1.26-28:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Adherents of Dominionism teach the Church, the People of God have two mandates. One is to make disciples of all nations as we are instructed in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. The other is to fulfill this passage in Genesis 1. Thus we as God's people are to conquer (take dominion) every aspect of the creation and all the cultural elements derived from it. All of mankind, animal-kind, and nature are to be subdued.

At this point I will quickly interject and argue since Adam and Eve failed in the Edenic probationary period, this cannot be fulfilled in This Age. Only the Second Adam, the Christ, in establishing the New Heavens and New Earth can give any hope of ever experiencing anything like Eden…or what might have happened if Adam had been faithful. In light of the fall, and the subsequent work of Christ, the fulfillment is in the age to come.

After the fall the Serpent was cursed, and then we read in Genesis 3.16-19:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

The blessing of Dominion has clearly been removed. Now, when the Old World was destroyed in the Flood, and the New World (as it were) was made, with Noah as the new Adam/proto-type of the 2nd Adam-Christ, the Cultural Mandate is renewed or so it would seem…but it's not the same as in Genesis 1. Here's Genesis 9:

1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.

2  And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.

3  Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.

4  But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

5  And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.

6  Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

7  And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein

But notice the change in tone. We have a new creation, but the harmonious context of Genesis 1 is clearly gone. Now we find an ominous spirit of opposition. The blessings of peace are gone, replaced by the curse of antagonism. Now the creation will oppose man, and it will fear him. He will not subdue creation as a vinedresser tending a garden, it won't be a dominion of verdant tranquility, it will be realm of violence and fear, a dominion of blood and curse. The creation groans in travail, awaiting the renewal that will only come not with this proto-typical new creation of This Age…No, what we look for, what we hope in is the New Heavens and the New Earth of the 2nd Adam, the Age to Come. We, His people, united with Him are seated in the heavenlies and thus by the power of the indwelling Spirit we dwell in the two realms at once…existing in tension between Already and Not yet. In no way can we look for this present realm which is but a shadow and vale of tears to be transformed, nor does the New Testament give us any basis to think so. Like the first creation, this present age or aeon, this realm of Common Grace must be destroyed by Apocalyptic fire (2 Peter 3) so that we may at last dwell in the Eternal Realm, the eschatological New Heavens and Earth, the Holy and Perfect realm of our risen King.

Dispensationalism rejects the notion that we are in the Kingdom at present and thus rejects the Two Age structure I outlined above. Right now they would argue that Christ does not reign, His enthronement is yet future, after he returns. This is a Pre-millennial theology, the Kingdom comes after the Parousia, the Second Coming. But like the Post-millennial view, they envision the Kingdom in physical, geographical, political, and cultural categories. Perhaps it is this common Chiliasm, the adherence to a physical manifestation of the Kingdom, that allows the two camps to work together. Both reject the Spiritual nature of the Kingdom so clearly taught in Scripture. Both reject that Christ is reigning fully at present…over a Spiritual Kingdom.

Dismissive of Transformationalism, it was the Dispensationalist J. Vernon McGee who famously coined the phrase, "You don't polish brass on a sinking ship."

But his theological descendants now preach Dominionism. Strange indeed that they expound so much energy for an earth they believe has but a few years left. One of Dispensationalism's most famous interpretations involves the following passage in Matthew 24:

32  Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:

33  So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.

34  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

Dispensationalism claiming to adhere to strict hermeneutical literalism, allegorizes this passage and insists it refers to the re-establishment of the nation of Israel. Believing this passage fulfilled in May of 1948, they insisted the Rapture would certainly occur by the end of the 1980's, based off of a forty year generation. When that didn't work, they revised their interpretation by changing the date to Israel's acquisition of Jerusalem in 1967, and are at present growing nervous as another forty year threshold is quickly passing. No doubt they will continue to revise their interpretation. Already I believe there has been talk suggesting the commencement of the 'generation' clock will not begin until Israel has full and absolute control over the West Bank and Gaza. Regardless of their revisions, Israel's presence in the land is absolutely essential to this theology. For only then is the stage set for their very complex chronology of events including the blasphemous reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple which they eagerly support.

Hence, we find many Evangelicals actively pushing American foreign policy, and with this political effort they financially support the Israeli settlement movement. They are not driven by a need to support Western Democracy. It is a position driven by their eschatology.

This theology popularized in the "Left Behind" novels, demands a militant support for the modern state of Israel, and any lack of sufficient zeal is a sure sign of apostasy. So for many Evangelicals, the Christian geo-politic can be summed up as America (The Gentile Christian Nation) and Israel (God's People) against the world. Long before the present day deceptions of John Hagee, this theology has exercised a deep and penetrating influence on American foreign policy. The general unease of the early 20th century was amplified by the World Wars. Christians flocked to 'prophecy' teachers wanting to hear who was the Antichrist…the Kaiser? Mussolini? Hitler? Gripped by fear and anxiety, many happily and heartily embraced a sensational theology, one which seemed to address the contemporary situation, one written especially for their generation, a theology that allowed you to set your newspaper alongside the Bible. It was no coincidence that America was the first nation to recognize Israel on 14 May 1948. The theology of Scofield and Darby had taken over and to such an extent that before long if you questioned it, you were immediately suspected to be some kind of cultist. Ironic indeed that a 19th century system would view centuries old theology with such suspicion. It doesn't mean the older thought is correct, rather it demonstrates the rapid rise of Dispensationalism and the breathtaking ignorance it has bred.

My point is, Dispensationalists believe we are but moments from the Rapture of the Church.* Historically they have not placed an emphasis on culture building, but on aggressive soul-winning as they would say...for the time is short. Transformationalists have always excoriated this and a reductionistic view of Christianity.

So how is it they have succumbed to Dominionism which is based not on a short term expectation of Rapture, but on a long term vision of physically manifesting the Kingdom of God here on earth prior to the Second Coming? I know I keep asking this, but I've had to lay some groundwork to even make sense of the question.

The answer is…American Nationalism.

American Evangelicalism and Dispensationalism in particular have always been confused about the status of the United States, and I think their sentimentality regarding the nation, and desire to preserve and/or reform its society have driven them to look for intellectual and theological fuel for the fire of culture war.

Excepting the leaders, the majority of the people in the pews have thought little about the over-arching Dominionist scheme and agenda. Rather, they have been stirred by Nationalistic sympathies couched in Constantinian and Dominionist language.

Others have pointed out the majority of the Evangelical movement in America has little concept of the corporate Church. Probably stemming from American rugged individualism, and a longstanding rejection of authority, American Evangelicalism has long been weak in its Ecclesiology, its doctrine of the Church. Consequently many have pointed out that Evangelicals tend to substitute American itself for the 'corporate concept'…the body of Christ. So while Theonomists and Dominionists have also focused on America, their ideas are sometimes a bit larger. Or the America they envision would be one very different from past or present. Many wish to change the Constitution and transform the government, while the majority of Evangelicals employing Dominionist ideas merely seem to wish for the America of yesteryear.

Perhaps you can see the Evangelical Transformationalism is rooted in a kind of customized American version of the Constantinian model? Rather than look toward a universal Christendom for solidarity and inspiration, the American Hybrid looks inwards and expects the Christians outside…to look to America. They've been fairly successful as it is certainly and I say it with sorrow, American models which dominate the Ecclesiastical scene in much of the rest of the world.

Though embracing this unique form of Transformationalism, many Evangelicals still retain the spirituality, the praxis of Pietism. Postmillennial Theonomists look for a new world order, a new Christendom. Your average American Transformationalist doesn't want to transform TO, they want to transform or reform BACK to an earlier ideal.

Or to rephrase,

They want to go back and thus determine Christian practice from the standards of the 'golden' period.

While Postmillennial Theonomists, mostly from Calvinistic circles, are looking forward…America is just the starting point. Or you could say, the golden age they're looking for is Mosaic Israel.

A quick example…

Most Evangelicals were very upset with the Supreme Court decision that removed prayer from the public schools. For many American Christians, if the public schools restored prayer, taught the Bible as literature, pledged allegiance to the flag, quit teaching Darwinian Evolution, and displayed the Ten Commandments on the wall…they would be content. Their ideas are generalized, often undeveloped, looking back toward something that once was, and saying…it was good.

The Dominionist hardliners view this as woefully inadequate. Applying Kuyper's ideas with greater consistency they've realized that a proper Christian education (as they define it) needs to extend far beyond simple prayer, the Decalogue on display, and Creationism. Kuyperian Worldview teaching buttressed by Van Tillian philosophy teaches then that since there can be no neutrality, all subjects must be explicitly taught from a Christian vantage point. History, Math, Literature, Civics, and Science all must be shaped with a specific Christian agenda.

They would decry the former model as exhibiting but a veneer of Christianity…and they would be correct in that assessment. Rightly they desire a more holistic approach to education. Wrongly, they believe that everything is assessed and forced into a Sacralist model.

So there is a difference between the two, and the education matter is just one example. We could go further and talk about law, government polity, foreign policy, and in some cases race.

Either way, both represent expressions or variations of Sacralist doctrine. In the end that's what it's all about. This hybrid, this Pietistic Transformationalism incorporates in many ways the worst elements of both systems or views. With this we get a legalistic, culture-rooted vision of the Christian life, combined with a heavy emphasis on Culture War. And this grows more confused as the Culture War is often fought in light of their specific Piety. Think Prohibition, still very much a live issue in parts of the United States, or the wars over television and radio decency, or the remaining Blue Laws we still find in many areas. Their extra-Biblical views of the Christian life are to be imposed, viz. all the unbelievers have to conform as well.

This particular Kingdom ideal is tied to a culture or nation. Christian doctrine is subsumed by the weightier issues of politics and culture war. The Christian life consists of man-made checklists and pseudo-spirituality or as Paul calls it will-worship, self-imposed religion.

If at this point the reader says to himself, these three general categories generally describe the vast majority of modern day conservative Evangelical Christianity, then you've understood my point and much of my concern with the modern Church.

So what are we here to do? If we're not to engage in the conquest of cultures and nations, then what do we engage in? What does the Christian life look like?

Several posts would be required to even begin to deal with these topics, but to aid conclusion a few ideas can be put forward.

We are here to worship and glorify God. Everyone would more or less agree with the statement, but how does this come about?

First, it can be argued that historically those who have held most tenaciously to the authority of Scripture have argued that God alone can determine how we approach Him. Innovation is not allowed when it comes to worshipping God. Numerous textual examples can be appealed to, and historically you see this firm dedication, this desire for Ecclesiastical Biblicism (Sufficiency of Scripture) with the Lollards, Hussites, Waldensians, and certainly the Reformed at the time of the Reformation. This is something the modern Reformed have largely abandoned and yet still claim to retain Sola Scriptura.

Man cannot invent new means or methods of worship. This applies within the gathering of God's people, the meeting of the Church, but also extends to the Christian life. Against pietism we can appeal to passages like Colossians 2.16-23

16  Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:

17  Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.

18  Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind,

19  And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.

20  Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,

21  (Touch not; taste not; handle not;

22  Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?

23  Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.

Wherein we are taught that due to Christ's work, the restrictions rooted in the Mosaic Law have passed, we cannot employ metaphysical speculation when it comes to doctrine and worship, or any idea or practice which diminishes our focus on Christ. The commandments of men (as opposed to God) are to be rejected. They have an appearance of wisdom in what the NKJV calls self-imposed religion and false humility. The neglect of the body implies asceticism, which certainly is not limited to monastic-inspired varieties. Appealing to the verses above, we can reckon Paul to be dealing with a false piety which judges righteousness according to abstinence or participation in certain foods and drinks. All these ideas are rooted in a self-focused pride rather than a truly humbled submission and dependence on Christ.

All notions of the Christian life and practice must be weighed against the Scripture. They cannot be rooted in cultural argument and taboo. We must be zealous to protect Christian liberty from those who would seek to bind the yoke upon us, those who would worship God in vain, teaching for commandments the doctrines of men. (Matthew 15.9)

To be continued….

*See the following post on Imminency

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