In connection with the Rev. John J. Mitchell’s reply to our first editorial on this subject, we promised to write further on both the subject of premillennialism and the subject of Arminianism. In the present editorial we devote our attention to the matter of premillennialism.
It may be well, first of all, to review the positions taken.
1. In my first editorial on this subject I pointed out that the matter of premillennialism is apparently left an open question in the “Proposed Basis of Union” between the two denominations. It is proposed that among the doctrinal standards be included “The text of the Westminster Larger Catechism in its original form, with the amendments adopted by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod in reference to answers 86-89 which seek to ensure neutrality in regard to the eschatological sequence . . .” At that time I pointed out that this does not adopt premillennialism, but opens the door for it. I suggested: 1) That confessional neutrality on such an important matter is wrong; means that in effect the church has NO confession .about this. 2) That premillennialism is not consistent Presbyterianism, and that if it also involves dispensationalism, there is much more involved than Answers 86-89 of the Larger Catechism. 3) That the OP Church should be careful about this, in view of the fact that an earlier attempt at neutrality on premillennialism failed:
2. The Rev. Mitchell replied: 1) That neither the OP nor the RO has an official position; that he, however, preferred to speak of freedom rather than of neutrality. 2) That dispensationalism is another matter; neither church allows for it officially. 3) That “few if any of us are concerned about the millennial question, so long as no one is agitating for his view to be the only tolerated one.
3. To this I replied briefly in the Nov. 15 issue that I do not believe that there is room under the Presbyterian confessions for premillennialism, not even for the non-dispensationalist type, and that especially in our times there should be unity in faith on the matter of eschatology (the doctrine of the last things.)
WHAT IS HISTORIC PREMILLENNIALISM?
It is well that we try to answer this question first, so that we may all know what is under discussion.
There is a difference between what is called “historic premillennialism” and “dispensationalist premillennialism.” The latter maintains a hard-and-fast separation between the old and new dispensations, between the Jews as the “kingdom people” and the church as the body of Christ. Moreover, it denies the kingship of Christ over His church, maintaining that Christ is Ring of the Jews, but head of the church. Historic premillennialism is supposed to hold to a premillennial view of the coming of Christ, but not to include the above dispensationalist elements which are traceable chiefly to Darby and Scofield.
For the purposes of this discussion I had really wanted to find a concise presentation of this historic premillennialism from the pen of a representative of the RP Church. I turned to the Systematic Theology of Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., who for many years taught at Covenant Seminary of the RPC. And while he has a very lengthy and detailed (and to my mind, very unsystematic) explanation of his premillennial eschatology, I failed to find such a concise presentation. I therefore turned to Loraine Boettner’sThe Millennium, a worthwhile study on this subject, though Boettner himself is a postmillennial. In this book I find the following summary, pp. 141-143:
The premillennial system is considerably more complicated than either the post- or amillennial system and, consequently, it has also been attended with greater diversity of opinion among its advocates. But despite these differences it has been characteristic of both schools of Premillennialism to hold:
1. That the Kingdom of God is not now in the world, and that it will not be instituted until Christ returns.
2. That it is not the purpose of the present gospel age to convert the world to Christianity, but rather to preach the gospel as a witness to the nations and so to warn them of and make them justly subject to judgment; also to gather out of all nations God’s elect, the Church saints.
3. That the world is growing worse and will continue to grow worse until Christ comes to establish His Kingdom.
4. That immediately preceding the return of Christ there is to be a period of general apostasy and wickedness.
5. That we are now in the latter stages of the Church age and that the return of Christ is near, probably to occur within the lifetime of the present generation.
6. That at Christ’s coming the righteous dead of all ages are to be raised in the “first resurrection.”
7. That the resurrected dead together with the transfigured living saints who are then on the earth are to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
8. That the judgment of all the righteous then takes place, which judgment consists primarily in the assignment of rewards.
9. That before and during the tribulation period the Jews are to be restored to the Land of Palestine.
10. That at the mere sight of their Messiah the Jews are to turn to Him in a national conversion and true repentance.
11. That Christ at His coming destroys the Antichrist and all his forces in the battle of Armageddon.
12. That after the battle of Armageddon Christ establishes a world-wide Kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, in which He and the resurrected and transfigured saints rule for a thousand years in righteousness, peace and prosperity.
13. That during this reign the city of Jerusalem and the temple are to be rebuilt, the feasts and fasts and the priesthood, ritual and sacrificial system reinstituted, though performed in a Christian spirit and by Christian worshippers.
14. That the golden age also is to be characterized by the removal of the curse from nature so that the desert shall blossom as the rose and the wild ferocious nature of the beasts shall be changed.
15. That during the Millennium great numbers of the Gentiles will turn to God and be incorporated into the Kingdom.
16. That while many remain unconverted and rebellious at heart they are not destroyed, but are held in check by the rod-of-iron rule of Christ.
17. That during the Millennium Satan is to be bound; cast into the abyss, and so shut away from the earth.
18. That at the close of the Millennium Satan is to be loosed for a short time.
19. That the Millennium is to be followed by a short but violent outbreak of wickedness and rebellion headed by Satan which all but overwhelms the saints and the holy city of Jerusalem.
20. That the forces of wickedness are to be destroyed by fire which is cast down upon them from heaven.
21. That the wicked dead of all ages are then to be raised in the “second resurrection,” judged, and with the Devil and the wicked angels cast into hell.
22. That heaven and hell are then introduced in their fullness, with the new heavens and the new earth as the future home of the redeemed, which will constitute the eternal state.
Historic Premillennialism holds that the coming of Christ will be preceded by certain recognizable signs, such as the preaching of the Gospel to all the nations, the apostasy, wars, famines, earthquakes the appearance of the Antichrist or Man of Sin, and the Great Tribulation. Many think that they see some of these signs at the present time. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, hold that there will be no further signs, all the prophecies relating to events before the coming of Christ having now been fulfilled, and that the return of Christ therefore may occur literally at “any moment”—even for the righteous their heavenward movement being the first indication they have that Christ has come.
Now I am not saying that the premillenialists in either the Reformed Presbyterian Church or in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church agree with all of the above points. As Boettner also points out, there is wide variation among premillennialists. Nor do I say that a theologian like Dr. Buswell agrees in his Systematic Theologywith all of the above; in fact, I would say he does not. But the above is a generally accurate description. And having made a comparison, my judgment is that in the main it is also a fairly accurate description of the line followed by Dr. Buswell.
I also want to point out that the distinction between historic and dispensationalist premillennialism is a rather fluid one, and that the danger, both doctrinally and historically, of the former developing into and giving way to the latter is by no means imaginary. Historic premillennialism, at best, is inconsistent Presbyterianism not only; but it is also inconsistent premillennialism. If one follows its emphasis on a literalistic interpretation of Scripture and its emphasis on a special place and special treatment of the Jews in the economy of salvation to their logical consequences, one must needs end in dispensationalism. In other words, the seeds of dispensationalism are present in historic premillennialism.
Nor am I alone in this opinion. Dr. Boettner writes in the work cited above, p. 158:
It is important to keep in mind that Premillennialism and Dispensationalism are not synonymous terms. Premillennialism is the broader term, and includes all those who believe that Christ returns before the millennium and that He will rule personally on earth for a thousand years. Dispensationalism on the other hand includes only those Premillennialists who follow Darby and Scofield in dividing the divine plan into dispensations during each of which God deals with the human race on the basis of some specific principle. Thus all Dispensationalists are Premillennialists, but not all Premillennialists are Dispensationalists. At the present time, however, the great majority of Premillennialists, particularly in the United States, are Dispensationalists. Most of the Bible institutes, as well as the minority of theological seminaries that teach Premillennialism, are dispensational. There is a logical connection between Premillennialism and Dispensationalism. Most of those who take Premillennialism seriously and become enthusiastic about it go on to adopt Dispensationalism (italics added, HCH) But, conversely, we believe that most of those who become convinced of the errors of Dispensationalism proceed to throw Premillennialism overboard too.
And again, on p. 375 Boettner writes:
On the other hand we believe that the principle of literal interpretation which characterizes all types of Premillennialism leads to serious error in that it fails to recognize the truly spiritual nature of the Kingdom in this world as manifested in the Church and sets forth instead an earthly, political kingdom; that it promotes a superficial method of Bible interpretation; and that it is seriously handicapped by its pessimistic view of the future. (Boettner’s postmilletialism shines through in that last charge, of course. HCH) In its radical form it divides the plan of salvation into mutually exclusive and even conflicting dispensations, sets law over against grace and the Church over against the Kingdom, speaks disparagingly of the Church, and teaches a restoration of Judaism during the time of the millennial kingdom. While Historic Premillennialism is a much less erroneous system than is Dispensationalism, it is only wishful thinking which assumes that the two can be logically separated and kept in watertight compartments. The two systems are basically the same and must stand or fall together. (italics added, HCH) We believe that we have shown that the Scriptures not only fail to teach the premillennial system, but that they definitely exclude it as a possible interpretation.
Even from this point of view, in our opinion, the OPC would do well to think hard and long before consummating a marriage with the RPC. Part of the problem, however, is that the OPC itself seems to be open to premillennialism. And this is bad!
THE AMENDMENTS TO THE LARGER CATECHISM
The Proposed Basis of Union, we have seen, will include the (Westminster) Larger Catechism as amended in Answers 86-89 by the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, in 1964. At the time of my first editorial on this subject I somehow had the impression that these were amendments which were added by synodical decision by way of footnotes. Now, however, I have received from the Rev. Mitchell a transcript of these amendments; and I find that they are actually changes made in the text of the Larger Catechism itself. This, I believe, is more serious than the addition of some kind of footnotes or declaratory statements.
But before I comment further on this, let me quote these amendments. I will first quote the original, italicizing the part which is omitted or changed. Immediately following each clause or sentence which is changed the amended version will appear in brackets.
Q. 86. What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?
A. The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day [till at the return of Christ] they be again united to their souls. (Etc., without change.)
Q. 87. What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?
A. We are to believe, that at the last day [last time] there shall be a general resurrection [there shall be a resurrection] of the dead, both of the just &d unjust: (etc., without further modification).
Q. 88. What shall immediately follow after the resurrection? [What shall follow after the resurrection?]
A. Immediately after the resurrection shall follow the general and final judgment of angels and men; the day and hour whereof no man knoweth, that all may watch and pray, and be ever ready for the coming of the Lord. [After the resurrection of the just and the unjust shall follow the final judgment of angels and men. That all may watch and pray and be ready for the coming of the Lord, the day and hour whereof no man knoweth.]
Q. 89. What shall be done to the wicked at the day of judgment? [What shall be done to the ticked when they are judged?]
A. At the day of judgment, men they are judged, the righteous having been caught up to Christ,] the wicked shall be set on Christ’s left hand, (etc., without further change).
It should be kept in mind that the intent of these amendments was not to endorse a premillennial view, but to change the wording so as to permit it, that is, to ensure neutrality, or freedom.
In a letter accompanying the above transcript, the Rev. Mitchell wrote to me: “So far as I know, Orthodox Presbyterian feeling is that these changes are not endangering to the basic doctrines of the faith and are acceptable on that ground. The OPC has not required its office-bearers to subscribe to any particular millennial position, but has permitted freedom in this area. (Our subscription to the Westminster Standards permits of some exceptions on the part of office-bearers, such exceptions to be permitted according to the judgment of the ordaining body.)”
There are, it seems to me, several aspects to this proposal which merit consideration. Now that I have complete information, it appears to me that this is an extremely serious matter—much more serious than I had first thought. And I believe that Orthodox Presbyterians ought to view this proposal with extreme seriousness, if not alarm.
Here are my reasons.
In the first place, I believe it is a serious mistake to make and to allow changes in a confession unilaterally, i.e., by one denomination in the Presbyterian family. Footnotes or declaratory statements are one thing. Even editing the language or improving the translation may be permitted. And a single denomination could conceivably even write a new confession. But I believe that no single denomination may tamper with the Westminster Larger Catechism, or any confession for that matter, all by itself. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are the heritage of all (true) Presbyterians the world over. If they are to be changed, the Reformed. Presbyterians cannot do this by themselves. And if they do change the Larger Catechism, then they no more have the right to call it the Westminster Larger Catechism. It has become a different document. To me this is not a matter of indifference, especially not in our day of decreasing respect for the Reformed confessions.
On the other hand I cannot appreciate the Orthodox Presbyterian attitude as described in Editor Mitchell’s letter. I do not have in my possession the OPC form of subscription. But it seems to me that if it be true, as Mr. Mitchell writes, that the OPC has not required its office-bearers to subscribe to any particular millennial position, but has permitted freedom in this area, this betrays a looseness with regard to the confessions. For it is clear to me that the Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism definitely shut out the premillennial view, do not allow neutrality or freedom. And if there is liberty on this important matter, is there not liberty on other confessional matters? And then, finally what do the confessions mean?
In the second place, looking now at the nature and content of these amendments, it seems to me that the confession of the church as to what constitutes the truth of Holy Scripture is very vitally at stake here. First of all, it seems evident that the amendments to the Larger Catechism involve a change from a narrower, stricter view to a broader, more inclusive view. For admittedly the purpose is to provide for freedom, or neutrality, as to the eschatological sequence. In other words, it is to allow something which was not allowed by the original Westminster Larger Catechism. This in itself is not good. It constitutes retrogression, rather than development and progress in the expression of the truth of the Word of God. It constitutes broadening rather than refinement. Secondly, in close connection with the preceding, this would seem to imply that the church is less able to understand the truth of the Word of God and to declare what Scripture means today than in the seventeenth century, when the Westminster creeds were written. Then they were able to state that truth so specifically that it excluded the premillennial view; today, according to these RPC amendments they are no longer able to be so specific. This, to my mind, is an unrealistic view of the progress of dogma as well as of the perspicuity of Scripture. Thirdly, this calls in question the perspicuity of Scripture. Are the Scriptures so vague, so lacking in clarity, so difficult to understand that it is not possible to distinguish from them whether Christ’s coming is premillennial or not? Are they so vague that we cannot discern clearly from them whether there is one, general resurrection of the dead or two; whether there is one final judgment of all men, or two? And, finally, this entire attempt at “neutrality” simply means that the churches who adopt this position say, in effect, “We have no confession on these matters. We are not able to say what the truth of the Word of God is on these matters.” In other words, it is contrary to the church’s calling to be a confessingchurch.
In the third place, it seems to me that these amendments go beyond the ensuring of neutrality. I say this not only because as changes from the more specific to the less specific they practically invite premillennialism. But in my opinion the change in Question and Answer 89 definitely adopts an aspect of the premillennial view. It certainly means that the “rapture” has already taken place prior to the judgment of the wicked, while it does not mention the separate judgment of the righteous and the separate resurrection of the wicked. Notice: “When they are judged, the righteous having been caught up to Christ, the wicked shall be set on Christ’s left hand . . .” This not only makes room for the premillennial sequence, it introduces that sequence itself into this Answer. If this is not true, then this answer is certainly in need of further clarification before it is accepted as being merely “neutral.”
Finally, let no one say that the matter is not of great importance or that it does not concern the faith. This is never true, of course, of any aspect of the truth which can be determined in the light of Scripture. But let us, in this specific instance, take careful note of what is involved. I ask the reader to turn back to the summary of premillennialism which I quoted from Loraine Boettner. Notice that these amendments to the Larger Catechism obviously make room for all that is included between item 6 and item 22. They make room for a thousand years more of history that is full of significant events. And they make room for an altogether different sequence of events. Mind you, these are events which very directly concern the hope and the expectation of God’s people. Can you imagine the disappointment, the disillusionment, the temptation to depart from the faith on the part of those who have been led to have premillennial expectations when it shall become evident in the course of history that these premillennial expectations were false? Mark you well, I say without hesitation “when,” not “if.” For this shall surely happen! The premillennial sequence is not that of Scripture. And the Scriptures shall certainly be fulfilled! And this means that premillennialism will be concretely proved false!
But if this be true—and it is—then how great is the responsibility of the church which allows these premillennial teachings and which allows the sheep of Christ to be wrongly instructed and misled! And do not forget: the elders of the church will have to give account for the souls of the sheep left in their charge!
For all these reasons, I would suggest:
1. That the Orthodox Presbyterian Brethren ought not to approve a merger which will give official license to premillennialism and which will undoubtedly lead to a large influx of those committed to premillennialist teachings.
2. That it would be better far that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church take cognizance of the seriousness of this premillennialist error and of the fact that the heritage of Westminster allows no room for it, and that they then would insist that subscription to the subordinate standards does not allow for premillennialism. This would be consistent Presbyterianism.