Eschatology in the Stone-Campbell Movement: A Brief History (Dec 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Joshua Jeffery

Like many other issues, eschatology, or the study of “end times,” has been a controversial doctrinal sticking point for many in the Stone-Campbell Movement, especially in the Churches of Christ. However, many aren’t aware of the history of this doctrine in our churches. My intent in writing this article is not to revive old wounds, quite the contrary: I wish to examine the past so that we can both better understand our present and so that we can make wise decisions in the future. But first, lets examine (in a very simplified way) the various eschatological options as they have (or still do) presented themselves in our fellowship.

Historic Premillennialism:
Also known by some as Post-Tribulation Premillennialism, this version of the end times believes Jesus will return to reign upon the earth for a period of one thousand years, after a time in history where a great apostasy occurs in the church, and after a great tribulation that occurs upon the Earth. Historic Premillennialists generally reject the idea of a rapture, and do not draw a fine dividing line between the church and Israel, instead seeing all believers as part of the called out of God. After the end of the millennium the final judgment will occur.

Dispensational Premillennialism:
Dispensational Premillennialism is different than Historic Premillennialism in several aspects. First, dispensationalists believe that God deals with people differently in different ages or periods of time. Dispensationalists typically divide salvation history into several different sections, with the current age, the church age, lasting until a rapture of the saints occurs. At the point of the rapture, Christians will disappear from the Earth, meeting Jesus in the sky, and the “great tribulation” will ensue. After the tribulation, Christ will return with the church and reign on earth as a physical king for one thousand years. Near the end of the thousand year period, the anti-Christ will appear, and a war will ensue between believers and non-believers, including Israel. God will ultimately prevail over the anti-Christ and his followers, and the final judgment will then occur. This position has been recently popularized by Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series.

Postmillennialism:
This view believes that a thousand year “golden age” will occur on the Earth, before the return of Christ. Many believe that the Kingdom of God will slowly expand upon the Earth until evil is defeated and Christianity reigns supreme upon. At this point, Christ will return, and a final judgment will occur. This view usually rejects an apostasy or tribulation.

Amillennialism:
This view, which is a form of postmillennialism, views the millennium as an allegorical (and non-exact) period that is occurring now, with Christ and his church reigning incompletely over the Earth. At the end of this period, Christ will return and a second judgment will occur.

Preterism:
Also known as 70AD or realized eschatology. This view, which is also a form of postmillennialism, holds that the prophecies of the bible have already been fulfilled, usually in 70 AD at the destruction of the temple. Some preterists also believe that the second coming of Christ and the final judgment have already occurred. In this view, at death, humans immediately go to their final destination as they have already been judged for their actions.

All of the major eschatological belief systems have been present in the Stone-Campbell Movement. Alexander Campbell was a Postmillennialist. Campbell’s second journal was entitled The Millennial Harbinger, and Campbell believed that the church, through the “Restoration of the Ancient Order” that he was leading, would help to usher in the millennium. Barton Stone, on the other hand, was a historic premillennialist. Stone’s premillennialism inspired his apocalyptic worldview that he passed on to others such as James A. Harding.

The majority of members of the Stone-Campbell Movement and the Churches of Christ were probably postmillennialists or historic premillennialists up until the early 20th Century. With the rise of fundamentalism, however, some members, notably R.H. Boll, became dispensational premillennialists. Boll was the front page editor of the Gospel Advocate, and was ultimately removed from his post because of his speculative writings on prophecy that were based on dispensationalism. After Boll left the GA, he started his own paper, Word and Work, based in Louisville, Kentucky, which helped to spread his views. Shortly thereafter, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. took over the editorship of the Advocate. Wallace and others objected to Boll’s dispensational premillennialism because Wallace felt that dispensationalism taught that Christ’s mission was to create an earthly theocracy and was ultimately a failure, and that God was using the Church as a back-up plan until he could come again in full power to reign over the world. Wallace waged a war on Boll and premillennialism of all forms, attacking Christians and institutions such as Harding College, who he felt were “soft” on the issue. Wallace’s attack on premillennialism ultimately resulted in all premillennialist congregations being “ousted” from fellowship with the rest of the church, which became amillennial. The premillennial Churches of Christ, who were more fundamentalist in outlook and dispensational in theology, forged closer working ties with other fundamentalist churches, such as the Independent Christian Churches, and with dispensationalist churches as well. This simply reinforced the view of Wallace and others that the premillennialists were heretical and had to go.

Today, a small remnant of premillennial churches still exist in Churches of Christ, with most centered around the Louisville area. They continue to publish Word and Work in an online format. In addition, a small but very vocal group of preterist congregations also exist in our fellowship. There is some evidence that Wallace was actually a preterist and not amillennial, and a few people in the preterist community go so far as to call Wallace the “Father of Modern Preterism.”1

No matter what we believe about eschatology, there is a high probability that we are wrong. Every position I outlined has problems with it one way or the other. I myself am amillennial, however, I acknowledge that there are holes in my position that cannot be filled. While I believe that it is important to know and understand what we believe, I also think it is important that we not hold onto these positions too tightly. Doing so can squeeze the life out of our faith and the faith of others.

I am amillennial because it appears to be the most consistent with scripture. I tend to reject dispensational premillennialism because I believe that dispensationalism places a number of presuppositions upon our reading of scripture which do not belong. Dispensationalism also spends an inordinate amount of time examining biblical prophecies and attempting to match those up to world events, a speculation I find a waste of time and effort. Jesus made it quite clear that no one knows the day or the hour except for the father, so I fail to see the point of attempting to divine that knowledge through mathematical equations and careful readings of news coming out of the Middle East. This view also does something that I find to be very sinister: it encourages believers to support all of the actions of the State of Israel, whether the actions of that state are moral or immoral. Jesus told Pilate that his Kingdom was not of this world, and that because of that, his followers would not fight for him. Dispensational premillennialism often assumes the opposite.

Similarly, I see some major issues with other options, including postmillennialism, preterism, and historical premillennialism. However, I don’t see any of these positions as being deal-breakers in the Christian faith. Despite what Wallace and many others believed, I don’t believe that being wrong about the end of the world is a salvation issue. From what I read in scripture, God has more than enough grace to cover us if we make a doctrinal error on eschatology.

With all of that being stated, however, I will still make a case for a certain kind of eschatology. Harding, as I stated above, was a historical premillennialist. However, the evidence on exactly what David Lipscomb believed about the millennium is scanty. We do know, however, that regardless of what Harding and Lipscomb believed about a millennial reign, that they both believed in renewed earth eschatology. Both of these men, in accordance with scripture, believed that God would ultimately redeem and renew the world, and not destroy it. Their eschatological focus then, was not on “getting to heaven,” like most of the evangelical world now talks about, but upon God acting to redeem not only people, but his full creation. God’s grace is so overflowing that he will not only save his people, but he will save the whole of his creation. Peter describes this theology best in his 2nd Epistle:

<blockquote>Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.2></blockquote>

As Peter tells us, our understanding of eschatology should make us better people. It should help us live into the reality that we have already been redeemed. It should also make us realize that God cares about his entire creation, and not just human beings. We then should also care about God’s creation, and care for it, as was commanded in the Garden, because God will redeem all things to himself, and not just ourselves. Whatever our eschatological viewpoint, one thing is for certain: our belief and practice should make us more like Jesus, and not less.

____________

1 – Kurt Simmons, “The Road Back to Preterism,” Preterist Central, (accessed December 14, 2012).

2 – 2 Peter 3:3-16.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataDecember 3rd, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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