Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Evangelicals and Eschatology, Act One, Scene Two

Continuing my report of Prof David Bebbington's paper at the above conference... Scene Two: the debates around the parousia specific to evangelicalism.


The Reformers gave little time to millenial expectations. In fact, Calvin branded millenarians as 'ignorant fanatics'. There was a general amillenial consensus during the century of the Reformation, reflected in the notes to Revelation in the Geneva Bible and the WCFs silence on the millenium. Literal post- and pre- millenial views sprang up in the 17th century. Civil war led to openess to apocalyptic speculation and Puritan thought followed this trajectory. Jonathan Edwards saw the revivals as pre-cursors to the millenium, which he expected would come within 250 years. The French Revolution in this context was seen as the fall of Antichrist in France. This fledgling post-millenial eschatology was a Christian version of the 'idea of progress' spawned by the Enlightenment. It was a 'very this-wordly view of eschatology', but it drove foreign mission and social action, for example with Thomas Chalmers.


In the 1820s there were the first stirrings of pre-millenial eschatology. It has become more fashionable to focus upon the sudden and the supernatural, which was favourable to a cataclysmic view of 'the end'. Pre-mill spread slowly; Edward Irvine, Horatius Bonar and Lord Shaftsbury took up the cause. The penchant was then to identify historical events with the prophecies of Revelation. The outlook of pre-mill was characterised by pessimism: 'they expected things to go from bad to worse' and was stoutly Protestant. The 1830s saw the roots of Dispensationalism put down. Darby's futurist interpretation identified Israel as the target of the events of Revelation. However, in Wales post-mill remained entirely dominant. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, post-mill broadened and began to focus on the social gospel - the heavenly Jerusalem on earth; the parousia faded from view. The concurrent rise of dispensationalism led to a polarisation. This type of polarisation is seen in the ethea of Inter Varsity Fellowship and the Student Christian Movement. The inter-war years saw a rise in conservativism. WWII and the establishing of the state of Israel encouraged pre-mill opinions. In the post-war years, pre-mill has developed within the rise of conservativism, e.g. under Billy Graham. In Scotland, Reformed theology has maintained its amillenial stance. In Wales, post-mill enjoyed some resurgence under the influence of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Iain Murray's book 'The Puritan Hope'. Pre-mill has fallen in favour and there has been an unconscious acceptance of the amillenial scheme. In the UK, evangelicals are far less dogmatic on eschatology than in the US.

In conclusion:
  • eschatological beliefs among evangelicals have been deeply affected by intellectual assumptions, e.g. by the Enlightenment belief in progress (post-mill) and by Romanticism (pre-mill);
  • eschatology has affected evangelical culture, e.g. post-mill producing active reform and socio-political efforts; pre-mill producing a quietist pessimism regarding society, but driving evangelism; and amill producing (at least in their own eyes) realism.
'Eschatology has had a remarkably strong sway over evangelical thought.'

next up, Act Two: Dr Michael Bird on 'Evangelicals and Apocalyptic Eschatology'...