FORUM: Eschatology

Concerning "Last Things," the Baptist Faith and Message says, "God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly ---the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness."  It doesn't go into details, for Southern Baptists have formed no consensus on these matters. Still, the Scripture is rich in teaching on these matters, and these passages have generated a lot of study and preaching. We gathered three scholars to discuss the issues --Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Seminary [now president of Southwestern Seminary], David Dockery, Dean of Theology at Southern Seminary [now president of Union University], and Millard Erickson, Research Professor of Theology at Southwestern. [Now at Western Seminary in Portland]; Patterson, with a Ph.D. from New Orleans Seminary, has served as pastor in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Before coming to Southwestern, he was president of Southeastern Seminary and Criswell College. He is currently writing the volume on Revelation for The New American Commentary (Broadman & Holman) - Dockery earned the doctorate at UT-Arlington, and served as a pastor in New York. While a professor of theology and New Testament at Criswell College, he edited the Criswell Theological Review. Before going to his present position at Southern, he was general editor of Broadman Press, where he was also editor of The New American Commentary. After completing the PD. at Northern Baptist Seminary, Erickson earned the Ph.D. at Northwestern University. He was pastor of churches in Illinois and Minnesota, and has since held 43 interim pastorates. Before coming to Southwestern, he was Dean of Bethel Seminary. Among his 15 books are Christian Theology and Contemporary Eschatalogical Alternatives. SBC LIFE:   Let's set the historical context in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Dockery:   Nineteenth century Southern Baptist theology was predominantly postmillennial. This position was held by the founders of Southern Seminary and Southwestern Seminary.  This postmillennialism was the type held by the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards. They were looking for God s kingdom to come. 

A thoroughgoing postmillenialism undergirds the WMU theme song, "We've a Story to Tell to the Nations" In that hymn we sing, "Christ's great kingdom shall come on earth, a kingdom of love and light." 

Postmillenialism was the dominant position until World War I. After that, W.T. Conner and E.Y. Mullins were amillennialists, and that became the Southern Baptist position in Southern Baptist academia during the twentieth century. 

J.R. Graves was the first premillennialist I know of in Southern Baptist life. Dr. Patterson may know of someone else, but Dr. Graves was the first dispensationalist for sure in Southern Baptist life. I don't think that there are more than a handful of dispensationalists on the six seminary faculties even now. 

Patterson:   The two World Wars dealt a staggering blow to optimistic humanism, and that in turn had an effect upon postmillenialism in Southern Baptist life. While postinillennialism has experienced a recent resurgence with certain Presbyterians in the Reconstructionist movement, it has not come back to Southern Baptist life.

Ray Summers did much to popularize amillennialism with his book Worthy is the Lamb. More than half of it is an introduction to apocalyptic literature and hermeneutical methods. A little less than half of it is actually an interpretation of Revelation, but it became extraordinarily popular and remains so today. You walk into a pastor's library, and the chances are the book will be on the shelf.

SBC LIFE:   And Hobbs joined with him in The Cosmic Drama.

Dockery:   Hobbs was, based on his testimony, a "premillennialist without a program" and later became amillennialist. 

Patterson:   Truett was heavily influenced by Carroll, and if he had much of an eschatological view, it was probably closer to postinillennialism. After Truett's death, First Baptist Church, Dallas, called Dr. Criswell, who was a premillennialist. When they wrote the statement of faith for the church, Dr. Criswell wrote it preinillennially. One of the deacons stood up and protested the adoption of the statement, saying that George W. Truett could not sign it. Upon this, Dr. Criswell rose and said, 'That, brother, is absolutely correct. When Dr. Truert, the far-famed pastor of this illustrious congregation was here, he could not have signed this. But he can now."

Dockery:   Although amillennialism has ken dominant in the colleges and seminaries, premillnialism has gained ascendancy in the pulpits. R. G. Lee and W.A. CrisweIl were the two dominant premillennial pulpits. They have shaped the denomination so that I would say that the majority of Southern Baptist pulpits today are premillennial. 

SBC LIFE:   Do you think that most Southern Baptist ministers have a firmly settled opinion on the qttestion? 

Patterson:   My guess would he that when the fe. majority of Southern Baptists hear the mention of millennialism or eschatology their first question is, "Well, does the person get well?" The vast majority of to Southern Baptists really don't have much of a clue about what is being discussed. 

Almost to an individual, they would believe strongly in the fact of a visible, literal return of Christ to the earth. As far as a programmatic aspect is concerned, most would not know. My guess is that among the pastors, you probably have a sizable number of them who don't know a lot more about it. 

Of those who do have a persuasion, I imagine that dispensational premillennialisin would have a slight leg up at this point. On our seminary campuses, I would say that historical pre-millenniaIism would now be the stronger position. 

SBC LIFE:   Dr. Erickson, in your book, Contemporary Options in Eschatology, you discuss the notion that each era tackles a major issue. Early on, it was the nature of Christ. Later, the nature of scriptural authority. But now, eschatology is a major concern. 

Erickson:   James Orr thought this. As church history has unfolded, the Trinity and Christology came early in the discussion. But eschatology had never really been dealt with, so he thought this would be one of the new topics, along with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. 

I think he was right, but not in quite the way he thought. He was probably working with a somewhat narrower conception of the millennium. The big discussions in eschatology in the 20th century havc been much broader. There's this "already-but-not-yet" theme fmm Oscar Cullmann and others, the idea that everything is eschatological, and the"theology of hope." So it's been a casting of all of theology in an eschatological vein. 

The discussion of the millennial views has been a smaller sphere, among conservatives primarily. And I don't see it as one of the major topics right now. There were places like Dallas Seminary where you could look at the doctoral dissertations, and they all had sornerhing to do with eschato!ogy, one way or the other. Virtually everything that John Walvoord wrote dealt with eschatology. I was there in early February for a lectureship, and I don't sense there is quite that preoccupation with cschatology now. They are reworking things. 

Dockery:   Dispensationalists are reworking that whole system. This progressive dispensationalism has changed everything. 

Erickson:   I think there was a time when a particular millennial view was the issue, but you get into that and find that it's really hermeneutics, the doctrine of the church and those broader things. 

Right now as I see it in evangelicalism, there is movement towards the middle. Dallas has come into the Association of Theological Schools, and some of the institutions that were farther left are moving back towards the middle. You have a small, but a very vociferous extreme right wing and then you have some progressive evangelicals who are carrying on the tradition of Fuller Seminary. But there is more of a clustering towards the middle, and you don't find as much difference on the ethos of these eschatolcgicaL camps as you used to, 

There was a very different feel in how one thought about the church, its mission and the future at a place like Dallas seminary than there was at Westminster Seminary. But I don't think there is that great a difference in feel now. 

I used to go to these evangelical deans meetings. There would be about a dozen of us. You had the feeling that there wasn't that much diffcrence in general between what went on at Covenant Seminary, Westminster, Denver Conservative Bapiist, and Dallas. I think that s happening in eschatology, too. Dispensationalism had a definite, almost a cultural quality to it, and that seems to be diminishing. 

Patterson:   In his book, Dispensationalism Today Charles Ryrie acknowledged the fact that dispensationalism had, like many theologies, some unproven assumptions, and some that actually were unworthy of careful exegesis. He began to call attention to those and indicate some movement on his own part.  And then, of course, Craig Blaising and Robert Saucy and others have picked this thing up and gone even fur ther, to a point that would probably make Dr. Ryrie uncomfortable. But, in any event, the movement back toward the middle really started with Ryrie s book. 

Dockery:   Today, you have classical dispensationalists, revised dispensationalists and now progressive dispensationalists. The last eight years, there has been a pre-meeting at the Ex angclical Theological Society to discuss premillennialism and progressive dispensationalism. This has resulted in the new book by Craig Blaising and Darrcll Bock entitled Progressive Dispsationalism. 

It used to be that people from faculties like Westminster Theological Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary sat down together to discuss their numerous differences and would hardly find common ground. In these recent meetings, you had faculty representatives sit down, describe their eschatological systems and, at the end, say they could generally buy into what each other had said regarding the nature of the Kingdom of God. It was fascinating. 

Patterson:   I've been identified as a dispensationalist, although I don't care for the identification. I was always uncomfortable with aspects of classical dispensationalism, things like viewing the Sermon on the Mount as a kingdom-age ethic and, therefore, not applicable to the chutch today 

My position is that the old classical dispensationalism was very much right about the distinction that does need to be made between Israel and the Church. God has a plan for each On the other hand, I don't buy into the old dispensationalism that people were saved in the Old Testament in any other way than they are saved now one group saved by grace through faith in prospect of the cross and the other group saved by grace through faith in retrospect, looking back to the cross. So, I think there were some changes that needed to be made and yet, there are some aspects of so-called dispensationalism to which I still adhere. 

Erickson:   Even though you've probably gone through more tribulations personally than any of the rest of us here. 

Patterson:   Good point! 

SBC LIFE:   What about movement in your own thinking through the years? 

Dockery:   I began my eschatology as a dispensationalist. The first exposure I had to this system was that little Scofield book on the seven dispensarions. I had a Scofield Reference Bible and learned that system very well. 

My eschatology class in seminary was where I really started to think about these issues seriously. This class raised more questions than it's solved, particularly about the two peoples of God, Israel and the Church. 

In Ephesians 2 and Galatians 3, that distinction breaks down when Paul argues that the two are no longer two, but one the dividing wall has been done away with. In Galatians 3, he says that God's promises were not to seeds (plural) but to seed (singular), and that seed is Christ. Then all who are in Christ are children of Abraham (Galarians 3:29). 

While I recognise two aspects, that God was doing something different with Israel than He is now doing with the church is clear, but it's hard for me to think that there are two separate peoples of God. That is where I have had the biggest trouble with dispensationalism. I really think that the pretribulation rapture stands ot falls on that distinction, because it is the church that is taken out of the tribulation and Israel that stays in. So I have some difficulties with the dispensational system at that point. I'm still a thoroughgoing premillennialist but rather agnostic on the timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation. 

Patterson:   I, too, have experienced major movement. The first book I ever read on eschatology (as a teenage boy) was The Life Beyond by Ray Summers. Shortly after, I read his Worthy is the Lamb

I was an ardent, thoroughgoing, committed amillennialist, not just apologetetically, but polemically. I thought premillennialism was absolutely the worst thing that could happen. 

I thought that for several years, and then I read the Bible. I say that humorously, but there is a sense in which I literally experienced a conversion of millennial views, based on reading the Scripture, it originally came to me, flow out of the New Testament, but out of the Old Testament. I grappled with the Old Testament prophecies, such as Ezekiel 40-48 and the Isaianic prophesies concerning the kingdom age. I came to the point where I had to say they were looking for a real kingdom age on earth, and that I could find nothing in the New Testarnent that negated that. 

I have a similar view to Dr. Dockery's here, in that I do not believe that the program of God with Israel, and the program of God with the church is a permanent division of programs. Not only are folks always saved exactly the same way, but I also believe that the distinction between Israel and the church will nor be an eternal heavenly distinction. At that point, I would part company with most classical dispensationalists, but I do still feel that there's overwhelming evidence that something is going on with the Jewish nation. 

SBC LIFE: Any New Testament passages that particularly struck any of you? Romans 11, for instance? 

Dockery:   Romans 11 is still a passage that you have to read as ethnic Israel. There is a future for ethnic Israel. I don't think you can read that passage as a promise about spiritual Israel, so that is the reason I wou1d say there are two aspects of the people of God. I have to make some kind of distinction. It is not the case that there has been just one covenant people from Abraham on, however--something new happened at Pentacost. 

SBC LIFE:   Dr. Erickson, you're an historical premillennialist. Has there been any movement in your own thinking, or were you raised that way 

Erickson:   Well, I guess no and no. I grew up in a church where the pastors never really preached that much on eschatology. To this day, I don't really know what those pastors really held in those areas. I suppose they were premillerinialists. Now we'd have some evangelists who'd come with their charts, but that s the only time I remember eschatological charts being displayed in our church. It just was riot a strong agenda item with those pastors. 

By the time I thought about what I was, I was reading people like George Ladd. During my college days, especially the Universitry of Minnesota, the issue for me was theism versus naturalism. It wasn't millennialism. There were much bigger issues. in seminary, when I started to deal with those issues, I concluded from Ladd's Crucial Questions About The Kingdom of God that indeed the premillennial position was the preferred one. 

I don't think I ve ever had really a dispensational phase. I think I had a phase where I was sort of amillennial, not in the sense of holding the amillennial view, but of not really having thought critically about it.  It wasn't a strong item in my preaching. 

I've bad a fair amount of exposure to dispensational people. You don't pastor as close to Moody Bible Institute as I did and not have a fair number of people who ve come through that program. So, in that first pastorate, I had to work out some of those things as well. But unlike two colleagues of mine, who incurred considerable wrath from the dispensationalists, I ve been non-dispensational, not anti-dispensational. And there's considerable difference, I think. I don't think, as one colleague seemed to feel, that dispensationalism was the worst heresy possible. 

Patterson:   Maybe we should say too for the benefit of the reader that classical dispensationalism had seven different dispensations, variously identified, depending (in who you were reading. These were periods of time where there was a marked difference in how God did business with humanity. For example, there was a strong differentiation between the age prior to the Fall, and the age immediately following the Fall. 

Someone's pointed out, I think truthfully, that every Christian is actually a dispensationalist because the word oikonomia is translated twice in the New Testament as dispensation. It simply means "law of the house," and it is true that everybody recognizes at least two dispensations. We all acknowledge an old covenant and a new covenant. 

When I say I don't like being identified as a dispensationalist, it's because I don't see the seven, and never have seen the seven. Yet, I think that there are distinctions in the particulars of the program of God. It's always by grace through faith that were saved. 

SBC LIFE:   Corrie ten Boom once said she thought the whole discussion was pre-post-erous. She saw it as pointlessly divisive. Some joke that they are pan-millennialist, ("It'll all pan out") or pro-millennial ("I m for a thousand years peace anytime."). Is millennialism worth the effort? What's at stake here? Why should we care to become clear on this?  Dockery:   What's important is to recognize that God has a redemptive plan for His people that He is going to 'accomplish in history. It gives you a framework by which you can interpret life and history. It also gives you a hope for living, knowing that God is in control and is moving history along toward a providential destiny. Even if you don't have all the sequence worked out chronologically, you know that God is moving history along that way. I think premillennialism is important because it does say there is a sovereign God who is going to rule and reign in history. For me that is very important. 

Patterson:   I have a pragmatic answer. Often times eschatological concerns are promoted completely out of all area of reality. It becomes a consuming thing to so many people, when their focus needs to be on the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection of our Lord. But I do know this. Announce that you're going to preach a series of sermons on the Apocalypse or Daniel, announce that you will be speaking one night at a revival on the return of Christ, announce that you'll be preaching on heaven or hell, and I'll promise you that you ll have a crowd. That tells me that people are interested in this. They really do want to know about the future. Of course, that could be demonstrated by the faithfulness with which they read horoscopes, tarot cards and everything else in between. Given the interest that exists there, we cannot avoid discussing this, especially when so much of the Bible is in fact dealing with eschatological themes. 

It just seems to me that we'd better do our homework so we don't make the mistake that Christians have made in years gone by getting up and giving the year of His return, and this kind of foolishness. It winds up embarrassing the evangelical community and the church of God. So I say, "Do your homework, and do the best you can to interpret the Scriptures that are there. Use it as an opportunity to get the message of Christ to people who might not hear on other themes." 

SBC LIFE:   Dr. Chapman (president of the SBC Executive Committee) could say amen to that. He's very enthusiastic about the response to such preaching when he pastored Wichita Falls First. 

Erickson:   I do think that there are regional differences in interest. Cultural trends start on the two coasts. They move to the Midwest and then last to the South, So I tell my students they can see what's coming by looking at what's happening in Southern California. It'll he quite awhile, but it'll come. In other parts of the country, the interest in that kind of eschatology is diminishing, and will eventually do so in the South. The type of thing that you described does not necessarily draw a crowd in the (midwest) church where I'm a member. But it can be cast in terms of the issues that are being discussed today, such as futurism. 

A year ago, I was interim pastor in a church. I noticed in their monthly mail-out newsletter that now they have two classes, one taught by a 50 year old school teacher on the book of Revelation, and one taught by a 35 year old attorney on dealing with problems in contemporary living how to handle your teenagers and those things. I would bet that the enrollment of those two adult classes can be stratified by generation, so that this younger generation, at least in the North and in other parts of the country, is less interested in the book of Revelation than the older generation. 

Considerable interest is still there, though I would guess that maybe even in the South, the 20 and 30-something s may not be as interested as the 50 and 60 somethings. So we ll need to find a way to relate the teaching of eschatology to these somewhat more secular questions that people are asking about the future  'Where is the economy going to be? What s going to be the employment situation 10 - 15 years from now? Will my kind of work still be popular? 

SBC LIFE:   Perhaps, as with Dr. Erickson's boyhood church, we've not heard much about it in our churches, and the appetite is still keen. We ve often heard the whole discussion dismissed with the biblical phrase, "It's not for us to know the times and the seasons," yet it is fair to ask why God would put so much of it in the Bible if we we're to ignore it. He s not just playing with us. 

Patterson:   One of the reasons we have to preach it is to rescue it from the radicals. I feel that I can say that, because most of the people who get carried away with this thing tend to be dispensational premillennialists. 

Since that's what I'm popularly rumored to be, I just want to say that one of my agonies occurred a few years back (in 1988) when Whisenhunt published his little book that went all over the country, 88 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming Again in '88. There were at least 88 erroneous conclusions in that book. I wasn't that concerned about the publication of the book because that happens; there s something new almost every month coming our from people who seem to disregard the cleat statement of Scripture that nobody knows about this "It's not for you to know the kairos or the chronos, the times or the seasons which the Lord has put in His command." 

What concerned me was that I began to receive numerous calls from Southern Baptist pastors asking whether there was anything to this? At that point, I became very much concerned, and I recognized that we have so avoided the "difficult passages" of apocalyptic import, of eschatological significance, that our people are vulnerable to any kind of thing that comes along like that. We need to study and preach it, relating it to the Christ as much as possible.

Erickson:   If we are committed to expository preaching so that we preach through the biblical text, and don't get excessively caught up in topical how-to sermons, we ll be forced to deal with this issue. One out of every 25 verses in the New Testament addresses the issue of the Second Coming.

I don't think it's so much that you have to have all your "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed, that you can fill out one of these charts as to how everything is going to happen. But you can create within people an expectation, a desire to live life in anticipation of Christ s return. That shapes life differently. It gives it a certain hope, a certain expectation. The gospel writers, quoting Jesus, say that that brings a certain carefulness to life.

Paul uses it in Romans 9-11 as a motivation for evangelism. Peter in I Peter chapter 1, uses it as a motivation for ethical living, and John in I John chapter 3 says that it is a hope that transforms us from within. And 50 I think there are positive ethical ministry aspects to it when we do it right. It's not that you have to say we re going to have a ten week series on this. You just preach it when it comes up in the text, and then you can create a mindset within the people.

Patterson:   And add to that II Corinthians 5, where Paul says we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. "Therefore, knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." Exegetes would divide over "the terror of the Lord," but whatever may be the case, it's clearly an inducement to evangelistic effort. I find it to be one of the most effective, motivating tools to get Christians our to share their faith with their

SBC LIFE:   Given such strong differences among conservatives on these matters, is it possible to preach with certainty?

Erickson:   I think we're able to separate the things clearly and emphatically taught from the less clear ones. The degree of our dogmatism should be proportionate to that. As David mentioned, these big things, the second coming of the Lord, the hope that there is in that, those need to be strongly emphasized.

We also need to talk about the details, but I think we need to leave them with a degree of tentativeness. The end  times are going to come, and what one believes will be tested in that experience. If a person is absolutely convinced that the only way to think in terms of the second coming is that the church will not go through the tribulation, and that person does go through the tribulation, that's going to be devastating. There are going to be people falling away in the last rime, and part of it could be because it doesn't fit the way they're absolutely convinced it was going to be. then they throw away the whole thing.

But this is hard to do with lay people, because they don't sit in doctoral seminars where you say "Well, it looks like about 70% of the evidence is here, and about 30% is here." We should help them see that Scripture does say some things are like a foggy mirror, and we re not absolutely sure, but it looks more this way. I think one could create some of that kind of preaching, but the cafeteria approach  "There is this view, this view, and this view. Take your pick,"  really does leave people at loose ends.

Patterson:   As much trouble as we have just getting a hold on history, which has already happened, to think about the future which hasn't yet happened it ought to engender a very careful and cautious humility in all of us as we approach these passages. And sometimes people holding all the various eschatological views have been guilty of anything but humility in approaching them.

I think you must say to your people, "I'm going to share my perspective on this. This is how I see it." But I think honesty and humility on matters relating to the future demand that we say to them, my must understand that other godly, Bible-believing, saintly scholars and Christians see these things some other ways.

For one thing, we're not really equipping our people if they don't know some of those other views are out there and they do have plausibility. So I preach what I preach very vibrantly, but I also try to say to people as I preach it, this is not the only perspective on this. But the certainty of the return of Christ and our gathering unto Him is unconditional. This will happen. "What I'm saying to you about the time tables and the relationships of one event to other is my exegesis as I understand the Scriptures." But it's to be differentiated from what is absolutely certain.

One out of every 25 verses in the New Testament addresses the issue of the second coming. I think you must say to your people, "I'm going to share my perspective on this. This is how I see it." But to get Christians out to share their faith with their neighbors

SBC LIFE:   Logicians speak of the fallacy of misplaced precision. Technically, you can compute IQ to the twelfth decimal place, but the subject matter simply does not admit of that much precision. Can that happen here?

Dockery:   Yes! When we do that, we run the risk of putting the emphasis in the wrong place. We have a Christ1ess eschatology. People become more concerned about current events, the nation of Israel, these kinds of things rather than focusing their attention on the return of Christ. which has to remain central to this entire question. A South African theologian recently wrote a book called The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology. I'm not sure I would agree with everything in the book, but I certainly agree with the title and the overall thrust of what he is trying to say.

Patterson:   Classic case in point is the quest for the identification of the Anti-Christ. This and every generation, starting with the earliest church, made this the subject of great interest. It was Nero and then Domitian. Later in World War II, it was Mussolini and Hitler. Joe Stalin carried that identification for a while and more recently, of course, Saddam Hussein. People even got wealthy writing hooks about that one. And then poor old Henry Kissinger. People missed the point. It's not who the anti-Christ is; it's who the Christ is.

Erickson:   And now we're getting this type of thing, that one year equals a thousand years so, if creation was 4,004 B.C. and we've had two thousand years, when the six thousand years are up the Lord is coming back. I have not had the heart to ask those people, "Have you thought about the fact that Christ apparently came about 4-6 B.C. and maybe we're there already?"

It's the same whether it's identifying the anti-Christ or setting the dare, the same problem they faced back in the 1840's when they knew this was the time, and it wasn't. It seems that the whole faith will be undercut. Of course, it is only one man s dogmatic opinion that has been undercut.

SBC LIFE:   What do you say to a pastor who is anxious about tackling one of these texts?

Patterson:   I'd say to him, you've got to preach the whole counsel of God. You have no other choice, but to take this ride. So what you do is, you get you a copy of Mounce's commentary on the Apocalypse, and George Ladd's commentary on the Apocalypse...

Erickson:   ...and  Patterson's...

Patterson:   Hopefully. Maybe you pick up WA. Criswell's five Volume series on the Apocalypse and maybe Walvoord on the Apocalypse, and you do as honest a piece of research as you can. Then jump in and proceed, but with humility, focusing on the salvific intent of the whole, You wont get too far off base.

SBC LIFE:   You're working on Revelation for the New American Commentarv?

Patterson:   Either that, or it's working on me.

SBC LIFE:   What are the difficulties?

Patterson:   I have wanted to do what probably cannot be done, but I'm going to try. I'm attempting to write a commentary on the Apocalypse that will have real usefulness for the pastor and the student, without abandoning my own views, yet without writing it in such a way that persons who have differing views will feel that they have just been cut out.

It's very difficult because there are some presuppositions you make when you come to apocalyptic literature that automatically determine where you are going to go on everything. By the time it's over, I may have to confess that it can't be done, but I'm attempting to do that, to write a commentary that will, at least, have usefulness for all premillennialists, whatever their stripe.

SBC LIFE:   Principles of interpretation are central to this debate. What guidance can you give us?

Dockery:   I think there is a general hermeneutical principle that says something like "When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense." That s a good place to begin as you read Daniel and Revelation. But at the same time, you can t read those books like you read the epistles or gospels or the book of Acts. It is a different genre and therefore, you have to read it more carefully. It causes you to have different questions, and the symbolism cannot he ignored; it has to be interpreted. It probably can t be read at face value at every point.

For example, when Jesus returns in Revelation 19, the only weapon He has to conquer the anti-Christ is the sword coming out of His mouth. I think we all know the sword is the Word of God. The same Word that spoke Creation into being is the Word that is going to ultimately conquer these evil forces. We don't believe that is a literal sword. There are obvious places where you recognize symbolic language.

Erickson:   I'd like to go back and add a word of advice to the pastor. Plan your preaching so that you don't get to that situation too early in a particular pastorate. It's not what you want to preach in the first month.

It came to me rather strongly in one interim pastorate, about the seventh month there. I wanted to preach on something that I knew was a little controversial. Before I did so, I got the deacons together and said, "Here's what I'm thinking of talking about. Do you think it advisable to go ahead?" And basically they said yes. I've never forgotten what one man said, "As long as it's you, pastor, it's all right." I couldn't have preached on that the first month, but I had now seven months of credibility.

When a pastor has been three years or so in a church, and his people know they can rely upon what he says, they ve studied the Scripture as he's led them through it, and he's created this sense that "I don't have all the answers, and no one has all the answers," then he can deal with it. But it's not the thing to deal with when there's some other problem in the church or where his leadership is in difficulty. That'll become another lightning rod for difficulty.

It's also important to have a sense of balance.  I know of one church, which I'll not identify, where the pastor had preached on the book of Revelation every Sunday evening for 19 years. That creates the impression that it's 50% of what you need to know.

SBC LIFE:   Any other observations?

Patterson:   On the hermeneutical question, I think it's important to observe that it's really nor a question of literal versus figurative interpretation. The Bible is full of figures of speech, not only in apocalyptic literature, hut elsewhere.

My favorite one is the woman who sirs on seven hills. This is obviously quite a woman if this is to be taken literally. So clearly, what we have is metaphorical language here, and we are to expect that every where in Scripture. On the other hand, it's not that it doesn't stand for something; it does stand for something that is real, that is literally true. So the literalness of it is whatever interpretation is the appropriate one to interpret the symbol.

SBC LIFE:   We've been reading about the recent massacre in Hebron, and other developments in the Middle East. Does your study of Scripture give you any kind of confidence in assessing these events?

Patterson:   Every time something big happens, like the peace accord with Arafat and the Israelis, there is a outflowing of interest in apocalyptic themes again, and the press starts calling all of us. My universal reply is "Don't try to read anything like this into the book of Revelation."

If I were to try to read anything into it at all, I would turn to Ezekiel 37, which prophesies the regathering of the children of Israel, not merely one tribe, but both Judah and Israel. Now Judah came back into the land for awhile, but Israel never did. He goes through the whole routine of the two sticks joined together to represent both halves of Israel.

So yes, I do consider the present re-establishment of the state of Israel as a beginning of that regathering, but I caution people at that point, because, if Daniel 9 is true, and I take it to be so, then what we have right now in the state of Israel is not the final expression ot the state of Israel. The Jews will once again be driven out into the wilderness by the anti-Christ, almost to the point of extinction, the worst wave of anti-semitism we've ever seen.

People who get carried away with present events trying to read those back into the Scripture are almost invariably destined for embarrassment. Stick to the big theme, even if you're a pre-tribulation, premillennialist like I am.

The extent to which I think it's safe to say anything is that miraculously the nation of the Jewish people have endured as a people. Incredibly, the Hebrew language is still a spoken language after all these hundreds and hundreds of years which is very uncommon as you know. They have been regathered as the Bible seems to prophesy, but don't go too much beyond that on specific events, or you'll embarrass yourself and the church of God.

SBC LIFE:   What about apocalyptic literature in worship and devotion?

Dockery:   The book of Revelation is a book of worship about the lamb who was slain. Those wonderful hymns in chapters 4 and 5 in particular lead us to worship. Some of the loftiest passages about the greatness of Jesus Christ are found there. I think one of the healthy ways of reading the book of Revelation, rather than reading it as a crystal ball, is to read it as the Revelation of Jesus Christ, the object of our worship and adoration.

Erickson:   It gives us some insight into what we are going to be doing in heaven -- service and worship. it'should be a guide to in worship. And it provides us a good check on the popular misconception that, the more faithful you are here, the bigger car you'll drive, and the fancier house you ll have.

Patterson:   The book of Revelation excites me more than any other book in the Bible, except Romans, and one of the reasons is because it deals with the problem of evil (the fact that bad things happen to good people). It is the book of greatest assurance that God has this thing in control, that we re not running pell mell down the halls of history, out of control. It doesn't make God the author of evil, but it does assure us that this whole thing is pointed in the direction of a consummation He has for it.

Erickson:   I think a lot of us have tended to avoid the subject because the chartists were the people who talked about that all the time. The same thing happened with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostalists and Charismatics were the ones who always talked about, and we didn't want to be thought to be one of those. So we kind of neglected that area.

I noticed, when I taught at Wheaton, that some of my colleagues teaching the doctrine sequence were always running behind; they never got to eschatology. The people teaching New Testament survey never got to Revelation for the same reason. And time always ran out on the guy teaching the Old Testament before they got to the prophetic books. I think part of it was poor organization, but part of it may have been conscious or unconscious intention.

If it's going to cause controversy at all or even little disagreements, it's easier to stay away from it. But I think that neglect of it has allowed the people with extremely detailed views to co-opt the whole area.

It was nor intended to be a source of controversy. Paul says, "Comfort one another with this." It is a tremendous comfort to people at the death of a Christian loved one and at other times of tribulation. Much of eschatology, which of the apocalyptic material, was pastorally oriented, so I hope we utilize that fully.

Patterson:   I would just say that to preachers, "Keep the emphasis on the Incarnation, the Substitutionary Atonement, and the Resurrection of the Lord. That must be the hub of the wheel of our preaching, no matter what. But while you're doing it, don't forget it all has a glorious consummation when the trumpets shall sound and we re taken home to be with Him. He saved us for both time and for eternity. Preach both time and eternity."

Dockery:   It points us to the fact that what Christ did does have a final victory. In the consummation of God s redemptive plan, there is a final rule and reign that God will bring to the earth for His people through the Lord Jesus Christ.


 
 
From SBC Life, June/July, 1994. Used by permission.