Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
in Mainline Christianity at the Millennium's Dawn
by Larry Nichols
traditionally played an important role in the way that the cults and sects have
thought, taught, written and wrangled about things eschatological. Whether it
be Millerites or Mormons, the Watchtower or Waco, the People's Temple of
Jonestown, or Heaven's Gate in California, the theme of the coming Apocalypse
has been the leitmotif that has roused and animated the fervent spirits
of sundry portentous prophetic gurus who, like roosters, crow out into the
millennial dawn, rousing their willing herds of devoted followers.
The title of this paper, however, is "Sectarian Apocalypticism in Mainline Christianity." True, we can spend much of our time considering the preoccupation of the various cults with how the world will end. We can talk of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society's earthly Paradise. We can speak of the three heavens of Mormonism. We can ruminate about the late Herbert W. Armstrong's "plain truth about the world tomorrow." Or we can try to imagine the better world that Heavens Gate hoped to find when being whisked off by the flying saucer tagging along with the now famous comet Kahoutek. We can successfully point out that most of the cults have apocalyptic dispositions that have resulted in the stockpiling of weapons, retreats into wilderness forts, caves, shelters, and the like. The cults, however, are not the originators of the many and various cataclysmic scenarios describing how the world will end or the utopian dream worlds to follow. A closer look at the history of Apocalypticism and/or Millennialism reveals only too well that the cults are simply biting from the (usually Protestant) hand that feeds them. When one studies the life of Charles Taze Russell (18521916), he discovers the founder of the Jehovahs Witnesses to have had both Presbyterian and Congregational roots. Joseph Smith's (180544) family decided that they were Presbyterians even though the young Smith himself was not "predestined" to remain one. Calvinists also bear the responsibility for the back door loss of Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), the plagiarizing founder of Christian Science.
The goal of this paper will be to briefly examine Apocalypticisms checkered history, and in particular, the important developments of the nineteenth century and the current millennial ravings at the end of the twentieth century. Second, we will be alluding to millennialism as often, if not more frequently, than Apocalypticism. Millennialism provides the theological, historical, and philosophical, contexts through which Apocalypticism is to be understood. Many sects that conclude that the end of the world is immanent, invariably are in search of a millennial utopia to proceed, follow etc. We will go a step further and explore this in both its secular as well as sacred, political as well as religious domains. Therefore a quick review of the modern day millennial schools will follow. Third, and this is the main thesis of this paper, I will argue (as others of course have), that Millennialism is philosophically rooted in Gnosticism. The perennial Gnostic quest for an anthropocentric utopia has shaped numerous religious and secular eschatologies throughout history, and is certainly the underlying foundation of current mainline and evangelical Protestant Christian thought. I will also briefly argue that Gnosticism has ultimately led to Postmodernism, and that Postmodernism has proven to be Gnosticisms Achilles heal. Finally, a modest proposal will be made concerning how the Church may counter apocalyptic and millennial claims through an Apologetics that is consistently Trinitarian, catholic, evangelical (in the best sense), Christocentric, incarnational, ecclesiological, and sacramental.
The Millennial Schools
Millennial thinking is centered around the meaning of the text of Revelation 20:4 and the rest of the 20th chapter:
"And I saw thrones and they that sat upon them, and judgement was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years."
This chapter presents the only reference to
a thousand-year millennium in the whole of Scripture. Presently, meaning in
modern times, four schools of interpretation come forth from this reference in
the Bible to a thousand-year Millennium. What follows is a brief summary of
each. What does not follow, however, and perhaps should, is a Biblical exegesis
of the various Scriptural passages that support and critique the various views.
This is simply impossible within the present scope of this paper.. The schools
are summarized as follows: 1. Dispensational Premillenialism; 2.
Historic Premillennialism; 3. Postmillennialism; 4.
Amillennialism. A plethora of books have been written arguing for the truth of
each of these interpretations.
Dispensational Premillennialism This schools chief architect was John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), (below), one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren in England and early Ireland in the early nineteenth century. Darby, and company, maintained that God deals with humanity in seven distinct "Dispensations" or time periods in which He does something unique and different in each throughout history. They are as follows:
»1. The Time of Innocence (Gen. 1:18-3:6) the period prior to the Fall.
»2. Conscience and Responsibility (Gen. 4:1-8:14).
»3. Human Government (Gen. 8:15-11:32).
»4. Promise (Gen. 12:1 Ex. 18:27).
»5. The period of Law (Exodus 19:3 Acts 1:26).
»6. The Church Age (Acts 2:1 Revelation 19).
»7. The Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 20).
The key to Dispensationalism
is the unwavering belief that God has promised an earthly kingdom to ethnic
Israel, ruled by the coming Prince, who is Jesus. Because this kingdom was
offered and then refused by the Jews, it would be offered again in the future.
Perhaps most importantly, dispensationalists maintain that the kingdom of
God will be restored one day to ethnic Jews as the just fulfillment of the
Old Testament promises made to Abraham and his descendants. God had offered His
Kingdom to Israel in the Person of Christ. By crucifying Jesus, the Jews
rejected the Kingdom. In the meantime, Christ then went on to establish the
Church because Gentiles now believed what the Jews rejected. This parenthesis,
called the "Church Age" by Dispensationalists, (see #6 above), will culminate
at the so-called rapture of the Church. Here the Church is removed from the
world, and God now resumes His original offer and promise to Israel once again.
In the midst of a seven-year Tribulation, several cataclysmic events will take
place. The Great Tribulation begins; the Reign of Terror carried out by the
Antichrist ensues; A remnant of Israel (144,000
Revelation 7) are
faithful in proclaiming the Gospel; and a number of military battles take place
leading up to the great battle of Armageddon. Here, the armies of God defeat
the armies of the Devil and Christ sets up His thousand-year reign on
Historic Premillennialism This view, unlike the former, is not given to the proclivity of dividing history into several stages or periods. In this view, a seven-year tribulation will take place and then Christ will indeed return in glory and rule and reign for a thousand years, after which He slays the Antichrist and his evil minions. Satan is bound up during this thousand-year period and the Millennial kingdom ensues uninhibited by evil. Herein lies a utopia of complete social, political, and economic justice. After the thousand-year period, Satan is loosed for one final time in order to deceive any potentially unbelieving peoples or nations into making a one last-ditch effort at warring against Christ and his kingdom. After the final defeat of evil and unbelief, Satan will be cast into the Lake of Fire along with his evil demonic kingdom. Then Judgement Day comes for all, both believers and unbelievers. This view is also based upon the notion of a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:4.
Postmillennialism The name for this third view can be misleading as many of its proponents do not hold to a literal thousand-year Millennium. For Postmillennialists, the difference lies in the belief that Christ returns, not before the Millennium gets under way, but after it ensues. Some undetermined period of time goes by and then it comes to an end. At this time, the rapture of the church, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgement, and the establishment of Christs kingdom all take place. Many Postmillennialists argue that we are already in the time symbolized by the word "millennium." Thus Lorraine Boettner writes: "The millennium to which the postmillennialist looks forward is thus a golden age of spiritual prosperity during this present dispensation, that is, during the Church Age."
Amillennialism Like the postmillennialist view, Amillennialism, the position of our Church and the Church catholic, I think, dismisses the notion of a literal thousand-year millennium. But more importantly, Amillennialism maintains that the present reign of Christ began upon His Ascension and will be fully manifested at His Second Coming. It is sometimes called "realized millennialism," meaning that the period referred to in Revelation 20 is in the process of being realized in the life and history of the Church. In short, for amillennialists, we are in the last days now and Christs return will be the full manifestation of His glory. Amillennialism is the view held to by most Lutheran theologians today.
Brief History of Millennialism and Apocalypticism in Christianity
Millennial thought in mainline Christianity can be traced to three distinct periods 1 - The Early Church. 2 - The Reformation. 3 - The Enlightenment and post-critical era.
1. The Early Church - Millennialism has always had proponents in the history of the Christian Church. Some historians argue that the root of Millennial thought lies in the Jewish notion of the coming of a Messiah who will restore Israel to glory and set up a kingdom on earth where he would reign from Jerusalem. The main issues were whether Christ would return before the thousand-year millennium or after and precisely where the millennial kingdom would be established, in heaven, or on earth?
Even though some of the apostles apparently believed that the world was near its end, there is simply no trace of a literal thousand-year millennium in their thinking or writing with the exception of Revelation 20 [below]. Some passages have indeed been cited to argue a millennial interpretation of the end of the world. These include the sitting at table of the twelve patriarchs in the kingdom of heaven - Mt. 8:11; the drinking of the fruit of the vine - Mt. 26:29; and the eating of the Passover in the kingdom of God Luke 22:16.
The most notable proponents of Millennialism in the early Church were the Gnostic writers and the Montanists. However, there were some noted premillennialists among the orthodox. Figures such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus of Rome are examples of such. Origen was among the first thinkers to openly oppose Millennialism, dismissing the whole concept as a Jewish fable. St. Augustine is responsible for shaping the main view held to traditional catholic thought throughout the ages, namely, that the kingdom of God is the Church on earth.
The energies devoted to millennial fervor seemed to die once the relationship between the Church and the state changed and when Christianity itself became not only a recognized religion of the state, but the officially sanctioned religion. A number of Sociologists and Anthropologists today who study Millennialism posit that millennial cults thrive on four basic dynamics: 1. The promise of heaven on earth and soon. 2. The overthrow and reversal of the present social order! 3. A terrific release of energy! 4. The brief life span of the movement itself! To this, John Gager adds a fifth the central role of a messianic, prophetic, or charismatic leader.
2. The Reformation A second period in the history of Millennialism begins with the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The increased corruption in the papacy and its corresponding decline in power prompted the revival of the belief that the end was surely near. Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202) was probably the first pre-Reformation mystic to revive the belief that the Church had for too long conformed to this world. The corruption within the church and papacy could not possibly be concomitant with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Therefore there must be a future coming kingdom that is ontologically other than the kingdom of the Church on earth.
The Reformers certainly shared this expectation to some degree, but did not engage in the enthusiastic fantasies that the radical Anabaptists would embrace. Luther himself offered a firm disclaimer to Millennialism (he uses the older word "Chiliasm") in a sermon preached in 1539:
This false notion is lodged also in the Chiliasts, Valentinians, and Tertullians, who have played the fool with the idea that before Judgement Day the Christians alone will possess the earth. And that there will be no ungodly. And what moved them to harbor this idea is this, that the ungodly are so fortunate in the world, possess kingdoms and worldly authority, wisdom and power, while the Christians are of no account in comparison with them. So they thought: Surely all the ungodly will be rooted out so that the pious may live in peace.
Of course, Luthers
harsh judgement on the Book of Revelation is famous. He bluntly denied its
apostolic and canonical character as early as 1522 in the preface to his German
translation of the New Testament. This jaundiced view towards Revelation may
have been influenced by the celestial visions of the Schwarmer, who
appealed to Revelation to support their millennial utopias. The most visible
sect during the 16th century was the fanatics of Munster who in 1534 announced
visions, the immanence of the coming apocalypse, and the increase in prophetic
activity. They gathered weapons, goods, and openly advocated and practiced
polygamy. Their intention was to replace the Lutheran view of government and
the "two kingdoms" concept with a repressive theocracy.
By 1530, however, Luther underwent a notable change in his views concerning the Book of Revelation as he was in Coburg during the signing of the Augsburg Confession. Althaus points out that for Luther, the Book of Revelation was finally not an interpretation of the end of history, but a description of the Church. Apparently, Luther came to believe that the Millennium, as a period of time not a literal 1000 years, had come and gone, ending with the advance of the Turks and the realization that the papacy was indeed the very Antichrist.
Article XVII of the AC clearly states the Lutheran rejection of Millennialism
" . They also condemn others who are now spreading Jewish opinions to the effect that before the resurrection of the dead the godly will take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly suppressed everywhere."
It must be remembered that
the four different Millennial schools were not known their current names in the
early Church or at the time of the Reformation. Nomenclature such as
"Dispensationalism" or "Premillennialism" was simply not available until the
modern period, particularly after the developments of the 19th century. The
words "Chiliasm and "Millenarianism" were, of course, familiar to the reformers
of the 16th century. John Calvin (1509-1564) dismisses Millenarianism with a
single sweep of his pen: "Not long after arose the millenarians, who limited
the reign of Christ to a thousand years. Their fiction is too puerile to
Most Calvinists today are either postmillennialists or amillennialists. Calvinism, from Geneva to Massachusetts Bay to the present day theonomists, demonstrate repeatedly the Calvinist conviction that it is the Churchs mission to Christianize the world, (via the kingdom of the left) and that gradually a golden age of peace and prosperity will usher in the return of Christ. Only then will the final judgement and eternal reign in heaven occur. Calvins Theocracy in Geneva in the 16th century was a government, not of the state but of the Church directed by God. Everyone was obliged to attend worship. A Consistory of Church elders ran the town and there were strict laws concerning gambling, drinking, and fancy dress. Harsh penalties were meted out to those who resisted. Calvins utopic vision, however, proved to be a dismal failure, but Calvinists never stopped imagining the possibility of a Theocracy on earth. The transport of the Puritans to the New World was in many ways Geneva revisited. Massachusetts Bay Colony became the Puritans "errand in the wilderness" to portray to the Church of England how the Church ought to rightly conduct itself on earth. The Pilgrim neighbors to the South in Plymouth Bay wanted nothing to do with the old-world and its corruption. These saw America as the place to start over completely. Today, theonomists such as Gary North and J. R. Rushdoony (see the Journal of Christian Reconstruction) continue to advocate the Reformed conviction that it is the Churchs duty to Christianize this world and thereby usher in the glorious return of Christ to rule and reign in glory.
3. The Modern Period The middle of the eighteenth century proved to be most fertile ground for renewed apocalyptic and millennial activities. Bengels Commentary on Revelation (1740) renewed interests in the study of the Book of Revelation, particularly in pietistic churches. Millennialism was certainly a popular theme at this time in theosophical circles.
Then came the 19th century! Perhaps the Romantic era was the most visionary and utopic period in history. British clipper ships roaming the high seas searching for yonder worlds and far-off places was a common theme to the 19th century ethos. One of those journeys on a ship called the HMS Beagle brought a young would-be divinity student named Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands where he would begin work on a theory of evolution and "natural selection" that would revolutionize the world. Utopia would certainly take new directions!
Religious visionaries, however, never stopped imagining new ways to read the Bible and seek solace in a coming and future kingdom. In 1832, Edward Irving (1792-1834) and his Catholic Apostolic Church imagined the close proximity of a heavenly world and the return of Christ to establish it. John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren (1847) spearheaded the dispensationalist interpretation of the Bible. His ideas caught on like wildfire in America, particularly in revivalist meetings and amongst itinerant frontier evangelists. Apparently, however, Darby was not the originator of the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture. Both he and Irving were inspired by a woman named Margaret MacDonald who reported a revelation given her by God during a healing service in Port Glasgow, Scotland in 1830. Macdonald reported in her vision that there was a two-stage process to the Second Coming of Christ. This idea was embraced by both Darby and Irving and would be destined for much fuller development in many of the Bible Schools (Moody, Fuller, Dallas etc.) during the 20th century in the United States. As an aside, the modern day Church growth movement is busy teaching churches to find methods and ways to put bodies in pews on a Sunday morning. The Pre-tribulation rapture advocates are busy trying to figure out how and precisely when they are going to disappear.
America was and is the land of unbridled freedom of religious expression. No small amount of millennial fervor would preoccupy those who had come from Europe to seek it. In Salt Lake City, Utah, Brigham Young (1801-1877) led the band of Mormons and declared the Salt Lake Valley to be the new "Zion in the Wilderness." Mormonism, of course, is one of the most influential of homegrown religions in the world. In the article on Mormonism for the Dictionary of Cults published in 1993, we state:
If there was ever a story tantamount to the quintessential American melodrama, it is the story of the Mormon Church. That it is an interesting story is beyond doubt. That it is a significant story is beyond question. That it developed into what it is today is for many, beyond belief.
Perhaps the most notable and
significant American 19th century millennial portent was William Miller
(17421849). In 1836, Miller, a farmer from Low Hampton, New York
published his Evidence from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of
Christ. Possessing no formal theological training, Miller declared that he
had unraveled the mysteries of Daniel and Revelation and pinpointed 1843 as the
sure year for the return of Christ. In January of 1843, Miller became more
specific, announcing that the year between March 21st 1843 and March 21st, 1844
would be the time of the end. When March 21st came and went, Millers
disappointment was temporarily postponed when one of his followers pointed out
that according to Habakkuk 2:3, Miller
had forgotten to take into account the need for a "tarrying time" of 7 months
and 10 days. This brought the new date to October 22, 1844. The amount of
pamphleteering, the excitement, the press coverage, and the large following
surrounding Miller was simply amazing. When 1844 came and went, with no
apocalypse, there was utter disillusionment, anger, and many abandoned
Millers movement. This is known in America religious history as the Great
Disappointment. Those that remained would later be banded together as Seventh
Day Adventists, led by Ellen G. White (18271815). White told the
remaining remnant that Miller had failed because he did not teach a proper
observance of the Sabbath day.
Darwinism, Freudianism, Speculative Idealism, Marxism, and the advent of Biblical Criticism, all fertile activities of the nineteenth century European mind, paved the way for many to turn their backs on religious forms of utopia and the abandonment of a religious milieu for the quest for the better world. Apocalyptic fears and Millennial hopes were recast from the sacred to various secular paradigms amongst the learned and the "cultured despisers of religion."
Protestant liberals in the 19th century tried to retain a reworked religious version of Christianity. Schleiermacher (1768-34) relocated the essence of Christianity from the head to the heart and summarized Christianity as a "feeling of absolute dependence." Later in the 19th century, Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930) proffered that the essence of Christianity did not lie in its old-world "husk," namely its eschatological context. The utopic vision for Christianity is the removal of the old husk so as to get at the kernel, which, for Harnack and the older Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89), and liberal theology in general at the close of the nineteenth century, was Christianitys "value" to culture in its excellent program of ethics and morality. For Harnack, part of the old husk was in essence, a Christianity stripped of any of the old orthodoxys claims altogether. "The history of the Church has shown us that it was necessary that `primitive Christianity had to disappear in order that Christianity might remain." The Christianity that would remain for Harnack was not fixed doctrine or dogma, but the Gospel as "dynamic reality." Jesus awakens the consciousness of people in all ages. For Harnack, it should also be noted that this was a gospel of Jesus rather than a Gospel concerning Him. The Gospel of Jesus embraces three themes. One of them is eschatological and this is important to point out because Harnacks theology would have a profound effect on twentieth century liberal thinking. The three themes of the Gospel for Harnack were: "Firstly the kingdom of God and its coming. Secondly, God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul. Thirdly the higher righteousness and commandment to love." For our purposes, this emphasis recast Christianity and a concept of the millennium into a "my kingdom is exclusively of this world" mode.
An important historian, even if he was no friend to Christianity, was Franz Overbeck (1837-1905). A close friend of Nietzsche, Overbeck protested vehemently the idea that Christianity had now graduated into a wonderful and beneficial this-worldly religion. He maintained that Christianity is only to be understood correctly in its eschatological context. He even went on to say that Christianity becomes a form of paganism when it blends Christ with culture. Thus for Overbeck, Harnack was the high priest of unchristian and modern theology.
Ideas have consequences. 19th century thinking in most all of its forms had a tremendous influence on the 20th century. The Irvingites, Darbyites, Campbellites and revivalists of the 19th century on the one hand, passed on their ideas to the Fundamentalists and Evangelical movements of the 20th where apocalyptic and millennial themes became highly embellished. Schleiermacher, Hegel, Darwin, Harnack, Troeltsch, on the other hand, to name just a few, paved the way both academically and culturally for 20th century figures such as Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, Sartre. Contemporary theological themes included the Death of God, Existentialism, the Social Gospel, Marxist Liberation Theology, Positivism, Deconstructionism, and eventually, Postmodernism. All of these "isms had some important implications in the development of millennial thinking for modern man. We turn our attention to popular twentieth century forms of Millennialism and Apocalypticism in mainline Christianity.
Millennial communities blossomed and flourished in the twentieth century. The decade of the 1960's, with its leading utopic themes of counterculture and commune, resulted in revolt upon all mediating institutions, the Church included. Mainline Christian Churches were abandoned for cults, "non-denominational" denominations, and a renewed and vigorous individualism. Evangelical and fundamentalist mega-churches and para-church (the charismatic movement) ministries sprang up everywhere emphasizing the need for ones personal relationship with Jesus in spite of and even apart from the Church. The new birth was widely understood not in the context of baptism, but in terms of individual decision. Add to this the foment of the most turbulent decade of the century with the assassinations of two Kennedys, the gunning down of four students at Kent State, the murders of Malcomn X and Martin Luther King Jr., and the Vietnam, and Cold War with its accompanying fear of nuclear holocaust, etc.. These events set the tone for the feverish millennial impulses of the 1970s. End times themes filled pulpits, coffeehouses, books, tapes, and movies. The rapture was believed to be around the corner. Sermons pointing to the computer called "the Beast" in Brussels, Belgium, that was capable of assigning every man woman and child on earth an identification in three sets of six numbers each, or literally 6-6-6. The Antichrist was figured to be anyone from Henry Kissinger to the Shah of Iran. The papacy was but his able-bodied assistant. Then there was the painting of Christ knocking, not at the door, as in the Burne-Jones work, but upon the UN Building as if it were a door. Other artistic flare included depictions of cars falling off of bridges, an airplane suddenly without its raptured pilot, and bridges collapsing signaling the beginning of Armageddon. An impressive array of end times maps were readily available inspired by the margin notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. Of course there was, (and still is) the pontifications of Hal Lindsay in his best selling book - The Late Great Planet Earth, which today could just as well be titled Chicken Soup for the Millennial Soul.
There was no small amount of millennial fervor in the 1980s. In 1982, the planetary alignment known as the "Jupiter Effect" spurned yet another series of books, articles, sermons, and wide-eyed certainty in the Fundamentalist, Evangelical, and Pentecostal communities that this was indeed the time of the end. But 1982 gave way to 1983 and instead of the rapture of the Church came the "rap" music of generation "X." And then George Orwells 1984 came - and went!
When I was ordained in 1988, a book titled 88 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 88 was a best seller. In this instance, another evangelical enthusiast and NASA engineer, Edgar Whisenant decided he had figured right where so many others had gone wrong. Several of his followers made the news because they had sold their homes and partied on the proceeds lest the devil get the goods after the rapture. Theirs was an even "Greater Disappointment" than those who followed William Miller in the early 1840s, except of course, for the author, the recipient of handsome royalties that he did not, after all, have to turn over to the world.
John Lelands excellent article in Newsweek, Nov. 1 1999, very well sums up the 1990s version of Millennium madness. He writes of a modern day American Elijah who predicted that the year 2000 would usher in the end of the world. In the latter part of this century he led thousands of Americans to Jerusalem to await the return of Christ. Rev. Bobby Bible, a Los Angeles-based fundamentalist preacher, as late as December 31st, 1999 stood on the Mount of Olives with his followers proclaiming that the end was coming on January 1st. Leland noted that there were about 100 Christians living in the Mount of Olives, the very spot where they believe that the Bible says that Jesus will return to earth. In addition to Brother Elijah, and Rev. Bible, another American, called "Brother David, had been waiting in Jerusalem with 5 followers in an ecstatic prayer vigil because, as he reported to Newsweek, "I feel that the Lord is returning, and the millennium is to be the time of his coming." Israeli authorities, well aware of fundamentalist Christianitys preoccupation with the marriage between Zionism and Apocalypticism, have already expelled a number of these groups from their country.
According to a Newsweek pole, 18% of Americans expect the end of the world, or Armageddon, to come within their lifetime. Jerry Falwell has recently announced that the "Antichrist" is already among us. Earlier last year, Falwell distributed a packet known as "the Y2K Time Bomb," which included a video, A Christian Guide to the Millennium Bug. The package also included a "Family Readiness Checklist" admonishing people to stock up on such items as gardening utensils, Q-tips, and peanut butter and jelly. "Y2K is Gods instrument to shake this nation, to humble this nation," Falwell had said in a broadcast in 1998. Some prognosticators today have long since unseated Kissinger as the Antichrist in pop evangelical circles with Bill Gates. According to this version of things, the President of Microsoft has already caused a mark upon the forehead (your computer terminal), and a mark upon your right hand (the mouse). Hundreds of websites are now springing up describing various millennial scenarios. Many doomsdayers are no longer standing on street corners or on soapboxes warning passers by of the impending apocalypse, but they have retreated into cyber-space and the world-wide-web. Movies such as "The Omega Code" and Schwarzneggars "End of Days" are among few of the many more to come Hollywood versions of the Apocalypse.
On the other hand, J. Gordon Melton, reports that he is surprisingly disappointed that there have not been even more apocalyptic enthusiasts than are currently on the scene. "I expected to have a field day with millennial groups," he says. "And there was nothing." Ted Daniel, who runs the Millennial Center in Pennsylvania and keeps a close eye on doomsday cults explains, "Its the usual pattern. If youre a millenarian prophet, you have to keep people excited. But once the date gets closer, you back off." Indeed, a number of fundamentalist and evangelical writers backed off as January 1st, 2000 approached. Rev. Ralph Moats had relocated from California to Montana in 1992 to prepare for doomsday. He calls his sect the "End Times Harvest Church." Just last month Moats said that he believed that January 1st would be just another New Years Eve.
Other evangelical writers besides Falwell and Moats who previously had prophesized and profited from peoples millennial expectations include Toronto-based minister Grant R. Jeffery, author of The Millennium Meltdown and Armageddon: Earths Last Days. Just prior to the New Year, Jeffrey adjusted his predictions, expecting them to unfold "only distantly." But apparently not too distantly. "Its not a January problem," Jeffrey declares. "It will manifest itself throughout the year, like maybe in March or April or May, or even later." Damian Thompson, author of The End of Time: Faith and Fear in the Shadow of the Millennium maintains that "people who last year became excited about the millennium bug are suddenly saying, `I never said that. It was him, not me." One year ago, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, both evangelical leaders sold more than 10 million copies of their thriller titled Left Behind which prophesied global upheaval on January 1, 2000. "The Y2K bug could trigger financial meltdown," their website warned, making it possible for the Antichrist or his emissaries to dominate the world commercially until it is destroyed." Now Jenkins and LaHaye are backing down and claiming that "We dont think it relates to Y2K at all. We are bemused by people who do."
Nevertheless, for many evangelicals, the apocalypse is indeed around the corner. It is still coming. But more and more backed off in the final weeks before the advent of 2000. Some dispensationalists have calculated that the year 2007 will trigger the end because that will mark the end of the seven-year Tribulation. Others look ahead to 2033, counting from Christs death rather than His birth.
Here is a prediction of my own. Those who have considered the number 2000 to be a magical and spiritually significant number relative to the birth of Christ, should have gotten more excited in 1996, the most likely year marking the two thousand years since the birth of Christ. A second error has been the mistake of considering the year 2000 as the year marking the New Millennium. This is false! The New Millennium begins on January 1, 2001. More than likely, what will take place this year is that many who have portended the time of the end for the year 2000 will suddenly discover that the real moment of truth will be January 1, 2001.
The Effects of Gnosticism in Christianity and Millennial Thought
Evangelicals, Protestant Liberals etc. have certainly steered away from Fundamentalist extremism and Biblical literalism. But they have not remained untainted. Some form of Apocalypticism, utopia, millennial impulses, or visions for the future seem to have had their effects on much of Christendom. Most of us here who passed through these hallowed halls and were schooled on Pieper's Christian Dogmatics remember well the Reformed dictum finitum non est capax infiniti - "the finite cannot comprehend the infinite." We also remember Piepers graciousness towards the Reformed by his willingness to grant the famous - "felicitous inconsistency" with respect, particularly to Reformed doctrine concerning Christology and the Sacraments. In other words, they end up getting some of the important things right in spite of themselves. They also, however, end up getting some important things wrong. One of these is the doctrine of the Church. This is echoed in the title of an early book written by Carl F. H. Henry, perhaps the leading Systematician of evangelicalism. Henrys book is titled Evangelicals in Search of an Identity (1976). In essence, he and numerous other evangelicals lament that the doctrine of the Church is the missing link in evangelical circles. While evangelicals understand the essential message of redemption and almost sound Lutheran when expounding on justification, by (unconsciously "felicitously") rejecting or at least failing to understand the Chalcedonian Christology of the Church, they (more consciously) dismiss the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacraments outright. In this regard, the distinctions "liberal" or "conservative" bear little meaning. This removal of catholic Christology from the Reformed Protestant world would have profound effects for the entire history of Protestantism both conservative and liberal. We perhaps are already well acquainted with many evangelical and conservative reformed postures concerning the "pious" dismissal of the Real Presence of Christ in the sacraments. I include for your listening pleasure one example from one of the great liberal Protestant theologians of this century, Reinhold Niebhur (1892-1971) to demonstrate that Protestants of all stripes basically arrive at the same conclusion. Niebuhr writes excerpts in a diary he kept while he served as a pastor of a small Protestant congregation in Detroit in the early part of the 20th century:
Visited old Mrs. G. today and gave her communion. This was my first experience with communion at the sick bed.
II think there is a good deal of superstition connected with the rite . Yet I will not be too critical. If the rite suggests and expresses the emotion of honest contrition it is more than superstition.
But that is the difficulty of acting as priest . Whether it is a blessing or a bit of superstition rests altogether with the recipient.
I must admit that I am losing some of my aversion to the sacraments cultivated in my seminary days. There is something very beautiful about parents bringing their child to the altar with a prayer of thanksgiving and as an act of dedication . Incidentally Mrs. G gave me a shock this afternoon. After the service was completed she fished around under her pillow and brought forth a five dollar bill. That was to pay me for my trouble. I never knew this fee business still existed in such a form in Protestantism.
The concept of the kingdom
of God as Christs Church manifesting Christs presence in earthen
vessels of water, bread and wine is firmly rejected in the greater world of
Protestantism. And therefore, the forgiveness of sins bestowed by the Church
through Word and Sacrament is not understood nor believed to be the goal of the
Kingdom of God in this world. Moral improvement (Postmillennialism and
Protestant liberalism), or rapture and escape (Dispensational Premillennialism
and Fundamentalism), a this-worldly political kingdom (Marxism, Capitalism
etc.), all become the much-sought-after utopias lying outside of the Church.
The heart of the matter today is the same as it was when Luther battled with
Zwingli in 1529. Zwinglis theology was rooted in Gnosticism.
Luthers refusal to give him the "right hand of fellowship" following the
debate was because Zwinglis essentially Gnostic thinking did not effect
just his doctrine of the Lords Supper, but every other
doctrine, particularly and most basically how every other doctrine would be
effected by his Christology. Luthers conclusion had far-reaching
implications for today. Christology and Second Article theology in general is
missing from the general concept of spirituality in the 20th century. In the
interest of ecumenical relations, Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner
introduced the concept of "anonymous Christians" to describe those who have not
heard the Gospel and embrace it unconsciously within their own religion, be it
Buddhism, Islam etc. John Hick, in the interests of ecumenism, has emphasized
that First Article theology, rather than Second, should be the bridge over the
troubling implications of the classic Christian claim of the exclusivity of
Christ as the sole means of salvation. Hicks books title is telling
The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Towards a Pluralistic Theology of
The word "spirituality" has come into widespread usage in the last 30 years. It has found a home in nearly every form of religious expression. The New Age Movement, Wicca, neo-paganism, multiculturalism, Hinduism, and nearly every "ism" under the sun can "connect with" or "center" on "spirituality." But a thoroughgoing Gnostic divorce has taken place between Christology and spirituality, even unawaringly (and not so "felicitously" amongst todays version(s) of Reformed theology Evangelicalism, Catholic mysticism, and the like). One should not be surprised therefore to hear the "modern spiritual life" described in the following ways:
Marcus Borg, professor of Religious Studies, Oregon State University:
"God is not a supernatural being off in the distance somewhere. God, or the sacred, or the spirit is the encompassing spirit all around us and within us.
The central claim is that the Christian life is about the opening of the self at the deepest level to the sacred . Spirituality is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a relationship with the sacred, acting compassionate toward others. Conscious and intentional because we are already in relationship with God."
Borg continues in a recent book:
"[Our] images of God affect how we think of the Christian life. Rather than God being a distant being with whom we might spend eternity, Spiritthe sacred, is right here. Rather than God being the lawgiver and judge, whose requirements must be met and whose justice must be satisfied, God is the lover who yearns to be in relationship to us. Rather than sin and guilt being the central dynamic of the Christian life, the central dynamic becomes relationship with God, the world, and each other. The Christian life is about turning toward and entering into relationship with the one who is already in relationship with us with the one who gave us life, who has loved us from the beginning, and who loves us whether we know that or not, who journeys with us whether we know that or not."
Robert McAfee Brown takes a stab at defining spirituality:
"Spirituality is a state of being, frequently approached through spiritual exercised and acts of discipline that put people in touch with realities, or a Reality, not discernible in ordinary experience. Deepening a relation to that reality is what life is all about."
Brother David Steindl Rast muses:
Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that spirituality is separate department of life, the penthouse of our existence. But rightly understood, it is a vital awareness that pervades all realms of our being. Someone will say, "I come alive when I listen to music," or "I come to life when I garden," or "I come alive when I play golf." Wherever we come alive, that is the area in which we are spiritual. And then we can say, I know at least how one is spiritual in that area. To be vital, awake, aware, in all areas of our lives, is the task that is never accomplished, but it remains the goal."
Or consider Carol Flakes ruminations:
Spiritual experience and development manifest as a deep connection to self and others, a sense of meaning and purpose in daily life, an experience of the wholeness and interdependence of life, a respite from the frenetic activity, pressure and over-stimulation of contemporary life, the fullness of creative experience, and a profound respect for the numinous mystery of life. One of the functions of education is to help individuals become aware of the connectedness of all life. Fundamental to this awareness of wholeness and connectedness is the ethic expressed in all of the worlds great traditions. "What I do to others, I do to myself."
Andres G. Nino adds:
" how people actually bind together experiences and events in an overarching construction of meaning and purpose with a sense of transcendence.
I call this subjective experience
spiritual quest, a time-honored term used
as a framework for
listening to personal narratives. The term facilitates the exploration of a
persons formulation, negotiation, and resolution of spiritual concerns
that emerge from a common ground of normal experience. The underlying activity
is not a traditional state of doubt or conflict, but a striving that extends
over the life-cycle.
A careful reading of these should lead an orthodox Lutheran to ask a fundamental question. Where is the Gospel? Where is Jesus Christ in any of this? Where is the Pauline exclamation "I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified?" (I Cor. 2:2). "Spirituality" in the above quotes knows nothing of Incarnation or God "manifested in the flesh" (I Tim. 3:16) and, for that matter all three articles of the Creeds? The Holy Trinity plays little of no role in the formulation of human conceptualizing of what constitutes spirituality in many theological circles today. The World Council of Churches held a conference several years ago gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota around the theme of "RE-imagining the Divine." Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson note that at the Sunday morning service of the conference, participants "explicitly worshipped Sophia, identified as the female face of the human psyche." During the ceremony, using milk and honey (as sacraments?) a prayer was offered:
Our maker Sophia, we are women in your image: With the hot blood of our wombs we give form to new life. With the courage of our convictions we pour out lifeblood for justice. Sophia, creator God, let your milk and honey flow . Our sweet Sophia, we are women in your image: with nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child; with our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations . Our guide, Sophia, we are women in your image. With our moist mouths we kiss away a tear, we smile encouragement. With the honey of wisdom in our mouths, we prophesy a full humanity to all peoples.
It is not unsafe to say that
the neo-paganism of our times is not unlike the paganism that the Church
encountered in the first four centuries. It comes today in the guise of a new
"spirituality" that has insidiously crept into university divinity schools and
churches and has become a formidable presence in the marketplace of ideas or in
what Richard Neuhaus calls the "naked public square." The new spirituality is
simply a new form of the old Gnosticism.
One may surmise that we have strayed a bit off-course from the original point, Apocalypticism, Millennialism, and utopia in mainline Christianity. Not at all! We were referring previously to Luthers refusal to shake Zwinglis hand at the conclusion of the Marburg Colloquy. If orthodox Christology was lost to the Reformed and therefore a consequent loss of an understanding of the Church and sacraments etc., what then concerning eschatology today? Should we even be surprised that Gnosticism would be influential in forming ideas that have little to do with the Church as Gods Kingdom wherein lies the "one true faith?"
The Millennial fever that both sects and denominations have today succumbed to is rooted in a dis-ease of a more primal nature. Millennialism has its roots theologically, philosophically, and historically, in Gnosticism. Thomas Molnar writes: "The utopian tendency in man's mind is very strong and appears in almost every age." The opening words of Scripture, "In the beginning God created..." tell of the faithful marriage of God to His beloved creation with man as His crowning jewel. But when the serpent uttered the fatal question "Yea, hath God said?" and when the forbidden fruit was eaten, unholy knowledge (gnosis), sin, and the loss of Eden resulted. How to regain that which was lost has been mans quest ever since. From the time of the Tower of Babel to the babblings and musings of philosophers, sages, poets and worldly wise men throughout history to the present day, there have been long and well chronicled accounts of mans feeble attempts to bridge the gap between himself and God through knowledge.
Ted MacAllister in his outstanding book Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Vogelin and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order points out that Gnosticism is a belief in the power of knowledge to transform reality and thereby create an earthly perfection. Is it not Millennialism in its various forms that contends that God is preparing a better world tomorrow or a this-worldly paradise regained? Somehow or other the present world in which we live is filled with pain, imperfection and evil, and life is, as Thomas Hobbes noted, "cruel, miserable, brutish, and short."
For unbelieving Gnostics, the "problem of evil" is not resolved in the sacred knowledge and proclamation of Gods Word, the historical event of Christ crucified, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Church. Kant convinced many that this sacred knowledge was "noumena" and epistemologically inaccessible if not totally unavailable. The problem is resolved in looking to human knowledge and the autonomy of human reason. Reason will ultimately bridge the gap between what "is" and what "ought to be." For Kant, religion is to be discovered "within the limits of reason alone." Kant would conclude that the essence of religion is "the moral law within." Man is obligated to obey this "categorical imperative." This is merely another form of utopianism.
Utopians also long ultimately for a "better place" in social structures and mediating institutions of society - chiefly government. Politics and social engineering are the appointed means of carrying out their various visions. The "better place" theme appears throughout the history of philosophy.
Three major forms of Gnostic Idealism have emerged in the history of Philosophy, namely, Platonism, Bishop Berkeleys Phenomenalism, and Hegelianism. Platonic and new-Platonic idealism laid the groundwork for the highly developed Gnostic ideas of Plotinus, Valentius, and Marcion. Any student studying Philosophy on an "Intro" level quickly learns of Platos cave, and his ordering of reality into a hierarchical arrangement whereby matter is differentiated from spirit. For Plato, matter is illusory and "particulars" or objects in the world are mere copies of their perfect counterparts in the world of the Forms or ideas!" The enlightened ones, or the ones who possess true wisdom and knowledge (gnosis) have been unshackled from the chains of ignorance, have emerged from the cave, and have moved on to the world of pure "ideas." Plato envisioned a polis (city-state), or utopia governed by "philosopher kings." Platonism proved an important influence on St. Augustine as some studies have indicated. Christianity, of course, played a far more influential role on the greatest of the western fathers.
George Berkeley (1685-1753) proposed a system of Idealism, often called Phenomenalism, that posited that the mind (consciousness) alone is "real." In short, if there are no minds, there is no matter. Berkeley was attempting to defend Christianity against the skepticism of David Hume. But the good bishop was unwarily under the influence of Gnosticism, so much so, that the very idea of anything else existing BUT knowledge and the perceiving mind was untenable.
G.F.W. Hegel envisioned history as a live process or series of movements or unfoldings. These movements lie contrary to one another, resulting in the condition Hegel calls "Alienation." What "is" and what "ought to be" are not one and the same. What "ought to be" is a state of being whereby Alienation gives way to the Hegelian heaven known as the "Absolute" or Pure Rationality. For Hegel this unfolding is a development that will bring an end to history as we know it so that utopia will emerge.
Karl Marx, Hegelian to the core, was not so idealistic, however. His radical program to interpret history as the dialectic of class warfare and political struggle had as its unfolding a this-worldly utopia. The quest for utopia divorced from Gods revelation of His kingdom and Church on earth leads to the manufactured earthly or heavenly kingdoms derived from human reason. Molnar clearly understood this:
We may speak of heresy in its strict sense only in the case of utopians who admit to religious beliefs; but in reality, all utopians follow the same pattern: the liberation of man from heteronomy, from the guidance and providence of a personal God, in the name of autonomy, of moral self-government. But since this would lead immediately to anarchy, the emancipated individual is necessarily plunged by the utopian into the collectivity which will assume his guidance and provide for him.
But is not America, with its rigorous commitment to battling the evil ways of communism and spreading its own version of utopia on earth, democracy and capitalism, also filled with a "this-worldly" and political vision of utopia? One need only think of the themes of some of the administrations in just this century alone. Roosevelt's "New Deal," Kennedy's "New Frontier," Johnson's "Great Society," Bush's "New World Order," and Clinton's "Bridge to the Future" all bespeak the constant refrain of the better place motif so strongly resonating in human consciousness. Harold Bloom, author of the more famous book, The Closing of the American Mind, contends in his less famous, but more important The American Religion (1992) that the real religion of America is not Christianity. He argues, quite convincingly, that it is Gnosticism!
As Americans, we are obsessed also with information, and we regard religion as the most vital aspect of information. I reflect that Gnosticism was (and is) a kind of information theory . Information becomes the emblem of salvation; the false Creation-Fall concerned matter and Energy, but the Pleroma or Fullness, the original Abyss, is all information. What they [Americans] actually seek to restore is not the church of the first Christians, but the primal Abyss, named by the ancient Gnostics as both our foremother and our forefather. Our national millenarianism, so pervasive in the nineteenth century, and still tempestuous among Fundamentalists and Pentecostals, associates itself with the books of Daniel and Revelation and leads to our crusading wars and unwholesome fantasies . Only a Gnostic reading of the Bible can make us into the land of Promise. The new irony of American history is that we fight now to make the world safe for Gnosticism, our sense of religion. [emphasis mine] Yet Gnosticism, if we are to consider it a religion, or at least a spiritual stance, is anything but nihilistic or hopeless, which may be why it is now, and always has been, the hidden Religion of the United States, the American Religion proper.[emphasis mine]
Perhaps there is no better
illustration of the force of Gnosticism than the twentieth century and largely
American preoccupation with the fast-paced progress of Science, Scientism,
Physics, and technology. Science is indeed Gnosticisms sacred text. For
many it provides the only source of authentic knowledge. Only that which
can be subsumed under the rubric of the "scientific method" is knowable. For
Scientism and Positivism, reality is reduced to "phenomena," matter in motion,
observable, measurable. etc. Quantum Physics has additionally attempted to
demonstrate that all matter is in constant flux. All things outside of science,
like morality, ethics, religious "truths," etc. are therefore also outside the
bounds of epistemological certainty, unknowable, and hence purely subjective.
Science, therefore, is to be hailed as the new and true way to salvation.
Gnosticism has nearly come of age as its essence is the belief in the power of
knowledge to transform reality. Technology provides the means for knowledge to
increase and along with it, the power to discover more information and more
knowledge. Christianity has no place in this new metaphysics. According to Eric
Voegelin, Christianity has been displaced in two phases. It has been
"despiritualized and respiritualized." For once positivism "destroyed"
Judeo-Christian consciousness, individuals were now open to
"respiritualization" from non-Christian sources. The new "spirituality"
includes such ideologies as Humanism, Scientism, New Age spirituality,
Multiculturalism, Neo-paganism, Biologism, Psychologism, spin politics and the
We have seen the steady disintegration of the worldly utopia of Marxism in recent decades. We have also witnessed an epistemological disintegration of Gnosticism in the latter half of the 20th century. St. Paul wrote long ago for Timothy as a young pastor to "instruct those that oppose themselves" (II Tim. 2:25). Notice that Paul says to instruct those that oppose not Timothy or Christianity, but themselves. All systems of unbelief gradually reveal their false foundations and utter hollowness. Gnosticisms creed has always been the contention that knowledge is the key to the utopia that man so earnestly desires. But knowledge that is not founded upon the Truth of Gods Word is a "knowledge" that will eventually culminate in both logical contradiction and solipsistic collapse. Scripture declares that the "fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 7:1). And it is the only basis upon which one may build a knowledge that "will not pass away."
Postmodernism is Gnosticisms creed turned on itself. Gnosticisms quest has been a search for meaning and utopia through knowledge. Its long journey has brought it to the nihilistic conclusion that there is no meaning. Richard Tarnas sums up for us the essence of the postmodern mind:
What is called postmodern varies considerably according to context, but in its most general and widespread form, the postmodern mind may be viewed as an open-ended, indeterminate set of attitudes that has been shaped by a great diversity of intellectual cultural currents; these range from pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, to feminism, hermeneutics, deconstruction . Out of this maelstrom a few widely shared working principles have emerged. There is an appreciation of the plasticity and constant change of reality and knowledge, a stress on the priority of concrete experience over fixed abstract principles, and a conviction that no single a priori thought system should govern belief or investigation . The critical search for truth is constrained to be tolerant of ambiguity and pluralism, and its outcome will necessarily be knowledge that is relative and fallible rather than absolute or certain. Hence the quest for knowledge must be endlessly self-revising.
For postmodernism, truth is not to be
discovered or encountered nor is it something revealed but rather is created by
the present subject. Language is merely a mode of discourse or a narrative
shaped by the immediate context of the participant. Hermeneutical principles
contextualize meaning and language certainly does not render or refer to
anything as "meaningful" or "true." Language is but a mode of power.
But herein lies the ultimate contradiction. If nothing is true or meaningful, then how can anything that the postmodernist says about meaninglessness be true either? Why is power to be preferred over weakness? To desire power means that one finds meaning in being more powerful than someone else. As a matter of fact, how can a postmodernist or a relativist say much of anything at all? How then can they entertain any notion of utopias, for that presupposes meaning from the outset? The search for meaning, millennium, and utopia, finally arrives at the ultimate conclusion that there is no meaning to be discovered anywhere. Solomon anticipated this centuries ago "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes). St. Paul anticipated this when he told Timothy to "instruct those that oppose themselves" (above). Christianity has something to proclaim to an unbelieving world, and a basis upon which to proclaim it.
Dénouement: The Church as Gods Kingdom on Earth and Future Glory!
There is no better way to combat Gnosticism, especially as it has run its weary course, than to declare that God has already established His kingdom (utopia if you will), on earth. It lies, not in millennial dream worlds or the various political infrastructures of the kingdom on the left. It is His Kingdom and it is indeed His glorious bride, the Church! The Apostles Creed embodies this central truth. Article 1 speaks of Gods Creation of the world, and contra Gnosticism, Scripture declares "And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1). Article II of the Churchs Creed proclaims the Gospel in the Person and work of Jesus Christ who became flesh to redeem the world. Francis Pieper reminds us that:
" the Gloria in excelsis of the angels sounds forth its glad message, "Peace on earth," not in some future millennial kingdom, but at the birth of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel at that event, and that Christ says not of the citizens of a future millennial kingdom, but of all who believe the Gospel: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you" - John 14:27.
Article III of the Creed
declares the Holy Spirit and the one holy catholic and Apostolic Church to be
where the very communion of saints takes place. It is the one central activity
of the Church to bestow the forgiveness of sins to this very communion of
saints and not to an invisible disincarnate "church" in some spiritual or
invisible existence known only through Gnostic insights and visions of some
future longing. I relate an anecdote that illustrates this truth. The Vice
President of Student Affairs at Boston College (Roman Catholic) came to visit
one Sunday morning and worshipped with us. At the conclusion of the service I
asked him what his impression was of Lutheran worship and the liturgy. His
remark was telling. "You Lutherans are certainly enamored with the forgiveness
of sins." "Yes, indeed!" was my response. Whether he meant it as compliment or
criticism is, of course, beside the point. From Invocation to Benediction, the
liturgy proclaims the work of Christs Church on earth, to proclaim the
Gospel through Gods divinely appointed Means of Grace - Word and
Sacrament. From the Confession to the Creed and the Prayers, the Lords
Supper and the singing of the Agnus Dei, the Church proclaims to the
world that God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit bestows the forgiveness of
sins. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and there is the "peace
which passeth all understanding," including the fallen understanding of the
Gnostics who are forever looking for their utopia not in forgiveness, but in
knowledge and a peace which does think that it understands.
Here is where a thoroughly sacramental theology must play a part in Apologetics. To dismiss the sacraments as mere symbols places the power to combat unbelief in words that have no physical reference point, but only a "spiritual" (whatever that means) one. Words then become the tool of Gnosticism and thus lead to a "verbal advantage" for those who would exchange their physical reference for a disembodied spiritual one. A non-sacramental theology leads to a spirituality that has no relationship to the Holy Trinity, creation, and the communion of saints/sinners gathered around it through Word and sacrament. Hence we are back to spiritualizing and right back to the "finite not comprehending the infinite" i.e. the divorce of Creation and reality from spirituality and knowledge. Christianity has always and must always oppose this separation.
The Church is the very embodiment of Christs kingdom and Christs Person and work on earth. Earth, however, is not the Churchs final destiny. A this-worldly reign of Christ, which is the essential hope of the Millennialists, "misdirects and thus destroys the true Christian hope, which looks for that wonderful glory of heaven (Phil. 3:20-21; I Cor. 1:6-8) into which the Church militant shall be gathered at Christs second coming (Mt. 25:34; 5:3, 10-12). Until that time, we undergo the trials and tribulations that Scripture declares that we will suffer. Whatever the apocalypse that we must face in this life, Luthers Ein feste burg proclaims triumphantly that even though "The old evil foe now means deadly woe," and even though "with might of ours can nought be done," and even though "devils all the world should fill," we confess that "one little Word can fell him," and that " for us fights the Valiant One whom God Himself elected." And therefore, "the kingdom ours remaineth."
Rev. Larry Nichols is pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Greenville, Rhode Island and is the co-author of the book "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult".
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