Friday, September 22, 2017

Dispensational Premillennialism and the Westminster Standards Part 2

Bible Presbyterianism and the Westminster Standards

The Westminster Standards are, indeed, very specific about issues pertaining to eschatology. We shall now look at the Westminster Confession of Faith once again, particularly chapter XXXIII paragraph 1. Among the chapters of the Confession of Faith which were emended by the Bible Presbyterians, it is notable that an emendation was added to chapter XXXIII paragraph 1. According to Jeffrey Khoo, the emendation was written as follows:

“God hath appointed a day (which word in Scripture in reference to the last things may represent a period of time including the thousand years following the visible, personal and premillennial return of Christ), wherein he will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil [words in italics added by the Bible-Presbyterian Church].[1]

Concerning the emendations to the Confession, Battle further elucidates that, “A committee was appointed to suggest amendments to the [Bible Presbyterian] church’s constitution, consisting of Carl McIntire, J. U. Selwyn Toms, and H. McAllister Griffiths. When the first General Synod of the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC) met in September 1938, it adopted the recommended changes. The only changes made in the doctrinal standards were in the Confession of Faith and the Larger Catechism. Many individual parts of the standards were affected. The following changes, made in the Confession, are typical (deletions are lined out; additions are in italics):

Chapter 32, Of the State of Man After Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead

“2. At the last day return of the Lord Jesus, such living persons as are found alive in him shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead in Christ shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls for ever.”

“3. The bodies of the unjust shall, after Christ has reigned on earth a thousand years by the power of Christ, be raised by the power of God to dishonor; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit unto honor, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.”

Chapter 33, Of the Last Judgment Things

“1. God hath appointed a day (which day in Scripture in reference to the last things may represent a period of time including the thousand years following the visible, personal and pre-millennial return of Christ) wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ . . . .”[2]

From our study of the Larger Catechism,[3] it has been established that premillennialism, particularly Dispensationalism, is apparently incompatible with the Westminster Standards. Taken together with the Larger Catechism, it is difficult to understand the Confession as expounding two distinct judgments: an earlier judgment for the church before the Judgment Seat of Christ, and a later one after the millennium i.e. the Great White Throne Judgment. The Westminster Standards also oppose any understanding of the Second Advent of Christ as constituting two separate events. According to dispensational premillennialism, there is a secret coming of Christ for His church, and a visible, glorious return of Christ with His church before the millennium. In addition, the dispensationalist postulates at least three judgments and three resurrections.

The teachings of the Westminster Larger Catechism cannot be divorced from the Confession of Faith. The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms, as well as the Confession of Faith, form an integral unit comprising the Standards of the Westminster Assembly. Thus, the Catechisms and the Confession of Faith must be studied together, and not apart from each other. W. Robert Godfrey relates to us that the Larger Catechism was intended to contain a more comprehensive enunciation of the Confession of Faith:

“On January 14, 1647, the [Westminster] Assembly had adopted a motion “that the committee for the Catechism do prepare a draught of two Catechisms, one more large and another more brief, in which they are to have an eye to the Confession of Faith, and to the matter of the Catechism already begun.” George Gillespie observed that the Larger Catechism would be “for those of understanding” while other Scottish Commissioners referred to it as “one more exact and comprehensive.” . . . Clearly the Larger Catechism was intended for the more mature in the faith.”[4]

Frederick W. Loetscher goes further, and states that “[the Larger Catechism is] chiefly designed as an adaptation of the [Westminster] Confession to the didactic functions of the preacher and pastor.”[5] It is clear that the Larger Catechism serves as a detailed and exact description of the doctrines set out in the Confession of Faith. In fact, it provides a manual of systematic theology for the Reformed pastor and teacher. Thomas Torrance concurs, “The Larger Catechism was designed chiefly as a directory for ministers in their teaching of the reformed faith Sunday by Sunday.”[6]

How, then, can a self-professed Reformed minister teach a system of eschatology that contradicts the Westminster Standards?[7] Can a Reformed church add an emendation to the Confession of Faith, which unashamedly contradicts the original statements of the Larger Catechism, and yet claim to be theologically consistent and Reformed? Apparently, the sine qua non of Dispensationalism has become the “directory” for Bible Presbyterian ministers in their teaching of Dispensationalism “Sunday by Sunday.” It, therefore, appears to be an enigma why Dr Khoo has failed to address the obvious contradictions between the Bible Presbyterians’ emendations of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the original statements of the Larger Catechism.

The enigma resolves when we realize that the Larger Catechism is, likewise, emended by the Bible Presbyterian Church to accommodate premillennialism.[8] The emendations seem to be an inevitable consequence of attempts to rectify contradictions between the Larger Catechism and the Confession. Changes made in the Larger Catechism are as follows (deletions are lined out; additions are in italics):

Q. 87. What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?

A. We are to believe, that at the Last Day there shall be a general resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust: when they when Jesus Christ returns the just that are then found alive shall in a moment be changed; and the self-same bodies of the dead in Christ which are laid in the grave, being then again united to their souls forever, shall be raised up by the power of Christ. The bodies of the just, by the Spirit of Christ, and by virtue of his resurrection as their head, shall be raised in power, spiritual, and incorruptible, and made like to his glorious body in the first resurrection. The bodies of the wicked shall, after a thousand years, be raised up in dishonour by him, as an offended judge in the second resurrection.

Q. 88. What shall immediately follow after the resurrection?

A. Immediately after the second resurrection shall follow the general and final judgment of men and angels, the day and hour whereof no man knoweth, that all may watch and pray, and be ever ready for the coming of the Lord the destruction of the earth by fire, and the ushering in of the new heaven and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.

Q. 89. What shall be done to the wicked at the day of judgment?

A. At the day of judgment After their resurrection, the wicked shall be set on Christ’s left hand shall be judged, and, upon clear evidence, and full conviction of their own consciences, shall have the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them; and thereupon shall be cast out from the favourable presence of God, and the glorious fellowship with Christ, his saints, and all his holy angels, into hell, to be punished with unspeakable torments, both of body and soul, with the devil and his angels for ever.

Q. 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?

A. At the day of judgment After the resurrection, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds; shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted; shall join with him in the millennial reign, and the judging of reprobate men and angels; and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and for ever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys; made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.[9]

It is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter XXXIII paragraph 1, that “God hath appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world”. Despite the didactic, non-symbolical language of the Confession of Faith, it is plain that Dr Khoo does not understand “a day” to mean a literal day.[10] But in his reiteration of David Cooper’s “golden rule,” Dr Khoo writes:

“In our study of the Bible, it is important that we observe this basic rule of interpretation: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense” (David Cooper). Unless there are compelling contextual reasons against taking a word in its literal sense, we should understand a word in its most natural or common sense. Thus, 1,000 years means literally 1,000 years. Israel means Israel, and Church means Church. There is a distinction between Israel and the Church.”[11]

Ironically Dr Khoo, who insists on a consistently literal hermeneutics, does not understand “a day” to mean a day. This self-professed literalist understands neither the “last trump” (1 Cor. 15:52) as being the last, nor the first resurrection (Rev. 20:5-6) as being the first. Despite the fact that there are no “compelling contextual reasons against taking a word in its literal sense,” Khoo understands “a day” in the Confession of Faith to mean a period of time of more than one thousand years. Moreover, he interprets the “last trump” as not being the last, and the “first resurrection” as not being the chronological first. Yet he demands that “Israel means Israel, and Church means Church.”

Commenting on the rebirth of Israel as a nation, Timothy Tow quotes from Isaiah 11:11-12:

“This is “the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.’”[12]

Dispensationalists and Bible Presbyterians understand that this passage in Isaiah prophesizes the future regathering of Jews from all the corners of the earth, namely Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar and Hamath. Commenting on this text (Isa. 11:11-12), Martin writes,

“In verses 11-16 Isaiah spoke of the Lord’s gathering the people of Israel and Judah from all over the world. . . . The remnant will be drawn by God from the north (Hamath), south (Egypt and Cush), east (Assyria... Elam... Babylonia) and west (islands of the sea)-from the four quarters of the earth. Both Israel and Judah will be regathered (v. 12; cf. Jer. 31:31-34).”[13]

In the immediate context of this passage whereby “Israel” is to be understood literally according to Dispensationalism and Bible Presbyterianism, there is no hermeneutical reason to interpret the other ancient cities figuratively or allegorically. Using the consistently literal hermeneutics of Dr Khoo, one must understand “Assyria” as a literal country called Assyria, “Pathros” as literally Pathros, and “Cush” as Cush. Is it not true, then, that the countries of Assyria, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar and Hamath must be reborn before Israel can be regathered “from the four corners of the earth?” Because “Israel means Israel, and Church means Church,” “Assyria” must mean Assyria, “Pathros” must mean Pathros, and “Cush” must only mean Cush.

Dispensationalists, who insist that “Israel means Israel, and Church means Church,” often have to contradict their principle of a consistently literal hermeneutics when it comes to interpreting other ancient cities or nations mentioned in Old Testament prophecies.[14] As a further example, “Gog” in Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 is not literally Gog, but Russia or the Soviet Union according to some dispensationalists.[15] This method of allegorical interpretation is further exemplified by Charles Dyer in his commentary on Ezekiel,

“Ezekiel spoke of a coalition of several nations, many of which are today aligned with or under the influence of the Soviet Union. These include Iran (“Persia”), Sudan and northern Ethiopia (“Cush”), Libya (“Put”), and Turkey (“Meshech,” “Tubal,” “Gomer,” and “Beth Togarmah”). All these nations (see [Ezekiel] 38:2-3, 5-6), possibly led by the Soviet Union, will unite to attack Israel.”[16]

Despite their insistence that “Israel” must be understood literally as Israel, Dispensationalists such as Dyer allegorize the meaning of “Persia,” “Cush,” “Put,” and “Meshech” to mean Iran, Sudan, Libya, and Turkey respectively. In response to such hermeneutical inconsistencies, William J. Grier writes,

“The prophets frequently speak of the dooms upon Edom, Philistia, Assyria, etc. The literalist holds that these dooms are yet future. But where are the Edomites, the Philistines, the Assyrians? Who can find them? Zechariah foretold that the families of David, Nathan, and Shimei would weep, every family apart (12:12-14). The literalist holds that this is yet to be, but no one on the face of the earth today can establish their descent from any of these.”[17]

The analogy of faith is the Reformed principle of interpretation. Old Testament prophecies must be understood with the light of New Testament revelation, not vice versa. Grier is correct to say that “to interpret the Old Testament prophecies with a uniform literalism, as many try to do, is to turn into a stone what the Lord meant for bread.”[18]

Conclusion

It should be clear to the reader that the literalist does not interpret all, or even most, of prophetic Scripture literally. There are certainly occasions whereby he spiritualizes or allegorizes portions of Scripture which do not fit his system of theology, particularly the eschatological schema of Dispensationalism. Contrary to popular claims, this is not a consistently literal hermeneutics.

As regards the Westminster Standards, Bible Presbyterians are even compelled to emend the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger Catechism, so as to incorporate dispensational premillennialism into Reformed teachings. But we have seen that the literal, plain understanding of the Reformed confessions does not allow such a system of eschatology. It is, therefore, unlikely that the dispensational premillennialist can truly adhere to the Reformed system of doctrine set forth in the Westminster Standards.[19]

References

Note concerning abbreviated references: Please refer to previous posts for more details of repeated references



[1] Khoo, Fundamentals of the Christian Faith, 132.
[2] John A. Battle, “Eschatology in the Bible Presbyterian Church,” Western Reformed Seminary 11, no. 2 (2004): 19-20.
[3] This refers to the original Larger Catechism prior to the emendations of the Bible Presbyterian Church.
[4] W. Robert Godfrey, “An Introduction to the Westminster Larger Catechism,” in The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2002), x, quoting John Murray, “The Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly,” Presbyterian Guardian, December 25, 1943, 362.
[5] Frederick W. Loetscher, “The Westminster Formularies: A Brief Description,” in The Westminster Assembly (Department of History, Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1943), 17.
[6] Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith (New York: Harper, 1959), 183.
[7] We cannot claim to teach the Westminster Standards when we teach something different from the Standards, unless, of course, we change the original statements of the Standards. And this is exactly what the Bible Presbyterian Church has done.
[8] With a similar logic, any denomination can emend the Westminster Confession of Faith, as well as the Larger Catechism, and claim to adhere to the Westminster Standards.
[9] See Westminster Larger Catechism of the Bible Presbyterian Church [article on-line]; available from http://www.bpc.org/wlc/index.html; Internet; accessed 21 November 2006.
[10] The expression “a day” appears in both the original and the Bible Presbyterian’s version of the Confession.
[11] Khoo, Fundamentals of the Christian Faith, 135.
[12] Timothy Tow, The Truth Shall Make You See (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 1999), 26.
[13] Martin, “Isaiah,” 1057.
[14] This principle of interpretation is unfortunately repeated ad nauseam. See Timothy Tow and Jeffrey Khoo, Theology for Every Christian: A Systematic Theology in the Reformed and Premillennial Tradition of J Olover Buswell (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, 2007), 399. Here, the authors wrote, “God means what He says, and says what He means. Israel means Israel; Zion means Zion; Jerusalem means Jerusalem.”
[15] See Edwin M. Yamauchi, Foes from the Northern Frontier: Invading Hordes from the Russian Steppes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1982) for an excellent critique of this erroneous interpretation.
[16] Charles H. Dyer, “Ezekiel,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1300.
[17] Grier, The Momentous Event, 40.
[18] Ibid., 41.
[19] This, of course, refers to the Westminster Standards prior to Bible Presbyterian emendation.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Dispensational Premillennialism and the Westminster Standards Part 1

The Westminster Standards and Eschatology

In my previous blogs, we discussed briefly how the eschatological schema of dispensational premillennialism fails to conform to the Reformed confessions of faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, particularly Chapter XXXII paragraphs II and III, does not seem to accommodate a series of resurrections. Furthermore, dispensational premillennialism requires at least three judgments, namely, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the judgment of millennial saints, and the Great White Throne Judgment. This doctrine of multiple judgments is apparently inconsistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXXIII, paragraphs I and II). The Belgic Confession, especially Article 37, likewise accommodates only a general resurrection and a single judgment on the last day.

Our study of Revelation 20, and the hermeneutics involved in the interpretation of this passage, has enabled us to better understand the premillennial position.[1] We shall now turn to the Westminster Larger Catechism, which is more specific on the Reformed teachings of eschatology. Question 87 and its answer were written as follows:

Question 87. What are we to believe concerning the resurrection?

A. We are to believe, that at the Last Day there shall be a general resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust: when they that are then found alive shall in a moment be changed; and the self-same bodies of the dead which were laid in the grave, being then again united to their souls for ever, shall be raised up by the power of Christ. The bodies of the just, by the Spirit of Christ, and by virtue of his resurrection as their head, shall be raised in power, spiritual, incorruptible, and made like to his glorious body; and the bodies of the wicked shall be raised up in dishonor by him, as an offended judge.[2]

Vern Poythress observes,

“Question 87 is framed as a question about ‘the resurrection’, not several distinct resurrections. In the Catechism’s answer, the language about ‘the last day’ and ‘a general resurrection’ seems to imply one day of judgment, not several. By contrast, dispensationalists postulate at least three judgments and three resurrections, one for church-age believers at the Rapture, one for the nations at the visible Second Coming of Christ, and still a third at the end of the millennium. The first of these judgments includes bodily resurrection for Christian believers, but no bodily resurrection for the wicked until the visible Second Coming.”[3]

Therefore, based upon Question 87 alone, it could be argued that the Larger Catechism excludes any form of millennial teaching which requires a series of resurrections. This would imply that premillennialism, especially dispensationalism, cannot conform to the schema laid out in Question 87.

Poythress continues,

“But does the Catechism answer actually exclude premillennialism? If we allow a slight stretch in interpretation, the Catechism answer might be interpreted as describing the general resurrection at the end of the millennium. Dispensationalists and other premillennialists could agree with such a description of the very last resurrection. They would only introduce the further explanation that they still believe in an additional resurrection before the beginning of the millennium.”[4]

The point is: the prima facie reading of Question 87 indicates a general resurrection, not two resurrections separated by a thousand years. Even more so, the prosaic or literal understanding of the Catechism at this juncture directs the reader away from the premillennial understanding of eschatology. Nevertheless, Premillennialists might be compelled to add an emendation to the Catechism so as to introduce a sequence of resurrections into the wording of the text.

Question 88 of the Westminster Larger Catechism also poses an insuperable problem for the dispensational premillennialist:

Question 88. What shall immediately follow after the resurrection?

A. Immediately after the resurrection shall follow the general and final judgment of angels and men; the day and hour whereof no man knoweth, that all may watch and pray, and be ever ready for the coming of the Lord.[5]

Again, the Catechism uses the language “the general and final judgment.” This could be stretched to include the judgment of saints at the end of the millennium, as well as the Great White Throne judgment. But taken specifically, the dispensational premillennial understanding of the “final judgment” is actually two separate judgments - one for the just and one for the unjust. It is by no means a “general” judgment. The wicked are evidently, according to dispensationalists, judged apart from the righteous dead at the end of the millennium. Bible Presbyterians agree with Dispensationalists that the Great White Throne judgment is reserved for the reprobates.

In order to fit the dispensational schema into the language of Question 88, a dispensational premillennialist would have to interpret it as referring to the judgment at the end of the millennium. But this is apparently a difficult, if not impossible, feat. With regard to the Second Coming of Christ, the Catechism states that “the day and hour whereof no man knoweth.” If Question 88 must be interpreted to mean the resurrection after the millennium, millennial citizens can easily count down 1000 years towards the final judgment. After all, according to dispensationalists, man will live extremely long lives during the millennium. If this is the case, the answer to Question 88 must be re-written as “the day and hour man shall know, particularly those who are alive during the millennium.” Millennial saints and reprobates alike must only ensure that their arithmetic is correct.

The problems for the dispensational premillennialist are far from over. We continue to consider Question 90 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Question 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?

A. At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men, and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and for ever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.[6]

Question 90 of the Catechism speaks of the “day of judgment.” 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is given as a proof-text for the answer to this question. We remember that Bible Presbyterians and Dispensationalists understand 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as referring to the rapture, which occurs prior to the millennial reign of Christ. But this creates a problem for interpreting the Catechism in accordance with the premillennial schema. The “day of judgment” in Question 90 obviously refers to the “general and final judgment” of Question 88. We have seen that, in order to fit the premillennial sequence of resurrections and judgments into the Catechism, dispensational premillennialists have to interpret Question 88 as referring to the judgment at the end of the millennium. This understanding of the “final judgment” of Question 88 contradicts the interpretation of the “day of judgment” of Question 90, which supposedly refers to the rapture (1 Thess. 4:17).

Poythress elaborates on this point,

“The expression ‘being caught up to Christ in the clouds’, together with the footnoted proof-text from 1 Thessalonians 4:17, indicates that church-age believers are in view, not subsequent believers during the millennium. ‘The day of judgment,’ in the light of the immediately preceding questions, must refer to ‘the general and final judgment of angels and men’ (Answer 88), not to a judgment at a time before the beginning of the millennium. Taken together, the answers to Questions 87-90 force us to dissolve the distinction between an earlier judgment for the church and a later one for millennial believers. The Catechism is clearly thinking in amillennial terms.”[7]

Nevertheless, Poythress notes that there is still a way to resolve this apparent contradiction. Bible Presbyterians can insist that the proof-texts in the footnotes are not technically considered as part of the Catechism. And by virtue of the fact that these proof-texts serve only as an illustration to the standards, the minister is not required to subscribe to them. “Thus, a dispensationalist might reject the prooftext (sic) from 1 Thessalonians 4:17 as inapplicable, and still say that Answer 90 accurately describes the judgment at the end of the millennium.”[8]

However, such a solution is not historically feasible. We understand that the Catechism was designed to have practical implications for the daily Christian life. If it is true that - according to the dispensational reinterpretation of Questions 87-90 - the Catechism only speaks of the resurrection and final judgment of the saints after the millennium, then there remain no eschatological teachings in the Catechism which are relevant for the Christian today.

Poythress criticizes such an understanding of the Catechism, “Yet this leaves the Catechism in a position where it says nothing about the resurrection and judgment that will take place for Christians in the church age. The practical design of the Catechism demands that it say something practical about the hope that we have as Christians. Thus, an interpretation that shifts Questions 87-90 to another time period (the time 1000 years after the Second Coming) is not historically plausible.”[9]

We can therefore conclude with Poythress that “it is difficult to square the detailed language of the Catechism with either dispensationalism or historical premillennialism.”[10]


References

[1] For a discussion of the diverse millennial views, see Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1957); Robert G. Clouse, ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977); Millard J. Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1998); Stanley Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992).
[2] For a commentary on Question 87, see Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 202-206.
[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Presbyterianism and Dispensationalism,” in The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 417-418.
[4] Ibid., 418.
[5] For a commentary on Question 88, see Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 206-209.
[6] For a detailed commentary on Question 90, see ibid., 213-217.
[7] Poythress, “Presbyterianism and Dispensationalism,” 418-419.
[8] Ibid., 419.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The First Resurrection Part 2

The Ordinal First

It is contended by premillennialists that the ordinal “first” is used with the word “resurrection” to convey the idea that the “first resurrection” is the first in a series of resurrections of the same kind. It is alleged that a “consistently literal” hermeneutics does not allow any other interpretation of the phrase “first resurrection.”

But even the pretribulational, premillennial schema does not fit into this understanding using a strictly literal hermeneutics. If, indeed, the first resurrection is the first in a series of bodily resurrections, the “first resurrection” according to historical chronology must be the pretribulation rapture. If dispensational hermeneutics is correct, what will be the final destiny of saints saved during the tribulation, or during the earthly millennium? According to the dispensational schema, the tribulation and millennial saints will be resurrected after the pretribulation rapture. These are chronologically the second, third, or even fourth resurrection! If we were to understand Revelation 20:6 literally, we would have to conclude that the second death will in fact have power over those saints who do not resurrect at the first resurrection, that is, during the pretribulation rapture.

We mentioned above that the usage of the ordinal first with “resurrection” does not occur elsewhere in the New or Old Testament. There are good exegetical reasons to believe that John had in mind two different kinds of resurrection in 20:4-6, especially when we consider his employment of the ordinal “first.” This is due to his use of contrast between the “first resurrection” and the “second death (20:6).” This contrast and the use of “first” (Prōtos) are dealt with in detail by Meredith Kline.

It is Kline’s contention that the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection, which is contrasted with the bodily resurrection in verse 5. Kline writes:

“One of the critical points in the exegesis of Revelation 20 is the interpretation of prōtos in the phrase, “the first resurrection” (v. 5). Premillennarians understand it in the purely sequential sense of first in a series of items of the same kind. They interpret both “the first resurrection” and the resurrection event described in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter as bodily resurrections. The contextual usage of Prōtos, however, does not support such an exegesis; it rather points compellingly to an interpretation of “the first resurrection” found in (so-called) amillennial exegesis.”[1]

The usage of the word “first,” according to Kline, suggests a difference in kind rather than a sequential order. He begins his exegesis by turning to the usage of the word “first” in Revelation 21. Revelation 21:1ff provides us with a good starting point of how the Apostle John uses the ordinal “first.” In this passage of Scripture, the word “first” is obviously contrasted with the word “new.” The old or the “first heaven and the first earth (21:1)” is being superseded by the “second” or the “new heaven and a new earth (21:1).” All “the former things (21:4)” are passed away, and God creates “all things new (21:5).” 

Kline explains, 

“In this passage to be “first” means to belong to the order of the present world which is passing away. Prōtos does not merely mark the present world as the first in a series of worlds and certainly not as the first in a series of worlds all of the same kind. On the contrary, it characterizes this world as different in kind from the “new” world. It signifies that the present world stands in contrast to the new world order of the consummation which will abide forever.”[2]

Thus, in Revelation 21, “first” (Prōtos) heaven or the first earth does not mean the first in a series of the same kind. The “old” fallen world and creation is contrasted with the “second” or the new, redeemed heaven and earth. The “first” order of things is passed away, and the “second” order is ushered in. Redeemed creation is contrasted with the corrupted, fallen world. They are clearly not of the same kind. 

The same contrast is seen in Revelation 20:4-6. The “second death (20:6)” is not physical death in the same sense as the bodily death we encounter on earth. The “first death,” which is implied by the term “second death,” is what we commonly call death in a secular, non-spiritual sense. The “second death,” however, is eternal destruction in the lake of fire (20:14-15). Again, the two deaths are not of the same kind. 

In Revelation 21:1ff, the term “second” is used as an alternative to “new,” while the “old” or “former things (21:4)” are referred to as “first.” The contrast is obvious: the “second” or “new” serves as an antithesis to the “first” or “old.” Likewise, the second death in 20:6 is distinguished from the first death, which belongs to the order of first things. It is also the first death that leads to the first resurrection for the saints, but the second death leads to eternal destruction for unbelievers. “Whatever accounts for the preference for “first” over “old” in describing the present world, the use of “first” naturally led to the use of “second” alongside “new” for the future world, particularly for the future reality of eternal death for which the term “new” with its positive redemptive overtones would be inappropriate.”[3] Evidently, the terms “first” and “second” do not refer to sequence but contrast. 

The weakness in premillennial exegesis becomes apparent when we consider the contrast between “first” and “second.” Kline elaborates: 

“In this antithetical pairing of first death (an expression virtually contained in verse 4) and “second death” (v. 8), Revelation 21 confronts us with the same idiom that we find in Revelation 20 in “the first resurrection” (vss. 5, 6) and the second resurrection (an expression implicit in this chapter). The arbitrariness of the customary premillennial insistence that “the first resurrection” must be a bodily rising from the grave if the second resurrection is such is exposed by the inconsistent recognition by premillennial exegesis that, although the first death is the loss of physical life, “the second death” is death of a different kind, death in a metaphorical rather than literal, physical sense.”[4]

Although premillennialists insist that the two resurrections (20:4, 5) are bodily resurrections, they are forced to concede that the two deaths are not the same kind of death. The “first death” is bodily, physical death, while the “second death” is a metaphorical description of eternal torment.

Kline then proceeds to examine similar usages of the ordinal “first” in the New Testament, and how it serves to distinguish between the old and the new. Kline proposes that “in the Book of Hebrews the terms “first” and “new” are used to distinguish the Mosaic and the Messianic administrations of God’s redemptive covenant (cf. 8:7, 8, 13; 9:1, 15, 18; 10:9).”[5]

In Hebrews 10:9, the new covenant is also called the “second.” Within the context of Hebrews, the Mosaic economy of God’s redemptive covenant is contrasted with the Messianic administration of the same covenant of grace via the terms “first” and “second.” This usage of “first” in the Book of Hebrews, which refers to the old covenant, does not constitute a sequential chronology, but rather serves as a contrast to the second or new covenant. In the context of Hebrews, Kline explains that “although the term “second” appears along with “new,” it is “new” that predominates as the counterpart to “first.” Accordingly, the significance of “first” in this context is not so much priority in a series but opposition to the idea of “new.” Prōtos thus functions here as an equivalent for “old,” our traditional designation for the Mosaic covenant.”[6]

In both Revelation 21 and Hebrews, the term “first” denotes the order of things which passes away. “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away (Heb. 8:13).” Kline points out that “in Hebrews as in Revelation 21 prōtos is used for the provisional and transient stage in contrast to that which is consummative, final, and enduring.”[7]

Paul’s usage of the word “first” in 1 Corinthians 15:45-50 on the theme of resurrection provides another example of such a contrast. The “first man Adam (1 Cor. 15:45)” is contrasted with “the last Adam.” “The “first man Adam” (v. 45; cf. vv. 46f) is not first in the sense of heading an indefinite series of Adams but first in the antithetically qualitative sense of being counterpart to the “last Adam” (v. 45).”[8]

The last Adam, likewise, is not the last in a series of similar “Adams.” The first Adam is earthly, the second Adam is Christ from heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). Adam stands at the head of the human race, while Christ is the head of all the redeemed. In Adam we die, but in Christ we live. Thus, the first Adam does not mean the first in a series of Adams. The ordinal “first (prōtos),” in the context of 1 Corinthians 15, is used to provide a contrast between two different kinds of Adams: the first Adam and the last Adam, who is Christ. “By eliminating the thought of any intermediate Adams between the “first” and “last” Adams, the term “second” here, as in the Hebrews and Revelation 21 passages, underscores the binary (as over against indefinitely seriatim) framework within which prōtos is functioning and derives its specific meaning.”[9]

From our study of the word “first” in Revelation 21, the Book of Hebrews, and 1 Corinthians 15, it becomes apparent that prōtos does not convey an idea of priority or preeminence, but rather provides a contrast and antithesis. The antithetical function of prōtos highlights the difference in kinds, rather than having any sequential connotations. Kline writes, “Like Revelation 21, Hebrews uses “first” for an historical stage that passes away. Like Revelation 21, Paul uses “first” and its opposite in 1 Cor 15 for a two-fold structure comprehensive of cosmic history. In none of these passages does prōtos function as a mere ordinal in a simple process of counting objects identical in kind. In fact, precisely the reverse is true in all three passages; in each case it is a matter of different kinds, indeed, of polar opposites.”[10]

With this meaning of prōtos in mind, and considering the overarching thematic continuity between Revelation 20 and 21, it is essential that exegetes interpret the ordinal first in 20:4-6 according to its usage in chapter 21. We must also consider the contrast between the “first resurrection” and the “second death” found in verses 5b and 6a: “This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power.” Kline further suggests that “the usage of prōtos in the first-(second) resurrection pattern must be the same as the usage of prōtos in the intertwined (first)-second death pattern.”[11]

In light of the aforementioned exegetical considerations, Kline elucidates:

“‘The first resurrection” is not, therefore, the earliest in a series of resurrections of the same kind, not the first of two (or more) bodily resurrections. The antithetical usage of prōtos in this context requires a conclusion diametrically opposite to the customary premillennial assumption. If the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection, the first resurrection must be a non-bodily resurrection.”[12]

Kline continues, “What then is meant by “the first resurrection”? The answer must certainly be sought in terms of the striking paradoxical schema of which the expression is an integral part. In this arrangement two binary patterns are combined into a complex double pattern with antithesis between the parts within each pair (i.e., the first-new contrast) and also between the two pairs themselves, the one having to do with death and the other with resurrection.”[13]

Thus, two binary patterns are presented by John in his vision (20:4-6): the first-(second) resurrection pattern and the (first)-second death pattern. This double pattern provides an antithesis within itself, illustrating the fact that the just shall receive the first resurrection, and that the unjust shall ultimately be condemned to the second death. Within each binary pattern, the spiritual and physical realities are contrasted further. The (first)-second death pattern provides contrast between physical death and eternal, spiritual death. In like manner, we expect the first-(second) resurrection pattern to present a similar contrast.

Kline’s exegesis leads to an inevitable conclusion - the first resurrection refers not to a bodily resurrection, but a spiritual one. He writes:

“The proper decipherment of “the first resurrection” in the interlocking schema of first-(second) resurrection and (first)-second death is now obvious enough. Just as the resurrection of the unjust is paradoxically identified as “the second death” so the death of the Christian is paradoxically identified as “the first resurrection.” John sees the Christian dead (v. 4). The real meaning of their passage from earthly life is to be found in the state to which it leads them. And John sees the Christian dead living and reigning with Christ (vv. 4, 6); unveiled before the seer is the royal-priestly life on the heavenly side of the Christian’s earthly death. Hence the use of the paradoxical metaphor of “the first resurrection” (vv. 5f) for the death of the faithful believer. What for others is the first death is for the Christian a veritable resurrection!”[14]

In summary, the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20:4-6 is a spiritual resurrection. When believers die physically, they are translated to heaven in their intermediate state. There, they will reign with Christ for a thousand years, which is symbolic for a complete, yet indeterminate period of time. “The believing dead shall worship God and Christ as priests and shall reign with Christ as kings” during the entire millennium.[15] There in heaven, the believing dead shall await the Second Advent of Christ, the physical resurrection of their bodies (i.e. the second resurrection), and the final judgment of the living and the dead.

Conclusion

The transition from physical death to blessedness and life with Christ in heaven is termed the “first resurrection.” “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (20:6).”

Therefore, those who experience the first resurrection shall not suffer the second death. They shall be raised in the second (bodily) resurrection unto glory and eternal life. However, unbelievers who die (first death) shall be condemned to the second death. They shall be resurrected at the end of the age unto eternal damnation and torment in the lake of fire.

Referring to the first and second resurrection of the saints as two stages of blessedness, Ernst Hengstenberg comments:

“The Apocalypse invariably points to a double stage of blessedness - the one awaiting believers immediately after their departure out of this life; the other, what they are to receive when they enter the new Jerusalem. . . . There can be no doubt, that by the first resurrection we are here primarily to understand that first stage of blessedness. In so understanding it, we abide in unison with the Apocalypse and the whole of the other books of the New Testament. On the other hand, if we understand by the first resurrection a resurrection in the literal sense - if, accordingly, we suppose that the first resurrection has respect to one part of men, the second to another - we then arrive at a doctrine which in no other part of Scripture finds a ground of support, which, on the contrary, is everywhere explicitly opposed. Now, the only thing which can raise any doubt regarding the most natural and obvious view, is that the resurrection is here spoken of. This expression appears only to suit the heavenly state of blessedness. But when John denotes the two stages by the same name in order to make them known as the component parts of the same salvation, and only distinguishes them, the one as the first, the other as the second resurrection, there must of necessity in the one case attach to the term a certain want of literality. This want is all but expressly indicated by the phrase “first resurrection.” Two resurrections, in the proper sense, are not conceivable - if we would not abandon the ground of Scripture, which nowhere knows of anything but a general resurrection.”[16]

The amillennial understanding of the “first resurrection” negates any apparent contradiction with the rest of New Testament eschatology. Consistent with the teaching of a general resurrection and a final judgment associated with the Parousia of Christ, such an understanding of Revelation 20:4-6 supports the eschatological schema laid out in antecedent Scripture. It takes into account the Reformed principle of the analogy of faith, the genre of John’s apocalypse, and the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20. Finally, the amillennial understanding provides great comfort for those who have lost their loved ones in the Lord. For their reign with Christ begins with the “first resurrection,” for “blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth (Rev. 14:13).”[17]

References:

[1] Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975): 366.
[2] Ibid., 366-367.
[3] Ibid., 367.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 368.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 369.
[11] Ibid., 370.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 371.
[15] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 237.
[16] Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St. John, 281-282.
[17] For further study, see Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (1976): 110-119; Phillip Edgcumbe Hughes, “The First Resurrection: Another Interpretation,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 2 (1977): 316-319; Norman Shepherd, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (1974): 35-45; James Hughes, “Revelation 20:1-6 and the Question of the Millennium,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 3 (1973): 282-303; Paul A. Rainbow, “Millennium as Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse,” Westminster Theological Journal 58, no. 2 (1996): 210-221.