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]


[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.

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