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Left Behind: Any Link with the Early Church

I was brought up in an independent Fundamentalist church in Pennsylvania. The good folks who founded the church had broken away from the mainstream Protestant denominations in the early sixties because of mainstream’s increasingly liberal drift. This little church was young and enthusiastic. The pastor had a bright young family and was zealous to see the church grow. Before long it had outgrown its rented storefront premises, bought some land, and started to build.

This particular brand of American Christianity had no denominational affiliations. The founders called it a “Bible” Church, and they claimed to look to only the Bible for their beliefs and practices. Of course, this wasn’t true. They didn’t start from scratch with just their Bibles. They were really part of a tradition. It was actually a hodgepodge of traditions, but it was a tradition nonetheless. Their view of salvation was essentially Calvinist, their ecclesiology was congregational tradition, and their sacramental theology was derived from the Baptist tradition. One of the Bible church’s traditions that most interests me now was their Dispensationalist system of Biblical interpretation.

Dispensationalism has its roots in the teaching of the English Plymouth Brethren preacher John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), but it was made most famous by the American preacher C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) who incorporated the system as part of a Bible translation in the Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensationalism teaches that God deals with man in seven dispensations in each of which man is set a specific test. This test continues as an abiding truth for successive generations. So, for example, the life of Christ is included in the period of the law, while we are now in the dispensation of the Church. 

Another aspect of Dispensationalism is its highly structured and rather arcane system of interpreting prophecy according to current events. The books of Daniel and Revelation are mined for literal references to events of our age in an attempt to predict and anticipate the return of Christ and the subsequent “tribulation” in which those who don’t believe will be tested before the millennium of Christ’s rule on earth. To take the temperature of how influential and popular Dispensationalism has become, one only has to check the phenomenal success of Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series of novels, which are based on a Dispensationalist approach to Biblical prophecy.

Because God’s work with man is broken down into separate “dispensations,” certain parts of the Bible are less relevant than others. So, for example, because we are now in the “Church Age,” we don’t have to obey the Law of Moses, which was only good for the “Law Age.” One of the weird results of Dispensationalist teaching is that the life and teaching of Jesus are made essentially irrelevant for modern man. It works like this: Jesus’ life was part of the Dispensation of Law. Now we’re in the Dispensation of the Church, so Jesus’ life and teachings aren’t for us. 

As Catholics the Mass is central to our life and worship. As often as we do this we proclaim his death until he comes again (1 Cor. 11:26). As a result, Catholicism is, by comparison, totally Christ-centered. The modern Dispensationalist Protestant, on the other hand, by following the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, has a religion where it’s okay not to preach from the Gospels because that is “not for this dispensation.”

Now that I am a Catholic, I am not sure if the irony of this is sublime or ridiculous. These are the folks who blame Catholics for inventing later, unbiblical, and distorted doctrines. But shouldn’t we turn the tables here? Sola scriptura is itself a later, unbiblical, distorted doctrine. The Bible teaches nowhere that the Bible is the only source for truth. Jesus never wrote down his teachings and never commanded or prophesied that a New Testament should be written. Nowhere in the record of the early church do we find sola scriptura being taught. Instead, it is the teaching authority of the Church that is most emphasized.

If this is true of sola scriptura, it is doubly true of Dispensationalism. Here is a system of biblical interpretation that, in many Evangelical circles, has reached the status of dogma. Inasmuch as it marginalizes the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, it can be called heretical. It was never heard of before the nineteenth century and was devised by one sectarian teacher and promoted by another to its current popular status. Who then is guilty of following later invented doctrines? The Anglican phrase condemning some Catholic beliefs surely applies to Dispensationalism: “It is a vain thing, fondly imagined.”

But we can’t be too hasty in throwing out “new” doctrines. The faith does develop, and seemingly new understandings are given by the Spirit. John Henry Newman, in his famous Essay on the Development of Doctrine (my quotations from Newman’s essay are taken from Ian Ker, John Henry Newman [1988], pp. 308-310), confronts the idea that Christianity grows and develops into a fuller understanding of truth. The key is, development is just that-development. There are no new doctrines; the Church only grows into a fuller understanding of existing doctrines. Sola scriptura and Dispensationalism, on the other hand, are novel inventions of single teachers who wished to impose their own ideas. Newman set out seven tests to validate any development in doctrine. Both sola scriptura and Dispensationalism fail all of them. 

Unity of type is Newman’s first test. In other words, the seemingly new doctrine must be similar to that believed by the whole Church from the beginning, even if the similarity is like that of an oak tree to the acorn from which it grew. By studying both the ancient church and the “new” development, that similarity-or lack thereof-can be determined. When we consider sola scriptura and Dispensationalism, there are no antecedents. The more one studies the ancient Church the more one realizes that these two concepts are not developments-they are novelties. One was invented in the sixteenth century, the other in the nineteenth. 

Principle and doctrine. Newman’s second test is complex. He distinguishes between the principle and the doctrine of a belief. The principle is the abstract and general element of belief. The doctrine is specific and relates to events. For example, the principle of revealed religion is that it functions through the people of God. The doctrine of biblical interpretation is a specific expression of revealed religion and it operates in a way congruent with the principle that God’s revelation comes through his people. A true development keeps the original principle and doctrine together. In a false development one will develop separately and in contradiction to the other. So in the cases of sola scriptura and Dispensationalism, the doctrines are by their very nature cut off from the principle of Church authority with which they should be united. The first contradicts the principle of revelation being linked with the people of God; the other, by being one man’s sectarian invention, is by its development alienated from the general principle of revelation.

Absorption and interpenetration. The third test is that doctrines develop by themselves through absorption and interpenetration over a long period of time. In other words, they evolve within the theological and devotional life of the Church. They are not devotional novelties or new theological theories. Dispensationalism and sola scriptura are both novelties, inventions of theological minds and the offspring of political events. They are not the natural, organic result of the Church’s worshiping and thinking life over centuries of time.

Development is not a “logical operation.” Newman’s fourth test for development is that, although it must have an internal logic and must fit logically with the whole of Christian truth, it is not devised by logic. Newman is not saying that a legitimately developed doctrine is absurd; he is saying that it is not something that someone sits down to figure out through logical processes. It is not the result of “conscious reasoning from premises to conclusion.” Sola scriptura and Dispensationalism, on the other hand, are precisely that. Sola scriptura is the end of a logical search for a Christian authority other than the Catholic Church, while Dispensationalism is a clever biblical overlay invented by Darby and Scofield.

Hints and guesses. The fifth test is that there should be hints and guesses of the developed doctrine in the early stages of the Church. For example, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was defined in the nineteenth century, but the idea that Mary was “all holy” was evident from the second century. It presence in nascent form validates its gradual development into defined doctrine . There are no hints or fragments of sola scriptura or Dispensationalism in the early Church. They sprang whole from the minds of their inventors.

Congruence with the historic faith. Newman’s sixth test is that a true development will be congruent with the historic faith. It does not contradict but illuminates the previous body of truth. In Newman’s words, it is an addition which “illustrates, not obscures; corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds.” Once again, sola scriptura and Dispensationalism fall. Both contradict the whole trend of fifteen hundred years of Christian thought. Sola scriptura eviscerates the ancient harmony of Scripture and Church authority. Dispensationalism contradicts the age-old belief of the Church that Jesus’ life and teachings are for us here and now.

Chronic vigor. The final test is that the developing doctrine needs to have “chronic vigor.” Newman is not saying that we test the doctrine according to its popularity or even its longevity. Instead, he is saying that the idea is alive, dynamic, and moving on. It is getting bigger and better as our understanding of the truth grows. By its nature sola scriptura is incapable of this. With the simple word sola-Latin, only-the concept limits itself and cannot develop. Likewise, Dispensationalism is, by definition, a closing down and limiting of biblical interpretation. It is a system that can do nothing but pigeonhole the Bible into different time periods and finish there. As a result both of these invented beliefs are essentially dead. They have no chronic vigor.

In our apologetics work with Protestants we may often hear the charge that certain Catholic doctrines like the Immaculate Conception, papal infallibility, transubstantiation and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are later, unbiblical, and distorted doctrines. But in each case the Catholic doctrines stand up to Newman’s stringent tests. Most of Newman’s tests are simple enough to explain. But even if the tests themselves are too complex to weave into a general conversation, it helps to be aware of them. When you are challenged about “later, invented doctrines,” ask your Protestant friend where he got sola scriptura and Dispensationalism. Because if any doctrines are latter-day, human inventions, they are.

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