When studying eschatology, one needs to be aware of the fact that it is not advantageous to begin by simply reading certain books of the Bible such as Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel. One might say, ‘Well, yes, you start with Scripture. That’s how you understand Scripture.’ While studying Scripture is of the greatest importance, one must also realize that you need to know the history, culture, and even some theological backgrounds of particular belief systems. Thus, you actually need to start at the root of why specific beliefs have been formed concerning the last days.
What I mean by this is that there are two major theological schools holding different beliefs about God’s redemptive activity in history. Both schools see God with different plans concerning His salvation of mankind. Both sides also hold somewhat opposing views concerning hermeneutics. What is hermeneutics, you ask? It is simply the study of how to interpret, understand, and apply the Biblical text. This is where we look to consider the language, history, culture, and other such things.
So, what are these two schools? They are referred to as dispensational theology and covenant theology. For sake of keeping articles shorter, I will just focus in on the background of dispensationalism over the next 2 or 3 blogs. After that, I will focus on covenant theology.
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland. During the 1820’s, Darby began to struggle with understanding some spiritual issues. Throughout this struggle, Darby hurt his leg after falling from a horse and spent a lot of time in bed. During this time, he was able to study and consider a lot of things in the Scriptures. As he looked around at people in general, Darby felt there was not a lot of personal purity in the Church and that people were not walking out what he read in Scripture.
In his study, Darby began to develop the belief that the Church had a heavenly, or spiritual, nature to it. The Church was spiritually pure because they were pure in Christ, but there was not to be much expectation of purity as the Church lived in the world. He also developed the conviction that the Church was God’s people only during the New Testament times. Darby also saw a big difference between Law and grace, feeling they were different concepts. Still, no structured doctrines had been formed from his study.
There was also great disappointment with the Church because he felt that there was a lack of expectation for Christ’s return in his day. He felt people were too focused on a current, millennial reign of Christ and not His second coming.
We could summarise five main concepts developed by John Darby:
- There is a distinction between Law and grace. These two are not related. The Law was for Israel and grace is for the Church.
- There are two peoples of God: a) Physical Israel/Jews – this was God’s earthly people and the promises spoken to them in the Scriptures were to be literally fulfilled on earth; b) The Church – this was God’s spiritual people and the promises spoken to them in the Scriptures were symbolic and they were to be spiritually fulfilled in heaven.
- He held to a strong literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies, which were mainly tied to fulfillment on earth (mainly for Israel).
- He developed a strong premillennial belief, meaning Christ would return before the millennium. The Church’s millennium was to be in heaven, the Jews would be on earth during this reign.
- He developed a separatist attitude toward the Church. What I mean by that is he looked at the Church more as an institution rather than a people (see my article on church). So he saw the Church as consisting of some saved and some unsaved, some wheat and some tares.
So, now we have uncovered some major roots of dispensational theology. Doing so, one can probably see how some eschatological beliefs have developed in this school of theology. Stay tuned as I will look to share some more of the history and theology of dispensationalism in the next couple of days.