The Rapture - A Response

This was a review that was published in "The Officer" magazine last year. This publication is only made available to Officers in The Salvation Army, so I thought I'd also make it available here for others who may be interested. Comments are very welcome.

Phil Layton, The Rapture London: Salvation Books, 2009.

A quick survey of recent Salvation Army Year Books reveals that in recent years the Army has not published a great many books of a strictly Theological or Biblical Studies nature. In fact, by and large the vast majority of texts are either reprints of old texts or translations into other languages. So as someone who refers to himself as an “apprentice theologian” I get excited when I do see a new publication by a Salvationist author that attempts to address a topic of a theological nature.

My present appointment is as Director for the School for Christian Studies at Booth College in the Australia Eastern Territory. Part of my role, as I see it, is to stay in touch with the theological scene, which I define quite simply as "participating in the discussion". I do a lot of reading, thinking, discussing and writing about theological issues. I enjoy interacting with others and communicating what I have learned and I ask a lot of questions. I do not (and will probably never) purport to be an expert on theology but I am passionate about it and I want to see the Army seek to understand it's faith in deeper ways and contribute to the wider Church as well. The purpose of this article is to “participate in the discussion” of a topic brought up in the recent publication – The Rapture by Captain Phil Layton. Again, I was excited to see a new Army publication, but it left me with a lot of questions unanswered.

Firstly, "Rapture" theology, or dispensational premillennialism, in terms of the 2000 year history of the church, is "new" theology. The term was expounded by John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th Century and before this time is generally unheard of in theological writings. Premillennialism itself is not something new, but the idea that the Church would be "Raptured" away prior to a period of tribulation and then the 1000 year reign of Christ is a new theological formulation. I say "theological formulation" deliberately because the word does not appear in Scripture. Hence it is a particular interpretation of Scriptural texts put together in such a way that a theological construct is formed. This is not a bad thing, in fact it's an important role of the Church and there's a particularly good example of how important this is - the Trinity. Once again a term that is not found in Scripture, but history tells us just how important a doctrine this is. Since the very term itself is a theological construct (not a Biblical term) it's therefore impossible to take a "plain" reading of Scripture, as this book purports to do, without either reading into the text, or deconstructing and then reconstructing the texts under consideration. It is my assertion that this book reads "Rapture" into the text, which is a huge problem for me.

The assertion that dispensational premillennialism is “new” means that we should react to it with more scepticism than is offered in this book. Thomas C. Oden, in the introduction to his three volume Systematic Theology, says
the only claim I make is that there is nothing whatever original in these pages
(Thomas C. Oden, Systematic Theology. (Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2006), 1:xiii).

Reacting against the modern temptation to assume that any “new” contribution must move away from the “old”, Oden gives us a good theological approach to follow. In all areas of the Christian faith there will always be ancient path that has been trod for thousands of years. Dangers abound to the left and the right of this path. If in your travels you find yourself on a different or “new” path then it’s necessary to stop and ask “why?” then return once again to that ancient pathway.

Secondly, the chosen methodology employed in this book, i.e. a “plain reading” of Scripture, is not a part of our historical heritage; that is, Wesleyanism. The so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral including "Scripture, Experience, Tradition and Reason" is a very sound approach to theology. History has shown us that when the pendulum swings too far in favour of one of these four parts and the others disregarded then we end up in deep trouble. Schleirmacher overemphasised "experience" and we ended up with Liberalism. Orthodox theology overemphasised "tradition" to the point where it was considered sacred and arguably more important to them than Scripture. Modernism overemphasised "reason" and the scientific approach to Biblical interpretation and in doing so placed humans "above" Scripture, rather than "under" its Divine authority. When it is suggested that a "plain" reading of Scripture is the best option, or indeed even possible, without considering "experience, tradition or reason" it opens the door for all sorts of weird and wonderful interpretations of any given text. That's how cults have formed in the past (an extreme example I know). But at an individual level, it opens the door for people to say "God told me this" and find any sort of scriptural reference to support their claims. For example, are the "holy war" texts of the Old Testament to be used to justify war in today's contemporary world. A "plain" reading of Scripture may lead one to say "yes". Adding in "experience, tradition, and reason" we are more likely to come to the conclusion "no" (at least I would hope we would!). Similarly, if I read Luke 22 or 1 Cor 11 with a "plain" reading one might suggest that I would come to a very different conclusion regarding the sacraments than Captain Layton does in his first book, The Sacraments and the Bible.

This theological formulation is historically "out of place" with where we have come from and so I have an issue with this both being published under the Army's name and also have the Chairman of the International Doctrine Council giving the "Foreword" in (one assumes) complete agreement with this theological stance. Given that we publish so few books on theological or Biblical studies issues, any book that is released naturally has endowed with it the impression that it has the full support of The Salvation Army, particularly if it is from IHQ’s own publishers.

Thirdly, the back cover suggests that the writer is a "Biblical Scholar". Whenever I pick up a new book the first place I turn to is the Bibliography and endnotes. This helps me to get a "feel" for the content and context of the book before I read it. To be perfectly frank, if I saw this Bibliography on one of our student’s essays I would be very disappointed and speak to the student immediately about reading more widely, as well as their overuse of internet references. Sites like http://www.askmoses.com/ are not at all scholarly since we cannot know who has written what and what editorial processes the work has gone through to get onto the internet. I encourage students to use the internet "wisely" and the references shown here display a lack of scholarly discernment. I find it even more remarkable that many of the listed websites are in fact Jewish. Something that is absolutely bizarre, given that they are still awaiting the first coming of the Messiah, not the second!
Here, there are no commentaries, New Testament or Old Testament surveys, no scholarly articles and the book itself is not presented using accepted scholarly protocols (e.g. footnotes, endnotes etc). For example, a definition for "eschatology" is given (pg 7) in quotation marks but no reference is provided for this. If a student handed that work into a lecturer at our school they would fail because of "plagiarism" or failing to present the paper according to the expected conventions. Similarly, the main definition for "Rapture" is based upon the Oxford dictionary, which for me does not cut it in "Biblical scholarship". The claim to be a "Biblical scholar" needs to be better evidenced than this book provides.

Next, the chosen hermeneutic for the book of Revelation is that of a "futuristic" one. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it assumes that everything in the book is about some future time, and not about the contemporary situation that it was originally written for. To say this differently, if I wrote you an email that was not about an issue relating to "now" but something that I am prophesying will happen in 500 years time then why would you be interested in that email? You're likely to delete it, or at least disregard it. Similarly, why would the original recipients of Revelation be at all interested in this letter if it didn't have a contemporary significance for them? If they weren't interested in its content, then why and how would it become canonised into Scripture. This is especially important given that there were so many texts that could have been included into the canon but were not. I think a futuristic interpretation alone is insufficient to answer these questions. Revelation 1-3, at least, is also clearly about contemporary situations facing the seven churches, not some future event(s).

Captain Layton has also, in my opinion, applied this "futuristic" interpretation to every text chosen in the book. It is applied to Daniel, Pauline, Johannine and other Gospel texts at liberty. Each text is taken out of context and used to support a theological formulation (Rapture) that those texts were probably not supporting (e.g. John 14). Whilst the attempt is to elicit a "plain" reading of the Scriptures from the reader allowing Scriptural authority to speak on a particular topic, in fact in employing this "proof-texting" methodology it does the complete opposite. It causes the reader to "read into" the text the theological formulation that the author wants them to see. This is, again, why I argue that we need experience, tradition and reason to aid us in our reading and interpretation of the Scriptures.

My own thoughts on dispensational premillennialism are that it simply doesn't make sense. If I read the Scriptures canonically (i.e. the broader "brush strokes") I see a God who is walking with his creation in the garden (Gen 3:8); who covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David; who rescues his people from slavery in Egypt so that he may be their God and they his people. I see a God who is completely holy and unapproachable (e.g. Exodus 19), yet paradoxically is in the midst of his people represented by the tabernacle and later the temple. Then of course we see in Jesus Christ God himself dwelling in the midst of his people; Emmanuel (Matt 1:23); the God-man who took on human nature and died a cruel and brutal death on the cross for the restoration of the world.

Then I see something very interesting. After a very public crucifixion I read of a very private resurrection. I have to ask why? Why not come back to life with a huge spectacle? Why not come out of the tomb and parade yourself in the temple? Why not show your scars to everyone instead of just Thomas? If the resurrection is so vital to the Christian faith then why would Jesus entrust this vitally good and world changing news to a few unreliable witnesses? The answer - the Church. The Church is the living representation of Christ in the world. It is empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12) now that he has ascended to heaven. So we, being united with Christ, are empowered for mission and continue to be God's people and he our God. All through Biblical history I read of a God who is interested in being with his people, not so much in heaven but rather in the midst of creation, and he calls us, as the Body of Christ, to be that body in the world.

Then I hear the suggestion that in the future God will take his people away from creation.... it just doesn't sit right with me. It doesn't make sense. Why would God be so involved in his creation, even to the point of taking on human nature and being subjected to crucifixion, then invite and involve his people in communicating the message of salvation to the world, only at the most crucial moment in history (i.e. the moment before his return) to take those people away from creation? Where did that come from? It just “flies in from left field”. I don't see it in the texts suggested in this book, and it seems out of character for the God revealed throughout the Bible. It also makes me want to ask why people who seem so interested in dates and events to do with the Tribulation even bother (if they hold to a dispensational premillennial view). If you're not going to be there why do you care? As an aside I would like to thank Captain Layton for not going down this path too much. It's been way overdone in "rapture" theology and is, for me, a waste of time.

I would like to conclude with a rather lengthy quote from one of my favourite writers, Robert Webber, which sums up my particular views on eschatology very well.


The church is where the Spirit of God is forming a people who are the expression of God's redeeming work in the world. They are the people in whom the dwelling of God is forming a new creation. They are God's witnesses in the world; they witness to God's victory over the powers of evil (Eph 3:10) and are a sign of the ultimate reconciliation of all things (Rom 8:18-20).

For this reason the church does not have an eschatology, it is an eschatological people. This explains the younger evangelical indifference to the new eschatological series, Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. This series grew out of the old view of "having an eschatology," a dispensational premillennial eschatology in the case of LaHaye and Jenkins. The younger evangelicals want to be an eschatological community. They want to be a people formed by a theological understanding of the world and the presence of the Spirit, who makes this people a community that prefigures the future and expresses a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

In sum, to say the church is the body of Christ is to affirm the church is the continuation of the presence of Jesus in the world; its life is sustained by the energy of the Spirit who is "the Lord and giver of life"; there is a divine side and a human side to the church; the church is a witness to the drama of salvation; and the church is the presence of the eschatological future in the world. In this sense the church does not "have" a mission, it is mission, by its very existence in the world.
 (Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 113.)

Comments

  1. Adam - thanks for responding to this book. I haven't read it, and I wasn't even aware it had been published. I am surprised that the Army would publish a book like this, since Salvationists don't officially support belief in "the rapture."

    Thanks for the excellent critique of the doctrine and the book. I especially appreciate the way you highlighted essential aspects of scripture's overarching narrative that fly in the face of dispensationalist eschatology.

    I'm encouraged that /The Officer/ printed this!

    James

    PS: Oden and Webber are both huge influences on my thinking.

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  2. I have only just found out about this Army book on the Rapture, and confess I was surprised, even a little shocked. I rather fancy that William Booth would have had a fit. I agree, for the most part, with Adam's comments. Good theology, Adam! (Though I'm not sure the resurrection was that "private". 500 people at one time?)
    I did my PhD researching "The Origins of Left Behind Eschatology", which has been published and is still available. Your comments are very similar to my findings. I have also written "Why Left Behind should be Left Behind." (Though I am not a Salvationist, I have also written two biographies about William Booth and edited and published the Letters of William and Catherine Booth, under my full name David Malcolm Bennett.)

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