02 May 2009

Glocal Christianity: Rapture Ready? Questioning the Celestial Panic Room

Glocal Christianity: Rapture Ready? Questioning the Celestial Panic Room:
For those of you not familiar with the jargon the rapture is not the same as the second coming of Jesus which we all look forward to. Instead the rapture is said to be a precursor to it sort of a factional coming between the first and second coming of Jesus from what I can gather which I suppose makes it the one and a halfth coming . It is said that to protect his people during the last days Jesus will come and snatch them away to keep them safe before he returns. It is a prominant feature of the premillenial dispensationalism to be found in books like Tim LaHay's 'Left Behind'.

Thanks to Matt Stone for posting that, and with it a warning -- this post is an exercise in theological archaeology, so anyone who finds that sort of stuff boring should skip to the next one.

Also a disclaimer: the Orthodox Church regards chiliasm as a heresy. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines chiliasm thus:

CHILIASM (Gk. chilii 'a thousand'). Another name for Millenarianism, the theory that Christ will return to earth and reign here for a thousand years before the final consummation of all things. The belief is based on an interpretation of Rev 20:1-5.

And under the entry for Millenarianism in the same source we learn that

...its advocates fall into two groups, pre- and post-millenialists. The former maintain that the Millennium will forllow the Second Coming of Christ, but are divided as to whether it will be spent by the saints in heaven or upon earth: the latter believe that it precedes the Advent and, indeed, prepares the way for it by the spread of righteousness over the earth, a view which, in its modern form, owes owes much to Daniel Whitby (1638-1726).

In the early Church, Millennarianism was found among the Gnostics and Montanists, but was also accepted by more orthodox writers such as St Justin Martyr, St Irenaeus, and St Hippolytus of Rome, all of whom were pre-millennialists. Millennarianism came, however, increasingly to stress the carnal plasures to be enjoyed during the thousand years of the saints' earthly reign and eventually a revulsion against the whole concept set in, initiated by Origen and completed by St Augustine. For the next thousand years millenarian expectations were rarely met with, except among the Joachimates and other sectarians of the 13th cent.

The article goes on to describe how the doctrine was revived by the Anabaptists and Pietists in Germany, and in the English-speaking world by the Irvingites, Plymouth Brethren and the Adventists.

It was the Plymouth Brethren who added to it the refinement of Dispensationalism -- the belief that history was divided into periods called "dispensations", and that the Bible can similarly be divided into sections that are only relevant to certain of these periods. Dispensationalism was propagated by the Scofield Reference Bible, through which it spread far beyond the Plymouth Brethren to other branches of Protestantism, especially in the English-speaking world.

The terminology of dispensationalism may be familiar to those whose theology has been shaped by the Scofield Reference Bible, but is quite likely to be puzzling to anyone else, and this includes the term "rapture" itself.

I first heard of "rapture" in the dispensationalists' sense of the word on a radio programme called "The world tomorrow" by Herbert W. Armstrong. A friend of mine insisted that I listen to the programme, and Herbert W. Armstrong went on and on about "rapture", but did not say what he meant by it. I gathered that he was against it, and took it to mean that he thought that Christians ought to be miserable, and should exclude all joy from their lives.

My understanding of "rapture" was shaped by English poets who associated it with birdsong:

That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture (Browning)

or Shelley's Ode to a skylark

Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

I'd read the Bible a couple of times, but had never encountered the term "rapture" in the sense used by Herbert W. Armstrong.

My ignorance persisted for several years, until I picked up a pamphlet attacking dispensationalism, when some of the terminology became clear.

"Rapture", it appeared, was based on an an interpretation of Matthew 24:40-41, and to the dispensationalists it meant being literally carried away bodily, and not being metaphorically carried away by joy.

That discovery led me to ponder something else. At my Methodist school we had sung a hymn, which I quite liked, one verse of which was:

Great things he hath taught us, great things he hath done
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son
But purer and higher and greater will be
Our wonder, our rapture, when Jesus we see.

I had always understood that as a similar kind of rapture to that attributed by the poets to the thrush and the skylark.

But having discovered what dispensationalism was I began to have second thoughts, and this is where we get into theological archaeology, deconstruction and textual criticism.

In the Methodist Hymnbook that hymn (No 313) was listed as written by W.H. Doane and Frances Jane van Alstyne. But there were other hymn collections where it was shown as written by Fanny J. Crosby. Well, that could be explained by one being her married name and the other being her maiden name, and nowadays Google makes it easy to check on such things.

But there were other differences too. In some of the Fanny J. Crosby versions the last line was changed to

Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

So which was the original, and who changed it, and why?

Could it have been changed by someone who objected to dispensationalism, or by someone who favoured dispensationalism? Now that I knew about dispensationalism, the word became loaded with ideological implications. I still favoured the poets' ornithological sense, but what if it meant something else?

"Transport of delight" is a metaphor that means exactly the same as "rapture" in the poetical sense, and is also used as a pun on the literal meaning of "transport" (see here, for example), though speakers of American English might know that better as transportation. For speakers of other than American English, however, "transportation" is anything but delightful, being associated with penal servitude.

But without "of delight" transport suggests the literal meaning even more strongly.

So that little question of the substitution of a word bothers me. Can anyone tell me the answer?

I don't suppose it bothers dispensationalists though (unless it was a dispensationalist who made the change in the wording of the hymn). Dispensationalists are far more worried about being rapture ready, but that doesn't bother me at all.

For Orthodox Christians there is a somewhat different concern, which we focus on at the beginning of Holy Week. Here's the Troparion for Bridegroom Matins:

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed be the servant whom He shall find watching: and again, unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O our God. Through the blessed Theotokos, have mercy on us.

You don't have to be a dispensationalist or any other kind of chiliast for that.

And for those who are worried about not being able to find "troparion" in the Bible, you won't find "rapture" in the Bible either, just like Herbert W. Armstrong said. But here's a hint.

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

I guess this is one area of Christian theology where I am much closer to the Othodox view than the Anabaptist one, though from what I understand this was not one of their core points of distinction.


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