For most kinds of conservative Protestants, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Bible in theology and culture. After all, at the heart of the Protestant Reformation was a call to return Christianity to reliance on Scripture, Faith, and Grace. For outsiders trying to understand this segment of Fundamentalist America, a good starting point is an attempt to wrap our heads around a Biblical worldview.
As historian Timothy Weber argued in the early 1980s, one tradition of conservative evangelical Protestantism has long confronted a decisive Biblical dilemma. In the early twentieth century, this self-identified “fundamentalist” group wrestled with this stubborn paradox: the Bible must be assumed to be clear and comprehensible to all readers, yet readers must be guarded against naïve misinterpretation. In the end, Weber argued, the first generation of fundamentalist Bible teachers “fought hard to keep the Bible accessible to ordinary believers but in the end made them nearly totally dependent on themselves” (117).
Let me be as clear as possible: in these discussions we are not talking about the wider cultural traditionalist “Fundamentalist America” that usually fills these pages. Instead, we’re focusing now on a small but influential subset of conservative evangelical Protestants, those few who fit the definition of small-f Protestant fundamentalism.
In the early twentieth century, this group rallied around a particular sort of Biblical interpretation. Though not without dissent and voluble disagreement, a theology of dispensational premillennialism became for many conservative evangelical Protestants the only proper interpretation of the Bible’s message.
This post will attempt to introduce outsiders to this theology. As with every topic in the kaleidoscopic world of Fundamentalist America, this introduction will include some broad-brush oversimplifications. Especially important to remember is that this theology, like every theology or ideology, is constantly changing and subject to intense criticism and disagreement. Outsiders should never allow themselves to relax into a false sense of self-satisfaction when it comes to understanding such notions. We at ILYBYGTH write with full consciousness of our inadequate theological background and apologize for our stuttering and awkward presentation of these ideas. However, with the broad-brush caveat in mind, we can lay out a few basic facts about dispensational premillennialism.
The theology came to the United States in the late 1800s, introduced by theologian John Nelson Darby. Darby found that he could not convert many American evangelicals to his Plymouth Brethren sect, but his theology became surprisingly influential.
Christians have been arguing about both dispensations and the millennium for thousands of years. Saint Augustine, for example, noted in his Confessions (Book III, Chapter 7) that naïve Christians complained of inconsistency with Old Testament rules. “The people of whom I am speaking,” Augustine wrote, “have the same sort of grievance when they hear that things which good men could do without sin in days gone by are not permitted in ours, and that God gave them one commandment and has given us another.”
The answer, for Augustine as for Darby and subsequent generations of Christians, is that sacred history has been divided into discrete dispensations. For American Protestant fundamentalists, this understanding of the Bible has been taught assiduously for generations. In the first generation, Bible and prophecy scholars such as James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute, A.T. Pierson, I.M. Haldeman, and Arno Gaebelein taught readers how to understand the divisions in sacred history.
But no other single work was more influential in teaching the fundamentalists’ new interpretation of Scripture than Cyrus I. Scofield’s annotated study Bible. This commentary on the King James Version first appeared in 1909 and remains in print. These days, it is also readily available online. Scofield’s commentary led many readers to assume a dispensational premillennial reading was part of Holy Writ itself. To give just one example, in a note to Exodus 19:8 (“And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do”), Scofield added this dispensational interpretation:
“The Fifth Dispensation: Law. This dispensation extends from Sinai to Calvary—from the Exodus to the Cross. The history of Israel in the wilderness and in the land is one long record of the violation of the law. The testing of the nation by law ending in the judgment of the Captivities, but the dispensation itself ended at the Cross. . . . See, for the other six dispensations: Innocence (Gen. 1:28); Conscience (Gen. 3:23); Human Government (Gen. 8:20); Promise (Gen. 12:1); Grace (John 1:17); Kingdom (Eph. 1:10).”
Another prominent dispensational interpreter and popularizer was Clarence Larkin of Philadelphia. Larkin’s dispensational charts laid out this theology for students of dispensational premillennialism.
The second half of this term, “premillennialism,” also has a long and storied history among Christians. Christians traditionally fell into several interpretations of the second coming of the Christ. Premillennialism, the notion that Christ will return to save a fallen world and usher in a thousand years of earthly peace and justice, remained popular for generations in the early church. By the third century AD, however, mainstream Christianity welcomed a variety of interpretations of the millennium. Postmillennialism became influential in American Protestantism throughout the nineteenth century. In this reading, Christ would return at the end of a thousand years of earthly peace.
Darby’s theology introduced a new wrinkle into these traditional disputes. Based on his interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18,* Darby argued for a secret rapture of all true believers at the start of the end-times. For many conservative evangelicals, this notion of a secret rapture has become the standard interpretation of the last days. And, again, it is vital to remember that these ideas are the subject of intense dispute. Schools of futurists, historicists, amillennialists, and many others insist on their own vision of the apocalypse.
For those of us trying to understand Fundamentalist America, simply understanding the basic outlines of dispensational premillennial theology will help. Believers in this vision of Bible truth will see history and politics as primarily an unfolding of Bible prophecy. The future, in this theology, is written and clear to all those who rightly divide the word of truth. As historian Dwight Wilson argued in the 1970s, premillennial belief has had a decisive influence on American foreign policy for generations. Candidates for the important role of the Antichrist have included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler, and a succession of Roman Catholic Popes. Central in every interpretation, however, is the decisive role of the state of Israel and the world’s Jews.
Those who view world politics and history through this lens will likely be difficult for outsiders to understand. They will certainly be less likely to agree to pragmatic solutions or a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli dispute, for instance, since they believe they have read the ending of this story in advance.
For such Bible believers, political activism is not intended to procure half a loaf. Rather, the goal is to line up on the right side and to watch as prophecy unfolds. Thus, returning Jews to Israel is an important part of divinely dictated history, but returning Palestinians to that same land is not. Signing on to the program of a charismatic UN leader might mean condemning innocent souls to hell, not merely wasting aid dollars. In sum, though it is important not to fall for scare stories about the power of Bible prophecy in determining US foreign policy, it is also important to understand the theological roots of some of fundamentalism’s most distinctive ideas.
* “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
Further Reading: Timothy P. Weber, “The Two-Edged Sword: The Fundamentalist Use of the Bible,” 101-120, in Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); see also Weber’s Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875-1982 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel since 1917 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).