Wednesday, May 16, 2018

a very brief (for me) comment on the Internet Monk piece about how futurist dispensationalism is no longer a fringe theology

this is less a comment on iMonk's post than on some claims made in the comments

What some people don't seem to understand is that there has never been a real conflict between dominionist strands of theology and dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism is subordinate in American theology.  The dominionist element comes first?  Why?  Go back and look at postmillennialism and the Social Gospel movements in the 19th century and early 20th century. There wasn't a conflict between Manifest Destiny and the Social Gospel, there wasn't a core conflict between the formal eschatological framework and the public policy back then.

It takes theological and historical ignorance to imagine that contemporary dominionist streams of thought and dispensationalism are somehow conceptually at odds with each.  Jeffrey Burton Russell had a book about religious dissent in the medieval period and in that short but useful survey he pointed out that during the medieval period the political dissidents found all sorts of millenarian views useful as a basis for political protests. The Catholic Church rejected millenarian views as bad theology for theological reasons but it was also, as Russell noted rather flatly and directly, rejected because those advocating postmillennial or premillennial views tended to do so in tandem with advocacy for political revolutions. 

So any Americans proposing that there's somehow a conceptual conflict between advocacy of any for of dominionism on the one hand and dispensationalism on the other just hasn't read enough history, most likely.

Now I happen to reject both dominionist thought and dispensationalist thought but I keep those categories distinct.  Unfortunately not very many Americans do seem interested in keeping those categories distinct.

On the whole, particularly since half my lineage is Native American, I've got a far more negative view of the long-term policy effects of postmillennialism paired with dominionism than with dispensationalism.  Sure, we have reason to be worried what premillenialist dispensationalists will do with a catalyzing role in a dominionist streak in political theology that has never gone away in America's civic religions. That's not the same thing as saying that dispensationalism is creepy because it's no longer fringe.  It's been the dominant view in American civic religious Christianity for at least half a century.  Get your view off the mainlines and it's been a norm, even if it shouldn't have been.

But given the history of the mainlines and given the history of the Social Gospel and Manifest Destiny let's be cautious to not act as if dominionist theology hasn't been normative in American Christianity and Christian engagement with politics for centuries.  The religious right isn't scary because of the dominionist streak, because the old mainline and even the religious left have the exact same doctrinal lens at a practical level.  It just seems different to journalists and some historians who are so busy looking at the platform of desired policies they are missing that the underlying eschatological theory is in common.  As I've dryly quipped here in the past, the underlying eschatological/apocalyptic framework for a postmillennialist theocratic Presbyterian and a Marxist isn't that different.  Since I reject postmillennial views across the board as disastrously interested in revolutions and social engineering in American cultural and political history I'm no more fond of one than the other.  But thanks to the peculiarities of American thinking one is view as different in practical terms than the other.  There ARE Differences, of course, but I think the core danger is shared.

Two postscript thoughts

1.  I have described myself as an amillenial partial preterist for decades when people have asked what my actual views are, and it's generally only come up in theological discussions where dispensationalists and postmillenialists tend to assume their view is the only real option and/or the other one is the alternative.  I don't think your views on the millennia do anything in themselves to preclude tendencies toward autocratic views.  That requires a distinct and too often separate set of thoughts and disciplines

2. Back when I was at Mars Hill I tended to come across people who were, if they thought about the issue of eschatology at all, defaulting to some form of dispensationalist futurism on the one hand or some kind of postmillennialism on the other.  Doug Wilson and others have an idiotic shorthand for things about optimillenialism and pessimillenialism.  Well, optimillenialists in the United States have penchants for Manifest Destiny and seeing that as a rationale for massacring Native Americans, which is half my lineage.  So I think people might understand why I find the legacy of postmillennialism and Manifest Destiny ghastly.  While dispensationalism could be scary informing public policy I don't think the full legacy of postmillennialism has been  seen for as bad as it has been.

There's a short anecdote that comes to mind.  Years and years ago I recall someone telling me at Mars Hill that he had to speak up in my defense and explain to a guy who would later be a pastor at Mars Hill that, no, I was not a heretic for being an amillenial partial preterist.  That someone explained that my views could be considered historically normal and mainstream in Christian terms and that this was not a sign that I was a heretic but that I had made a point of reading not-American theologians. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

Generally, I think the strange combination between dispensationalism and dominionism should deflate the popular trope that ideas have consequences. I mean, look at the average evangelical on this boat: you're saying that Jesus is coming soon and the world will burn up in flames, BUT, I still need to stump for the conservative Republicans, shut down abortion clinics, get gay marriage banned, and make sure American remains godly, EVEN THOUGH the one world government is already well on its way?

But that's the point: it doesn't have to make sense. It's a confluence of interests that have melded together to form a platform, useful to agitate. It's why Medieval Amillenialism was equally oppressive and imperial, with the pope becoming the doorway between heaven and earth, a conduit of Jesus ruling on Earth.

If you want to understand the importance of ideas, you have to trace the institutions they're attached to. That's not to say ideas aren't right or wrong, but they are only explanatory tools to weave together disparate brute facts. That's what I was saying over on that Hauerwas post, but no one seems to see that ideas are pretty malleable, and don't do much in the way of changing people's lives, that is unless the idea accompanies a change in one's social relations and orientation to things around you.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yeah, much as I'm on board with amillenialism there's absolutely nothing about the doctrine IN ITSELF that precludes despotic regimes.

It really does seem to be a trend in the Christian blogosphere, across the entire spectrum of political and doctrinal positions, to assume that ideas have consequences.