7.2.3. The Neo-Protestant betrayal: the futurist dispensationalism
At the beginning of the 19th century it became quite clear that the Catholic Church did not collapse as Protestants expected since the 16th century, the Papacy (or a certain pope) was not the Antichrist and the end of the world did not come. In other words, Protestant historicism – developed at the time of the Reformation – failed and another eschatological system had to be found. Accordingly, due to the pressure exercised upon religion by scientific development, amid a wave of spiritual occurrences and the development of British Israelism, a good part of the American and British Protestant organizations betrayed the tenets of the Reformation. Instead, they independently developed their own ideas, dogmas and rituals, and simultaneously adopted the dispensationalist eschatological point of view. Usually, these groups are generically called “Neo-Protestant,” but, in a broader sense, Neo-Protestantism includes all the groups that came into existence since the First Great Awakening.
Dispensationalism is a combination between Catholic futurism, Protestant historicism and Hebraism. The term “dispensationalism” is derived from the idea that the biblical history is better understood by dividing it into a series of “dispensations” – successive chronological covenants or historical periods (ages) within which God interacts with mankind in certain ways. There is no consensus among supporters regarding the exact number of dispensations; their number varies between three and eight. The minimal dispensationalist scenarios of three of four dispensations recognize only the major historical periods:
(1) The Covenant of the Law (from the Creation to Christ’s birth).
(2) The Age of the Church (from the rise of the Church to its future Rapture).
(3) The Covenant of the Kingdom (from Revelation 20:4 to Revelation 22).
Instead, the maximal dispensationalist scenarios of seven or eight dispensations are linked to the inauguration of certain biblical covenants:
(1) The Edenic Covenant of Innocence (Genesis 1-3).
(2) The Antediluvian State of Consciousness (Genesis 3-8).
(3) The State of the Civil Government (Genesis 9-11).
(4) The State of Promise (Genesis 12 – Exodus 19).
(5) The Covenant of the Mosaic Law (from Exodus 20 to Christ’s birth).
(6) The Covenant of the Christian Church (The Age of the Church until the Rapture).
(7) The Millennial Covenant (Revelation 20:4-6).
(8) The Eternal Covenant (Revelation 20-22).
The Scot Edward Irving, the forerunner of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, was of the opinion that the Church was far from being on the brink of an age of blessing; on the contrary, the world was getting worse and it was close to the dreadful judgment of God.881 In 1826 Irving came into contact with Catholic futurism through the work La Venida del Mesias en Gloria y Magestad of the Spanish Jesuit Manuel Lacunza (Ben-Ezra). Lacunza made a distinction between the coming of Christ and the end of the world, the two being separated by the Millennium. In addition, Lacunza denied the idea of a complete destruction of the world and indirectly criticized the Catholic Church saying it would turn on the side of the Antichrist. Irving was so pleased by Lacunza’s speculative futurism that he learned Spanish in order to translate and to publish the work in English.882 He added a dense preface in which he presented his own speculations about an imminent apostasy of Christianity, the subsequent restoration of the Jews, a charismatic outpouring and ultimately Parousia.883 In 1828 Irving openly expressed his belief that Christ would return during the time of his generation:
I conclude, therefore, that the last days … will begin to run from the time of God’s appearing for his ancient people, and gathering them together to the work of destroying all Anti-Christian nations, of evangelising the world, and of governing it during the Millennium; … there can be little doubt that the one thousand two hundred and sixty days concluded in the year 1792, and the thirty additional days in the year 1823, we are already entered upon the last days, and the ordinary life of a man will carry many of us to the end of them.884
In 1826 Henry Drummond, impressed by Irving’s prophetic zeal, gathered a group of 20 guests, clergymen and laymen to discuss prophetic matters at his private mansion in Albury Park. Repeated for another four years, the Albury conferences brought together the important millenarists of the time and conferred a structure to the British millenarist revival. In 1829 Drummond summarized the conclusions agreed upon by all the participants:
(1) The end will not come imperceptibly, but in a cataclysmic manner.
(2) The Church would be destroyed in the same manner the Jewish nation was destroyed.
(3) The Jews would be restored in Palestine during the Last Judgment.
(4) The Judgment would mainly befall Christianity.
(5) After the Judgment the Millennium would begin.
(6) The Second Coming would happen before the establishment of the Millennium.
(7) The 1,260 years from Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 must be measured from the reign of Justinian until the French Revolution. The vials of wrath from Revelation 16 were poured at that moment and Parousia was imminent.885
Initially, Irving believed that that the apostolic spiritual gifts would be restored toward the end of time through the increased activity of the Holy Spirit in the material world. But in May 1828, while he was making a preaching tour in Scotland, A. J. Scott convinced Irving that the spiritual gifts have never been withdrawn from among mankind, but they are as present as in the time of the apostles. This idea was additionally confirmed by Samuel Coleridge, Irving’s friend, who described the preachers as the voice of the Holy Spirit. And, as a divine coincidence, in the same period rumors began to circulate about strange events taking place in Southern Scotland: parishioners were experiencing shakings, faintings and spasms, followed by extreme piety, miraculous healings and speaking in tongues. A famous case was that of Isabella Campbell, a young girl sick with tuberculosis who burst into ecstatic speech. After Isabella’s death, her sister Mary Campbell started to prepare herself for a missionary work through fasting and ardent praying. Apparently, as a result she gained the gift of speaking in tongues (“glossolalia”), the gift of automatic writing (“xenoglossia” – writing in strange characters with an amazing speed in state of trance) and the gift of prophecy.
A few miles from Campbell’s house, in Port Glasgow, Margaret MacDonald was healed at the command of her brother James. But before this happened, Margaret experienced a long vision about the purification of the Church and a secret coming of Christ among the saints, invisible to the human eye.886 On January 14, 1832, Robert Baxter, one of Irving’s listeners, began to speak in tongues and prophesized that exactly over 1,260 literal days – on June 27, 1835 – the saints would ascend to heaven to meet the Lord in the air.887 The religious leaders personally investigated these cases. And while Edward Irving and Henry Drummond concluded that these events were genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirit, John Nelson Darby and Benjamin Newton assigned them to demonic powers.888
Darby was responsible for the most profound systematization of the dispensationalist doctrine. In 1827 he left the Church of Ireland to form the Plymouth Brethren – a copy of Wesley’s Methodism based on the missionary work of lay evangelists. Irving did the same thing, leaving the Church of Scotland to form the Catholic Apostolic Church in 1832. Both Irving and Darby believed in progressive revelation (the idea that the work of the Holy Spirit would be increasingly active as the end approaches), believed that their new theological systems were part of this progressive revelation and both premised that the imminent return of Christ had two stages.
In the first stage Christ would take his Bride (the Church) to Heaven in a secret and spontaneous manner, before the rise of the Antichrist and the beginning of …
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