Thursday, December 15, 2011

It’s an Advent Life

A friend of mine who is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy recently told me that we spend most of our lives sorting out the faith we learn as children. We lived many places in my youth as my dad moved around from one radio station to another, but the most memorable place for me was Canton, NC. That smoky paper mill town nestled at the foot of the Balsam range was where I spent my pre-school and kindergarten days. Dad worked downtown at WPTL (no connection to Jim Bakker); everything in the studio – the control board, the acoustic tile, the water fountains, even the linoleum – reeked of cigarette smoke. There was nowhere in Canton to escape the smell of smoke.

But we lived south of town, toward the towering mountains, in a rural subdivision called the Plott Farm, adjacent to an ancient Cherokee Indian mound excavated by UNC Chapel Hill students in their cut-offs and sandals in the summer. We went to church and I attended vacation Bible school at Bethel Baptist. I remember getting pinched by my mother for wiggling in the pew and the preacher being loud and alarming in his delivery. That unnerved me. I was already shaken by the shrill whines of the regularly scheduled Emergency Broadcast tests and the noonday siren at the VFD. So church, or at least that church, wasn’t my thing. I got a different take on religion when watching Davey & Goliath. They were Lutherans (well, as Lutheran as a dog can be); unlike the austere white blankness of Bethel Baptist, D & G’s church had warm stained glass windows and a cathedral ceiling that stretched into infinity. I knew of such real-life churches in nearby Asheville, and my gaze was always arrested by them. Davey’s pastor wore a black jacket and shirt with a white clerical collar and spoke in reassuring tones. His dad was firm but gentle.

My dad had an old Bible that had to be 10 inches thick. I couldn’t read much of it, but loved to thumb through the pictures of baroque oil paintings of biblical scenes. Jonah being spewed ashore was especially fantastic. But my favorite was Heinrich Hofmann's rendering of a 12 year old Jesus blowing the minds of the scribes in the Temple. Another was Diego Velazquez’ The Crucifixion, with Christ suspended in blackness as dark as the set of the Charlie Rose Show. And then there was Jean Cousin’s spectacular depiction of the Last Judgment, with a distant but powerfully triumphant Christ coming in divine radiance, with contorted multitudes strewn about the oily dark ground below.

From that time on I never doubted that Jesus was real, the true Son of God, and that He would come again and I would see Him – although, it would be a few more years before I fully understood the meaning of the cross, and that He had dealt with my sins.

Color and vividness were shaping my understanding of the faith. Words could do it as well, as long as the words weren’t shouted at my hypersensitive ears. Among my fondest memories was an evening at our home on the Plott Farm, sitting on the bare living room floor while my dad and some friends from the radio station discussed Bible prophecy. A smaller Bible was open on his lap. It did my heart good to hear him take the lead in such discourses. There was a lot going on in the late 1960’s – not the least of which was the capture of Jerusalem by Israeli paratroopers led by Moshe Dayan with his black eye patch. Was the barren fig tree beginning to put forth its leaves? Vietnam was going badly (though no one would admit it) and the radical student protests had all the ordinary folk on edge (our neighbors across the road had a hippie granddaughter living with them who had nude pictures up in her bedroom). Perhaps the end of the age was really upon us.

Of course, similar things have been going on since the days of Noah. I’ve been teaching my younger chaps that we live in a post-1971 inflationary economy that is slowly but surely unraveling. And a post-911 world in which our government is shredding the Bill of Rights in the name of national security.

“Will Jesus come soon?”

“His coming is always imminent, and it’s our hope. In the meantime He wants us to tell the good news of repentance and salvation in His name and do the right thing in every situation.”

We know not the day or the hour. But we are to keep our lamps trimmed and burning (and nobody does a better version of that song than Luther Dickinson).

Davey & Goliath didn’t seem to worry with biblical prophecy. Eschatology is not a fixation of Lutheran theology. As with Anglicanism, it is mostly amillenial (or “panmillenial,” which is shorthand for “whatever happens will happen; it’ll all pan out in the end”). Amillenialism does not read too much into what is going on in this world. The end will happen when it happens, then the redeemed will go to heaven – whatever that looks like. I never embraced amillenialism. It seemed fairly clear to me that Christ was coming back here to start something new. Neither did I embrace postmillennialism, for which Christ’s return could yet be thousands of years away.

My belief about the end of this age was summed up quaintly by none other than Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, church reformer, burned at the stake with Nicholas Ridley under Queen Mary in 1555:

“It may come in my days, old as I am, or in my children’s days, the saints shall be taken up to meet Christ in the air, and so shall come down with him again.”

In that sentence Latimer affirms a very plain reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and, by inference, Revelation 20:1-4.

That’s right, folks: an Anglican premillennialist. Latimer, it turns out, wasn’t the only one. Henry Alford (1810-1871), Dean of Canterbury and renowned Greek New Testament scholar, wrote concerning Revelation 20,

“…I cannot consent to distort words from their plain sense and chronological place in the prophecy, on account of any considerations of difficulty, or any risk of abuses which the doctrine of the millennium may bring with it. Those who lived next to the Apostles, and the whole Church for 300 years, understood them in the plain literal sense: and it is a strange sight in these days to see expositors who are among the first in reverence of antiquity, complacently casting aside the most cogent instance of consensus which primitive antiquity presents.

“As regards the text itself, no legitimate treatment of it will extort what is known as the spiritual interpretation now in fashion. If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain "souls lived" at the first, and the rest of the "dead lived" only at the end of a specified period after that first,--if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave; --then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to any thing. If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardly enough to maintain: but if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.”

Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) wrote,

“The plain truth of Scripture I believe to be as follows: Christ will come again to this world with power and great glory. He will raise His saints, and gather them to Himself. He will punish with fearful judgments all who are found His enemies, and reward with glorious rewards all His believing people. He will take to Himself His great power, and reign, and establish a universal kingdom. He will gather the scattered tribes of Israel, and place them once more in their own land. As He came the first time in person, so He will come the second time in person. As He went away from earth visibly, so He will return visibly. As He literally rode upon an ass--was literally sold for thirty pieces of silver--had His hands and feet literally pierced--was numbered literally with the transgressors--and had lots literally cast upon His raiment--and all, that Scripture might be fulfilled--so also He will literally come, literally set up a kingdom, and literally reign over the earth, because the very same Scripture has said that it shall be so.”

And of course William Henry Griffith Thomas, principal at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford who was slated to be made the first professor of theology at the new Dallas Theological Seminary before his death, held similar premillenarian views.

We are a rare species, we Anglican premils. I know of only five or six on the earth at the moment – my family and maybe our pastor. But the fact that this interpretation of biblical prophecy has hung on, however tenuously, since the time of the English Reformation (if not before), is icing on my cake. I didn’t get the stained glass and the towering cathedral ceilings that cheered my young heart. A pastor with the black shirt and collar will have to do. But the sorting out of the faith imparted to me as a youth keeps coming together. And this season in the church year, because it has as its focus the coming again of our Lord and Savior, has grown to be a favorite of mine.

Happy Advent.

1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

"Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel." John Bow­ring, Hymns: As a Se­quel to Ma­tins, 1825.