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Saturday, May 28, 2016

The 1830 Principle

“Sorry, you’re just not old enough ...”
I’ve read this statement or something quite like it maybe ten times in the last year:

“Rapture doctrine did not exist before John Darby invented it in 1830 AD. Before it ‘popped into John Darby’s head’ no one had ever heard of a secret rapture doctrine.”

It’s even been picked up by Wikipedia, which I guess makes it a “thing”. They won’t go quite so far as to say Darby invented it, but they concede that he certainly popularized the teaching.

The Meaning of “Rapture”

“Rapture” is an English word, so it obviously doesn’t appear in our Greek New Testaments, but it is a perfectly legitimate usage for anyone acquainted with translation (no, that wasn’t a pun). The idea comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where the word that in my Bible is translated “caught up” is in Greek harpazo and in Latin rapturo, thus in English “rapture”.

In a nutshell (assuming anyone reading this post is unfamiliar with the teaching), that particular passage in 1 Thessalonians declares that those who have died “in Christ” (people who have put their trust in Jesus for salvation and who identify with him in front of their fellow men and women) will in a future day be raised from the dead and  “caught up” or “raptured” at the command of Christ himself as he descends from heaven with the voice of an archangel and the sound of a trumpet, and that after they have done so, the remaining, living believers on earth will be caught up in the same way along with our dead to meet the Lord in the air and to be with him forever.

It’s a wonderful thought, to my mind very clearly laid out by the apostle, but if you come to it with a bunch of preconceived ideas about Israel being the Church and the millennial reign of Christ being already in progress, you and I will not read it quite the same way.

Let’s Make a Rule

I’m actually not that interested in fighting about the doctrine of the Rapture, though I certainly believe in it, so those of you who’d like to hash that out will have to wait for another day. I’m actually much more interested in the line of reasoning those who object to the idea of a “rapture” advance here in dismissing it, which being boiled down is this: Darby came about 1800 years late to the party, so he cannot possibly be correct in his interpretation. Or, if we were to make a rule of it, we might declare:

“Any interpretation of scripture that cannot be shown to have been taught early in church history must therefore be wrong.”

What do you think? Does that work as a rule? Can we exclude ideas about the Bible just because we have no proof anyone ever thought of them before some arbitrary date in church history? Can we call it the No One Ever Heard of this Before 1830 Principle, or maybe just the 1830 Principle for short?

A Useful Idea

In a way, I’d love to see the 1830 Principle become an accepted interpretive rule of thumb. It would be terribly convenient for me on many fronts. It would summarily dispense with a whole bunch of dubious modern views of scripture that I most heartily dislike:
  • Feminist views of women’s role in church and home.  Christian modernists are trying desperately to show the Bible teaches that women are free to do everything men do in church and home and to exercise all the same authority as their husbands because in Christ “there is no male and female”.

    Sorry, no luck ladies, unless you can convincingly demonstrate that view of Galatians 3:28 was held by the church fathers or signed off on by the Vatican in 400 AD. Want to try another angle?
  • Homosexuals/Transsexuals in the church.  Same deal. Some LGBT-whatever advocates take the position that the New Testament is just silly and patriarchal and should be ignored. Can’t have a conversation with those people anyway. Others, like this fellow here, make a genuine effort to prove from the Bible itself that you can be a practicing homosexual Christian.

    If we are allowed to argue back with the 1830 Principle, Matthew Vines and his ilk will never have their much-desired “seat at the table”. Vines is a millennial. Good luck demonstrating that his novel interpretations of Genesis and Romans would have flown at the Council of Trent.
The 1830 Principle would conveniently put paid to at least half the dodgy interpretations I battle with in the average month. I’d love to be able to use it.

If I could. But I can’t. It’s just not a solid argument, unfortunately.

Sadly, No Luck

What doesn’t work about the 1830 Principle? Well …
  • No Strength in Numbers.  The idea that at any given point in time the interpretation held by the largest number of people for the longest period must therefore be the correct one is attractive but awfully hard to demonstrate. At one point, Christianity itself was a view held by 11 not-so-credible guys hiding in an upper room.
  • Historical Gaps.  The principle stands or falls on the completeness and accuracy of recorded church history. Much IS known about the first three centuries of the church, but if our data set is limited by lost documents (which it surely is), documents that were never written in the first place (because small, semi- or illiterate persecuted groups meeting in houses are not known for writing and preserving comprehensive statements of faith), cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, disinformation circulated by opponents or other sorts of missing or corrupted data, we are in no strong position to say what much of the early church believed once we leave the canon behind. We certainly cannot exclude the possibility that many in the early church and throughout history believed in a “rapture”.
  • Cheesy Rhetoric.  Statements like “nobody believed this before 1830” are almost always self-serving, badly researched rhetoric. The Wikipedia entry on the Rapture’s doctrinal history starts with a Catholic Jesuit in the late sixteeth century named Francisco Ribera who taught a pre-Tribulation rapture well over 200 years before Darby. While I can’t say I have much confidence in Wikipedia’s ideology, the website is as agnostic as they come and has no theological axe to grind over the issue. I trust it more than the judgment of a Replacement Theologian with a Darby fixation.
  • Character of God.  It is not uncharacteristic of God to leave doctrine a little obscure until it is actually required. He gives understanding when he chooses and to those whom he chooses: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out”. He is a rewarder of those who SEEK him, not those who come to him with a load of theological preconceptions they’d like him to confirm for their convenience.
  • It Says What It Says.  The words of scripture are there now and they say what they say, which is presumably what they always said. Any number of conclusions have been drawn from them by Christian readers. That said, some of those conclusions fit better in context, are better translated, are less fanciful or are more consistent with numerous other passages in God’s word. If the best interpretation turns out to be a recent one, that really doesn’t bother me. I’d still want the one that best satisfies the other criteria.
As much as I’d love to be able to use the 1830 Principle as a stick to (theologically) beat those I dislike, I’m rather afraid it would splinter in my hand.

Oh well, back to the drawing board …

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