Have We Left the Rapture Behind?

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The Apostle Paul says of the believers who will be living when Jesus returns: “We who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:17). We generally refer to the “catching up” as the Rapture. Does this event occur before the Tribulation? During? After? On Sept. 4th the Bush Center for Faith and Culture will host the Day of Prophecy conference, in which the arguments for a pre-tribulational rapture will be examined.

The speakers include Craig Blaising, Provost of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ed Hindson, Dean of the School of Religion at Liberty University, Michael Rydelnik, Professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute; and William Watson, Professor of History at Colorado Christian University.

The schedule is as follows:

  • 10 am: Ed Hindson (Binkley Chapel) — “Can we still believe in the Rapture?”
  • 1 pm: William Watson (Bush Center) — “The Rapture before Darby”
  • 2 pm: Michael Rydelnik (Bush Center) — “Israel, the Church, and the Tribulation”
  • 3 pm: Panel Discussion (Bush Center) with Danny Akin, Craig Blaising, Ed Hindson, William Watson, and Michael Rydelnik
  • 7 pm: Craig Blaising (Wake Forest Baptist Church) — “The Rapture and the Day of the Lord”

More information about the conference (including registration) can be found here.

The Mystery of God and the “Unknown Unknowns”

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When thinking about the mystery of God–whether contemplating His nature, His character, or the facets of His will–one quickly finds himself muttering Rumsfeldian quotes. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, talking about military intelligence, (in)famously observed,

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

God is not completely unknown to us. He has revealed Himself to us in nature, in the human conscience, in history, through the Scriptures, and ultimately in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet God remains a mystery–there are “unknown unknowns”. Part of the problem with saying that God is mysterious is the ambiguous meaning of the word “mystery” in the English language. In The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable, Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall give a very helpful and nuanced discussion of the word.Boyer, Mystery Boyer, Mystery They distinguish between five different meanings of the word “mystery”:

1. An intriguing puzzle: this is the type of mystery that we attempt to solve. In fiction, detectives such as Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes solve mysterious crimes. In the real world, scientists and other researchers attack these types of puzzling mysteries on a regular basis.

2. An unknown plan: this is the type of mystery that is revealed. The biblical authors typically had this meaning in mind when they spoke of mystery. In Matthew 13, Jesus uses parables to teach about the “mysteries of the Kingdom”. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declares, “Behold I show you a mystery” as he taught about the instantaneous translation of the saints at our Lord’s return. Both instances are examples of unknown truths–mysteries–now being unveiled by divine revelation.

3. An overwhelming reality: this is the type of mystery by which one is awed. Boyer and Hall call this “quantitative inexhaustibility.” In this situation we suffer not from a lack of information, but from an excess of information. For example, we affirm that God is infinite–that His power and wisdom are limitless. But we quickly must admit that we have said more than we understand.

4. A bewildering dilemma: this is the type of mystery that does not lend itself to rational thought, much less explanation. Consider the mystery of suffering, or the inexplicable, incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. This type of mystery appears irrational or non-rational, and leaves us bewildered.

5. Boyer and Hall finally present a fifth type of mystery–”unclassifiable superabundance.” This type of mystery goes beyond an overwhelming reality (Definition 3). We can grasp an overwhelming mystery, but we cannot comprehend it. A superabundant mystery cannot even be grasped. We simply do not have the intellectual ability to begin. The cognitive capacity is not there. When we contemplate the mystery of God (in this sense), we are dealing with unknown unknowns.

This does not mean that the mysterious aspects of God (Definition 5) contradict or conflict with what has been revealed about His nature, character, and will. We do not have to abandon rational discourse about God nor do we have to settle for a vague mysticism that reduces to a non-rational spirituality. The mystery of God transcends rational discourse but does not invalidate it. We will have to acknowledge our limitations with humility.

Despite the mystery of God–His “unclassifiable superabundance”–we still have reason to hope. God is not silent. He has spoken with the intent that we would know Him, love Him, and have a relationship with Him. Boyer and Hall put it this way:

“[E]very faculty [reason, emotion, and will] may approach God. But every faculty must approach God as God–and this means that every faculty should expect to be overwhelmed and undone by a supremacy that cannot be mastered….Reason, too, comes before the mystery legitimately, but she comes as a petitioner seeking her Lord’s bounty, not as a judge demanding a satisfactory explanation.” (14)

God may have unknown unknowns, but He is not unknown to us.

This blog is cross posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

The Freedom of the Gospel Community: Local Church Autonomy

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on September 20, 2008.]

This is the seventh article in a series that explores the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Baptists have historically argued for what is commonly called the autonomy of the local church. Stan Norman sums up the Baptist argument nicely:

The New Testament presents churches that are independent and self-governing. The decisions of each local church are final because no authority higher than a local church exists. Local churches can join together for certain ministry, education, or benevolent endeavors, but these shared ventures occur because of the bond of a common faith and ministry. No church assumes any authority over another church in these joint, cooperative efforts.[1]

Baptists believe that the local church is the highest ecclesiastical authority on earth. We argue that no individual denomination, association, synod, presbytery, or diocese can impose its will upon a local church. Furthermore, we believe that each church is an autonomous congregation of believers and that every church is free to pursue its own spiritual agenda. Responsible local church autonomy reflects the freedom of gospel people in a specific gospel community to pursue whatever gospel ends they deem appropriate, under the lordship of Christ as revealed in Scripture.

Some Baptists come close to arguing that local church autonomy means that a congregation can do whatever it wants to without consequence, but this is a misunderstanding of the doctrine. Gospel freedom must always be accompanied by gospel responsibility. While churches are free to pursue their own spiritual agenda, that agenda must be consistent with the teaching of Scripture. We would do well to ask “what has the Lord said about these matters” before we shout “you can’t tell my church what to do!”

Most Baptists agree that autonomy should not lead to isolationism; churches can and should cooperate together to accomplish gospel ends that could not be accomplished as effectively by individual churches. The historic Baptist practice of interchurch association is one way that groups of autonomous congregations have worked together for common gospel ends and helped safeguard a responsible, gospel-centered autonomy.

According to J. C. Bradley, “A Baptist association is a self-governing fellowship of autonomous churches sharing a common faith and active on mission in their setting.”[2] Chad Brand notes that the work of associations can be grouped into two primary purposes: provide fellowship among like-minded churches and facilitate evangelism of a larger geographic area than can be covered by a single church.[3] This so-called “associational principle” is also the rationale behind state and national Baptist bodies like the Southern Baptist Convention.

While churches are not to be controlled by a spiritual hierarchy, they can and should open themselves up to receive advice from other churches and groups of churches like associations and conventions. Aberrant churches can and should be disfellowshipped by sister churches because of differences of opinion concerning faith and practice. To exclude a church from cooperation does not infringe upon that church’s autonomy; an association or convention cannot force a church to do anything it does not want to do. Rather, exclusion is simply what results when a church is judged by other congregations as failing to balance freedom and responsibility. Autonomous churches should be held accountable by other autonomous churches so that all churches might better ensure that their agenda is a gospel agenda.

[1] R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church (Nashville: B&H, 2005), 105.

[2] J. C. Bradley, A Baptist Association: Churches on Mission Together (Nashville: Convention Press, 1984), 15.

[3] Chad Owen Brand, “Toward a Theology of Cooperation,” in The Mission of Today’s Church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues, ed. R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 163.