And according to leading Baptist theologians, nearly all of those opinions fall within the bounds of orthodoxy.
"On the whole Baptists have been model kingdom citizens when agreeing on the essentials of a doctrine of last things without attempting to press one another unrelentingly on the particular details," wrote Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the book "Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America's Largest Protestant Denomination."
Patterson explained that the committee charged in 2000 with revising the Southern Baptist Convention's confession of faith articulated the Bible's core teachings on last things -- also known as eschatology -- without mentioning the secondary details on which inerrantists disagree. He listed 12 beliefs one must hold to be orthodox.
BEYOND CHRIST'S RETURN
Beyond those essential beliefs, Christians disagree significantly. Theologians have divided on such issues as what happens to believers between their deaths and Christ's second coming, the nature of the resurrection body and the number of resurrections to occur.
"Frankly, I find some Christian eschatological interpretations embarrassing," guest lecturer Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity School said during a discussion of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "There are some pulpiteers, TV evangelists, and popular writers who think they've got this all figured out."
When asked his interpretation of Bible prophecy from references to the armies of Belial, armies of Satan, and a mention of Magog, Evans said, "I just say to be cautious about that because we don't always know what's going on. Some of this is metaphorical, poetic and so forth, and to bring a scientific precision to it and pigeonhole everything -- I think that's a very questionable approach."
The only views that qualify as unorthodox are those that deny a future coming of Christ, Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the theology school at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said.
"Any view that does not hold to a future day of what the church has called 'the resurrection of the flesh' is outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy," Moore said. "Christians have and will continue to disagree about whether some of the events of Matthew 25 or Mark 13 or the book of Revelation were fulfilled at the fall of Jerusalem. That can be a disagreement among brothers.
"We, of course, will continue to disagree about the meaning of the millennium in Revelation 20, probably until the millennium itself. We cannot disagree, however, about the future bodily coming of our Lord and the future resurrection of both the just and the unjust. This is clearly and indisputably taught in the Scripture and is essential to the Christian faith."
Among Southern Baptists, differences of opinion arise on the nature of the millennium referenced in Revelation 20. That passage describes a 1,000-year period, known as the millennium, during which Satan is bound. Disagreement occurs regarding the timing of Christ's return relative to the millennium and whether the number 1,000 is literal or symbolic.
Premillennialists believe Christ will return prior to a literal 1,000-year period.
Among premillennialists, there are varied opinions on whether Jesus will remove Christians from the earth prior to a tribulation preceding His return. Some, known as dispensational premillennialists or dispensationalists, believe in such a rescue for Christians. Others, known as historic premillennialists, believe Christians will not be taken out of the world until Jesus returns. A minority of premillennialists believe Christians will be raptured halfway through a period of tribulation preceding Christ's return.
Postmillennialists believe the 1,000-year period will occur before Jesus returns. Adherents of this position generally believe the millennium will be a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity under the lordship of Christ. Although postmillennialism has enjoyed proponents such as Jonathan Edwards and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H. Carroll, the view faded from Baptist life in the last century.
Amillennialists believe the number 1,000 is figurative and that we are currently in the millennium (some premillennialists and postmillennialists also believe 1,000 is figurative). They argue that Satan was bound by Christ through His finished work at the cross and has limited power until Christ returns. Thus, the millennium refers to the current era when Christ reigns in the hearts of believers without Satan's interference. Christ's return will mark the close of this era, amillennialists believe.
James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern Seminary, said these millennial positions have a long history of interaction in the SBC. For the first half-century following the convention's founding in 1845, premillennialism and postmillennialism were the two dominant viewpoints, he said.
"Heaven and hell, the bodily resurrection, final judgment, the second coming and all of that was pretty well set in the confessions of faith," Garrett said. "But on the millennial question, which has become so important in America, there was a tendency at the beginning to be postmillennial and to have a continuous historical view of the book of Revelation so that the pope and others could be identified as various marks or symbols in the book of Revelation."
Amillennialism's origins often are traced to the fifth-century North African bishop Augustine of Hippo, but the view rose to prominence in the SBC between the 1930s and 1980s as postmillennialism died out. Many scholars date the decline of postmillennialism to World War I, when it seemed evident that the universe would not gradually improve leading up to a glorious millennial kingdom.
The late Oklahoma pastor and former SBC president Herschel Hobbs helped popularize amillennialism along with seminary professors H.E. Dana, Ray Summers, and Edward McDowell. At Southwestern Seminary, amillennialism was the dominant position among the faculty from the 1930s until the 1990s, Garrett said.
But not all sympathized with amillennialism. R.G. Lee, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis from 1927 to 1960, quipped that he refused to say "ah" even at the dentist, and many agreed.
Dispensational premillennialism arose as the major competitor to amillennialism in the 20th century. Initially developed by the Brethren Movement in early 19th century Britain, C.I. Scofield popularized dispensationalism by teaching it in the notes of his Scofield Reference Bible first published in 1909. Subsequent editions of the Scofield Bible continued to teach dispensationalism in revised forms. Today, the Scofield Bible is available at many LifeWay Christian Stores in the Holman Christian Standard translation.
Dispensationalism teaches that history is divided into different periods or dispensations, in which God deals with humans differently. While all evangelicals agree that God acted differently in different periods of history, dispensationalists hold some distinctive views of the dispensations which earned them their title.
In America, the Moody Bible Institute, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) and Dallas Theological Seminary played important roles in spreading dispensationalism. Gradually other schools and even entire denominations embraced the system. Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley and W.A. Criswell were among the most prominent Southern Baptist dispensationalists.
Although dispensationalism likely is the most popular eschatological position among Southern Baptists today, Garrett noted that it was a new development in the 19th century with no antecedent in the Baptist past.
"You had Graves, you had J. Frank Norris, and then you had W.A. Criswell espousing dispensationalism," he said. "But nobody back behind that period was at all inclined. And I would argue the reason is because it didn't come before ... the 19th century in Britain."
'ALREADY & 'NOT YET'
By the mid-20th century, dispensationalism and amillennialism appeared to be hopelessly at odds in the SBC and the larger evangelical world. But a movement led by Baptist theologians Carl F.H. Henry and George Eldon Ladd brought the two poles together.
Henry and Ladd argued that both groups got something wrong. Dispensationalists, they said, viewed the Kingdom of God as entirely a future reality to be established during the millennium. On the other hand, amillennialists, who often fell in the Reformed tradition of "covenant theology," argued that the Kingdom was entirely a present spiritual reality.
So Henry "combined the 'already' kingdom emphasis of the covenant theologians with the 'not yet' kingdom expectancy of the dispensationalists," explains Moore in his book "The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective." The resulting view, known as inaugurated eschatology, argued that the Kingdom is already present as Christ reigns spiritually in the hearts of believers but is also a future reality in which He will reign over the physical universe perfectly and eternally.
Because of Henry and Ladd, evangelicals who disagree on minor details of eschatology now agree on the overall "already-not yet" framework of God's Kingdom, Moore writes.
"In a reaffirmation of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, covenantalists and dispensationalists have reexamined their respective systems in the light of biblical theology, and have come to strikingly similar conclusions," he writes. "Thus, the topic of eschatology no longer serves to threaten the evangelical coalition, but actually may contribute to its doctrinal cohesion."
Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary's John Shouse, a Christian theology professor, is one who adopted Ladd's view, describing himself as "premillenial, posttribulational and decidedly not dispensational." Shouse told the Southern Baptist TEXAN, "I would hold the amillennial view if I could, however, I hold to the historic premillenial view of George Ladd, among others, as this does better justice, in my opinion, to the entirety of the biblical witness than do any of the other views."
One position to emerge from the new consensus developed by Henry and Ladd is progressive dispensationalism. Developed in the late 20th century, this position agrees with older varieties of dispensationalism that God divided history into different eras and that there will be a secret rapture of the church prior to a period of tribulation on earth. However, progressive dispensationalists disagree with classic dispensationalists' assertion that God has different plans of redemption for Israel on the one hand and the church on the other.
Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern Seminary, coauthored with New Testament scholar Darrell Bock a pioneering book on progressive dispensationalism.
"The appearance of the church does not signal a secondary redemption plan, either to be fulfilled in heaven apart from the new earth or in an elite class of Jews and Gentiles who are forever distinguished from the rest of redeemed humanity," Blaising writes in "Progressive Dispensationalism." "Instead, the church today is a revelation of spiritual blessings which all the redeemed will share in spite of their ethnic and national differences."
Patterson, himself a dispensationalist, told the TEXAN that progressive dispensationalism brought valuable correction to older forms of dispensationalism and he categorized himself as holding a position similar to Blaising's.
"The problem with 'revised dispensationalism' is that its advocates may actually hold that Israel and the church are forever separated," Patterson said. "I see them instead as one people before God in the eternal state. The key to this, to me, is the 24 elders who appear before the throne in the Book of Revelation who seem to be representative of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb -- hence, Israel and the church.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the distinction should be made in God's work through Israel in the Old Testament and then again in the tribulation and the millennium, but there is also no question in my mind that once the eternal state is inaugurated, the church and Israel will all be together as the people of God."
PROFS VARY ON VIEWS
SBC seminaries employ professors who hold a wide variety of eschatological positions but agree on inaugurated eschatology and the 12 basic beliefs cited earlier as a standard of orthodoxy. The TEXAN polled the six seminaries regarding the positions of their faculty and discovered that historic premillennialism may have slightly more adherents than any other position. Included in the survey's findings:
-- Among Southwestern School of Theology faculty, 20 are historic premillennialists, 15 hold to premillennial and pretribulational views, three are amillennialists and two abstained.
-- Southern Seminary faculty members hold to historic premillennialism most often, although a small number hold to amillennialism or progressive dispensationalism.
-- New Orleans Seminary faculty members tend to be historic premillennialists.
-- Of the eight Midwestern Seminary faculty members who responded, all but one are premillennialists, two of them specifying historic premillennialism and another amillennialism.
-- At Southeastern Seminary, premillennial, pretribulational faculty edged out historic premillennialists 12-6, while one professor is still undecided on his millennium commitment.
-- A survey of Golden Gate faculty was incomplete. But President Jeff Iorg indicated that he holds to a premillennial, pretribulational view while two faculty members identified themselves as historic premillennialists.
In addition to debates regarding the millennium, Southern Baptists divide on several other eschatological issues. For example, Criswell College in Dallas requires professors to be premillennialists while some Southern Baptists see such a requirement as inappropriately narrow.
"The college has always required professors to believe in a premillennial return of Christ," said James Bryant, senior professor of pastoral theology and Criswell's founding dean. "While Dr. Criswell believed in a pretribulation rapture, which the sequential language in the indicates, he never enforced a pretribulation rapture on professors that he hired," adding that one former president held to a posttribulation rapture.
Still, Tom Nettles, a premillennialist and professor of historical theology at Southern Seminary, sees Criswell's requirement as too restrictive. He said he does not fault anyone for being strongly convinced of a millennial position but thinks it an error to require a specific position given Scripture's ambiguity.
"I would see it as something that is dubious confessionally to force a large group into taking a position in which there is obviously such massive disagreement and, it seems to me, a lack of certainty given the whole biblical record," Nettles said. "I think it's difficult to force everyone into a specific confessional position on that."
"Admittedly, Criswell College has many narrow doctrinal perspectives that are in keeping with sound exegesis of the Word of God," said Lamar Cooper, interim president, executive vice president, provost and professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Criswell College.
"We require professors to believe in the inerrancy of the Scripture, also a narrow doctrine.... We require professors to teach that Jesus is the only way to be saved -- Acts 4:12 -- a narrow but true doctrine," he added.
Cooper noted the college's doctrinal statement is that of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Citing the college's namesake, W.A. Criswell, who was senior pastor at the church for 50 years, Cooper said Criswell's "eschatology flows naturally out of Scripture.... When he became pastor, the church added the statement on premillennialism to the church statement of faith, following Dr. Criswell's leadership."
"We have never had any problem hiring faculty, and no one has ever complained about having to sign the statement of faith annually. Professors are expected to teach all of the approaches to the doctrine of last things," Cooper said. "They are then expected to be able to explain, in light of other positions, why they are premillennialist. Students are allowed to formulate their own eschatology."
THE MIDDLE EAST
Another area of disagreement is the extent to which believers should look to current events in the Middle East as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some dispensationalists see the state of Israel as playing a central role in the end times while historic premillennialists and amillennialists do not see God's Kingdom as linked to a single political state.
Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute of Jewish Studies and associate professor of Jewish ministry at Criswell, represents the dispensationalist side of the argument.
Current events in the Middle East "are prompting Christians to take a greater interest in eschatology," Sibley said. "I think the novels of Joel Rosenberg have helped that. I think it's fading now, but the influence of the 'Left Behind' series was certainly huge. But the fact that Iran and its surrogates are encircling Israel through Hamas and Hezbollah with the development of nuclear capability at the same time is causing a lot of Christians to sit up and pay attention."
Moore, a historic premillennialist, disagrees. In his book "The Kingdom of Christ," he argues, along with Reformed theologians and progressive dispensationalists, that the modern state of Israel does not now play a central role in God's Kingdom.
"Developments toward a kingdom-oriented eschatology ... do not give such a blanket endorsement of the present Israeli state, at least not on the basis of biblical prophecy," Moore writes. "This is because of the Christocentric nature of the messianic kingdom, a theological contention covenant theologians have always maintained in relation to any future for the state of Israel."
Sibley said most dispensationalists do not endorse everything the Israeli government does and see greater prophetic significance in the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel than to the actions of their secular state. He dismissed any caricature of dispensationalists "as Israeli flag-waving zealots who unthinkingly endorse everything the Israeli government does and whose theology was only cooked up in the 19th century."
"When the apostles asked the Lord, 'Is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel,' he addressed the issue of the timing of the kingdom, but he did not dispute that it would be restored to Israel," Sibley noted.
He referred to Jesus' instruction to His apostles in Luke 22:28-30, quoting: "You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and just as my Father has granted me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
"Just as the Father gave the kingdom to Christ, so Christ has related it to Israel, through the apostles," he argued. "For those who think the relationship between the Kingdom and Israel is ambiguous or unclear, I would answer that it is no less clear than the relationship of the Kingdom to Christ."
Despite minor disagreements, Patterson urged Southern Baptists to remain united on the beliefs articulated in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.
He wrote in "Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America's Largest Protestant Denomination": "What may be seen as most remarkable about the 2000 statement is that within a postmodern ethos, which generally desires to skirt issues of judgment, the Southern Baptist Convention has maintained the emphasis from former years on the certainty of the judgment of God, associating that judgment with the return of the Lord, insisting that there are two classes of people -- the righteous and the unrighteous -- and that people will spend eternity in either heaven or hell."
David Roach is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.
Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net