Burning Questions answered
by Rev Colin Le Noury.
Q17. Is it true that the Spanish Jesuits Alcazar and Ribera formulated respectively the Preterist and Futurist interpretations of the book of Revelation?
Is it true that the doctrine of the ‘Secret Rapture’ arose in the 19th century as new ideas spread by Maitland, Darby and Irving, who absorbed the Jesuit teachings of Ribera and Lacunza?
I AM grateful to Mr. Bertram Lewis of Exeter for posing the above questions, which enable me to paint some of the background to prophetic teaching and to dispel some of the myths regarding the prophetic truths that we believe.
The two questions are addressing separate issues but as they are closely linked together we will treat them as two parts to one question. The first part has to do with the various viewpoints on the interpretation of prophecy and centres particularly on our approach to interpreting and understanding the books of Daniel and the Revelation.
There are, in fact, three viewpoints; the Historicist, the Preterist and the Futurist. The Historicist I will come to in a moment. The Futurist as its name suggests sees the great tribulation, the rise of Antichrist, the Lord’s return and the millennial kingdom as future events. The Preterist, by contrast, views the prophecies in the book of Revelation in the light of the struggle between the early church and the persecuting Roman Empire, and therefore relegates many of these prophecies to the past.
The questioner asks whether the Preterist and Futurist views were the invention of the Jesuits Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613) and Francisco Ribera (1537-1591).
To answer this let me briefly outline the development of eschatological interpretation. There is ample evidence to suggest that early church fathers believed firmly in the Lord’s return at some future date and in the establishment of a millennial rule of Christ on earth. This teaching with its emphasis on the imminent return of Christ seems to have been very strong in the antenicene period.
It is possible to link many well-known names with these beliefs; such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp (a contemporary of the apostle John) and Irenaeus to name but a few. Hence, the early church albeit in a primitive and undeveloped fashion held to a Futurist viewpoint of prophecy.
A change of interpretation was brought about by Origen in the second and third centuries. He it was who introduced the spiritualising and allegorical school of interpretation of Scripture. Origen’s teachings were later taken up by Augustine of Hippo who dated the Millennium from the first coming of Christ and equated the kingdom of God to the earth. This teaching gave the church a sense of triumphalism and for this reason was embraced by many until it was refuted by Joachim of Floris in the twelfth century.
Joachim saw the 1260 days of Revelation as 1260 years and he taught that the age of the Spirit would begin in 1260 AD. He also equated Rome with Babylon and saw the Pope as the Antichrist. This Historicist viewpoint prevailed during the middle ages and into the Reformation period.
It is true to say that Alcazar and Ribera’s promulgation of the Preterist and Futurist views were part and parcel of the counter-reformation since most of the reformers followed much of Joachim’s teaching at this point. Although adopting different positions, Alcazar and Ribera were both endeavouring to lift the prophetic symbols of Babylon and antichrist out of contemporary history, thus releasing Rome from the attacks posed by the Historicist views of the reformers.
To suggest, however, that Alcazar and Ribera created the respective views with which they are commonly linked is actually incorrect, since both views, to a lesser or greater degree, existed long before they did.
Next, we will turn our attention to the second part of the question and examine the link between Ribera’s teaching and that of the ‘Secret Rapture’ theory.
Let me reiterate that the futurist viewpoint was NOT created by Ribera, but rather that he was resurrecting, at a given point in history, a view that had been widely held by many early church fathers.
Having so said, let us now turn our attention to the ‘secret rapture’ often scathingly referred to by its opponents as the creation of another Jesuit priest; namely, Manuel da Lacunza.
Without doubt the premillennial and dispensationalist view is born out of a futurist interpretation of Daniel and the Revelation.
Therefore Ribera’s promotion of the futurist view, for whateverreason, served to enhance premillennial teaching, which although understood by some, was by no means fully developed in his day.
The questioner mentions Dr. S. R. Maitland, who in fairness, took up the futurist view nearly 250 years after Ribera. In 1826, Maitland wrote a tract entitled, ‘An enquiry into the ground on which the prophetic period of Daniel and St. John has been supposed to consist of 1260 years’, in which he opposed the year day theory. This was written at a time in history when the literalist position of interpretation was flourishing – to what extent he was influenced by Ribera some 250 years previously is quite uncertain.
A more significant development took place some 35 years earlier at the end of the 18th century when another Jesuit priest, the Spaniard, Manuel da Lacunza, referred to earlier, pseudonymously wrote, ‘The Coming Messiah in Glory and Majesty’. This work was thoroughly premillennial and in contrast to popular Roman Catholic teaching. In it, Lacunza espoused the idea of a premillennial return of Christ and of a 1000 year period of Christ’s rule on earth dividing the first and second resurrections, as signified by a futurist interpretation of Revelation.
This book became the subject of discussion at the Albury Park conferences held at the home of Henry Drummond, and also gave rise to the Society for the Investigation of Prophecy.
As our questioner suggests, people like Maitland and J. N. Darby in the 19th century arrived at premillennial pretribulationist beliefs, and played an important role in the spreading of them. It is true to say that there were other men of good standing such as Tregelles and Elliot who were vehemently opposed to this developing eschatological view. Conflict of theological thought, however, is not new and has happened over many issues at different points in church history.
The common accusation that Darby’s teaching on the subject came out of the interpretation of utterances in ‘tongues’ among Irving’s followers has never been proven. By the same token, to ascribe the pretribulationist view to Irving or his ‘prophetess’ Margaret McDonald is quite speculative as it is questionable as to whether they ever held this view. Most of the evidence seems to suggest that they did not.
The same can be said of Lacunza. Although his work held much that was commendable as regards premillennialism, Lacunza was not a ‘secret rapturist’ in the pretribulationist sense. In fact he held to a rather unique 45 day partial rapturist idea which was never really taken up by any serious scholar. Certainly not by Darby whose own views were already formulated prior to the translation of Lacunza’s work. It should also be stated that the rapture was not a 19th century invention since there is evidence that Victorinus, Bishop of Petau, was already writing on the subject in the third century!
For a full treatment of the arguments surrounding this teaching the serious student is referred to Tim La Haye’s excellent book, ‘No Fear in The Storm’.
The real problem implied in Mr. Lewis’ questions is whether premillennial dispensationalism loses its credibility through being strongly associated with two Jesuit priests? The strength of the association is of course questionable, but even if these two men did contribute to the development of eschatological truth, this writer, a convinced Protestant, finds no problem here. The fact is that, ‘God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform’. History is full of happenings where the Lord has used the most unusual means and the most unexpected persons to further His purposes.
If the sovereign Lord could use the evil and godless Pharaohs of Egypt or the kings of Babylon, as Scripture suggests, to fulfil His purposes, then it is not difficult to suppose that He could use a Jesuit priest.
In any event, it is almost certain that the lasting results of Ribera’s actions, for instance, were quite different from his momentary intentions. The sovereignty of God is greater than the machinations of men.
Furthermore, it has to be stressed that the rapture of Church and the Lord’s coming as a ‘Thief in the night is not of human origin, but firmly based in the inspired word of God. Whilst all the personalities of human history will pass away, God’s word will never pass away.