Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book Review: "Will Catholics be 'Left Behind'?"

When I was younger, I had a pretty strong interest in eschatology (from eschaton - the study of the "end times").  I think my interest was primarily motivated out of a love for storytelling.  The book of Revelation has so many wonderful and terrible images that it really does draw you in to the cosmic portrait being drawn, even if the portrait is as indecipherable as modern art.  This storytelling aspect was amplified by the "Left Behind" series, which now seems ideally suited for an impressionable young mind -- a thoroughly engaging plot featuring two-dimensional characters and absolutely abysmal writing.

As I grew older, I grew more familiar with some of the views on the book of Revelations, and I realized that "Rapture theology" was far from the only orthodox approach to eschatology.  My own views were shaped decisively in my freshman and sophomore years of college, when I engaged in a study of millennialist heresies in the Middle Ages and the Reformation.  For many years prior I had studied the history of economic thought, and I was frankly stunned by the many correlations I discovered between heretical eschatology and later utopian ideologies that had secularized these false millennial doctrines. This historical background helped demonstrate to me not only the theological dangers of over-emphasizing the eschaton, but the social and philosophical ramifications as well.

This book, "Will Catholics Be 'Left Behind'?", skilfully dissects the doctrines of "Rapture theology" that are so familiar to certain Protestant circles. The organization is a bit scatter-shot, surveying historical millennailists (focusing on the proto-dispensationalist heresies of Joachim de Fiore), major dispensationalist figures (such as Darby, Scofield, and Chafer), and finally the popularizers of the Rapture (especially Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye).
The book analyzes and evaluates some of the crucial doctrinal underpinnings of "the Rapture," and offers considerable clarity in defining various schools and camps of Christian eschatology. The distinctions between pre-millennialist, post-millennialist, and amillennialist interpretations, along with the divisions within Rapture theology (pre-Tribulation, mid-Trib, or post-Trib), are offered and explained. Finally, from the perspective of a historically orthodox Catholic (relying on church dogma and papal encyclicals), the authors presents a critique of dispensationalist theology and a positive affirmation of Catholic doctrine on the millennium and the eschaton.

I am not a Catholic, but I found the arguments both intriguing and compelling. It taught me a good deal about the doctrinal underpinnings of dispensationalism, especially the sharp dichotomy between the nation of Israel and the Church, a "two covenants" approach to eschatology that practically entails two separate "Second Comings" -- a preliminary Rapture alongside the final Parousia. That answered one of my main questions about dispensationalism: why the Rapture was considered a doctrinal necessity in the first place. The book also surveyed some of the more vitriolic strains of anti-Catholicism among dispensationalist writers, a bigotry that almost makes me ashamed to be a Protestant. On a more positive note, the author's case for the Catholic doctrine of eschatology also delved into issues of the Church as the Body of Christ, and the role of church tradition. This work is an engaging read, and an immensely valuable resource for studying Christian doctrines of eschatology.

This was cross-posted at my book review blog, Worthy of Note.

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