THE THEOLOGY OF THE SO-CALLED PLYMOUTH BRETHREN EXAMINED AND REFUTED.
THE PROPHETIC CONFERENCE REVIEWED
CONSPECTUS OF ITS DOCTRINES
The author has thought that he could give the best refutation of the Plymouth Eschatology by a republication of his review of "The Prophetic Conference," held in New York in 1878. It was published in Zion's Herald, soon afterward, in a series of eight articles.
The recent Prophetic Conference in New York, for the setting forth and advocacy of the general outline of the Plymouth scheme of last things, is the effect of causes which the writer has watched for several years with the deepest interest. It is the natural fruitage of the Plymouth literature brought from England and recommended to American Christians by certain popular evangelists in their sermons, Bible readings, and evangelical conferences. These evangelists, though they discard the name of Plymouth Brethren, have sown broadcast their doctrines, with a zeal and earnestness rivaling the Brethren themselves.
The Conference was for the purpose of advocating the doctrine that the second coming of Christ is not, as is commonly believed, to raise the dead, judge the living and the dead, and wind up the history of the human race on the earth, but to raise the righteous dead, to set up a visible kingdom, and to reign in person on the earth during a thousand years. This is called Chiliasm, from the Greek, and Millenarianism, from the Latin, word for a thousand. But the more exact term is pre-millennialism -- a term which describes the second advent as occuring before the thousand years. It may be interesting, before discussing its teachings, to look for a moment at the denominational complexion of the Prophetic Conference, which was composed of ministers and laymen, the former greatly preponderating; one Lutheran, one Dutch Reformed, one Reformed, ten Congregafional, fifteen Episcopal, twenty-seven Baptist, forty-three Presbyterian, seven Methodist, and ten undenominational, which, we suppose, means Plymouth.
The first impression which this makes on the mind of a Methodist is that his Church has relatively the least stock in this concern. If we had been numerically represented, we would have had nearly a hundred. But this is not a matter which we are disposed to cry over. It indicates that Methodists are in too close a grapple with this present wicked world to sit down and waste time in speculating upon the future. It indicates that as a Church we are by no means so discouraged with the progress of the Gospel as to pronounce the dispensation of the Holy Spirit as inadequate to the conquest of the world for Christ. We shall see, as we review the strong Calvinism involved in the pre-millennial scheme, that there are theological reasons for the cold shoulder of Methodism. Eighty-one were from Calvinist and twenty-two from Arminian Churches. Of the papers on special topics read at the Conference, twelve were by Calvinists and three by Arminians.
It is not our purpose to go into a review of these papers in detail, but to outline the doctrines, and point out some difficulties in the way of our assent.
In nearly every paper and address there was a declaration that the world will never be conquered by the agencies now in the field; not because of any failure on the part of the Church to co-work with the Spirit, but because Christ never designed that the present dispensation should enthrone Him over the world. This is a merely preparatory dispensation to the future kingdom. The Church is not the kingdom, but a temporary institution for the training of a people whom Christ is taking out of the Gentiles for Himself. The kingdom cannot exist till the King is present in person, destroying pagan powers by force, and converting the people by the wholesale, by the majesty of His glorious presence. Yet this presence is to be localized at Jerusalem; the Jews are to rally around His uplifted standard, and to be converted immediately after His mounting the throne of David, and they, with all the zeal of young converts, are to go forth and preach Christ to the Gentiles with marvelous success. One of the speakers in the Conference assures us that everybody will then be converted. Just how free agency is adjusted to this statement the speaker did not tell us, though we are aching with a desire to know. But we suppose Dr. Imbrie would say that all are to be saved by irresistible grace. Hear him: "Regeneration is a glorious change in reference to this earth and the race upon it. It comprehends the appearing of the Saviour to accomplish it; the resurrection by Him of His departed saints, and the rapture (catching up)of His living saints to take part in His acts of dominion (holding offices under Him); the overthrow of all forms of evil on the earth; the repentance and restoration of Israel; the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh; the renewal of the earth to far more than its original beauty before the curse; the entire renewal of every child therein born, and thus the atonement of Jesus made availing and applied to perpetual generations; the removal of all physical evils as well as moral."
The parentheses and italics are ours. We cannot see why moral freedom in this scheme is not to be crushed out by almightiness, and converts to Christ are not to be made by sheer power, as the Pope converted tribes in northern Europe on the alternative of the sword or baptism. To our Arminian eye we see no difference. In the present dispensation men are converted by the suasion of the truth under the gentle and resistible influences of the Spirit. But in the future glorious regeneration of the earth, the Spirit, we are left to suppose, will drop the sword of the truth which failed before, and will come down upon the sinner with the trip-hammer of Omnipotence, crushing him into the die[sic.] of sainthood in a twinkling.
But here comes the greatest wonder of all; why cannot a power, which irresistibly and infallibly converts, infallibly keep the soul in a gracious state? Dr. Imbrie insists that everybody will be converted in the millennimn, or world's regeneration, but admits that when Satan is unchained, a countless host of these converts will so thoroughly backslide that Satan will deceive them into enlisting in a war against Christ in numbers "as the sand of the sea," going up on the breadth of the earth and compassing the camp of the saints about, and fire will come down from God out of heaven and devour them (Rev. xx. 7-9). So there will be a possibility of total apostasy under the glorious reign of the Person of King Jesus, while there is, according to Dr. Imbrie's Calvinism, no such possibility under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. This is a wonder, indeed. But to us it is no surprise that machine-made Christians should fail when once the hand of almighty coercive power is removed from them. Converts made by force must be kept by force; those made by the suasion of truth may be kept by the same means, though Satan constantly roars along their path. Hence we believe that the present dispensation is the most favorable for the development and growth of virtue which this world will ever see, and that the future dispensation which exists in the dreams of Chiliasts -- the personal reign of Christ in bodily form on the earth, cowing the wicked into subjection by the awe of His majestic and glorious presence -- will not afford the conditions requisite to a fair probation. When free agency is overpowered by some motive of overwhelming weight, as in death bed repentances, we are always on the lookout for spurious conversions. It is exceedingly difficult to make a virtuous choice under such a preponderance of terror. Hence we all exhort sinners not to defer submission to Christ till 'the hour of death.
Now, the second coming of Christ is always represented as a thousand-fold more awful than death. He will be revealed in flaming fire, with the holy angels, on the throne of His glory. If He sets up that throne, not as a judgment tribunal for the day of doom, but as a permanent government for a thousand years, He will have destroyed the very genius and spirit of the Gospel, which is the sway of human hearts by truth and love, and He will have inaugurated the reign of force instead. This will be stripping Christianity of its essential glory, the "grace and truth by Jesus Christ," and going back to the iron system of law which came by Moses. It will put the mount that quaked and burned with fire in the foreground, completely hiding Calvary from the sinner's eye. It will be a public confession that a fallen world cannot be restored by the moral power of truth and love under the suasion of the Paraclete, and a resort to force for the triumph of His kingdom.
We can see how an old-fashioned Calvinist, who believes in irresistible grace, can accept this doctrine; but how an Arminian, trained to magnify human freedom and the suasive power of Gospel motives for the renovation of the will, through the Holy Spirit applying truth assented to by the intellect, and taught to reject salvation by mere sovereignty, can accept the Millenarian idea of the universal triumph of Christ, surpasses our poor understanding.
But there is a greater wonder. If the world is to be subdued to Christ by a stroke of His omnipotence, and not by the slow process of redeeming love -- the story of the Cross told o'er and o'er in ever-widening circles down the generations, till every creature has heard the glad evangel -- why does not that stroke fall now, or, rather, why did it not fall thousands of years ago? If the world is growing worse and worse, and there is no hope for its salvation under the present Gospel agencies, it can not be that the second coming of Christ to set up His kingdom is delayed through the Divine Compassion and long-suffering; for these would prompt God to interpose immediately, or rather, it would have prompted Him to interpose long ago to prevent the race drifting hopelessly down to inevitable ruin. But if the coming of Christ is to institute the general judgment and execute the eternal doom of the incorrigible, and there is a remedial system gradually extending through all the earth, we have a good reason for the delay of Christ, the merciful Intercessor, to assume the office of an inexorable Judge. But if He foresees the inevitable failure of the gradual triumph of the Spirit, and if it is His purpose to discard this mode of saving men, and to disentangle Himself entirely from it, and to institute His Kingdom by down right omnipotence, saving the race by force, why does He delay? The pre-millenarian can give no satisfactory answer.
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