Almost daily I engage in Facebook battles with people who continue to cling to the unbiblical view that we are living in the last days and go through a long series of modifications to what the text of Scripture actually states to keep their end-time beliefs alive. It’s amazing to see the hoops they jump through to maintain their unsupportable belief systems. You can even find such flimsy arguments in scholarly articles. They are so desperate to support their end-time beliefs that the plain meaning of Scripture is obscured.
“This generation” becomes “this kind of generation.” The second person plural “you” in the Olivet Discourse changes from Jesus’ present audience (Matt. 24:2–4, 33) to some future nondescript future generation later in the chapter, “now” becomes “whenever,” and “near” can mean 2000 years in the future.
The casual reader would not interpret the Bible in these ways. It takes “experts” to convince Christians that the Bible does not really mean what it says. It’s no wonder that many Christians treat the Bible as a book of spiritual incantations that only work in some unobtainable ethereal world.
End-time prophetic speculation has a long history, but it was one study Bible that codified prophetic error and led much of the church down the path of cultural irrelevance.
There was almost no prophetic competition to dispensational premillennialism from the time The Scofield Reference Bible was first published in 1909 and revised by its author Cyrus I. Scofield in 1917. Christians were often encouraged to use the note-filled Bible because its notes were said to include the only correct interpretive system that Christians should use to understand the Bible. Many churches used it as their pew Bible. The Bible was “rightly divided” in terms of Scofield’s seven dispensations. The biblical “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) became “rightly dividing up” the Bible into sections. By the time readers get to Genesis 8:12, they have been introduced to the Seven Dispensations.
The passage often used to support of Scofield’s version of dispensationalism is best translated as “accurately handling the word of truth”; it has nothing to do with dividing up the Bible into rigid “dispensations.”
Once the Bible reader embraces Scofield’s dispensational system, the system becomes the lens through which the entire Bible must be read. Philip Mauro wrote in his 1927 book The Gospel of the Kingdom that the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible had “usurped the place of authority that belongs to God’s Bible alone. The fact is that dispensationalism is modernism. It is modernism, moreover, of a very pernicious sort, such that it must have a ‘Bible’ of its own for the propagation of its peculiar doctrines, since they are not in the Word of God.”
Mauro goes on to write that “this modern system of ‘dispensational teaching’ is a cause of division and controversy between those followers of Christ who ought to be,” and this is the important part, “at this time of crisis, solidly united against the mighty forces of unbelief and apostasy.” ((Philip Mauro, The Gospel of the Kingdom: An Examination of Modern Dispensationalism and the “Scofield Bible” (1927), Introduction. Emphasis added.)) This was in 1927, one year after Oswald J. Smith announced in his book Is the Antichrist at Hand? that Benito Mussolini was the dreaded antichrist.
The publication of Scofield’s Reference Bible and its focus on an imminent (any moment) rapture transformed the mindset and practices of millions of Christians to abandon the belief in a comprehensive biblical worldview at the time when a new breed of secularism was rising in the areas of education, law, politics, journalism, science, medicine, media, art, music, film, and every other area of life.
The then present crisis seemed to authenticate Scofield’s bizarre interpretations:
Scofield’s text appeared just in time for believers to respond to European developments in the summer of 1914. As one Pentecostal Journal headlined the outbreak of war, “The nations of Europe battle, and unconsciously prepare the way for the return of the Lord Jesus.” When an older prophecy book was reissued in 1915, the editor remarked, “Armageddon has now become a household word.” In the words of evangelical pastor Reuben Torrey, observing the world’s conflicts, “The darker the night gets, the lighter my heart gets.” ((Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 138.))
These predictions were made more than 100 years ago in terms of prophetic certainty. They were wrong. The only things that have changed for today’s prophetic speculators are the dates and the players on the international and nation chessboard. One thing, however, has remained the same: millions of Christians are still waiting for an end-time event to rescue them that is not coming.
Dispensationalists have regularly taught that the next prophetic event is the “rapture of the church.” Supposedly the prophecy clock starts again when the church is raptured prior to a seven-year period (there is not a single verse in the Bible that mentions such an event), when the world will encounter someone called “the antichrist” (see 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7 to see that there were many antichrists in John’s day), a rebuilt Jewish temple (nothing in the New Testament says anything about a rebuilt temple), the antichrist making a covenant with Israel and then braking it (no such verse exists), the slaughter of two-thirds of Jews living in Israel (fulfilled in events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70), and a hell storm of tribulation around the world. ((For a detailed study of the “rapture,” see Gary DeMar with Francis X. Gumerlock, The Rapture and the Fig Tree Generation (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2019).))
Millions of Christians believe this fake prophetic system that has led them to believe that they cannot and should not do anything to change the moral condition of the world since these prophetic events are inevitable.
The Geneva Bible
The Scofield Reference Bible was not the first Bible to include notes. There was an abundance of notes in the Geneva Bible, ((For accessible histories of the Geneva Bible, see Patricia Serak, “The Geneva Bible: An Historical Report” and William H. Noah and David L. Brown, “Introduction to the Geneva Bible.”)) first published in 1560 and developed by English refugees in Geneva, Switzerland, who fled there during the reign of Queen Mary I (1516–1558). Mary had persecuted Protestants and restored England to Roman Catholicism after the death of Edward VI. “When Mary came to the throne in 1553, Edward’s Reformation policy was reversed. Some of those responsible for making [English] translations (e.g., John Rogers; Thomas Cranmer) were burned at the stake; others sought refuge on the [European] continent (e.g., [Miles] Coverdale), along with shiploads of Protestant refugees from England.” ((Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 300.)) From 1560 to 1644 at least 144 editions of the Geneva Bible were published.
The First Study Bible
The Geneva Bible has been described as the “first study Bible” because of the thousands of notes included with the biblical text. It was the Geneva Bible that almost everyone in the English-speaking world read. Even the men working on the translation that would come to be known as the King James Version (1611) “continued to quote from the Geneva version” because it was “the one familiar to the congregations they addressed.” ((Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 215, 254.)) David Daniell notes that “many of the almost one thousand biblical references in Shakespeare come from the Geneva text.” ((David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 354.))
The Geneva Bible was truly a “free market” translation. There was no official church or civil authorization that declared that it should be the Bible for the people. “The people loved it for itself and its history.” ((The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). The quotation is from John Eadie, The English Bible: An External and Critical History of the Various English Translations, 2 vols. (London: MacMillan & Co., 1876), 2:51–52, as cited in Lloyd E. Berry’s “Introduction” to the Geneva Bible, 22. Quoted in Avihu Zakai, Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 38.)) The elucidation of the text that came from the marginal notes added to the readability of Scripture for families.
No Outline of a Prophetic System
It’s important to keep in mind that during this period of persecution, the Reformers did not outline a prophetic system that predicted the near end of the world even though some predicted a near end of things. Martin Luther, for example, “did not believe that the kingdom would triumph on earth and in history. In fact, he expected the world to end soon…. In contrast to Luther, John Calvin believed that the kingdom would ‘have a yet greater triumph in history prior to the consummation [the Second Coming],’” ((Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity: A Biblical Response to Dave Hunt’s Theology (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1988), 236, 237.)) so much so that “the kingdom of God … [will] be extended to the utmost boundaries of the earth … so as to occupy the whole world from one end to the other.” ((Quoted in Greg L. Bahnsen “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” in Victory in Jesus: The Bright Hope of Postmillennialism, ed. Robert R. Booth (Texarkana, AR: Covenant Media Press, 1999), 80.))
It was Calvin’s shared optimistic eschatology that found its way into the notes of the Geneva Bible. To cite just one of scores of examples, the note on Zechariah 9:11 in the Geneva Bible reads, “God showeth that he will deliver his Church out of all dangers, seem they ever so great.”
Prior to the rise of dispensationalism, there was a realistic optimism even when persecution was all around them. They followed Paul’s comforting words: “But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all… Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:9, 12). Paul wrote this to Timothy nearly 2000 years ago. Christians didn’t give in to the evils of the day and claim that they would be rescued by something called a “rapture.”
Andrée Seu Peterson writes, “Optimism precedes perseverance… The pessimist’s problem is all in his eye. His eye is defective.” Events, even the most severe and glaring kind, do not nullify the biblical message of the progress of the gospel and the application of God’s Word to every area of life.
George Mueller (1805–1898) is one of the biggest I know of. That crazy guy decided to distribute tracts and to witness among the Jews in London, and he reports, “I had the honor of being reproached and ill-treated for the name of Jesus” (The Autobiography of George Müller). Must be a blessing in there somewhere, right? That’s like the Apostle Paul saying, “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Corinthians 16:8-9).
Come again? If there are “many adversaries,” how does he see it as a “wide door for effective work”?
That’s how an optimist sees. ((“The Sunny Side,” World Magazine (Nov. 25, 2017), 63.))
This is no reference to an escape hatch for the Church but only the promised claim that God will sustain and maintain His Church even when persecuted, and that includes Christians being burned at the stake for attempting to do something as logical as translate the Bible into English.
The English Protestant scholars who produced the Geneva Bible … were fully conscious of the role which they hoped it would play in the religious wars of the truth. In an age which bears witness to “so horrible backsliding and falling away from Christ to Antichrist, from light to darkness, from the living God to dumb and dead idols,” and in a time of “so cruel murder of God’s saints” under Queen Mary, the translators explained that God’s divine providence still continues to work in time and history “with most evident signs and tokens of God’s especial love and favor” towards his saints. Now, the surest way to be mindful of “these great mercies” is “attained by the knowledge and practicing of the word of God.” ((Zakai, Exile and Kingdom, 38–39.))
The Genevan translation and the ever-present notes were designed to explain “the course and progress of the church within time and history” ((Zakai, Exile and Kingdom, 39.)) and the ongoing work of reformation that was needed in light of the religious and political struggles that they still faced. “Without this word,” the “Epistle” to the Geneva Bible states, “we cannot discern between justice, and injury, protection and oppression, wisdom and foolishness, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil. Therefore, the Lord, who is the chief governor of his Church, wills that nothing be attempted before we have inquired thereof at his mouth.” The editors and translators believed that the Geneva Bible would have a role “to play in advancing the Reformation in England.” ((Zakai, Exile and Kingdom, 41.))
Go, believe, and do likewise.