August 03, 2009

Love Jesus? Then love his bride.

There was a time, some years ago, when Family Radio figurehead Harold Camping was relatively normal.

Yes, his droning delivery on the radio was definitely soporific. He relied too much on an allegorical and numerological method of reading the Bible that was so dry it sucked the humidity out of the hot, summer Waterloo air. He was a hyper-Calvinist and a bit overly strict on the issue of divorce. But really, at the time, he wasn't any weirder than any of the dozens of radio preachers you could tune into at any time of day.

Then, 1994 - and his book 1994? - happened. This was what made Camping's reputation, and it wasn't positive. In the early 1990s, Camping began predicting the end of the world sometime in September of 1994. This catapulted him to, if not exactly worldwide fame, at least a greater helping of notoriety than he would otherwise have had. He appeared on Larry King Live and embarrassed himself. And when September 1994 came and went, relatively Rapture-free, Harold Camping should have quietly sunk into a well-deserved obscurity.

Only he didn't. And bad theology has, as so often happens, turned into worse theology in the meantime.

  • Camping has adopted a radical version of sola Scriptura in which he disdains any extrabiblical works as reliable helps in interpreting the Bible. In his book First Principles of Bible Study, for example, he asserts that the Bible is its own dictionary and grammar book, and even the rules of Greek or Hebrew grammar "based on secular evidence cannot stand until they are subjected to the scrutiny of the Bible."1.
  • Camping disdains the grammatico-historical hermeneutic on the supposed grounds that it is not found in the Bible. Instead, he justifies his allegorization and convoluted numerologies by appealing to verses such as Matthew 13:34: "All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them" (KJV), as though it applies not to its own context (Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom), but to the whole Bible.
  • Camping has recently adopted an annihilationist position, denying that the final fate of the wicked is eternal punishment in hell; some of his more recent books now disclaim his understanding of God's justice, as he expressed it at that time.
  • If Camping is not now denying the doctrine of the Trinity in favour of the ancient heresy of Modalism, then he is very confused about his theology proper. And if Camping isn't being too forward about his anti-Trinitarianism, his disciples certainly are: I recently encountered a pro-Harold Camping supporter on James White's IRC channel #prosapologian; he argued in no uncertain terms that Jesus, being God, is Father and Holy Spirit as well.
  • Along with his Modalism has come a variation of Adoptionism: Camping says that Jesus "became" the Son when he was raised from the dead.
  • Jesus also died twice, according to Camping. Once was before the foundation of the world, as the Lamb (citing Revelation 13:8). The second death was the one on the cross, as the man Jesus. Only the first death atoned for sin; the second had no salvific effect, serving only to demonstrate that Jesus had suffered for sins.

This is all pretty bad - and enough to get Harold Camping fairly excommunicated from any church that practiced biblical discipline. But it isn't what he's best known for these days: declaring the end of the church, and the imminent end of the world. The former of these prompted James R. White of Alpha and Omega Ministries to pen a short book, Dangerous Airwaves: Harold Camping Refuted and Christ's Church Defended (Calvary Press, 2002). And finally, last week he had a chance to debate Camping directly, on the Iron Sharpens Iron radio program on WNYG in New York.

ISI devoted a total of four days to this debate, moderated by program host Chris Arnzen: on Tuesday and Wednesday the debate proper took place; on Thursday and Friday, White and Camping appeared in turn to answer questions from callers (all links are to MP3 podcasts of each episode):

  • On Tuesday, after technical difficulties ate up almost a half hour of show time, the deejay who normally followed ISI offered a half hour of his program, and the debate actually wound up going a few minutes longer. The format consisted of five-minute opening statements by Camping and White, and then alternating three-minute responses for the remainder of the time. This was probably the most useful day: White pointed out numerous flaws with Camping's arguments, noting that the real issue is how one handles the Bible. Camping tried to interact with his arguments, but was quite weak in my opinion: he kept returning to his mantra that "Jesus spoke in parables" and therefore a grammatico-historical hermeneutic was not to be found.
  • On Wednesdayhe other, and he basically used his own time to continue to present his own theories. As the hour progressed, these presentations became increasingly bizarre, arcane, and mathematical. My brain actually went numb from drivel overload.
  • On Thursday, James White was the guest as he answered questions from callers. The majority were "Campingites" trying to rebut White's presentation, but he held his own.
  • On Friday, it was Camping's turn to field calls. However, by and large the program was "testimony time" as again, the majority of callers were Campingites calling to praise Camping and Family Radio for helping him see the light. A few critical calls came through, but had no real opportunity to develop their disagreements properly. Also, I swear Camping feigned deafness to avoid the last caller.

As White has said many times about his debates: Nothing helps demonstrate the truth better than laying it side-by-side with error. As frustrating as Wednesday's program was to listen to, it does prove the point. Compare White's pointed criticisms and biblical interpretation with Camping's oblivious monotone and judge for yourself which one is faitful teaching of the Bible.

It's the end of the world as we know it

Both of these errors, the alleged end of the world and the alleged end of the church, hinge on Camping's interpretation of biblical chronology, as expressed in his book The Biblical Calendar of History. This history is odd, to say the least, and I will have more to say in a future post. Camping dates creation to 11,013 BC, the Flood to 4990 BC, and the crucifixion to AD 33. Exactly 13,000 years after creation was the end of the church age, in 1988; 23 years after that comes the end of the world, in 2011: May 21, to be precise, will be the day of the Rapture.

Yes, that's weird.

Now, your average datesetting crank would see a mathematically significant date like 1988, supposedly exactly 13,000 years after creation, and stop. "There's your rapture," he would say. But by the time Camping worked all this out, we had already passed the magic year. No problemo: he simply found another 6 years (Daniel 8:14), and voila: 1994.2

Unfortunately, September 1994 came and went with nary a Rapture in sight. So suddenly Camping had to "discover" some miscalculations in his scheme. Now the Rapture was to take place in or about September 1995! Well, no. But, as the saying goes, enough research will always tend to support your theory. So a few years ago, Camping revisited 1988, added 23 to that (since 23 is the number of judgment, or something), called it the Great Tribulation, and declared the end of the world for May 21, 2011.

Interestingly, back in 1993-94, Camping would frequently get critical calls to the Open Forum program, asking how he could be so confident of the date of the end, when Jesus said no man could know the day or the hour. His response - in a rare display of biblical literalism - was that Jesus didn't say they couldn't know the month or the year. I guess that if he's now predicting a specific date, he's thrown that last remaining vestige of literal reading under the bus.

If we believe Harold Camping's teaching about the end of the church age, then logically we must also discard about half the New Testament. The letters of Paul, for example, are written to local churches throughout Asia Minor and Europe, with instructions for dealing with various issues that have arisen in their midst. His "pastoral" letters to Timothy and Titus are directions to his two protegés for organizing and administering new assemblies. Even the apocalyptic Revelation begins with seven circular letters to the churches in the major cities of Asia Minor.

Along the way, Paul delivers a theological rationale for the church. It is not merely a human institution; it is a divinely appointed one, instituted not merely for the assembly of the saints, but to be paradigmatic for other human relationships as well. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, for example, Paul writes that husbands are to love their wives (Eph. 5:23-33). How does he do this? He shows that the relationship of man and wife is analogous to the relationship of Christ and the church. Christ is the head of the church, which is his body (Eph. 1:22-23). All who are called by God to be in Christ are part of this body. No one hates his body; rather, he loves and takes care of it. Similarly, a man ought to love and care for his wife because Christ loves and cares for his church.

And because we are all part of Christ's body, we all fit together, each with our own particular gift, given to him by the Holy Spirit for the service of the church. This is Paul's argument in his first letter to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 12:12-31). He argues: Can any part of the body decide not to be part of the body? Or, can one part decide it has no need of the others? Of course not.

But according to Harold Camping, this is no longer true. God no longer functions through the church. The ministry of the Word is no longer effective; the Holy Spirit no longer works within the walls of the local assembly to bring either conviction of sin or assurance of salvation. Instead of loving and nurturing his bride, Christ, we must assume, now despises her. The head has severed itself from the body. What does this do for Paul's marriage analogy? Instead of loving their wives, are husbands now to hate them, separate themselves from them, or dismember them? Does Camping still teach the sanctity of marriage? If so, on what grounds?

Of course that is ridiculous. The Bible does not teach that God has destroyed the church. On the contrary, the Bible says:

loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25-27)

Has Christ purified the church? Has she been presented to him holy and unblemished? If so, then either Christ has failed, or the church still exists. Clearly, the former is impossible.

Consider also Paul's instructions concerning the Lord's Supper, in which he says:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11:23-26)

The Lord's Supper is one of the ordinances, along with baptism, that are given to the church. Jesus gave his instructions at the Last Supper to the disciples, who then represented the whole church. Paul's instructions are to the church, correcting abuses within the Corinthian church and regulating the manner in which the Eucharistic meal was to be conducted. But he specifically says that this ordinance was to be practiced "until he comes." I'm sure that unless Harold Camping has added full preterism to his catalogue of heresies, he does not believe that Christ has yet returned. Does it not stand to reason, then, that there must still be a local church in which to participate in the supper? Camping denies it, with some handwaving and a declaration that it is merely part of ceremonial law, but he has no proof of this.

And I feel fine

It may very well be that on May 21, 2011, Christ will return. But if so, it will be in spite of, not because of, Harold Camping's mathematical predictions. His system is too arbitrary and inconsistent to provide accurate information about the Bible. I'll make a prediction of my own: when May 22, 2011 comes, there will be Christians still around, and a lot of embarrassed Campingites wondering what happened. In an ideal world, Camping will have cried "wolf" for the last time and will disappear into a well-deserved obscurity. But this isn't an ideal world, and more likely he will keep his gulls interested when he suddenly discovers more "evidence" that his calculations were mistaken. There are, after all, plenty of numbers in the Bible.

Blogger Sheila Schoonmaker, apparently a Campingite, blogged the following in advance of the debate, seemingly to poison the well in Camping's favour:

Harold Camping is the president of Family Radio stations. Family Radio has been on the air for 50 years without any need to air commercials (it still depends on donations offered by those inspired by God to operate). WNYG 1440 — The Spirit of New York radio station depends on advertisements to stay on the air. Camping’s printed material is offered free of charge, whereas White sells his books for profit.

This is a non-argument, really, considering that one could just as easily argue that Mormons give away books for free, whereas the Bible never condemns the sale of radio airtime or books. Nonetheless, I perused the Family Radio Web site and indeed found a number of free books by Camping. But I noticed that 1994? wasn't among them. Curious. I wonder whether Family Radio will be making that one available soon? Probably not. And sometime after May 22, 2011, the free downloads of Time Has An End and others will, undoubtedly, have an end as well.

Footnotes

1 Harold Camping, First Principles of Bible Study (Oakland: Family Stations, 2008, accessed 30 July 2009), 35; available from http://www.familyradio.com/graphical/literature/study/principles.pdf; Internet.

2 Gary DeMar, "Harold Camping: 1994 and 2011" (American Vision, 18 Feb 2008, accessed 1 August 2009), available from http://74.255.56.30/blog/?p=18; Internet.