The Second Coming and one pietist
I was born again at Camp Mission Meadows in the summer of 1950. I had been sent to the camp on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in western New York by the Buffalo Evangelical Covenant Church. That congregation, which was then at mid-century erecting a new church building (since shuttered and sold), met temporarily in a firehouse down the block from our home.
My mother, a widow who worked in the St. Francis Hospital kitchen on weekends, encouraged me to attend the Sunday School in the fire hall: “You could use some religion!” The Buffalo Covenanters sent me to camp, likely in the hope that I would accept Christ as my personal savior there and return to Buffalo redeemed. My sister, two years younger, had no interest in Sunday School or Bible camp.
I did go to Mission Meadows and one July night in the open-sided camp meeting hall answered the altar call to take Christ as my personal savior. I gladly accepted the Christian ideas and teachings that the camp staff, pastors, and dedicated laymen, from the (then) Middle East Conference of the Covenant Church, told us were the core faith of the New Testament.
That commitment was reinforced in the Sunday School of the Buffalo church, and I held to it through my high school years and beyond. I was 14 when I came to the Lord. (Of course, along with the teachings went the warning against school dances, movies, and the company of the ungodly, all off-limits to dedicated Christians.)
I write “gladly accepted” the teachings with one exception: the doctrine of the Second Coming. I believed it, alright, but not “gladly.” It was often preached at camp, in our own church, and in evangelical circles around Buffalo. And in fact, it really scared me, mainly because it sounded like a frightening event to live through. According to I Thessalonians 4:16-17,
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
For example, one late fall afternoon when I was 15 some of us neighborhood kids (most of them Catholics or Methodists and none of them born again) were playing touch football in a local vacant lot. I suddenly spotted what to me was a strange star in the western sky. I was pretty sure it was the first sign of the End! Were the graves about to open? Was I going to rise in the air, leaving the other guys below on the vacant lot? Would I ever see my sister, who had not accepted Christ, again?
In verse 18, right after the passage quoted above, St. Paul writes, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” But they were no comfort to me; I was scared of their coming to pass. And the very fact of being afraid was surely a sign of my weak faith. Hadn’t I been hanging around with unredeemed kids? What real Christian would mind being snatched up from a touch football game and saying farewell to his only sister, with whom he had, alas, often fought over mowing the lawn or doing the supper dishes?
After high school when I made my way, again sponsored by the Buffalo Covenant Church, to North Park College and Theological Seminary, I met guys who in late night dorm sessions admitted that, like me, they were in no hurry to see the Second Coming. One fellow had hoped Christ would not come until he had a steady girlfriend. Another preferred that the Lord tarry until he had made the college basketball team.
I also got a different “theological” perspective on the Second Coming. In college Bible classes, and later in the seminary, there were professors who suggested that not all of Scripture could be taken literally. Obviously, said our Old Testament prof, passages like Isaiah 55 (“The trees of the field shall clap their hands.”) were figurative.
Maybe by some extension that applied to certain eschatological language in the Bible too, including the passage in I Thessalonians 4. For one thing, both Paul and Jesus himself spoke as though the End would take place within a generation of their speaking. Paul: “We who are alive and remain…” Jesus, speaking of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory: “Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done” (Mark 13:30).
Two thousand years had come and gone, and the Second Coming had not yet taken place. Some of our preachers and teachers had worked themselves around to complicated explanations of the plain meaning of the passages that said Christ’s coming again would take place soon after Jesus and Paul spoke.
But, at least to me, the view that these passages were not meant literally, that they were the kind of the apocalyptic language common in the first century, was a simpler and more sensible way to read them. Further, they meant I need not be so worried about leaving family behind or maybe falling from the clouds as the last trumpet was sounding. My North Park buddies could cement their romantic ties or a spot on the basketball squad.
That way of thinking about the Second Coming figuratively was supported by the space exploration that was taking place in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Humanity had been up in the heavens, and it may have been that the cosmo- and astronauts had simply not been to the right places up there (as one of the evangelists at Youth for Christ told us), but a three-tiered universe — Heaven, Earth, Hell — was itself passing out of our thought.
How we — at least some of us — sang hymns shifted accordingly. Here is one of the finest ones about the Second Coming, by the great eighteenth century poet and preacher Charles Wesley:
Lo, he comes with clouds descending, Once for favored sinners slain.
Thousand, thousand saints attending, Swell the triumph of his train.
Alleluia, Alleluia, God appears on earth to reign.
Every eye shall now behold him, Robed in dreadful majesty.
Those who set at naught and sold him, Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, Shall the true Messiah see.
When the eighteenth century Methodists sang that hymn, most of them looked up to the sky in expectation that Jesus would descend to earth on clouds. Centuries later many Christians understand it allegorically or figuratively. And few, when reciting the Creed, think that if you drilled down deep enough into the earth, you would find the Hell into which Christ descended after his death.
St. Paul had told us in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That was a process in which I was encouraged by our professors at North Park and by my own reading. In fact, I came to understand it as an essentially “Protestant” way to carry on the Christian life.
My Catholic friends told me that the basic Catholic act of faith was to trust the Church, accept its teachings on its authority, and to live by its precepts. One recalls Augustine’s reaction when the Bishop of Rome took a firm and final position in the Pelagian controversy over the nature and efficacy of good works in the late fourth and early fifth centuries: Roma locuta, causa finita est (“Rome has spoken, the matter is settled”). For my part, I understand this Roman Catholic faith to be a valid expression of Christianity, though not one I share.
One of the strong objections to this Protestant encouragement for Christian people to work out their own understanding of Christianity was, of course, that it was such individualism that had shattered the unity of Western Christendom in the sixteenth century and led to the confusing plethora of Protestant churches and sects. Concern that there be a final authority to settle differences was what led some thoughtful twentieth century Protestants to “return to Rome” as John Henry Newman had in the nineteenth.
Of course, if the whole history of Christianity in the eastern and the western halves of the Mediterranean world is considered, there has never in two millennia been only one single Christian church governed by a final authority, whether bishop or book, reason or revelation. Christianity as an historical phenomenon has assumed many expressions and forms through its 2,000-year history. It is not clear to me that the “true” church is an organization headquartered in Rome or Chicago. And the segment of American evangelicalism that wants to hang onto a strictly literal interpretation of Scripture is but one small part of that history.
So many children of the Reformation, individually and in their communities, have carried on the working out of their salvation as a life-long process, one sometimes characterized by shifts in thinking and the evolution of understanding. Trust in the mercy and grace of God revealed in the Scriptures and in everyday life undergirds that process, but it does not preclude those changes. How does one understand the Atonement? Can you be a Christian and still wonder about the Virgin Birth? Did everyone see the Risen Christ, or was it only his disciples?
For many of us, thinking and rethinking one’s ideas about our faith has been an essential and inescapable part of Christian living. This process has been carried out in, and corrected by, the fellowship of other Christians. That fellowship is itself responding to the Biblical revelation, especially in the New Testament, trying to relate it to the changing conditions of contemporary life. It should not be surprising to have discovered that even back in seminary in the 1960s there were men and women whose responses differed from my own.
Paul Tillich told us that “the Protestant Principle” was that no idea or dogma or institution was so “sacred” as to be beyond criticism and reconsideration. Of all people, Pietists should be careful not to assume that creedal rectitude or that denominational obedience equals Christian commitment.
Thus it was that my fear of Christ’s coming during a touch football game on a vacant lot near the Buffalo city limits in the early 1950s started me on a life-long effort to come to grips with the meaning of Christianity. It has been my happy lot to have carried on that effort in the company of folk who have taken me seriously even when they do not agree with me and when my ideas may not have deserved their patient attention.
That mutual trust and willingness to listen to one another was for me the essence of Pietist fellowship. It is one of the best qualities that characterized our lives at North Park and among the Mission Friends. I still remember it well after six decades of working in different Christian company.