The Bible Banner, edited by Foy E. Wallace, Jr. with a masthead reading “Devoted to the Defense of the Church Against All Errors and Innovations,” had a profound impact on Churches of Christ in the 1930s-1940s. Whether it was for good or ill depends on whether one thinks the theological movements and consensus achieved in that era, at least in part through the influence of the Bible Banner, were healthy or harmful. But it seems apparent to me that Wallace’s periodical was a significant player in building a consensus within Churches of Christ on several fonts. Just War advocacy would be one as well as a profoundly positive assessment of the role of human governments.
My interest in this post is new creation theology, that is, the belief that God will renew this earth, unite heaven and earth, and dwell with his people upon that renewed earth for eternity. This was a rather commonly held view among 19th century Stone-Campbell folk though, of course, not the only perspective. It was certainly the understanding of the theological trajectory connected with the Nashville Bible School, particularly in the thinking of David Lipscomb and James A. Haring.
By the end of WWII, however, renewed earth theology had all but disappeared. What happened? One might argue that the more biblical view won out as is just and expected in a movement that wants to follow the Bible alone. Or, one might recognize that hostility toward a cultural and theological movement among Fundamentalists generated a fear that the church had lost its unique role in the redemptive plan of God and this fear enabled an interpretation of Hebrew prophecy that understood renewed earth hopes in the prophets as realized within the spiritual reality of the church in the present age. I will not argue this in great detail here, but I will offer a few nuggets from the Bible Banner that seem to support that historical reading, or at least suggest that the reason renewed earth theology is rejected is because it was associated with “literal” or “material” Fundamentalist interpretations of Hebrew prophecy.
T. B. Wilkinson in his “Heaven, the Kingdom and Premillenialism” (BB [November 1943] 11-12) links the interpretation of heaven with not only Russellism (Charles T. Russell) but also with premillennialism as a whole. “By premillennialism,” he writes, “I mean everything in that line from Russellism to Bollism, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other intermediate grades.” He rejects any kind material reality associated with heaven and regards any such “literal” interpretation of Scripture as unsuited for immortal saints. Rather, the earth will be literally destroyed by fire.
The Bible Banner‘s assault on premillennialism included an assault on any kind of understanding of “heaven on earth” or a renewed earth eschatology. It is part of Wallace’s critique of R. H. Boll as, for example, when Wallaces advocates a spiritualized and ecclesial interpretation of Romans 8:18-23. The central problem with premillennialism is its new creation theology since it expects a time when the earth will be renewed, when the curse will be lifted, when the kingdom of God will fill the earth, and every one will sit under their own vine and fig tree. Hebrew prophecies related to such expectations as in Isaiah 55:12-13 are fulfilled in the church.
Historic and Dispensational Premillennialism, however, usually expect this during the millennium after which comes an enternal home. New Creation theology argues that the renewed creation is the eternal home where the saints with transfigured, resurrected bodies will live upon a transfigured, renewed earth which will have become the habitation of God for eternity.
But this is precisely the point that many find objectionable on two fundamental counts. First, it means that there are still Hebrew prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled. Amillennialists who deny new creation theology (and there are amillennialists who do not–particularly in the Reformed tradition) interpret all the Hebrew “restoration” texts as either having been fulfilled in the return from Babylonian exile or in the church age. Anything else becomes a “system of rank materialism,” and this includes spiritualizing the resurrection body for some celestial state and the loss of the Abrahamic land promise to believers in Christ.
Second, according to critics, it demeans the dignity of the church to anticipate a future time when the reality of God’s rule will fill the earth in more than a “spiritual” way. The church is the bride of Christ and nothing should detract from her beauty or detract from her role in the present age. A future, material, renewed earth kingdom does just that, according to some.
As a result, whenever I speak on new creation or renewed earth theology, I always hear the objection that I am advocating premillennialism and underminding the role God has graciously given to the church.
The church’s fear and hostility toward premillennialism in the early 20th century culiminating in its practical expulsion from Churches of Christ in the 1940s limited our visions of heaven to a celestial, spiritualized reality. Anything else is tantamount to affirming premillennialism. The denial of a renewed earth was an important aspect of opposing premillennialism. In the imagination of Churches of Christ, a renewed creation theology was functionally equivalent to premillennialism and thus it was generally excised from the body.
By focusing on the Bible Banner I do not mean to imply that this was the only journal pushing these views. Both the Firm Foundation and the Gospel Advocate, by the 1930s-1940s, had also adopted these perspectives with varying degrees of hostility and tolerance toward premillennialism. Nevertheless, the Bible Banner stoked the fires it thought were important to preserve the church from “errors and innovations.” New creation theology was one of those “errors” that, in their minds, constituted a divisive heresy.