Harold Camping has shown himself to be a false prophet. He promised that our Lord would return in 1994. Jesus didn’t return. Camping erred but he remains impenitent and unashamed. Indeed, he’s now promising that Jesus will return in 2011 (HT: Austin Britton), and this despite Jesus’ clear, unequivocal teaching that no one, not even Harold Camping, knows when Jesus will return:
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 25:36–37)
The question isn’t whether anyone can convince Harold Camping of his manifest errors. It’s been tried and better men than I (including my friend and colleague Mike Horton) have tried and failed. The real question is whether orthodox, confessional Reformed folk will learn from Camping’s errors.
First, why can’t anyone convince Camping and his band of followers of the truth of the orthodox Christian approach to Jesus’ parousia? The answer is that Camping and company cannot be convinced of their errors because they are on a QIRC: Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty, or the desire to know what cannot be known. The followers of Camping know what Scripture has to mean. It’s a classic case of rationalism. In this case, rationalism means knowing what God knows the way he knows it. It’s a denial of the categorical (Creator/creature) distinction. See RRC on this. The Campingite movement also shows classic symptoms of the sectarian spirit. They have a leader who has a special, new message. He has “insights” into God’s Word, which no one else has. Americans particularly love to be a part of apocalyptic (revelatory), eschatological (end times) movements. There are two essays on this phenomenon in Always Reformed. The embarrassment of the failed 1994 prophecy is distant enough that American Christians can ignore it. That was then, this is now.
Second, Camping is an individualistic biblicist. He is master of the Bible. If the Anabaptists had swallowed the Spirit feathers and all (Luther), Camping has, as it were, swallowed the Word. It doesn’t control him, he controls it. Camping’s errors are not the result of sola Scriptura but of solo Haroldo, if you will. His theology and hermeneutics come right out the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century. The only thing missing from the picture is a mighty beard and some spittle.
His view actually denies sola scriptura by denying the perspicuity (i.e., the essential, intrinsic clarity) of Scripture. The grammar, context, and clear intent of our Lord’s teaching is to prevent exactly what Camping is doing. By claiming to have secret insights into the Scripture, by claiming that those who have the Holy Spirit (i.e., those who’ve followed Camping and left the visible church for his increasingly wacky radio church) his methods and conclusions deny the perspicuity of Scripture. We cannot see the teaching of Scripture without Camping’s magisterium. In this he’s like the Anabaptists (who appealed to the Spirit over the dead letter) and Rome (who has a magisterial teaching authority that norms Scripture).
There’s a suggestion in the news coverage that there might even be a bit of cynicism at work. The Family Radio people have signed contracts for advertising that go beyond the predicted date of Jesus’ return. If that’s so, then there’s a spiritual issue. Whatever the case with the contracts there is a spiritual issue when someone will listen to no one, when he alone understands Scripture.
The very existence of Camping should serve as a warning to Reformed churches. He did not emerge into the public eye as the leader of a sect. 30 years ago Camping was an elder in a Christian Reformed Church. Today he a leader of his own movement. The leader of The Way International, Victor Paul Wierwille was educated at the same seminary that produced German Reformed pastors (Mission House) and at Princeton. He was ordained by the Evangelical and Reformed Churches (a forerunner to the United Churches of Christ). Sectarian, QIRC-y, movements can and do arise in our churches. I’ve warned about this before. To the degree that Reformed churches are producing these movements, to the same degree they are infected with unbiblical, contra-confessional attitudes.
This is a sad business. Many people have been helped by Family Radio. More than a few people can trace their discovery of the Reformed faith to Family Radio (pre-1992). Unfortunately, apart from an extraordinary providence, there’s no reason to expect that Harold Camping will suddenly realize that he alone is not the only one to understand the Bible. Those churches who confess the Reformed faith have to address the Harold Campings in our midst. Was Harold Camping disciplined? Are the Harold Campings in our churches facing discipline for their errors? Are Reformed churches teaching their members how to read Scripture, how to detect and avoid the mistakes that Camping and his followers have made? Camping isn’t likely to learn, but are we?