Recently, I came across a Reformed oriented website on which I found one of these non-dispensational articles explaining how a Jesuit priest by the name of Manuel Lacunza developed the basic doctrines behind dispensational theology. The accusations read almost like the Chick comics chronicling the life of Alberto Rivera, but without the sensational cartoon pictures of fanatical nuns.
The story goes like this:
Lacunza was one of those sneaky Jesuits who pretended to be a converted Jew by the name of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra who published a book called The Coming of Messiah in Majesty and Glory. His book was written for the purpose of countering the claims by the Reformers that the pope was the Anti-christ of Revelation. Lacunza is said to have built much of his book upon the previous work of another Jesuit, Francisco Ribera, who is said to be the originator of a futurist interpretation to the book of Revelation.
Edward Irving, the so-called father of the modern charismatic movement, was so moved by Lacunza’s work, he allegedly learned Spanish just so he could translate his work properly. Coupled with the “new” revelations of Margaret MacDonald who said God told her there would be a secret rapture of the Church before the world would be plunged into tribulation, Irving laid the ground work to future dispensationalism and J.N. Darby then picked up his material, expanded upon it, and made it popular throughout England and the United States with his preaching ministry.
Now, when I first saw the Lacunza connection I was flabbergasted. A Jesuit priest is the originator of dispensational theology? Really? Never heard that one before. I had heard about Ribera being the originator of a futurist interpretation of Revelation, but the Lacunza accusation was new to me. I just had to do a search on his name to see what I came up with, and after 30 minutes or so of reading over articles and glancing at websites, it became painfully clear that the Lacunza connection was just another pathetic, eye rolling ploy by Reformed, covenant theologians to discredit dispensational theology with a genetic fallacy. I mean, if the godfather of your point of view is a Jesuit, there is all sorts of evil seeping out from the cracks, right?
The first major problem I encountered was the repetition among Reformed sites of the same material. With a couple of cases there was word-for-word plagiarism. I “googled” Manuel + Lacunza + dispensationalism and the first sites that appeared were Puritan board forums and anti-dispensational sites maintained by what appears to be preterist groups. All of them repeated the basic claims: Dispensationalism really began with Lacunza, he was the first person to teach a distinction between Israel and the Church in his book, and his book was utilized by Irving to spread dispensational ideas to the churches in England and America.
What really stuck out to me as I looked over these website, however, is that no one seems to provide any original analysis of Lacunza’s work. In fact, I wonder if any of the individual authors have actually read his book or if they are just repeating the same claims made on all of the other various sites committed to debunking dispensationalism. It is a similar phenomenon I have witnessed with KJV-only apologetic works regarding the diabolical nature of Westcott and Hort. When a person does a comparison of KJV-only materials, all of them repeat the same “talking points” concerning the two men. No one shows any familiarity with what they really wrote and taught about the NT biblical text. I see the same thing with these Reformed articles citing Lacunza as the originator of dispensational theology.
I believe there could be a good reason for this copy cat effect. A lot of the articles I read traced back to a few websites hosting material by Dave MacPherson and some of his supporters. For those who are unfamiliar with MacPherson, he is a cranky gadfly who has made chasing after pre-tribulationalism his white whale. Much of MacPherson’s animosity against pre-tribulationalism stems from a bad run in his father had with a fundamentalist church that dismissed him as a pastor because he switched his rapture view from pre-tribulationalism to post-tribulationalism. Dave then went on a journalistic hunt to uncover the true origins of the pre-tribulational rapture doctrine and he believes he identified its source with a teenage Scottish girl named Margaret MacDonald. She supposedly had a series of visions from God revealing to her the secret, pre-tribulational rapture of the Church. Edward Irving was told of her visions and he popularized them, which in turn was used by Darby. Because J.N. Darby is considered to be the first real dispensationalist, MacPherson argues he used Irving’s material including MacDonald’s visions of a pre-tribulational rapture.
Oddly, as I continued to look over these web articles linking Lacunza to dispensationalism, several of them cite heavily from MacPherson’s “research” into the pre-tribulational rapture and Margaret MacDonald. But in addition to his material, the authors attempt to “one up” MacPherson by pushing the origin of the pre-trib. rapture back before even MacDonald and Irving to making Lacunza the originator of pre-tribulationalism. MacPherson has much invested with his MacDonald-pre-trib. rapture theory, so one article I found was by him defending his MacDonald theory and explaining why the pre-trib. rapture could not have originated with Lacunza.
I say all this merely to point out an obvious inconsistency among various writers. Conflicting conclusions of the same supposed source material, like a disagreement between who originated what and at what time, I believe demonstrates something of a bias. These Reformed “apologists” are desperate to debunk dispensationalism, so there is a readiness to stretch anything that will help justify those convictions.
Another troubling element I found on these websites is a tone of conspiracy resonating throughout the articles. For example, Lacunza is accused of “pretending” to be a Jew as if he took on that role to distract and lead his readers away from the true understanding of eschatological themes, which in this case is the Reformers’ teachings the pope is the anti-Christ of Revelation. But is that why Lacunza took on a Jewish pen name?
A more balanced examination of his life and work, written up by a Seventh-Day Adventist of all people, notes how Lacunza had a desire to help the Jewish people see their true Messiah. The pen name was a means to get his work into the hands of the Jews who would otherwise ignore it because it was written by a Catholic. I can certainly understand Lacunza’s reasoning with using a Jewish pen name knowing the history of persecution the Catholics have made toward Jews.
The Adventist article also has a better summary of Lacunza’s book than what I found on the Reformed sites where authors have cherry picked suspicious comments they believe helps their cause against dispensationalism. Rather than being a deceptive work written to create a “new” theology and draw people away from Reformed eschatology, Lacunza seems to have had honest motives in his study. The first section of his book set the foundation for many of his conclusions he drew regarding eschatology, because it is a study of the hermeneutics used to interpret scripture. Lacunza argued in favor of a grammatical-historical literal hermeneutic as opposed to the traditional Catholic allegorism which is the method carried over into Reformed hermeneutics especially in regards to interpreting prophecy. This approach to studying the Bible made Lacunza the target of severe criticism from within his Jesuit order and the Catholic Church at large, and though he had some quirky ideas about some of the passages he studied, over all he didn’t make up anything fanciful and unique.
Many of his ideas on prophecy, such things as a premillennial return of Christ, a futurist view of Revelation, and a belief of a restoration of the nation Israel, were positions held by men before Lacunza was even born and we would even call them “Reformed.” Such folks as Joseph Mede in the 15-1600s, Cotton and Increase Mather in the 16-1700s, John Gill in the 1700s, and Jonathan Edwards in the 1700s. Additionally, in the introduction of the English version, Edward Irving, who is suppose to be his greatest admirer, wrote that he disagreed with a lot of Lacunza’s conclusions, including the futurist view of Revelation. Irving was a historicist, who applied less of a literal hermeneutic to the book of Revelation than what Lacunza did.
So. Rather than being a clandestine protector of Rome who developed a sinister theological system in order to move people away from the true Christian faith, Lacuna appears to have been genuinely interested in studying Scripture. He certainly was not making any allies with the Catholic Church with his literal hermeneutic he employed in his study. If anything, he got himself into trouble with Catholic leadership. Though he landed on some odd positions like the anti-Christ being a “moral body,” whatever that means, many of the similarities with future dispensational premillennialism only proves to me that even a Jesuit will come to the right conclusion with a consistent application of grammatical-historical exegesis.