There is a series of very enlightening posts about Harold Camping on the blog of Westminster Seminary California, written by someone who first met him (and churched with him) in the 1950s. The posts offer some insight into his background, education, and rather self-contradictory hermeneutical methods. Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five.
According to part 1, in the 1950s Camping
was a conservative, traditional adherent of the Christian Reformed Church and would remain so for many years. … The CRC was also still strictly Reformed, interpreting the Bible in light of the church’s confessional standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Camping strongly embraced and taught the doctrine and piety of the CRC in which he had been raised.
In other words, Camping started off as a Reformed Calvinist with a strong and “sound” basis of biblical teaching. Even after he started Family Radio he was
a most effective and influential promoter of Reformed theology and won many listeners to the Reformed cause.
So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been with his education, as an engineer rather than a Bible teacher:
He knew no Greek or Hebrew. He was not formally introduced to the study of theology. His reading of the Bible, as it evolved over the decades, reflected his training in engineering. He reads the Bible like a mathematical or scientific textbook.
… his study of the Bible was undertaken in isolation from other Christians and theologians. He adopted a proud individualism. He did not really learn from Bible scholars. He studied the Bible in isolation from the church and the consensus of the faithful. As a result his understanding of the Bible became more and more idiosyncratic.
Reading on into part 2:
Camping’s literalism shows itself in his taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.
I see this as a key issue problem with all fundamentalist and many more broadly conservative or “Reformed” readings of the Bible. The approach of many creationists is similar in principle to Camping’s, in that they take Bible verses as teaching scientific truths which could never have been what their authors intended to teach. It is perhaps not coincidental that creationism also often appeals to those with an engineering background.
However, Camping did not always take the Bible literally:
While often taking a literalistic approach to numbers, he also takes a very allegorical approach to many texts. This approach seems to have developed gradually, driven in part by his eagerness to refute Pentecostals. … By turning everything literal into symbols, Camping can make the Bible say almost anything.
Camping’s calculations and allegorical readings eventually led him to a truly heretical conclusion: that the age of the church was over and that all Christians were required to separate themselves from all churches. … Camping concluded that the organized church had become faithless and that individual Christians must leave the church and fellowship informally with other true believers.
Now on this issue I do not fully agree with Robert Godfrey in condemning Camping. There is no guarantee that any one denomination will remain faithful. There have been times, and may still be, when true believers are right to separate from apostate churches and set up their own fellowships. The Reformation was one such time. But Camping was wrong to declare all existing churches apostate and imply that his own informal fellowship was the only true one.
However, I am with Godfrey again in part 5, where he points out that Camping
seems also to have deserted Christ and his Gospel. …
The saddest and most distressing element of Camping’s latest theological statement is that it is Christless. He does not write about Christ’s return, but about judgment day. … Notice also that there is no mention of the cross and Christ’s saving work for sinners. …
Camping’s presentation of God’s mercy is from beginning to end unbiblical and unchristian. He has no Trinity, no cross, no faith alone in Jesus alone, and no assurance. His vision of God and mercy is more Muslim than Christian.
So what can we conclude from this? Here we have a man who could boast of his sound Reformed faith and doctrine, of whom others would no doubt say that he was surely one of the elect, but who then went so far astray in his faith that a writer like Godfrey can imply that now he is not a Christian at all:
Let us pray that Harold Camping and his followers will come to embrace the Gospel as Peter did.
So, it seems, being an elder in a sound Reformed church offers no assurance of salvation.
And the reason why he started on this path? I see two: his unscholarly and fundamentalist way of reading the Bible; and his apparent opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit amongst Pentecostals. Sadly both of these attitudes are still strong today among a generation much younger than 89-year-old Camping.
One more lesson for all of us, from the Bible:
if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 2011)