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Christian Hope Through History

by Dr. Robert G. Clouse, Jun 15, 1991

clouse_mIn the introduction to his handbook of theology, J. Dwight Pentecost observed that some will seek to understand Holy Scripture by a study of:

biblical theology, in which the theologian will synthesize the teachings of the Bible, deriving these truths, stage by stage, within the time boundaries of particular biblical eras or authors’ lifetimes. Others will develop a systematic theology, in which Bible doctrines may be considered comprehensively and organized in a philosophical or logical format. Others will study doctrines according to their historical development throughout time from the close of the canon of Scripture until the present day…. Others may concentrate on contemporary theology…. Still others may pursue the study of Scripture by com­paring various systems of theology which have arisen through the course of church history.

He concluded that there “is merit and benefit in all these approaches.”

Viewing Millennialism via Historical Theology

As one trained in both theology and church history I have found the study of the historical development of doctrine to be particularly helpful. As one approaches the interpretation of Christian doctrine down through the centuries, there is no passage that benefits more from this treatment than the promise found in Rev 20:1-6 of a millennial kingdom when Christ will reign upon earth and the forces of evil will be restrained.

Interpretations of this coming age have been labeled postmillennial, amillennial, and premillennial. These categories continue in use despite the fact that the distinction involves much more than merely whether Christ returns before or after the millennium.

The kingdom expected by the postmillennialist is quite different from that anticipated by the premillennialist, not only with respect to the time and manner with which it will be established but also with regard to the nature of the kingdom and the way Christ exercises His control over it. The postmillenarian believes that the Kingdom of God is extended through Christian preaching and teaching as a result of which the world will be Christianized and will enjoy a long period of peace and righteousness. This new age will not be essentially different from the present and it emerges gradually as an ever larger share of the world’s population is converted to Christianity. Evil is not eliminated but is reduced to a minimum as the moral and spiritual influence of Christianity is heightened. During this age the church assumes a greater importance, and many social, economic, and educational problems are solved. The period closes with the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment.

In contrast to the above view, the amillennialist believes that the Bible does not predict a period of universal peace and righteousness before the end of the world. Instead, good and evil will coexist until the second coming of Christ when the dead are raised and the last judgment held.

The third major interpretation, premillennialism, affirms that the Lord’s return will be followed by a period of peace and righteousness before the end of the world, during which Christ will reign as king in person or through a select group of people. This kingdom is not established by the conversion of individual souls over a long period of time, but suddenly and by overwhelming power. The new age will be characterized by the conversion of the Jews and the reign of harmony in nature to such an extent that the desert will blossom like a rose and even ferocious beasts will be tame. Evil is held in check during this period by Christ who rules with a rod of iron. Despite these idyllic conditions people are not satisfied and launch one last rebellion against God and His followers. This final exposure of evil is crushed by Christ and then the last judgment is held. Many premillennialists have believed that during this golden age believers who have died will be reunited with glorified bodies to mingle freely with the rest of the inhabitants of the earth. Usually, premillenarians have taught that the return of Christ will be preceded by certain signs such as the preaching of the Gospel to all nations, a great apostasy, wars, famine, earthquakes, the appearance of the Antichrist, and a great tribulation.

Varieties of Millennialism

It is necessary once more to caution those who approach the subject of millennialism that the usual classifications are not adequate. Although the terms postmillennial, amillennial, and premillennial have been used to present some of the variety of interpretations, one must constantly guard against a simplistic outlook because of the use of this scheme. For example, it is often stated that postmillennialism is an extremely optimistic creed that is little more than a Christian blessing on the secular teaching that humankind will progress to some utopian social goal. In reality, many of the most fervent evangelicals have taken a postmillennial view, believing that the Holy Spirit can bring a great revival to the world. This outlook has encouraged them to preach the Gospel with great fervency and led to global evangelism and missionary work. It is even possible to be a pessimistic postmillennialist, that is, one who believes the immediate future holds a time of trouble for the church, but that God will send His Spirit in a special way to overcome these problems.

Premillennialism is also a more difficult doctrine to define than it would seem at first glance. Not all premillennialists are consistent and some have decided in ages past to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, even if force was necessary. The current teaching of most premillenarians, that the Jews will be restored to their land and Jerusalem will be the center of the millennial state, has not been followed by all who hold to a premillennial advent. For example, a leading Puritan millennial scholar believed that America would be the center of Christ’s kingdom.

Yet another difference that confuses the usual categories of eschatological interpretation is whether the book of Revelation is interpreted in a preterist, historicist, or futurist manner. A preterist is one who believes that most of the prophecies of the Apocalypse have been fulfilled in the past. The historicist (or presentist) considers the events of Revelation now in the process of fulfillment, while the futurist believes that the bulk of the book refers to events to come. Until the nineteenth century most premillennialists used the historicist method of interpretation while today the usual premillennial emphasis is futurist. Despite these qualifications, it is still necessary to refer to premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial interpretations concerning the second coming of Christ if for no other reason than these categories are so widely used.

Early Church Views

In each era of church history including the ancient, medieval, Reformation and modern periods one of these views has tended to predominate. During the first three centuries of the Christian era premillennialism was the prevailing interpretation. The first post-Apostolic writer to express the premillenarian faith was Papias, a bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia. He describes the golden age of the personal rule of Christ upon earth as characterized by miracles and natural blessings. Not only would the earth yield abundant crops, but peaceful relations would be established among animals and humans. His belief was based upon a combination of Old Testament texts with Revelation 20. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Methodius, Commodianus and Lactantius also kept the Apostolic witness to premillennialism alive.

When Constantine legalized Christianity much of the impetus for millennial teaching passed. Premillennialism thrives when Christians are persecuted or feel themselves pressured by society, but during the fourth century official hostility was replaced by government support for the church. An alternative view of the millennium had already been developed in Alexandria by scholars such as Origen (d. 254). He believed that the Christian hope was to be in heaven not on earth and that believers should take a spiritual interpretation of the Book of Revelation. The amillennialism of the Alexandrine theologians, expanded by Tyconius, a little known Donatist writer of the late fourth century, was adopted by the medieval church because of its acceptance by the prestigious Church Father, Augustine (354-430).

The Rise of Amillennialism

Early in his career Augustine had held a millenarian view, but due to the exaggerations and crude materialism of many chiliasts he abandoned the teaching. In support of his new theory he turned to Mark 3:27, “No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.” The strong man was Satan, his goods Christians and he was kept away from Christians by being shut up in the abyss, the heart of the wicked. The first resurrection is figurative and represents the conversion experience while the thousand years are symbolic standing for the Christian era. Thus Augustine propounded the doctrine demanded by the times and, applying an allegorical interpretation he believed that the millennium was realized in the church. This doctrine was so fully accepted that at the Council of Ephesus in 431, belief in the millennium was condemned as superstition.

For the next 1,300 years Augustinian amillennialism remained the official teaching of the church. However, during the medieval period there was always an undercurrent of premillennialism among individuals such as Joachim of Fiora and the Spiritual Franciscans. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries their teaching was revived by various pre-reformation groups including the Hussites. However, the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century continued to hold the Augustinian view of the millennium; nevertheless they suggested changes in eschatological interpretation that led to a renewal of premillennialism in the seventeenth century.

A Premillennial Undercurrent

Martin Luther, for example, advocated a more literal approach to the Bible and identified the papacy with the antichrist. The attention that he called to the prophetic portions of the Bible led some Lutheran scholars to adopt a millennialist interpretation. John Calvin, like Luther, was not impressed with millenarian interpretation, possibly because of the activities of certain Anabaptist groups. Despite Calvin’s opposition, a German Calvinist, Johann H. Alsted (1588-1638), revived the teaching of premillennialism, putting it in a more respectable form.>

Alsted’s work was adopted by a learned Anglican scholar, Joseph Mede, who popularized the premillennial view in the English speaking world. Mede, called by some the greatest biblical scholar that the Anglican church has ever produced, was educated at Cambridge University and afterwards became professor of Greek at that institution. In his book, Clavis Apocalypticae (The Key of the Revelation) he considered that his great advance in the interpretation of prophecy was his discovery of the “synchronism” of prophecies. By that he meant that much of the prophetic teaching of the book applies to the same period and describes different beings or events during that time span.

Mede held that there are three divisions of the Apocalypse and that each of these commences with a voice sounding forth as a trumpet from heaven to the Apostle John. The first of these, beginning in Rev 1:10 is the message to the seven churches; the next which begins with Rev 4:1 is the vision of the seals; and the last is that of the opened book beginning in Rev 10:8. Mede does not explain the message to the churches but he does expound the meaning of the rest of the prophecy. The occurrences of the second division dealt with the Roman Empire, while those in the third reveal the future of the Christian Church. These two systems interact in the second half of the Book of Revelation.

It is helpful to explain the historical application which Mede gave to his work since this was the usual method of early premillennialists. The first six seals picture the fate of pagan Rome, culminating in the conversion of Constantine (A.D. 311). The seven trumpets arise out of the seventh seal and are fulfilled by the barbarian invasion, the division of Rome into ten barbarian successor states, the extinction of the western empire, the war between east Rome and the Ostrogoths, the rise of Islam, the Turkish invasions, and the coming of Christ.

At the same time the sixth trumpet sounds, six vials of judgment are poured upon the anti-Christian world. The first of these vials was fulfilled when the Waldenses, Albigenses, and Hussites denounced the pope as Antichrist, and Rome as Apocalyptic Babylon. The next vial refers to the action of Luther in destroying the authority of the Roman Church over large areas of Europe. The third vial which turned the rivers into blood was fulfilled when the representatives of Rome were killed by the rulers of Europe who followed the Protestant Reformation. These three vials, Mede believed, had been poured out by his time but there were still four vials remaining to be emptied upon papal Rome. These would destroy the ruling House of Austria, the city of Rome, send the Jews to attack the papacy, and prepare the nations for the Battle of Armageddon.

The seventh trumpet begins the Battle of Armageddon during which the papacy and all the other enemies of the church are destroyed and the earth is prepared for the thousand year reign of Christ and His saints. He explains that the kingdom will be “circumscribed within two resurrections, beginning at the judgment of Anti­christ, as the morning of that day, and continuing during the space of 1,000 years granted to new Jerusalem (the Spouse of Christ), upon this Earth, till the universal resurrection and judgment of all the dead, when the wicked shall be cast into Hell to be tormented for ever, and the Saints translated into Heaven, to live with Christ for ever.”

Mede’s work was extremely popular both in his own day and in ,the decades that followed. During the Puritan Revolution of the seventeenth century his ideas helped to fan the fire of prophetic enthusiasm. Despite the radical action of groups like the Fifth Monarchy Men who helped to discredit premillennial belief, there were always individuals of great influence such as Isaac Newton who followed Mede’s ideas. Many Bible students in colonial America including Cotton Mather were impressed by the theology of the “great Mede” and followed the ideas of the English scholar.

The Rise of Postmillenialism

Although premillennialism continued, it was destined to be eclipsed by postmillennialism during the eighteenth century. Postmillennialism was expressed by Daniel Whitby (1638-1725) who formulated a teaching that can be found in the works of earlier seventeenth-century Puritan writers. An Anglican latitudinarian, he published a two-volume Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament to which he appended, in place of a commentary on the Revelation, an essay entitled A treatise of the True Millennium: Showing that it is not a Reign of Persons Raised from the Dead, but of the Church flourishing Gloriously for a Thousand Years after the Conversion of the Jews, and the Flowing in of all Nations to them thus converted to the Christian Faith. Whitby, as his cumbersome title indicates, believed that the Jews would be converted to Christianity and that this would result in the beginning of the millennium. The golden age was to be a time of ease and plenty, universal peace, freedom from persecution, righteousness, and an era of the special presence of God on earth. He felt that this would be the result of a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit as at the day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts. He did not teach a literal appearance of Christ on earth or a resurrection of the dead before the millennium.

During the eighteenth century Whitby’s eschatology proved to be very popular. Two writers of popular commentaries on Revelation, Charles Daubuz and Moses Lowman, both espoused the postmillennial view. One of the most influential American theologians who ever lived, Jonathan Edwards, also adopted this outlook. Millennial considerations were more important to Edwards than has often been realized. In fact, he kept a notebook on the Apocalypse which spans nearly three decades of his life. In this work he not only analyzed the book and kept notes on commentators on the Revelation, but he also recorded the signs of the times that he believed were leading to the millennium. Other works which he wrote dealing with this millennial enthusiasm are A History of Redemption (1774) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New En­gland (1743).

In these books Edwards confesses his belief that there will be a golden age for the church on earth achieved through the ordinary process of preaching the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. This period was to be ushered in by the destruction of Anti­christ, whom Edwards identified with the Roman papacy. As a result of papal oppression people were forced into superstition and ignorance and the Bible was taken out of the hands of laymen.

Nevertheless, in every age God had His witnesses and even in the darkest period men such as John Wycliffe and John Hus bore a testimony against Rome. The fifth vial of Revelation, Edwards believed, brought the Protestant Reformation. This movement resulted in the reestablishment of sound doctrine, the propagation of the Gospel to the heathen, and the pietist movement. Learning was revived, the power of the papacy was reduced, and persecution diminished.

The papacy was to continue in power for 1,260 years (Rev 16:1) which were to expire either in 1866 or 2016 at which time a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit would result in the destruction of Anti­christ. The instrument through which God would work would be the preaching of the Gospel. As a result of this revival, Satan’s visible kingdom, the apostate church, would be overthrown and a great age of human happiness would follow. During this time heresy, infidelity, and superstition would be eliminated. Islam would be destroyed, the Jews converted, and the heathen of Africa, America, and India won to Christ. The millennial age was to be characterized not only by great holiness and commitment to Christ but also by a vast increase in knowledge and learning. The reign of Christ would result in international peace and understanding accompanied by the greatest prosperity and happiness the world has ever experienced. In addition to all these impressive blessings, it would be a time when Christianity and the church will be greatly respected.

At the close of the millennial age, however, much of the world was to fall away from Christ and His Church. The vast numbers who make up the armies of Gog and Magog are recruited because people abuse the prosperity of the era to serve lust and corruption. Christ will come and crush this rebellion instituting the last judgment. After the church is caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, the world will be set on fire and turned into a great furnace where all the enemies of Christ shall be tormented forever.

The French Revolution & Apocalyptic Thinking

Just as the influence of Augustine had led the Medieval Church to adopt amillennialism so the teaching of Edwards encouraged the spread of postmillennialism in the modern era. However, there were still individuals who preached premillennialism and by the early nineteenth century their number increased because of a renewal of interest in prophecy fostered by the French Revolution. When the French overthrew their monarch, Europe was plunged into decades of turbulence that encouraged apocalyptic thinking. Many Bible scholars in Britain came to the conclusion that the end of the age was near.

Most of these interpreters believed that the papacy must be destroyed before the millennium would come. The Revolution caused the destruction of papal power in France, the seizure of Church property, the founding of a religion of reason, and even for a time the banishment of the pope from Rome. Students of prophecy believed that this “deadly wound” inflicted on the papacy was prophesied in Revelation 13. Biblical chronology seemed to point to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the decisive period for the establishment of the millennium.

The British Prophecy Movement

The new prophetic movement centered in Britain where a vast literature on millennial themes developed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Most of these writers were from the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Those who led the movement became convinced of the premillennial return of Jesus Christ. They also had a great interest in the conversion of the Jews to Christ and their restoration to the Holy Land. By 1826, Henry Drummond, an influential politician and businessman, had become interested in the conversion of the Jews and the Bible prophecies relating to the second coming of Christ. In that year he held a series of meetings at his estate attended by several important laymen and ministers. These discussions of prophecy were repeated in 1827 and 1828. Drummond himself summarized the conclusions reached at these conferences in the following six points:

1.  This “dispensation” or age will not end “insensibly” but cataclysmically in judgment and destruction of the church in the same manner in which the Jewish dispensation ended.
2.  The Jews will be restored to Palestine during the time of judgment.
3.  The judgment to come will fall principally upon Christendom.
4.  When the judgment is past, the millennium will begin.
5.  The second advent of Christ will occur before the millennium.
6.  The 1,260 years of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 ought to be measured from the reign of Justinian to the French Revolution. The vials of wrath (Revelation 16) are now being poured out and the second advent is imminent.

Many Americans went to Britain where they were caught up in the enthusiasm about the return of Christ. One of these, Eleazar Lord (1788-1871), was a prominent businessman who with his brother David (1792-1880) began to popularize premillennialism in the United States. Eleazar’s money and David’s erudition and energy made a formidable combination. David wrote numerous books explaining the premillennial view but his most important activity was editing The Theological and Literary Review. This periodical which appeared quarterly from 1848 to 1861 featured articles by and of interest to premillennial scholars.

Another reason for David Lord’s prominence among premillennialists was his systematizing of their doctrine to an extent never before attempted. He set forth rules for the literal method of interpretation so that among many American premillennialists there was an agreed upon standard for prophetic analysis. The suggestions that he made include a careful distinction between “language prophecies” and “symbolical prophecies.” The former should conform to the laws of language and grammar which he enumerates for his readers. “The language prophecies are easily distinguishable from those which are symbolical. The symbolical prophecies were, with few exceptions, revealed to the prophet in dreams or visions … [and] are all in the past tense.”

Lord analyzed the four hundred symbols which he believed were found in the Old and New Testaments. He believed that his method, if used consistently, would stop as he stated: postmillennial interpretations. “All figurative expressions in the prophets are thus distinguishable with the utmost certainty and ease from those which are literal; the principles on which the several figures are used make their meaning clear and demonstrable; and they cut off the spiritualization of the predictions to which Anti-millenarians are addicted, as absolutely as the axioms of geometry preclude false processes in that science.”

Using these principles, Lord proceeded to elaborate a premillennial system based upon the historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation. He states bluntly at the beginning of one of his books that humankind as a whole is not to be redeemed under the present dispensation. Rather it is a period of trial when men choose between good and evil and show whether they follow God or not. Mocking the idea of worldwide revival by tracing the history of spiritual awakening through the centuries, he demonstrated to his readers that every period of revival has been followed by a time of backsliding and trouble. The optimism of the postmillennialist, he felt, could be disproved from Scriptures such as John 16:32 and 33, Acts 14:22, and 1 Thess 3:3 and 4 which picture the present age as a time of trial and discipline in which evil and good are tested and made to reveal themselves. The purpose of the present age was to prepare the way for another dispensation during which the world could be redeemed and salvation extended to all nations.

Christ is to return, Lord taught, to inaugurate the millennium and to reign in person during this period. Lord consistently bolstered his views with Scripture references and appeals to the original languages of the Bible. When one reads his work he feels that here is an individual who consciously tried to follow the philological approach while the postmillennial interpreters put a greater stress upon a philosophical understanding of the Christian message.

Lord’s system won many followers not only among his fellow New England Calvinists but also among other groups. These premillenarian believers would be found in such major denominations as the Lutheran (Joseph Seiss), Episcopalian (R. C. Shimeall), Methodist (John G. Wilson), Baptist (James Inglis), and Dutch Reformed (John Demarest), as well as the Congregational and Presbyterian churches. The hostility of many of these denominations forced premillennialists to create their own structures. This trend reached its fruition when millenarian conferences were held in the 1870s.

In addition to these national meetings there were local prophecy assemblies such as the Premillennial Advent Society of New York City as well as several Jewish Societies in the leading eastern communities. The formation of these new groups indicates that one had to depart from the general tenor of American life to adopt the premillennial view. The chiliast held a special set of doctrines and subscribed to a rather well defined theology including a literal approach to the Scriptures, two resurrections, and the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land.

“By 1860, millenarianism had emerged so clearly as a peculiar theology that its proponents formed virtually a sect within the larger body of American Protestantism. Like the red thread which the British admiralty used to weave into its cordage to identify it as its own, millenarianism ran through various denominations, part of the whole, but always a self-identifying thing apart.”

Premillennialism, because it was a well-articulated theology with considerable structure and a defined leadership, was equipped to last and develop as one of the main ingredients of the Fundamentalist movement.

The Rise of Dispensationalism

Despite the success of the historicist movement, a new type of premillennialism was to be prominent in the twentieth century called dispensationalism. John Nelson Darby, an early Plymouth Brethren leader, articulated the dispensationalist understanding of prophecy. Through a series of books, which include four volumes on prophecy, his ideas became popular in the English-speaking world. The line of continuity from Darby can be traced through W. E. Blackstone, G. Campbell Morgan, H. A. Ironside, A. C. Gaebelein and C. I. Scofield to more recent times.

Dispensationalism has become the standard interpretation for over 200 Bible institutes and seminaries in the United States. Many famous interdenominational evangelists including D. L. Moody and Billy Graham have also adopted this understanding of eschatology. Books and periodicals such as the phenomenal best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, have also popularized this approach.

As the name suggests, dispensationalists believe that God deals with humanity through a series of distinct periods. Although they differ on the exact numbers of these eras, most believe that there are seven dispensations including innocence, conscience or moral responsibility, human government, promise, the law, the church, and the millennium. In each of these ages there is a unique revelation of the divine will and humankind is tested by obedience to this standard. The seventh dispensation, the millennium, is inaugurated by the return of Christ in two stages: the first, a secret rapture which removes the church before the Great Tribulation devastates the earth, and the second, Christ’s coming with the Church to establish the kingdom.

The dispensationalists see the Jews having a prominent place in these events and by the time the millennium is established most of them are converted to Christ. During the millennial age the resurrected saints will rule the world with their Lord. Peace and prosperity will come to earth and worship will center in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. At the beginning of the millennium only believers will be alive, but some of their descendants will not accept Christ and they will join Satan in a revolt against God. This final example of human depravity will be defeated by divine intervention, the last judgment held, and the eternal state of heaven and hell established. As previously suggested, this interpretation of the millennial hope is currently the most widely held premillennial view.

In Summary

In summary, throughout the history of the church each interpretation of the Christian hope has had its share of adherents. During the first three centuries premillennialism seems to have predominated. Beginning in the fifth century with the teaching of the church father Augustine, amillennialism dominated the medieval church. The seventeenth century witnessed a revival of premillennialism and the emergence of postmillennialism. Due to the prestige of scholars such as Jonathan Edwards, postmillennialism prevailed and continued its popularity until the early nineteenth century. By the twentieth century a newer form of premillennialism, dispensationalism, became the major interpretation of those who emphasized the second coming of Christ.

What is the proper view of the millennium? That is an answer that must be decided upon exegetical considerations. But historical theology can help us appreciate the importance of this question to each age throughout history. Neglecting to teach a comparative view of the second coming deprives Christians of a powerful source of comfort. The Gospel is a message of hope and openness toward the future.

This abridged article by Robert G. Clouse first appeared in New Testament Essays: in honor of Homer A. Kent, Jr., edited by Gary T. Meadows, BMH Books, 1991 under the title, “The Christian Hope: A History of the Interpretation of the Millennium.” See that version for complete footnotes. It is posted here with the permission of the author.

Dr. Robert G. Clouse is the “dean” of Christian millennial historians in the United States and expert on comparative millennialism. He has been a professor of history at Indiana State University since 1963 with a specialization in Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation history. He is the author of several books including, The Meaning of the Millennium IVP (1979) and The New Millennial Manual: A Once and Future Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999).

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