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David S. Clark -The Message From Patmos: A Postmillennial Commentary on the Book of Revelation (1921) "This early twentieth-century Postmillennial commentary on the Book of Revelation, written by the father of theologian Gordon Clark, offers an easy-to-read alternative to the popular Pre-millennial/Dispensational views of the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible and a multitude of other dissertations on end-time prophecy that litter the shelves of Christian bookstores. "
Why the Early Church Finally Rejected Premillennialism
By Charles E. Hill
Chiliasm is the ancient name for what today is known as premillennialism, the belief that when Jesus Christ returns he will not execute the last judgment at once, but will first set up on earth a temporary kingdom, where resurrected saints will rule with him over non-resurrected subjects for a thousand years of peace and righteousness.1 To say that the Church "rejected chiliasm" may sound bizarre today, when premillennialism is the best known eschatology in Evangelicalism. Having attached itself to funda-mentalism, chiliasm in its dispensationalist form has been vigorously preached in pulpits, taught in Bible colleges and seminaries, and successfully promoted to the masses through study Bibles, books, pamphlets, charts, and a host of radio and television ministries. To many Christians today, premillennialism is the very mark of Christian orthodoxy. But there was a period of well over a "millennium" (over half of the Church's history), from at least the early fifth century until the sixteenth, when chiliasm was dormant and practically non-existent. Even through the Reformation and much of the post-Refor-mation period, advocates of chiliasm were usually found among fringe groups like the Münsterites. The Augsburg Confession went out of its way to condemn chiliasm (Art. XVII, "Of Christ's Return to Judgment"), and John Calvin criticized "the chiliasts, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years" (Institutes 3.25.5). It was not until the nineteenth century that chiliasm made a respectable comeback, as a favorite doctrine of Christian teachers who were promoting revival in the face of the deadening effects of encroaching liberalism.
But how are we to view the Church's earliest period up until the first decisive rejection of chiliasm in the Church? By most accounts this was the heyday of chiliastic belief in the Church. Many modern apologists for premillennialism allege that before the time of Augustine chiliasm was the dominant, if not the "universal" eschatology of the Church, preserving the faith of the apostles.2 Some form of chiliasm was certainly defended by such notable names as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century and Tertullian of Carthage in the third. How and why then did this view finally fall into disrepute?
The answer given by modern premillennial apologists usually suggests that premillennialism was overcome for illegitimate reasons. They cite the rise of an unbiblical and dangerous allegorical hermeneutic (by such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen) which took a sad toll on sound biblical exegesis. They explain that the prophetic excesses of the Montanists gave chiliasm a bad name. They note that the peace of Constantine led the Church to the false belief that the millennium had already arrived. And, finally, they suggest that the authoritative repudiation of chiliasm by Augustine, who formerly had held such a belief, "put the nails in the coffin" of premillennialism.
But are these the real factors?
The hermeneutical question is indeed an important one, but to put the debate in terms of literal against allegorical is overly simplistic. Both sides used literal exegesis and both used allegorical exegesis when they deemed it best. For example, despite Origen's intentional use of the allegorical method, his essential critique of chiliasm had real theological and traditional motivations. These motivations were not his alone but belonged to large segments of the Church. The early Montanists, it turns out, were not chiliasts and were never criticized for being so.3 Tertullian, who became a Montanist, did not get his chiliasm from them, but from Irenaeus. There is no evidence that chiliasm was hurt by any association with Montanism. By the time Constantine proclaimed Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, a non-chiliastic eschatology was surely the norm in most places, and in many it had been so ever since Christianity had arrived there. Many signs thus tell us that even without the aid of Augustine, chiliasm was probably in its death-throes by the time he wrote the last books of The City of God in a.d. 42026.
So why did the Church reject chiliasm? As with most historical questions, the answers are complex and have social as well as hermeneutical and theological aspects. It would take a long time to compare and evaluate the exegesis of individual biblical passages by a number of given authors. One common criticism, however, can serve as a convenient organizer for what are probably the most important factors in chiliasm's demise. That common criticism, known from Origen to the Augsburg Confession and beyond, is that chiliasm is a "Jewish" error.4 This criticism is open to grave misunderstanding today if one views it as part of the Church's shameful legacy of anti-Semitism. But this is not what lay at the base of such criticism of chiliasm as "Jewish." Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his apostles. "Salvation is of the Jews," Jesus said, and all the Church fathers knew and agreed with this. There is no embarrassment at all in something being "Jewish" and the ancient and honorable tradition of the Jews, in monotheism, morals, and the safeguarding of Holy Scripture, is something Christian leaders always prized.
Another modern misunderstanding of this criticism must also be avoided. Certain current forms of premillennialism, particularly dispensationalism, might seem "Jewish" to some because they promise that the kingdom of God will be restored to ethnic Jews as the just fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Abraham and his descendants. But this was not the case with ancient Christian chiliasm. The New Testament's revelation of the Church as the true Israel and heir of all the promises of God in Christ was too well-established and too deeply ingrained in the early Christian consciousness for such a view to have been viable. Ancient Church chiliasts like Irenaeus did indeed argue that some of God's promises to Israel had to be fulfilled literally in a kingdom on earth, but they recognized that the humble recipients of this kingdom would be spiritual Israel, all who confessed Jesus as God's Messiah, regardless of their national or ethnic origin.5 Ancient chiliasm was not criticized because it "favored" the Jews as having a distinct, blessed future apart from Gentile Christians.
What then did critics mean by calling chiliasm "Jewish"? Their use of the label meant "non-Christian Jewish," or even, "anti-Christian Jewish." These early critics believed that chiliasm represented an approach to biblical religion that was sub-Christian, essentially failing to reckon with the full redemptive implications of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. They saw it as an under-realized, a not-fully-Christian, eschatology. We can outline at least three aspects of this criticism.
Its Sources Were Non-Christian Jewish Sources
Some scholars note that the chiliasm of Justin, though it derives the number 1,000 from Revelation 20, springs more from a certain approach to Old Testament exegesis (particularly on Is. 65:17-25) than from the eschatology of Revelation.9 And this approach is in basic agreement with that of Trypho, his Jewish interlocutor. This is in keeping with the role chiliasm plays in Justin's Dialogue with Trypho, where it functions as part of an apologetic which sought to claim everything Jewish for Christianity. The issue of the fulfillment of the prophets' predictions of glory for Israel was very much a part of the atmosphere of the discussion between these representatives of Christianity and Judaism, for their encounter took place not long after the failed attempt by Bar Cochba to take Jerusalem back from the Romans (a.d. 13235).
Chiliasm Was "Jewish" in its View of the Saints' Afterlife
Yet most of the Church (and at times even the chiliasts themselves in spite of themselves) knew and treasured the New Testament hope of an immediate enjoyment of the presence of God in heaven with Christ at death (Luke 23:42-43; John 14:2-4; 17:24; Phil. 1:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:6-8; Heb. 12:22-24; 2 Pet. 1:11; Rev. 6:9-11; 14:1-5; 15:2; 18:20; 19:14). But this aspect of the Christian eschatology, this "hope of heaven" made possible only by the completed work of Jesus the Messiah and his own ascension to heaven, shattered the mold of Jewish chiliastic eschatology. Such a vision belonged to a non-chiliast (what we would today call amillennial) understanding of the return of Christ. This vision essentially saw the millennium of Revelation 20 as pertaining to the present age, wherein the righteous dead are alive in Christ and are now participating with their King and High Priest in the priestly kingdom in heaven (Rev. 20:4-6).12 In the new light of this fully Christian expectation, a return to an earthly existence, where sin and bodily desires still persisted and a final war (as in Rev. 20:8-10) still loomed, could only be a retrogression in redemptive history.13
We can observe then two competing patterns of Christian eschatology from the second century on: one chiliastic, which expects an intermediate kingdom on earth before the last judgment and says that the souls of the saints after death await that earthly kingdom in the refreshing underworldly vaults of Hades; the other which teaches instead that departed Christians have a blessed abode with Christ in heaven, in the presence of God, as they await the return of Christ to earth, the resurrection and judgment of all, and the new heaven and new earth.
Why did the chiliastic view of the afterlife appeal to some of the most prominent defenders of Christianity? As noted, for Justin, it functioned as a way of claiming all the Jewish inheritance for Christians. Did the prophets promise a kingdom of peace, bounty, and righteousness as the Jews insisted it did? Then these prophecies could be claimed for Christianity, for Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. But by the time of Irenaeus (later in the second century) there was another motivation. Orthodox believers were battling Marcionism, Valentinianism, and various other gnosticisms, which were devastating portions of the Church. All these heterodoxies rejected any notion of the salvation of the physical body through resurrection and any notion of a restored creation, since they all claimed that the material creation was inherently evil (or at least destined for annihilation), because it was not the creation of the highest God. They also claimed that their adherents would mount up to the highest heaven (beyond the orthodox) at death.14 Both aspects of eschatology were designed to "do the orthodox one better." Chiliasm provided an ideal response for Irenaeus, for it emphasized the goodness of the material creation as the good product of a benevolent God. It also refuted the inflated afterlife boasts of the heretics about direct ascension to the highest God as soon as they died. The true believer instead would follow the course of the Lord and remain in Hades until his soul was reunited with his body at the resurrection.15
But despite its usefulness in helping to claim the mantle of Judaism and in fending off matter-denying Gnosticism, chiliasm was at odds with aspects of the Church's hope handed down from the apostles and made so clear in the New Testament writings. As such, the chiliastic eschatology could not survive intact. Tertullian, after embracing chiliasm, tried some minor modifications. Even as a chiliast he remained more open to understanding the "earthly" prophecies of the Old Testament in a more "spiritualized" way.16 He also argued that some Christians--but only those who literally suffered martyrdom--could be spared a stay in Hades and could inhabit the heavenly paradise before the resurrection.17 But even Tertullian's admirer Cyprian could not accept this ameliorated form of chiliasm, and comforted his congregations in the face of a raging plague with the Christian hope of the heavenly kingdom when they died.18 With Lactantius in the early fourth century we see a determined attempt to revive a more "genuine" form of chiliasm.19 But by the fourth century these views could not stand long among educated clergy. The Christian hope of union and fellowship with Christ after death was too strong for the chiliastic eschatology to flourish ever again in its original form. The work of Tyconius, Jerome, and Augustine at the end of the fourth century and in the early fifth simply put the exclamation point on the inevitable.
Chiliasm's Old Testament Hermeneutic Led to the Crucifixion
But it was not these "faults" alone that fatally injured chiliasm. It might have lasted longer if there had not always existed in the Church another, more fully "Christian," eschatology sustaining the Church throughout the whole period. That eschatology, revealed in the New Testament writings, proclaimed Jesus Christ's present reign over all things from heaven, where his saints were "with him" (Luke 23:42-43; John 14:2-4; 17:24; Phil. 1:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:6-8). It saw the culmination of that reign not in a future, limited, and provisional kingdom on earth where perfection mingled once again with imperfection, but rather in the full arrival of the perfect (Rom. 8:21; 1 Cor. 13:10) and the replacement of the present heaven and earth with a heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21-22). Evidence of this eschatology runs throughout the postNew Testament period, from Clement of Rome to Augustine.
Modern premillennialism, in its several forms, has indeed undergone certain transmutations from its ancient ancestor, some of which are improvements, some arguably not. It may be possible to develop a premillennialism which obviates the worst of chiliasm's pitfalls in antiquity. But the more challenging question will always be whether any form of chiliasm can ever be shown to be the view of the New Testament writers.
Dr. Charles E. Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity (Oxford, 1992).
What do YOU think ?
05 May 2004
How does the preterist interpret Romans 9-11? Wouldn't you be better off as an historic premil? Dispensational premil is not the only option.
02 Sep 2004
its kind of funny how people view being jewish as a race , when in fact alot of jews in america say its not a race.
24 Sep 2004
Pre-Mill Advocates of the 1st Century: 1. Andrew 2. Peter 3. Philip 4. Thomas 5. James 6. John 7. Matthew 8. Aristio 9. John the Presbyter Peters states regarding the above: "These all lived between A.D. 1-100; John, it is supposed -- so Mosheim, etc. -- died about A.D. 100. (All these are cited by Papias, who, according to Irenaeus, was one of John's hearers, and intimate with Polycarp. John is also expressly mentioned by Justin. Now this reference to the apostles agrees with the facts that we have proven: (a) that the disciples of Jesus did hold the Jewish views of the Messianic reign in the first part of this century, and (b) that, instead of discarding them, they linked them with the Sec. Advent)." 10. Clement of Rome A.D. 40-100 11. Barnabas A.D 40-100 12 Hermas A.D 40-150 13 Ignatius A.D. 50-115 14 Polycarp A.D. 70-167 15. Papias A.D. 80-163 None can be cited in this century to be against The Premillennial view. Pre-Mill Advocates of the 2nd Century: 1. Pothinus A.D. 87-177 2. Justin Martyr A.D. 100-168 3. Melito A.D. 100-170 4. Hegisippus A.D. 130-190 5. Tatian A.D. 130-190 6. Irenaeus A.D. 140-202 7. The Churches of Vienne and Lyons - a letter A.D. 177 8. Tertulian A.D. 150-220 9. Hippolytus A.D. 160-240 10 Apollinaris A.D. 150-200 None can be cited in this century to be against Premillennialism. The common belief of the Church was Chiliastic (Premillennial). Pre-Mill Advocates of the 3rd Century: 1. Cyprian A.D. 200-258 2. Commodian A.D. 200-270 3. Nepos A.D. 230-280 4. Coracion A.D. 230-280 5. Victorinus A.D. 240-303 6. Methodius A.D. 250-311 7. Lactantius A.D. 240-330 There were only four in this century that opposed the Premillennial view: 1. Caius (or Gaius), wrote about A.D. 210 2, Clemens Alexandrinus, died A.D. 202, great influence on Origin 3. Origin A.D. 185-254 4. Dionysius A.D. 190-265 There were others who were influenced but these are the "champions" mentioned as directly hostile to Premillennialism
Dr. Hill was a professor of min at RTS in Orlando. I greatly respect Dr. Hill as a man of God and a student of Scripture. However, I must take issue with his argument that the chialistic 'OT hermeneutic' led to the crucifixion of Christ. It is, I think, unfair to idenitify the various hermeneutics that undergirded Jewish expectations of Messiah in the first century (which appear to be rather diverse from the literature of 2nd Temple Judaism) to the 'literal hermeneutic' employed by chiliasts or premillennialists, modern or ancient. 1) It suggests that Christ's fulfillment of the OT prophecies is non-literal - a statement with which many (non-chiliasts and chiliasts) would disagree. 2) The political-militaristic messianic expectations of zealots and early rabbinic Judaism (as in Bar Cochba's revolt, supported by rabbi Akiva)
Date: 11 Jun 2006
This jibes a lot with the little that I know. I wish I could access the footnotes to check up on some of the quotes.
Date: 08 Aug 2006
Preterist should come in the dictionary somewhere between "Prester John" and Prevenient grace", but it wasn't there.
Date: 24 Sep 2006
I have found these veiws of end times ,through a dispensational paradigm, quite the miss-leading vehicle of missimformation, that wholey resembles the Iraqui-BOB's missimformation regime for Sadams
Back to the bible with an assured word kjv, we are not to make heaven our final destaination,but the world we occuppy and occupy through god's spirit.
Date: 01 Jun 2007
The later (not early) church finally rejected premillennialism for the same reason that they rejected the infilling of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues, the gifts of the Spirit and the apostolic and prophetic gifts - they backslid and forsook the teachings that were committed by the apostles to the early church fathers.
Date: 01 Jun 2009
The article is well written and thought provoking. I desire to know more about the non-chiliasts in the very early church. Scripture does not convince me of chiliasm. Recognizing that the Kingdom is here now, and I am a citizen along with all Christians causes me not to expect any particular natural reign without complete regeneration of the earth. I lean hard amillennial because of the Scriptures. Who may have leaned this way in the early church?
Date: 20 Nov 2009
Date: 27 Jun 2010
Date: 16 Jan 2011
Date: 06 Aug 2013
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