As an introduction to defending premillennialism, it may be good to lay some foundational groundwork with regards to hermeneutical methodology, or what could be defined as those principles of interpretation a student will bring to his study of scripture. Eschatological systems are sharply divided along the lines of hermeneutics, particularly those hermeneutics utilized to interpret specific prophetic passages.
Theological presupposition should not be a governing factor in one’s application of his hermeneutical method. Yet, for better or for worse, those presuppositions often shape how a student will read and apply scripture to the question of eschatology. Ideally, a person’s theological presuppositions should be directed by the exegesis yielded from our study of the biblical text, but this is often not the case. The debate between amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism will fall to the authority given to those theological presuppositions.
Now, it is not to say those presuppositions are necessarily bad, or that they can even be avoided. Everyone utilizes certain presuppositions to a degree; it’s just a fact of life. The issue is not theological presuppositions coming into play when studying the Bible. Rather, it is whether or not the biblical student is aware of those presuppositions, if they are sustainable with an overall reading of scripture, and if they may have deleterious effects upon exegetical conclusions with the texts under consideration.
In order to frame a proper evaluation of those presuppositions as they relate to hermeneutics, it may be helpful to review a bit of the historical development of hermeneutical methodology.
After the close of the NT canon and the end of the apostolic era, the prevailing Greek culture had a profound influence upon the Church. Christian thinkers, apologetic writers, pastors, and teachers adapted much of what was taught within Greek philosophy to the reading and study of God’s word. Granted, the Christian Church recognized the severe negative impact of Greek philosophy on certain biblical doctrines like the Person of Jesus Christ. The earliest Church controversies centered around debates between biblically orthodox Christians and heretical groups who utilized Greek philosophy to teach errant ideas about Jesus Christ. Yet, in spite of these recognitions, certain strains of Greek philosophical thought influenced the hermeneutics employed to study scripture.
There are a couple of reasons for this influence. First, just the fact that at that time, Greek philosophy was considered intellectual and sophisticated. Paul even warned against such thinking infiltrating the church in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. But secondly, and probably more importantly, was the growing gentile church and the decline of Jewish Christianity after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Gentile Christians were for the most part Greek thinking with their culture. They had a ready acceptance to Greek philosophy when it came to developing their theology as well as their principles for Bible study.
Plato was probably one of the more influential Greek philosophers to have a significant impact upon these early Christians. His basic teaching involved the notion that reality was divided into two realms: the spiritual, or the immaterial metaphysical world, and the material world. For Plato, and those who advocated his philosophy, material was bad, where as the immaterial or spiritual, was good. This mind set of dividing reality into the categories of the immaterial and the material lent itself to the development of allegorical hermeneutics.
The Jewish philosopher, Philo, who was contemporary with Jesus Christ in the early first century, had a love for the Mosaic law along with Greek philosophy. He taught that the literal understanding of scripture was like the milk for those who are immature in the faith, but the allegorical understanding was the meat for the more mature. Philo’s writing on the OT was filled with many novel and unusual allegorical interpretations. One example being that when God said in Genesis 2:24 a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, the deeper meaning of the text was the mind leaving God, “the father,” and the wisdom and virtue of God, “the mother,” and becoming one with external sensations or our passions.
Plato and Philo’s legacy continued way after their deaths. Their dualistic views of the world were unwittingly adopted by many Christians as a filter on which to interpret the Bible. Origen, the third century church father, developed an entire hermeneutic based upon Philo’s principles of allegory, in which there are two meanings to a text: the meaning on the surface and then the hidden meaning underneath. Origen’s allegorical method was outlined in his book, On First Principles, and it dominated Roman Catholic biblical interpretations for centuries until the period of the Reformation.
But it was Augustine who modified Origen’s allegorical approach to interpret prophecy. That was the main difference with Augustine’s method. He interpreted non-prophetic, historical sections of scripture literally, but the prophetic portions symbolically. He was also the first notable church father to write a lengthy study on Revelation 20 where he introduced the idea that the millennium written about by the apostle John was not speaking of a literal, future kingdom to come upon the earth, but it described the current church age. Strangely, Augustine believed in a “literalness” to the thousand years which only demonstrates a serious inconsistency with his exegesis as it is interpreted with his hermeneutics. He reveals a vacillation between the literal and the symbolic in the very same passage without any true warrant.
Augustine’s study on Revelation 20 in his City of God has been the main influence upon amillennialism and postmillennialism ever since. His interpretation of prophecy prevailed throughout the Roman Catholic Church and even after the Reformation, the Reformers continued to teach Augustine’s views on Revelation 20. Theologian Robert Duncan Culver notes,
Augustine’s views on eschatology, among other subjects, are set forth in The City of God, the result of thirteen years of labor (AD 413-426). The part which relates to the millennium is book 20, chapters 4 to 15. It is safe to assert that until this section of Augustine’s great work is mastered one cannot fully appreciate the millennial discussions which have followed since his day. It is almost, if now wholly true, that all amillennial and postmillennial systems have been postscripts to The City of God. (Culver, Systematic Theology: Historical and Biblical, p. 1141).
Now, my amillennial and postmillennial friends will be quick to say, “I don’t allegorize the text.” In fact, many would even insist they most certainly do read the prophetic portions literally; literally in the same sense that the NT writers read and understood the prophetic portions of scripture. That is, interpreting prophecy as “God wants us to see the text”: types, antitypes, and symbolism in the matrix of redemption of Christ. Maybe that is how they understand their position, but it’s what I understand as a fancy way of saying “allegorizing.” It may be bathed in Reformed theology and the name changed to “historic redemptive hermeneutics”, but such a method comes awful close to being allegorical.
Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classic Evangelical Hermeneutics.
Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Historical and Biblical.
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed.
Stephen J. Nichols, For Us and Our Salvation.
Nancy Pearcy, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity.
Michael J. Vlach, Philosophy 101.
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.