Previous to Augustine, chiliasm, or what we know today as premillennialism, was the majority eschatology among early Christians until it came into disfavor. First to have a negative impact upon chiliasm was Origen’s allegorical teachings filled with the Grecian philosophy of Philo. But then, chiliasm was completely dislodged largely in part to Augustine’s spiritualized hermeneutic he used to interpret Revelation 20 in a figurative sense. The idea of a real, physical future Kingdom of God lasting a thousand years upon the earth was seen as sensual and earthly, and thus was considered nonspiritual and ungodly. Augustine’s Platonic hermeneutic pitted an earthly realm against a heavenly realm and he saw the millennium of Revelation 20 as happening now as the Christian church triumphantly grows throughout the world. His spiritualized eschatology wound its way through scholastic, Medieval Roman Catholicism where it was shaped into the various forms we see today in discussions regarding eschatology.
But when the Reformation happened, the Reformers began the process of rescuing the Scriptures from the allegorical clutches of Roman Catholicism. Luther, Calvin, and their followers, laid the ground work within their preaching and teaching of sola scriptura that began reforming the hermeneutics one used to read the Bible, and that involved moving away from the allegorical application of hermeneutics. The reason being is because a vigorous commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture demands a hermeneutical frame work that takes the Bible more literally. The Reformers were concerned with the meaning of the original languages, hence why there was a push to translate the scriptures into the common languages of the day. They were also concerned with the historical background of the Bible and the authorial intent of the original writers. More technical commentaries on the biblical text began to appear. Basically, in this incubator, a historical, grammatical hermeneutic began maturing.
Ironically, however, the one area of theology the Reformers carried over from Roman Catholicism was eschatology. At the time, the main focus in the teaching and writing of such men as Luther and Calvin was the doctrines of salvation over and against a man centered, works oriented sacramentalism, and the sufficiency of God’s Word contrasted to a popish priest class. Consistency between hermeneutical methodology and eschatology was not a major issue for them. Yet those who did venture forth to speak on eschatology kept Augustine’s views intact, while modifying them to shape Reformed constructs.
Indeed, as the principles of the Reformation spread throughout the Christian world, Reformed theologians, rather than “reforming” the eschatology they adopted from Roman Catholicism with their newly recovered hermeneutics, instead developed apologetics that justified them keeping their amillennialism intact. Prophetic “genre,” for example, like Isaiah, Daniel, and Revelation, was separated from historical narrative “genre” like the Gospels and was made to be interpreted spiritually because prophecy was perceived as being symbolic and thus needed to be interpreted with a spiritual hermeneutic. They maintained the Medieval Catholic exegesis that the OT must be interpreted, or at times, re-interpreted, in light of Christ and the NT. So OT names and places like Zion, the temple, Israel, David, and Solomon received a “Christianized” interpretation to mean Jesus or the Church. And of course, Augustine’s views of Revelation 20 were expanded upon and defended as the best way to understand the millennium.
The hermeneutic question is the foundational area in eschatological discussions, and regrettably it is often passed over and dismissed by debating participants. Those Christians who come to embrace the robust theology of the Reformation mistakenly believe amillennialism or postmillennialism reflect orthodox Reformed theology, and adopt either of these eschatological systems without much thought given to the problems that arise between the hermeneutics they now employ to study the Bible and the actual exegesis of the text.
There is a practical example within denominational circles of what I mean. James White, a Reformed Baptist who is the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, tells how his book, The Potter’s Freedom, has had a positive influence among so-called non-denominational Calvary Chapel church goers, as well as non-Reformed Baptist denominations. White’s book is a presentation and defense of the Reformed doctrines of biblical salvation, or what is commonly called “Calvinism.” He interacts with misconceptions non-Calvinist often raise against the theology and lays out a biblical presentation as to why Calvinism is clearly taught in Scripture.
The Calvary Chapel “non-denomination-denomination” is stridently opposed to the doctrines of Calvinism. So much so that the leadership in many of their local churches have rebuked members who have come to embrace the theology. Yet Calvary Chapel churches are known for promoting a high view of Scripture. They exhort members to read and study the Bible and to do so with excellence according to sound exegesis. A disconnect comes into play, however, when those same members who are told to study God’s Word carefully begin having their exegesis bring them to affirm the doctrines of Calvinism. Their reading of James White’s book only solidifies their already growing convictions, but they are then rebuffed by their leadership for believing such “erroneous” doctrine. If their careful study of God’s Word brings them to affirm Reformed soteriology, why then are they rebuked for drawing such conclusions? Obviously there are theological pre-commitments in place that shape how one interprets these crucial passages on salvation.
The same can be said about Reformed eschatology. It has been my observation that many of those young men from such backgrounds as Calvary Chapel will usually hold to premillennialism. When they come to believe Calvinistic theology, they are under the wrongful idea that amillennialism or postmillennialism is the only viable eschatology for their new found beliefs. So they quickly abandon their premillennialism often ridiculing the position they once believed as being sub-biblical and “unreformed.” They now have unwittingly adopted some theological pre-commitments that radically shape how one interprets the crucial passages concerning eschatology. Just like the “anti-Calvinist” leaders in the Calvary Chapel, they now have become “anti-premillennial.” But they are not “anti-premillennial” because a careful study of the Bible has brought them to this position, but because of the baggage of their theological pre-commitments. Pre-commitments that in my mind need to be reformed.
Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classic Evangelical Hermeneutics.
Kim Riddlebarger, The Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End-times.
R. K. Wright, “It must mean something else.” Traditional Allegorism: It’s Origin, Effects, and Refutation” (Unpublished article courtesy of the author)