Studies in Eschatology [12]

millennial

The Millennium in Church History

Having briefly surveyed the three main eschatological systems, I want to turn my attention to a study of Revelation 20 where the disagreements between those systems are focused.

However, before I move to addressing Revelation 20 specifically, it is important to lay a little preliminary background.

Let me begin by providing a brief overview of millennalism within Church history.

I think many Christians are unaware of how the millennium has been a source of strife, curiosity, and sensationalism throughout the 2,000 years of the Church. Millennialism, or millennarianism, is the belief that there will be an earthly reign of the messiah before the end of time [Danielou, 377]. The reign of the messiah was understood by the Jews to be the Kingdom of God coming upon the earth in which all the nations opposed to YHWH were brought under the subjection of His messiah and the world witnessed the triumph of God’s chosen people.

The early Jewish Christians developed this messianic concept further by building their millennarianism more precisely around John’s Book of Revelation and other non-canonical apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch and the Ascension of Isaiah. They refined the details of their perspective with the rise of the Antichrist before the coming of Jesus, and the Kingdom to come would be a thousand years in length.

That primitive form of premillennialism was known as chiliasm, after the Greek word chilia meaning 1,000. The chiliasts held to a more literal understanding of biblical prophecy concerning the apocalypse, and their beliefs persisted among many groups of orthodox and unorthodox Christians for a least the first three centuries of the early Church.

However, it was Origen of Alexandria, along with Clement, who first employed an allegorical method of interpreting the Bible which eventually challenged the chiliasm of early Christians. Origen’s hermeneutic was developed from a mixture of Christianity and the popular neo-Platonism of his day.

His study of Scripture was a form of syncretism, combining elements of biblical Christianity, pagan mysticism, and Greek philosophy [Erdmann, 159]. Origen considered all prophecy to be mysterious and unintelligible, and he was the first to express a real aversion to the literalistic approach to reading prophecy utilized by the chiliasts because he thought an earthly Kingdom of God for a thousand years to be carnal. Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic was a means to condemn chiliastic teaching, spiritualizing instead the passages of Scripture that if read literally would support a millennium [Erdmann, 161].

But, it was the North African church father, Aurelius Augustine, who had a lasting influence against chiliastic interpretations of prophecy. In his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei (The City of God), Augustine took the allegorical hermeneutic of Origen, and others from the Alexandrian school, and laid the foundation for the two eschatologies of amillennialism and postmillennialism. He saw the thousand years of Revelation 20 as symbolic of the church age. The first resurrection, he believed, was the spiritual re-birth of Christians into the Church. The second resurrection he took as literal, however, when all the righteous and wicked will be raised and judged at the Great White Throne.

Augustine thought the thousand years could possible by understood in a couple of ways.

First is the idea of a “1,000” being symbolic of the fullness of time of some perfect era. He reasoned that the number 100 is sometimes used as being equivalent of totality. A thousand is 100 cubed, meaning perfect totality or completeness.

A second way Augustine said we could understand the thousand years was the whole period of time from Christ’s ascension to the end of time. Utilizing the creation week analogy in which the 6 days of creation in Genesis 1 equals 6 thousand years of human history, the church age would be the last day, as it were, of God’s calendar before the 7th day of eternal rest. Though Augustine favored the 6 days of world history view of the millennium, most of his supporters following in the centuries after he wrote who believed his scheme merely see the 1,000 years as symbolic of the indefinite time for the church age. Still, the build up to the turn of the millennium in the late 990s A.D. saw many groups of sensationalists basing their predictions upon Augustine’s work claiming the end of the world after the year 999 A.D.

Millennarianism as a concept has always had its sensational supporters. The Crusaders, for example, originally a reaction against encroaching Moslem armies pushing into Europe, saw their sworn duty to free Jerusalem, the city of Christ and the capitol of the Kingdom of God, from infidels who had overtaken it.

One of the most notorious incidents involving millennial fervor was the Munster rebellion. In Feburary 1534, a group of radical Anabaptist led by a baker named John Matthys, and a tailor named Jan Bockelson of Leiden, successfully took over Munster, Germany, and claimed the city was the “New Jerusalem.”

munsterFor 18 months the Anabaptist radicals held the city. They implemented polygamy among the citizens and enacted a form of communism in which everyone shared each others’ possessions. Matthys was killed during an attack led by the expelled bishop, Franz Waldeck. That left Jan Bockelson in charge and he installed himself as king and declared himself the successor to king David. In June of 1535, the city fell after being besieged and Bockelson and his more prominent followers were tortured and executed. Their bodies hung in cages for several centuries from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.

Date setters have also been a prominent feature of millenniarianism. William Miller, a Baptist preacher in the early 1800s of America, was convinced Christ would return on October 22, 1843. He based this conviction upon his reading of Daniel 8:14, but rather than seeing Daniel’s 2,300 days as just normal days of 24-hours, he believed they represented calendar years. Those “days” would be accomplished in the year 1843. Of course the year 1843 came and went with out anything happening, and Miller was exposed as a false teacher. His prophetic views, though, heavily influenced a young Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, whose family had followed Miller and his predictions.

Along with the Millerites, there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have made at least three major predictions of Christ’s return, 1914, 1925, and 1975, and even Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, claimed he would live until his 85th birthday before Christ returned. Smith died at age 38 in a shoot out at a jail in Illinois.

The main feature with the good number of these millennial groups is their literal hermeneutic when interpreting Revelation 20. In fact, many who reject a literal understanding of Revelation 20 cite those examples of excessive sensationalism as one of the reasons a literal approach to interpreting the millennium should be rejected. Added to that is the fact many of the millennial groups who have sprung up during various points in Church history are wildly unorthodox and in many cases, heretical and pseudo-Christian in their theology.

But a literal interpretation of Revelation 20 must not be rejected because eccentric cults have utilized a literal hermeneutic to promote their eschatological heresies. What needs to be determined is whether prophecy itself should be understood with a literal hermeneutic and if that hermeneutic best handles the exegesis of Revelation 20 specifically. I say it does and will hope to demonstrate that in my posts to come.

*******
Sources:

Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical. (Christian Focus: Great Britain, 2005).

Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, ed. and trans. by John A. Baker. (Westminster Press, 1977).

Martin Erdmann, The Millennial Controversy in the Early Church. (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, OR, 2005).

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8 thoughts on “Studies in Eschatology [12]

  1. Thank you Fred for keeping these posts going. When I was a new Christian I was confused on this issue and heard and read much from each camp, I settled into dispensation/ pre millennium but these post are not only helping me see the differences, but are helping me be clear on why I believe. When someone would ask me, why would Christians not be here for tribulation? My response would be,” because Jesus isn’t a wife beater” and the final trib is Gods wrath! but, your stuff is waaay better😄 best regards Barb🌹

  2. I’ve been amazed at just how early in church history a Millennial view appeared. I enjoyed Erdmann’s “The Millennial Controversy in the Early Church.” Good post.

  3. I held to premillennialism for many many years (of the dispy pre-trib sort and the post-trib historic premil sort). But after years of study it is more than clear to me that the amil position is the way to go. And beyond, Augustine, as you know Fred, the interpretive method that leads to the amil position is not allegory, not at all, at least not in its contemporary form. The method used would be in the mode of what Calvin called the sensus literalis, in the ‘literal sense’ of how the text, say in Revelation 20, was intended to be taken given its location within its epistolary, prophetic, and apocalyptic genres (inclusive of gematria when it comes to interpreting numbers etc). The literal sense of Scripture and interpretation of biblical prophecy must be done in light of Christ as fulfillment; if we interpret Revelation 20 (and 21-22) that way we will see the reference is not to a future literal 1000 years of time (relative to Christ’s Davidic reign), but in reference to the time between the first and second advent of Jesus Christ (so the amil understanding) and the Davidic reign in reference to the ‘eternal’ New Heavens and Earth which we see in 21–22.

    Anyway, I obviously disagree with your conclusions here, and I don’t follow an allegorical method of interpretation to get to my conclusion on the millennial question. I just wanted to register that in the combox here :-) .

  4. Pingback: Studies in Eschatology | hipandthigh

  5. TX writes,
    And beyond, Augustine, as you know Fred, the interpretive method that leads to the amil position is not allegory, not at all, at least not in its contemporary form.

    Of course. I would say it was more allegorical at the beginning, but has since morphed into a typological approach. What the 1689 Federalist guys attempt to put forth.

    The method used would be in the mode of what Calvin called the sensus literalis, in the ‘literal sense’ of how the text, say in Revelation 20, was intended to be taken given its location within its epistolary, prophetic, and apocalyptic genres (inclusive of gematria when it comes to interpreting numbers etc).

    Honestly, most Reformers just modified the Roman Catholic view of eschatology to fit their newly recovered views of the Gospel. His hermeneutic with regards to eschatology is hardly “Reformed,” I hate to tell you. As to the idea of “apocalyptic genre,” that was a classification of cultic writing that could hardly be considered Scriptural. I will post on the idea of Revelation being apocalyptic genre in the next post in this series.

    As to how you view Revelation 20, it is the basic recapitulation view of classic amillennialism. I plan to touch on all of that in my forth coming reposts so check them out. In the meantime, your position isn’t without its problems, especially handling the exegesis of the text of Revelation in s normative sense of doing basic exegesis. Starting with the presupposition that everything prophetic MUST be interpreted in light of Christ is entirely unnecessary and is not required at all while still retaining a Christ honoring understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. Future posts will touch on that.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  6. Apocalyptic is a category found way way back in the Second Temple period. If you have ever done any critical study of Revelation (engaging with critical commentators, like the orthodox Christian kind) you would know this.

    And no, your characterization of how folks interpret Revelation seems very limited and antiquated. Like I noted I follow the sensus literalis, which honors the literal “sense” of the text within the context of the Christian canon itself.

    Like I said “FivePointer” I’m not a newbie to this stuff and have held to dispy premil, historic premil and have finally arrived at amil over the years. I haven’t gotten here in a flippant way, indeed I’ve earned two degrees in bib studies and theology along the way with a third forthcoming. I only note all of that because what you are asserting is too facile and not critical enough in regard to undercutting my basic points (in other words I speak from an informed position).

    As far as following a Christ centered approach: Why wouldn’t we do that? That’s exactly how the Apostles and NT writers interpreted and used the OT. We are Christians not Jews and so we think from a center in God’s life in and through Jesus Christ. That’s what the New Covenant is all about, i.e. about God in Christ become man and fulfilling what was promised in the Old Covenant promises. So the onus is on any “Christian” interpreter who would claim that we shouldn’t interpret in light of Christ as the fulfiller, it is not the burden of my position.

    For reference you need to read Richard Bauckham’s two books on Revelation: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and the Climax of Prophecy. After you do things will get exceedingly more problematic for you, and hopefully you won’t make the types of claims you have above about reading Revelation.

    pax Christi

  7. TX writes,
    Apocalyptic is a category found way way back in the Second Temple period. If you have ever done any critical study of Revelation (engaging with critical commentators, like the orthodox Christian kind) you would know this.

    Oh sure. Completely aware of the category. I happen to believe it is utterly irrelevant to understanding and interpreting the book of Revelation, or any biblical prophecy. It’s like saying I should familiarize myself with the pseudepigrapha in order to get a handle on understanding the Gospel narratives.

    Like I noted I follow the sensus literalis, which honors the literal “sense” of the text within the context of the Christian canon itself.

    That I am sure involves a heavy dose of typological, historical redemptive views of the text. If you are the scholar that you say you are, and I don’t doubt that you are at all, then you know that much of the interpretation of prophecy was not really developed during the Reformation, they carried over a lot of what was already developed among Roman Catholic theology. Calvin, for example, didn’t produce a commentary on the book of Revelation, so we have no clue how he would handle the text. THL Parker in his book on Calvin’s Commentaries suggests that we can maybe get a sense of how he would, but really? That’s just a guess.

    Like I said “FivePointer” I’m not a newbie to this stuff and have held to dispy premil, historic premil and have finally arrived at amil over the years. I haven’t gotten here in a flippant way, indeed I’ve earned two degrees in bib studies and theology along the way with a third forthcoming. I only note all of that because what you are asserting is too facile and not critical enough in regard to undercutting my basic points (in other words I speak from an informed position).

    You seem to think that because I don’t hold to your particular position that for some reason I am not informed. That I just adopted my view because I don’t really know any better or had stupid people teach me or something.

    I’ve earned my Bible degree just like you. I can work that academic Logos library just like you. I’m not a newbie either. I spent a good decade or more gathering to myself books on the topic that I read thoroughly and marked up extensively. I have a shelf full of them. But because I came to the opposite view that you did that caused me to reject amillennialism as sub-biblical and unexegetical, I am facile? Really?

    As far as following a Christ centered approach: Why wouldn’t we do that? That’s exactly how the Apostles and NT writers interpreted and used the OT. We are Christians not Jews and so we think from a center in God’s life in and through Jesus Christ.

    I believe Christ is the focus of God’s purposes as well. But when I read the book of Revelation, I don’t employ a typological, historic redemptive hermeneutic that spiritualizes the text while claiming I am reading it literally.

    That’s what the New Covenant is all about, i.e. about God in Christ become man and fulfilling what was promised in the Old Covenant promises. So the onus is on any “Christian” interpreter who would claim that we shouldn’t interpret in light of Christ as the fulfiller, it is not the burden of my position.

    Okay. I agree. So why does that automatically conclude amillennialism and reading Revelation through a typological lens? Why doesn’t it conclude postmillennialism?

    For reference you need to read Richard Bauckham’s two books on Revelation: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and the Climax of Prophecy. After you do things will get exceedingly more problematic for you, and hopefully you won’t make the types of claims you have above about reading Revelation.

    What makes Bauckham some better scholar on Revelation than say Robert Thomas? Or Alva McClain? Or Thomas Ice, for that matter? Because he holds to a pretistic view of the book and is British? Really? I’ve read Beale’s commentary on Revelation. If he didn’t convince me of amillennialism, I doubt seriously that Bauckham would.

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