by Greg L. Bahnsen
Reformed theology (as distinguished from evangelical or Lutheran theology) takes as its father the indisputable theological master of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin. The heritage of postmillennialism in Reformed theology can be traced to the Cavinian corpus of literature. J. A. De Jong, in his doctoral dissertation at the Free University of Amsterdam (As the Waters Cover the Sea), asserted that “John Calvin’s commentaries give some scholars cause for concluding that he anticipated the spread of the gospel and true religion to the ends of the earth.”
J. T. McNeill, the editor of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for the Library of Christian Classics, speaks of “Calvin’s conception of the victory and future universality of Christ’s Kingdom throughout the human race, a topic frequently introduced in the Commentaries.” In his recent study, The Puritan Hope, Iain H. Murray stated that “Calvin believed that Christ’s kingdom is already established, and, unlike Luther, he expected it to have a yet greater triumph in history prior to the consummation.” The judgment of these men (and those secondary sources upon which they depend) is certainly well grounded in Calvin’s writings.
About the view that Christ would have a literal one-thousand-year reign upon the earth (namely, premillennialism), Calvin said this “fiction is too childish either to need or to be worth a refutation.” At the same time, he indicated his implicit disagreement with the view (fostered by later amillennilalists) that the millennium pertains to the intermediate state of the saints (i.e., their disembodied heavenly rest subsequent to physical death and prior to the general resurrection); according to Calvin, the “one thousand” of Revelation 20 pertains to “the church while still toiling on earth.”[Institutes 3:25:5] Nor would Calvin have agreed with the position that says the millennial triumph of the saints is simply the spiritual (invisible) victories in the Christian’s heart or the internal blessings privately experienced by the church (namely, one school of amillennial interpretation). With particular application to the kingdom of Christ, he said, “it would not have been enough for the kingdom to have flourished internally.”[Commentary on Psa 21:8] Calvin saw the Psalmist as saying that the prosperity and strength of the King of God’s choosing must be visible and publicly acknowledged; Christ must be shown victorious over all His enemies in this world, and His kingdom must be demonstrated to be immune from the various agitations currently experienced in the world.[Commentary on Psa 21:17]
In his commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:8, Calvin declared:
“Paul, however, intimates Christ will in the meantime, by the rays which he will emit previously to his advent, put to flight the darkness in which antichrist will reign, just as the sun, before he is seen by us, chases away the darkness of the night by the pouring forth of his rays.
This victory of the word, therefore, will show itself in this world . . . . He also furnished Christ with these very arms, that he may rout his enemies. This is a signal commendation of true and sound doctrine – that it is represented as sufficient for putting an end to all impiety, and as destined to be invariably victorious, in opposition to all the machinations of Satan.”
For Calvin, the kingdom of Christ was viewed as established at the first advent and continuing in force until the second advent. During this interadventual period, the church is destined to experience widespread success; throughout history it will bring all nations under the sovereign sway of Christ. To this interadventual period Calvin referred many of the glorious prophecies about the Messiah’s kingdom found in the Old Testament. “The saints began to reign under heaven when Christ ushered in his kingdom by the promulgation of his Gospel.”[Commentary on Dan 7:27]
Commenting upon the Isaiah 65:17 prophecy of God’s creating new heavens and a new earth, Calvin said: “By these metaphors he promises a remarkable change of affairs; . . . but the greatest of such a blessing, which was to be manifested at the coming of Christ, could not be described in any other way. Nor does he mean only the first coming, but the whole reign, which must be extended as far as to the last coming. . . . Thus the world is (so to speak) renewed by Christ . . . and even now we are in the progress and accomplishment of it. . . . The Prophet has in his eye the whole reign of Christ, down to its final close, which is also called ‘the day of renovation and restoration.’ (Acts iii.21)”
Commenting on John 12:31 Calvin notes: “The glory of God shines . . . never more brightly than in the cross, in which . . . the whole world was renewed and all things restored to order.”
About Isaiah 2:2-4, Calvin had the following to say: “while the fullness of days began at the coming of Christ, it flows on in uninterrupted progress until he appears the second time for our salvation.” During this time “the church, which had formerly been, as it were, shut up in a corner, would now be collected from every quarter. . . . The Prophet here shows that the boundaries of his kingdom will be enlarged that he may rule over various nations. . . . Christ is not sent to the Jews only, that he may reign over them, but that he may hold sway over the whole world.” The triumphant progress of the church, reigning under Christ, will be remarkable down through history; the soteric restoration of the world will be increasingly evident as all nations come under the rule of the Savior. Such was Calvin’s hope, his biblical philosophy of history.
The scepter of Christ’s kingdom by which He rules is “his Word alone,” and Satan with his power fails to the extent that christ’s kingdom is upbuilt through the power of preaching.[Commentary Isa 11:4] Calvin boldly proclaimed that “the labour of Christ, and of the whole Church, will be glorious, not only before God, but likewise before men. . . . Hence it follows, that we ought to have good hopes of success.”[Commentary at Isa. 49:6] “We must not doubt that our Lord will come at last to break through all the undertakings of men and make a passage for his word. Let us hope boldly, then, more than we can understand; he will still surpass our opinion and our hope.”[Cited by Murray, Puritan Hope, xii]
The confidence of the Reformer was clearly expressed in his expositions of the Lord’s Prayer at the second petition (“Thy kingdom come”):
“now, because the word of God is like a royal scepter, we are bidden here to entreat him to bring all men’s minds and hearts into voluntary obedience to it. . . . Therefore God sets up his Kingdom by humbling the whole world. . . . We must daily desire that God gather churches unto himself from all parts of the earth; that he spread and increase them in number; . . . that he cast down all enemies of pure teaching and religion; that he scatter their counsels and crush their efforts. From this it appears that zeal for daily progress is not enjoined upon us in vain. . . . With ever-increasing splendor, he displays his light and truth, by which the darkness and falsehoods of Satan’s kingdom vanish, are extinguished, and pass away. . . . [God] is said to reign among men, when they voluntarily devote and submit themselves to be governed by him. . . . by this prayer we ask, that he may remove all hindrances, and may bring all men under his dominion. . . . The substance of this prayer is, that God would enlighten the world by the light of his Word, — would form the hearts of men, by the influences of his Spirit, to obey his justice, — and would restore to order, by the gracious exercise of his power, all the disorder that exists in the world. . . . Again, as the kingdom of God is continually growing and advancing to the end of the world, we must pray every day that it may come: for to whatever extent iniquity abounds in the world, to such an extent the kingdom of God, which brings along with it perfect righteousness, is not yet come.”[Commentary at Matt 6:10]
This prayer for the evident success of the Great commission will not be in vain, according to Calvin; our hope for success should be bold, for we must not doubt that Christ will accomplish this purpose in the world. Here we have the postmillennial vision for preconsummation history.
1. J. D. De Jong, As the Waters Cover the Sea: Millennial Expectations in the Rise of Anglo-American Missions 1640-1810 (J. H. Kok N.V. Kampen, 1970), 8.
2. J. T. McNeill, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2: 904.
3. Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth, 1971), 40.