Many dispensationalists think their approach to eschatology was held in the ancient church. Much of their error is due to their naive confusion of premillennialism with dispensationalism. Premillennialism is most definitely an ancient view. But the two systems are quite distinct, with dispensationalism being created around 1830.
Significantly though, premillennialism has a problematic history. The early creedal formulations of Christianity provide only the most rudimentary elements of eschatology. For instance, the Apostle’s Creed simply affirms: “He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” and a belief “in the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.” The eschatology of the Nicene Creed makes only very slight advances, asserting that he “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”
Both amillennialism and postmillennialism fit comfortably within these and other ancient creedal affirmations. Premillennialism’s fit is a bit more awkward, however, due to its requiring two separate resurrections and two distinct judgments rather than general ones involving all men simultaneously. Consequently, as classic dispensationalist Robert P. Lightner admits: “None of the major creeds of the church include premillennialism in their statements.” Not one of the millennial views, though, is expressly affirmed by any early creed as the orthodox position. This is not surprising in that, as Erickson explains, “all three millennial positions have been held virtually throughout church history.”
This noted, we should expect to find a gradual development of the millennial schemes, rather than a fully functioning system in early Christian history. For example, Walvoord confesses when defending dispensationalism: “It must be conceded that the advanced and detailed theology of pretribulationism is not found in the Fathers, but neither is any other detailed and ‘established’ exposition of premillennialism. The development of most important doctrines took centuries.”
And though premillennialism finds slightly earlier development (especially in Irenaeus, A.D. 130-202), theologian Donald G. Bloesch notes: “postmillennialism was already anticipated in the church father Eusebius of Caesarea” (A.D. 260-340). Schaff traces it back even farther, observing that Origen (A.D. 185-254) “expected that Christianity, by continual growth, would gain the dominion over the world.”
Two other prominent church fathers whose historical confidence appears to express a nascent postmillennialism are Athanasius (A.D. 296-372) and Augustine (A.D. 354-430). As W. Zoba notes, Augustine teaches that history “would be marked by the ever-increasing influence of the church in overturning evil in the world before the Lord’s return.” This would eventually issue forth in a “future rest of the saints on earth” (Augustine, Sermon 259:2) “when the Church will be purged of all the wicked elements now mixed among its members and Christ will rule peacefully in its midst.” This early incipient postmillennialism contains the most basic element of the later developed system: a confident hope in gospel victory in history prior to Christ’s return.
I will have more to say on this later. But for now, this should be sufficient to dispel hasty rejections of postmillennialism on the basis of its history.