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NAESCENT POSTMILLENNIALISM IN ANTIQUITY

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  1 Comment

Many Christians, particularly dispensationalists, write-off postmillennialism as a modern theological construct. Nothing could be further from the truth. Multi-million-selling dispensationalist populist Hal Lindsey confidently declares: “There is no evidence of the distinctive teachings of Postmillennialism earlier than the seventeenth century” (Lindsey, Road to Holocaust [New York: Bantam, 1989], 29). Dispensational theologian Charles F. Baker agrees: “Its advocates admit that it was first taught in the seventeenth century” (Baker, Dispensational Theology [Grand Rapids: Grace Bible College, 1971], 623).

To make matters worse, many parrot the view that we may trace postmillennialism back to Daniel Whitby in 1703. Major dispensationalist theologian, Lewis S. Chafer wrote that Whitby was “the originator of what is known as postmillennialism.” (Chafer, Systematic Theology [Dallas, Tex.: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947], 4:280–281.) Present-day dispensational populist Mal Couch puts in the Bible notes of Tim LaHaye’s Prophecy Study Bible (p. 1530): “This view was first propagated by Daniel Whitby (AD 1638–1726), a Unitarian.”

This position — though widely cited — is quite erroneous. Let’s see how this is so.

Eschatological Development

We must realize, in the first place, that 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” (Robert P. Lightner, The Last Days Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding the Different Views of Prophecy [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990], 158.)

In fact, not one of the millennial views is expressly affirmed by any early creed as the orthodox position. This is not surprising in that, as evangelical theologian Millard J. Erickson explains, “all three millennial positions have been held virtually throughout church history.” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985], 3:1207).

This noted, we should expect to find a gradual development of the millennial schemes, rather than a fully-functioning system in early Christian history. Indeed, leading dispensationalist theologian John F. 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” (John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957], 52).

Nevertheless, we may look into early Christian history and find:

Postmillennial Seeds

As far as our preserved writings go, premillennialism finds slightly earlier development (especially in Irenaeus, A.D. 130-202). Yet theologian Donald G. Bloesch notes that “postmillennialism was already anticipated in the church father Eusebius of Caesarea” (A.D. 260-340) (Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979], 2:192). Renowned historian Philip 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.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 5th ed. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, rep. 1910], 2:591, cp. 122. )

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). These are giants of Christian orthodoxy.

Consider just one statement from Athanasius. The gospel’s great progress is expected, according to Athanasius’ view of Scripture (Isa 11:9; Mt 28:19; Jn 6:45): “And then, from Dan to Beersheba was the Law proclaimed, and in Judea only was God known; but now, unto all the earth has gone forth their voice, and all the earth has been filled with the knowledge of God, and the disciples have made disciples of all the nations, and now is fulfilled what is written, ‘They shall be all taught of God’” (Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 59:8). This is postmillennial in sentiment.

Turning to Augustine, Wendy 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” (Zoba, “Future Tense” Christianity Today [October 2, 1995]: 20). 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.” (Cited in Brian E. Daley, The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology [Cambridge: University Press, 1991], 133). 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.

We may also reference Augustine’s comments on Psalm 2. Regarding the Lord laughing at the nations (Ps 2:4) he writes: “it is to be understood of that power which he giveth to His saints, that they seeing things to come, namely, that the Name and rule of Christ is to pervade posterity and possess all nations.” At v. 7 he writes: “‘Ask of Me,’ may be referred to all this temporal dispensation, which has been instituted for mankind, namely, that the ‘nations’ should be joined to the Name of Christ, and so be redeemed from death, and possessed by God. ‘I shall give Thee the nations for Thine inheritance,’ which so possess them for their salvation, and to bear unto Thee spiritual fruit.” (Augustine in The Post-Nicene Fathers, 8:3)

Conclusion

Dispensationalists — who like to link themselves to historic premillennialism — are clearly wrong in their views of the recency of postmillennialism. Actually their own system (created by John Nelson Darby in 1830) is the latest of the evangelical schools of eschatology.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

One response to NAESCENT POSTMILLENNIALISM IN ANTIQUITY

  1. Excellent article. 🙂

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