Richard Gaffin and Robert Strimple vigorously assert that the suffering motif (which results because of our union with Christ) contradicts the postmillennial outlook. And in this the recent amillennial textbook by Cornelis Venema concurs. In citing their comments, I will simply list their name and page number in their writings. The published materials I will be using are:
• Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Theonomy and Eschatology: Reflections on Postmillennialism,” in Will S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 197-226.
• Robert B. Strimple, “Amillennialism,” in Darrell L. Bock, ed., Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 81-129.
• Cornelis P. Venema, The Promise of the Future (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000).
This posting is part 2 of a brief series on this topic.
Gaffin is fond of declaring: “the church ‘wins’ by ‘losing'” (Gaffin, 216). He argues that “over the interadvental period in its entirety, from beginning to end, a fundamental aspect of the church’s existence is (to be) ‘suffering with Christ’; nothing, the NT teaches, is more basic to its identity than that.” Strimple boldly declares that Jesus “tells his disciples that in this present age they cannot expect anything other than oppression and persecution” (Strimple, 63). White speaks of “amillennial hermeneutic of persecution” (White, 176) noting that the church’s perseverance “despite persecution is her present, indeed her perpetual, supra-cultural victory in history” (White 162, emphasis mine).
Thus, this suffering argument suggests to the amillennialist the impossibility of the large scale elimination of suffering demanded in the postmillennial scheme. In fact, Gaffin denies that our “frustration factor will be demonstrably reduced, and the church’s suffering service noticeably alleviated” (Gaffin, 214-15). Indeed, according to Strimple, the postmillennial vision of ameliorated suffering “is out of harmony with the New Testament revelation” (Strimple, 67).
How shall the postmillennialist respond? I would urge the following for clarifying both our reformed interpretation of Scripture and our accurate understanding of postmillennialism.
1. Scripture is occasional and historical. That is, we must always recognize that it speaks to real people in their original settings. For instance, may we argue that revelation and prophecy continue today because Paul strongly commands in Scripture: “Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39)? Is that a universal ecclesiastical expectation for all times, or an occasional assertion for those times? Surely the latter.
Historically, the early church to whom the apostles wrote found herself in the throes of a rapidly expanding and increasingly deepening persecution. Consequently, warnings of persecutional suffering apply to the original recipients in a direct and relevant way. We misconstrue them if we universalize them so as to require the continued persecution of the church until the second advent. Of course, on those occasions in which we are led by God through similar circumstances, the directives and/or principles would certainly apply.
2. Persecution is serious external oppression. As we reflect on this point in the debate we must bear in mind a vitally important matter: The only kind of suffering that contradicts postmillennialism is suffering rooted in dangerous external threats and oppression (especially when designed to suppress or punish the Christian faith). The New Testament era Christians were indeed a suffering people seriously besieged by “threats and murder” (Acts 9:1-2), capital punishment (Acts 7:59; 12:1-2), and imprisonments and beatings (2 Cor 11:23-25) while being made a “public spectacle” and having their “property seized” (Heb 10:32-34). And were these conditions to continue until the end, postmillennialism could not be true.
If amillennialists claim the church is under persecutional suffering here in America, then we effectively discount the grievous nature of our early forefathers’ persecution, while exaggerating our own trials. And since the end has not yet come, what if our (imperfect but welcome) advantageous conditions were to spread throughout all the world? We know from our experience that Christianity can exist in a large-scale, long-lasting external peace from persecutional suffering.
3. Persecution does not always prevail. Remembering the form of persecution highlighted in point I. 2 above, I am always surprised to hear amillennialists overstate their case when arguing that we as disciples of Christ “cannot expect anything other than oppression and persecution” (Strimple, 63). Moule well noted what we all know from history: “No attentive observer can doubt that many and many a loving and humble disciple, called to lead a quiet life before the Lord in the ‘sequestered vale,’ ‘serves his generation’ with faithful diligence, and passes at last to rest, encountering scarcely one perceptible collision on the way.”
Strimple’s bold assertion is falsified by the facts of the condition in which he himself lives. Is Strimple suffering in a way proving his point? Are the publishers of The Westminster Theological Journal? If persecutional suffering is the “fundamental aspect of the church’s existence” of which nothing “is more basic to its identity” (Gaffin, 210-11), then those of us living in America should not be identified with Christ as members of his church!
(To be continued)