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THE REFORMATION AND POSTMILLENNIALISM

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment
Calvin writing

No knowledgeable Christian would claim John Calvin was a dispensationalist. Not only is his overall theology contrary to dispensationalism, but no Rapture chart has been found among his surviving works. But what was his eschatological orientation? And was the postmillennial hope found within early Reformed theology?

As I continue a brief series on the historical development of postmillennialism, I want us to jump to the Reformation era and beyond. Donald Bloesch notes that “postmillennialism experienced an upsurge in the middle ages,” as illustrated in the writings of Joachim of Fiore (A.D. 1145-1202) and others. [1] But a more fully developed postmillennialism enjoys its greatest growth and influence in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, especially under Puritan and reformed influence in England and America.

Rodney Peterson writes that “this perspective had undergone changes, particularly since Thomas Brightman (1562-1607).” Brightman, who died in 1607, is one of the fathers of Presbyterianism in England. [2] His postmillennial views are set forth in detail in his book A Revelation of the Revelation, which was published posthumously in 1609 and quickly established itself as one of the most widely translated works of the day. In fact, some church historians consider this work the “most important and influential English revision of the Reformed, Augustinian concept of the millennium.” [3] Thus, Brightman stands as the modern systematizer (not creator) of postmillennialism.


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Bloesch lists subsequent “guiding lights” from “the heyday of postmillennialism”: Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), John Owen (1616-1683), Philip Spener (1635-1705), Daniel Whitby (1638-1726), Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the Wesley brothers (1700s), and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). [4] To this list we could add John Calvin (1509-1564) as an incipient postmillennialist. [5] In his Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France, Calvin writes: “Our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed King to ‘rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth. . . .’ And he is so to rule as to smite the whole earth with its iron and brazen strength, with its gold and silver brilliance, shattering it with the rod of his mouth as an earthen vessel, just as the prophets have prophesied concerning the magnificence of his reign.” [6]

Calvin is a forerunner to the flowering of the postmillennialism of the reformers Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and Theodore Beza (1519-1605). Following in their train but with greater clarity still are the Puritans William Perkins (1558-1602), William Gouge (1575-1653), Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), John Cotton (1585-1652), Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679), George Gillespie (1613-1649), John Owen (1616-1683), Elnathan Parr (d. 1632), Thomas Brooks (d. 1662), John Howe (d. 1678), James Renwick (d. 1688), Matthew Henry (1662-1714), and others.


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The Puritan form of postmillennialism generally holds not only to a future glory for the church, but that the millennial era proper will not begin until the conversion of the Jews and will flower rather quickly thereafter, prevailing over the earth for a literal thousand years. A purified church and a righteous state governed by God’s Law arises under this intensified effusion of the Spirit. This culminates eventually in the eschatological complex of events surrounding the glorious Second Advent. Many of the Puritans also hold that the Jews would return to their land during this time. ]7]

Notes

1. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2:192. See fuller discussion in Kromminga, Millennium in the Church, 129-136, 159ff.

2. Rodney Peterson, “The Debate Throughout Church History” in John S. Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1988), 32.

3. Peter Toon, ed., Puritans, the Millennium and the Future of Israel (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1970),. 26.

4. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2:193.

5. For documentation see: Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction (Winter, 1976): 69-76. See also: John T. McNeil, ed., John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2:904, n. 76; see also 1:12; J. A. De Jong, As the Waters Cover the Sea: Millennial Expectations in the Rise of Anglo-American Missions 1640-1810 (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1970), 8ff; Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1971), 89-90.

6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:12.

7. See: Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope. For an extensive bibliography of original sources, see James A. De Jong, As the Waters Cover the Sea, 232-242.

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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.

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