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THE AGONY AND THE IRONY

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

The eschatological debate between amillennialists and postmillennialists in the reformed camp has been taking a new turn of late. Whereas amillennialists of the recent past (e.g., Hoekema and Berkouwer) concentrated more on the formal eschatological (i.e., prophetic) statements of Scripture in rebutting postmillennialism, contemporary amillennialists (e.g. Gaffin, Strimple, and White) are pressing the basic soteriological revelation. Though both amillennialists and postmillennialists (largely) agree with Geerhardus Vos on the eschatological nature of salvation and the redemptive-historical structure of history, the differences between our visions remain. Amillennialists still maintain a decidedly pessimistic expectation for the church’s historical experience before the Second Advent, whereas postmillennialists urge a robust optimism.

As I indicate elsewhere the particular nature of this pessimism must be understood as presented in the debate. Obviously, all evangelical perspectives are ultimately optimistic: the righteous will be eternally blessed and the wicked forever doomed on judgment day. Nevertheless, historical pessimism characterizes the amillennial outlook in holding that: Our Spirit-empowered gospel labors will never result in worldwide revival, the forces of Satan will always claim the majority of the human race, our promotion of God’s word will not effect a cosmic cultural renewal, and our future is destined to collapse into horror.  Thus, amillennialism is pessimistic when looking at historical results and when compared to postmillennialism.

The recent amillennial emphasis on Christian suffering in history underscores the postmillennialist’s pessimism charge in this regard. For instance, R. Fowler White’s important article in a recent issue of The Westminster Theological Journal well illustrates the matter for us:  R. Fowler White, “Agony, Irony, and Victory in Inaugurated Eschatology: Reflections on the Current Amillennial-Postmillennial Debate,” Westminster Theological Journal 62 (Fall, 2000): 161-76. In this post, I will simply cite his last name with page references for documentation.

White opens with scholarly citations highlighting the moral decline our culture is enduring. And he does so in order to reflect upon the perplexing question of “the victorious reign of Christ and his church” in light of such conditions—which conditions amillennialists deem a permanent and “ironic” feature of pre-consummational history.

Before I engage the debate I must express my deep appreciation for White’s clear, fair, and perceptive article. Over all, he presents an accurate portrayal of my postmillennial writings and those of Bahnsen and North. In the process he makes some important advances on Gaffin and Strimple’s suffering argument. Their concern was to show that the church is called to suffer as a matter of her union with Christ; and so they explain and emphasize the reality of Christ’s present victorious reign despite our suffering. White suggests that the suffering argument needs to be “refocused and elaborated” upon (White, 167) because it has been “insufficiently or inconsistently applied” (176), therefore requiring “a fresh elucidation” (White, 168). He urges considering more closely the victory of the church in addition to that of Christ. He suggests that the church victoriously reigns with Christ as she faithfully endures her earthly trials (White, 167, 168, 174). Highlighting the differences, White summarizes Strimple’s argument as teaching that “inaugurated eschatology comes across as ‘victory now for the One (Christ) and not yet for the many (the church)'” (White, 167). Over against Gaffin and Strimple, White insists “the church’s present victorious reign is not merely in principle” (White, 175). He does not discount Strimple or Gaffin, but transforms the negative argument into a positive one, while correcting some deficiencies in Strimple (White, 167, 168).

Unfortunately, as this factor of the debate illustrates, postmillennialism is the easiest eschatological option to misconstrue. Too often faulty hidden presuppositions taint the arguments, even though the evangelical and reformed critics are seldom aware of these. In this regard I must note up front that postmillennialists do not assert: (1) universalism (not all will be saved at any point in history); (2) perfectionism (the saved are never perfect on earth); or (3) satisfactionism (we do not prefer earthly dominion over consummational glory). If the critics would do a “virus check” for these three latent errors, we could more accurately and fruitfully focus the debate.

In this post I will take up White’s admirable concern that “discussion should continue” (White, 175) by briefly responding to the two-fold suffering argument: both Gaffin and Strimple’s “Christ’s Present Victory Despite Our Suffering” argument; and White’s “The Church’s Ongoing Victory Through Her Suffering” argument. Of course, just as White confesses that space constraints prohibit his fuller interaction and explication (White, 168, 171-72, 175), so must I. This is not only due to the broad theological implications of the debate, but also my fighting a battle on two fronts: the emphases of both Gaffin-Strimple and White. I hope, however, to show that the postmillennialist largely accepts such a redemptive-eschatological methodology while maintaining the postmillennial outlook—when the issues are better understood (i. e., both the expectations of postmillennialism and the broader nature of suffering).

(To be continued)

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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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