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Continuing the Reformation

Continuing the Reformation
By Jonathan C. Brentner

While Scripture alone must be our sole source for faith and practice, the study of church history does serve a couple useful purposes. First, it helps us understand the historical background for what we believe. And second, it refutes those who use church history against what we believe. This last point is especially true in the realm of future things.

Many in the church today maintain that modern day beliefs in the rapture and the millennium reign of Jesus over a restored Israel began in the late nineteenth century. They use this argument to disparage these doctrines since they claim no one held them until late in church history. This is by far the most common reason given for dismissing our beliefs in the millennium and the rapture.

Noted church historian Philip Schaff said this about premillennialism during the first few centuries of the church, “…the most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment.”[i]

Many believed in the millennial rule of Jesus during the early years of the church.

Papias (AD 70-163)

Papias, an early church father, adamantly believed in a literal, future reign of Jesus upon the earth. Born in 70 AD, he sat briefly at the feet of John listening to the aged apostle teach. He later helped lead the church at Smyrna, one of the seven destinations of the book of Revelation. He was likely one of the leaders in that church when the scroll arrived fresh from the pen of the apostle John.

Although none of Papias’ writings have survived, an early church historian named Eusebius (AD 263-339) quoted Papias as writing this premillennial sounding statement, “There will be a millennium after the resurrection of the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on earth.”[ii]

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165)

Justin Martyr, an apologist in the early church, affirmed a clear belief in a literal millennial kingdom. Justin became a believer in about AD 133 after which he vigorously defended the Christian faith before his martyrdom in AD 165. In his famous book, Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr taught “the premillennial return of Christ and the resurrection of the righteous before the beginning of the thousand-year kingdom….”[iii]

Here are Justin Martyr’s own words concerning the millennium:

But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah declare. . . And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem…”[iv]

Tertullian (AD 155-240)

Tertullian, another key early church father and theologian, referred to the millennium in his book, Against Marcion. Tertullian said that “the literal reality of both the thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth as well as the reality of the New Jerusalem…“[v] Like so many other church fathers during the second and third centuries, Tertullian believed in the earthly millennial reign of Jesus.

Irenaeus (AD 130-202)

Irenaeus, a prominent early church author and theologian, wrote this in 180 AD in his book, Against Heresies, book 5, chapter 30:

But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that “many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.[vi]

Irenaeus wrote much about the antichrist, the tribulation, the return of Jesus in the clouds, and the setting up of his millennial kingdom. Although the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem 110 years before he wrote, Irenaeus believed it would be rebuilt and subsequently defiled by the antichrist.

Irenaeus’ mentor in the faith, Polycarp, was not only a disciple of the apostle of John but the head pastor in Smyrna when the book of Revelation arrived in the city. It’s much more than a little significant that the one whom John mentored in the faith and likely read the book of Revelation to his congregation passed on a literal and prophetic understanding of Revelation to his key disciple in the faith.

If the apostle John’s most famous student in the faith had regarded the book of Revelation as anything else than a book of future prophecy, he would not have passed a literal understanding of it to his disciple in the faith, Irenaeus. His belief that the book of Revelation signified future prophecy speaks volumes to those today who seek to tamper with its message in a variety of ways.

Lactantius (AD 240-320)

The continuance of the premillennial position can be seen in writings of Lactantius (AD 240-320), an early Christian writer who became an advisor to the Roman Emperor Constantine after the Edict of Milan in AD313. Speaking of Christ he said, “But He, when He shall have destroyed unrighteousness, and executed His great judgment, and shall have recalled to life the righteous, who have lived from the beginning, will be engaged among men a thousand years, and will rule them with most just command.”[vii]

In his book, Divine Institutes, Lactantius said this about what would happen after the second coming, “Then they who shall be alive in their bodies shall not die, but during those thousand years shall produce an infinite multitude, and their offspring shall be holy and beloved by God; but they who shall be raised from the dead shall preside over the living as judges.”[viii] Lactantius’ view of people entering the millennium in natural bodies matches and capable of sin today’s premillennial position.

The Beginning of Amillennialism

The roots of Amillennialism began with Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who lived during the time of Christ. He admired the teachings of the philosopher Plato who taught all matter was evil and only the spirit realm was good and sought to incorporate Plato’s teachings in his theology.

Much to the dismay of the Rabbis of his day, Philo allegorized the Old Testament in order “to offer the Greeks the best of Judaism and the Jews the best of Greek philosophy.”[ix] In other words, Philo reinterpreted God’s Word through the use of allegory to make it comply with the teachings of Plato, the pagan philosopher. This, he hoped, would make Scripture more appealing to the Greeks while at the same time encouraging Jews to embrace Greek philosophy.

Philo’s symbolical approach to Scripture later became the pattern for a “new school of theological thought” within the church.”[x] In the second century AD, two Christian teachers from the city of Alexandria copied Philo’s allegorical approach to God’s Word, Clement and Origin. Clement (AD 150-215) “embraced Greek philosophy and maintained that Scripture must be understood allegorically so as not to contradict it.”[xi] Origen (AD 185-254) used allegory to make the teachings of the Bible comply with Plato’s dualism whereby only the spiritual realities were good while all matter was evil.

Both Clement and Origen allegorized prophetic passages of Scripture to dismiss the material blessings of the millennium because such things contradicted the philosophy of Plato.

The ancient Syrian School of Antioch, on the other hand, championed a “literal and Historical interpretation” of Scripture. They vigorously opposed the allegorical approach of Origen to the Scripture, which they claimed “reinterpreted Christian doctrine in terms of Platonic philosophy.”[xii] As we have seen, the majority early church fathers rejected the allegorical interpretations of the Alexandrian School choosing instead to interpret prophecy according to the intent of the author.

In AD 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine called all the leaders of the church to participate in the famous Council of Nicea. He called the gathering to refute the false teaching that had crept into the church during the previous centuries. The council condemned the teachings of Origen and affirmed the place of the book of Revelation in the Bible.

As a result of the council’s decision, premillennialism continued to dominate the church until the early fifth century A. D. when Augustine revived amillennialism and under his influence it dominated the church for over a thousand years.

Although Augustine claimed to disagree with Plato on several issues, he nevertheless incorporated the pagan philosopher’s scheme of reality into his theology.[xiii] While Augustine regarded Christianity as an improvement on the teachings of Plato, he accepted the dualism of the pagan philosopher that regarded the material world as evil.

Augustine stated that the idea of a millennium “would not be objectionable” if somehow “the nature of the millennial kingdom was a ‘spiritual one’ rather than a physical one.”[xiv] He objected to the thoughts of “carnal banquets” he visualized might be a part of such a kingdom.[xv] Can you see how the teachings of Plato governed his interpretation of God’s Word regarding the millennium?

The Reformation

Luther and Calvin, along with other reformers of their time, returned the church to a literal interpretation of Scripture.[xvi] The Bible-based approach of the Reformers restored the doctrine of justification by faith that had fallen victim to the use of allegory during the preceding centuries.

Both Luther and Calvin recognized the considerable damage allegory interpretations had done to the Gospel and Paul’s teaching on justification through faith. Calvin characterized the allegorical approach to God’s Word as “satanic” because it led people away from the truth of Scripture.[xvii] Luther joined with Calvin in firmly denouncing the use of symbolism to interpret God’s world.

Unfortunately, despite soundly condemning the allegorical approach to God’s Word, the Reformers failed to apply their convictions regarding Scripture to prophetic portions of the Bible.

However, the reformers’ principles of a literal biblical interpretation later became the driving force behind the resurgence of premillennialism starting in the 1700’s that continued through the twentieth century. As biblical scholars applied the same principles of biblical interpretation as the Reformers, they not only recovered the millennial views of the early church, but also clarified the distinction between the rapture and the second coming, another doctrine lost during the dark ages.

Dr. Andy Woods put it this way: “The Reformers, in essence, knocked over a domino. And once it fell, the Holy Spirit raised up others who could go even further and knock over more dominoes—using the same method that the Protestant Reformers retrieved from Antioch.”[xviii]

Continuing the Reformation

It did not take long after the Reformation for students of Scripture to begin turning away from the amillennialism that had dominated the dark ages.

Dr. William Watson wrote an article called The Rise of Philo-Semitism and Premillennialism During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. He documents how the next generation after the Reformers began to turn away from the antisemitism and allegorical interpretations of John Calvin and Martin Luther and as a result, biblical prophecies regarding a future kingdom for Israel sprung to life for them.

Perhaps the most well-known premillennialist during this era was Isaac Newton. His study of the books of Daniel and Revelation led him to conclude in 1706 that God would again make Israel a nation after which the Jewish people would return to the land and build another temple, which the antichrist would later desecrate in the middle of the tribulation. Newton believed Jesus would return with his saints after this terrible time on the earth and setup a thousand year reign upon the earth. His beliefs resemble those of premillennialists today.

At the end of his article, Dr. Watson lists over 45 writers who from 1585 to 1800 expressed a clear belief in the future restoration of Israel although their premillennialism was not as well-defined as that of Isaac Newton. He also provided quotes from many of these 45 biblical scholars to back up his assertion.

Summing Up

It’s true that amillennialism dominated the church during the dark ages. But as Dr. Andy Woods asks, “Should the Dark Ages be the standard of correct doctrine? Beliefs that were lost after the fourth century A.D. and not fully discovered until the last few centuries, therefore, are not necessarily illegitimate?”[xix]

The dominance of premillennialism in Bible believing churches during the latter part of the nineteenth century and twentieth century did not happen as the result of a few misguided teachers. No, the roots of this widespread revival of biblical teaching started after the Reformation as students of God’s Word applied the Reformers’ principles of Bible interpretation to prophetic passages in both the Old and New Testaments and rejected the longstanding antisemitism of the church.

The return of so many pastors and teachers today to the amillennialism of the Dark Ages signifies a step backward in time as well as a denial of what God’s Word teaches about a glorious future kingdom for Israel. This reversal also constitutes a return to allegorical interpretations of prophecy that began as a way to combine Platonism with Scripture and contributed to decline of the church during the dark ages.

Note: for more information of this topic I highly recommend the book Ever Reforming by Dr. Andy Woods.

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