Premillennialism in Church History, Part II


Continuing from Part I in this series, now for a brief look at the early medieval period, when the martyr doctrine was itself martyred. As well established from the available writings of the early church, the true church pre-Constantine (those who were of the Christian faith and not heretics) affirmed chiliasm. Nathaniel West’s essay points out the connection between the martyrs and their “martyr doctrine,” the hope of the future reign with Christ. Premillennialism is the doctrine of the martyred church, a great truth that has no place in apostate Christianity, that false faith that springs forth in times of peace, free from persecution.

This part of the history is more known to premillennialists, at least in general terms: the allegorical approach in the Alexandrian school, and Augustine formulating what is now called amillennialism, including “progressive parallelism” as a “spiritual” answer in response to the “carnal” excesses of some chiliast groups. And the political climate after Constantine, the church triumphant, was contrary to the idea of the persecuted church and a future time of Christ ruling the earth – after all, the church is doing just fine now, so this must be the kingdom.

The details here are interesting, though, as to the spiritualizing that took place. I had not realized that the Roman Catholic idea of venerating the saints, their bones having miraculous power, setting forth images of them, etc., was the 5th century papacy’s advancing of their reinterpretation of the former chiliast (premillennial) faith, “the reign of the risen saints.”

 The fatal blow to the doctrine of Polycarp and Irenaeus was given, first of all, by a Roman Pope, whose secretary was Jerome, at the close of the fourth century — Damasus I., A.D. 380 — who condemned the martyr faith as a ” heresy,” in the person of Appolinarius, the opposer of the principles of Origen and Dionysius, while the advancing Papacy began to expound the reign of the risen saints, — ” secundum ana gogen!” — as meaning their idolatrous worship, the miraculous virtue of their bones, the presence of their images, the sanctity of their tombs, and their ghostly intercession.

Nathaniel West provides some great quotes at this point of the history:

 The martyr age had passed away. No more councils like that of Nice, in which martyrs, fresh from the Maximian persecution, answered to their names. No Paphnutius, any more, venerable with silver hairs, one eye gouged out by the tool of the Pagan torturer, its frightful socket seared with red-hot iron, both legs ham-strung, and standing beside young Athanasius of only twenty-seven summers, defending the orthodox faith. A new generation has appeared, intoxicated with the Christian conquest of heathenism, the careering splendor of a church and state establishment, and whirling a mystic dance around the tranquility of the empire. As the aspect of outward affairs changed under Constantine, these views lost their hold on men’s minds. The church now prepared for a long-continued period of temporal prosperity, and the State-Church of that time forgot the millennial glory of the future.

By union of church and state, and perversion of victory, the foundation was laid in the empire for a carnal caricature of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ on earth before the time. A Millennium sunk in the gross materialism and idolatry of medieval, political and military Christianity. By union of church and state, the martyr doctrine itself was martyred, not merely the unfortunate Jewish admixtures cast away, but the truth itself rejected, no council resisting, and vanished from view with the departing glory and last remnant of a suffering but pure apostolic church.

The “church is the kingdom” idea really only prevailed until about the 12th century, and this particular form of amillennialism had a temporal starting point, to continue for 1000 years until some yet-future time. First it was to end in the 6th century (the world’s six thousand years to have ended); then around 1000 A.D.: 1000 years after Christ’s birth. When nothing happened then, the starting date for the kingdom was changed to begin with Constantine’s victory in the year 312 A.D.. As West aptly observed: This new lease of three centuries caused the Ottoman Turk invading Christiandom to be regarded as the Gog and Magog of Revelation, and reserved for the fourteenth century another Antichiliastic panic, revived by the Flagellants and Loquis, less extensive, however, than the former; and followed by the general opinion that the 1,000 years were of indefinite duration.

It was the corruption in the Catholic church, the wickedness seen in the Pope and his system, that gradually brought people to see that this age of the Church is not the kingdom. And that leads to another interesting point, for next time: the connection between Historicism, and the Pope as AntiChrist, and the Return to Premillennialism.

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  1. July 28, 2014 at 9:55 am

    There is some fascinating history being unearthed by you in this series. I own a copy of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, and read it last summer. His work is a staunch defense of a literal reign of Christ on the earth, which vindicates the martyrs and the saints throughout the ages. Many died holding to Chiliasm like you point out.during the Middle Ages.

    Today, premillennialism is under attack for either being too pessimistic, too literalistic, or for delaying the fullness of the kingdom promises to a time yet future. Those are the constant objections that I read, hear, and see all around me. I wonder sometimes if the premillennial view invites opposition simply because it teaches that Christ will reign on the earth with his saints.

    What leader or nation wants its people to promote the view that it’s going to be wiped out by an eternal king and kingdom? If the fullness of the believer’s reign isn’t until Christ’s second advent, then this overturns dominion theology, theonomy, christian reconstructionism, prosperity theology and over-realized eschatology.

    I respect and admire many who hold the Amillennial and Postmillennial views. I still haven’t heard credible expositions of Isaiah 24-27, 65, Daniel 7-12, Zechariah 12-14, and Revelation 12-20. I still haven’t heard one sermon on either Zech 14 or Rev 20, which do justice to the text from an Amillennial or Postmillennial perspective.

    • July 28, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      Agree, the very idea of premillennialism is antithetical to the rulers and kingdoms of this age. And we are definitely living in an age of prosperity and ease, more like the era of the early Roman church rather than that of the martyred and persecuted church (at least in our part of the world). The late S. Lewis Johnson also observed this several times, why it is that the world does not want Christ’s Second Advent and by nature opposes it and what it is associated with, the fact that God will judge the world empires and bring in His own kingdom and rule, in the place of them.

      And it is clear that God in His sovereign purposes has blinded even the minds of some believers, those who hold to the amillennial or postmillennial views, with reference to His purposes for the nations. That is hard to understand, though as I see it falls into the category of doctrinal understanding that the Lord must reveal to them, so that as the apostle Paul said, “and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”

  2. July 28, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Reblogged this on beliefspeak2 and commented:
    Good historical summary of PMill. thought by Lynda O. in this post.

  3. Edward
    July 30, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Enjoying this topic of discussion very much. One of the counter-arguments I have encountered from non-premillers is that the term “chiliasm” should not be interpreted as pre-mill as such, but is actually a generic term referring to a millennium and refers to either pre-mill or post-mill. They would say that the “millennialism” of the church, whether early or during the time of the reformation, was actually mostly post-mill because the references from the individuals in question do not actually say that the millennium will follow the “phyiscal” return of Christ, or that He will rule “on the earth” during the envisioned millennium. Have you encountered this line of discussion, and if so, what counter-arguments have you read of regarding this type of handling of the evidence? Thanks!

    • July 30, 2014 at 10:48 am

      That’s interesting, Edward — I haven’t heard that idea before. I have encountered some who take the silence of some early writers on the topic, to mean that since they didn’t mention the millennium they must have been amillennial – a very weak argument of course, based on silence. But based on what else I’ve learned, I would respond based on the history, especially of the Reformation and 17th century. I’ve been studying that time period also – for the next two posts in this series – and Nathaniel West presented some very interesting material here, concerning Protestant chiliasm and logical sequencing of events. It was the very historicist idea from the late Middle Ages, that the Roman church is Babylon and the pope is the antichrist, that brought early Protestants back to chiliasm. Even from medieval eschatology it was understood that the kingdom came AFTER the antichrist was defeated, and the early medieval apostate church apparently saw antichrist defeated as having occurred with the beginning of the church or at the time of Constantine (and thus they were already in the kingdom). But their realization (within that historicist mindset) that the Pope was the antichrist, meant that Christ had not yet defeated the antichrist, and so that was still to happen in the future – and thus they put the sequence of events, Christ returning to slay antichrist, followed by the kingdom, into the future. The chiliasts through that time period, including the many who were involved with the Westminster Assembly, had such understanding of the temporal sequence, that Christ defeating antichrist was yet to happen, and the kingdom could only come after that. And the development of postmillennialism began in the next century, what was then – even in Nathaniel West’s time in the late 19th century – referred to as Whitbyism. The writers of the 19th century had some interesting quotes concerning the very recent development of that idea, postmillennialism, as something never before believed until then.

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