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Premillennialism in Church History, Part III: The Reformation, and Return to Chiliasm


Continuing with this series on Premillennialism in Church History, now part III: the return to premillennialism in the Protestant era.

It was the failure of the apostate “church triumphant” Roman Catholic church that led to the Reformation–as well as the return to the original chiliast doctrine. This section I find particularly interesting: that the late-medieval historicist idea of the Pope identified as the antichrist, provided the logical consequence of abandoning amillennialism and embracing chiliasm, albeit in a modified, historicist, version.

As seen from the chiliast writings, premillennialism was originally futurist, at least so far as recognizing, from texts in Daniel and Revelation, that at some yet future point in time antichrist would come and reign for 3 ½ years, which would be followed by Christ’s return, at which time He would deliver His people and slay the antichrist. The medieval eschatology introduced by the apostate church shifted the basic thinking — this great, successful church triumphant era was the millennium spoken of in the scriptures – along with the introduction of allegorical hermeneutics, and the non-literal interpretation of events once considered future. When the literal plain language hermeneutic is abandoned, anything goes in terms of interpreting the prophetic texts of the Bible, and thus the church began to think of prophecy as “symbolically” describing actual events occurring in history in the early Christian era. As mentioned in the previous post, of course, the difficulty here is that no one knows for certain what those actual events really are, as many actual events can be “correlated” to various scriptural “symbolic” events. Throughout the Middle Ages, past events were correlated to certain apocalyptic wars; but when the end of the world did not occur around 1000 A.D. and the start of the 1000 years shifted, it was convenient enough to ascribe “Gog and Magog” of Revelation 20 to the Ottoman Turk empire invading Christendom.

Following in this allegorical type of thinking, by the 12th century some Christians began to express doubts about this age really being the millennium. As Nathaniel West observed:

 Scintillations of light, however, began to gleam through the Papal darkness. The lapse of centuries had been required in order to lay the historic basis for a true interpretation, in connection with prophecy, of the Apostasy and Antichrist, and to demonstrate the early error that confined the 1,260 days to the Pagan persecution, Babylon to the Secular City of Rome, and Antichrist to Nero. Goth and Vandal had indeed scourged the apostatizing empire. Saracens had accomplished their mission. Turks were executing theirs. Christendom “repented not” of its crimes and idolatries. (Rev. 9:20, 21.) The sacred page had predicted things of Rome not fulfilled either under the sword of Constantine or Attilla. Antichrist had not been revealed when the “let” was taken out of the way. (2 Thess. 2: 7.)

The idea of identifying the “Church” with evil had come up before; the corruption in the papacy gradually brought it to the forefront, that the Roman “Church” itself was the evil Babylon of scripture:

Even Jerome had intimated long ago that Babylon was the “Church” and Gregory had uttered some ominous words about John the Faster as “the Forerunner of Antichrist,” which the act of his own successor Boniface III only intensified. “The days of Antichrist are come,” said he, “this proud bishop is like Lucifer—0 tempora, 0 mores!” (Villemain, Life of Gregory, p. 96.) … Convictions began to grow, as the predicted marks of Antichrist broke out like plague-spots on the body of the “Man at Rome,” not only that the Seven-hilled City was the seat of the Antichrist about to be revealed in all his blaspheming and persecuting deformity, but that the Roman “Church” itself was no less than the “Babylon” of the Apocalypse.

The logical implications of this became obvious to many, given the basic sequence of events in biblical eschatology: if the Pope is the antichrist, and the antichrist is destroyed by Christ before He establishes His kingdom, then since the Pope is still here and not destroyed, therefore we are not in the kingdom now. As expressed by a German writer, “The contemporaneousness of the Beast and the 1,000 years’ kingdom, or even the contemporaneousness of the existence and dominion of the Beast and the imprisonment of Satan, is a monstrous thought.” (Koch, Das tausend., Reich, 197.) The Protestant idea fixed the final judgment as being on the Papal Antichrist, associated with Christ’s Second Advent, and threw the 1,000 years into the future: not in the medieval period, but beyond the Second Advent.

And what the value of this for Chiliasm? What the bearing of this mighty movement? Much, every way, infinitely much. Ere even the Reformers were aware, the back-bone of the Lateran theory of the millennium was broken. The 1,000 years were thrown into the future. The medieval position was flanked and turned by an act of Providence—the Reformation—and the pretended Millennial Kingdom of Christ was held to be what Eberhard had called it, “the Babylonian Empire of Antichrist.” The movement that restored the Apostolic doctrine of the Church, opened the door for the restoration of the doctrine of the pre-millennial advent of Christ. If the Man of Sin (2Thess. 2:3.) is the Antichrist, (Uohn 2:22, 4:3; 2 John 7,) an identity unanimously held by the whole primitive Church as well as the Reformers, and, if this Antichrist is the Pope, the Head of the Papacy, figured by the Beast and False Prophet (Rev. 13:1-18); an identity unanimously held by the purest Catholics of the Middle Age, the Albingenses, Waldenses, and the whole Reformation— “communem Protestantium sententiam” (De Moor VI. 82-117. Turrettin IV. 147-177,) to be destroyed by the Parousia of Christ (2 Thess. 2:8. Rev. 19:11-21) and which destruction comes before the 1,000 years, as all interpreters of every school admit, then the demonstration is simply adamantine that the millennium is future and dependent on the Second Advent for its inauguration, when Christ shall personally and visibly come to destroy Antichrist by a sentence of judgment from His lips before all nations. The most ingenious Preterism is incompetent to evade this conclusion without first assailing, either covertly or openly, the Reformation doctrine and repudiating its symbols on this subject, and especially the strongest of them all, the Westminster standards.

The actual re-introduction of chiliasm had a few more obstacles to overcome, including the carnal, false premillennialism of extremist groups, including Thomas Miinzeer and the Anabaptists, the Prophets of Zwickau, and later the Fifth Monarchy men (Cromwell’s time, the 17th century), the notion of a secular kingdom of the saints, set up by fire and sword, and before the resurrection—a purely later Jewish conception. Calvin and the other Reformers attacked this false premillennialism in an environment still devoid of true, biblical premillennialism. Nathaniel West details the situation of Calvin’s day and the Augsburg confession, pointing out that the anti-millennial attacks of that time were directed against a false Chiliasm.

Here, too, belongs the strong protest of the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XL and the celebrated XVIIth Article of the Augsburg Confession, so “ill understood” by many who assume it to be aimed against a PreMillennial Advent of Christ, because aimed against a false Chiliasm. On the contrary, it only condemns those who scatter “Judaicas opiniones” and Melancthon’s comment in the “Variatio” expressly inserts “Anabaptistas” as those to whom the article referred. (Prolog. Var. Hase Lib. Symbol, p. XVIII. Walch. Introd. Luth. Symb. p. 314.) To the same parties are the “Judaica somnia” condemned in the Helvetic Confession, attributed, as also in the Belgic Confession. (Niemeyer, Coll. Conf. pp. 486, 387.)

Next time: A look at the Westminster confession, and its presentation of eschatology which is not at all in contradiction to premillennialism but follows even the biblical presentation style – and the chiliasts who understood and affirmed that confession.

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