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Christian Theology and Classics: Augustine, William Perkins, and Millennial Views


In the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, my recent reading has included writings from the 4th and the 16th centuries:  Augustine’s Confessions as a book about the early church, and Volume 1 of the Works of William Perkins, as a book by a Puritan.

Both of these were featured in Puritan Reformed Seminary’s 2017 conference:  Carl Trueman’s talk about Augustine’s Confessions  and Joel Beeke’s summary of William Perkins.  Augustine’s Confessions was an interesting read, my first such reading of early church writings, and I noted the parts mentioned by Trueman:  Augustine as a youth stealing figs from a fig tree; and a much later event that happened to one of Augustine’s friends (who resolved to never go to the gladiatorial games, was taken there by force by his friends; he kept his eyes closed, determined not to look; but the sounds aroused his curiosity so that he looked –and was then ensnared again in the games).  Trueman had noted here, the power of the visual image.  Other interesting parts included references to the other Christian leaders of the time including Ambrose of Milan and his role in Augustine’s later conversion, as well as descriptions about worship services including the singing of hymns.

As others who have read Augustine’s Confessions have noted, the last few chapters are strange, getting into Augustine’s Platonic philosophy, with a lot of repetitive thought as Augustine considered the meaning of time, memory and forgetfulness.  In this tedious reading, I also observed that the Librivox volunteer readers must have had similar difficulty; the majority of the recording, through Augustine’s conversion, was read by one or two authors. Then, for each ‘track’ section of the last few (weird) chapters, it was a different reader for each segment.

William Perkins

Volume one of Perkins is over 800 pages and three treatises. I read a little of the first treatise, all of the second one, and about a third of the last and very lengthy treatise (the Sermon on the Mount).  The first treatise was about biblical chronology and dating of early Bible events; after a while it was too detailed and tedious.  Here I first learned the idea that the Israelite stay in Egypt may have been only 215 years instead of 430 years—the 430 years starting from the time of Abraham instead of the actual time in Egypt.  I have always thought that the stay was 400 years in Egypt, from the narrative reading and my old NIV Study Bible dates.  From checking online articles, though, apparently this is an area of differing views, and some do take the 215 years view regarding the Egypt stay.  At this point, the 430 years in Egypt seems more reasonable to me, given the large population at the time of the Exodus and allowing for gaps in the genealogies, which occurs often even in later Old Testament genealogies.  For further reading and study on this, are these two articles:

The second treatise was of a manageable length and more interesting:  Perkins’ exposition of Matthew 4:1-11 and the parallel account in Luke, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Good points brought out here include Perkins’ look at the scientific understanding of the human ability to live without food and water, that the human body has a limit of about 14 days­.  This event was supernatural, and necessary for Christ to experience, in similar fashion to the previous 40 days and 40 nights fastings of both Moses and Elijah.  Perkins adds, to any who might reason that ‘why did Christ not do double the length of time, 80 days?’, that Christ also must be shown to be human, and a fast of 80 days would have us question His humanity.  Another of Perkins’ ideas, though, seemed rather strange (again, the first time to hear this idea, for me):  the temptation of Jesus standing on the top of the temple in Jerusalem, was accomplished by Satan’s moving Christ’s body, slowly through the air, from the desert to the actual temple location.  Here again Perkins considers the known natural laws, and reasons that a human body could not physically withstand such flight movement through the air at very high speeds, but that Satan certainly could physically carry Christ a short distance at a slow speed.  I haven’t read other commentaries on this matter, but have always thought of this temptation as done in a vision, not actually there; if Christ were actually there, surely there would have been other people around to notice a man standing up on the top of the temple structure.   But Perkins reasoned that a temptation by vision would not be a real temptation.

The third work in volume one is a detailed exposition, with many excurses, of the Sermon on the Mount.  The reading is straightforward enough to follow, and similar in style to the later Puritans (who held Perkins in great esteem and were greatly influenced by him), with the outline format of different observations and ‘uses’ for application – as noted by J.I. Packer in his summary lecture series on the Puritans .  Throughout the reading, though, at several points I was turned-off by one particular aspect of Perkins’ views: his anti-millennial interpretations.  This comes out in such places as his exposition of Matt. 5:5 (the meek shall inherit the earth), in which he cites four ways in which the meek are said to inherit the earth.  The last two of these, Perkins considered as the primary ones:  3) inheritance in Christ in which ‘all things are yours, whether it be Paul or Cephas, or the world, things present or things to come’ (1 Cor. 3:21-22) and 4) that the meek will be made kings and ‘rule and reign’ (Rev. 5).  Before that, however, he considers that “if it fall out that meek persons die in want or banishment, yet God gives them contentation, which is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth.”  As a premillennialist (and here I recall Spurgeon’s strong words about this text) such an idea misses the mark:  to say that a poor person being contented with what God gives him or her in this life “is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth” is to seriously underrate and misrepresent the wonderful future promise of really inheriting the earth.  Elsewhere in the exposition, Isaiah texts about the millennial era are applied to what we have spiritually here and now.  At a point about various views regarding our neighbors and revenge, Perkins writes:  “Now the devil perceiving this to be their [the Jews’] natural disposition, makes God’s doctrine of salvation seem to them a doctrine of earthly benefits, for he caused them to dream of an earthly king for their Messiah, and of an earthly flourishing kingdom under him.”  Such statements reveal the standard European anti-Semitism along with an apparent hatred of the premillennial doctrine itself, implied in the idea that an earthly kingdom is somehow evil, carnal and unspiritual.  Premillennialists recognize the both/and of a future literal, earthly kingdom that is also spiritual in character, and that both physical and spiritual can co-exist, as in us believers today; and that the Old Testament did promise a future literal, earthly kingdom. The Jews had the basic idea correct; their error was in failing to recognize the two-stage purpose of God, the cross and then the crown, what is described in 1 Peter 1:10-11: the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

The criticisms aside, both works — Augustine and William Perkins — are good for overall reading of classic and Reformation-era thought, as both provide interesting ideas and points for further thought.  They both serve the purpose of reading “the classics” of Christian theological works, and variety in reading, to go beyond the comparatively shallow and superficial nature of many modern-day books.

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  1. Robert
    February 14, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Interesting article….Please, what is wrong with the understanding of “the meek will inherit the earth” to mean that believers will inherit the *new* earth, as in the new heaven and the new earth… the whole creation groans waiting for the revelation of the sons of God.

    • February 14, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      That is a valid understanding, that it is future — the new earth (eternal state). Both are future: the millennial interval followed by the eternal state. The point is, that the meek inheriting the earth is about the future inheritance — not about how they spiritually have communion with Christ in this age.

  2. Robert
    February 14, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks!

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