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Why the Early Church Finally Rejected Premillennialism


By Charles E. Hill – (Source: Aletheuo)

Chiliasm is the ancient name for what today is known as premillennialism, the belief that when Jesus Christ returns he will not execute the last judgment at once, but will first set up on earth a temporary kingdom, where resurrected saints will rule with him over non-resurrected subjects for a thousand years of peace and righteousness.1 To say that the Church “rejected chiliasm” may sound bizarre today, when premillennialism is the best known eschatology in Evangelicalism.

Having attached itself to fundamentalism, chiliasm in its dispensationalist form has been vigorously preached in pulpits, taught in Bible colleges and seminaries, and successfully promoted to the masses through study Bibles, books, pamphlets, charts, and a host of radio and television ministries. To many Christians today, premillennialism is the very mark of Christian orthodoxy.

But there was a period of well over a “millennium” (over half of the Church’s history), from at least the early fifth century until the sixteenth, when chiliasm was dormant and practically non-existent. Even through the Reformation and much of the post-Refor-mation period, advocates of chiliasm were usually found among fringe groups like the Münsterites. The Augsburg Confession went out of its way to condemn chiliasm (Art. XVII, “Of Christ’s Return to Judgment”), and John Calvin criticized “the chiliasts, who limited the reign of Christ to a thousand years” (Institutes 3.25.5). It was not until the nineteenth century that chiliasm made a respectable comeback, as a favorite doctrine of Christian teachers who were promoting revival in the face of the deadening effects of encroaching liberalism.

But how are we to view the Church’s earliest period up until the first decisive rejection of chiliasm in the Church? By most accounts this was the heyday of chiliastic belief in the Church. Many modern apologists for premillennialism allege that before the time of Augustine chiliasm was the dominant, if not the “universal” eschatology of the Church, preserving the faith of the apostles.2 Some form of chiliasm was certainly defended by such notable names as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century and Tertullian of Carthage in the third. How and why then did this view finally fall into disrepute?

The answer given by modern premillennial apologists usually suggests that premillennialism was overcome for illegitimate reasons. They cite the rise of an unbiblical and dangerous allegorical hermeneutic (by such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen) which took a sad toll on sound biblical exegesis. They explain that the prophetic excesses of the Montanists gave chiliasm a bad name. They note that the peace of Constantine led the Church to the false belief that the millennium had already arrived. And, finally, they suggest that the authoritative repudiation of chiliasm by Augustine, who formerly had held such a belief, “put the nails in the coffin” of premillennialism.

But are these the real factors? 

The hermeneutical question is indeed an important one, but to put the debate in terms of literal against allegorical is overly simplistic. Both sides used literal exegesis and both used allegorical exegesis when they deemed it best. For example, despite Origen’s intentional use of the allegorical method, his essential critique of chiliasm had real theological and traditional motivations. These motivations were not his alone but belonged to large segments of the Church. The early Montanists, it turns out, were not chiliasts and were never criticized for being so.3 Tertullian, who became a Montanist, did not get his chiliasm from them, but from Irenaeus. There is no evidence that chiliasm was hurt by any association with Montanism. By the time Constantine proclaimed Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, a non-chiliastic eschatology was surely the norm in most places, and in many it had been so ever since Christianity had arrived there. Many signs thus tell us that even without the aid of Augustine, chiliasm was probably in its death-throes by the time he wrote the last books of The City of God in a.d. 42026.

So why did the Church reject chiliasm? 

As with most historical questions, the answers are complex and have social as well as hermeneutical and theological aspects. It would take a long time to compare and evaluate the exegesis of individual biblical passages by a number of given authors. One common criticism, however, can serve as a convenient organizer for what are probably the most important factors in chiliasm’s demise. That common criticism, known from Origen to the Augsburg Confession and beyond, is that chiliasm is a “Jewish” error.4 This criticism is open to grave misunderstanding today if one views it as part of the Church’s shameful legacy of anti-Semitism. But this is not what lay at the base of such criticism of chiliasm as “Jewish.” Jesus was a Jew, as were all of his apostles. “Salvation is of the Jews,” Jesus said, and all the Church fathers knew and agreed with this. There is no embarrassment at all in something being “Jewish” and the ancient and honorable tradition of the Jews, in monotheism, morals, and the safeguarding of Holy Scripture, is something Christian leaders always prized.

Another modern misunderstanding of this criticism must also be avoided. Certain current forms of premillennialism, particularly dispensationalism, might seem “Jewish” to some because they promise that the kingdom of God will be restored to ethnic Jews as the just fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Abraham and his descendants. But this was not the case with ancient Christian chiliasm.

The New Testament’s revelation of the Church as the true Israel and heir of all the promises of God in Christ was too well-established and too deeply ingrained in the early Christian consciousness for such a view to have been viable. Ancient Church chiliasts like Irenaeus did indeed argue that some of God’s promises to Israel had to be fulfilled literally in a kingdom on earth, but they recognized that the humble recipients of this kingdom would be spiritual Israel, all who confessed Jesus as God’s Messiah, regardless of their national or ethnic origin.5 Ancient chiliasm was not criticized because it “favored” the Jews as having a distinct, blessed future apart from Gentile Christians.

What then did critics mean by calling chiliasm “Jewish”? Their use of the label meant “non-Christian Jewish,” or even, “anti-Christian Jewish.” These early critics believed that chiliasm represented an approach to biblical religion that was sub-Christian, essentially failing to reckon with the full redemptive implications of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. They saw it as an under-realized, a not-fully-Christian, eschatology.

We can outline at least three aspects of this criticism….

Continued Here; Why the Early Church Finally Rejected Premillennialism

3 comments on “Why the Early Church Finally Rejected Premillennialism

  1. Quote: What then did critics mean by calling chiliasm “Jewish”? Their use of the label meant “non-Christian Jewish,” or even, “anti-Christian Jewish.” These early critics believed that chiliasm represented an approach to biblical religion that was sub-Christian, essentially failing to reckon with the full redemptive implications of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. They saw it as an under-realized, a not-fully-Christian, eschatology.

    Hi PJ,

    Thanks for the link through to Aletheuo website, it’s much appreciated, and I will have to remind myself to reciprocate.🙂

    In the quote from the article above, this describes my precise reason for rejecting premillennialism, and also I believe is the reason why so many early church fathers still held to that doctrine in the days of the early church. It was a Jewish perspective of the Kingdom of God that was extremely dominant, even in the minds of the apostles right up until the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

    I’ve just finished writing a short article on this very subject that highlights the need for our minds to be transformed just as the apostles were, when considering the One who is our King, and is right now seated in glory. Remember that it was the apostles who, at the time of the ascension of Christ, asked the question “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”, and yet only a short time later under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, began to teach believers to reject all notion of a physical earthly kingdom, in favour of a kingdom yet to be revealed at His glorious return.

    May the Lord bless you my friend, and may you continue to proclaim the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins, and risen again for our justification, in all that you do here.

    John Dunning.🙂

    • Thank you for dropping by John! There were some points in the message i wasn’t aware of, so it was a huge help to me personally. I’ll be checking out your newest message.

      God bless you and yours John….and Merry Christmas!🙂

  2. Merry Christmas to you too. And I must say that with all this snow breezing across my screen, I’m coming over all festive all of a sudden!😀

    God bless,

    John

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