My what an icy day it was yesterday! I got halfway to church before I finally gave up and turned around. On the way I passed three accidents, saw one accident as it happened, and twice was almost in an accident myself. I was rerouted by the cops on multiple occasions, and found myself in a traffic jam of cars that couldn’t climb a hill. Then when I got home, my internet was up long enough for me to listen to a sermon and sing some worship songs, but now I’m unplugged ’till Thursday.
And it’s good to be unplugged (though I’m cheating right now and using my work internet :-)); gives me the chance to catch up on some reading and write up the next post in Shadow Covenant Theology. Last week we talked about shadow creation, how at the point of Noah’s flood God instituted a second creation of the world that acts as a type or picture of the first. In this post I’ll now turn to the final point in the shadow story, the shadow judgement and re-creation of the world.
This is probably where I’ll lose my amillennial readers :-P; Shadow Covenant Theology holds a distinctly premillennial view of redemptive history. In his History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff provides the following definition of Chiliasm, an early form of Premillennialism:
“The Christian chiliasm is…fixed upon the second, instead of the first, coming of Christ. It distinguishes, moreover, two resurrections, one before and another after the millennium, and makes the millennial reign of Christ only a prelude to his eternal reign in heaven, from which it is separated by a short interregnum of Satan” (Schaff’s History, volume 2, p. 614)
Premillennialism stands in contrast to Amillennialism and various other views that deny a literal millennium of history following Christ’s return; generally in these views it is either a reference to the current church age, or to the eternal state, or it is simply a metaphor rather than literal history. Amillennialism tends to be the default view for those who hold to classic Covenant Theology, whereas Shadow Covenant Theology argues for a premillennial understanding of prophetic history.
As a result, such a commitment will probably make SCT a difficult pill to swallow for those holding to classic CT and Amillennialism; I know that I’ve heard and read many who view Premillennialism to be untenable and not worth considering. But before my system becomes too discredited, I want to argue that at the very least Premillennialism needs to be taken seriously because of the early acceptance it found in church history. In this post I’ll trace the history of Premillennialism in the early church, then in the next I’ll develop its relationship to Shadow Covenant Theology.
Just to be clear, I’m not one to base my doctrine off of what the church has historically believed; as my pastor once said, “Anyone who knows anything about historic church doctrine knows that historic church doctrine is a mess.” When I went down to Florida to visit RBC, the professor of a class that I sat in on noted that we need to give a lot of grace to the early church fathers; many of the same men who laid the theological foundation of the church were also men who in other areas of doctrine were later demonstrated to be quite heretical. I thus hold a healthy amount of skepticism for anyone who uses the historicity of a doctrine as proof for its accuracy; I rather believe that doctrine should be based on sound exegesis of scripture alone.
With that said, if a doctrine has previously found wide acceptance in the early church, then certainly we should give it due consideration. Schaff, who was very clearly not a premillenialist, made the following frank admission in his History:
“The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism, 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 judgement. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius; while Caius, Origen, Dionysius the Great, Eusebius (as afterwards Jerome and Augustin) opposed it.” (Schaff, p. 614)
Despite its early acceptance however, Premillennialism largely faded after the first few centuries of church history. The decline of Premillennialism in the church seems to parallel the rise of Supersessionism, a system of ideas that will become important as we move forward. Vlach provides the following definition:
“Supersessionism…appears to be based on two core beliefs: (1) the nation Israel has somehow completed or forfeited its status as the people of God and will never again possess a unique role or function apart from the church, and (2) the church is now the true Israel that has permanently replaced or superseded [or fulfilled] national Israel as the people of God.” (Vlach’s Has the Church Replaced Israel? A Theological Evaluation, p. 12)
Vlach also examines the rise of Supersessionism within the church:
“Three factors contributed to the acceptance of supersessionism in the early church: (1) the increasing Gentile composition of the early church, (2) the church’s perception of the destructions of Jerusalem in AD 70 and 135, and (3) a hermeneutical approach that allowed the church to appropriate Israel’s promises to itself.” (Vlach, p. 29)
“[One] significant hermeneutical factor was the rise of Greek philosophical interpretation and, in particular, the adoption of the allegorical method of interpretation by many in the church. As House writes, ‘By the end of the first century the allegorical method had gained considerable sway in the church. The more literal interpretation of the New Testament authors and post-apostolic fathers gave way to the influence of Greek philosophical interpretation found in Philo and later in Hermes and Justin Martyr. By the time of the brilliant Alexandrian theologian Origen, allegory was readily used to move beyond the literal sense of the text.’” (Vlach, pp. 32-33)
“In addition to making specific supersessionist statements, Origen helped lay a foundation for supersessionism. Diprose points out that Origen ‘strengthened the theoretical basis of replacement theology by grounding it in biblical exegesis.’ This ‘theoretical basis’ is linked to Origen’s use of allegory to understand scripture. Origen gave Christian allegory its theoretical foundation, and he was central in making the allegorical method the Christian approach to interpreting Scripture texts regarding Israel.” (Vlach, p. 39)
Origen was a key figure in the trend to view promises to national Israel as being spiritually applicable to the church, and his influence is still felt today. His allegorical method also helped pave the way for Augustin to solidify the fall of Premillennialism.
“In Alexandria, Origen opposed chiliasm as a Jewish dream, and spiritualized the symbolical language of the prophets…But the crushing blow came from the great change in the social condition and prospects of the church in the Nicene age. After Christianity, contrary to all expectation, triumphed in the Roman empire, and was embraced by the Caesars themselves, the millennial reign, instead of being anxiously waited and prayed for, began to be dated either from the first appearance of Christ, or from the conversion of Constantine and the downfall of paganism, and to be regarded as realized in the glory of the dominant imperial state-church. Augustin, who himself formerly entertained chiliastic hopes, framed the new theory which reflected the social change, and was generally accepted. The apocalyptic millennium he understood to be the present reign of Christ in the Catholic church, and the first resurrection, the translation of the martyrs and saints to heaven, where they participate in Christ’s reign. It was consistent with this theory that towards the close of the first millennium of the Christian era there was a wide-spread expectation in Western Europe that the final judgment was at hand.
“From the time of Constantine and Augustin chiliasm took its place among the heresies, and was rejected subsequently even by the Protestant reformers as a Jewish dream. But it was revived from time to time as an article of faith and hope by pious individuals and whole sects, often in connection with…literal interpretations of prophecy, and with peculiar notions about Antichrist, the conversion and restoration of the Jews, [and] their return to the Holy Land…” (Schaff, pp. 618-619)
Schaff, writing in the 1800’s, was of course unable to chronicle the resurgence of Premillennialism and Non-supersessionism that occurred when the Jewish dream of returning to the Holy Land was realized in 1948. Vlach picks up on this;
“More than any other event, the Holocaust has been the most significant factor in the church’s reevaluation of supersessionism…Ochs asserts that Christian reflections on the Jews and Judaism after the Holocaust ‘have generated theological questions of fundamental significance.’ These questions include the following: (1) ‘What are Christians to make of the persistence of the Jewish people?’ (2) ‘Is the Church the new Israel?’ (3) ‘What of Israel’s sins?’ (4) ‘What of Israel’s land and state?’
“The answers to these questions in recent years indicate a reaction against supersessionism. Williamson states, ‘Post-Shoah [Destruction] theology’ among contemporary theologians ‘criticizes the church’s supersessionist ideology toward Jews and Judaism.’
“The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 has also raised questions concerning Israel and the doctrine of supersessionism. Ridderbos lists some of them:
“‘The existence of Israel once again becomes a bone of contention, this time in a theoretical and theological sense. Do the misery and suffering of Israel in the past and the present prove that God’s doom has rested and will rest upon her, as has been alleged time and again in Christian theology? Or is Israel’s lasting existence and, in a way, her invincibility, God’s finger in history, that Israel is the object of His special providence…and the proof of her glorious future, the future that has been beheld and foretold by Israel’s own seers and prophets?’
“Commenting on the events of the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish state, Soulen states, ‘Under the new conditions created by these events, Christian churches have begun to consider anew their relation to the God of Israel and the Israel of God in light of the Scriptures and the gospel about Jesus.’ This includes ‘revisiting the teaching of supersessionism after nearly two thousand years.’” (Vlach, pp. 68-69)
It is no new revelation that the church’s theology is deeply impacted by her present surroundings and circumstances. Just as the fall of Jerusalem gave rise to questions about Israel’s continued purpose and existence, so the restoration of the Jews to the land has caused us to question our previous conclusions. Were we right in believing that the Church now fulfills the role of Israel, or was that a theological mistake based on temporal circumstances?
Similarly, were we wrong to discard our belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ? Is there a reason why God would hold two judgements, separated by a span of a thousand years? Is it right to step away from a plain, literal sense of prophecies that speak regarding these things? Such questions need to be considered seriously in the light of sound biblical exegesis.
Many others have offered a scriptural defense of Premillennialism, so I won’t duplicate their efforts ad nauseam. In the next post I’ll give some basic thoughts on this doctrine, but beyond that my focus will be to demonstrate the theological reason for this millennium as framed in the shadow-covenantal perspective.