Read an Excerpt
Kenneth L. Gentry Jr.
Eschatology is easily, often, and much abused. Nevertheless, it is foundationally important to a distinctly biblical world-view. Though we are creatures constrained by time (Job 14: 1-6) and space (Acts 17: 26), God has set eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3: 11). Consequently, we have an innate interest in the future-- which necessarily affects our conduct in the present.
Given these realities, how could the inscripturated disclosure of the future not be important and practical for God's people? Does not 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 teach us that "all Scripture is God-breathed" (hence important) and profitable in preparing us for "every good work" (hence practical)? Eschatology's considerable task is to explore the whole revelation of the inerrant Word of God in order to discern the divinely ordained, prophetically revealed flow of world history from creation to consummation with a view to issuing "a call to action and obedience in the present."
In this chapter I will present the biblical foundations for and basic contours of that system of eschatology known as postmillennialism. I will begin by defining its basic idea: Postmillennialism expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ's return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions the Lord will return visibly, bodily, and in great glory, ending history with the general resurrection and the great judgment of all humankind. Hence, our system is postmillennial in that the Lord's glorious return occurs after an era of "millennial" conditions. Thus, the postmillennialist confidently proclaims in a unique way that history is "His story."
HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF POSTMILLENNIALISM
Despite the frequent appearance of prophetic statements in the early church fathers, an intriguing phenomenon presents itself to us: No ancient creed affirms a millennial view. Though subsidiary to the Scripture, creeds play an important role in defining Christian orthodoxy by protecting the church from the corruption of belief within and against the assaults of unbelief from without.
The early creedal formulations of Christianity provide only the most rudimentary elements of eschatology. For instance, the Apostles' Creed simply affirms: "He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead," and "I believe . . . the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting." The eschatology of the Nicene Creed makes only slight advances, asserting that he "ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end."
Both amillennialism and postmillennialism fit comfortably within these and other ancient creedal affirmations. Premillennialism's fit is a bit more awkward, however, because of its requiring two separate resurrections and two distinct judgments rather than general ones involving all people simultaneously. Consequently, as classic dispensationalist Robert P. Lightner admits: "None of the major creeds of the church include pre-millennialism in their statements." Not one of the millennial views, though, is expressly affirmed by any early creed as the orthodox position. This is not surprising in that, as Erickson explains, "all three millennial positions have been held virtually throughout church history."
This noted, we should expect to find a gradual development of the millennial schemes, rather than a fully functioning system in early Christian history. For example, Walvoord confesses when defending dispensationalism: "It must be conceded that the advanced and detailed theology of pretribulationism is not found in the Fathers, but neither is any other detailed and 'established' exposition of premillennialism. The development of most important doctrines took centuries." And although premillennialism finds slightly earlier development (especially in Irenaeus, A.D. 130- 202), theologian Donald G. Bloesch notes: "Postmillennialism was already anticipated in the church father Eusebius of Caesarea" (A.D. 260-340). Schaff traces it back even farther, observing that Origen (A.D. 185-254) "expected that Christianity, by continual growth, would gain the dominion over the world."
Two other prominent church fathers whose historical confidence appears to express a nascent postmillennialism are Athanasius (A.D. 296-372) and Augustine (A.D. 354-430). As Zoba notes, Augustine taught that history "would be marked by the ever-increasing influence of the church in overturning evil in the world before the Lord's return." This would eventually issue forth in a "future rest of the saints on earth" (Augustine, Sermon 259: 2) "when the Church will be purged of all the wicked elements now mixed among its members and Christ will rule peacefully in its midst." This early incipient postmillennialism contains the most basic element of the later developed system: a confident hope in gospel victory in history prior to Christ's return.
Later, as Bloesch notes, "postmillennialism experienced an upsurge in the middle ages," as illustrated in the writings of Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202) and others. But a more fully developed postmillennialism enjoys its greatest growth and influence in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, especially under Puritan and Reformed influence in England and America. Rodney Peterson writes that "this perspective had undergone changes, particularly since Thomas Brightman (1562- 1607)." Brightman is one of the fathers of Presbyterianism in England. His postmillennial views are set forth in detail in his book A Revelation of the Revelation, which was published posthumously in 1609 and quickly established itself as one of the most widely translated works of the day. In fact, some church historians consider this work the "most important and influential English revision of the Reformed, Augustinian concept of the millennium." Thus, Brightman stands as the modern systematizer (not creator) of postmillennialism.