Millennial Views-Part 2

By: Dr. Renald Showers; ©2003
Numerous historians have declared that Premillennialism was the first major millennial view of the Church. In this article Dr. Renald Showers quotes from a number of historians who document that claim.

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The previous article noted the fact that numerous historians declare that Premillennial­ism (initially called Chiliasm) was the first major millennial view of the Church, and that it was the predominant view of orthodox believers from the first to the third centuries. In that article a sampling of historians was quoted as evidence for this declaration. This present article will present the statements of several more historians.

Philip Schaff, prominent German Reformed theologian and Church historian in America during the major part of the 19th century, stated the following concerning the early Church (100-325 A.D.) in his monumental eight volume History of the Christian Church:

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 judgment. 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.[1]

Adolph Harnack, Lutheran theologian and Church historian in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and recognized authority on Ante-Nicene Church history (100-325 A.D.), wrote the following:

First in point of time came the faith in the nearness of Christ’s second advent and the establishing of His reign of glory on the earth. Indeed it appears so early that it might be questioned whether it ought not to be regarded as an essential part of the Christian religion.[2]
… it must be admitted that this expectation was a prominent feature in the earliest proclamation of the gospel, and materially contributed to its success. If the primitive churches had been under the necessity of framing a “Confession of Faith,” it would certainly have embraced those pictures by means of which the near future was distinctly realized.[3]

Harnack also stated that “In the anticipations of the future prevalent amongst the early Christians (c. 50-150) it is necessary to distinguish a fixed… element.” He indicated that the following items were included in that fixed element: “(1) the notion that a last terrible battle with the enemies of God was impending; (2) the faith in the speedy return of Christ; (3) the conviction that Christ will judge all men, and (4) will set up a kingdom of glory on earth”.[4]

Harnack declared that among other early Christian beliefs concerning the future “was the expectation that the future Kingdom of Christ on earth should have a fixed duration, — according to the most prevalent opinion, a duration of one thousand years. From this fact the whole ancient Christian eschatology was known in later times as ‘chiliasm.’”.[5]

Harnack claimed that in their eschatology the early Christians preserved the Jewish hopes for the future presented in ancient Jewish literature.[6]

He also asserted that Justin Martyr, a prominent early Christian writer (100-165 A.D.) who had been saved out of pagan Greek philosophy, “speaks of chiliasm as a necessary part of complete orthodoxy, although he knows Christians who do not accept it”.[7] Harnack made this significant observation: “That a philosopher like Justin, with a bias towards an Hellenic construction of the Christian religion, should nevertheless have accepted its chiliastic elements is the strongest proof that these enthusiastic expectations were inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the 2nd century”.[8]

It should be noted that Harnack was strongly liberal in his theology; therefore, he was not biased in favor of Premillennialism. In light of this fact, his comments take on added significance.

Will Durant, the 20th-century historian who produced the multi-volume set entitled The Story of Civilization, wrote the following concerning Jesus Christ’s view of the Kingdom of God:

What did he mean by the Kingdom? A supernatural heaven? Apparently not, for the apostles and the early Christians unanimously expected an earthly Kingdom. This was the Jewish tradition that Christ inherited; and he taught his followers to pray to the Father, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.[9]

Durant further declared that “The apostles were apparently unanimous in believing that Christ would soon return to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth”.[10] Then he stated that, “One faith united the scattered congregations: that Christ was the son of God, that he would return to establish his Kingdom on earth, and that all who believed in him would at the Last Judgment be rewarded with eternal bliss”.[11]

Just a few historians have been quoted who have claimed that Premillennialism was the first and predominant millennial view of the Church. Others who have made the same claim could be cited. Research indicates that a good number of such historians were not premillennialists themselves. In fact, a number were opposed to the premillennial view personally. The fact that scholars who were not biased in favor of Premillennialism would assert that it was the first and predominant millennial view of the Church is quite significant. It indicates that they based their assertion upon evidence which they were convinced was too strong to be denied.

Much of the evidence which these historians use to substantiate their claim is found in the writings of early Church leaders. Some of those writings will begin to be examined in the next article.

For a comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology obtain the follow­ing book: Renald E. Showers, There Really Is A Difference! (The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. Telephone: 800-257-7843. Mailing address: P.O. Box 908, Bellmawr, NJ 08099).

NOTES

  1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973, p. 614.
  2. Adolph Harnack, “Millennium,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883, XVI, p. 314.
  3. Ibid., XVI, p. 315.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., XVI, p. 316.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Will Durant, Caesar And Christ, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944, pp. 564-565.
  10. Ibid., p. 575.
  11. Ibid., p. 603.

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