Millennial Views-Part 7

By: Dr. Renald Showers; ©2003
One factor which contributed to rejection of the doctrine of premillennialism was the integration of a new theology, influenced by Greek thought, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Contents

The previous article began to examine the rejection of Premillennialism in the eastern part of organized Christendom beginning in the second century A.D. It noted five factors that contributed to this rejection. The fifth was the development of a new theology, known as Alexandrian theology, in the Greek Church. This new theology was formed by Origen and other Church scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. As a result of their intense interest in Greek philosophy, they attempted to integrate that philosophy with Christian doctrine. This present article will observe the impact of the Alexandrian theology and Origen’s new method of interpreting the Bible.

Historian Earnest R. Sandeen described one result of the attempt to integrate Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine as follows:

The influence of Greek thought upon Christian theology undermined the millennarian world view in another, possibly more significant, manner. In the theology of the great 3rd-century Alexandrian Christian thinker Origen, the focus was not upon the manifestation of the kingdom within this world but within the soul of the believer, a significant shift of interest away from the historical toward the metaphysical, or the spiritual.[1]

Because of the great influence of the Alexandrian scholars, most of the Greek Church followed their lead in rejecting Premillennialism. Concerning this rejection of the premillennial views in the east, Adolph Harnack wrote, “It was the Alexandrian theology that superseded them; that is to say, Neo-Platonic mysticism triumphed over the early Christian hope of the future.”[2] Again he stated that “mysticism” played a significant role in giving “the death-blow to chiliasm in the Greek Church.”[3]

The sixth factor in the demise of Premillennialism in the Greek Church was the develop­ment by Origen of a new method of interpreting the Bible. This method has been called the allegorical or spiritualizing method, and it stands in contrast to the literal, historical-gram­matical method. This new method of interpretation permitted Origen to read almost any meaning he desired into the Bible, and it led him into heresy in certain areas of doctrine (for example, he rejected the idea of physical resurrection and believed in universal salvation for all human beings and fallen angels).[4] Concerning this approach by Origen to the inter­pretation of the Scriptures, Philip Schaff wrote,

His great defect is the neglect of the grammatical and historical sense and his constant desire to find a hidden mystic meaning. He even goes further in this direction than the Gnostics, who everywhere saw transcendental, unfathomable mysteries…. His allegorical interpretation is ingenious, but often runs far away from the text and degenerates into the merest caprice.[5]

Premillennialism is strongly based upon the literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of those Old Testament passages which the prophets wrote concerning the future Kingdom of God. In his opposition to Premillennialism, Origen spiritualized the language of the prophets.[6] Once again, because of Origen’s great influence, this allegorical method of interpreting the prophets was widely accepted by the Greek Church.

Seventh, the Greek Church rejected the Book of Revelation from the canon of Scripture. Around 260 A.D. Nepos, an Egyptian Church bishop, tried “to overthrow the Origenistic Theology and vindicate chiliasm by exegetical methods.”[7] Although several churches sup­ported his endeavor, Nepos’ efforts eventually were defeated by Dionysius, who had been trained by Origen. Dionysius succeeded in “asserting the allegorical interpretation of the prophets as the only legitimate exegesis.”[8]

Harnack related the following information concerning the controversy between Dionysius and Nepos:

During this controversy Dionysius became convinced that the victory of mystical theology over “Jewish” chiliasm would never be secure so long as the Apocalypse of John passed for an apostolic writing and kept its place among the homologoumena of the canon. He accordingly raised the question of the apostolic origin of the Apocalypse; and by reviving old difficulties, with ingenious arguments of his own, he carried his point.[9]

Dionysius so prejudiced the Greek Church against the Book of Revelation and its canon­icity that during the fourth century that church removed it from its canon of Scripture, “and thus the troublesome foundation on which chiliasm might have continued to build was got rid of.”[10] The Greek Church kept the Book of Revelation out of its canon for several centu­ries, “and consequently chiliasm remained in its grave.”[11] The Greek Church restored the book to its canon late in the Middle Ages, but by that time the damage to the premillennial view could not be remedied.[12]

It should be noted that, although the Greek Church rejected Premillennialism, other church groups in the east, such as the Armenian Church and the Semitic churches of Syria, Arabia, and Ethiopia, held on to Premillennialism for a considerably longer time.[13]

The next article will begin to examine the rejection of Premillennialism in the west.

NOTES

  1. Earnest R. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974), pp. 12, 201.
  2. Adolph Harnack, “Millennium,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), XVI, p. 316.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), p. 791.
  5. Ibid., p. 792.
  6. Ibid., pp. 618-619.
  7. Harnack, “Millennium,” XVI, p. 316.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

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