Millennial Views-Part 8

By: Dr. Renald Showers; ©2003
Dr. Showers traces the history of the revolt against the premillennial view of prophecy.

Contents

The two previous articles examined the rejection of Premillennialism in the eastern part of organized Christendom beginning in the second century A.D. This present article will examine the rejection of Premillennialism in the western part of Christendom.

The Western or Latin Church remained strongly premillennial longer than the Greek Church in the east. Adolph Harnack stated that “in the west millennarianism was still a point of ‘orthodoxy’ in the 4th century.”[1] The reason for this longer duration of premillennial belief in the west was twofold. First, through the fourth century many western theologians “es­caped the influence of Greek speculation.”[2] Second, the western church always recognized the apostolic authorship and canonicity of the Book of Revelation.[3]

A change began to develop, however. After the fourth century the western church began to join the revolt against premillennial belief. Two major factors contributed to this change. First, Alexandrian theology was brought to the west by such influential church leaders as Jerome and Ambrose. As a result of being taught by Greek theologians in the east for several years, Jerome (345-420 A.D.) declared that he had been delivered from “Jewish opinions,” and he ridiculed the early premillennial beliefs.[4] Concerning those early beliefs, Harnack declared that Jerome “and other disciples of the Greeks did a great deal to rob them of their vitality.”[5]

The second major factor which prompted the rejection of Premillennialism in the west was the teaching of Augustine (354-430 A.D.), the Bishop of Hippo, concerning the Church. Augustine himself had been a premillennialist in the early days of his Christian faith. How­ever, through time he rejected that view in favor of a new one which he developed.[6] That new view became known as Amillennialism.

Several things prompted this change in Augustine. First, the political situation of the Church in the Roman Empire had changed radically around the period of his life. By his time the Roman persecution of the Church had stopped, and the state had made itself the servant of the Church. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the Church stood fast, ready to rule in place of the empire. It looked as if Gentile world dominion was being crushed and that the Church was becoming victorious over it.[7]

Under these circumstances Augustine concluded that Premillennialism was obsolete, and that it did not fit the changed situation. In place of it he developed the idea that the Church is the Kingdom of the Messiah foretold in such Scriptures as Daniel 2 and 7 and Revelation 20. In his book, The City of God, he became the first person to teach the idea that the organized Catholic (universal) Church is the promised Messianic Kingdom and that the Millennium began with the first coming of Christ.[8] Augustine wrote, “The saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming,”[9] and, “Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him.”[10]

The second factor which prompted Augustine to reject Premillennialism was his negative reaction to his own pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent, immoral lifestyle in his preconversion days. “After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine, a former bon vivant, consistently favoured a world-denying and ascetic style of life.”[11] This led him to reject “as carnal any expectations of a renewed and purified world that the believers could expect to enjoy.”[12]

The third factor in his change of view was the influence of Greek philosophy upon his thinking. Before his conversion Augustine was deeply immersed in the study of this philoso­phy, much of which asserted the inherent evil of the physical or material and the inherent goodness of the totally spiritual. This philosophy continued to leave its mark upon him even after his conversion. It prompted him to reject as carnal the premillennial idea of an earthly, political Kingdom of God with great material blessings. He believed that, in order for the Kingdom of God to be good, it must be spiritual in nature. Thus, “for him the millennium had become a spiritual state into which the Church collectively had entered at Pentecost… and which the individual Christian might already enjoy through mystical communion with God.”[13]

Concerning the premillennial opinion Augustine wrote,

And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millennarians.[14]

In order to avoid the implications of some of the millennial passages in the Bible, August­ine applied Origen’s allegorical method of interpretation to the prophets and the Book of Revelation. For example, according to Augustine the abyss in which Satan is imprisoned during the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-3) is not a literal location or place. Instead, he said, “By the abyss is meant the countless multitude of the wicked whose hearts are unfathomably deep in malignity against the Church of God.”[15] His interpretation of Satan being cast into the abyss was as follows: “He is said to be cast in thither, because, when prevented from harming believers, he takes more complete possession of the ungodly.”[16] He said that the binding and shutting up of Satan in the abyss “means his being more unable to seduce the Church.”[17] Augustine was convinced that this binding of Satan in the abyss is a reality during this present Church age.[18]

Augustine interpreted the first resurrection (referred to by John in conjunction with the establishment of the millennial reign of Christ, Rev. 20:4-6)) as being, not the future bodily resurrection of believers, but the present spiritual resurrection of the soul which takes place at the new birth.[19]

“Augustine’s allegorical millennialism became the official doctrine of the church,” and Premillennialism went underground.[20] Some aspects of Premillennialism were even branded as heretical.[21] The Roman Catholic Church strongly advocated and maintained Augustine’s amillennial view throughout the Middle Ages. During that span of time occa­sional premillennial groups formed to challenge the doctrine and political power of the major part of organized Christendom, but they were not able to restore Premillennialism to its original position as the accepted, orthodox view of the Church. Many Anabaptists were premillennial by conviction during the Reformation era. Some of these were quite radical in their Premillennialism, but many were not.[22] The Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican reform­ers rejected Premillennialism as being “Jewish opinions.”[23] They maintained the amillennial view which the Roman Catholic Church had adopted from Augustine.[24] The next article will examine the revolt against Amillennialism.

NOTES

  1. Adolph Harnack, “Millennium,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), XVI, p. 317.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Augustine, The City of God, Book XX, chpt. 9, trans. by Marcus Dods (New York: Random House, Inc., 1950), p. 725.
  10. pp. 725-726.
  11. Ernest R. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974), pp. 12, 202.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Augustine, The City of God, Book XX, chpt. 7, p. 719.
  15. Ibid., p. 720.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., Book XX, chpt. 8, p. 722.
  18. Ibid., p. 723.
  19. Ibid., Book XX, chpt. 6, p. 717.
  20. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” pp. 12, 202.
  21. Harnack, “Millennium,” XVI, p. 317.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p. 319
  24. Ibid.

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