Millennial Views-Part 9

By: Dr. Renald Showers; ©2003
Dr. Showers details the revolt against amillennialism and the rise of Postmillennialism in the seventeenth century.

Contents

The three previous articles examined the rejection of Premillennialism in the eastern part of organized Christendom beginning in the second century A.D. and the western part of organized Christendom after the fourth century. They also related how the rejection of Premillennialism led to the development of a new millennial view called Amillennialism. This present article will examine the revolt against Amillennialism and the development of a third millennial view—Postmillennialism.

The Revolt Against Amillennialism

Augustine’s Amillennialism remained the dominant view of organized Christendom until the seventeenth century. During that century a major change in western thought took place. This change developed into an intellectual revolution. It caused many to reject Augustine’s amillennial interpretation of the universe and history.[1]

Two aspects of the intellectual revolution prompted this rejection. First, a new interest in science focused mankind’s attention upon the material universe and mankind’s ability to control nature. This clashed with Augustine’s view that interest in the material universe was carnal. For example, Francis Bacon attacked the Augustinian conviction that any attempt to control or understand nature was prompted by Satan.[2]

Second, European intellectuals became intensely interested in a literal understanding of the universe. They focused attention upon literal measurements, literal quantities, and literal calculations. This clashed with the allegorical interpretation of the universe which characterized the Augustinian approach. The allegorical approach was seriously discredited when its interpretation of the nature of the heavens was proved to be mistaken by discover­ies made through the use of the telescope.[3]

Through time this new concern with literalism as opposed to allegory spread to biblical scholars. Joseph Mede (1586-1638), a prominent Anglican Church Bible scholar, pioneered the return to the literal interpretation of the Kingdom of God passages in the Bible. As a result, he “concluded that the Scriptures held the promise of a literal Kingdom of God,”[4] and that this Kingdom would come in the future. This conclusion prompted him to adopt the premillennial view of the early Church.[5] Other scholars began to follow his example.[6]

The Development of Postmillennialism

Some seventeenth century Bible scholars who became convinced that the Bible prom­ises a literal, future Kingdom of God did not adopt the premillennial view of the early Church. Instead, they developed the third major view concerning the Kingdom of God which has been held during the history of the Church.[7] That view has been called Postmillennialism (also called progressive Millennialism by some).[8]

The person credited with pioneering the development of the postmillennial view is Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) of England.[9] In spite of the fact that as a liberal Unitarian he was condemned for heresy, his view concerning the Kingdom of God became popular. John Walvoord explained the reason as follows:

His views on the millennium would probably have never been perpetuated if they had not been so well keyed to the thinking of the times. The rising tide of intellectual freedom, science, and philosophy, coupled with humanism, had enlarged the concept of human progress and painted a bright picture of the future. Whitby’s view of a coming golden age for the church was just what people wanted to hear.[10]

Postmillennialists were optimistic concerning the course of history. They believed that, in spite of periodic conflicts and struggles, the ultimate progress of history is upward, eventu­ally all problems will be solved, and time will be climaxed with a golden, utopian age.[11] This future time of blessing will not occur through the supernatural intervention of Christ into world history at His Second Coming. Instead, it will come by a gradual process through human effort.[12]

Two Kinds of Postmillennialism

Through time two major kinds of Postmillennialism developed. The first could be called conservative Postmillennialism. It was advocated by people who believed the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God. They were convinced that the Old Testament prophecies concerning a future age of peace and righteousness must be fulfilled literally during the course of this earth’s history. As God’s people spread the gospel, eventually the whole world will be Christianized and brought into subjection to that message. Thus, society will be transformed primarily through the efforts of the Church ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, civilization, science, and political agencies will play a role in this transformation as well.

This means that the Church will play the key role in bringing in the future Kingdom of God foretold in the Bible. Christ will not be physically present on earth to rule from a literal, earthly throne. Instead, He will rule from Heaven while seated at the right hand of God. Thus, the throne promised to Him in the Scriptures is the Father’s throne in Heaven. Christ’s Second Coming will occur at the close of the Millennium as the crowning event of that golden age. In conjunction with the Second Coming there will be a general resurrection of all the dead, a general judgment of all human beings, the end of the world, and then the future eternal state will begin.[13]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), a major leader of the Great Awakening in America during the eighteenth century, and Charles Hodge (1797-1878), the great Princeton theologian during the nineteenth century, were advocates of conservative Postmillennialism.[14]

Edwards was convinced that the discovery and settlement of the New World was signifi­cant with regard to the establishment of the Millennium. During the nineteenth century many Protestant pastors expressed the belief that America would play the key role in lead­ing the rest of the world in ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth.[15]

In a typical utterance, a leading Presbyterian minister of the 1840s, Samuel H. Cox, told an English audience that “in America, the state of society is without parallel in universal history…. I really believe that God has got America within anchorage, and that upon that arena, He intends to display his prodigies for the millennium.”[16]

This kind of postmillennial thinking aided the spread of America’s nineteenth century doctrine of Manifest Destiny.[17] Preachers declared that America obviously had been given a divine mandate to bring the entire continent from shore to shore under its jurisdiction so that from that base it could lead the world into the Millennium.

Postmillennialism also gave great impetus to the nineteenth century American movement to abolish slavery. Many Christians regarded the Civil War as a battle of righteous­ness against this evil of slavery in society and, therefore, as an instrument to bring the world one step closer to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. This was evi­denced by the fact that the postmillennial hymn written by the Christian abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, was called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (the Republic of America) and declared that God, His day, and His truth were marching on while men died to make men free.[18]

The next article will examine the second kind of Postmillennialism that developed.

NOTES

  1. Ernest R. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifth Edition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974), pp. 12, 202.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1957), p. 538.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” pp. 12, 202.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay Ohio: Dunham Publishing Company, 1959), p. 22.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” pp. 12, 202.
  13. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pp. 7, 23-24, 29, 30-34.
  14. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” pp. 12, 202; Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pp. 24, 31-32.
  15. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” pp. 12, 202.
  16. Ibid., pp. 202-203.
  17. Ibid., p. 202.
  18. Ibid., p. 203.

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