Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Premillennialism and the Early Church

by Ken Gentry, Director of NiceneCouncil.com

Dispensationalists are fond of proclaiming premillennialism to be the historic faith of the Church. Though I don’t see how this is helpful to them, since they admit that their dispensational variety is not; and even strongly criticize historic premillennialists (such as G. E. Ladd). Nevertheless, it seems to bring them a great measure of satisfaction, when they take time off from predicting the Rapture.

Wayne House and Thomas Ice state that "the early church was solidly chiliastic until the time of Augustine" (Dominion Theology, 200). Paul Enns boldly asserts that "the church from the beginning was premillennial in belief" (Moody Handbook of Theology, 389). J. Dwight Pentecost states that "a premillennial belief was the universal belief in the church for two hundred and fifty years after the death of Christ" (Things to Come, 374). Such claims commonly appear in eschatological literature today.

Frequently the false historical data arises from the seriously flawed, long-discredited claims of George N. H. Peters in his work The Theocratic Kingdom. Peters writes: "Now let the student reflect: here are two centuries . . . in which positively no direct opposition whatever arises against our doctrine" (Theocratic Kingdom, 1:494 –496). His claims are quite erroneous, though still persisting and highly regarded by some, such as Mal Couch in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (see pp. 264, 302). (This Dictionary is a real must not read book.) The errors in Peters’ analysis and others like it have been exposed by a number of scholars. One of the best recent studies demonstrating the error is Charles E. Hill’s, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity.

Premillennialist D. H. Kromminga carefully examines the sub-apostolic writings, including: Clement of Rome’s 1 Clement, the pseudo-Clementine 2 Clement, The Didache, the Ignatian epistles, Polycarp’s Epistle, The Letter of the Church at Smyrna on the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Barnabas, Hermas, Diognetus, Fragments of Papias, and Reliques of the Elders. He convincingly shows that only Papias among the sub-apostolic fathers is premillennial. He concludes that "an inquiry into the extent of ancient chiliasm will serve to show the untenableness of the claim that this doctrine was held with practical unanimity by the Church of the first few centuries" (The Millennium in the Church, 30, 41, 42).

Charles E. Hill presents detailed evidence of "the nonadvocacy, and sometimes outspoken repudiation, of chiliasm" in several Apostolic Fathers including Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas and Second Clement, as well as the Apologists, Epistle to Diognetus, Melito of Sardis, Athenagora, the Christian Pseudepigrapha, early martyrologies, and others (Regnum Caelorum, 76; see all of Part II).

W. G. T. Shedd observes that "early millennialism was held mostly among Jewish converts. A few Apostolic Fathers held it as individuals, but those who do not mention the millennium had greater weight of authority and influence: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp" (History of Christian Doctrine, 2:390–391). In fact, according to church historian Jaroslav Pelikan: "It would seem that very early in the post-apostolic era millenarianism was regarded as a mark neither of orthodoxy nor of heresy, but as one permissible opinion among others within the range of permissible opinions" (The Christian Traditions, 1:125).

This is borne out by premillennialism’s failure to receive creedal status. Dallas Seminary theologian Robert P. Lightner recognizes that "None of the major creeds of the church include premillennialism in their statements" (Last Days Handbook, 158). Historic premillennialist Craig L. Blomberg admits that "the classic orthodox creeds of the patristic period, like the major confessions of faith from the Protestant Reformation, never required more than this," i.e., the basic elements of biblical eschatology: a future second advent, a bodily resurrection, and a final judgment (Historic Premillennialism, 69).

Alan Patrick Boyd (a dispensationalist at the time) powerfully analyzes and conclusively rebuts Peters’ claims in his 1977 Dallas Theological Seminary master’s thesis. According to Boyd, he "originally undertook the thesis to bolster the [dispensational] system by patristic research, but the evidence of the original sources simply disallowed this." He ends up lamenting that "this writer believes that the Church rapidly fell from New Testament truth, and this is very evident in the realm of eschatology. Only in modern times has New Testament eschatological truth been recovered" ("A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis," 91n.). As a consequence of his research, Boyd urges his fellow dispensationalists to "avoid reliance on men like Geo. N. H. Peters . . . whose historical conclusions regarding premillennialism . . . in the early church have been proven to be largely in error" (p. 92).

Boyd goes on to admit that "it would seem wise for the modern [i.e., dispensational] system to abandon the claim that it is the historical faith of the Church" (p. 92). Of Ryrie’s bold statement that "Premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church," he states: "It is the conclusion of this thesis that Dr. Ryrie’s statement is historically invalid within the chronological framework of this thesis" (p. 89). Boyd even states: "This validates the claim of L. Berkhof. . . . ‘It is not correct to say, as Premillenarians do, that it (millennialism) was generally accepted in the first three centuries. The truth of the matter is that the adherents of this doctrine were a rather limited number’" (p. 92).

Clearly, the ancient advocates of premillennialism faced opposition from orthodox non-millennialists. For instance, consider Justin Martyr’s response to Trypho regarding the hope of "a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built." Justin (d. AD 165) replies: "I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise" (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 80). Note the reference to "many" who "think otherwise." No unanimity regarding the millennium exists in the early church.

Another premillennialist, Irenaeus (ca. AD 180), observes that "some who are reckoned among the orthodox" do not hold to his premillennial views (Against Heresies 5:31:1). Eusebius (ca. AD 325) points to premillennialist Papias (AD 60–130) in explaining the spread of premillennialism: "But it was due to him that so many [not "all"!] of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man" (Ecclesiastical History 3:39). The fact that premillennialism was in no way approaching "universal" in extent is evident also in that Dionysius (AD 190–264) successfully dealt with "this doctrine" in a certain area where it prevailed and split "entire churches." He won the day in that Egyptian district and turns the majority away from premillennialism (Ecclesiastical History 7:24). Later, Epiphanius (AD 315–403) writes: "There is indeed a millennium mentioned by St. John; but the most, and those pious men, look upon those words as true indeed, but to be taken in a spiritual sense" (Epiphanius, Heresies, 77:26).

Unfortunately, when you are trying to decode the most recent name of the Antichrist and trying to predict the Rapture, you don’t really have time to fool with historical studies. That’s why the ghost of George N. H. Peters still haunts dispensational literature.

For more information on this and other errors in dispensationalism, see my recently released, third edition of He Shall Have Dominion (available at NiceneCouncil.com).