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TXT: How old is premillenialism?

Question:The premillennial position was not held by early church fathers, reformers and some great scholars today. Why?

Answer:

 Actually, I would encourage you to rexamine the early church fathers’ stand on premillenialism.  A review of  2nd century church history demonstrates that in the  immediate, post -apostolic era, church leaders such as Polycarp (ca. 69-155AD), Justin Martyr (d.138AD), and Irenaeus of Lyons (d.177AD) were premillenial.

Why? First off, because that was the singular view taught by the apostles.  🙂  Secondly, these early church fathers were faithful to pass on the teaching of the apostles. They fought hard to “defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Many of them died as a result of the apostolic faith they proclaimed!  Church historians have  established that Polycarp was personally discipled by the apostle John – the Spirit-led, human writer of the book of the Revelation (who, we can rest assured, knew a few things about the end of the age and God’s plan for the future!).  Polycarp was later marytred for his faith.

So, that begs the question… When did premillenialism start? When and why did the church  develop differing views regarding end-times?  Let’s look at it…

When did premillennialism start? Way back in the OT!  God’s promises to Israel  regarding a future messiah-king  who would rule and reign forever are recorded throughout the OT canon (Isa 65:17-25; Ezk 37:21-28, Zec 8:1-7; Isa 11, 65:17-25; Ezk 38:33-38).  The NT  affirms and sheds further light on certain aspects of God’s plan for Israel, the church and the “end times” (Rom 11:1-33; Eph 2:11-3:21; 1 Thess 4:13-5:11).  An unbiased,  straight-forward grammatico-literal reading of the pertinent prophetic passages of the NT  naturally reveals the apostles taught premillennialism.

Church historians tell us that for the first 300-400 years of church history the predominate “end times” position was premillennial.  Why did this change? The primary cause was a increasing  lack of adherence to a literal interpretation of Scripture.  This was somewhat fueled by the advancing growth of the papacy.  The church hierarchy began using a form of interpretation known as allegory.  The allegorizing of the Bible (making it’s meaning symbolic rather than a straightforward, literal unfolding of  the author’s intent) began to introduce all kinds of mischief into Bible interpretation.  Sadly, one of the major proponents of this approach was the great theologian Augustine.  By the time of the Reformation (1520+ AD), premillennial teaching was nearly extinct.

The reformers were primarily “amillennial” due mainly to the developing theological system known as “covenant theology.”  A  main tenet of this system is applying the future promises that God made to Israel to the church, in light of Israel’s past rejection of the Messiah.  In this system, the church replaces Israel obviating the need for the millennial reign of Christ upon the Davidic throne!  (contra Rev 3:7, 5:5, 22:16).

The key to truly understanding the nature and timing of God’s final purpose for history is contained in openly and diligently seeking God’s intent within His Word.  That means not following a eschatological/theological system that requires conforming Scripture to that system.  Just take Scripture in its plain, literal sense and see what it teaches!

The reason there are many different positions is NOT because the Bible is confused or unclear.  It is because people are subject to error, and over the history of the church, the many approaches to understanding these things have become firmly entrenched.  We hold to a simple interpretive principle — use the plain principles of grammar and language to ascertain the plain, literal meaning of the text — assume that God chose to communicate clearly & plainly with us about these things, rather than shading meanings and leaving great mystery that requires the interpreter to come up with the meaning.  We  believe you can arrive at God’s intended meaning in Scripture if you just take it as it stands.   Now the dangerous part… are you willing to believe, trust and obey what God has said, no matter where His truth leads you?

We are all finite, fallen and in need of God’s grace every day! We just want to let the plain, literal sense of the bible speak for itself  …and when you do, you will naturally arrive at a pre-millennial view.   But listen… eschatology is not a cause for division or relational conflict, we love all those who are true followers of Christ, even though we may hold differing views on God’s plan for the future!

Author: Peter Spiers

Peter is an executive with CFA, a national healthcare consulting firm, and invests all his off-work time into his church and his family. He is faithful to invest his life into men and loves to see people transformed by God’s Word.

2 Comments

  1. >Why? First off, because that was the singular view taught by the apostles. 🙂 Secondly, these early church fathers were faithful to pass on the teaching of the apostles.

    But you can’t just pick and choose some church fathers to support your view and not others 😉 Premillenialism was held by some but not all. Dispensationalism was held by none.

    The reformers rejected allegorical interpretation yet still held an amillenial view. Why? Because they did not take the Bible for what it plainly said? I don’t think you give enough credit to the scholarship of John Calvin and erroneously oversimplify your hermeneutic. If you take the Bible for what it EXACTLY says and don’t allow for any kind of metaphorical language, figures of speech, or symbolism, you will completely miss the meaning of Scripture.

    Look at how the writers of the NT interpreted the OT – Scripture interprets Scripture and teaches us how to understand it.

  2. Thanks for your reponse..I’d like to comment on the key points you were making:

    1.My goal was to find the earliest documented comments by the church fathers as to their end time views.Those who had contact with the apostles or their immediate disciples.Those I cited all had a premillienial bent to them.We don’t have a lot of documented views until a bit later voicing a non-premil view.I would state by the time of Augustine(third century) the use of the allegorically driven,four-fold method of interpretation(the so-called medieval quadriga) was beginning to permeate the church.Thus heavy reliance on allegory ,often at the expense of the plain, straightforward and consistent treatment of the escatological texts emerged.

    2.I’m struggling to understand what proof you have that the early church(1st,2nd century) rejected the apostolic teaching that Christ would return at the end of Daniel’s 70th week to establish a literal kingdom from which He would fulfill God’s promises to His people Israel and Christ’s church?

    3.My point about grammitco-literal interpretation was not meant to dinigrate fellow brothers Like Calvin.Sound exegesis takes into account figures of speech,symbolism,etc.The key is to be careful not to miss/confuse the context and purpose of a symbol.Or use it to fit or mold an explanation of a systematic principle or doctrine of Scripture into a pre-determined interpretive filter.Sound exegesis avoids the use of unwarranted “wooden literalism” but rather let’s all parts of speech ,in context,unfold the text.Seeking to be consistent in our hermeneutic is essential to unfolding what God meant by what He said!

    My point was that when we seek the author’s intent alone in an eschatological passage or systematic doctrine(like the interpretation of end times in Scripture)we must let the straightforward meaning(that contained in the Spirit-inspired language of the bible in all it’s parts) be our only purpose.And when we do, we end up with a clear,consistent premillenial view.and, that the church is the church and it does not replace God’s plan for His people Israel(Rom. 9-11)