I picked up a discounted copy of Roger Olson’s A-Z of Evangelical Theology (SCM, 2005) in the London School of Theology book shop earlier in the week. A central theme of the book that I am currently working on will be the kingdom of God and how to live with it, so I had a look at Roger’s brief article on the topic (226-27). He notes, first, that some evangelicals take the Augustinian view that the kingdom of God “exists secretly in the world wherever the true church of Jesus Christ worships and serves”. The kingdom is spiritual, not to be identified with any “historical socio-political arrangement”, and will only be fulfilled “in the eschaton, when Christ returns triumphantly to establish it in the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem”. So the kingdom is “already”, exhibited in the life of the church, and “not yet”, to be fulfilled in the “visible rule of Christ over creation after his return to earth”.
Then he gets on to discussing the standard views of the millennium.
- For amillennialists, who do not expect a “literal one-thousand-year sociopolitical rule and reign of Christ within history”, the kingdom of God is spiritual now but will become visible in the new heaven and new earth. That’s pretty much the mainstream Augustinian-evangelical view.
- Postmillennialists think that the kingdom of God will be a thousand year period of peace and righteousness prior to the return of Christ, brought into effect by the evangelistic proclamation and social action of the church.
- Premillennialists expect Christ to return and set up a literal thousand year reign of Christ over the whole world, which will be the kingdom of God.
- Dispensationalists are a species of premillennialist who believe that the kingdom of God will be fulfilled when Christ comes to rule bodily over this world from Jerusalem; the temple will be rebuilt, and restored Israel will serve as “Jesus’ administrators over his worldwide kingdom”.
I used to think that I was a modified amillennialist: the thousand years is a symbol for the indefinite era of the church, only beginning not with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost but with the overthrow of pagan imperialism—the thousand year period begins right after the judgment against Babylon the great.
That still works up to a point, but I would be more inclined now to stress the political dimension to Christ’s rule. So as a realized premillennialist I would say that, historically speaking, the kingdom of God came when the arch pagan enemy of the people of God was overthrown and Christ was confessed as Lord by the nations. Christendom was the political fulfilment of the conviction expressed both in the Old Testament and the New Testament that Israel’s God would eventually inherit the nations:
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations! (Ps. 82:8)
What the New Testament adds to this is the belief that this will surely come about because Jesus was obedient unto death on a cross, was raised from the dead, was exalted to the right hand of God, and was given
the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11)
So the kingdom of God was “now and not yet” up until the moment Jesus came to deliver the persecuted church from its enemies, and the Son of Man came on the clouds of heaven to receive the kingdom that had been taken from the demonically inspired pagan empire which was the fourth beast, reinterpreted in the first century Jewish-Christian imagination as Rome. In this regard, at least, the kingdom of God was very much a ”historical socio-political arrangement”: God demonstrated his sovereignty in the world, as in the Old Testament, through the historical events that constituted the transformation and vindication of his people.
Since then we have lived with the consequences of the fact that the kingdom has come—that through the faithful, long-suffering witness of the early churches the nations recognized the public, political fact that the God whom Israel had struggled to stay loyal to for hundreds of years had made his “Son” ruler over all things. And we will live with these consequences, even though the concrete political embodiment of Christ’s rule over all things has collapsed, until the creator God remakes heaven and earth. The amillennialist tendency to conflate the final coming of the kingdom of God and the renewal of creation is, in my view, a mistake.
In connecting the thousand-year reign so closely with Christendom, would you then say that the Enlightenment and its consequences was the re-arising of Satan?
This would seem to place Protestantism as being in league with the devil.
Tempting, to be sure.
I should say that I connect the beginning of the thousand year reign with the conversion of the empire, so that Christendom became the concrete political expression of the victory of Christ over the enemies of God’s people. I would not say, however, that the thousand year reign is coterminous with Christendom. The proclamation is that Jesus has been given authority over all powers throughout the coming ages, right up to the new heavens and new earth. Christendom came and went under that umbrella and we have to deal with the sociopolitical realities of that. But the collapse of Christendom does not bring into question the position of Christ at the right hand of the Father.
So are you saying you don’t believe in a literal 1,000 years? If not, then besides the difference that you see it starting when the empire converted, not at Pentacost, how is “realized premil” different from postmil (most of whom don’t take it literally) and amil positions?
First, I’d rather not characterize this as a matter of what I believe in. It’s how I read the New Testament, and it’s subject in principle to critical evaluation. What I believe in, as such, is another matter. I believe that we are a people formed by this story, however exactly we interpret it.
Postmillennialism places the millennium after the parousia. I think the parousia event relates to the deliverance and vindication of the church that was persecuted by Rome and therefore precedes the thousand years.
Premillennialists are still waiting. I think that the New Testament language of judgment and vindication draws on the Old Testament in such a way that we have to take very seriously it’s orientation towards foreseeable and pressing historical realities, such as the Jewish War against Rome and the clash between the churches and Rome.
One quick point on the Millennium. It is only expliticly defined in scripture as the time 1) when Satan is bound and 2) when the resurrected saints reign with Christ. Most of the more popular thought on the Millennium adds significantly to this, and the addition is what causes a great deal of confusion.
You say: Postmillennialism places the millennium after the parousia.
I’ve always understood it the other way around, as Wikipedia says this:
In Christian end-times theology, (eschatology), postmillennialism is an interpretation of chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation which sees Christ’s second coming as occurring after (Latin post-) the “Millennium”, a Golden Age in which Christian ethics prosper.
Oops. That was careless. In the actual post I got it right, though.
Ok, after looking it all over again, now I get it. I live in a community of preterist postmillennialists, which it looks like could probably describe you as well (although I know you don’t like the preterist label)? Those here maintain that the “postmil” label still works because Christ will come again, which I suppose would be a third coming of sorts. Do you think the Bible points to that happening—a third coming when God recreates the earth, this third coming being what most would call the second coming, thus you can be a realized premil and postmil at the same time?
I’ve not heard that one before. I see no reason to associate either a second or third “coming” of Christ with the final recreation of heaven ad earth. Or a fourth. Or a fifth…
The fundamental question, I would argue, is whether the interpretation makes historical sense from the perspective of the New Testament author. None of the labels employed here, in that regard, is particularly helpful, including my tongue-in-cheeck “realized premillennialist” option, because they keep us stuck in an unhelpful rationalizing hermeneutic.
Interesting point, Mica.
Of course Protestantism does need radical re-evaluation in the light of where we are today.
Along with the Enlightenment and the Protestant/Enlightenment alliance (or enmeshment)
Peter Gay in his magisterial two volume study of The Enlightenment (1977), entitles his first volume “The Rise of Modern Paganism”. He shows very clearly how in many respects the Enlightenment was fuelled, envisioned and then took root within ‘Christendom” through the recovery and reactivation of ancient ‘pagan’ Roman and Greek sources/texts…..which became increasingly popular authoritative for the Enlightenment project.
Years ago I was a struck by a phrase in the Guide To Human Thought (Ideas That Shaped the World) edited by Kenneth McLeish (1993) which said:
“Along with the contemporaneous Industrial Revolution (from which it obtained much inspiration and ammunition), the Enlightenment occasioned the profoundest change in the mind-set of the largest number of people in Europe since the advent of Christianity itself “
So I find it difficult to see what actually happened, that is, the historical rise of Christendom from Constantine onward can be seen as any kind of victory of the Spirit of Christ over the nations….except in a purely, ironic nominal sense.
On the contrary, Christendom„ has for the most part been under that patronage of very anti-Christian powers exemplifying a victory not of Christ in the power of the Spirit but of the spirit of domination and control and of violence seeking world domination.
That is, Christednom has been under the control and in the the spirit of anti-Christ.
You’re inching towards J. S. Russell’s position in “The Parousia”. It might be worth reviewing the free PDF versions on the Internet.
Hello Dr. Perriman,
I’ve been reading here for a while, digesting piece by piece, but today in the comments section to this post you’ve reminded me of something I’ve wanted to ask for some time. I notice that you deliberately distinguish what the New Testament is saying in a given text from what you personally believe.
This would be a rather uncomplicated matter if you were simply writing as an historian, but I think you’re trying to do something more: you’re trying to nudge Christians toward an agenda that (you believe, and I think you’re often right) is closer to what the New Testament authors themselves were working out.
So I suppose what I am asking is this: if you repeatedly challenge doctrinal conceptions (e.g. hell, penal substitution fixation, etc.) on the basis of the New Testament, it would seem you consider the church in some sense to be bound to what the New Testament teaches. To what degree is this so? In what sense, if any, do you believe that “Scripture cannot be broken”?
None of this is meant as a challenge to your love of Scripture. You treat Scripture more lovingly than most readers. I’m just trying to understand what you think its place is.