By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008
Eschatology, “the study of the last things or of the future generally,“1 is a divisive issue, even-perhaps especially-among conservative Christians. The principal source of contention is usually the relation of the second coming (or, if one is dispensational, comings) of Christ to the millennium mentioned in Revelation chapter 20. There are numerous shades of eschatological opinions, ranging from dispensational premillennialism, historic premillennialism, amillennialism, “optimistic amillennialism,” and postmillennialism, to particular species of these viewpoints, including pretribulational dispensational premillennialism, midtribulational dispensational premillennialism, posttribulational dispensational premillennialism, and partial rapturism.
The church historic has not devoted nearly as much attention eschatology as it has to other issues-for example, the Trinity, Christology, and soteriology (the doctrines of personal salvation). The latter issues forming the core of the Christian message were the focal point of theological controversy during the first sixteen centuries of the church; therefore, they have garnered significant creedal attention and formulation. That the church has been less inclined to enshrine in her creeds and confessions a detailed explanation of her eschatological views has led some like Berkhof to conclude,
Up to the present time . . . the doctrine of the millennium has never yet been embodied in a single Confession, and therefore cannot be regarded as a dogma of the church.2
While this comment contains a measure of truth, the corollary of such sentiment is to convince the historically unwary that one’s eschatological views are of no great moment inasmuch as the confessions are agnostic about the issue of eschatology-or at least millennialism. But this conclusion is patently false. For while it is true that neither the creeds of early catholic orthodoxy nor the great confessions of the Reformation era contain a discussion of millennial terms (which, in any case, were not invented until last century), the eschatological notions of some of the latter documents cannot be understood equally well in any of the three main millennial frameworks (pre- , a- , and post-millennialism). A chief example is the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith, whose postmillennial eschatology seems implicit. For instance, Question 45 asks, How doth Christ execute the office of a king? The answer is
Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them; in bestowing saving grace on his elect, rewarding them for their obedience, and correcting them for their sins; preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.3
There is no room in this answer for an increasingly evil world as posited by dispensationalism4 and much amillennialism.5 Lest the dispensationalist get the impression that the expressions “restraining and overcoming all their enemies” and “taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel” refer exclusively to Christ’s exercise of kingly prerogatives after his second advent, he should note the answer to Question 42 declares that Christ “execute[s] the offices of prophet, priest, and, king of his church, in the estate both of his humiliation and [present] exaltation.“6 Moreover, lest the amillennialist deduce that these exercises of imperial rule pertain only to the increase of the church and not to the wider society, he should observe the texts the framers of the catechism offer as proof for their assertion: 1 Corinthians 15:25, Psalm 110:1, and, significantly, “the whole Psalm throughout.“7 Verses 5 and 6 of the Psalm state, “The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places of the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.” Although the language employed here is largely figurative and symbolical, the extent of Christ’s rule clearly transcends the church to include the Gentile nations and political rulers.
Further, the answer to query 54, How is Christ exalted in his sitting at the right hand of God?, includes the statement, “[He] doth gather and defend his church, and subdue her enemies,” employing again Psalm 110:1 and “the whole Psalm throughout” as Biblical proof.8 Obviously implied as enemies that Christ will subdue in his regal authority are the Gentiles and kings of the earth. This subdual, contra dispensational premillennialism, occurs in Christ’s present session, and contra much amillennialism, extends beyond the church to include the entire Gentile world.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, however, is not the only doctrinal standard espousing an eschatology most closely in harmony with postmillennialism. The Savoy Declaration of 1658, “merely a modification of the Westminster Confession to suit the Congregational polity,“9 was hammered out by English Congregational Calvinists like John Owen. It adds to the Westminster chapter on the church section V, which reads as follows:
As the Lord is in care and love towards his church, hath in his infinite wise providence exercised it with great variety in all ages, for the good of them that love him, and his own glory; so, according to his promise, we expect that in the latter days, Antichrist being destroyed, and the adversaries of the kingdom of his dear Son broken, the churches of Christ being enlarged and edified through a free and plentiful communication of light and grace, shall enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable, and glorious condition than they have enjoyed.10
It is difficult to imagine a more postmillennial statement short of framing the term itself. The original Congregationalists expected “in this world” not merely the destruction of the enemies of the church, but its increase, edification, and peace-just as the prophets of the Old Testament predict.11
The Reformed confessions and catechisms are not reticent or agnostic about the topic of eschatology and, specifically, the millennium, or the course of God’s dealings with the church and world. Some of them fully expressed their expectation of the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in history before the second advent and including the subdual of evil in the all earth.
1 Millard Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 50. This essay concerns cosmic, rather than individual, eschatology, the former referring to God’s plan for the human race and earth collectively, and the latter referring to God’s plan for the converted and unconverted individuals.
2 Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth , 1969), 264.
3 Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications , 1958), 149-150.
4 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 155.
5 Herman A. Hoyt, “Amillennialism,” in ed. Robert G. Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 1977, 187.
6 Westminster Confession of Faith , 148, emphasis supplied.
7 ibid., 150.
8 ibid., 155.
9 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House , 1990), 718.
10ibid., 723. A similar explication is found in the answer to Question 191 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.
11 For additional defenses of postmillennialism, see John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986); J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (no location: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1975); Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992); Rousas John Rushdoony, God’s Plan for Victory (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1980).
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Foundations in Biblical Eschatology
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All Christians believe that their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will one day return. Although we cannot know the exact time of His return, what exactly did Jesus mean when he spoke of the signs of His coming (Mat. 24)? How are we to interpret the prophecies in Isaiah regarding the time when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:19)? Should we expect a time of great tribulation and apostasy or revival and reformation before the Lord returns? Is the devil bound now, and are the saints reigning with Christ? Did you know that there are four hermeneutical approaches to the book of Daniel and Revelation?
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Driving down a country road sometime, you might see a church with a sign proudly proclaiming: “No book but the Bible — No creed but Christ.” The problem with this statement is that the word creed (from the Latin: credo) simply means “belief.” All Christians have beliefs, regardless of whether they are written.
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