Rejection of Premillennialism & Development of Amillennialism
Premillennialism is strongly based upon the literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of those Old Testament passages which the prophets wrote concerning the future Kingdom of God.
The Rejection of Premillennialism in the East
The two previous articles presented evidence to the effect that Premillennialism (also known as Chiliasm) was the original millennial view of the Church. Although it was the predominant view of orthodox Christians from the first to the third centuries, eventually it was superseded by a new millennial view — Amillennialism (also called allegorical Millennialism by some).1 By the fifth century Amillennialism had been developed to replace early Premillennialism.
The rejection of Premillennialism began with some leaders of the Greek Church in the east during the second century. As early as 170 A.D. a church group (known as the Alogi) in Asia Minor rejected the prophetic writings from which the premillennial view was derived. This group denounced the Apocalypse of John as a book of fables.2
Several factors contributed to this rejection of the premillennial view in the east. First was the Montantstic controversy which raged around 160 to 220 A.D.3 The Montanists were a church group who, because of certain beliefs which they emphasized, became controversial. Christians who did not share their views came to regard them as extremists and even heretics. Because the Montanists were also premillennial by conviction, and because some carried their Premillennialism to extremes not supported by the Scriptures, some leaders of the Greek Church became suspicious of the entire premillennial view. They began to associate Premillennialism with extremism and heresy since it was advocated strongly by an extremist, heretical group. Premillennialism began to be discredited through guilt by association.
Second, some church leaders feared the teaching of Premillennialism to the effect that Christ at His Second Coming would crush the Roman power and take over the rule of the world. They were afraid that this teaching would be a source of political danger, that it would bring greater persecution against the Church from the Roman Empire.4 To their way of thinking it was expedient to sacrifice the premillennial view in order to avoid more intense persecution.
Third, some churches were convinced that the premillennial emphasis upon the glorious Kingdom reign of Christ in the future drew away attention from the organizational structure and programs which they had developed. As a result, they feared that Premillennialism posed a threat to the very existence and function of the Church in the present.5
Fourth, there was a strong anti-Semitic spirit in the eastern church. Because the majority of Jews of Jesus’ day had rejected Him, and since so many of their successors refused to believe in Him, Gentiles who professed to be Christians increasingly called Jews “Christ-killers” and developed a strong bias against anything Jewish. Because the premillennial belief in the earthly, political Kingdom rule of Messiah in the future was the same hope which had motivated the Jews for centuries, that belief was increasingly “stigmatized as ‘Jewish’ and consequently ‘heretical” by eastern Gentile Christians.6 Once again Premillennialism was discredited through guilt by association.
Fifth, a new theology, known as Alexandrian theology, developed in the Greek Church. This new theology was formed by Origen (185-253 A.D.) and other church scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. Because of his brilliance, Origen was appointed president of the important theology school of Alexandria when only eighteen years of age.8 As a result of that position and his exceptional abilities, he had extensive influence.
The Roman Catholic Church strongly advocated and maintained Augustine s amillennial view throughout the Middle Ages.
Origen and his associates were intensely interested m pagan Greek philosophy. They examined it extensively. Origen studied under “the heathen Ammonius Saccas, the celebrated founder of Neo-Platonism.”9 He and other Alexandrian Church scholars tried to integrate Greek philosophy with Christian doctrine. This attempted integration played a significant role in the development of the new Alexandrian theology.
Much of Greek philosophy advocated that anything which is physical or material is inherently evil, and only the totally spiritual or nonphysical is good. Through this influence the Alexandrian scholars developed the idea that an earthly, political Kingdom with physical blessings would be an evil thing, and that only a totally spiritual, nonphysical Kingdom would be good. That idea prompted Alexandrian theology to reject the premillennial belief in an earthly, political Kingdom of God with physical blessings.
One historian expressed this transition as follows:
The influence of Greek thought upon Christian theology undermined the millennarian world view in another, possibly more significant, manner. In the theology of the great third-century Alexandrian Christian thinker Origen, the focus was not upon the manifestation of the kingdom within this world but within the soul of the believer, a significant shift of interest away from the historical toward the metaphysical, or the spiritual.10
Because of the great influence of the Alexandrian scholars, most of the Greek Church followed their lead in rejecting Premillennism. Concerning this rejection of the premillennial views in the east, Harnack wrote: “It was the Alexandrian theology that superseded them; that is to say, Neo-Platonic mysticism triumphed over the early Christian hope of the future.”11 Again he stated that mysticism played a significant role in giving “the death-blow to chiliasm in the Greek Church.”12
Sixth, Origen developed a new method of interpreting the Bible. This method has been called the allegorical or spiritualizing method, and it stands in contrast to the literal, historical-grammatical method. This permitted him to read almost any meaning that he desired into the Bible, and it led him into heresy in certain areas of doctrine (for example, he rejected the idea of physical resurrection and believed in universal salvation for all human beings and fallen angels).13 Concerning this approach by Origen to the interpretation of the Scriptures, Schaff has written:
His great defect is the neglect of the grammatical and historical sense and his constant desire to find a hidden mystic meaning. He even goes further in this direction than the Gnostics, who everywhere saw transcendental, unfathomable mysteries …. His allegorical interpretation is ingenious, but often runs far away from the text and degenerates into the merest caprice;…14
Premillennialism is strongly based upon the literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of those Old Testament passages which the prophets wrote concerning the future Kingdom of God. In his opposition to Premillennialism, Origen spiritualized the language of the prophets.15 Once again, because of Origen’s great influence, this allegorical method of interpreting the prophets was widely accepted by the Greek Church.
Seventh, the Greek Church rejected the Book of Revelation from the canon of Scripture. Around 260 A.D. Nepos, an Egyptian Church bishop, tried “to overthrow the Origenistic Theology and vindicate chiliasm by exegetical methods.”16 Although several churches supported his endeavor, Nepo’s efforts eventually were defeated by Dionysius, who had been trained by Origen. Dionysius succeeded in “asserting the allegorical interpretation of the prophets as the only legitimate exegesis.” 17
Harnack related the following information concerning the controversy between Dionysius and Nepos:
During this controversy Dionysius became convinced that the victory of mystical theology over “Jewish” Chiliasm would never be secure so long as the Apocalypse of John passed for an apostolic writing and kept its place among the homologoumena of the canon. He accordingly raised the question of the apostolic origin of the Apocalypses and by reviving old difficulties, with ingenious arguments of his own, he carried his point. 18
Dionysius so prejudiced the Greek Church against the Book of Revelation and its canonicity that during the fourth century that church removed it from its canon of Scripture, “and thus the troublesome foundation on which chiliasm might have continued to build was got rid of.”19 The Greek Church kept the Book of Revelation out of its canon for several centuries, “and consequently Chiliasm remained in its grave.” 20 The Greek Church restored the book to its canon late in the Middle Ages, but by that time the damage to the premillennial view could not be remedied. 21
It should be noted that, although the Greek Church rejected Premillennialism, other church groups in the east, such as the Armenian Church and the Semitic churches of Syria, Arabia and Ethiopia, held on to Premillennialism for a considerably longer time.22
The Rejection of Premillennialism in the West
The Western or Latin Church remained strongly premillennial longer than the Greek Church in the east. Harnack stated that “in the west millennarianism was still a point of ‘orthodoxy’ in the 4th century.”23 The reason for the longer duration of premillennial belief in the west was twofold. First, through the fourth century many western theologians “escaped the influence of Greek speculation.”24 Second, the western church always recognized the apostolic authorship and canonicity of the Book of Revelation. 25
A change began to develop, however. After the fourth century the western church started to join the revolt against premillennial belief. Two major factors contributed to this change. First, AIexandrian theology was brought to the west by such influential church leaders as Jerome and Ambrose. As a result of being taught by Greek theologians in the east for several years, Jerome (345-420 A.D.) declared that he had been delivered from “Jewish opinions,” and he ridiculed the early premillennial beliefs.26 Concerning those early beliefs, Harnack declared that Jerome “and the other disciples of the Greeks did a great deal to rob them of their vitality.” 27
The second major factor which prompted the rejection of Premillennialism in the west was the teaching of Augustine (354-430 A.D.), the Bishop of Hippo, concerning the Church. Augustine himself had been a premillennialist in the early days of his Christian faith; however, through time he rejected that view in favor of a new one which he developed.28 That new view became known as Amillennialism.
Several things prompted this change in Augustine. First, the political situation of the Church had changed radically around the period of his life. By Augustine’s time the persecution of the Church by Rome had stopped, and the state had made itself the servant of the Church. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the Church stood fast, ready to rule in place of the empire. It looked as if Gentile world dominion was being crushed and that the Church was becoming victorious over it. 29
Under these circumstances Augustine concluded that Premillennialism was obsolete, that it did not fit the changed situation. In place of it he developed the idea that the Church is the Kingdom of Messiah foretold in such Scripture as Daniel 2 and 7 and Revelation 20. In his book, The City of God, he became the first person to teach the idea that the organized Catholic (universal) Church is the Messianic Kingdom, and that the Millennium began with the first coming of Christ. 30 Augustine wrote: “The saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming,”31 and, “Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him, . . .” 32
The second factor which prompted Augustine to reject Premillennialism was his negative reaction to his own pleasure-seeking, self-indulgent, immoral lifestyle of his preconversion days. “After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine, a former bon vivant, consistently favoured a world-denying and ascetic style of life.”33 This led him to reject “as carnal any expectations of a renewed and purified world that the believers could expect to enjoy.”34
The third factor in his change of view was the influence of Greek philosophy upon his thinking. Before his conversion Augustine was deeply immersed in the study of this philosophy, much of which asserted the inherent evil of the physical or material and the inherent goodness of the totally spiritual. This philosophy continued to leave its mark upon him even after his conversion. This also prompted him to reject as carnal the premillennial idea of an earthly, political Kingdom of God with great material blessings. To his way of thinking, in order for the Kingdom of God to be good, it must be spiritual in nature. Thus, “for him the millennium had become a spiritual state into which the Church collectively had entered at Pentecost . . . and which the individual Christian might already enjoy through mystical communion with God.”35
Concerning the premillennial opinion Augustine wrote:
And this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians.36
In order to avoid the implications of some of the millennial passages in the Bible, Augustine applied Origen’s allegorical method of interpretation to the prophets and the Book of Revelation. For example, according to Augustine the abyss in which Satan is confined during the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-3) is not a literal location or place. Instead, he said: “By the abyss is meant the countless multitude of the wicked whose hearts are unfathomably deep in malignity against the Church of God.” 37
His interpretation of Satan being cast into the abyss was as follows: “He is said to be cast in thither, because, when prevented from harming believers, he takes more complete possession of the ungodly.”38 He said that the binding and shutting up of Satan in the abyss “means his being more unable to seduce the Church.”39 Augustine was convinced that this binding of Satan in the abyss is a reality during this present Church Age. 40
In addition, Augustine interpreted the first resurrection (referred to by John in conjunction with the establishment of the millennial reign of Christ – Rev. 20:4-6) as being, not the future bodily resurrection of believers, but the present spiritual resurrection of the soul which takes place at the new birth.41
“Augustine’s allegorical millennialism became the official doctrine of the church,” and Premillennialism went underground.42 Some aspects of Premillennialism were even branded as heretical.43 The Roman Catholic Church strongly advocated and maintained Augustine’s amillennial view throughout the Middle Ages. During that span of time occasional premillennial groups formed to challenge the doctrine and political power of the major part of organized Christendom, but they were not able to restore Premillennialism to its original position as the accepted, orthodox view of the Church. Many Anabaptists were premillennial by conviction during the Reformation era. Some of these were quite radical in their Premillennialism, but many were not.44 The Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican reformers rejected Premillennialism as being “Jewish opinions.”45 They maintained the amillennial view which the Roman Catholic Church had adopted from Augustine.46
Amillennialism remained the dominant view of organized Christendom until the seventeenth century. Then another major change m millennial views transpired. That change will be examined in the next article.
- Ernest R. Sandeen, “Millennialism, The Encyclopaedia Bntannica, Fifteenth Edition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974), 12, 201.
- Adolph Harnack, “Millennium, The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ninth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), XVI, 316.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), p. 787.
- Sandeen, “MiIlennialism,” 12, 201.
- Harnack, “Millennium,” XVI, 316.
- Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II, 791.
- Ibid., p. 792.
- Ibid., pp. 618-19.
- Harnack, “Millennium,” XVI, 316.
- Ibid., p. 317.
- Augustine, The City of God, Book XX, chpt. 9, trans. by Marcus Dads (New York: Random House,Inc.,1950), p.725.
- Ibid., pp. 725-26.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 202.
- Augustine, The City of God, Book XX, chpt 7, p. 719.
- Ibid., p. 720.
- Ibid,, Book XX, chpt 8, p. 722.
- Ibid., p. 723.
- Ibid., Book XX, chpt 6, p. 717.
- Sandeen, “Milleranalism,” 12, 202.
- Harnack, “Millennium,” XVI, 317.
- Ibid., p. 318.