The Revival of Millennial Views
Four Stages of Development
During the history of the Church, views concerning the Millennium (the Kingdom of God foretold in such passages as Daniel 2 and 7) have gone through four stages of development. The first three stages were: first, early Premillennialism and its rejection; second, the development of Amillennialism and its rejection; and third, the development of Postmillennialism and its rejection. These three stages have been examined in previous articles.
In spite of the fact that all three millennial views have suffered a rejection, each also has experienced a revival. This revival constitutes the fourth stage of the history of millennial views. The purpose of this article is to examine this fourth stage.
The Revival of Premillennialism
Although early Premillennialism was rejected by the major part of organized Christendom by the fifth century, it continued to be advocated periodically throughout the centuries by certain individuals and groups. These advocates usually constituted a small minority, and some of them became quite radical and hyper-emotional in their practice. As a result, the majority of professing Christians continued to regard Premillennialism as insignificant and fanatical. Despite these negative associations, Premillennialism began to experience a significant revival during the nineteenth century. This revived form differed considerably from the radical expressions of earlier centuries. Ernest R. Sadeen, a twentieth century historian, stated that “Unlike many of the earlier reawakenings of Millenarianism, however, these modern American apocalyptic groups possessed no revolutionary potential.”1
Adolph Harnack, a leading church historian of the nineteenth century, declared, “. . . in recent times an exceedingly mild type of academic chiliasm has been developed from a belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible,. . .”2 Harnack’s comment emphasized two traits of the revived Premillennialism of his century. First, it was characterized by an organized, systematic study of the biblical data concerning the Kingdom of God, instead of by fanatical emotionalism. Second, it was based upon a strong belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures (even including their words).
Concerning this second characteristic of premillennial belief, Sandeen made the following comment: “Without the influence of the Bible, no connected millennial tradition would exist. . . As long as Christians accept the texts of the Bible as the Word of God, the tradition will endure.”3
The nineteenth century revival of Premillennialism began in Great Britain primarily through the influence of the Plymouth Brethren (who were founded around 1830) and one of their key leaders, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).4
To the surprise of many, this revival of Premillennialism rose suddenly and prospered considerably in America in the latter third of the nineteenth century. This was especially true of dispensational Premillennialism.5 Weber wrote:
After the Civil War the last thing most American evangelicals expected was a resurgence of premillennialism. Belief in Christ’s personal return to set up his earthly kingdom had always had its faithful witnesses in the churches, but few people imagined that it would ever again be able to attract a significant number of adherents scattered throughout the evangelical denominations or isolated in premillennial denominations.6
A significant number of influential Christian leaders were advocates of the premillennial view. For example, D.L. Moody (1837-1899), the greatest evangelist during the latter third of the nineteenth century, was convinced of the truthfulness of Premillennialism. The same was true of almost every major evangelist who succeeded him, such as J. Wilbur Chapman (1859-1918), Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928) and Billy Sunday (1862-1935).7
Several key missions leaders were premillennial by conviction. Among these were Robert Speer (1867-1947), who served as secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions for forty-six years; A. T. Pierson (1837-1911), editor of the Missionary Review of the World for twenty three years; and A. B. Simpson (1843-1919), the Presbyterian minister who founded the Christian and Missionary Alliance.8
Premillennialism was taught from the pulpit by prominent pastors, such as James H. Brookes (1830-1897), pastor of Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis; A. J. Gordon (1836-1895), pastor of the Clarendon Street Baptist Church in Boston; and C. I. Scofield
(1843-1921), pastor of the First Congregational Church of Dallas and the Trinitarian Congregational Church of Northfield, Massachusetts.9
The Bible school movement, which began in the late 1800’s, significantly aided the revival and spread of Premillennialism. The earliest Bible school in America was founded by T. DeWitt Talmage in Brooklyn, New York, in 1870. A. B. Simpson started the Missionary Training College in New York City in 1883. Moody Bible Institute began in Chicago in 1886. By 1940, seventy-eight such schools had been founded in key cities all across America. Almost all of these schools were premillennial in their teaching.
The late nineteenth century witnessed the rise of the Bible and prophecy conference movements, both of which emphasized the premillennial faith. The best known of the early Bible conferences was the Niagara Bible Conference which began in 1875.10 The first official prophecy conference was conducted by premillennialists at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City in October, 1878.11 Other Bible and prophecy conferences began to be held at many locations.
The faith missions movement (independent or non-denominational missions) also began in the late 1800’s. A number of these new missions propagated premillennial teaching. One such mission was the Central American Mission (now CAM International) which was founded under the leadership of C. I. Scofield in Dallas, Texas, in 1890.12 Those missions which were founded primarily to minister to Jews (such as The American Board of Missions to the Jews and The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.) have been consistently premillennial.
Various kinds of literature have provided widespread exposure for the revived Premillennialism. Magazines, such as Truth or Testimony for Christ (published by James H. Brookes for twenty-three years in the late 1800’s),13 Our Hope (edited by Arno C. Gaebelein from 1894 to 1945),14 Israel My Glory (produced by The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.) and Moody Monthly, have played a key role. Study Bibles, such as the Scofield Reference Bible (first published in 1909) and the Ryrie Study Bible (1978), have made a major impact. Theological journals, such as Bibliotheca Sacra (published by Dallas Theological Seminary), and books such as the monumental three-volume The Theocratic Kingdom (by George N. H. Peters, a Lutheran scholar who lived from 1825 to 1909),15 The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Charles C. Ryrie), The Millennial Kingdom (John F. Walvoord) and Things To Come (J. Dwight Pentecost), have given scholarly presentations of the premillennial view. Premillennialists of the twentieth century founded several theological seminaries to train pastors, missionaries, Bible teachers and other Christian workers in the premillennial faith. Among these were Dallas Theological Seminary (founded in 1924), Grace Theological Seminary (founded in 1937), Talbot Theological Seminary and Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.
A number of denominations or church fellowships which were predominantly premillennial were formed. Examples of these were: the General Association of Regular Baptists, the Conservative Baptist Association, the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, the Plymouth Brethren and the Grace Brethren.
The revived Premillennialism played a key role in the Fundamentalist movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sandeen stated that premillennialists contributed directly to the rise of the biblically oriented and conservative movement known as Fundamentalism.”16
The Revival of Amillennialism
The postmillennialists of the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries interpreted the Kingdom of God passages in the Bible literally. As a result, they were convinced that the Bible promised a literal, future Kingdom of God on earth. They believed, however, that that kingdom would be established through human effort, not through divine intervention into history.
As noted earlier, the tragedies of the twentieth century demonstrated that the optimistic postmillennial view did not fit the harsh realities of the world. As a result, most postmillennialists became so disillusioned with their view that they abandoned it. Now they had two major alternatives open to them. They could have turned to the premillennial view. Such a turn would have permitted them to hold onto the literal interpretation of the Kingdom of God passages in the Bible and their conviction that the Bible promised a literal, future Kingdom of God on earth, but it would have required them to reject their belief concerning how that kingdom would be established. They would have had to believe that it would be established through divine intervention into history, not through human effort.
The other alternative open to the disenchanted postmillennialists was a turn to the amillennial view. This turn would have required them to reject the literal interpretation of the Kingdom of God passages in the Bible and their conviction that the Bible promised a literal, future Kingdom of God on earth. The rejection of both these things was characteristic of Amillennialism.
Most postmillennialists (conservative and liberal alike) took the alternative of turning to the amillennial view. Since the majority of Protestants in the early twentieth century had been postmillennial by conviction, this turn constituted a major revival for the amillennial view. During the late 1950’s Walvoord wrote the following concerning this revival:
In the last two decades there has been an evident resurgence in Amillennialism. The converts have come from many sources. Those who had become skeptical about a millennium on earth to be achieved through Christian influence and the church found it a natural conclusion that their error lay in taking too seriously the glowing prophecies of the Old Testament of a kingdom of righteousness and peace on earth. There were no signs of such an era on the horizon, and both Christians and non-Christians were talking darkly of the end of civilization and a third and final world war in which man would destroy himself. It seemed in the spirit of the times to conclude that there would be no millennium on earth and that freedom from sin and war was to be found only in heaven. While the downward course of the modern world was no embarrassment to premillenarians who had been preaching about such a trend for years, the church as a whole was unwilling to admit any accuracy in the premillennial view.17
Thus, the majority of Protestants converted to the amillennial view. When this circumstance is combined with the fact that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches were consistently amillennial, it can be seen that Amillennialism had become the majority view of organized Christendom by the middle of the twentieth century.
The Revival of Postmillennialism
During the years immediately following World War II, it appeared that the postmillennial view would be dead forever. Almost none advocated it. For all practical purposes, the struggle over which millennial view was correct was waged entirely between Premillennialism and Amillennialism. However, contrary to what was expected, the times since the late 1960’s have witnessed a revival of the postmillennial view in different forms.
One form of the new Postmillennialism has been radically secular and anti-Christian in nature. Advocates of this form are convinced that it is possible for man to usher in a utopian golden age upon this earth. Some believe that this can be accomplished by science through such means as genetic engineering. Others are convinced that proper social planning together with conditioning of the youth to conform to that planning will bring it about. Some “claim that a reversal of all Christian values is necessary for the breaking-in of the” golden age.18 For example, Professor Charles A. Reich of Yale, in his best-selling book The Greening of America (published in 1970), indicated that “such things as drug use, contempt for productive work, sexual licentiousness, and pornography” may be the tools which will usher in utopia.19 Thomas J. J. Altizer, one of the God-is-dead theologians, asserted that the golden age of history will not come until human beings admit that the God of Scripture is dead, reverse all biblical morality and acclaim themselves divine.20
Another form of the new Postmillennialism differs drastically from the radical secular one. It is conservative in nature and is advocated by spokesmen within the Reformed-Covenant Theology tradition. This new form has been called theonomy. The term “theonomy” comes from two Greek words which mean God and law. This term is an accurate designation for this new form of Postmillennialism, for theonomists claim “that the Mosaic law, more or less in its entirety, constitutes a continuing norm for mankind and that it is the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce it, precepts and penalties alike.”21 Thus, according to this view, capital punishment should be administered today to homosexuals, drunkards and rebellious children.22
The key passage of theonomy is Matthew 5:17-19. On the basis of this passage, theonomists assert that the Mosaic Law is binding upon all human beings forever and that there is a “public obligation to promote and enforce obedience to God’s law in society. . .”23
Theonomists believe that Matthew 5:13-16 presents the Church with “a mandate for the complete social transformation of the entire world.”24 The Church is to play the key role in this transformation by spreading the gospel throughout the world, taking over the function of government and enforcing the Mosaic Law. Thus, Chilton stated: “Our goal is world dominion under Christ’s Lordship, a ‘world takeover’ if you will; but our strategy begins with reformation, reconstruction of the church. From that will flow social and political reconstruction, indeed a flowering of Christian civilization. . .”25 Again he said: “The Christian goal for the world is the universal development of biblical theocratic republics, in which every area of life is redeemed and placed under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the rule of God’s law.” 26
Another theonomist declared that “the saints must prepare to take over the world’s governments and its courts.”27
Theonomists optimistically believe that “As the gospel progresses throughout the world it will win, and win, and win, until all kingdoms become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ;. . .28
Bahnsen stated that “The gospel . . . shall convert the vast majority of the world to Christ and bring widespread obedience to His kingdom rule,” and that “the church will grow to fill the earth, and that Christianity will become the dominant principle.”29
This optimistic belief makes theonomy a genuine form of Postmillennialism. Theonomists openly identify their movement with that millennial view. Bahnsen asserted that “The thing that distinguishes that biblical postmillennialist then from amillennialism and premillennialism is his belief that Scripture teaches the success of the great commission in this age of the church.” 30 Rushdoony wrote:
Postmillennialism thus believes that man must be saved, and that his regeneration is the starting point for a mandate to exercise dominion in Christ’s name over every area of life and thought. Postmillennialism in its classic form does not neglect the church and it does not neglect also to work for a Christian state and school, for the sovereignty and crown rights of the King over individuals, families, institutions, arts, scientists, and all things else. More, it holds that God has provided the way for this conquest: His Law.31
The major publication advocating theonomy is the Journal of Christian Reconstruction. Organizations which propagate this view are: the Chalcedon Ministries, Christianity and Civilization and the Geneva Divinity School Press of Tyler, Texas. Major spokesmen for the movement are Greg L. Bahnsen, James B. Jordan, Gary North, Rousas John Rushdoony and Norman Shepherd.32
Another voice for a conservative form of Postmillennialism is John Jefferson Davis, associate professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In his book, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom, Postmillennialism Reconsidered (1987), Davis presents a fresh examination of this millennial view and deals with its implications for missionary activity and social reform.33
- Ernest K Sandeen, “Millennialism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974), 12, 203.
- Adolph Harnack, “Millennium,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), XVI, 318.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism.” 12, 203.
- Timothy P. Weber, Living In The Shadow Of The Second Coming (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Ibid., pp.32-33.
- Ibid., p. 33.
- Ibid., p. 33.
- Ibid., p. 26.
- Ibid., p. 28.
- William A. Be Vier, “A Biographical Sketch of C. I. Scofield” (unpublished Master’s Thesis, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 1960), pp. 20-21.
- Elgin Moyer and Earle E. Cairns, Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), p. 60.
- Ibid., p. 155.
- Wilbur M. Smith, “Preface” in Vol. I of George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1957).
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 203.
- John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, Ohio: Dunham Publishing Company, 1959), pp. 9-10.
- Harold 0. J. Brown, “Dreams of a Third Age,” Christianity Today, XV, No. 21 (July 16, 1971), 4.
- Meredith G. Kline, “Comments on an Old-New Error,” Westminster Theological Journal, 41 (1978), 172-73.
- Norman L. Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government” Bibliotheca Sacra, 142, No. 567 (July-September, 1985), 253.
- Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 83-84.
- David Chilton, Paradise Restored: An Eschatology of Dominion (Tyler, TX: Reconstruction Press, 1985), p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 214.
- Ibid., p. 226.
- R. J. Rushdoony, “Government and the Christian,” The Rutherford Institute, 1 (July-August, 1984), 7.
- Chilton, Paradise Restored, p. 192.
- Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 3 (winter, 1976-77), 68.
- R. J. Rushdoony, “Postmillennialism versus Impotent Religion,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 3 (winter, 1976-77), p. 126.
- Robert P. Lightner, “Theonomy and Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 143, No. 569 (January-March, 1986), 35. The author is indebted to this article for much of his information on theonomy.
- Baker Book House catalog, Academic Books 1986-87, September, 1986, p. 12.