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The Millennium and the Early Church, By David m

The Millennium and the Early Church, By David m

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What the early church believed on the doctrine of the thousand years kingdom
What the early church believed on the doctrine of the thousand years kingdom

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Published by: api-3755336 on Oct 18, 2008
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03/18/2014

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David M. Williams
The Millennium and the
Early Church
By David M. Williams (davidmwilliams@geocities.com)

The area of eschatology pertaining to the
millennium is fraught with hermeneutical
disarray. There exist those who assert that the
period of a thousand years (the millennium)
referred to in the Book of Revelation on several
occasions (chapter 20, verses 3, 4, 5, 7) is not
literal. Rather, it is believed to have a
"spiritualised" or allegorical meaning. This is
known as amillennialism, the prefix "a"
meaning "not", just as an "atheist" is not a
"theist" (one who believes in God) and an
"agnostic" claims to have "no knowledge"
("gnosic" deriving from the Greek word for
knowledge).

Another view of the millennium is post-
millennialism; that is, the millennium occurs
before the seven year Tribulation period takes
place. This contradicts the chronological
ordering of Revelation however, which details
the Tribulation (chapters 4-19), the return of
Christ (chapter 19) and then the millennial reign
(chapter 20). Following is the consummation
of all things and the new heaven and new earth
(chapters 21-22).

It is well known among scholars and historians
that the faith of the early Church was chiliasm -
based on the Greek word in Revelation 20:3
denoting the number 1,000. Chiliasm was an
ill-defined pre-millennial outlook which
anticipated the return of Christ, and His reign
for a literal thousand years before the final
judgment.

Irenaeus, for example, a disciple of Polycarp
the martyr, who in turn was instructed by the
Apostles and had familiar communications with
many who had seen the risen Christ, wrote of a
literal millennial period. In book five of
Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) Irenaeus
provides an apologetic (defense) for the
millennium and the future restoration of Israel
which he insists may not be allegorised away
(35:1-35). After the millennium, Irenaeus
foresees God's final judgment and retribution in

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terms of chapters 20 and 21 of the Book of
Revelation.

Hippolytus, the Greek speaking bishop of a
Church in Rome, who died as a martyr around
235 is well known for his eschatological
writings. In De Christo et Antichristo (The
Christ and Antichrist) Hippolytus writes of the
Antichrist and the Tribulation period. In his
Commentary on Daniel, the oldest extant
scriptural commentary available today,
Hippolytus details his millennial hope and the
relationship of Revelation to Daniel, with their
apocalyptic descriptions of the end times. It is
important to realise that the common criticism
of pre-millennial thought as a recent invention
is simply untrue - rather it is the oldest of all
Christian eschatological belief.

Unfortunately some were inclined to dwell
fondly on their millennial hopes in a crassly
materialistic manner, such as Papias whose
fourth book details a vivid description of the
millennial kingdom, in which the fruitfulness of
the earth will be increased to staggering
proportions for the sake of the risen saints.
About the year 100 A.D., Cerinthus, an early
Gnostic leader, wrote of the luxury and sensual
delights he expected the millennium to hold.

In the fourth century, the great Christian
thinker Augustine of Hippo, who has
influenced all Latin theology, rejected the literal
notions behind chiliasm, based on his
disagreement with the materialistic notions
which had come to be associated with it.
Although Augustine originally held to chiliasm
and still acknowledged it as a tenable view, he
described what he found to be more preferable
in chapter 20 of De Civ Dei (The City of God)
written in 425 A.D. Augustine had fashioned a
view where in contrast to chiliasm, the present
age itself was the millennium. He perceived the
kingdom of God as already manifest in the
Church and proclaimed that the age between
Pentecost and the return of Christ was the very
millennium itself, marked by the ever increasing
influence of the Church in overturning evil in
the world before Christ's return. One can
readily understand how this view might have
arisen, given the dramatic change in the affairs
of the Church after Constantine's Edict of
Toleration early in the fourth century. In fact,
later Latin theology had a widespread tendency
to identify the Kingdom of God, at least in its
first stage of existence, with the institutional
Catholic Church.

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After the year 1,000 A.D. the thought of a
literal thousand year period faded; Augustine's
post-millennialist construction became instead
amillennialism, the Biblical "thousand years"
being merely figurative. Indeed, during the
Middle Ages the thought of a literal millennium
was generally regarded as heretical.
Amillennialism is still taught in schools of
thought such as that represented by
Westminster Theological Seminary.

The post-millennial position was refined and
further developed by Daniel Whitby in
relatively recent times. Nevertheless, this can
not be held with any serious thought due to the
succession of wars and other calamaties being
experienced - the kingdom of God cannot be
brought about by human effort. Those who
still hold to post-millennialism tend to be
groups such as Preterists who hold that the
Book of Revelation relates to events
surrounding the Emperor Nero, despite the
wealth of internal and external evidence to the
contrary (such as the date of writing).

Pre-millennial thought was revived after being
meticulously delineated by Baptist lay preacher
William Miller (of later Seventh-Day Adventist
fame) in the early and mid-1800's. His views
fell into disrepute after two failed attempts to
set a date for the return of Christ.

The next rebirth occurred with John Nelson
Darby (of Plymouth Brethren distinction) in the
late 1850's in the form of dispensational pre-
millennialism - the notion that God interacts
with humanity in a series of epochs or
dispensations. Darby wove these diverse
strands into a tight cohesive system which he
buttressed at every point by copious Biblical
proof texts, then tirelessly promoted through
his writing and preaching.

Cyrus Scofield popularised this system of belief
with the publication of his reference Bible and
catapulted it into the Protestant mainstream.

It is important to note that dispensationalism
and pre-millennialism are not synonymous,
although dispensationalism is pre-millennial
(but one may be pre-millennial without being a
dispensationalist). Dispensationalism is taught
by such schools of thought as represented by
Dallas Theological Seminary (Charles Ryrie
being a well-known member of staff).

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