Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Very Short Introduction to Millennialism

Harold Camping predicted the “End of the World” twice before his latest prediction. Thanks to his billboards and other marketing expenditures, his predictions receive a great deal of coverage in the media. To the unitiated, his understanding of the timeline of the cosmos can be bewildering. Knowing a bit about the tradition from which he is speaking is helpful in that regard.

The early church, from the time of the persecutions until the third century, widely held the belief that Jesus would return to earth to reign for a thousand years—a millennium. Further, because this earthly reign was the period of time between Christ's ascension into heaven and the moment when Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead," it is sometimes called the "interregnum."1 A version of this view is also now often referred to as "historical premillennialism" because it understood Christ to come before the millennium.2

With the passing of time, Christianity became the established religion and persecutions ceased. With the ending of the persecutions, a literal view of the thousand year reign of Christ on earth was slowly replaced with a symbolic view.3 In this novel way of thinking about the millennium of Christ's reign on earth, a thousand years did not have to be a literal thousand years, but was, rather, a very long period of time. The millennium in one way or another referred to the reign of Christ in the present age and denied a subsequent interregnum between this age and the age to come. This view, or several variations of it, were standard theological fare between the third century and the reformation. This view became known as amillennialism. Augustine was the most famous proponent of this understanding of the interregnum.4

At the time of the reformation, theological reflections on the biblical notion of the millennium multiplied. By the turn of the twentieth century, three different understandings had gained the attention of theologians.

Baptist theologians make a useful study. At the turn of the twentieth century, there were still many amillennialists, such as Baptist theologian Ε. Y. Mullins.5 But there were also those who believed that the return of Christ would happen at the end of a thousand year reign of peace—these theologians were called postmillennialists. According to postmillennialists, the world was ever drawing closer to becoming the kingdom of God. Political and social reforms, and the effect of evangelism and mission, were ushering in Christ's millennial reign on earth. Baptist theologians B. H. Carroll and A. H. Strong were postmillennialists.6
At the end of the nineteenth century, postmillennial thinking was so popular among Protestants in general (and not just Baptists) in the United States that a new magazine for Protestant ministers was named The Christian Century. But the optimism of the postmillennialists was shattered against the historical reality of the twentieth century. Two world wars and a depression in the first half of the century led to a rise in yet another school of thought on the meaning of the millennial reign of Christ—dispensational premillennialism.

This form of premillennialism believed also that Christ would return before, not at the end of, this special millennium. Unlike the postmillennialists, who believed that the world was improving, premillennialists believed that the world was devolving into chaos. The condition of the world was to continue to grow worse until God would have to intervene and Christ would then return. The experience of many in the early twentieth century seemed to indicate that the premillennialists, not the postmillennialists, were right.

The Baptist minister W. A. Criswell, a student of E. Y Mullins, was such a dispensational premillennialist. Criswell followed the teachings of C. I. Scofield, the author of the popular Scofield Reference Bible (first published in 1917). Besides dividing up history into a number of distinctive dispensations, this view proposed the novelty of a pretribulation "rapture" of Christians out of the world to avoid persecution to be followed by yet another coming of Christ in judgment to the world to establish the millennium. It also especially emphasized the millennium as the reign of Christ during the millennium with Israel, not the church. Criswell was instrumental in popularizing this form of premillennialism among Southern Baptists.
Around mid-century, a recovery of the earlier historical premillennialism also was occurring. Prominent exemplars among Southern Baptists were Dale Moody and Wayne Ward, long-time professors at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The distinction between these two variations of premillennialism is significant enough that one way of analyzing the ecclesiastical politics of Southern Baptists in the last quarter of the twentieth century is to divide the parties according to whether they were dispensational or historical premillennialists. By the end of the twentieth century, premillennialism of one kind or another dominated Southern Baptist theology.

For many Christians, however, the categories of amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism, have lost their effectiveness. The categories are mired in a theological debate that seems irrelevant at the beginning of the twenty first century. For many, the most popular of the options is biblically and theologically bankrupt, but not for Harold Camping. Camping, a dispensational premillennialist, is now predicting the “End of the World” (i.e. “The Rapture”) on May 21, 2011.


1Referencing the epoch as the "interregnum" highlights its "earthly character." It is the epoch of the "not yet." It is not the "new heaven and new earth." This "here and nearly-now" aspect of the interregnum is important later in this essay because of its strong earthly referent. The new heaven and the new earth, according to the biblical context, are such transformed states that such an eschaton must serve a different doctrinal function than the interregnum.
2 For a helpful introduction to the various views and their historical context, see Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
3 As will be seen later, the heresy of chiliasm may have been a factor in the spread of the symbolic reading of the millennium.
4Tyconius, a Donatist, is perhaps the earliest proponent of a spiritual understanding of the millennium.
5E. Y. Mullins' student Herschel Hobbs was also an amillennialist. Hobbs was the principal author of the 1963 "Baptist Faith and Message," the official statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention.
6 It is interesting to note that while differing interpretations of the millennium were ripping apart some denominations, Southern Baptist amillennialists and postmillennialists seemed to cohabitate in mutual respect and regard.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The End of the World

"Its the end of the world as we know it...and I feel fine." REM

Great reflection on the "May 21, 2011" "end of the world" by my Church History professor, friend, and former Dean of the Divinity at Wake Forest University. http://bit.ly/jQLVTq

My sermon for Sunday is based on Bill's reflection. His reflection is better than my sermon. Read it.