Thursday, June 29, 2017

Millennial Views in the Early Church

Millennial Views in the Early Church 

           This post is a brief overview of views of the millennium in the early Church.  I was going to go up to and conclude with Augustine, but the length became far too excessive.  Therefore I have covered some of the Ante-Nicene Christian writers and concluded with the Nicene Creed.  As much as possible, I have provided quotes so that the writers can have their views presented in their own words.  I hope that you, my reader, find this to be useful.

Historical Sequence of events leading up to the eschatology of the Creed

            There is a plethora of false news which has found its way into scholarly works regarding Early Christian views of the millennium.  A prime example of this comes from a commentary I read a long long time ago in a country far far away (or when I was in undergrad in Canada).  Alan F. Johnson wrote, “the ancient church down to the time of Augustine (354-430) (though not without minor exceptions) unquestionably held to the teaching of an earthly, historical reign of peace that was to follow the defeat of the Antichrist and the physical resurrection of the saints but precede both the judgement and the new creation.”[1]  This view is a gross misstatement of the facts.

            In the first three centuries of Christianity, there were at least three orthodox views on the millennium.  Some believed that there would be a time period in which Christ would be an earthly king, others believed the millennium to be symbolic of Christ’s current reign, and other thought that the millennium would occur in the new heavens and the new earth after the final judgement.  Most of the Pre-Nicene Fathers, whose writings we still have, espoused various views of a millennium.  The difficulty with these Fathers is that they did not always fit into the paradigms of the present conversation about the millennium.

Six days of creation and the history of the world

            George Ladd in his creation of an eschatological view, entitled “historic premillennialism,” left out one of the pervasive and defining characteristics of the millennial view in the Early Church.  Part of the premillennial view in the early Church was the idea that the 7 days of creation were a type of the whole history of mankind and that the millennium would be the 7th day of rest.[2]  Thus for those who read things literally, the millennium would begin 6,000 years after the creation of the world.  Others appear to have interpreted the days of creation as 1,000 year time periods while also understanding 1,000 years not as a literal period of time, but as a symbol for a long period of time.

Justin Martyr
            Justin Martyr clearly believed in a physical/historical millennium: “But I… feel certain that there will be a resurrection of the dead followed by a thousand years in the rebuilt, embellished, and enlarged city of Jerusalem.”[3]  At the same time, he commented that there were other pious and right believing Christians who did not affirm his belief in a coming millennium.  Justin stated his opinion and at the same time noted that his view did not represent the entirety of the Christian community at his time.

Irenaeus of Lyon
            Irenaeus is often quoted as a Father who espoused millennial views.  However, I am not entirely convinced this is the best interpretation of Irenaeus.  Irenaeus’s presentation on the millennium does not easily fall into only one of the present categories.  The main point Irenaeus wished to argue was that the resurrection was a bodily resurrection.  This is the overwhelming thrust of his argument in Book 5 of Against the Heretics.  Indeed, he argued that there must be a physical place for the resurrected to inhabit since they will be bodily raised from the dead.[4]  This resurrection will take place in a particular order according to the deeds of the righteous.[5] That is, those who are more righteous will be raised before those who are less righteous, which is how he understood the first and the second resurrection.  Another point upon which Irenaeus is clear is that the millennium will begin 6,000 years from the creation of the earth.

            There is a tension in Irenaeus’ writing which centers upon whether the millennium is life in the New Heavens and the New Earth which come into being after the final judgement or whether the millennium is experienced on this Earth before the final judgement.  The following reads as though he posited the millennium after the end of this earth:

“For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years it will be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: ‘Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all His works.’ This is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.”[6]

The way in which Irenaeus spoke about the end of the world certainly gives the impression that the Irenaeus understood the millennium to commence after the passing away of this earth in favor of the new earth.  This view is even more explicitly stated in 5.30.4:

“and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the rest, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that ‘many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’”[7]

In this passage the millennial kingdom is clearly placed after the final judgement, which gives every appearance that Irenaeus understood the millennium to refer to the reign of Christ upon the New Earth.  These two afore quoted passages clearly present the millennium as an event that occurs in the new heavens and the new earth after the final judgement.  However, in chapter 32 of the same work, Irenaeus presented a different view on the subject with a different ordering of events. 

“It behooves the righteous first to receive the promise of the inheritance which God promised to the fathers, and to reign in it, when they rise again to behold God in this creation which is renovated, and that the judgment should take place afterwards.”[8] 5.32.1

In this passage, the righteous receive the kingdom before the judgement whereas before they received the kingdom after the judgement.  This does not appear to be an accident because Irenaeus repeated this different ordering of event again:

“But in the times of the kingdom, the earth has been called again by Christ to its pristine condition, and Jerusalem rebuilt after the pattern of the Jerusalem above… For after the times of the kingdom, he says, ‘I saw a great white throne, and Him who sat upon it, from whose face the earth fled away, and the heavens; and there was no more place for them.’ And he sets forth, too, the things connected with the general resurrection and the judgment.”[9]

            From these brief observations it is possible to conclude that Irenaeus espoused two distinct and apparently contradictory views of the millennium in the same book.  It is possible that he was unaware of the conflict, or that he changed his mind on the topic.  I suspect that Irenaeus uncritically drew upon two traditions he had received regarding the millennium and used both of them to disprove the Gnostics.  I cannot prove this point, but it seems sensible to me.[10]  Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, this vacillation reveals that there was not a uniformity regarding the millennium even within the same author.

Caius of Rome
            Caius appears to have been made a priest in Rome between 198 and 217.  This would place his writing at the beginning of the 200s.  He clearly denied the interpretation of the millennium as a time when Christ would reign over a physical kingdom in which there is physical eating, drinking, and marrying.  He accused a heretic named Cerinthus for creating this doctrine:

“But Cerinthus also, by means of revelations which he pretends were written by a great apostle, brings before us marvelous things which he falsely claims were shown him by angels; and he says that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be set up on earth, and that the flesh dwelling in Jerusalem will again be subject to desires and pleasures. And being an enemy of the Scriptures of God, he asserts, with the purpose of deceiving men, that there is to be a period of a thousand years for marriage festivals.”[11]

The greatest flaw of Caius’ view is that he viewed the book of Revelation as a heretical invention.  The rejection of Revelation was not limited to Caius.  Eusebius himself does not appear to have accepted Revelation.  Indeed, the book of Revelation does not appear to have been near universally accepted until sometime in the 400s.

Hippolytus of Rome
            Hippolytus is the only Church Father I am aware of who actually offers a detailed timeline for when the millennium would occur.

For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls. And so it is absolutely necessary for six-thousand years to be fulfilled, so that the Sabbath rest may come, the holy day, in which God rested from all his works which he began to do. The Sabbath is a model and an image of the coming kingdom of the saints, when the saints shall co-reign with Christ, when he arrives from heaven, as also John in his Apocalypse describes. For a day of the Lord is as a thousand years. And so since in six days God made all things, it is necessary for six thousand years to be fulfilled. For they are not yet fulfilled, as John says, “Five have fallen, but one is,” such is the sixth millennium, “the other has not yet come,” saying “the other” he describes the seventh millennium in which there shall be rest.”[12]

Hippolytus followed the interpretive method of a day equaling a thousand years and the 7 days of creation as a prophetic history of the world.  The key difference with Hippolytus is that he worked out the math and came to the conclusion that the millennium would begin approximately on the Year of our Lord 500 and end in 1,500.[13]  He viewed the millennial reign on earth as a foretaste of the eternal state.  Thus we can conclude that he understood the millennium to occur prior to the final judgement.

            Commodian was another author in the third century who affirmed a physical millennium in which those who participate in the first resurrection will marry and have children.

“From heaven will descend the city in the first resurrection; this is what we may tell of such a celestial fabric. We shall arise again to Him, who have been devoted to Him. And they shall be incorruptible, even already living without death. And neither will there be any grief nor any groaning in that city. They shall come also who overcame cruel martyrdom under Antichrist, and they themselves live for the whole time, and receive blessings because they have suffered evil things; and they themselves marrying, beget for a thousand years. There are prepared all the revenues of the earth, because the earth renewed without end pours forth abundantly. Therein are no rains; no cold comes into the golden camp. . . .  But from the thousand years God will destroy all those evils.”[14]

Commodian here affirmed that all the righteous would be raised form the dead and enter into the millennial kingdom.  His vision of the millennial kingdom is decidedly physical with the resurrected saints marrying and begetting children.

            Tertullian supported his belief in the millennium through both the book of Revelation and a newer prophecy which he recorded.[15]  His view of the millennium was clearly physical:

“But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, “let down from heaven,” which the apostle also calls “our mother from above;” and, while declaring that our citizenship, is in heaven, he predicates of it that it is really a city in heaven.”[16]

            Indeed, the New Jerusalem he understood to physically be in heaven awaiting the moment when God will send it down. Further, Tertullian understood the first and second resurrections to refer to a gradation of how the saints are raised form the dead:

“Of the heavenly kingdom this is the process. After its thousand years are over, within which period is completed the resurrection of the saints, who rise sooner or later according to their deserts there will ensue the destruction of the world and the conflagration of all things at the judgment.”[17]

            Following this interpretation, the order of resurrection in the millennium is based upon the deeds of the Christian. From Tertullian’s perspective would explain why the martyrs would be raised first because he viewed martyrdom very highly.[18]

            Origen comments about the millennium do not provide great detail about his view of the millennium.  Origen’s work appears to be focused on a rebuttal of the view that the resurrected bodies will be eating, drinking, and having children.  He refutes this by relying upon 2nd Corinthians 15:44 which states, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”  For Origen, the key to understanding the resurrection is to understand that the body is raised a spiritual body.  For Origen, this spiritual body does mean that it is incorporeal, but that the spiritual body will be concerned with spiritual things.  The purpose of the resurrection is not to rule over an earthly kingdom, but to growing in knowledge of the truth as taught by God.  From this summary of On First Principles 2.10-11, I think the general consensus that Origen presented an amillenial view is correct. 

I have encountered some who have argued that Origen was the man who destroyed sound biblical doctrine (such as the premillennial view) by his biblical interpretation.  Such a view is completely contrary to reality.  The premillennial early Christians whom I have quoted in this post were clearly reading the Bible with allegory and typology.  However, there is a grain of truth to the accusations against Origen.  During and after the 200s, there appears to have been a significant interpretive regarding what should be understood as anagogical /allegorical /typological vis-à-vis the millennium.  Passages that were once understood the support a physical reign of Christ on earth became understood differently.  This can be seen in Irenaeus’ statements, where he used Old Testament prophecies to support both positions.

The Nicene Creed
            The most interesting things about this shift in thought regarding the millennium is that the premillennial view fell so far out of favor that it was cut off as an orthodox view in 381.  When the Nicene Creed was bolstered by the Council of Constantinople, they added the sentence “His Kingdom will have no end.”  This closed to door to the premillennial position.  There a temporal ordering of events in the Nicene Creed.  This is not unimportant nor accidental.  “And He will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His kingdom shall have no end.”  There is no millennium in the Nicene Creed.  It implicitly precludes belief in a physical millennial reign of Christ.  This interpretation is also supported by the eschatological statements at the end of the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.”  There is no millennium.  There is a resurrection and the life of the new heavens and the new earth.
            What I have hoped to demonstrate in all this is that there were multiple views regarding the millennium among early Christians.  The view of a physical millennium, while once espoused, fell out of favor and was abandoned as an orthodox view in the 300’s.  I have hinted at the reasoning for this switch.  I am tempted to do the work to explain with detail how this happened, but such a project would require a long journal article or short book length effort.

[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 578.  I am ever suspicious of statements which place Augustine as the source of a drastic change in a set belief of the Early Church, as they are nearly always made in ignorance or are an over-generalization.

[2] Epistle of Barnabas 15.15.4-5; Justin Martyr hints at this same type eschatology in his interpretation of “day” in Dialogue with Trypho 81; Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 5.30.4; Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel 23.3-23.6; Commodian, Instructiones adversus Gentium Deos pro Christiana Disciplina 35.

[3] Justin Martyr, Dialoge with Trypho, 80.

[4] “For as it is God truly who raises up man, so also does man truly rise from the dead, and not allegorically, as I have shown repeatedly. And as he rises actually, so also shall he be actually disciplined beforehand for incorruption, and shall go forwards and flourish in the times of the kingdom, in order that he may be capable of receiving the glory of the Father” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.35.2).

[5] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.36.1-2.

[6] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.28.3.

[7] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.30.4.

[8] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.32.1.

[9] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.35.2.

[10] Sadly, we know of works which would have formed Irenaeus, but most of them are only preserved as fragments quoted by other writers.

[11] Caius as recorded in Eusebius, Historia Ecclessia 3.28.

[12] Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel, 23.3-23.6.

But one will always say, “How will you demonstrate to me whether the Savior was born in the five thousandth and five hundredth year?  Be easily instructed, O man. For in the desert long ago under Moses there were models and images of spiritual mysteries which concerned the tabernacle and they fulfilled this number, so that having come to the utmost of truth in Christ you are able to apprehend these things which are fulfilled.   For he says to him, “And you shall make an ark of incorruptible wood and you will gild it with pure gold inside and outside and you shall make its height two cubits and a half and its breadth a cubit and a half and its height a cubit and a half.” The measure of which added together makes five and a half cubits, so that the five thousand five hundred years may be demonstrated, in which time the Savior comes from the Virgin, and then he offered the Ark, his own body, into the world, gilded in pure gold, inside with the Word, outside with the Holy Spirit, so that the truth may be shown and the Ark may be manifested.   And so from the generation of Christ it is necessary to count the remaining five hundred years to the consummation of the six thousand years, and in this way the end will be. But because in the fifth and a half time the Savior arrived in the world bearing the incorruptible ark, that is his own body, John says, “and it was the sixth hour,” so that half of the day may be demonstrated, a day of the Lord is like thousand years. And so the half of these is five hundred years (24.1-5).

Note how Hippolytus interprets the Old Testament symbolically and typologically to support his eschatology.  This form of exegesis was the common practice of early Christians.

[13] The historian inside of me is tempted to affirm this as correct and to affirm that the millennium was the time from which Theodosius made Nicene-Christianity the legal religion of the Roman Empire until the Reformation (1517) and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453).  Of course such an attempt would overlook the near simultaneous cessation of Mongol rule of Russia in favor of a Christian state as well as the continual Islamic conquests or the extirpation of Christianity from China during the same time period.

[14] Commodian, Instructiones adversus Gentium Deos pro Christiana Disciplina 45.

[15] Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 3.24.  Tertullian was a part of the Montanist movement (or the “New Prophecy” as Tertullian liked to call it).  This movement placed a great emphasis upon continued prophecy that was viewed as authoritative for Christian living and doctrine.

[16] Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.24.

[17] Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.24.

[18] See: Tertullian, To the Martyrs for his own depiction of martyrs and his understanding of martyrdom.

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