Millennial Views Following the Ante-Nicene Church: Origen and Allegory – Part 1

The death of Lactantius in A.D. 325 marked the end of Premillennialism as a commonly held belief in the church until after the Reformation of the 16th century.  No doubt there were some saints that read the Scriptures and believed what they said on the Messianic Age, but extant teachings on the matter are few.  Even before the fourth century, there were teachings against Premillennialism.  However, these were undeveloped, with the critics typically demeaning many prophetic accounts, and in some instances even removing Revelation from their canons.  So early as the year 170, a church party in Asia Minor—the so-called Alogi—rejected the whole body of apocalyptic writings and denounced the Apocalypse of John as a book of fables.[1]  Most groups are not so honest in their rejection of the plain reading of Scripture.  Others claim to view Revelation and other prophetic writings in the Bible as inspired by God.  However, the normal meanings of these prophecies are often obfuscated or ignored in favor of uncovering some hidden meaning.  These secret meanings are often so foreign to the text that the original audience would never have arrived at them.

OrigenORIGEN AND ALLEGORY

The method of interpreting Scripture in this way is known as the allegorical hermeneutic.  It was first promoted and largely developed by Origen at the turn of the third century.  Origen (185-254 A.D.) was steeped in Greek philosophy and that perspective greatly influenced his approach in understanding Scripture.  This necessitated a militancy against Premillennialism.  For Greek Philosophy typically viewed matter as being flawed or even evil, while the nonphysical part of reality was good.  Only a nonphysical and purely spiritual kingdom was acceptable to Origen and those in agreement with his Alexandrian theology.  Origen provided no unified alternative view to the many prophecies on the future earthly reign of the Messiah as a system.  Instead, various passages on the matter were each relegated to having vague “spiritual” meanings, if they were addressed at all.

It is difficult to overestimate the level of influence Origen and his allegorical hermeneutic had in shaping much of the Christian world’s approach to Scripture.  One of his students, Dionysius, strongly opposed the promotion of Premillennialism through exegesis by the Egyptian church bishop Nepos.  On what followed, Harnack recounted:

Dionysus 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…In the course of the 4th century it was removed from the Greek canon, and thus the troublesome foundation on which chiliasm might have continued to build was got rid of…late in the Middle Ages, the Book of Revelation—by what means we cannot tell—did recover its authority, the church was by that time so hopelessly trammelled by a magical cultus as to be incapable of fresh developments.[2]

MORE REASONS

Harnack’s explanation reveals that Dionysus was also motivated by a distaste for Judaism.  Theologian Renald Showers elaborated on the influence of anti-Semitism:

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.[3]

Some of the same people who claimed to worship a Jew as God in the flesh and hold up the Scriptures that were written by Jews (cf. Rom. 3:1-2), were at the same time eager to separate themselves from what was Jewish.  What absurdity!  Unfortunately, this attitude is still commonplace in much of the Christian world to various degrees.  The disassociation of the Bible from its Jewish context, background, and authorship has led to systemic deficits and blind spots in all areas of Christian theology.  The very fact that the people the Tanakh or Old Testament was originally written to understood it to teach a literal and earthly reign of the Messiah is a strong reason to embrace it.  It is true that most of the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day rejected him.  But this is not because they believed in the Scriptures too much.  Rather, they did not believe in what was written (cf. John 5:46-47).

Showers listed three other primary reasons for the rejection of Premillennialism in the early Church.  First, the Montanists, a sect of Christians often deemed as heretical, happened to include Chiliasm among their doctrines.  Premillennialism predated Montanism and was established orthodox eschatology, but still unfairly suffered from the guilt by association fallacy.  Second, some believers feared that the Romans would increase their persecution of the church if it was taught that Jesus would return and destroy their empire.  Third, a few were concerned that the focus on the return of Jesus to reign on the earth diverted attention away from the daily work of the church.[4]  None of these reasons are based upon the responsible exegesis of Scripture.  The veracity of any doctrine must be determined by Scripture alone.

Much more detailed information on these issues can be studied in an entry by Adolph Harnack entitled “Millennium,” found in the 1901 edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in Philip Schaff’s, History of the Christian Church and in Renald Showers, There Really is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology.[5]

[1] Adolph Hamack, “Millennium,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Twentieth Century edition (New York: The Werner Company. 1901), vol. XVI: 316.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Renald E. Showers, There Really is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990), 128.

[4] Ibid., 127-128.

[5] The Harnack and Schaff works are available free of charge in Google Books.

 

Present Age, Millennium or Eternal State? New Testament – Part 4

Matthew 8 11

The majority of New Testament passages pertaining to the Millennium are those that teach on the kingdom, when Jesus returns to reign from His throne (Matt. 25:31-34).  One of the most striking is Matthew 8:11: I tell you, many will come from east … [Continue reading]

Present Age, Millennium or Eternal State? Minor Prophets – Part 3

Blue Nile Falls - Cush

ZEPHANIAH Zephaniah 3:9-20 is a noteworthy summary of the Millennium, with a focus on blessings for both Jew and Gentile.  Verses 9-10: “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the … [Continue reading]

Present Age, Millennium or Eternal State? Isaiah and Daniel – Part 2

Redwood Tree Roots

ISAIAH Isaiah contains far more millennial passages than any other book in Scripture, including some of the most descriptive and comprehensive.  Following the classic depiction of the Millennium in Isaiah 11:6-9, is the instructive 11:10-12: In … [Continue reading]

Present Age, Millennium or Eternal State? Torah and Psalms – Part 1

Isaac Blesses Jacob - Tissot

Passages on the Millennium are found regularly throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation.  Many fail to recognize this because a given writer did not explicitly mention a thousand year reign of the Messiah.  This is not a problem, as the … [Continue reading]

A Biblical Survey of the Kingdom: A Light to the World – Part 6

A Light to the Nations

After pleading with his Jewish brother to come to Jesus so that He may bring the kingdom (Acts 3:17-21), Peter referenced the Torah in Acts 3:22-23: Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall … [Continue reading]

A Biblical Survey of the Kingdom: Not Yet – Part 5

Luke 17 21

There is a popular theory on the Kingdom of God, first developed in the early 20th century by Geerhardus Vos, known as already but not yet.  The notion holds that the saints are currently partaking in the kingdom, while at the same time awaiting its … [Continue reading]

A Biblical Survey of the Kingdom: Still Coming – Part 4

Peter Solomon's Portico

That the kingdom did not come in the gospel accounts is vindicated with the apostles’ question and Jesus’ response in Acts 1:6-7: So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said … [Continue reading]

A Biblical Survey of the Kingdom: the Gospel of the Kingdom – Part 3

Matthew 25 Sheep and Goats

The theme of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus Christ as King and the Kingdom of God.  Matthew wrote of the offer of the King and the kingdom He brings, mysteries and parables about the kingdom and Israel’s rejection of the King and thus the kingdom.  The … [Continue reading]

A Biblical Survey of the Kingdom: Kingdom of Priests – Part 2

Israelites at Sinai

Though promises were made to Abraham and his descendants through Jacob, the Israelites were not part of a kingdom for over four centuries.  After the Exodus from Egypt, the people came to Mount Sinai.  It was there where the LORD told Moses to tell … [Continue reading]