Contemporary Millennial/Tribulational Debates:
Whose Side Was the Early Church On?
The sixth chapter (or essay) in the book A Case For Historic Premillennialism is titled Contemporary Millennial/Tribulational Debates by Donald Fairbairn and is subtitled Whose Side Was the Early Church On? In this chapter, the author goes back in a very nice study of the church fathers to see what the prevalent views were concerning eschatology. This is a very appropriate chapter for this book because, as the author points out, “…historic premillennialism is… derive[d] from the belief that this position was the consensus of the church during its first few centuries.” I like this author’s introduction more so than some of the others. He assumes people are already interested in, indeed, fascinated with the future. Yet while people are fascinated with it, this does not mean eschatology is any more significant than any other doctrine of the Bible. His outline is very easy to follow.
I. Was Premillennialism the Consensus of the Early Church?
A. The View That Premillennialism Was Not the Consensus
B. The View That Premillennialism Was the Consensus
C. The Decline of Premillennialism in the Patristic Period
D. Conclusions about the Prevalence of Premillennialism
II. What Kind of Premillennialism Did the Early Church Advocate?
A. Dispensationalism and Patristic Hermeneutics
B. The Early Church’s Attitude toward Suffering
C. The Church and the Tribulation
D. Conclusions regarding the Tribulation and the Rapture
III. The Theological Function of Chiliasm in Early Patristic Theology
The first section concerning the millennium takes a specific direction as you can see by the outline. The author first examines the view that premillennialism was not the consensus. He points out that those promoting this view many times rely on the silence of a certain church fathers. Also, geographical issues are brought into the fray trying to limit premillennialism to one certain locale in the early church’s history. The author then quotes Justin Martyr and Irenaeus to show that while premillennialism was not the only view, their declarations concerning the millennium are worded in such a way that both men considered premillennialism to be the dominant and in fact the only orthodox view at the time. He then turns to Origen and Augustine to document the theology behind the decline of premillennialism. He points out that Origen had a Platonic philosophical mindset, similar to Gnosticism. He “understood salvation as the soul’s escape from the body rather than as the redemption of the body.” Further, “even though the church rejected his implicit antimaterialism and his virtual denial of the bodily resurrection, Eastern Christendom accepted his critique of premillennialism.” Augustine would later write The City of God (AD 413-426) which would contain the view of Revelation 20 that would eventually dominate eschatology in the church. Yet Fairbairn points out that Augustine’s attack on premillennialism is an attack on an overly sensual form of premillennialism. Augustine argued that the first resurrection is another way of stating a conversion to Christianity. The author then comes back to his original point which is that the early church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries primarily ascribed to Premillennialism.
After establishing premillennialism as the prevalent view, he focuses in on what kind of premillennialism that was. He first shows that there was a belief that Daniel’s 70th week was yet future and that the church was looking forward to the final seven year period at the end of this age. This is a point that both Historic and Dispensational Premillennialists would agree with. Then he goes a bit deeper. I appreciate the author delving into how patristic writers viewed the relationship between Israel and the church. Dispensationalism holds there to be a sharp distinction between Israel and the church; this is in contrast to the fathers which held the church to be included in the promises made to the nation of Israel. Citing Irenaeus and Justin Martyr again, he points out that the land promises are not spiritualized, neither are they disassociated from the church, but “believers from all lands will take part in this fulfillment.” The section concerning the early church’s attitude toward suffering has elements that all could and should agree with. Fairbairn makes a distinction between suffering and God’s wrath. He also points out that the early church held suffering for the name of Jesus and tribulation to be held in high esteem. To die as a martyr was like receiving a badge of honor. This attitude launches into the section concerning the church and the tribulation.
Fairbairn starts out this section by listing some pretrib presuppositions for I Thessalonians 4. Then he turns to John Chrysostom to support a posttrib view of I Thessalonians 4. The comment explains that the church is caught up to meet the LORD as He descends for the sake of honor, as sort of a welcoming party. He then quotes Tertullian to give alternate explanations for the apostasy and restrainer than the classic pretrib views. Then finally he quotes extensively from Irenaeus to show that the church fathers believed that the church would enter the great tribulation. Hand in hand with this, though, is the subtle point brought out earlier that there is no hard line distinction between Israel and the church, but instead, continuity.
In the final section in this chapter concerning the theological function of chiliasm, Fairbairn shows that the primary reason that Ireneaus wrote extensively on the last things was to combat a serious heresy, Gnosticism. The physical universe will be redeemed and premillennialism is the best position to demonstrate this. The old and new testaments were both written for the united people of God. The great tribulation will lead into the millennial kingdom which is not simply a matter of Revelation 20, but a central tenet of the Christian faith. Quoting Fairbairn, “that there is one God who in love has created this world for us and us for it, who has personally entered this world in order to redeem us for a future in this world, and who will ultimately triumph in this world over the forces that are arrayed against him.”
Overall, this is a well written chapter. I have read chapters like this before which explore the church fathers’ views concerning eschatology, for example in Gundry’s The Church and the Tribulation, in Nigro’s Before God’s Wrath, and in Ladd’s The Blessed Hope. These works seemed to be more well-rounded as far as a variety of sources from which they quoted, however, they were primarily concerned with the rapture question alone. A Case For Historic Premillennialism has more in mind than just this issue. A position on the millennium and the relationship between the church and Israel are explored as well. All in all, you must read the chapter to get the finer points which I fail to bring out in this brief synopsis.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman