I’ve been asked to comment on the millennial debate.
1.Classic postmillennialism is aesthetically appealing. It charts a pleasing dramatic arc and denouement from certain OT themes like the seed of promise and godly remnant to an upward and outward crescendo and climax.
In that respect it exemplifies the classic comic genre, which begins on a high point (Eden), then suffers a tragic downward motion (the fall), then rebounds to end on a higher note than it began on.
This is more aesthetically and dramatically appealing than amillennialism, where Christ comes (the first time), but history continues to zigzag between good and evil, with neither side winning a decisive victory until his second coming.
Postmillennialism is linear while amillennialism is more cyclical.
It’s also more aesthetically appealing, but not necessarily more dramatically appealing, than premillennialism. As we know from the popularity of the Left Behind series, its wham-bam, Batman-style histrionics enjoys a certain cheesy, melodramatic appeal.
So, if life imitated art, we would opt for classical postmillennialism.
Unfortunately for postmillennialism, the choice comes down to revelation rather than imagination, and postmillennialism is, as far as I can tell, underdetermined by Scripture. Prooftexts include:
i) OT golden age prophecies (e.g. Ps 2; 22; 72; Isa 2; 9; 11; 66).
ii) The sweeping terms of the Abrahamic covenant and Great Commission.
iii) Parables of kingdom growth.
iv) An endtime Jewish revival (Rom 11).
But while all of this is consistent with postmillennialism, none of it implies postmillennialism.
i) For one thing, premils, postmils, and amils all compete for some of the same prooftexts. All three groups appeal to the OT golden age prophecies. They simply apply them to different phases of redemptive history.
ii) Likewise, both premils and postmils appeal to Rom 11.
So these prooftexts fail to select for postmillennialism in particular.
iii) I’d add that interpreters like O. P. Robertson, N. T. Wright, and Lee Irons have offered amil readings of Rom 11 which—if valid—would undercut that chapter as a prooftext for either premils or postmils.
iv) Postmillennialism is more specific in its claims than the rather generic language of the Abrahamic covenant and Great Commission.
v) It’s precarious to base your theology on the parables, which are secondary literature in the sense that they are designed to illustrate a teaching rather than stand alone.
vi) In addition, there are also parables which stress the imminence of the Parousia.
vii) A popular objection to postmillennialism is the specter of a mass, endtime apostasy.
However, postmils can deflect these passages by preterizing them. In addition, premils tend to cobble these passages together under the assumption that they all refer to the same event. But one needs to undertake a lot of painstaking exegesis before we can justify that assumption.
2.In addition to classic postmillennialism, a more recent development is postmillennial preterism. This is a development within certain Reformed circles.
And it’s a rather eccentric if not oxymoronic synthesis in the way it severely truncates and radically redefines the traditional postmil projections.
It would be better to drop the “postmil” part of the hyphenated compound and merely call it preterism, pure and simple, for that’s all it is.
3.A logical, albeit heretical, extension of preterism is hyperpreterism.
At one level, there’s no difference between hyperpreterism and liberal preterism inasmuch as both groups believe that OT and NT prophecies targeted the same event.
The only difference is that the hyperpreterist believe the prophecies came true (in a figurative sense), whereas the liberal preterist believes they were falsified by subsequent events.
On a side note, I’d also observe that certain English commentators like N. T. Wright and R. T. France adopt a preterist reading of at least some (all?) OT and NT prophecies as well. And given N. T. Wright’s power as a popularizer, even within Reformed circles, this is something to keep our eye on.
1.Premillennialism comes in many flavors.
i) Classic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism.
ii) Classic dispensationalism and progressive dispensationalism.
iii) Pre/mid/posttribulational premillennialism.
For the moment I’m going to ignore these intramural debates, which I’ll revisit shortly.
2.At one level, premillennialism has only one prooftext: Rev 20.
There are three basic arguments for the premil reading of Rev 20:
i) We should interpret the Bible as literally as possible.
ii) The storyline or historical plot of Revelation is continuous and chronological from Rev 4 through to the end. Rev 20 records the millennium. Rev 20 follows on the heels of 19, which records the return of Christ. Hence, the Apocalypse teaches, in a very straightforward manner, the premillennial return of Christ.
iii) The redoubled use of the verb ezesan (“came to life”) in 20:4-5 should retain the same sense in each occurrence.
Amils reject these arguments on the following grounds:
i) Amils generally regard the internal structure or literary organization of Revelation as cyclical rather than linear, involving septunarian numerology and recapitulatory parallelism.
I personally think that amils can be overly precise in their divisions. However, I agree with this analysis in general.
ii) Even if Rev 20 follows Rev 19, several commentators (Beale, Michaels, Poythress) have pointed out that we need to distinguish between the visionary sequence and the historical sequence.
On this view, what the Apocalypse is recording is not the historical sequence, in the sense of future chronology, but the psychological order in which John was receiving and processing these visions.
iii) The real issue is not whether the verb means the same thing in both occurrences, but whether it denotes the same thing. The premil interpretation commits a semantic fallacy by equating sense and reference.
Traditionally, amil interpreters gloss the second occurrence of the verb in light of Jn 5:25-29.
This comparison has a certain appeal, for if you assume common authorship, then John’s usage in the Gospel might be synonymous with his usage in Revelation.
However, the Fourth Gospel is not the first place you should look to interpret Rev 20. Rather, you should first consider such factors as any literary allusions in Rev 20 (cf. Ezk 37) as well as certain rhetorical polarities in Revelation, viz. life/death/, first/second.
So I agree with the premil criticism of the traditional amil interpretation respecting the verb. But I also think that more recent amil commentators like Poythress and Beale have offered a more contextual interpretation.
3.Pretribulational premillennialism adds a supporting argument in the form of the secret rapture. This is a harmonistic device to square the parables which stress the imminence of the Parousia with the other parables that accentuate the progress of the gospel and duration of the church age.
A key text in support of the secret rapture is 1 Thes 4:13-18. For an amil interpretation, cf.
G. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (IVP 2003), 136-41.
Speaking for myself, one of my basic problems with pretribulationalism is the way in which it automatically isolates and then aligns various passages from different authors in different genres writing to different readers. There is not much effort, that I’ve seen, to ask preliminary questions regarding the occasion and purpose of the passage in question with respect to the target audience. It’s just assumed that all these passages are talking about the same event.
Now, if this were all that premillennialism had to say for itself, it wouldn’t have much to go on. What keeps the debate alive, aside from a certain amount of partisanship on either side, is that competing interpretations over individual verses are merely symptomatic of a different and deeper interpretive scheme and theological methodology, as well as a different ecclesiology.
Here are some of the major issues:
Traditionally, premils emphasize the literal meaning of Scripture, as they define it. Actually, one of the problems is the absence of a definition, for they generally define “literal” by what they take to be synonymous adjectives like “plain,” “natural,” or “normal.” So the definition is circular.
Another source of the ambiguity—indeed, of the equivocation—is that “literal” is being used to cover more than one concept. From what I can tell, “literal” is deployed in some of the following senses:
i)”Actual, factual, historical.”
A literal interpretation involves the affirmation that what was said or done really happened. A real event, in space and time.
That definition would involve an ontological claim.
The Biblical representation doesn’t stand for something else. It isn’t metaphorical.
It’s the first impression that the words would make an average reader.
What the statement means in isolation to a “system” of theology.
The event not only happened, but happened in exactly the way it’s described in Scripture.
Unlike (i), (ii)-(v) are epistemic rather than ontological. A statement about what we can know rather than what there is.
Beyond the aforementioned definitions are a couple of related concerns:
2. The appeal to what is “plain,” “natural,” or “normal” is a populist appeal. It democratizes theology. You don’t need to know anything about Greek or Hebrew or the original culture to understand prophecy.
3. Consistency. There is a concern to have a uniform rule of thumb for interpreting the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
However, within dispensationalism itself there has been a drift away from literality. This is one of the differences between classic and progressive dispensationalism.
By itself, I don’t think this marks a liberalizing trend. What has happened is that, as the cream of premil scholars have studied abroad with the likes of I. H. Marshall, Alan Millard, and the late F. F. Bruce, there has been an inevitable shift from homespun literalism to the grammatico-historical method.
Scholars like Darrell Bock and Daniel Block are simply better educated than Scofield, Darby or Chafer. Having received a good deal of their training outside the dispensational fold, that is bound to have an impact sooner or later.
Now, because the Bible does, indeed, record real-life events, the GHM will often yield in “literal” interpretation, in one sense of the word. And, in that respect, the effect of the hermeneutic shift is rather selective and subtle rather than wholesale.
Still, what is driving the literal conclusion is not a literalistic hermeneutic, but a different methodology which, when applied to an actual event, generates a literal conclusion. The literal conclusion is the caboose, not the choo-choo.
Dispensationalism accuses Calvinism of operating with a form of replacement theology, according to which the church swaps out Israel in the OT promises.
So what’s the difference between classic dispensational hermeneutics and, say, Reformed hermeneutics? And who’s right?
i) One of the fundamental differences between Reformed hermeneutics and classic dispensational hermeneutics lines in what they consider to be the chronological cutoff point for the canonical context of any given book of Scripture.
In classic dispensationalism (at least in principle), it is the canon of Scripture up to and including the book in question. Everything earlier, but nothing later.
In Reformed hermeneutics, by contrast, the entire canon is potentially in play. Later books may well shed light the interpretation of earlier books.
Progressive dispensationalism agrees with Reformed hermeneutics in this respect.
For information on the difference between classic and progressive dispensationalism, cf.:
Classic dispensationalism rejects this move as anachronistic. A violation of original intent.
ii) It’s undoubtedly true that, in this respect, Reformed hermeneutics represents a departure from the GHM, as ordinarily construed.
That’s because Reformed hermeneutics makes allowance for the dual authorship of Scripture. An uninspired writing cannot look ahead. As such, it would be anachronistic to interpret an earlier document in light of later developments.
But where inspiration is a factor, OT books are genuinely anticipatory.
iii) This form of retrospective exegesis does not impose a different meaning on the original text. The meaning remains the same.
But we need to distinguish between sense and referent. Where an OT text has a future referent, that referent can only be properly identified in the future.
In any future-oriented text, there will be a dialectical relation between the past sense and the future referent.
It means whatever it meant at the time it was given. But the temporal referent is supplied by the historical outcome.
The text may, of course specify the referent. That way, we know what we’re looking for.
But it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we know exactly how and when the anticipation was realized in time.
And this is quite literal. For the future referent literally lies in the future.
iv) Another problem with the classic dispensational critique is that it also engages in retrospective exegesis, even though it disavows that practice:
v) Reformed theology also operates a more typological, rather than literalistic, conception of fulfillment. There is a great deal of intertextual interpretation in the Bible. This often goes by the designation of “apostolic exegesis,” but that is somewhat misleading, for it isn’t limited to NT interpretations of the OT. Rather, it extends to the way in which later OT writers interpret earlier OT writers.
Intertextuality is a pervasive feature of Scripture. For the Bible is a record of a continuous legal, literary, and prophetic tradition. Reformed hermeneutics takes its cue from the way in which Bible writers discern the fulfillment of God’s promises.
vi) This is not to say that Reformed exegesis is above criticism in every particular. To some extent, amillennialism is a carryover from Augustine, which includes the lingering influence of allegorical exegesis.
Geerhardus Vos had a considerable influence in giving Reformed amillennialism a more self-consciously eschatological outlook. From him there comes a distinction between inaugurated eschatology and realized eschatology.
Especially in the past, Reformed theologians have sometimes been guilty of “spiritualizing” OT prophecies in a loose, unbridled manner.
Thanks to Vos, this has been tightened up by more recent Reformed theologians and commentators like Beale, Hoekema, Poythress, Ridderbos, and Robertson.
2.The Covenant Community
In Reformed theology, the church never takes the place of Israel. This mischaracterization results from mapping dispensational distinctions back on Reformed theology.
In Reformed theology, Israel and the church were never separate entities or organisms. Rather, they are simply different names for the covenant community.
God has always had a covenant community. In the course of redemptive history, there have been differences in the terms of external membership. But God’s redemptive and eschatological promises share a common referent in the covenant community throughout its historical phases.
Finally, we might pose the blunt question, “Can a dispensationalist be a Calvinist?” The answer depends on how broadly or narrowly you define Calvinism.
If you think that TULIP is a sufficient definition of Calvinism, then, in principle, even a classic dispensationalist could be a Calvinist.
If you regard covenant theology as a necessary ingredient of Calvinism, then it may be possible for a progressive dispensationalist to be a Calvinist.
For an overview of covenant theology, cf.:
As a practical matter, Calvinism has always been pretty tolerant of classic premillennialism, even though amillennialism and postmillennialism have been the most popular options in Reformed historical theology.
The Reformed confessions were framed at a time when some of the later distinctions did not exist.
Traditionally, Reformed theology accentuates the continuity of the covenants while dispensationalism accentuates their discontinuity. But progressive dispensationalism has considerably narrowed the gap.
For further reading:
V. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists
O. P. Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets (P&R 2004)
______. The Israel of God (P&R 2000)
N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreters Bible, L. Keck, ed. (Abingdon Press 2002), 10:687-93.