Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Lesson 7: Bringing in the Kingdom: Postmillennialism from a partial-preterist perspective (part 6)

Basic Features of Postmillennialism

The basic features of postmillennialism, which we studied before, are: 161,162

  • The Messianic Kingdom was founded on earth during the earthly ministry of Christ in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The New Testament church is the transformation of Israel, the Israel of God about which Paul writes:

    Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. (Gal. 6:16)

  • The kingdom is spiritual and redemptive, not physical and political.

  • As the gospel spreads throughout the earth and brings its divinely intended and Spirit-energized results, evil is routed and the millennium arrives.

  • During this era, Satan is bound and the nations live in peace. The great commission will succeed. The kingdom of Christ will gradually expand.

  • After the millennium ends, Satan is loosed to lead a final, short-lived rebellion.

  • Satan’s rebellion is ended by the triumphal return of Jesus. Postmillennialism alone teaches of Jesus’ return to a church victorious (a victory achieved through His power, not man’s). In all other views, Christ returns to a church on the run.

  • The Second Coming is followed by the general resurrection, the judgment, and the eternal state—heaven and hell.

Eminent postmillennialists include Athansius, Agustine162 , Greg Bahnsen, Lorraine Boetnner, John Calvin, Robert Lewis Dabney, John Jefferson Davis, Jonathan Edwards, Eusebius, A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, J, Marcellus Kik, Gary North, R. J. Rushdoony, R. C. Sproul, Augustus H. Strong, and B.B. Warfield.

Revelation 19 and 20

Postmillennialists view Rev. 19, and specifically the rider of the white horse (Rev. 19:11-21) as representing Christ victorious over His enemies through the preaching of the gospel throughout the church age. Revelation 20 describes the millennial age and then the Second Coming. Thus postmillennialists agree with premillennialists that Revelation 19 and 20 are chronological, but they disagree on they mean. Ultimately, Revelation 20 is simply not a determinative passage for postmillennialism, which is rooted more in Old Testament prophetic promises of a victorious church, and New Testament indications that those promises are being fulfilled in this age.

In postmillennialism, the transition from the present age to the millennium is gradual and results from forces already at work on the earth. The onset of the millennium is not catastrophic and perhaps not even discernible. If there is a discontinuity at all, it will be of extent, not content. Life in the millennium will be much like life in the time just preceding it. Grenz writes: "Marriage and the natural process of birth will continue. Most importantly, the church [not Israel] will keep its place in the program of God as the outward visible expression of the inward presence of God’s spirit."163

The gradualism of postmillennialism is always in tension with man’s impatience. Gentry writes, "Abram was old and childless when the Lord promised him an innumerable seed (Gen. 15:5). He died with only one legitimate son. Yet he believed God would perform the work promised. Could not righteous Simeon have been mocked for awaiting the consolation of Israel, since God’s voice had been silent for four hundred years (Luke 2:25)"?164 Speaking of this gradualism, Warfield writes:

The redemption of the world is similarly a process. It, too, has its stages: it, too, advances only gradually to its completion. But it, too, will ultimately he complete; and then we shall see a wholly saved world. Of course it follows, that at any stage of the process, short of completeness, the world, as the individual, must present itself to observation as incompletely saved. We can no more object the incompleteness of the salvation of the world today to the completeness of the salvation of the world, than we can object the incompleteness of our personal salvation today (the remainders of sin in us, the weakness and death of our bodies) to the completeness of our personal salvation. Every thing in its own order: first the seed, then the blade, then the full corn in the ear. And as, when Christ comes, we shall each of us be like him, when we shall see him as he is, so also, when Christ comes, it will be to a fully saved world, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, in which dwells righteousness.165

In what can only be described as fitting, one of the best postmillennial summary statements comes from the renowned Baptist theologian A. H. Strong:

Through the preaching of the gospel in all the world, the kingdom of Christ is steadily to enlarge its boundaries, until Jews and Gentiles alike become possessed of its blessings, and a millennial period is introduced in which Christianity generally prevails throughout the earth (Dan 2:44-45; Mt 13:31, 32; 24:14; Col 1:23)166

Another good summary is from the Presbyterian scholar J. M. Kik:

The post-mil looks for a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a glorious age of the church upon earth through the preaching of the gospel under the power of the Holy Spirit. He looks forward to all nations becoming Christian and living in peace one with another. He relates all prophecies to history and time. After the triumph of Christianity throughout the earth he looks for the second coming of the Lord." 16

But perhaps the most succinct summary statement is this: God made man for His own glory. God doesn’t make mistakes.

Biblical Support for Postmillennialism

The biblical support for postmillennialism comes from the optimistic prophecies of the Old Testament and the victorious reign of Christ depicted in the New Testament.

A micro lesson on Covenant Theology

The flavor of premillennialism that so dominates American evangelism cannot be fully comprehended without a basic knowledge of its theological groundwork: dispensationalism. Likewise, although not quite so critically, it is helpful in understanding postmillennialism to have a working knowledge of covenant theology.

Covenant theology holds that God has structured His redemptive plan around progressively developed and revealed covenants, the unified purpose for which is that: God, for His own pleasure, has decided to redeem a people for Himself. Unlike negotiated covenants (contracts) among men, Biblical covenants are sovereignly and unilaterally imposed by God. Adam didn't have a choice, he was not free to say "I'll have my people get back to you."

What is a Covenant?

As Mathison reports168, Douglas Jones has described four elements of a covenant:

  1. A mutually binding agreement between God and man
  2. Sovereign administration
  3. Conditions (commandments, sanctions)
  4. Promises

In broad terms, there are two major covenants between God and man: The covenant of works, or the Adamic covenant, and The covenant of grace, or the redemptive covenant. The latter covenant is revealed progressively through the patriarchs, and these elaborations are also usually called covenants, such as the Abrahamic covenant, but they are properly viewed as falling within the umbrella of the covenant of grace. God’s part of the covenant, at least the redemptive aspect, is perfectly fulfilled with the finished work of Christ.

Even before there existed covenants between God and man, there was a covenant among the persons of the Godhead, or the Trinitarian covenant. In this "agreement", God the Father chose a people for Himself, God the Son performed the redemptive work, and God the Spirit applied the redemption and would serve as a helper—to assist men in keeping their part of the covenant that they would eventually enter into with God. There is no single passage “proving” this covenant, it is essentially the same thing as proving the Trinity—it requires splicing together a number of passages. Mathison refers us to169 Ps. 2:8, Matt. 28:18, Luke 22:29, John 10:17-18; 14:31; 15:10; 17:5-6, 21-24; Rom. 5:19, Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:4; Phil. 2:8-9; Heb. 1:5; 4:15; 12:2; Rev. 13:8; 17:8.

The Covenant of Works (The Adamic Covenant)
In this covenant, God promised life and intimate fellowship with Adam and his descendants upon the condition of Adam’s perfect obedience. Adam failed and, since the (conditional) promise was made to all of his descendents, that is he was our representative, we all have suffered the consequence of Adam’s sin.

The Covenant of Grace (The Redemptive Covenant)

Immediately upon man's fall, God laid the groundwork for the covenant of Grace (Gen. 3:15). This covenant would be revealed to the patriarchs, appealed to in times of distress by the prophets, and reach its zenith (and conclusion) on the Cross.

The Noahaic Covenant

With Noah, God added a prohibition against murder and a promise not to destroy the earth by flood ever again:

6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. 7 As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it." 8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you-the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you-every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth." (Gen. 9:6-11)

"The Adamic and Noahaic covenants set the stage for the dominion of Godly man and the victory of the gospel of God’s saving grace in history. The Abrahamic covenant [next] promises the spread of salvation to 'all the families of the earth.'"170

The Abrahamic Covenant

Here God reveals an additional promise:

2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Gen. 12:2-3)

This is a very important part of the covenant, eschatologically speaking, for it promises, unconditionally, (if there was a condition it was that Abraham leave his home, which he did) that all peoples on earth will be blessed.

Postmillennialists would make four points about this promise to Abraham:

  1. This is an unconditional (or effectively unconditional) promise from God.
  2. This sounds like a world-wide blessing—not universalism but certainly a promise that people from all over the world would be saved.
  3. The dismal state of the world makes one pessimistic regarding whether this promise has been yet fulfilled.
  4. If it is a promise, and it has not been fulfilled, then it will be at some point in the future, because God never breaks a promise. Ergo, we have reason to be optimistic about the future and to look forward to the success of the great commission.

Now postmillennialism is not based on this interpretation of this one passage. Rather this gives some of the flavor of the comprehensive answer to the criticism of postmillennialism’s optimism: It is not misplaced optimism, but merely the certainty that God will keep His promises.

There is an amazing feature of the Abrahamic covenant. In ancient times two parties in a contract would pass through the carcasses of dead animals. This signified that if either broke the agreement, then their blood should be shed, just like the animal’s blood was shed. In Genisis 15 Abram arranged the carcasses, and God alone passed through them (Gen. 15:17), without requiring Abram to do likewise. The ramification is staggering: God did not require Abram to accept a death sentence if he didn't keep his part of the covenant perfectly, but God imposed a death sentence on Himself should He fail to keep the covenant.

The Mosaic Covenant

Here the law in its fullness was revealed to the Jews, and the practice of tabernacle fellowship with God was instituted.

The Davidic Covenant

Here God promises an eternal kingship to David, to be delivered in his blood line. In other words, the Messiah would be a descendant of David.

The New Covenant

In the new covenant, the final revelation in the progression of the covenant of grace, all God’s promises relating to redemption are fulfilled. And for the first time, God has provided a helper to man to assist him in keeping his part of the contract, this too being a promise from God:

And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezek. 36:27)

This is an important part of the postmillennialist's optimism. As mentioned earlier, the formal reason for optimism is that God appears to have promised that evangelism will succeed (more about that later). The instrumental reason for optimism is that God has sent the Spirit to assist us. We are not relying on man’s efforts—no cause for optimism there—but on the power of God Himself to accomplish His will.

Covenant Theology reflects a continuous process where God reveals and implements His redemptive plan. Viewed this way, redemptive history takes on an inevitable, inexorable, march toward victory. We know look at but a few of the many passages that foretell this victory.

The Parables of the Kingdom

The gradualism taught by postmillennialism is seen by its proponents in the four New Testament parables that compare the kingdom of heaven to growth.

The parables of the Mustard seed and the yeast:

31He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
33He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."
(Matt. 13:31-33)

teach, according to Grenz171: "the gospel influence begins small, but spreads progressively until it is found throughout the world". 171

The parables of the weeds and the net:

24Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?' 28" 'An enemy did this,' he replied. “The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 29" 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.' " (Matt 13:24-30)

47"Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:47-50)

teach that evil will always be present, but will progressively constitute a smaller part of the whole. These four parables, according to postmillennialism, have a common thread: progress of the gospel. The power does not stem from man, although men are often the instruments, but in Jesus Christ as best described in His own words when He issued the Great Commission:

18Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matt, 28:18-20)

For postmillennialists, Christ did not give a task that was doomed to fail. Indeed, because of the pledge of His authority we can be certain of the success of the Great Commission. In the words of James Snowden, "All authority includes all power of every kind that is applicable to the task. Jesus Christ can never have any more power than He has now, because He has all there is." 172

Millard Erickson, a premillennialist, states the difference between the pre and postmillennial views of the Great Commission this way: "Premillennialists assert that Christ the King is absent and will do great things when He returns; postmillennialists assert, however, that according to this passage Christ is present and will be to the end of the age. Thus that power to conquer and reign is available to us in the present." 173

Postmillennialism and Creation

Postmillennial optimism begins with the creation account. In the biblical account of creation, we immediately see that God has a purpose for creation. He created man in His own image (Gen 1:26) and man’s purpose is to glorify God by subduing the earth and having dominion over it. (Gen. 1:26-30). When creation was completed, God proclaimed that it was very good (Gen 1:31).

Next we look at more Old Testament promises.

160 Grenz, The Millennial Maze, p. 72.
161 Kenneth Gentry, as quoted in Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, pp. 200-201.
162 Amillennialists also claim Augustine. Not all these proponents advocated precisely the same features, but all looked for Christ to return after a period of extreme gospel prosperity and success.
163 Grenz, The Millennial Maze, p. 71.
164 Kenneth L. Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, pp. 446-447.
165 B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, pp. 101-102.
166 Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, 1909, 3:1008
167 J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, 1974, p. 4.
168 Mathison, Postmillennialism, An Eschatology of Hope, p. 13
169 Ibid., p.14.
170 Kenneth L. Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, p. 513.
171 Grenz, The Millennial Maze, p. 75.
172 James Snowden, Coming of the Lord, p. 68.
173 Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology, A Study of the Millennium, p. 64.

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