Theology Adrift: The Early Church Fathers and Their Views of Eschatology
In 1962, philosopher-scientist Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to signal a massive change in the way a community thinks about a particular topic.1 Examples of paradigm shifts include Copernicus’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Each changed the world of thought (some for better, some for worse) in a fundamental way.
From a political perspective, Constantine’s Edict of Milan, issued in AD 313, constituted the formal beginning of a major paradigm shift that signaled the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval period. That edict legitimated Christianity and impressed upon it the Empire’s stamp of approval. It provided in pertinent part:
We grant both to Christians and to all men freedom to follow whatever religion each one wishes, in order that whatever divinity there is in the seat of heaven may be appeased and made propitious towards us and towards all who have been set under our power… And since these same Christians are known to have possessed not only the places in which they had the habit of assembling but other property too which belongs by right to their body… you will order all this property… to be given back without any equivocation or dispute to all those same Christians.2
While the edict was couched in terms of tolerance to all forms of religion, its significance and historical impact lies in the fact that its author, Constantine, was the first Roman emperor openly sympathetic to Christianity.3
From a theological perspective—specifically an eschatological one—the Edict of Milan also signaled a monumental paradigm shift—from the well-grounded premillennialism of the ancient church fathers to the amillennialism or postmillennialism that would dominate eschatological thinking from the fourth century AD to at least the middle part of the nineteenth century.4 Yet, as explored below, the groundwork for this shift was laid long before Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313. In the two centuries that led up to the edict, two crucial interpretive errors found their way into the church that made conditions ripe for the paradigm shift incident to the Edict of Milan. The second century fathers failed to keep clear the biblical distinction between Israel and the church. Then, the third century fathers abandoned a more-or-less literal method of interpreting the Bible in favor of Origen’s allegorical-spiritualized hermeneutic. Once the distinction between Israel and the church became blurred, once a literal hermeneutic was lost, with these foundations removed, the societal changes occasioned by the Edict of Milan caused fourth century fathers to reject premillennialism in favor of Augustinian amillennialism.
This paper explores these two interpretive errors on the part of the post-apostolic fathers that set the doctrine of eschatology adrift from its secure biblical moorings and resulted in an acute paradigm shift from premillennialism to amillennialism. But first we must address a foundational question: Why do we care? Why does it matter what the early church father believed about eschatology anyway? Don’t we as conservative Protestants embrace sola Scriptura? Isn’t that enough? The answer to these questions is discussed in Chapter Two.
Why Study the Eschatological
Views of the Early Church Fathers
It is a fair question to ask: “Why do we care about the eschatological views of the early church fathers?” We as evangelicals emphatically agree with Hodge that “the true method of theology… assumes that the Bible contains all the facts or truths which form the contents of theology.”5 As Ryrie cogently put it:
The fact that something was taught in the first century does not make it right (unless taught in the canonical Scriptures), and the fact that something was not taught until the nineteenth century does not make it wrong unless, of course, it is unscriptural.6
In the words of our Baptist forefathers: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” and “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: Unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”7 Therefore, since everything we need for an adequate understanding of doctrine is to be found in the Bible, are the doctrinal positions of our predecessors irrelevant to our understanding of theology?
Not at all. There is, in fact, much value in studying historical theology.8 The value is interpretive. As stated by Erickson, historical theology “makes us more self-conscious and self-critical, more aware of our own presuppositions.”9 It assists us in learning to “do theology” by showing us “how others have done it before us.”10 Finally, it “may provide a means of evaluating a particular idea.”11 It shows us how a particular doctrine began, evolved and, importantly for purposes of this paper, “sometimes deviated from biblical truth.” In sum, “historical theology attempts to understand the formation of doctrines, their development and change—for better or worse.”12
Not surprisingly, the period of the early church fathers is considered the most important in historical theology.13 This is true for two reasons: First, the early church fathers were “close to the events of the life of Christ and the apostolic era.” Moreover, the second century apologists took the lead in defending Christianity against its first barrage of intellectual criticism.14
Thus, it behooves us to understand the eschatological views of the early church fathers. This is especially so since one charge frequently laid against dispensational premillennialists is that our system cannot pass the test of historical theology. Dispensationalism cannot be true, so the assertion goes, because it is recent in origin.15 Charles Ryrie calls this the “historical attack.”16
Of course, the historical attack on dispensational premillennialism ignores the overwhelming evidence that the church fathers of the first three centuries AD were uniformly premillennial, not amillennial or postmillennial. It also fails to recognize that a change in church dogma does not necessarily indicate a change for the better. Indeed, one can profitably learn as much from the mistakes of those who come before us as from their triumphs. Unfortunately, at least in the area of eschatology, the progression of doctrinal understanding leading up to the paradigm shift occasioned by the Edict of Milan was not for the better. It involved two basic interpretive errors that remain with us today. The first critical error of the second century fathers—the failure to keep distinct the nation of Israel and the church—is discussed in Chapter Three.
The First Error:
Blurring the Distinction
Between Israel and the Church
A fundamental tenet of dispensationalism is the belief that Israel and the church are distinct peoples of God.17 Indeed, a simple concordance search of the word “Israel” in the New Testament will lead to the conclusion that the New Testament writers never equated the church with the nation of Israel.18
However, what the New Testament writers did not do, the post-apostolic fathers quickly did. For example, around the turn of the first century AD, Clement appears to have ascribed to the church the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant in his Epistle to the Corinthians:
Let us then draw near to Him with holiness of spirit, lifting up pure and undefiled hands unto Him, loving our gracious and merciful Father, who has made us partakers in the blessings of His elect. For thus it is written, When the Most High divided the nations, when He scattered the sons of Adam, He fixed the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. His people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, and Israel the lot of His inheritance. And in another place [the Scripture] saith, Behold, the Lord taketh unto Himself a nation out of the midst of the nations, as a man takes the first-fruits of his threshing-floor; and from that nation shall come forth the Most Holy. Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness,…19
While Clement’s statement could perhaps be seen as ambiguous, the following assertions of Justin Martyr in Dialogue with Trypho (around AD 160) cannot:
 And Trypho remarked, What is this you say? that none of us shall inherit anything on the holy mountain of God? And I replied, I do not say so; but those who have persecuted and do persecute Christ, if they do not repent, shall not inherit anything on the holy mountain. But the Gentiles, who have believed on Him, and have repented of the sins which they have committed, they shall receive the inheritance along with the patriarchs and the prophets, and the just men who are descended from Jacob, even although they neither keep the Sabbath, nor are circumcised, nor observe the feasts. Assuredly they shall receive the holy inheritance of God.20
 What larger measure of grace, then, did Christ bestow on Abraham? This, namely, that He called him with His voice by the like calling, telling him to quit the land wherein he dwelt. And He has called all of us by that voice, and we have left already the way of living in which we used to spend our days, passing our time in evil after the fashions of the other inhabitants of the earth; and along with Abraham we shall inherit the holy land, when we shall receive the inheritance for an endless eternity, being children of Abraham through the like faith. For as he believed the voice of God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, in like manner we having believed God’s voice spoken by the apostles of Christ, and promulgated to us by the prophets, have renounced even to death all the things of the world. Accordingly, He promises to him a nation of similar faith, God-fearing, righteous, and delighting the Father; but it is not you, ‘in whom is no faith.’21
 What, then? says Trypho; are you Israel? and speaks He such things of you? … “As therefore from the one man Jacob, who was surnamed Israel, all your nation has been called Jacob and Israel; so we from Christ, who begat us unto God, like Jacob, and Israel, and Judah, and Joseph, and David, are called and are the true sons of God, and keep the commandments of Christ. 22
According to Saucy, Justin Martyr’s statements were “the capstone of a developing tendency in the church to appropriate to itself the attributes and prerogatives that formerly belonged to historical Israel.”23 Saucy states:
With Justin’s statement, the developing theology of replacement was complete. There was no longer any place for historical Israel in salvation history. The prophecies addressed to this people henceforth belonged to the church.24
Why did the early church fathers so quickly abandon the biblical distinction between Israel and the church? Saucy notes four factors. First was the developing antagonism between Judaism and early Christianity.25 The early strife revealed in the apostolic period (Acts 4:1ff; 5:17ff; 6:12ff; 9:1; 1 Thes. 2:14-16; Rev. 2:9) was “acerbated by the failure of Christians to support the Jewish revolt against the Roman authorities in AD 66-70, the Christians choosing instead to flee Jerusalem for the safety of Pella, across the Jordan in Decapolis.” The schism was again deepened by the Jewish proclamation at the Council of Jamnia (AD 90) that all who departed from the standard Jewish faith were cursed.26
The second factor influencing the thinking of early believers in terms of how they viewed Israel was the two-fold destruction of Jerusalem.27 With the first destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem as a result of the second Jewish revolt in AD 132-135, the early Christians began to see these defeats as evidence of not only God’s displeasure on Judaism, but also God’s vindication of Christianity. The early Christians thus abandoned any hope for the restoration of the nation of Israel.28
The third rationale was the refusal of Jews to accept Christ.29 As time passed, the church began to realize that the Jewish establishment was not going to change its mind about Jesus Christ. Hence, early Christian leaders began to see Jews less as converts to the gospel and more as enemies of the gospel.
The fourth rationale involved the increasingly Gentile composition of the church.30 As the church began to be dominated by people without Jewish roots, the hardening of the Jews’ hearts and the waning hope for Israel’s conversion made it easier for the increasingly Gentile church to polemicize against Judaism and to seek a replacement theology.31
In sum, the basic premise of the early fathers was that God had permanently cut the nation of Israel off as his people as a result of her disobedience and idolatry in the Old Testament and her rejection and crucifixion of Jesus in the New. The faithful of the church age became the “new Israel” of God. They, along with the patriarchs and saints of previous ages, would inherit the promises given to national Israel, and these promises would be fulfilled in the millennial kingdom.32
Although Saucy calls the reasoning of these post-apostolic fathers “surely understandable,”33 it was equally certain error. As a result, the dispensationalism of the biblical writers was lost, even though the early fathers continued to hold to a literal millennial kingdom for the church and the Old Testament saints to enter. Moreover, this initial error led to a far more serious problem. The early fathers’ willingness to abandon the literal meaning of the biblical text—in this instance in terms of the meaning of Israel and the church—was merely a portense of things to come with regard to the second major error—the systematic allegorizing and spiritualizing of Scripture. This is discussed in Chapter Four.
The Second Error:
Allegorizing the Text of Scripture
The early apostolic fathers interpreted Scripture according to a “functional hermeneutic,” meaning that they applied the text to their own situation, often without regard for its original context.34 For example, Clement included 166 quotations or allusions to the Old Testament in his Epistle to the Corinthians, seeking not so much to discover the Old Testament’s message on its own or even with regard to the work of Christ, but more so to offer types and other pictures of Christ as a basis for moral obedience.35 In the seven letters of Ignatius that are believed to be genuine, the Antioch bishop used almost fifty references to 1 Corinthians. In doing so, he characteristically took Pauline expressions from their contexts and used them in his own situations.36
In the latter part of the second century, the church was beset by Gnostic critics who challenged the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. For example, the heretic Marcion rejected the Old Testament in toto. In response, Justin Martyr expanded the “functional hermeneutic” of the early fathers to include a “typological hermeneutic.”37 He linked the Old Testament and the New by adopting the view that the Old Testament in its entirety pointed to Jesus. Almost any person or event in the Old Testament profitably could be used to foreshadow the life or work of Christ.38 In fact, Justin saw the Old Testament as being “a specifically Christian book, belonging to the church even more than to the synagogue.”39 This approach paved the way for the allegorical interpretive method suggested by Clement of Alexandria and perfected by his successor, Origen.
Clement became the leader of the Alexandrian school in AD 190. He saw the literal meaning of Scripture as being a “starting point” for interpretation. Although it was “suitable for the mass of Christians,” God revealed himself to the spiritually advanced through the “deeper meaning” of Scripture. In every passage, a deeper or additional meaning existed beyond the primary or immediate sense.40 “The literal sense indicated what was said or done, while the allegorical showed what should be believed.”41
Origen, Clement’s successor, took his approach to new levels. Origen (along with Augustine) has been considered the most nimble, creative mind of the early church.42 Schaff called him “the greatest scholar of his age, and the most gifted, most industrious, and most cultivated of all the ante-Nicene fathers.”43 Origen was a pious man. He “rarely ate flesh, never drank wine; devoted the greater part of the night to prayer and study, and slept on the bare floor.”44 He was tortured and condemned to the stake in the Decian persecution, and was saved from martyrdom only upon the death of the emperor.45 For his faith, then, Origen is to be commended. For his theology, however, he is to be severely castigated.
Schaff’s delicate suggestion that Origen’s “great defect” was the “neglect of the grammatical and historical sense and his constant desire to find a hidden mystic meaning” in the text of the Bible is sheer understatement.46 While Origen did not deny the literal meaning of the text, that most certainly was not his emphasis. Rather, he taught that Scripture has three different, yet complementary meanings: (1) a literal or physical sense, (2) a moral or psychical sense, and (3) an allegorical or intellectual sense.47
To Origen, much of the Bible, if read literally, was intellectually incredible or morally objectionable. An allegorizing interpretation was used to make objectionable passages palatable.48 However, as Bruce has observed: “this approach was largely arbitrary, because the approved interpretation depended so largely on the interpreter’s personal preference, and in practice it violated the original intention of the Scriptures and almost obliterated the historical relatedness of the revelation they recorded.”49 Farrar similarly declared:
When once the principle of allegory is admitted, when once we start with the rule that whole passages and books of Scripture say one thing when they mean another, the reader is delivered bound hand and foot to the caprice of the interpreter…
Unhappily for the Church, unhappily for any real apprehension of Scripture, the allegorists, in spite of protest, were completely victorious.50
The dangers of an allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture are nowhere more evident than with regard to Origen himself. Origen taught the pre-existence of souls, universal salvation and a limited hell, doctrines for which he was posthumously condemned as a heretic.51 Despite his late condemnation, the damage had long been done. Through Augustine, Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic became the backbone of medieval interpretation of the Bible.
Augustine (AD 354-430), perhaps Christendom’s most preeminent theologian apart from the apostle Paul, was drawn to the Alexandrian approach to interpreting Scripture by Ambrose, his spiritual mentor. Building on Origen’s interpretive system, Augustine suggested a four-fold sense which would later be adopted by medieval theologians: (1) literal; (2) allegorical; (3) tropological or moral; and (4) analogical.52 However, later in life, he began to emphasize more strongly the literal and historical sense of Scripture.53 Stanton has even suggested that Augustine came to the view that the historical and doctrinal sections of Scripture should be interpreted by normal literal methods, while prophecy should be interpreted spiritually.54
In apparently backtracking from Origen’s purely allegorical method of interpretation, Augustine may have been influenced to some degree by the Antioch school of biblical interpretation, which arose in opposition to the Alexandrian school. The Antioch’s school’s two greatest exegetes, Theodore of Mopsuestia (AD 350-428) and John Chrysostom (AD 354-407), were “anti-allegorical,” meaning they rejected interpretations that effectively denied the historical reality of what the scriptural text affirmed.55 Chrysostom, in particular, avoided treating Old Testament passages as allegories of Christ and the church and instead sought typological meanings when the text allowed for it.56
Chrysostom and the Antiochene school distinguished allegorical interpretation from typological in two primary ways. Typological interpretation attempted to seek out patterns in the Old Testament to which Christ corresponded, while allegorical exegesis depended on accidental similarity of language between two passages. Second, typological interpretation depended on a historical interpretation of the text. The passage, according to the Antiochenes, had only one meaning, the literal, and not two as suggested by the allegorists.57
The Antioch school, however, was an aberration. It could not halt the torrent of allegorism spawned by Origen and matured by Augustine.
Whether Augustine personally abandoned Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic later in life is open to debate. His legacy, however, at least through the medieval period, was the perpetuation of Origen’s allegorical interpretive method. Indeed, with Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic firmly in place, it became an easy jump to amillennialism.
The Paradigm Shift:
From Premillennialism to Amillennialism
Philip Schaff, no dispensational premillennialist, observed that “the most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment.”58 Schaff noted that the hope of Christ’s imminent return “through the whole age of persecution, was a copious fountain of encouragement and comfort under the pains of that martyrdom which sowed in blood the seed of a bountiful harvest for the church.”59 Even church fathers who committed other errors discussed above, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, remained committed premillennialists. For example, Clement of Rome conspicuously combined premillennialism with a clear belief in the imminency of Christ’s return. He wrote:
Of a truth, soon and suddenly shall His will be accomplished, as the Scripture also bears witness, saying, Speedily will He come, and will not tarry; and, The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Holy One, for whom ye look.60
Barnabas, an early member of the Alexandrian school who otherwise spiritualized the Old Testament, expressly taught a millennial reign of Christ on the earth:
The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it. Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, He finished in six days. This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years. Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. And He rested on the seventh day. This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the-sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day.61
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus extolled the virtues of the millennium in terms reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets. He also marshalled statements from Papias in support of his literal millennial views:
The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth: as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand dusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me. In like manner [the Lord declared] that … all animals feeding [only] on the productions of the earth, should [in those days] become peaceful and harmonious among each other, and be in perfect subjection to man.
And these things are bone witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled … by him. And he says in addition, Now these things are credible to believers. 62
Polycarp asked two questions which reflected a belief in a literal, earthly reign of Christ and his saints:
But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord? Do we not know that the saints shall judge the world? as Paul teaches.63
Justin Martyr was an enthusiastic premillennialist, although by his day, premillennialism had at least some opponents:
And Trypho to this replied, I remarked to you sir, that you are very anxious to be safe in all respects, since you cling to the Scriptures. But tell me, do you really admit that this place, Jerusalem, shall be rebuilt; and do you expect your people to be gathered together, and made joyful with Christ and the patriarchs, and the prophets, both the men of our nation, and other proselytes who joined them before your Christ came? or have you given way, and admitted this in order to have the appearance of worsting us in the controversies?
Then I answered, I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing and think another. I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise… But I and others, who are fight-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.64
Tertullian was also a premillennialist, but he unfortunately based his eschatology on the predictions of Montanist prophets as well as on Scripture.65 Indeed, the Montanists’ fanatical excesses worked to discredit premillennialism among early church leaders, and opposition to premillennialism began in earnest as a result of the Montanist movement. Caius of Rome attacked millennialism specifically because it was linked to Montanism, and he attempted to trace the belief in a literal millennium to the heretic Cerinthus.66
In Alexandria, Origen spiritualized the eschatological prophecies of Scripture, in keeping with his general allegorical hermeneutic.67 His student, Dionysius the Great, went so far as to even deny that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation. Instead, he attributed the Apocalypse to a heretofore unknown elder of the same name.68
However, these were mere harbingers of things to come. The crushing blow for premillennialism came with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, by which Constantine reversed the Roman Empire’s policy of hostility toward Christianity and accorded it full legal recognition and even favor. Historian Paul Johnson calls the issuance of this edict “one of the decisive events in world history.69 With it, no longer was the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church. Rather, Christianity would be, in many ways, a mirror-image of the empire itself. “It was catholic, universal, ecumenical, orderly, international, multi-racial and increasingly legalistic.”70 It was a huge force for stability.71 Hence, Christianity after 313 would become worldly, rather than other-worldly.
The church’s new-found favor from Rome caused dramatic upheavals. Jerome complained that “one who was yesterday a catechumen is today a bishop; another moves overnight from the ampitheatre to the church; a man who spent the evening in the circus stands next morning at the altar, and another who was recently a patron of the stage is now the dedicator of virgins.”72 He wrote that “our walls glitter with gold, and gold gleams upon our ceilings and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ is dying at our doors in the person of his poor, naked and hungry.”73
Thus, the focus of the church changed from looking for ultimate comfort in the world beyond the grave to seeking comfort in this world, in the here and now. Christianity was viewed as “a religion with a glorious past as well as an unlimited future.74 As a result, it suffered what Johnson called “a receding, indeed, disappearing, eschatology.”75 He stated:
After Christianity, contrary to all expectation, triumphed in the Roman empire, and was embraced by the Caesars themselves, the millennial reign, instead of being anxiously waited and prayed for, began to be dated either from the first appearance of Christ, or from the conversion of Constantine and the downfall of paganism, and to be regarded as realized in the glory of the dominant imperial state-church.76
Instead of being aliens and strangers in this world, Christians found themselves utterly at ease in the city of man as well as the city of God. Indeed, Augustine’s City of God was the first comprehensive theology to result from this standpoint.77 Augustine believed that history runs on two parallel tracks: the City of God (God’s people) and the City of Man (human endeavor as typified by human government). He taught that the people of the City of God must support and uphold the ordered peace of human government, the City of Man. He believed that the two cities have a common task: to secure “those lesser goods” without which human existence would become impossible.”78
Augustine’s amillennialism is an outworking of this general theme. He reinterpreted the millennium to refer to the church and equated the thousand year reign of Christ and his saints with the “whole duration of this world.” Thus, Revelation 20 is to be interpreted as follows:
- Jesus bound Satan and restrained him from seducing the nations at Calvary.
- The saints currently reign with Christ in the millennial kingdom of God, which presently exists.
- Satan will be loosed for a three and a half year period of time, during which the church will be severely persecuted.
- After this, Christ will return.79
Interestingly, Augustine stated that the literal view of the scope of the millennium (one-thousand year reign) “would not be objectionable” if the nature of the millennial kingdom was a “spiritual one” rather than a physical one. However, he strongly objected to the view that “those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself. Such a view was to “be believed only by the carnal.”80
Augustinian amillennialism was the dominant eschatology for centuries. Premillennialism, with few exceptions, soon became the view only of outcasts and heretics.81 The paradigm shift was complete. The marginalization of the premillennialism of the Bible and the early church fathers was so successful that even the reformers dismissed it as a “fable of Jewish dotage.”82 And it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that premillennialism was rediscovered as the true, biblical view.
The early church fathers deserve great admiration for their courage to stand boldly for Christ, even at the cost of their lives. They shame us in our worldliness. The writings of the early church fathers also deserve serious study. These men lived in the shadow of the apostolic age. Some of them personally walked and talked with the apostles. Yet while the early fathers are to be seriously studied and respected, they are not to be venerated. As we have seen, like us, they too were fallible, capable of error.
As I hope this paper has made clear, the interpretive errors of the early church fathers were occasioned by the circumstances in which these men of God found themselves. In an era in which Jews and Christians were engaged in overt hostility over which religion would emerge supreme and victorious, it was easy for church leaders to adopt a theology that the church replaced Israel. It was also easy for Justin Martyr to spiritualize the Old Testament in order to see more of New Testament Christianity in it, and thereby refute the Gnostics who denied the Old Testament’s place in God’s revelation to man. The lesson for us is that we must continually guard against interpreting the Bible according to current events—a point often lost on some of dispensational millennialism’s more popular proponents.83
The bottom line, of course, is that we must continually go back to the Scriptures as our only source for “doing theology.” As much as we may respect and admire the early church fathers, or, for that matter, the reformers, the puritans, or a particular modern spiritual leader, we must always remember to be Bereans, checking their conclusions and reasoning against the plumb line of God’s Word. No one could put it more clearly or forcefully than Martin Luther as he boldly and defiantly proclaimed before the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God… Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”84
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Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand. Nashville: Abington Press, 1950.
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Clouse, Robert G. “Introduction.” In The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977.
Crutchfield, Larry V. “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.” In Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1987).
__________. Israel and the Church in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September 1987).
Dockery, David S. Christian Scripture. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995.
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, Moody Press, 1989.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983-1985.
Gibbons, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Great Books of the Western World ed. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.1952.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1995.
Irenaeus. “Against Heresies.” In The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. [CD-ROM] (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996).
Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Athenium, 1976.
Justin Martyr. “Dialogue with Trypho.” In The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. [CD-ROM] (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996).
Kroeger, C.C. “Origen.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Walter Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984.
Kuhn, Thomas, S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2d enlarged ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
MacMullen, Ramsay. Constantine. New York: Dial Press, 1969.
Norris, Frederick W. “Universal Salvation in Origen and Maximus.” In Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. Ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992.
O’Meara, John, ed. An Augustinian Reader. New York: Image Books, 1973.
Osborne, Grant. The Hermeneutical Circle. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958.
Polycarp. “Epistle to the Philippians.” In The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson. [CD-ROM] (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996).
Preus, Robert D. “The View of the Bible Held By the Church: The Early Church Fathers Through Luther.” In Inerrancy. Ed. Norman L. Geisler. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995.
__________. Basic Theology. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986.
Saucy, Robert L. The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol. II. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910, reprinted 1995.
___________. The Creeds of Christendom. Harper and Row, 1931, reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
Stanton, Gerald. Kept From the Hour. Miami Springs, FL: Schoettle Publishing, 4th ed. 1991.
Strothmann, F.W., ed. On the Two Cities: Selections from The City of God. New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1957.
Walsh, Michael. The Triumph of the Meek: Why Early Christianity Succeeded. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.
1 Thomas, S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d enlarged ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
2 Quoted in Michael Walsh, The Triumph of the Meek: Why Early Christianity Succeeded (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 248.
3 Historians dispute whether Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was genuine E.g., Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Pelican Books, 1967, reprinted Penguin Books, 1990), 125-127; Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Great Books of the Western World ed. (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.1952), 290. Although Eusebius recounts that in AD 312, Constantine saw a “vision” in which the sign of the cross was emblazoned across the sky surrounded by the words “In this, conquer,” this “vision” was almost certainly apocryphal. See Ramsay MacMullen, Constantine (New York: Dial Press, 1969), 73.
4 I recognize that the use of paradigm theory in theology is fraught with risk. Theology is concerned with ultimate truth, both in God and as revealed by God. By contrast, paradigm theory, at least at its scientific core, is pessimistic about truth-seeking. See Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Circle (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 403-404. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one can still view paradigm theory as a useful way of looking at how man conceives of ultimate truth at a specific point in time in the history of dogma without compromising the fact that ultimate truth (a) exists and (b) is found in Christ Jesus and in his written Word.
5 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1995), 17.
6 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 15-16.
7 Baptist Confession of 1689, art. I.
8 Historical theology is the “unfolding of Christian theology throughout the centuries.” Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, Moody Press, 1989), 403.
9 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983-1985), 26.
11 Ibid, 26-27.
12 Enns, Moody Handbook, 403.
13 Church history is commonly divided into four major periods: (1) the ancient church (through AD 590), (2) the medieval church (AD 590 to 1517), (3) the reformation era (1517-1750), and (4) the modern era (1750-present). Ibid, 403-406.
14 Ibid, 404.
15 For example, Dale Moody has written, “Dispensationalism with the modern form of seven dispensations, eight covenants, and a Pretribulation Rapture is a deviation that has not been traced beyond 1830.” Dale Moody, The Word of Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 555, quoted in Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 14-15. Daniel Fuller has similarly written: “Ignorance is bliss, and it may well be that this popularity [of dispensationalism] would not be so great if the adherents of this system knew the historical background of what they teach. Few indeed realize that the teaching of Chafer came from Scofield, who in turn got it through the writings of Darby and the Plymouth Brethren.” Daniel P. Fuller, “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism” (TH.D. dis., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Chicago, 1975), 136, quoted in Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 61. To these critics, never mind that there is ample evidence of dispensational-type thinking in the writings of the early fathers. See generally Larry V. Crutchfield, “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1987).
16 Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 14.
17 E.g., Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 451; Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39-40. Progressive dispensationalists, rightly, in my view, consider both Israel and the church as ultimately belonging to one people of God and serving one historical purpose, but within that broad framework, they retain the traditional dispensational distinction between Israel and the church. See Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 187-218.
18 The only arguable passage is Gal. 6:16. Even there, however, the evidence does not support the conclusion that the phrase Israel of God refers to the church. First, the repetition of the preposition (“upon” or “to” ) indicates that two groups are in view. Second, all the sixty five other occurrences of the term Israel in the New Testament refer to Jews. It would thus be strange for Paul to use Israel here to mean Gentile Christians. Third, Paul elsewhere distinguishes between two kinds of Israelites--believing Jews and unbelieving Jews (cf. Rom. 9:6). He does the same here, referring to true Israel, that is, Jews who come to Christ. See Donald K. Campbell, “Galatians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary [CD-ROM] (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997). See also Saucy, Progressive Dispensationalism, 198-202; Enns, Moody Handbook, 526 n.12.
19 Clement, “Epistle to the Corinthians” in A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers [CD-ROM] (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996), 34.
20 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 406.
21 Ibid, 527.
22 Ibid, 532-33.
23 Saucy, Progressive Dispensationalism, 212.
25 Saucy, Progressive Dispensationalism, 213.
27 Ibid, 215.
28 Ibid, 215.
29 Ibid, 216.
30 Ibid, 217.
32 Larry V. Crutchfield, “Israel and the Church in the Ante-Nicene Fathers” Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September 1987), 256.
33 Saucy, Progressive Dispensationalism, 216.
34 David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 101.
35 Ibid, 102.
37 Ibid, 103.
38 Ibid, 103-104.
39 Robert D. Preus, “The View of the Bible Held By the Church: The Early Church Fathers Through Luther,” Inerrancy, Norman L. Geisler, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 359.
40 Dockery, Christian Scripture, 108.
42 Frederick W. Norris, “Universal Salvation in Origen and Maximus” in Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 35.
43 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. II (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910, reprinted 1995), 790.
44 Ibid, 788. Origen’s zeal for piety went to an unfortunate extreme. As a youth, he emasculated himself to guard against sexual temptation. Ibid.
45 Ibid, 790.
46 Ibid, 792.
47 Dockery, Christian Scripture, 110.
48 F.F. Bruce, “Interpretation of the Bible” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology Walter Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), 566.
50 F.W. Farrar, History of Interpretation, 238 (cited in J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 23.
51 See C.C. Kroeger, “Origen” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 803; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 1015.
52 Dockery, Christian Scripture, 122.
54 Gerald Stanton, Kept From the Hour (Miami Springs, FL: Schoettle Publishing, 4th ed. 1991), 148. Certainly, this was the view of the Reformers.
55 Dockery, Christian Scripture, 112-114.
56 Ibid, 115.
58 Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 614.
59 Ibid, 615.
60 Clement, “Epistle to the Corinthians” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 31.
61 Barnabas, “Epistle of Barnabas” in A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers [CD-ROM] (Albany, OR: Sage Software, 1996), 279.
62 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1165.
63 Polycarp, “Epistle to the Philippians” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1996), 79.
64 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 479-480.
65 Schaff, 618.
67 Ibid, 618-19.
68 Ibid, 619.
69 Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Athenium, 1976), 67.
70 Ibid, 76.
72 Quoted Ibid, 78.
73 Quoted Ibid, 79.
74 Ibid, 99.
75 Ibid, 80.
77 The City of God was written as a result of a state crisis—the ransacking of Rome by Alaric in AD 410. John J. O’Meara, “Introduction” in An Augustinian Reader (New York: Image Books, 1973), 18.
78 F.W. Strothmann, “Introduction” to Augustine, On the Two Cities: Selections from The City of God (New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1957), vi-vii.
79 Augustine, City of God, Great Books of the Western World ed. (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 535-543.
80 Augustine, City of God, 535.
81 At the council of Ephesus in 431, belief in the millennium was condemned as superstitious. See Robert G. Clouse, “Introduction” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, Robert Clouse, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 9.
82 The Forty-First of the Anglical Articles drawn up by Cramner described the millennium in this fashion. See Schaff, 619, n.4. Similarly, the Augsburg Confession, Art. XVII., condemned those “who now scatter Jewish opinions that, before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall occupy the kingdom of the world, the wicked being everywhere suppressed.” See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Harper and Row, 1931, reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), III: 18.
83 See especially, Hal Lindsey, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (New York: Bantam, 1980).
84 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville: Abington Press, 1950), 144.
Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)