What’s the difference between premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism? (Part 1)

Q.  I’d be thankful if you could expand a little on the following schools of belief:  Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.  Which one are you inclined to believe, and why? Also, why do some of the people who believe in Premillennialism tend to treat Jews with special significance and Israel as a separate state (and not as the whole body of believers) even today? Doesn’t this go against what Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29?

I really appreciate this question, because the Christian doctrine of the millennium was my main focus of investigation during my doctoral program.  While I did my dissertation on Jonathan Edwards’ theology of history, I researched and wrote my comprehensive exams, by way of background and preparation, on the various millennial views as they have found expression in each era of church history.  So I’m glad to have this opportunity to recall this research and explain in this series of posts what is meant by the terms premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism.  (In the course of the series I’ll also answer your questions about my own personal beliefs and about why some premillennialists give special significance to Israel.)

In terms of their derivation, these terms refer to varying beliefs about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming.  Specifically, they answer the question of when this will take place relative to the millennium, the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), a depiction of the millennium coming through developments in history and culture. This view would be known as “postmillennial” today.

From the 1600s to the early 1900s, the prevailing view among Protestants in Britain and America who considered the Bible to be the inspired word of God was that Christ would return after the millennium.  The expectation was that he would come back as king, but if the world had not yet been transformed according to his wishes, it was argued, he would have no kingdom to rule over, so the millennium had to come first.  As the English Puritan theologian John Owen insisted in a 1652 sermon to the British parliament (which was then controlled by his fellow Puritans), “Antichrist not destroyed, the nations of the world generally wrapped up in idolatry . . . will the Lord Christ leave the world in this state, and set up his kingdom here on a molehill?”

By the middle of the 1800s, however, another view had developed, that Christ’s return would actually be required to bring about the millennium, and so it had to take place before. This view was articulated in David Brown’s 1858 book Christ’s Second Coming: Will It Be Premillennial?  This is where the term “premillennial” originated.  The term “postmillennial” was coined in response, to describe the view that had formerly dominated eschatological thought so completely that it didn’t need a separate name.

So in terms of derivation, premillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be pre-millennial, that is, it will precede the millennium.  Postmillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be post-millennial, that is, it will follow the millennium.  And amillennialism, for its part, is the the belief that Christ’s coming will be without a millennium, that is, that there be no world-wide era of peace and justice at the end of history.  (This view interprets the description of the millennium at the end of Revelation symbolically.)

But these expectations of when (if at all) the millennium will occur relative to the return of Christ are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these systems of thought.  Far more important are their beliefs about how the millennium will occur–indeed, about what the millennium will be.  (We’ve already had a hint of this in the explanation that premillennialism arose from a belief that Christ’s return would be required to bring about the millennium.)  I’ll explore this aspect of these systems, which is really their much more important dynamic, in my next post.

Does the Bible support the Christian Right?

Q. It troubles me a great deal that in American culture some Christians have labeled themselves as the “Christian Right” and aligned themselves with certain political groups. We all know now why Christ was crucified, but at the time he was persecuted because he didn’t overturn the government as the populace expected him too. I am not trying to be judgmental about these groups, but doesn’t their well publicized agenda turn non-Christians off about being open to becoming followers of Jesus if they don’t agree with their politics? I don’t see the Bible supporting one political opinion over another. Our job seems to be clear: to love our Lord our God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourself.  Am I missing something?

This question gets into a vast subject that has complex and interrelated political, sociological, historical, and theological dimensions, which I can’t even begin to address here.  For the purposes of this blog, however, let me share a few reflections on what I think are the biblical dimensions of this question.

One thing we discover in the Bible is that government and politics are included in the comprehensive range of cultural endeavors that God wants faithful people to become involved in.  Biblical figures such as Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah provide models for us by the way they exerted a godly influence from the important government positions they held.  Paul writes in Romans that the governing authorities have been “established by God” and that rulers are “God’s servants.”  So the Bible does not support the view that followers of Jesus should stay away from government and politics as if these things were inherently worldly and contaminating–although those who do participate must always be careful to maintain complete honesty and integrity.

On the other hand, we also discover from the Bible that no one political position or agenda fully expresses God’s wishes for a given culture.  One of the best illustrations of this is the way Jesus chose his twelve disciples from across the full political spectrum of his day.  Matthew was a tax collector who had collaborated with the Romans occupation of Judea; Simon the Zealot belong to a party that advocated violent resistance to Rome.  Jesus called both of them, and everyone in between, to join him in a kingdom that was “not of this world,” but which was nevertheless destined to transform the world so that it would once again conform to God’s original intentions in creation.

The outworking of the kingdom of God in a specific culture can take place along many different paths. The Bible itself illustrates how various answers can legitimately be given, in keeping with godly principles, to cultural questions.  Could Jews intermarry with non-Jews?  Some biblical books say definitely not, others suggest that in certain cases the answer might be yes.  Could Jewish followers of Jesus eat with Gentile followers?  The New Testament records that some early church leaders sincerely felt they shouldn’t, while others felt they could.  How should Jesus’ followers relate to Rome?  As noted above, Paul explained that the Roman authorities were “God’s servants.”  But at other cultural moments captured in the New Testament, Rome was an enemy to all believers, portrayed as riding on the beast from the Abyss and “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people.”

So in our own day, we should be careful not to identify a single political movement or agenda with God’s purposes for our nation.  There are at least some things in every party or movement’s agenda that do reflect the ideals of the kingdom of God, and other things that don’t.  All followers of Jesus should be “fully convinced in their own minds” about what political principles to endorse and support, but at the same time they should be gracious and generous towards other followers of Jesus who are involved in politics but who are coming from a different perspective. Each should give the other credit for having good motives and for having thought through the biblical basis of their beliefs.  Ideally Jesus’ followers should be able to model how to work together for the common good across ideological differences–something that is badly needed in our society today!

I believe it is true that the media publicity afforded to some figures on the “Christian Right” has created the impression in some minds that to be a follower of Jesus (or at least to be accepted as one), a person must hold certain political views.  I hope all believers will make every effort to correct this false impression. (This can probably be done most effectively by those who agree politically with the Christian Right.  Blow the minds of your Christian friends who are political liberals by affirming their genuine faith and thanking them for their sincere desire to make a difference in our world according to their understanding of the implications of biblical principles!)

To conclude, I agree that our mandate from Jesus is to love the Lord our God with all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  How that works out politically will be complicated and it will require lots of good will and cooperation among followers of Jesus who see things differently, but who are all equally sincere and equally committed to the coming of the kingdom of God.

Didn’t Paul quote from the Old Testament by chapter number?

Q. In the book of Acts, when Paul was speaking to the people of Pisidian Antioch, he introduced one of his Scripture quotations by saying, “As it is written in the second Psalm . . .”  Isn’t this evidence within the canonical Scriptures of referencing by chapter number, and can’t we take it as support for doing that today?

Paul, of course, could not have been using the system of chapter numbering that we know today, since it was only added many centuries after he lived, in AD 1200.  Rather, he was simply referring to one of the psalms by describing where it came in the traditional ordering.  In addition, the numbers of the psalms, unlike the chapter numbers in most other places in the Bible, serve to identify distinct compositions rather than to break them up.  So this is not exactly a case of quoting by chapter number as is done today.

Still, this is an important question, because here Paul is not citing Scripture by context and content, the way he does in Romans when he speaks of “the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel” (referring to the contest on Mount Carmel), or the way Jesus does when he refers to “the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush.” Paul doesn’t even identify the psalm by its first line, as was customarily done.  This seems to be definite biblical evidence for an apostle referencing by number, rather than by context and content.  So what’s going on here?

Actually, when understood in light of the broader manuscript tradition of the book of Acts, this citation by Paul provides canonical support not for referencing by chapter number, but for recognizing chapter numbers as a late and fluid addition to the text of Scripture.

While most ancient codices of Acts read “as it is written in the second psalm,” Codex Bezae, representing the Western textual tradition, reads, “as it is written in first psalm.” This reading has significant patristic support.  P45, an important third-century papyrus, reads simply, “as it is written in the psalms.”  The editorial committee for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament was so uncertain about the original reading here that they ranked the reading that appears in the text, “the second psalm,” a {D}, expressing their greatest degree of uncertainty.

Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that “the variety of positions at which the numeral (whether prōtō or deuterō) is introduced makes both numerals suspect.”  This would suggest that P45 has the correct reading, “as it is written in the psalms.”

But Metzger then notes that if this is the original reading, “One has the difficulty of explaining why, in this passage alone in the New Testament, almost all scribes thought it necessary to introduce the quotation by using a numeral.”  Hence the uncertainty about the original reading in Acts.  We don’t know whether the numeral is original, we don’t know which numeral is correct (“first” or “second”) if it was original, and we don’t know why a numeral was introduced if it wasn’t original.

But we can at least explain the uncertainty about which psalm the quotation comes from.  There’s a well-attested tradition in which the second psalm as we know it today is treated as part of the first psalm.  That’s why some of the manuscripts that do have a numeral say “first” rather than “second.”

This tradition of combining the two psalms doesn’t stand up very well to a literary analysis, which clearly identifies Psalm 1 as a wisdom psalm and Psalm 2 as a coronation psalm.  (See my study guide to the Psalms for an explanation of these types and many others.)  But this tradition, as reflected in the textual variation in this passage in Acts, does illustrate that chapter numbers are a late and fluid addition to the canonical text of Scripture.  All the more reason not to rely on them today, whatever Paul might actually have said to the people when he was in Pisidian Antioch.

Ruins of the Church of St. Paul in Pisidian Antioch, built on the traditional location of the synagogue where he is believed to have spoken on his visit to the city.

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

Q.  What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh“?  I’ve heard some people say it was a disease he couldn’t recover from.  But I’ve heard other people say this isn’t right because Paul had the gift of healing and could have healed any sickness he had, so we need to take him literally when he calls it “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  In other words, these people say it was a demon that was harassing him that he couldn’t make go away.  Which is right?

I think the first understanding, that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a disease he couldn’t recover from, is more likely the correct one.

We know that Paul suffered from a disease at some point in his ministry because he wrote to the Galatians, “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.”  (“Illness” here is astheneia in Greek, literally “weakness.”) This was most likely some disease of the eyes, because Paul goes on to say, recalling the Galatians’ love and concern for him at this time, “If you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

There’s a further suggestion that Paul had eye trouble at the end of Galatians. Paul authenticates the letter, which he has been dictating to a scribe, by adding some things in his own handwriting, and he begins by saying, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand,” as if he had difficulty seeing.

Some have actually speculated that Paul suffered from chronic bacterial conjunctivitis, a recurring infection of the lining of the eye (a common ailment in the time when he lived) that would have made it difficult for him to see. It would also have affected his appearance, making his eyes red and causing them to discharge fluid or mucus.  Perhaps this is why Paul also told the Galatians, as he recalled their earlier care, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.”  There was something embarrassing about Paul’s condition that the Galatians overlooked in love.

All of this background helps make sense of what Paul says about his “thorn in the flesh” as he defends his credentials to the Corinthians, at the demand of the self-styled “super-apostles” who had infiltrated the church there.  Paul describes some amazing visions he had, but then explains he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to “keep me from becoming conceited” because of these “surpassingly great revelations.”  An unsightly disease of the eyes would be an ironically appropriate means of keeping a person from boasting about visions they’d had.

After explaining that he’d asked the Lord to take this “thorn” away from him, but that God had told him in response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me.”  “Weakness” here is astheneia, the same word Paul used to describe his “illness” to the Galatians.

Paul also notes, earlier in this section, that the super-apostles were saying about him, “In person he is unimpressive,” literally “the appearance of his body is weak” (asthenos).  Such language about “weakness” seems more appropriate for describing the effects of a disease like chronic conjunctivitis than the frustrations of persistent spiritual harassment.

Even though Paul had the gift of healing, this didn’t mean that God always chose to heal everyone through him.  For example, Paul tells Timothy at the end of his second letter, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.”  The fact that Paul had to leave this valuable co-worker behind shows that he couldn’t heal everybody, and that would include himself.

And so when Paul describes his illness as a “messenger of Satan,” he most likely uses this language not because his “thorn in the flesh” was a harassing demon, but to indicate that God is not the creator or source of sickness and disease. These things are instead the result of sin and evil in the world.

We’re promised that when God renews the heavens and the earth, there will be no more sickness or pain.  But in the meantime, Paul’s experience with his “thorn in the flesh” shows us that God can redeem even these features of our fallen world to make our character more Christ-like and to lead us to rely more on the sufficiency of his grace.

(When I discuss Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I ask, “Do you have a physical ‘weakness’ that you wish God would take away? If so, given what Paul writes here, could this weakness actually be protecting you from something and permitting God’s power to be seen more clearly in you?”  What would you say in response to that question?)

The apostle Paul, 5th-Century Ceiling mosaic, Archepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew, Ravenna, Italy. (Do the large eyes reflect some ancient tradition about Paul’s appearance?)

Didn’t Jesus and the apostles quote verses to support their teachings?

People ask this question from time to time when they hear about The Books of the Bible, because it presents the biblical books as whole literary works, without any chapters and verses.  The questioners wonder how anyone would be able to quote verses if all Bibles were like this, and since quoting verses seems to be something Jesus and the apostles did, they think it should be possible for everyone to keep doing it.

A friend of mine blogged about this very question a while back and I’d like to share how I responded to his post at the time.  John Dunham, a member of the Bible Design Group that created The Books of the Bible, explained on his blog Quibbling how an article by W. Sibley Towner helped him become much more comfortable with the “versejacking” that the New Testament authors appear to engage in.

We can define versejacking as taking statements from the Scriptures and applying them to contexts that are different from (and, in the worst cases, contrary to) the contexts to which they originally applied.  In other words, it’s the practice of non-contextual or counter-contextual application of isolated biblical statements.

The fact that the New Testament writers appear to do this in many instances has long been troubling to interpreters.  Until recently the only recourse was to draw a contrast between so-called “inspired subjectivity” and “hermeneutical objectivity,” in the words of an essay by John Walton that’s cited in the Quibbling post.  In other words, the biblical writers can get away with this because they’re inspired, but don’t you try this at home.  You need to be objective and carefully contextual.

More recently, however, there’s been a realization that the New Testament writers are themselves being objective and contextual.  They’re actually making valid applications of statements originally spoken at one point in redemptive history to corresponding points later in that history as it unfolds.  For example, things that are originally spoken of Israel can be applied to Jesus as he embodies the people or work of God on earth.  What is spoken of Israel can also be applied validly to the community of Jesus’ followers as the new people of God.

This typological principle accounts for what happens in places like the ones at the beginning of Matthew where the gospel writer describes Scriptures such as “out of Egypt have I called my son” as having been “fulfilled” in the life of Jesus.  This statement was originally a historical description by Hosea of the exodus, not a prophecy about the future career of the Messiah.  So this does seem to be a case of versejacking.

“The Flight Into Egypt,” Bartolome Esteban Murillo. Is this what Hosea meant by “out of Egypt I called my son”?

However, “fulfilled” in cases like this doesn’t mean that a future foretold has come to pass.  Rather, it means that a statement spoken earlier in redemptive history has taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in the light of later redemptive-historical events.  Jesus embodies the new Israel and his flight to Egypt and return from there is like a second exodus.

This promising new understanding is articulated in Towner’s article and in other articles such as Greg Beale’s “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine From the Wrong Texts?” and Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.  (Dr. Beale later updated his article to interact with Dr. Enns’ book.)

While appreciating, and carefully emulating, apostolic typological hermeneutics may feel like condoning “versejacking,” it’s actually very consistent with the overall vision that inspired The Books of the Bible.  We wanted to format the Bible in such a way that people could appreciate its grand sweep and see how the overall story unfolded.  With such an appreciation, which the apostolic writers had themselves, valid typological applications can be made.  In fact, one unexpected benefit of The Books of the Bible may be to equip people to make applications that are closer to the New Testament ones in their actual essence, even as it steers people away from non-contextual, non-typological applications that only appear coincidentally to be like the New Testament ones on the surface.

None of this supports or condones a very different kind of versejacking, which begins with the premise that there’s such a thing as a “Bible verse.”  This other kind of versejacking sees the Bible as a collection of some 11,000 discrete propositions that are jumbled together and need to be sorted and connected topically.

The very premise that there is such a thing as a Bible verse, and that our goal as readers is to get as much as possible out of a single verses at a time, is contrary to the true character of Scripture.  Hopefully taking the verses out of the Bible will enable people to recognize what the Bible really is, a collection of complete literary works, and help them begin to approach it on its own terms.

But I’m afraid that habits built on “Bible verses” are deeply ingrained and may need some time to change.  That being the case, I would suggest that we keep using the term “versejacking” to describe the approach that takes up “verses” in isolation. We should use some other term to describe what the apostles are doing when they understand Jesus and the community of his followers as the continuation of the story that begins with Israel and they use the language of the earlier part of the story to tell its later parts.

Enns calls this “christotelic interpretation,” in which Christ is understood as the goal (telos) of the story.  Other terms would be Christological or typological interpretation.  I’d go with any of those.  And, as I said, The Books of the Bible might just promote the wider use of this approach in our day.

Corrections to Daniel-Revelation guide

 

Though you are probably already aware of it, I just wanted to let you know that there seem to be two typos in the guide to Daniel and Revelation, on pages 36 and 47. On page 36 in the second paragraph the second sentence says “in some cases it can so destructive.” On page 47 in the chart on the ancient empires under “Little Horn” it says “Seleucid emperor… 175-64 BC.” Then on page 49 it says that he ruled from 175-164 BC. Just making you aware in case you weren’t, but otherwise this was an excellent guide.

 

Thanks very much for catching these typos.  P. 36 should read, “In come cases it can be so destructive . . .”  And the correct dates for the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes are 175-164 BC.  I have contacted the publisher and these changes will be made in the next printing.

I’m glad you enjoyed the guide.  If you have any questions about its content, or about anything in any of the other guides, please feel free to post them to this blog and I’ll try to answer them.  Thank you.

How can I get a copy of your Matthew article affordably?

Q. I just started reading your blog and your books. I would like to get an article you wrote for New Testament Studies, “Literary Evidences of a Fivefold Structure in the Gospel of Matthew.” At their web site they wanted $30.00 to buy your article. That seems a bit steep for a single article. Is there any way I can get it for a more reasonable price?

Thank you very much for your interest.  Cambridge University Press, the publisher of New Testament Studies, holds the copyright to the article, so unfortunately I can’t post its content online myself.  I do need to honor their rights and help make sure they get their royalties so they can continue publishing the journal.  But even so, I think you could get the article more cheaply than by buying a single copy online.

For one thing, if you live near a university or especially a seminary, they might have an institutional subscription to the journal that would allow their patrons to read the article.  Many such schools offer courtesy borrowing privileges to those living in their area.  So this is one avenue you could pursue.

Another possibility would be to ask your local library to try to get you a copy by Inter-Library Loan.  Consortia of libraries pay fees to consortia of journals to make this kind of thing possible.  I’ve often gotten journal articles this way myself, usually free, although occasionally for a slight fee, which has always been significantly less than $30.

Finally, since ideas are not copyrighted, only specific expressions of them, let me summarize here the main ideas in the article:

The first page of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

• The first literary evidence of a five-fold structure in the gospel of Matthew is the way the author has marked off five discourses with the formula “after Jesus had finished saying these things” at the end, and with references to Jesus gathering his disciples together for teaching at the beginning.  These discourses are the Sermon on the Mount, the commissioning of the disciples, the collection of parables, the teaching about community life, and the Olivet Discourse (about the “sign of his coming and the end of the age”).

• The next evidence is that each of these discourses expounds on a theme that the episodes in the preceding narrative have introduced. These themes are, sequentially, the foundations, mission, mystery, family, and destiny of the kingdom of God. So the gospel as a whole consists of five thematically coordinated narrative-discourse pairs. (These are preceded by the genealogy of Jesus and followed by the narrative of his death and resurrection.)

• The final evidence is the way transitional episodes between these five major sections reprise the theme of the preceding section and introduce the theme of the new one.  The account of the healing of the leper at the start of the second section, for example, reprises the theme of the first section that has just ended–that the foundations of the kingdom are in an inward “righteousness” that fulfill the deepest intentions of the law (Jesus tells the leper to show himself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded).  But this episode also introduces the “mission” theme of the second section, since at the start of the discourse in this section, Jesus sends the disciples out to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons”–Jesus himself has just done most of these things in the narrative portion of the section.

I hope this information is helpful, and that you are able to find an affordable copy of the article.  Thanks again for your interest!