Eschatological tensions and the question of the millennium

The mainstream theological tradition has been amillennial since Augustine, and therefore the question of the “millennium” (Rev. 20) has not been a matter of major concern for most major theologians.  Evangelical theology, however, has typically been very focused on this question.  So Donald Bloesch writes,

 “Apart from biblical inerrancy no doctrine has caused greater division in evangelical Christianity in the present day than the millennium.  Though the biblical references to a millennial kingdom are minimal, they have given rise to elaborate theologies based on the reality of such a kingdom.  Because the millennial hope has been a source of inspiration to Christians throughout the history of the church, impelling many toward a missionary vocation, it merits serious consideration.” Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), II: 189.

There are three basic positions on the millennium, along with one important variant on the premillennial position.

Amilliennialism: Revelation 20 is symbolic, not literal, so there will be no 1000 year reign of Christ on earth.  The millennium refers to Christ’s present rule during the church age. Christ has already bound Satan in the resurrection, though it is a relative binding.  Christ will return and the final judgment will follow.

Premillennialism: Christ returns before a literal 1000 year reign on earth in which he reigns directly over the world.  Tends to be pessimistic about the possibility of any cosmic or social redemption before Christ’s return – in fact, things will get worse and worse before the parousia.

Premillennial dispesationalism: divides salvation history into different “dispensations” in which God relates to people in different ways.  There are two parousias: the first at “the rapture” when Christ returns to remove the church from the world; then he returns again at the start of the millennium seven years later.

Postmillennialism: Christ will return after a millennial period in which his reign is exercised triumphantly on earth through the church.  The gospel will be taken to all nations, and will hold sway over the world.  Evil will still be present, but will be subdued by Christian influence during this golden age of the church.

I was lecturing on this topic a couple weeks ago, and in an attempt to help students get a handle on these debates I proposed six different sets of tensions that are at work in eschatological debates. These could be seen as differing emphases within the various eschatological visions that have exercised influence in the church over the centuries. Each of these is a set of “poles” which could be seen as existing on a continuum, and any given theologian might tend more towards one pole or the other.

First, there is a tension between personal and corporate eschatologies. Any full-orbed eschatology will deal with both personal and corporate dimensions, but some tend to push more in one direction or the other. That is, some eschatologies focus more on the fate of the individual: the eternal destiny of the saved and unsaved; questions of how we will be judged; what the resurrection body will be like, and so on. On the other hand, some eschatologies are focused more on the corporate dimensions of God’s plan for the eschaton: the future kingdom of God; visions of social justice, the overcoming of inequalities; the reconciliation of different people-groups, and so on.

Secondly, there is a tension between otherworldly and this-worldly eschatologies. Those eschatologies which are more otherworldly will focus on the radical difference between the future kingdom and the present life. They will stress discontinuities between the world as we know it and the future which God has planned for us. On the other hand, this-worldly eschatologies will tend toward a more “realized” eschatology, and see the kingdom being formed here and now in various ways. They might be uncomfortable with heavenly visions and prophecies, and seek ways for eschatology to have impact in the world here and now.

Thirdly, there is a tension between theocentric and anthropocentric eschatologies. Eschatologies with more theocentric tendencies will emphasize God’s decisive intervention in world history, both in present anticipations of the kingdom and in its final consummation. Human beings are likely portrayed as having little real agency in ushering in God’s kingdom. Theocentric-tending eschatologies might also tend towards more deterministic views of history, stressing God’s control over world events. Those with more anthropocentric tendencies will stress the role of human agents in bringing the future kingdom to realization. Human beings, with God’s help, will be seen as capable of moving history toward its proper goal and the purpose for which God created it.

Fourthly, a related consideration would be the tension between sudden and gradual eschatologies. Some theologians emphasize a sudden and dramatic change that will take place at the end. In this view, we may not see any real “progress” towards the kingdom prior to that sudden, cataclysmic event. In fact, things might get worse before God suddenly intervenes to bring about the final consummation. On the other hand, others might emphasize gradual change and growth, leading to the kingdom. In extreme cases, some have supposed that there would be no dramatic change at the end at all, but a gradual development and progress until one day God’s kingdom is established on earth.

Fifthly we could talk about pessimistic and optimistic eschatologies. Here the optimism or pessimism relates to the degree to which the eschaton is breaking into the world today. Some have little hope for present realization of the eschatological kingdom, and instead look upon the world around us as a discouraging place which is wasting away. Others see signs of the kingdom and are optimistic that things really can improve here and now. Obviously those who have otherworldly, theocentric, and sudden eschatologies will likely tend towards pessimism, whereas those with this-worldly, anthropocentric, and gradual eschatologies will tend towards optimism.

Finally, there are futurist and realized eschatologies. Obviously, echatologies with more futuristic orientations will orient there hope to the coming consummation of the eschaton, and be less hopeful about the present age, whereas those whose eschatologies tend towards a more realized perspective might have less focus on the future hope, and more focus on hope for present transformation.

Using these sets of “tensions,” I’ve developed the following analysis of the millennial positions, with my suggestions regarding how potential strengths of each view could be integrated.  This probably needs further explanation in a separate post, but I’ll leave it here for now – comments and suggestions would be welcome.

What is evangelical catholicism?

The term evangelical catholic suggests a certain approach to Christian faith that attempts to be both gospel-centred and rooted in the historic tradition of the church.  On the one hand, it may refer to Catholics who are keen to maintain a focus on the task of the proclamation of the gospel.  On the other hand, it may refer to protestants who want to recover a stress on the importance of tradition in shaping the claims of Christian faith.

One way to find out what contemporary evangelical catholicism is about would be to look at the work of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and its journal, Pro Ecclesia.  This centre was founded by Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten, two Lutheran scholars who have attempted to emphasize “the catholicity of the Reformation.”   Among their basic convictions is the claim that “The Reformers did not set out to create a new church.  They aimed to reform a church that lived in continuity with the church the Creed calls “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”” (The Catholicity of the Reformation, vii).

They would be keen to argue that, although many protestant groups have shun the term “catholic,” there have always been evangelical catholic movements within the protestant churches.  As they state on the CCET website, their goal is “theology that is catholic and evangelical, obedient to Holy Scripture and committed to the dogmatic, liturgical, ethical and institutional continuity of the Church.”

The idea of “evangelical catholicity,” however, is not limited to a small group of scholars associated with this particular centre and its journal.  The late Donald Bloesch, who leaned slightly more towards the evangelical side of the spectrum than many who would identify themselves with evangelical catholicism today, nevertheless shared similar convictions.   His two volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology concludes with a section entitled “Toward a Catholic Evangelicalism,” which argues:

In constructing a fresh theology for our day, we need to regain continuity with the historical roots of the faith as well as renew our fidelity to the biblical and evangelical witness.  This means an opening to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as well as new appreciation for the Reformation and the post-Reformation movements of spiritual purification, Pietism and Puritanism…The theological options today are liberalism or modernism (whether in the guise of neo-Protestantism or neo-Catholicism), a reactionary evangelicalism or fundamentalism, and a catholic evangelicalism, which alone is truly evangelical and biblical (Essentials of Evangelical Theology, vol. 2: 283).

Bloesch was writing in 1979.  But fifteen years before that, Albert Outler was using these two adjectives together as a way of describing John Wesley’s distinctive theological voice, and recommending it for our consideration as a viable option for today.

Outler describes Wesley as

…one who had glimpsed the underlying unity of Christian truth in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions and who had turned this recognition to the services of a great popular religious reform and renewal.  In the name of a Christianity both Biblical and patristic, he managed to transcend the stark doctrinal disjunctions which had spilled so much ink and blood since Augsburg and Trent.  In their stead, he proceeded to develop a theological fusion of faith and good works, Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason, God’s sovereignty and human freedom, universal redemption and conditional election, Christian liberty and an ordered polity, the assurance of pardon and the risks of “falling from grace,” original sin and Chrisitian perfection.  In each of these conjunctions, as he insisted almost tediously, the initiative is with God, the response with man.

One might apply a faintly fuzzy label to this distinctive doctrinal perspective: evangelical catholicism.  Its most important immediate source in Wesley’s thought was the Anglican theological literature in which he had steeped himself at Oxford and in Georgia.  Its deeper wellspring was the Bible and its interpretation by the ancient Fathers of the Church.  From his great mentors in piety (Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, William Law, Henry Scougal) he learned that faith is either in dead earnest or just dead.   From the great scholars of the seventeenth-century revival of patristic studies (William Beveridge, Robert Nelson) he learned the intimate correlation of Christian doctrine and Christian spirituality.  From the “latitudinarians” (Edward Stillingfleet, Gilbert Burnet) he learned that the church’s polity is more validly measured by its efficacy that its rigid, dogmatic “purity.”  To all these shaping forces he added the decisive influence of his own sustained immersion in the piety and wisdom of the early Christian fathers: Ignatius, Clement, Macarius, Ephraem Syrus, and others.  His theological reading and reflection scarcely slowed over the span of six decades – but it was constantly controlled and guided by his practical concerns.  He was always striving to clarify his message and to communicate it to the people of his day and age.  The result is a distinctive theological perspective, that merits serious consideration, even in another age and atmosphere (in the Preface to John Wesley (Library of Protestant Thought), New York: Oxford University Press, 1964: iv-v).

(My friend and colleague Andy Edwards told me that he thinks this is the first time the term “evangelical catholicism” was used.)

I consider myself to be an evangelical catholic, or at least that’s what I aspire to be.  Evangelical theology, if it is not nourished by the deep roots of historic orthodoxy, can end up going off in all sorts of strange directions.  At the same time, there are important insights from the Reformers, the Pietists, the Purtians, the Great Awakenings, and later evangelicals, which need to be preserved and upheld.   A catholicity which is not evangelical risks becoming triumphalistic; an evangelicalism which is not catholic risks repeating the errors of history.

The irony for me personally is that I did not come to these theological convictions through being raised in a Wesleyan church (which I was), but though the influence of my own teachers in theology at Wycliffe College (one of whom is the current editor of Pro Ecclesia).   It is only now, looking back as someone who has come to see the value of the historic faith and practices of the church through the centuries, that I can appreciate John Wesley as a fellow evangelical catholic, from whom I still have much to learn.