The Demise Of The Millennial Teaching

 

George N.H. Peters

 

[This writing is taken from "The Coming Day" (vol. 9)]

 

The doctrine of the Kingdom, as held by the early church, was finally almost exterminated under the teaching and power of the Papacy. This is so plain a historical fact that it needs no special evidence to sustain it. Roman Catholic writers, eccleslastical historians, and others have repeatedly recorded the statement, and no denial of it has ever appeared.

 

Rome, once Chiliastic [that is, holding to the belief that there would be a millennium at the end of 6,000 years in which Christ would reign for 1,000 years], became intensely Anti-Chiliastic. M'Clintock & Strong's Encyclopaedia thus candidly says: "Immediately after the triumph of Constantine, the Christians, emancipated from oppression and persecution, and dominant and prosperous in their turn, began to lose their vivid expectation of our Lord's speedy Advent and their spiritual conception of His Kingdom. They began to look upon the temporal supremacy of Christianity as a fulfilment of the promised reign of Christ on earth. The Roman Empire, become Christian, was regarded no longer as the object of prophetic denunciation, but as the scene of a Millennial development."

 

If there is any propriety and force in the position of the Romish Church - that tradition should be authoritative with Scripture in deciding doctrine - then surely the traditions of the first centuries ought to have made, by their overwhelming weight, the Roman Church Chiliastic. But in this case ambition, pride, conscious power, the possession of honours and wealth, etc., override tradition, as they often have done Scripture.

 

The Papacy has been ever hostile to our doctrine, owing to the Chiliastic opposition to its pretensions, its provisions looking to futurity, its hierarchical endowments, corruptions, and bold assumptions of being the promised Kingdom. The early Millenarians, without exception, regarded the Roman Empire and the rising Papacy with distrust because of their belief that the Antichrist would in some way or form be identified with one or the other.

 

Before the union of Church and State, the Empire was the object of suspicion; after the union, while the belief was still continued respecting Rome, men began to surmise, as the hierarchical tendencies were more and more developed in the increasing power of the Bishops of Rome, that those Bishops themselves were paving the way for the Roman Antichrist. This opinion was strengthened by the conduct of some of the Popes, so that they were plainly designated either as Antichrists or forerunners of the Antichrist. This view, of course, would be offensive to the heads of the Romish Church, and naturally resulted in their decrying Chiliasm and condemning it as derogatory to the honour of the church. Pride, dignity, ambition, power, could not tolerate a view that necessarily brought with it expressed, or even implied, reproach.

 

Various writers have expressed this as follows:

 

Dr. Burnett, after showing how the Romish church discountenanced the doctrine, and declaring that he had never met with a Popish doctor who regarded it with favour, concludes: "Since Millennium properly consists of reward and triumph for those who come out of persecution, such persons as have lived always in pomp and prosperity can pretend to no share in it or benefit by it. This has made the church of Rome to always have an ill eye upon this doctrine, because it seemed to have an ill eye upon her. And as she grew in splendour and greatness, she eclipsed and obscured it more and more, so that it would have been lost out of the world as an obsolete error if it had not been revived by some of the Reformation."

 

Brooks writes: "When the Christian Bishop of Rome came, in progress of time, to be elevated to the high rank which he attained under the papacy, the inconvenience of explaining Rome to be the capital city of the Antichrist and the 'Babylon' and 'Harlot' of the Apocalypse, was more sensibly felt than ever; because it could not be asserted without giving occasion for the very obvious conclusion that the Bishop of Rome would some day apostatise, together with the church in general over which he was the head. Accordingly, from the time of Justinian, efforts were both openly and clandestinely made to get rid of the doctrine altogether by removing or corrupting the evidence in its favour, or by affixing to it the stigma of heresy" (Elements Of Prophetic Interpretation).

 

Seiss declares: "It is a sad fact, however, that from the fourth century until the sixteenth, this doctrine gradually lost its hold upon the minds and hearts of professed Christians and went down into almost absolute neglect. But with it went down the great doctrine of justification by faith, and nearly everything that is distinguishing in gospel religion. It fell only as Popery arose, and it is only as it rises again that Popery shall shrink and quail. So long as men think they see and hear Christ in the Pope and believe that they are worshiping and honouring Christ by serving and obeying hierarchies regarded as pure divino, we need never expect them to believe that Christ will ever reign here in person. The two ideas are fundamentally antagonistic. If Christ is himself to reign here in universal empire, He has not given that Empire into the hands of a vicar; and if He has made the Pope the supreme Lord of the world, it is settled that He will never reign here otherwise than by the Pope. Either proposition confutes the other. The two cannot live together. And this puts into our hands the key to the true explanation how the church has come to lose sight of the primitive and apostolic faith upon this subject" (Last Times).

 

Establishing The Roman Church As The "Kingdom"

 

In the very nature of the case, the Chilistic Kingdom of the Abrahamic Davidic covenant as taught by the Fathers, the hope in the constantly expected Advent of Jesus to establish such a kingdom, the anticipated struggle with an Antichrist in ecclesiastical-political power, the view entertained respecting the church as a struggling, tried body awaiting deliverance and triumph alone through the personal Advent of the Messiah - these prevented aspiring prelates and the ambitious, learned priests from endorsing it.

 

It was an easy matter, by adopting the Origenistic interpretation* of several senses, to reject the covenanted restored Davidic throne and Kingdom under a personal Messiah, and to substitute in its place an existing Kingdom under the rule of appointed hierarchs, and claim that in and through them Christ was already reigning in His promised Kingdom.

 

[Origen removed virtually all literal interpretation of Scripture and saw everything as some kind of metaphor, leaving room for all manner of explanation and interpretation. of prophecy, but rarely, if ever, the literal one]

 

This caricature of the Messiah's Kingdom was varnished over by the most laudatory and fulsome language (even applying to it the predictions alone applicable to the mighty Theocratic King) which self-interest and vain-glory could suggest. Very soon, too, these declarations were summed up and declared to be "the voice of the church;" the later Fathers superseding those who previously entertained Chiliastic doctrine, now so detractive and humiliating to Popish presumption.

 

When a church arrogates to itself the great honour of showing forth within its borders the predicted millennial glory (as e.g. Eusebius and others, dating its inauguration from Constantine, or Augustine and others, dating the same from the First Advent of Christ); when it enforces the belief by a wholesale appropriation of prophecy without the least regard to its connection, covenant basis, prospective attitude, relation to the Jewlish nation, union with the Second Advent, etc.; when it hedges this around by a confessional barrier and calls for all its membership to receive it as the truth - then, especially when it has the ecclesiastical and civil power under its control to compel obedience, it is not strange that the doctrine, so hostile to these arrogant assumptions, as ours is, should be hated and repressed.

 

The Hierarchy could not, as a matter of mere consistency, receive the notion of a Kingdom (that of the reign of the Messiah in the covenanted Theocratic-Davidic) that protested against and condemned its substitution. Hence Shimeall correctly observes: "Then, too, the Popes, in after ages, discountenanced Millenarianism, inasmuch as it militated against their antichristian usurpation and dogma - that the Millennium commenced with Romish domination in the church" (Eschatologv).

 

Dr. West says: "By union of church and state, and perversion of victory, the foundation was laid in the Empire for a carnal and a Satanic caricature of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ on earth before the time - a Millennium sunk in the gross materialism and idolatry of a mediaeval, political, and military Christianity. By union of Church and State the matyr doctrine itself was martyred, no council resisting, and vanished from view with the departing glory and last remnant of a suffering but pure apostolic church" (The History of Pre-Millennial Doctrine).

 

Chillingworth - of whom Professor Bush declares "Certainly there are few persons more competent to pronounce on the fact - makes a strong argument against the Church of Rome, in its refusing to accept the millennial doctrine when professing to receive by tradition the pure doctrines of the primitive and apostolic age. He conclusively proves the generality of the doctrine entertained - that for some time it was un-contradicted, that all the Fathers, East and West, held it. He shows that they professed not only to teach it "as doctors but as witnesses." He proves that it was esteemed as an "apostolic tradition" received by persons in personal communication with apostles and elders; that it was regarded as the faith qf orthodox believers. Then, in the light of all is accumulated evidence, he argues that, in this matter at least, the Roman Church "has grossly falsified the creed of antiquity, inasmuch as there is ample evidence that the doctrine of the Chiliasts was actually the Catholic faith of more than one century."

 

Bowers, in his life of Damasus, takes the same ground, for, after describing the millenarian doctrine and its extent, he remarks, "And yet such a doctrine is now rank heresy in the Church of Rome. But by declaring it such, have they not overset their own system, which places tradition upon a level with the canonical books of the Scripture? Can they allege a more ancient tradition, one more universally received, or equally countenanced by Scripture, in favour of the many traditional articles of faith that they have obtruded upon the world? Papias declares he received the above-mentioned doctrine of those who had learned it immediately of the apostles. If such a tradition is rejected as false, what other has a right to be admitted as true?"

 

Reasons For The Repression Of Millennial Teaching

 

It may then be briefly stated as a self-evident fact that the entire spirit and aim of the Papacy is antagonistic to the early church view, being based on coveted ecclesiastical and secular power, on extended Jurisdiction lodged in the hands of a Primate. When Episcopal palaces with their palatial endowments were erected under the fostering care of the Emperors; when the rulers of the church enjoyed the rich vestments, emoluments, and honour of office; when magnificent churches, with altars and walls adorned and enriched by the costly gifts of its devotees, were built all over the Empire; when ambitious men, under the cloak of an established Messianic Kingdom, formed the idea of a universal government; when men addicted to pleasures tasted the enjoyments afforded by rich revenues and the servile honour paid to them by the multitude; when a system was founded which decided that the reign of the saints had already begun - that the Bishop of Rome ruled on earth in Christ's place; that the deliverance from the curse would only be effected in the third heaven; that in the church, as a Kingdom, there was "an aristocracy" to which unhesitating obedience must be rendered; that the prophetical announcements respecting Messiah's Kingdom were fulfilling in Romish predominance, splendour, and wealth; that the rewarding and elevation of saints was not dependent upon the Second Advent, but upon the power lodged in the existing Kingdom, etc., etc. - then it was that Chiliasm, so distasteful and obnoxious to these claims and doctrines, fell beneath the powerful and world-pervading influence exerted against it.

 

The institution of mockery exerted a powerful influence in causing the rapid decline of our doctrine. They formed, owing to their privileges, numbers, sanctity, etc., the most effective allies in upholding Papal claims and doctrines and, of course, in decrying with the populace, all antagonistic utterances. From the fourth century down, they greatly moulded or impressed the sentiments and views of the church; therefore, the student, in estimating the causes leading to a suppression of Chiliasm, must not forget to estimate the leverage exerted by mockery.

 

The authority of Councils, in the interest of hierarchical tendencies, materially aided in obscuring the doctrine of the Kingdom. Indirectly, by exalting and confirming the kingship of Christ to His Divine nature, and correspondingly lowering the human - forgetting that the covenanted kingship is given to the Son of Man" who is of the Davidic lineage. This resulted mainly from the Arian and other controversies respecting the natures of Christ, when one extreme led to its opposite. It took effect directly by endorsing the polity of the church and state, the ambitious projects aiming at universal power, and the supposed Kingdom as exhibited under the leadership of one Bishop. The decisions of Councils were finally elevated to equality with the Scriptures, and thus aided in crushing the doctrine.

 

In The Conflict Of Christianity With Heathenism, Uhlhorn shows that after the Church introduced hierarchical tendencies and dreams of conquest, then "the hope of the speedy Advent, which shone so brightly in the early days, has now become dimmed," and while "the earlier period had no thought of any victory but that which Christ was to bring at His Coming," the church now entertained hopes of victory over the Empire and the world. This was largely aided by Councils, aided and supported by imperial patronage and power.

 

Theology, under the constant surveillance of a church jealous of its delegated kingly authority, in its more systematic arrangements, was entirely controlled so as to favour the substituted Kingdom. We find, therefore, in all such works, running down through the scholastic age to the Reformation, a set apologetic defence of the Romish notions of the Kingdom. Starting with the idea - often taken for granted as a settled premise or inferred by far-fetched inferences - that the Romish Church is the predicted Kingdom of the Messiah, everything is made to bend to that theory.

 

The utterances of later Fathers, the decrees of Councils, and the self-interested statements of Popes and Prelates, are appealed to with unbounded confidence, just as if, in so fundamental a matter, the fallible utterances of man were equal, if not superior, to Scripture itself since many of these, whose comments were quoted, had been canonized by the church they favoured, their saintship corroborated, in the eyes of many, the claims and doctrines that they endorsed. To oppose such a swollen stream, guarded by thousands upon thousands of devoted adherents, was simply to risk reputation and life.

 

Dr. Willis Lord remarks: "In the Apostolic and Primitive Church it is certain that for more than three centuries the Second Coming of Christ was expected to take place before the Millennium, and that the bliss and glory of that period would flow from His Presence and reign. Especially was this so while Paganism still held the seat of power, and the church was despised and persecuted. Most keenly did she then feel the sorrows of widowhood, and long for the return of her absent Lord. That return would bring the day of her redemption and joy. When, however, Constantine mounted the throne, and the church with him, her spirit and her faith changed. Favour with men, and increasing flatteries, honours, wealth, and power, made the world seem less barren and more attractive. Gradually, but surely, the blessed hope gave way to the power of present possession and enjoyment; the once desolate widow became elated, proud, and self-sufficient. She said in her heart, 'I sit as a queen, and shall have no sorrow.' For many generations, it would have been the dread of the visible church to have the Lord to come."

 

The Demise Of Such A Fundamental Doctrine Was Prophesied

 

The historical fact that Millenarianism was thus crushed is far from being dishonourable to us. Indeed, we rather glory in the occurrence as an indirect proof of the truthfulness of our position. A defection from the truth was predicted by the apostles to take place; therefore, we hold that the very form of doctrine that was departed from - once generally held, and contained (even in the literal sense) in the Word - must be regarded as approaching the nearest to sound doctrine. The warnings specially given respecting this doctrine in its leading feature of the Second Advent, etc., unmistakably indicate a foreseen denial of its characteristics. Hence, we have corroborating evidence in its favour, when we bear the Roman Catholic Baronius telling us: "The figments of the Millenaries being rejected everywhere, and denied by the learned with hisses and laughter, and being also put under the ban, were entirely extirpated."

 

The reader will observe that if our doctrine had always remained the generally received doctrine of the church, it would not meet the requirements of prediction respecting the lack of faith in Christ's coming, the attitude of professed servants who say that Christ delays His coming, the abounding of unbelief and apostasy, etc.

 

The truth is, that while our doctrine was obnoxious to, and detested by, the Bishops and many of the leading clergy, through partisanship, yet it was not so early authoritatively condemned, seeing that such a condemnation would involve a disastrous controversy respecting the regular perpetuation of the church. The Bishops and Prelates were too shrewd to do this, seeing as they did, that this would involve so many of the Fathers that it would be difficult and hazardous, yes, impossible, to trace the true church unless through "heretics." Hence the cautious policy was adopted, not to condemn it in any regular decree, but in establishing as the faith of the church its opposite, and making all submit to the latter as the truth.

 

The Continuing Testimony

 

Baronius and others have asserted that for a long time the doctrine was "entirely extirpated." This is not strictly correct. It certainly was brought into such disfavour by a ruling Romish Church that during "the dark ages," down to the Reformation, it was scarcely known. Still we have intimations, plain and decided, that it was held by individuals and, at least, in some of its features, by the Vaudois or Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards or Wickliffites, and the Bohemian Protestants.

 

This testimony could, undoubtedly, be extended, if we only had the opinions of many who fell under Romish condemnation, and of whom it is said that they were detested and rooted out on account of opposition to Romish doctrines. But even if all such intimations were lacking, it would only indicate how wide-reaching the apostasy had grown, how fearfully prediction on the subject was verified, and how important it was for the old truth to be revived.

 

Misconceptions Regarding 1000 A.D.

 

Various writers in tracing our doctrine have, through inadvertency or misapprehension of our belief, made the unscholarly mistake of attributing a revival of our faith to the extended belief in the Advent of Jesus to judgment about the year A.D. 1000 and succeeding dates, and, with evident relish, endeavour to make our system accountable for the calamitous results (so graphically described by Mosheim). But this belief arose from The Romish view and not from Millenarianism. The proof is self-evident, and the least knowledge of the facts will make it apparent to every one.

 

The Augustinian theory, so generally adopted by the Popish doctors, commenced the Millennium with the First Advent of Christ, and consequently, in agreement with this view, when the thousand years, dated from the First Advent, expired, Popery, driven to a conclusion by its own adopted Millennial theory, looked for the Coming to judgment and, with its doctrine of the end of the world, etc., for a general destruction of an sublunary things.

 

Now this was the opposite of Millenarian views, which made the Millennium future, to be introduced by a resurrection, and to be followed by a glorious restoration of all things. The misapplication of the Millennium (making it Pre-Advent) and of the Second Advent (making it Post Millennial) is purely Romish error, and, in view of the extent in which it was held and the miseries that it entailed, is decisive proof how largely Millenarianism had been obliterated.*

 

- George N.H. Peters, taken from The Theocratic Kingdom (Volume 1)*. This excellent three-volume work has recently been reprinted by Kregel Publishers, P.O. Box 2607, Grand Rapids, MI 49501-2607 USA.

 

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