Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Meaning of the Millenium: Four Views, edited by Robert G. Clouse: a Brief Review

The popularity of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, a set of fictional accounts of life in "the last days" just before the second coming of Jesus Christ, demonstrates the ongoing interest of many Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, in the subject of Bible prophecy and the end of the world. The view of the end times expressed in those books, which is known to theologians as dispensational premillenialism, has been arguably the most popular one among fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians over the course of the last century. Indeed, many believers within those camps assume that this approach to eschatology is the only viable option for Bible believing Christians. However, this is not the case. In The Meaning of the Millenium, a volume that was published in the 1970's, four conservative Christian scholars argue differing positions regarding the Bible's teaching on the end of the age. While the work is now over 30 years old, it remains a relevant guide to the various understandings of conservative Christian scholars on the end times.

In the book, each author contributes an article outlining his basic position of the end times. The writers also each respond to the views of each of their colleagues. This format effectively enables the reader to evaluate each position both as advocated and as critiqued by opponents. That all of the authors are able exponents of their particular views makes this a helpful book in sorting out these issues.

The four positions and their advocates are as follows:

  • Historic premillennialism: George Eldon Ladd

  • Dispensational premillenialism: Herman A. Hoyt

  • Postmillenialism: Loraine Boettner

  • Amillenialism: Anthony Hoekema

Based on Revelation 20, which speaks of the binding of Satan and the reign of Christ for 1,000 years, both forms of premillennialism argue that Christ will return and set up a literal reign on earth based in Jerusalem that will last for that precise length of time. In contrast, both postmillenialism and amillenialism contend that the kingdom is spiritual in nature and that the millennium takes place during the church age prior to the return of Christ. The primary distinction between these latter two views is that postmillennialism takes an optimistic view of spiritual and material progress as a result of the successful spread of the gospel, whereas amillenialists see a rise of both Christianity and the forces of evil up to the end of the age.

While the only passage that speaks of a 1,000 year reign is found in Revelation 20, all of the writers emphasize that these views hinge on significantly different hermeneutical approaches to the Scripture. In particular, a- and post millenialists interpret prophetic passages and promises from the Old Testament in light of the first coming of Christ and New Testament teaching, while dispensational premillenialists make the Old Testament their beginning point and re-interpret the New Testament in light of the Old. Interestingly, Ladd, representing the historic premillennial view, largely agrees with Hoekema and Boettner with regard to his understanding of the Old Testament and attempts to distance himself from the weaknesses inherent in the dispensational perspective. Ladd's view is almost entirely driven by his understanding of Revelation 20. Nonetheless, the result of these varying approaches to the Old Testament is that Hoekema and Boettner both view the promises of a Davidic kingdom being fulfilled figuratively during the New Covenant age or during our future eternal state. The premillenial dispensationalists expect those promises to be fulfilled literally on earth. The non-dispensational writers effectively argue that their understanding of the Old Testament coheres with the methodology used by Jesus and the New Testament writers in interpreting the Old Testament as it relates to Christ's first advent and the New Covenant that he inaugurated.

Given the popularity of the dispensational view, it is striking to note how weak, not to mention extreme, it appears when viewed alongside the other viewpoints (I write as one who was raised as a dispensationalist, but who long ago rejected that teaching and now would describe himself as an amillennialist). Indeed, one suspects that dispensational premillennialism only prevails as the dominant viewpoint because most laypeople have not had the opportunity to hear other viewpoints argued. A volume such as this would help remedy that problem. At the very least, it should help disabuse dispensationalists of the notion that those holding differing views are guilty of denying the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.

This volume is highly recommended for anyone interested in these issues.

1 comment:

Mister Bo is the Best said...