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Friday, September 23, 2011

The History of Reformed Eschatology

I am writing this paper because it has become all too apparent to me that there is a great deal of confusion within the ranks of Calvinist churches as to the history of the various eschatological view points and where the church has historically been found. For instance, it was John Macarthur who declared at his Shepherd’s Conference in March 2007 that only Dispensationalists were truly Reformed and "while it is too late for Calvin, it is not too late for us." (You can listen to his accusations against A- and Postmillennialists here at Grace Church.) Then I have heard repeatedly in the midst of eschatological debate from advocates of Post-millennialism that the only Reformed view is the one they hold. In fact recently the suggestion was put to me that the adherents of Post-millennialism were, “ALMOST ALL THE PURITANS, Jonathan Edwards, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Thornwell, and Dabney… the Westminster Assembly, to a degree, have held to it (or significant variations of it). So, say it ain't so, but it's so. "Reconstructionism" has a long and healthy pedigree in the Reformed churches! Amillennialism is NOT Reformed orthodoxy... it's part of Reformed orthodoxy.” With such proud declarations being made I think it necessary to look at whether or not this is indeed the case. With that said, I want to make it clear this is a not a paper dealing with the merits of each point of view, only the history of those points of view.

Princeton and Dutch Reformed Eschatology

I would like to start with an excerpt from Louis Berkhof that sets the tone for this consideration. He says, “Some Premillenarians have spoken of Amillennialism as a new view and as one of the most recent novelties, but this is certainly not in accord with the testimony of history. The name is new indeed, but the view to which is is applied is as old as Christianity. It had at least as many advocates as Chiliasm among the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries, [which is] supposed to have been the heyday of Chiliasm. It has ever since been the view most widely accepted, is the only view that is either expressed or implied in the great historical Confessions of the Church, and has always been the prevalent view in Reformed circles.” (Systematic Theology, 4th Edition, Eerdman’s Publishing, 1968, pg. 708) In the same section dealing with the various millennial views he clearly lays out that the vast majority of the Dutch Reformed crowd were Amillennial and cites specifically Abraham Kuyper, William Hendriksen, and Herman Bavinck (see “Reformed Dogmatics” or “The Last Things” which is taken from those volumes and clearly espouses an Amillennial view) as well as the Princetonian Geerhardus Vos. Berkhof lays the whole thing out in such a manner that it seems inconceivable to him that a view other than Amillennialism would even be considered as substantially the Reformed view and says, “There are some who connect with the advent of Christ the idea of a millennium, either immediately before or immediately following the second coming. While the idea is not an integral part of Reformed theology, it nevertheless deserves consideration here, since it has become rather popular in many circles.” So well beyond the merits of each point of view it is obvious that he finds no overwhelming historical evidence or authority for either the Post or Premillennial view as being Reformed.

I will also say that it is odd to me to hear over and over again that all of the Princeton giants were Postmillennialists. To be certain there were some Postmillennial views espoused by these men, but it would probably be more accurate to call them optimistic Amillennialists than to call them Postmillennialists (at least when compared to the current manifestation of that view). To hear men such as B.B. Warfield cited as such is especially odd to me. If we look at Warfield’s treatment of millennialism he cites the Amillennial position precisely. For instance he says repeatedly that the thousand years “is the whole of this present dispensation” and says that the thousand years in The Revelation is purely symbolical, in fact if anyone has read William Hendriksen’s Amillennial masterpiece “More Than Conquerors” they may notice the language is almost identical. (See “The Works of B.B. Warfield, vol. 2, pg. 643-650 which is taken from an article which appeared in The Princeton Theological Review, vol. 2, 1904 and can be viewed here: Princeton Theological Review.) The reason this is important is twofold in our look at historical evidence for what was supported by these men.

1) If we are to interpret Princeton then we must look at the few places where they are explicitly clear on whether they were Post- or Amillennial. The reality is that there is not a great deal of distinction leveled in their writing between the two with only brief moments of clarity. The cause for that is, I believe, that in their day there was no reason to be distinguishing between one view or the other for the assumed position was in fact, at the very least, optimistic Amillennialism and the real distinction to be sought was in dealing with the assault being waged on the Church by the Premillenarians. For instance Charles Hodge lays out the case that 2 Pet. 3:6-11 is to be understood as a regeneration the result of which is the “introduction of a new heavens and a new earth,” not a Post-mill point of view. He then goes on to say, “[…] in the interval between the first and second advents of Christ, is said to be like a field in which the wheat and the tares are to grow together until the harvest, which is the end of the world.” So with clear examples of his belief in the matter it is impossible to interpret a statement such as “The common doctrine of the Church… is that the conversion of the world… [is] to precede the second coming of Christ” as being expressly Postmillennial without divorcing it from everything he has said to get to that point. (C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, pg 851-855, 857-858, 861) No, it is more appropriate to view it through a statement like his son’s which explains, “The Scriptures… clearly reveal that the gospel is to exercise an influence over all branches of the human family, immeasurably more extensive and more thoroughly transforming than it has ever realized in time past.” (A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, pg. 568) So, if we are to claim that these men were avid Postmillennialists then we must ignore a great deal they have said, believe that there was a radical shift in eschatological opinion, even in the orthodox Reformed professors, after the very late 1800s. For it is sure that Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller held great influence over the belief of Charles Hodge, which we have seen, who in turn held great influence over his son, and men like B.B. Warfield who held particular influence on others such as his dear friend Geerhardus Vos, and others such as Machen that came after. So if we are to assume a radical shift I would be interested to know which of these men are to be considered the culprit? For as Geerhardus Vos proclaimed it was the burning question of the time, “[…] which of the two, pre-millennarianism or post-millennarianism, has done or bids to do more good to practical Christianity, or which of the twain can be trusted to do less injury to the cause of religion..” (Pauline Eschatology, pg. 226-227) Notice the understood qualification is not concerning the cause of Amillennialism, only its counterparts. Now, I am not proposing that some of the men mentioned here (particularly the Hodges and Warfield) can be called specifically Amillennial for they seem to have been a hybrid of the two, but they were definitively not specifically Postmillennial either; in fact, Warfield himself detested being called Postmillennial.

2) Now, lest the Premillennialists think the fight within Princeton was between Post- and Amillennialists, I hope I have made it clear that all of these men directly address the historical fact that the Reformed Church has never been Premillennial since the second or third century; though with little or no exception they do not address the other two views. Just as we have seen before, it is said, “The Apostolical Fathers of the Jewish Christian branch of the church, such as Barnabas, Hermes, and Papias, adopted [Chilianism]. It prevailed generally throughout the church from A.D. 150, to A.D. 250, being advocated by IrenĒ½us and Tertullian. Since that time the doctrine [just presented] has been the one generally recognized by the whole church, while Millenarianism or Chilianism has been confined to individuals and transient parties.” (A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, pg. 569) Furthermore, the historical evidence against this point of view cited by a number of these men as being “Jewish in its origin” and “pre-Christian.” This shows abundantly that the view of the Church has not been Premillenarian regardless of the claims of its adherents today. Many Reformed men have found cause to disagree; but, they are all unified in citing no historical evidence that this is a legitimate view of the Reformed faith.

Puritan Eschatology

Then there is the charge that the entirety of the Puritans, not the least of which were the Westminster Divines themselves, were all Postmillennial. In that masterful series of books entitled the “Puritan Papers” this exact subject is dealt with. But the findings don’t match the aforementioned conclusion in the least; it’s quite the opposite in fact.

Following the roots of eschatological doctrine back to the early church fathers the author of the article “Puritan Eschatology,” Peter Toon, begins by differentiating between Chiliasm and Augustinian eschatology. He explains Augustine’s view as what we would now call Amillennial in this way, as taken from book 20 of the City of God, “He understood the 1000 years as a perfect number representing the whole period of years from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of His second coming when the Last Judgment would occur.” He adds, “This Augustinian eschatology which taught that the present age is the millennium and that it is to come to an end with a brief period of persecution, the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment, reigned supreme in the Church from 431 to the time of the Reformation.” The author admits that while Calvin followed Augustinian eschatology “there was a distinct tendency after Calvin’s death to think of the 1000 years of Revelation 20 as the literal 1000 years stretching form about the year A.D. 300 to about the year A.D. 1300… Thus the loosing of Satan ‘for a little season’ was being experienced in Europe from about 1300.” This would certainly be representative of a Postmillennial eschatology.

He then goes on to discuss the Westminster Divines and says, “[…] the remarkable fact is that in 1643, when the Westminster Assembly first met, and even more so from 1648 to 1660, millennial teaching (Chiliasm) was both common and respectable in England even though a good number of learned divines continued to teach the traditional Augustinian doctrine (Amillennialism).” We will pause here for a moment to recognize that this in an of itself shows that the only real view missing from the whole equation was that of the Postmillennial view, at least in any significant number. In fact the author shows that the prolucator of the first two sessions of the Assembly as well as most of the Independents there gathered were indeed Millennialists. He says in the end, “The influence of these millenarians was, however, insufficient to affect the final wording of the Confession of Faith, which gives the impression of following the Augustinian teaching.” Now none of this means that there didn’t exist in this time frame adherents of what is now called Postmillennial, but it does mean that it was not the prevailing view. In fact, while there were some men in the 1500s and 1600s within the Dutch Reformed Church (such as Witsius and some others) that were advocates of a form of this doctrine, it doesn’t make much of an impact until the mid 1600’s when a “conservative millenarianism” (later Postmillenarianism) appears through men such as Joseph Mede and John Henry Alsted. Now in all honesty these men didn’t represent precisely the modern view in question, that is certain, but were widely embraced in the Netherlands who had already had a penchant for this school of thought. Yet it was Mede himself who admits, “[the] dogma of the thousand year Regnum was the general opinion of all orthodox Christians in the age immediately following the Apostles.” The author wraps up his paper by saying, “We find that the Westminster Confession of Faith… clearly follows Augustinian teaching while the Larger Catechism… calls upon the people to pray for the conversion of Jews. Yet the call for prayer for the Jews is followed by the prayer that Christ would hasten the time of His Second Coming. This fact, and the actual Scriptural references given, lead us to state that there is no suggestion of a period of latter-day glory or of a millennium connected with the conversion of the Jews. The idea seems to be that, though their conversion will certainly enrich the Church, the Church will remain in a world which hates Christ and His gospel.” (Puritan Papers, vol. 5, Peter Toon, “Puritan Eschatology”, pg. 63-79.)

To be sure, all of the eschatological points of view were well represented within the ranks of the Puritans; that cannot be denied. To try and say that there was only one predominant view just ignores the clear facts of history. But it does seem to me that the more prevalent views espoused during the time were Augustinian eschatology (Amillennial) and Chiliasm (Premillennial). This is not to say that there were not other views, only that they did not hold sway on as many men as the other two views did. The exception seems to be that in the 1640s there was a surge in Postmillennialism that seemed to lose its vigor by the end of the decade. But that is not quite the same thing as domination of thought over the course of Puritan history either.

The Eschatology of the Reformers

As we continue to work our way backwards through Church history we come now to the time of the Reformers. It is important to note that while the terms Postmillennial and Amillennial had yet to make their way on to the scene they certainly existed. As this topic is studied, especially in the time of the Puritans and before, it is important to note that Postmillennialism was viewed as an altered form of Chilianism and thus it is referred to as such repeatedly. Going back to Louis Berkhof he says of the Postmillennial view, “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries several Reformed theologians in the Netherlands taught a form of Chiliasm, which would now be called Postmillennialism.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 716) I bring this up not only because it is a necessary recognition of fact in order to study the history of this topic, but also because the next man I wish to address is Francis Turretin and he procedes along those terms. I know that technically he post-dates the Reformation, but I have heard him referred to as the last of the great Swiss Reformers in Geneva. So granting me some license I will treat him as such.

In his masterpiece the “Institutes of Elenctic Theology,” Turretin lays out his case against Chiliasm in all its forms. In order to establish that he was an advocate of Augustinian eschatology rather than the other two forms under consideration here I will provide some of what he says. To start with he addresses the issue of a period of glory on this earth, a tenant of both forms of Chiliasm, “The condition of the pious in this life (most afflicted, exposed to persecutions and calamities) cannot agree with a most peaceful and happy kingdom. God calls them to the cross as the standard of Christ (under which the church militant ought to be on earth) and believers can promise themselves no constant rest. […] how do Christ and His apostles in consoling believers against such trials always use the hope of eternal glory and happiness in heaven and never the consideration of peace and felicity to exist on earth, which would have contributed greatly to relieve their minds? Why do they say nothing of that long interval in which the church of Christ is to be free from such calamity… why does [Paul] not say that that rest would begin and continue through a memorable interval even from this life, if he believed there would be any such interval?”

Let it be understood that Turretin readily admits that between the two forms of Chiliasm, what we would now call Premillennial and Postmillennial, the former is a far greater error than the latter. But he certainly views both as being in error and thus confirms the Augustinian position. In fact, he certifies himself that the larger Reformed church does as well when he says, “Now although there is a great difference in this twofold opinion (Pre- and Post-), and the former is far more dangerous then the latter and deserves to be called heretical; still the latter, which was the dominant opinion of certain divines, has been rejected thus far by the church as an error and blemish, not without weighty reasons.” It is clear that Turretin is affirming the historical fact that within the Reformed church the Augustinian position was the official position of the church (Francis Turretin, “Institutes of Elenctic Theology,” vol. 3, pp 575-577)

And of course John Calvin expressed the Augustinian eschatological opinion in the Institutes. He says in refuting the errors of Chiliasm and in regard to the 1000 years spoken of in Rev. 20:4, “[…] the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the Church, but only to the various troubles which await the Church militant in this world.” In such a statement he clearly refutes the aforementioned schools of Chiliastic thought. He is especially against the error of Premillennialism, so dismissive of it in fact that he says of them, “[…] let us have done with these triflers, that we may not seem… to think their dreams deserving of refutation.”

He clearly lays out some principles that would show that he is solidly to be found in the Augustinian camp when he says, “[…] the reason why faith is so rare in this world; nothing being more difficult for our sluggishness than to surmount innumerable obstacles in striving for the prize of our high calling. To the immense load of miseries which almost overwhelm us, are added the jeers of profane men, who assail us for our simplicity, when spontaneously renouncing the allurements of the present life we seem, in seeking a happiness which lies hid from us, to catch at a fleeting shadow. In short, we are beset above and below, behind and before, with violent temptations, which our minds would be altogether unable to withstand, were they not set free from earthly objects, and devoted to a heavenly life, though apparently remote from us. Wherefore, he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection.” Here it is clear that Calvin sees no relief in this life, that the focus of believers and hope lies in the second coming itself and that we will have no reprieve from the assaults of this life before that. If in one of the preceding quotes Calvin took on a definitively anti-Premillennial stance, here he clearly does so with Postmillennialism. (John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1972, vol. 2, pp 260-266 or 3.25)

Calvin continues such unity of thought in his commentary on 1 Thess. 5. Here he clearly states that the wicked will still be wicked and the Lord will come upon them unexpectedly lest in seeing His coming they should reach the summit of felicity. Calvin drives home the point that he believes there will be no period of peace on this earth and that bliss will only be found at heaven’s doors when he says in commenting on Lu 14:27, “[…] Christ’s meaning is, that there will be no end to our warfare till we leave the world.” Calvin was indeed an adherent of Augustinian eschatology.

Augustinian Eschatology

We will take a moment now to review what Augustine had to say regarding eschatology. It is important to see how Augustine saw the Millennia of Rev. 20 since I have cited, as some of the referenced authors have, him as one of the chief influences of thought in the Reformers and the Puritans.

In the following passage Augustine shares his understanding and conviction on this matter. He says, “Now the thousand years may be understood in two ways, so far as occurs to me: either because these things happen in the sixth thousand of years or sixth millennium (the latter part of which is now passing), as if during the sixth day, which is to be followed by a Sabbath which has no evening, the endless rest of the saints, so that, speaking of a part under the name of the whole, he calls the last part of the millennium—the part, that is, which had yet to expire before the end of the world—a thousand years.” We will pause here because it is important to note here that he views the six thousand years as encompassing all of time and culminating in a seventh symbolical thousand years which is eternal rest in heaven. But in no way does he here advocate either the Pre- or Postmillennial point of view. He goes on to say, “[…] or he used the thousand years as an equivalent for the whole duration of this world, employing the number of perfection to mark the fullness of time.” Here he ends with the definitive opinion of the current day Amillennialists. He explains the view further by saying, “[…]we cannot better interpret the words of [Ps. 105:8], ‘He hath been mindful of His covenant for ever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations,’ than by understanding it to mean“to all generations.” (Augustine, “City of God,” 20.7)

In 20.9 he goes on to describe that the saints reign even now with Christ and that the mark of this thousand years covers the entirety of this time beginning at the first coming of Christ. All of this said I think it is clear that Augustine represented what is now known as Amillennialism and the influence he exerted on the Reformers and beyond was in that school of thought, to greater and lesser degrees depending on where it be found.


As I said at the beginning, I am not attempting to argue the validity of any one of the positions presented herein. But I am showing the historical existence of those positions and the Reformed perspective within each school of thought. I think considered from that view it is clear that Premillennialism and Augustinianism, or Amillennialism, can reasonably lay claim to longevity. The new kid on the block, so to speak, is Postmillennialism.

I also think it is safe to say that while slightly more ambiguous in its various forms throughout history the Amillennial thought has had the luxury of majority opinion within the Reformed church and that is followed, in the last 500 years or so, by Postmillennialism, though as was previously expressed there was a brief time for a decade or so in the mid 1600s when Postmillennialism found itself growing in a popularity that eventually subsided. It is also safe to say that the one unanimous opinion of the Reformed church, regardless of where else they may differ, is that Premillennialism is not Biblical and has routinely been denounced as such; even being called heretical by men such as Turretin.

I don’t try to persude anyone with this paper to believe what I believe, that is another discussion for another time. But the claims of the Pre- and Postmillennialists that the Reformed church has been in agreement with them throughout history is hopefully rectified here. It is true that at various times some men have agreed with either or both positions, but then that is not the same as saying that the Church as a majority did so. Nor do I think it is particularly productive to try and validate our beliefs by trying to retroactively apply them to men in the past unless, and only if, those man have actually believed as we believe.

Perhaps debate in this area can be productive. Certainly I sense a growing segment of the Reformed church that is becoming ever more inclined to Postmillennial thought. This means that at some point we will have to discuss this yet again and hoepfully do so with historical accuracy and a great deal of charity for it is sure that each camp’s belief runs deep. Yet this I know, if we are to start excluding the title of Reformed from each other based simply on our eschatological opinions then nothing productive will come of it and nothing productive ever will. Explain your position and defend it but let us be gracious along the way.


  1. Danny, due to time constraints on me right now, I had to scan down this article. Looks good, though. One comment that might be helpful is that our current distinctions between Post- and Amillennialism can be pushed back into history quite anachronistically. On a very basic level, one is either Pre- or Postmillennial. That is, Christ is either coming before or after the millennium. There are many details that come into play from there, but that's a lowest-common-denominator place to start. Anyway, brother, thanks for the article.

  2. Tim in one regard we can simplify it to those terms. But we would still not be able to truly able to reconcile those opinions without also accounting for the interpretation of the thousand years in Rev. 20 which is vitally important to all three camps. I also think that we would have to at a bare minimum take into account the variance in thought concerning a period of bliss on this earth in order to consider these views. Now, all of that said I think that Post and Amillennial views are far more compatible than Premillennial views. Thank you for taking the time to read this post my friend.

  3. Danny--Thank you for your scholarship and this fine article. I found it while I was researching a book I am writing on American ideology. I think there are some fascinating distinctions and polarities among the three major positions. Amillennialism and Postmillennialism share a rejection of the "deus ex machina" (so to speak) of Premillennialsm. But Post-and-Premillennialism share a view that history is relevant, whereas Augustine and his followers saw no hope for progress. Maculloch's book, The Reformation, talks about this. You might also be interested in Tuvesson's book from the 1960s titled "Redeemer Nation" that talks about the role of millennialism in American ideology. Bob Leonhard (RRLeonhard@aol.com)

  4. Hello,
    I would like a person knowlegable about the history of eschatology to comment on how thoroughly the reformers studied and thought about eschatology. I am a preterist and believe the reformers were wrong on certain aspects of eschatology. However, their views got cast in stone by the confessions and anyone who thinks otherwise is rejected for entry into the Reformed fold. I think the reformers just took Biblical statements about the second coming, the judgment, the resurrection as face value without rigorous cross checking. They were concentrating on the issues of the day such as salvation by faith, solo scriptura, etc. Eschatology has been thought about and fleshed out much more since then and it is apparent that no current theory is without its problems. Ergo, the need for a comprehensive reevaluation of eschatology from scratch i.e. without undue influence from the baggage of the past.
    I a member of the OPC but the URC does not want to accept my request for transfer because of my eschatology.