The following post includes a theological discussion between two major biblical interpretation systems: Dispensational Premillennialism and Covenant Amillennialism. Robert Morgan is a great brother-in-Christ whom I’ve known for several years. He’s currently studying at Arlington Bible College in Baltimore, Maryland and started a church this Spring, United Christian Community Church (https://www.facebook.com/UtripleC). Robert favors the Covenant Amillennial view while I (John) hold to the Dispensational Premillennial view.
The purpose of this debate was to help both Robert and I engage some of the facts and falsities of both views and to help those around the world better understand what each view is advocating. The progression of the debate will be: (1) Pro-Dispensational Premillennialism (2) Covenant Amillennialism (3) Clarifications/Conclusion. For the reader’s information, my (John Wiley’s) section (1) was originally a research paper for a class, Robert Morgan’s section was a response to my paper [done in more of a debate fashion than a formal paper], and section 3 will just be a final response by me (John) [also informal]- it’s my blog, I have that privilege :-) Before you look into the research done by both, please know that both Robert and I are fully united on the major doctrines of the Christian faith, we are passionate for the Gospel, we both love ministry…this debate is just a way to fine-tune what we teach. Enjoy!!
- Section I (John Wiley)
Identifying the Millennial Kingdom
When Jesus said to “seek first the kingdom of God,” what did He actually mean? Some scholars would generalize this statement by concluding that the “kingdom of God” is simply “Celestial” or “Heavenly” (McClain 9). Perhaps Jesus was talking about the Church as Augustine noted, or even a “Spiritual” kingdom as believed by A.B. Bruce (9-10). Moving further and further away from Scriptural teachings, some have proposed a “Moral Kingdom Idea” or a “Liberal Social-Kingdom Idea” (10-11). On the contrary, Dispensationalists hold to a “Millennial Kingdom” belief that “Christ will return before the Millennium to establish His earthly reign of one thousand years” (Enns 386). With multiple interpretations of what the “kingdom of God” could possibly mean, it is understandable why this doctrine would be incredibly vague, misconstrued, and misapplied to the average Christian. Beyond an explanation of what the kingdom is, it is also necessary to observe the eschatological views of the millennium. The four most common views are Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, Covenant Premillennialism, and Dispensational Premillennialism. For some theologians, the kingdom and the millennium are essentially identical, while others take different approaches at attempting to differentiate two. Upon studying the various suppositions of “the kingdom,” as well as observing the major views concerning the millennium, the least figurative and consequentially the most literal interpretation of understanding God’s kingdom points to Dispensational Premillennialism.
Before observing the more conservative views on the kingdom, it is important to take into consideration the ideas of the kingdom from the viewpoint of a liberal theologian. Though the definition of this movement varies, Paul Enns defines Liberal Theology in The Moody Handbook of Theology as “that facet of theology that arose as a result of the rationalism and experimentalism of the philosophers and scientists” (549). The twenty-first century progressive reality of Liberal Theology is found in the “Emergent Church” movement. A relevant example would be Rob Bell of “Mars Hill Bible Church.” Just taking a look at the church’s website, it is easy to see that they are greatly involved with community service (www.marshill.org). Their acts of service are not problematic, it is their theology. The doctrinal statement from the church’s website upholds a lot of key doctrines such as the deity of Christ, God being a Triune God, Jesus being born of a virgin, and more (www.marshill.org). However, after examining the doctrinal statement and then observing Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, it is obvious that Bell does not foresee God to punish men for their sin, especially not in hell. Above all, the Gospel is perverted into being a way for God to “transform culture” rather than to save sinners for God’s glory (Gilbert 109). Another example of an Emergent Church man of influence is Brian McLaren. To the orthodox Christian’s disgust, McLaren stated in an interview, “Orthodoxy itself is practice…So ethics comes first, then doctrine comes second, and witness flows out of that” (www.modernreformation.org). Therefore, due to a lack of doctrinal care, the Emergent Church movement will likewise misinterpret much of Scripture. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck clarify that the Emergent Church movement believes “Jesus’ message of the kingdom is a manifesto about God’s plan for humanity here and now” (183). Additionally, “Joining the kingdom is not a move in status (i.e., from unsaved to saved), but a move in practice” (184). According to this movement, Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God are about “restoring our fractured world” (www.marshill.org). Alva McClain remarks that the “Social-Kingdom Idea” concludes the kingdom of God to be “the progressive social organization and improvement of mankind, in which society rather than the individual is given first place” (11). Despite McClain’s The Greatness of the Kingdom being written in 1959, it goes to show that the Emergent Church movement is nothing more than a repackaged concept of following suit in how man horribly misinterprets the Scriptures to formulate a liberal theological system that exalts the potential goodness of men rather than the Gospel.
With the conclusions of liberal theology’s view of God’s kingdom having been observed, it is now important to take into consideration legitimate Biblical interpretations, the first of which will be Covenant Amillennialism. Perhaps one of the clearest definitions of Covenant Amillennialism is found in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. He says it is “the view that there will be no literal thousand-year bodily reign of Christ on earth prior to the final judgment and the eternal state; on this view, scriptural references to the millennium in Revelation 20 actually describe the present church age” (1235). Charles Ryrie adds to this view by stating a second possible view of Amillennialism, in which the kingdom promises find “fulfillment by the saints in heaven now” (516). Amillennialist advocate Kim Riddlebarger says, “Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) may have been the first to use the term ‘amillennial’” (31). However, since this name quite often gives a negative connotation, perhaps assuming that the Amillennialist ignores Revelation chapter twenty altogether, Jay E. Adams prefers the term “Amillennialism” to be replaced with the term “realized millennialism” (7-11). Therefore, in its most basic sense, Covenant Amillennialism insists that “there will be no future earthly kingdom…the church fulfills the promises, and the new heaven and new earth that immediately follow the Church Age consummate history” (Ryrie 516-517).
Amillennialism has compiled both intriguing arguments as well as some questionable assumptions needing a thorough critique. An obvious distinction between Amillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism is the presupposed doctrinal position of either Covenant Theology or a form of Dispensationalism: Classic or Progressive. However, adopting the Covenant theological system provides for a few possible views of the millennial kingdom. The reason for this deciding factor is due to the Dispensational distinction of Israel and the Church while Covenant theologians mesh Israel and the Church into one covenant or elect people who enter into a restored relationship with God by means of the “covenant of grace” of which Christ is the “ultimate mediator” (Enns 503, 513). The first argument in favor of Covenant Amillennialism is that it is very simple in comparison to Postmillennialism and Premillennialism. Wayne Grudem says, “This scheme is quite simple because all of the end time events happen at once, immediately after Christ’s return” (1110). Secondly, many famous and highly-influential theologians in Christian history have held to some form of Amillennialism. Kim Riddlebarger includes men such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin in this group (32). Thirdly, Amillennialists will be quick to include in their arguments that there is only one passage in the entire Bible that specifies the phrase of a one thousand year reign (Grudem 1114). Finally, in its relation to a lot of theologically Reformed distinctions, Covenant Amillennialism is highly Christocentric, finding fulfillments with much of the Old Testament’s prophecies in Christ. John Calvin once said, “We ought to read the Scriptures with the express design of finding Christ in them” (218). That is not to say that those who do not hold to Amillennialism forsake the enormous amount of material presented in the Old Testament that are clearly fulfilled in Christ, but it is clear that much of the prophetic passages that are critical with interpreting the millennium are arguably related to the person of Christ, rather than simply an aspect of a one-thousand year earthly reign. A good example of disagreement would be Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48 which typifies the person of Christ according to the Amillennialist, but is viewed as a literal and future temple in the eyes of the Dispensationalist. Overall, Covenant Amillennialism is supported with reasonable explanations yet fails to reconcile some key issues in multiple passages.
After observing some strengths of Covenant Amillennialism, it is now crucial to further analyze the presented arguments with necessary rebuttals. First of all, just because the Covenant Amillennial view is a simple eschatological view, that does not simply validate that it must be a correct view. In fact, Wayne Grudem criticizes that Amillennialism “can propose no really satisfying explanation of Revelation 20,” perhaps the most crucial passage in determining one’s millennial view (1122). So on the one hand, Amillennialism is simple in the order of end-time events but vague in explaining the clearest passage on a “one thousand year” millennium. Amillennialist Robert Strimple even admits the meaning of the one thousand years is “impossible to be dogmatic on such a matter,” so as an effort to solidify his views he quotes fellow Amillennialist Geerhardus Vos who proposes simply an “interesting” view (127-128). Vos regards the one thousand years to contrast “the glorious state of the martyrs on the one hand with the brief season of the tribulation passed here on earth, and on the other hand with the eternal life of the consummation” (987). Upon hearing this explanation, it seems that Strimple and Vos are making logical and educated guesses rather than equating this text with relevant Scripture, thus hindering this argument’s success. Secondly, it is inescapably clear that many respectable, intelligent, scholarly, and influential theologians have held to the main tenets of Amillennialism such as the men listed by Riddlebarger. While it is absolutely true that all evangelical Amillennialists certainly hold primarily to a literal interpretation of most Scriptures, when it comes to prophecy, plenty of figurative and allegorical interpretations are enforced. To this, Ryrie questions “how does one know whether to interpret a passage literally or figuratively” (518)? Doing a brief survey of Church history will help one to recognize the recipients of those who adopted an allegorical method. Some men have allegorized a large amount of Scripture while others have limited themselves to only prophecies. For example, Origen’s hermeneutics were an influence to Augustine’s eschatology and ecclesiology, Augustine’s eschatology and ecclesiology was a strong influence to the reformers, and likewise many with a Reformed theology will have some tendencies to allegorize interpretations of prophecy (Ryrie 520). This is not to say that Reformed theology is close to the allegorization of Origen but to simply identify a visible connection and how it has influenced eschatological interpretations. Thirdly, though it is true that only one chapter in the Bible includes the specification of “one thousand years” it is inconclusive to deny the literal interpretation of length based on the lack of other authors identifying the time span, nor is it clear to what John could have meant supposing this was a mere symbol (Walvoord and Zuck 980). Additionally, if the “one thousand years” is during the age of the Church, it would have been crucial for John to mention something about the Gospel of Christ or the Church in relation to Revelation 20. Instead, verse four says, “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” Depending on one’s theology, this would likely be related to Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24-25 for a Dispensationalist, or would simply be symbolical for the Amillennialist. To relate this to the “kingdom,” Jesus even says to the sheep on His right at the Second Coming, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). This does not appear to be as Covenant theologian Mark Driscoll states, “the kingdom has come and is coming,” but is a significant future event in complete agreement with the millennial kingdom found in Revelation 20 (412). Finally, while it has already been noted that Amillennialism is Christocentric in Old Testament fulfillments, that is not to say Dispensational theology ignores Christ. Rather, with Dispensational theology it is how, when, where, and why those prophecies are fulfilled instead of equating difficult Old Testament passages with the person of Jesus alone. To continue with the previously listed example, Ezekiel’s temple is not a prophetic description of the person of Jesus, but rather is meant to be used for ceremonial cleansing of the future millennial temple in order for the “divine presence” to be “dwelling in the land” during the one thousand years prior to the eternal state (Hullinger 289). In conclusion, Ezekiel 40-48 does without question relate to Jesus Christ. Not in the idea that the Ezekiel temple is the person of Jesus, but rather that it will be a significant aspect of Christ’s future kingdom. Covenant Amillennialism is a popular belief by many well-known and respectable Christians. However, with the Scriptures and arguments presented, evidence still leads toward Dispensational Premillennialism as being the most preferred interpretation of Christ’s kingdom.
Similar to Amillennialism, Postmillennialism is a recognizable view that must be evaluated for a proper comparison of eschatological beliefs. This is how Postmillennialist Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. defines his view: “Postmillennialism expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions the Lord will return visibly, bodily, and in great glory, ending history with the general resurrection and the great judgment of all humankind” (13-14). Overall, the two major characteristic of this view that are foundational to whether or not one adopts this position is the self-proclaimed optimism and the powerful focus on the Gospel. Christians do not want to tear down the optimism of other believers and neither do they enjoy taking attention away from the Gospel. That is why criticizing the view of Postmillennialism can be frowned upon by proponents of this view. Instead of attacking their interpretation, it can appear that Premillennialists or Amillennialists are diminishing the power of God in the Church. That, however, is not the case. To refute the view of Amillennialism, a simple observation of Revelation 20 will be quite sufficient. Revelation 20:2-3 discusses how Satan will be bound for one thousand years, but following that time period he will be released to deceive the nations. Yet, in the view of the Postmillennialism, there is a gradual progression of Christianity and righteous living until the return of Christ. Quite clearly, Postmillennialism and Revelation 20 do not match up with each other. Aside from this Biblical refutation, an observation from history also deems relevancy. Paul Enns has shown that “Postmillennialism declined considerably following the world wars because the conflagrations militated against the optimism of the doctrine” (384). In other words, the doctrinal teaching flourished during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during a time of “progress in science, culture, and the standard of living,” which of course was “optimistic” in the eyes of many believers. Still, a doctrinal position should never be recognized as authoritative simply because of or an absence of popularity. In summary, Postmillennialism has much to say in the fields of social progression and ideologies, but without question their Biblical analysis is not on par with what the Scriptures indicate the millennium to be.
Progressing closer to Dispensational Premillennialism, there is still one more major view of interpretation to consider analyzing: “Covenant Premillennialism,” sometimes also called “Historic Premillennialism.” What sets apart Covenant Premillennialism from Dispensational Premillennialism would be how Covenantalists do not maintain a constant, distinctive difference between Israel and the Church (Enns 386-387). However, contrary to Postmillennialism and Amillennialism, Covenant Premillennialism often maintains the belief that there will be a “literal future for national Israel,” but only the point of the “church” being equated with “spiritual Israel” (387). The reason for such confusion is a result of the strongest proponents of this view, particularly George Ladd, are frequently unclear and uncertain about the prophetic fulfillments in relation to Israel. While there is a push for being somewhat more literal than other Covenant views of prophecy, two significant problems remain that advocates cannot reconcile and thus are not convincing. First, Ladd makes this somewhat startling statement to conclude his views on Premillennialism: “There are admittedly serious theological problems with the doctrine of the millennium. However, even if theology cannot find an answer for all its questions, evangelical theology must build upon the clear teaching of Scripture. Therefore I am a premillennialist” (40). Though Ladd gives the impression of honesty and humility, his argument is in no way helpful. The problem Ladd observes is that Scripture says there will be a millennium and in trying to preserve what Revelation 20 teaches with his covenant theological beliefs, Covenant Premillennialists make the mistake of translating certain passages “spiritually” and others “literally,” even in the area of prophecy. All for the sake of maintaining the belief that Israel and the Church are part of God’s elect people and no distinction exists between the two entities. Consequently, Covenant Premillennialism fails to maintain a healthy hermeneutic. Secondly, the purposes for Christ’s earthly reign in this view are incredibly unclear. Paul Enns has observed that this view is “not even clear if Israel’s future conversion is in relation to the Millennium” (387). Also, with a Covenant theology perspective, there really is no use for the Millennium except for God’s promises to be fulfilled to “national Israel.” This, of course, again brings up the important matter of the distinction between Israel and the Church, which is a problematic area of Covenant Premillennialism. Ryrie points out in a chart of Basic Theology that this view makes Israel equal with the Church during the Old and New Testament eras, but both entities are distinguished from one another during the Millennial kingdom (523). Overall, Covenant Premillennialism is both hermeneutically inconsistent and vague in relation to God’s future plans. Thus, it causes one to look elsewhere for a more consistent hermeneutic and thoroughly explained system of theology.
Though Covenant Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Premillennialism are related to one another yet individually different, the view of Dispensational Premillennialism is a final and most distinct view of God’s kingdom which answers some of the toughest questions while maintaining a heavily consistent hermeneutic throughout prophecy. Craig A. Blaising gives two main convictions of Dispensational Premillennialism. Blaising says, “The foremost conviction is that Jesus is coming back…prior to a millennial kingdom” (157). Dispensational Premillennialism indicates that this “coming back” will be the result of a “rapture” of the Church, either before a seven-year tribulation period, during, or at the end, depending on which view one accepts (Grudem 1132-1134). Secondly, after the tribulation period, Jesus will return and “establish and rule over a kingdom on this earth for a millennium, that is, for a thousand years” (Blaising 157). In order to defend this view, two important areas must be addressed. First, the distinction between God’s universal kingdom and a promised theocratic kingdom for the Messiah is absolutely crucial and will never be understood apart from it. Secondly, a brief overview of Scriptural passages that suggest a millennial kingdom will then be necessary. Upon observing these two areas of theological relevance, concluding the argument with a brief observation of the view of Dispensational Premillennialism should be quite clear and powerful.
In the words of Alva McClain, “I can find nothing better than the adjectives ‘universal’ and ‘mediatorial’” in relation to the “two aspects or phases of the one rule of our sovereign God” (21). In unity with the same belief, E.R. Craven once said, “We must distinguish between a Kingdom on earth, and a Kingdom over the earth” (95). Both theologians made important remarks about the Scriptures that deal with God’s reign. Some passages deal with the “universal” kingdom “over the earth,” while other passages speak of a “mediatorial” kingdom “on the earth.” It is of utmost importance to distinguish between the two for a proper millennial kingdom interpretation. To give an example, Psalm 93:1-2, the Psalmist proclaims, “The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.” This Psalm is a song of praise to God who has always reigned over the universe. Dispensationalists would agree with Covenant theologians that God is reigning, has always, and will always rule over His creation. The difference, of course, is when passages arise which indicate a “mediatorial” reign on earth. Second Samuel 7 is quite relevant to this discussion. In this text, God promises to David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Commentators of all evangelical backgrounds will not have problems with equating this looking forward to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. It is of the Dispensational Premillennialist interpretation that this prophecy has not been fully fulfilled yet, though it will be during the millennial reign of Christ. Furthermore, the prophets also spoke of this Messiah who would reign as King (Isaiah 9:1-7, 11:1-5; Jeremiah 30:4-11; Ezekiel 34:23-24, 37:24-25; Amos 9:11-15). Naturally, then, when Jesus began His ministry and proclaimed His message of the kingdom, His audience was His people, the Jews. At this point, it was Israel’s chance to accept the Messiah’s teachings, repent of their sins, and welcome in the Messiah. By doing so, they would receive all that is mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 along with all that is promised in the Old Testament millennial prophecies such as Isaiah 11 (Walvoord and Zuck 28). Instead of adhering to the teachings of Jesus, Israel rejected the Messiah (Matthew 23:13, John 1:11). To respond to this rejection, Jesus did assure his listeners that Zechariah 12:10 would be fulfilled and indeed Israel would finally repent and welcome their Messiah by proclaiming “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39). Keep in mind, that Jesus was speaking about the future in Matthew 23, for the same quotation already appeared in Matthew 21:9. However, this would come nearing the end of the events mentioned in the following two chapters of Matthew. Finally, in Matthew 25:34 which is what Dispensationalists interpret to be the very entrance into the Millennium, Jesus makes a very important and prophetic statement: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Surely, Jesus was not talking about the universal rule of God. Certainly, Jesus was not referring to a spiritual reign during the Church Age, for that would be completely ignoring the context of Matthew. On the contrary, the Bible very clearly indicates that Jesus is speaking about His millennial kingdom reign. To conclude E.R. Craven’s statement, this is the “Kingdom on earth” (93). All of which has yet to be fulfilled.
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- SEE PARTS 2 AND 3