Monday, October 13, 2008

A Head's Up for Pre-Millennarians

I just finished listening to a talk by an evangelical Protestant speaker, David Pawson, about "De-Greecing the Church". There is lots there that one could discuss, both positive and negative. But he made a claim that I have encountered many times, namely, that with regard to a literal, earthly reign of Jesus Christ for a thousand years after His Second Coming there is "not a trace of any other view....." for the first four hundred years of Church history. And this is a stock claim among premillennialists; do a Google search for "millennium", "early church", and "unanimous" and see. Indeed, I used to make this claim myself.

Now there is no disputing that at least two prominent early writers--Sts. Justin and Irenaeus--are explicitly pre-millennial. But strangely, advocates for this position (like Pawson) seem to have missed a very important phrase in St. Justin's own writing on the topic. Justin himself does hold that there will be such an earthly reign of Christ, but he notes:

I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing and think another. I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise. (Dialogue with Trypho 80; emphasis mine)
So there you have it. Pawson (and others) are just plain wrong when they hold that the premillennial position was the unanimous position in the early Church, for even St. Justin Martyr in his day knew of "many" who thought otherwise.

Pawson also alleges, somewhat indignantly, that St. Augustine single-handedly torpodoed the premillennial view and actually was instrumental in having it formally condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431:

The millennium has almost disappeared. And do you know the man responsible? Augustine. In his early ministry he preached that Jesus was coming back to reign for a thousand years to reign on earth and that's what all the Church believed and preached until then; there's not a trace of any other view. . . . We've got into all these different views since Augustine . . . He persuaded a council, in the year 431, in Ephesus . . . they condemned belief in the millennium as heresy. An official council of the Church. That's why you've never heard about it in most churches.
There are a few serious difficulties with what Mr. Pawson asserts here. First, the Council of Ephesus was held in AD 431 and St. Augustine died in AD 430, so his ability to persuade the Council to condemn anything was somewhat limited. (In fact, he was invited to Ephesus but never set out, having died of old age.) Second, although it is asserted by many Protestant scholars, the Council of Ephesus did not, in fact, formally condemn premillennialism (or "chiliasm", as it is often called.) Michael Svigel, in his article The Phantom Heresy:Did the Council of Ephesus (431) Condemn Chiliasm?, has very admirably chased down the source of this assertion and proven that it is quite overstated.

Certain bishops at the Council did refer to the doctrine of chiliasm as "deliramenta, fabulosique", (not exactly a ringing endorsement) but there was nothing like a formal condemnation issued by the Council at large. Still, this represents important evidence. Already in St. Justin Martyr's day (the mid-second century AD) there were "many" Christians who did not hold to chiliasm (again, contra the oft-repeated assertion that "there's not a trace of any other view.") And the chiliastic position gave way in the Church until, by AD 431 it had been essentially rejected--if not formally, at least strenuously--by both East and West. Some people would consider this a corruption. But for those who believe that the Church is the "pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15) and in our Lord's promise to "be with you always, even unto the end of the age" (Matt 28:20), then it is more appropriately seen as the winnowing action of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church into all truth.

It is a recurring theme in anti-Catholic apologetics that St. Augustine, the great "boogey man", single-handedly scuttled doctrine after doctrine that had been unanimously held for the four hundred years prior. I have cited (and refuted) many examples in the chapter on St. Augustine in my review of David Bercot's Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Frankly, the thesis is ridiculous on its face. No one who knows anything about the relations between various local churches, the oft-times fiercely independent nature of the Catholic bishops, and the difficulty at times of having the East and West agree on anything could possibly believe that one man in an African bywater could over and over shift the entire body of Christendom away from what all had held for four centuries, to embrace some completely alien theology.

In the rejection of chiliasm St. Augustine lent his not-inconsiderable influence to a position that was already widely held throughout the Catholic Church.


marty said...

Thanks Dave, I bought into the early Church fathers all believed in a pre-mill earthly reign too. I am bettter now, thanks to your help.


Matt | o2h2d2 said...

After reading your text, based on the context, I would have to disagree with your post.