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Postmillennialism Revisited

by Dale Jorgenson

“What has been will be again; what has been done will be

done again, and there is nothing new under the sun”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

 

  In the year 1830, Alexander Campbell began publishing a new journal, entitled The Millennial Harbinger, which replaced his earlier publication which was called The Christian Baptist.[i]The optimistic name of the new journal was strategically chosen,  based upon Campbell’s optimism that the preaching of the ancient Gospel in the young Restoration Movement would help not only in bringing about unity among the denominationally-separated Christian world, but also in hastening the Second Coming of the Messiah to rule over the world which by that time would be ready to receive Him.  Alexander Campbell,  although he “never fossilized” in this area or in any other essential doctrines,  held to his postmillennial  hope throughout most +of his life.[ii]  Although there was discouragement during the time of the American Civil War when Campbell felt the divide between North and South within his own family, when enrollment at his Bethany College fell disastrously, and when the Millennial Harbinger  could not be delivered to the majority of subscribers because they lived in the South, Campbell maintained interest in the millennium and held essentially the same concepts of the post-millennial expectations he harbored throughout most of his editorial life.

In the introductory number of the Harbinger in January, 1830, Campbell wrote:

This work shall be devoted to the destruction of Sectarianism, Infidelity, and

Antichristian doctrine and practice.  It shall have as its object the development, and introduction of that political and religious order of society called the MILLENNIUM, which will be the consummation of that ultimate amelioration of society proposed

in the Christian Scriptures.[iii]

A scan of The Millennial Harbinger over the forty years of its publication reveals a

consistent belief on the part of Campbell and his fellow editors that the reformation (“restoration”) of the church which he and his colleagues were advocating could be the process through which the preparation of the world for the Second Coming of Christ and the golden period of Jesus’ reign on earth might be hastened.   In the second number of the new journal, the editor defines the process by which he hopes the millennial perfection of the world and the reign of the King might be brought about.  After explaining how the various denominational churches of the world were utterly impotent to aid in this process, he proposes the one means by which the golden age might be hastened:

We will attempt to show that there will be, or that there is now, a scheme of

things presented, in what is called the Ancient Gospel, which is long enough, broad enough, strong   enough for the whole superstructure which is called the Millennial Church—and that it will alone be the instrument converting the whole human race,

and of uniting all Christians upon one and the same foundation.

For as God has nothing better to propose to the world than what He proposed

some 2,000 years ago,all that the world needs to its happiness, and all that is

needed to bring us into the millennial enjoyments, will be to have the ancient gospel

and the ancient order of things clearly, fully and faithfully propounded to us.[iv]

            To some extent, Campbell’s optimism in expecting the Kingdom of Jesus to be ushered in by the human presentation of the Gospel may have been fueled by his appreciation for his newly-adopted country, the United States of America.  Robert Richardson, in his monumental  biography, The Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, describes graphically the excitement and hopefulness about that new country felt by the young Campbell during his initial trip

from the harbor of New York overland to his new home in Washington Pennsylvania:[v]

From the viewpoint of secular philosophy, the romantic exhilaration resulting from a belief in the gradual improvement of human culture was characteristic of nineteenth-century thought.  This was true of European philosophy since Kant and Hegel, and particularly true in the young and still-emerging United States of America where the ideas of John Locke and Scottish common-sense philosophy had strongly influenced the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional fathers, and over the next few years would drive many ideas nascent in the American Restoration Movement.  Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who advocated a dependence upon empirical knowledge and who was often cited by the Restoration Movement leaders, is often considered one of the “fathers of the concept of human progress.”[vi]  It is rather ironic that in the famous 1829 debate between Alexander Campbell and atheist Robert Dale Owen of Scotland and New Harmony, Indiana, both were advocates of the human progress concept, except on decidedly opposite poles  of the end, Campbell with his postmillennial Christian doctrine and Owen with his atheistic optimism.

Barton W. Stone’s premillennialism was directly in conflict with the optimistic and progressive Zeitgeist characterizing the majority of his American neighbors during the early

nineteenth century.  Instead of believing that the world would gradually become Christianized by the human proclamation of the ancient gospel, Stone anticipated a gradual spiritual deterioration of world culture and even of the Christian Church until the Rapture of the saints, the Great Tribulation, and the thousand-year reign of Jesus in a perfected earth.  The transformation of the world would not come about, in his thinking, by human proclamation or action, but by the intervening Presence of Jesus Christ.  The pessimistic outlook for the future posited by the premillennial concept contrasted sharply with the patriotic and cultural faith in progress as witnessed in the developments of science, personal freedom, and lifestyle held by many of Stone’s postmillennial and “progressive” contemporaries.  It is both interesting and instructive to note that while Stone and Campbell (and Thomas Campbell) debated issues such as the Atonement and the Trinity on the pages of both Stone’s Christian Messenger and The Millennial Harbinger, the issue of “pre-“ versus “post-” on the millennial question never seems to have been an issue for contention.[vii]

The general optimism which preceded the period of the Civil War received a serious setback during the 1860;s when the war which killed more citizens than any other American

war dampened the expectation  of inevitable moral and spiritual progress.  During the late nineteenth century, among adherents of the Stone-Campbell Movement, postmillennialism seems to have faded almost completely out of the general thinking, replaced by an amillennial position which has dominated all three strains of the Movement until the present.  Hans Rollman has written:

In the nineteenth century, the amillennial position  that expected no literal

reign of Christ prior to the final judgment had attracted few adherents.  Twentieth  century debate, however, helped to entrench among Churches of Christ a total identification of the church with kingdom of God, and the end as the personal

death of the believer, with a final judgment at the general resurrection in an indefinite future.[viii]

World events of the twentieth century tended to cool the enthusiasm of the secular believers in  inevitable societal improvement, and perhaps also to essentially bring to an end of what was left of Christian postmillennial optimism.   World War I capped a series of events in Europe which made the concept of inevitable cultural improvement untenable,  and the early nineteen-twenties saw the publication of Oswald Spengler’s epoch-making tome on The Decline of the West, T. S. Eliot’s basically Christian work entitled The Waste Land, and Sir Arnold Toynbee’s theory of cycles and repetitions in human history.  The existentialism which often included a pessimistic factor, introduced by Kierkegaard and Nietsche during the nineteenth century, continued to develop during the first half of the twentieth, and may in fact be one of the avenues to “Postmodernism” and the Emergent Church in the present era.  In the United States,  the first half of the century brought the Great Depression, and for  people in the dust bowl complete discouragement and hopelessness on their farms and in small towns.  Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, brought home to many readers the horrible realities faced by victims of the 1930s dustbowl disaster.  In the face of events until and including World War II,  the postmillennial hope that by human agency men and women could introduce the Golden Age of Christ’s reign on earth became impossible for most people to hold and thus premillennialism and amillennialism became the dominant faith options for people who were serious about Bible prophecy.

The advent of Postmodernism –a cultural movement which may have begun in

architecture but rapidly morphed to philosophy and religion—brought about a new revival of an old doctrine, however.  Postmodernism is characterized by a denial of absolute truth and moral absolutes, by the rejection of linear thinking and of the value system inherited from The Enlightenment.In some situations Postmodernism provides cover for holding apparently conflicting views simultaneously, but does curiously hold as an absolute value the rejection of holding absolute truth.   Postmodernism rejects reliance upon “metanarratives” such as the connected Biblical story, and places value judgments not on the individual person  but on the community or the culture.  Patricia Waugh, in a postmodernism reader, explains:

Postmodernism tends to claim an abandonment of all metanarratives which

could legitimate foundations for truth.  And more than this, it claims we neither

need them,  nor are they any  longer desirable.[ix]

The emergent church, responding to the belief that Evangelical Christianity is still trying to live in a “modern” rather than the unfolding “postmodern” culture, attempts to remodel both message and work to the new conditions of the present age.  Gene Edward Veith, Jr. outlined some of the changes in his book, Postmodern Times in 1994:

The postmodern rejection of objectivity pervades the evangelical church.  “We

have a generation that is less interested in cerebral arguments,  linear thinking,

theological systems,”  observes Leith Anderson, “and more interested in encountering

the supernatural. . . The old paradigm taught that if you have the right teaching, you

will experience God.  The new paradigm says that if you experience God you will

have the right teaching.”[x]

Among the theological issues between many of the emergent churches and orthodox evangelical Christianity are the rejection of foundationalism, which accepts borders and ultimate finality by  the emergent leadership,  and the  rejection also of the substitutionary atonement by Jesus Christ at the cross.  Emergent churches associated with the Stone-Campbell Movement can point to the rejection of creedal statements by the pioneers of the Movement as precedent for rejection of definitive doctrinal statements, and Barton W. Stone’s understanding of the atonement is sometimes indexed as a precedent for the disbelief in the personal salvation of believers by the offering of the Son of God at Calvary.  But according to Bob Dewaay the concept of eschatology is the basic doctrine upon which emergent theology rests.[xi]The concept of a “rapture” is shunned vigorously by many in the emergent movement.  Bruce McClaren, a major leader in the emergent movement,  comments:

Christians in the power centers of modernity (England in the 1800s, the

United States in the 1900s) saw nothing ahead in the secular story of Indus-

trial modernity . . . nothing but spiritual decline and global destruction.  Their

only hope?  A skyhook Second Coming, wrapping up the whole of creation

like an empty candy wrapper and throwing it in the cosmic dumpster so God

can finally bring our souls to heaven . . . there is virtually no continuity between

this creation and the new creation in this model; this creation is erased like a

mistake, discarded like a non-recyclable milk carton.[xii]

Deconstruction, a process of analyzing literary texts, including the Scriptures,   to include alternative meanings within the text, often admittedly not in the mind of the author, was introduced to the western world during the 1960s primarily by French philosopher Jaques Derridda.  The process is less interested than traditional approaches in the intent of the author, but gives equal importance to the environment and the outlook of the reader.  Postmodernism has applied this process to its analysis of “’authority” and the emergent church, by reliance on a community of perceivers rather than the author, and consequently has diminished confidence in Scripture as an authoritative Word from God.   The neo-reliance on the nineteenth-century Hegelian triad which introduces the equal acceptance of opposites (thesis and antithesis) reconciled by the third member,  the synthesis, tend to make it possible for people to accept opposite opinions as simultaneously and equally valid.    Thus, “your truth” and “my truth” can both be simultaneously held and the traditional logical debate between mutually opposing systems, so characteristic of the early Stone-Campbell Movement is held in low regard.  The reliance on “The Enlightenment,” especially the logic of John Locke and the empiricism of Francis Bacon so basic in the theology and philosophy of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, is not a part of the emergent thinking.[xiii]

Essentially, the emergent view of eschatology seems to diminish the hope of eternity and belief in a biblical final judgment, and to   challenge the Christian to make a Heaven on earth by righteous living in the here and now.  Doug Pagitt, another leader in the emergent movement, has written:

God is constantly creating anew.  And God also, invites us to be recreated

and join the work of God as co(re)creators.  .  . Imagine the Kingdom of God as

the creative process of God reengaging in all that we know and experience. . .

When we employ creativity to make this world better, we participate with God

in the re-creation of the world.[xiv]

Unlike Campbell’s dependence upon the “ancient order of things” to bring in the Golden Age of Christ’s reign,  the emergent church would seem to depend more upon Christian lifestyle, including inclusion of all people,  interfacing of all religions, environmental responsibility, and Jesus-consciousness to facilitate the Kingdom of Christ  in the here and now.  Both postmillennial hope and emergent philosophy seek to bring about the right conditions to “participate with God in the re-creation of the world” before the Return of Jesus to the earth—if indeed He is to be expected on the earth at all.  Both hold an optimistic appraisal of the possibilities before us, in contrast to the Chiliastic expectation of evil men “waxing worse and worse” until the Lord Himself appears to call His own to be with Him forever, bringing them with Him in a Second Coming when “Every eye shall see him, and they that pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth shall mourn because of Him.”  And it may be that Toynbee’s concept of history repeating itself is corroborated in Postmillennialism revisited.

Notes

 

[i] The Christian Baptist was published from 1823 until 1830;  The Millennial Harbinger from 1830 until 1870.

[ii] See E.L. Jorgenson, Essays No. 1 and No. 2, Faith of Our Fat

hers (Louisville, KenTucky:  Word and Work Publishers, no date).

[iii] Alexander Campbell, “Prospectus,” The Millennial Harbinger,  January 4, 1830.  The same article refers to

the millennium as “this wished for period.”

[iv] Alexander Campbell,Millennium – No. 1,” Millennial Harbinger,  February, `1830

[v] Robert Richardson, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell  (Cincinnati:  Standard Publishing Co., 1897), I:206-210.

[vi]http://science.jrank.org/00868/Progress-/tmsp/.  The earliest college of the Movement, located in Georgetown, Kentucky, was called “Bacon College.”

[vii]The collection of articles from the Word and Work running from 1945 to 1952, edited by E. L. Jorgenson, makes this point repeatedly by quoting statements from many of the first-  and second-generation editors and preachers within the developing stone-Campbell Movement (Faith of Our Fathers:  (Louisville, KenTucky:  Word and Work, no date)).

[viii] Hans Rollman, “Eschatology,” The Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia, edited by Doug Foster, Paul M. Blowers,  Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p. 306.

[ix] Patricia Waugh, editor, Postmodernism:  A Reader London:  Edward Arnold, 1992), p.5.

[x]Gene Edward Veith Jr., Postmodern Times:  A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 1984), 211.

Xi Bob Dewaay, The Emergent Church:  Undefining Christianity (St. Louis Park, MN:  Bob Dewaay, Publisher, 2009), 13.  Dewaay writes that with the eclectic views of emergent theologians, this is the one facet they hold in common.

[xii] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2004), 268, quoted in Roger Oakland, Faith Undone (Silverton, OR:  Lighthouse Publishing, 2008), 143-144.

[xiii]Dewaay, Chapter 9.

[xiv] Doug Pagitt, Church Re-imagined (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan 2003/2005), 185, cited in Dewaay, 18.




One Response to “Postmillennialism Revisited”

  1. Frank Preston says:

    Great article



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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33