Lecture Four – Reformed Development of Eschatology
In this session I want to dive a little deeper into Reformed eschatology, where it stands in the Reformed churches today and why the church has taken the position it has taken.
Reformed eschatology it’s not something that you hear too much about today. As a matter of fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard the two words put together before: Reformed Eschatology. Now we all know about reformed theology, and there are the Giants of reformed theology today, those you think of as the Giants of reformed theology in the church world at large, well certainly the Pope wouldn’t be one. Okay, it would be those that stand against the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings, such as perhaps, John MacArthur – yeah very good on reformed theology. Also R.C. Sproul who recently passed away, a giant in our day of reformed theology, just to name a few, and there are many other good teachers out there in reformed theology.
But you never hear much about reformed eschatology, and when listening to, for instance, RC Sproul and what he taught about eschatology, well I like the guy very much, he was great on reformed theology, but he really didn’t advocate any type of eschatology. It seemed that he would just ask honest questions and then leave them unanswered. I can appreciate that, so many years I did not understand prophecy at all, or eschatology I only believed what I was taught by men who basically and primarily were teaching futurist eschatology, so that was my belief and it was based upon the teaching of men.
Then you take someone like John MacArthur who on one hand teaches reformed theology and he also teaches that the Roman Catholic Church is apostate, but he does not go as far as admitting that it is that Great Apostasy, nor that the Papacy is the seat of the Antichrist. He contrarily holds to Dispensational Futurism. What a mix, I mean what a mix up! And then he doesn’t really defend it himself, he rather uses the work of men like John F Wolvord, referring his students and others to his book The Rapture Question. Upon John MacArthur’s recommendation, I purchased Wolvard’s book, The Rapture Question. After reading the book I had to re-title it: The Rapture Without Question, because that’s basically what the book will do for you, it’ll get you to accept the rapture without question!
None the presuppositions which are foundational to dispensational futurism are ever questioned or supported by any sound exegesis in his book. So if you accept the presuppositions without question first, then you have John MacArthur’s take on the rapture. It is based on a book that questions nothing, but uses presumptions that are not established by sound exegesis at all. If you actually attempt to establish those presumptions, you will find them sorely lacking in sound scriptural foundation. If only he would apply to eschatology the same sound exegesis that he does to reformed theology, he would have to throw this book away, but unfortunately doesn’t do that. I don’t think I’m going to teach that old dog any new tricks, as much as I may like his teaching on reformed theology and he’s getting up there in years and probably won’t change just because I sent him a copy of my latest book.
Okay, we’re going to dig deeper into Reformed eschatology, and I was thinking, because there is sorely lacking any definitive work on Reformed eschatology when it comes to evangelical Christianity. Its roots are founded in the soil of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. Just as the Reformers protested the corrupt teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, so today evangelicalism itself is in need of a sound reference for theology. Simply put it is the theology of the Protestant reformers which is at the heart and foundation of historical evangelicalism – as C.H. Spurgeon once said, Reformed Theology is nothing other than biblical Christianity. And I would agree with that.
There are three basic eschatological views which are held by those calling themselves Reformed. These are post-millennialism, a-millennialism and historic (not dispensational) pre-millennialism. Now I’m more leaning toward the Historic Premillennialism. But I wanted to take an honest look at well what we would call the official position of the “Reformed Churches.” And I would guess that would probably be the position of R C Sproul, though he never seemed to definitely voice it; but it would not be the position of John McArthur, who holds to a dispensational premillennial, pre-tribulation rapture position. Absent from the Reformed list is dispensational premillennialism view of John McArthur because it is well known that the Reformation did not develop Christian doctrine in the area of eschatology very strongly during the early years because the focus was primarily on the development of reformed theology and church structure to oppose the Apostate Roman Church.
And I would perhaps have a question mark after that because I believe that it did plant the seeds for Historicism, nonetheless the early Reformers in general still accepted the long-standing a-millennial eschatology of Augustine. Now Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, he lived from 354 to 430, so late fourth into the fifth century. Augustine of course wrote the City of God, and the City of God well it’s like an allegory: the elect of God, they are the City of God. Now I think that’s what Augustine was pretty much saying. He came to Christ late in his life, no he was not a member of the Catholic Church, he was the Bishop of Hippo and of course over in Rome you had the bishop at Rome. The bishop at Rome had not yet ascended, at the time of Augustine, that is, had not ascended to prime Bishop over all – as Bishop of Bishops! He had not yet assumed the seat of the Pontifex Maximus. That seat was not assumed until the division of the Roman Empire into ten, so that would come later. The Catholic Church would have hated the grace doctrine that Augustine clung to and has been specifically admired for by many Protestants, especially Calvinists and Lutheran’s consider him to be one of the theological fathers in advance of the Protestant Reformation due to his teachings on salvation and divine grace.
That said, the Reformers accepted the long-standing a-millennial eschatology of Augustine set forth about AD 400. Augustine however, viewed the age in which he lived as the millennium itself in which the “…kingdom of God (was) already manifest in the Church…the age between Pentecost and the return of Christ was the very millennium itself, marked by the ever increasing influence of the church in overturning evil…” so therefore figurative. Now I’m not sure that the a-millennialism of Augustine is the same a-millennialism of the Reformed Church today. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that it isn’t, because of the time in which Augustine lived he could not have imagined that we would be around for another thousand or 1500 years before the next age. What He thought of eschatology, as close as we can get our inferences from the City Of God, in which he kind of spiritualizes or allegorizes the Revelation. His City of God may be akin to Pilgrims Progress, and that’s kind of what a-millennialism does to the book of Revelation it turns it into a work like the City of God. It spiritualizes the Thousand Year reign so that it isn’t literal, but rather figurative, and the first resurrection happens when you accept Christ and you are thus crucified in Christ and you are born again! They view that as the first resurrection. Of course, the second resurrection happens after this, not literal but figurative, millennial period, where Christ reigns in his people on the earth. So, it’s not quite the same thing as postmillennialism or the a-millennialism of the Catholic Church.
We do however see a creeping vindication of the papacy in the present reformed a-millennialism, if not a full vindication of the papacy. So, if you wonder how the Lutheran Church can officially accept the papacy and now even celebrate the Reformation together with the Pope as if it was nothing – well now you understand why I think a-millennialism is a little bit schizophrenic. I hate to say it and I hope nobody takes offense to that, but I feel like it may be a little bit schizophrenic because they’ve made up their mind that it’s all figurative, Jesus is not going to return for the thousand-year reign. I don’t know whether it is unbelief or it’s just an acceptance of the way things are. And maybe it’s easier to just accept things the way they are! That way they don’t have to be disappointed because Christ has not returned for His thousand-year reign yet?
From the writing of the Revelation until at least the period of the Reformation the main thought of the church was that Christ would return, and of course there were a lot of errors along the way. When Constantine arose and made Christianity the official state religion, many thought, this must be the millennial reign, so they began to accept the idea of a-millennialism from that time. It wasn’t until during that perceived a-millennial reign of Christ when the Papal Head began killing bible believers and using the sword to force people into its belief and practice, that many began to see the truth of the matter, and then even accept the idea of a year for a day and the possibility for a 1260 year reign of the Antichrist. That’s one question I would have answered from the Reformed a-millennials: What about the 1260 years, do they agree that it was really 1260 years as we have determined? Or do we concede to the three and a half year dispensational counter-reformation end time antichrist doctrine of the Jesuit Ribera, as MacArthur has unwittingly done?
And I have other questions, as most just do not discuss eschatology at all and you never hear much of a defense of a-millennialism either. Is it because none of them are willing to stand up to the futurist speculation that has become so prominent in the church? As a matter of fact, it seems many of the evangelical churches in America have gone astray from their reformed roots. They have a foundation of reformed theology coming out of the Reformation but it seems that most of them have forgotten why they are even called “Protestant”, or if they ever knew. This one guy wrote a defense, he says “The Reformers accepted the long-standing a-millennial eschatology of Augustine set forth in AD 400.” Why go back before the Reformation to Augustine who, while he had some good things going on, he would not have seen any development in eschatology such as would have been seen in the Reformation?
Why do they not look at the eschatology that actually did develop out of the Reformation itself? Also, Augustine’s and the early church’s a-millennialism is not the same as the a-millennialism of today. Just like my pastor friend that attacked historicism, as matter of fact did a series on the error of historicism, then he jumped back to Irenaeus, and says look, Irenaeus considered and interpreted the 1260 days, as a literal three-and-a-half-year period, therefore he was a futurist. But, that is a specious comparison, because there’s no way that the early church fathers, from Irenaeus to Augustine, ever dreamed that another thousand years, let alone 1260 or now almost two thousand years would continue in church history before the consummation. So of course, they could not accept a 1260 year-day interpretation, because they believed that Christ was coming back imminently.
Then when Constantine rose up they thought, oh this is the millennium therefore the prophecy is to be interpreted a-millennial. It wasn’t until the rise of the Antichrist when the Papacy finally took its ascendancy and started killing Bible believing Christians that some started to think, maybe this is Antichrist because it certainly isn’t the millennium. And that maybe this is a 1260 year period, as the true church continued to suffer for centuries under this religious tyranny. Then you come around to 16th century and you’re most of a thousand years into the reign of the Antichrist as Bishop of Bishops rather than just the Bishop of Rome. Afterwards the reformation and puritan fathers start to see clearly that they are near the end of a 1260 year period, and they start to recognize and take into account their historical position.
How can we forget all of this? There seems to be a War on History. If we forget history we cannot see how God has fulfilled His prophetic word in it. Well, I am going to continue to defend the pre-millennial historical position. I’m diving in deep here. I do understand how people can believe a-millennialism, because it’s very comforting. I do believe as the scripture says, that we are resurrected in Christ, we enter into his death and resurrection spiritually speaking when we are born again, but I have a problem to reconcile here now, when Paul says that I show you a mystery we shall not all sleep but we shall be changed at the moment in the twinkling of an eye when the Trump sounds the dead in Christ will be raised and then those who are alive and remain will be caught up together! Okay, is he talking about the second resurrection after the a-millennial “City of God” allegorical reign of Christ on earth?
I want to sort this thing out, and I admit that I’m leaning toward the premillennial historical position because I’m not quite convinced, but that’s what an honest man does leaving no stone unturned, you dive in deep. Someone says, hey you have to consider the a-millennial position. Okay I’ll consider it. I will consider every proposition toward interpreting the scripture, and then I’m going to use God’s Word the best I can to judge between these different positions. Thus, I can’t quite go with Augustine on this. When one says that the Reformation fathers did not develop a doctrine of eschatology, “witness the fact that neither Luther nor Calvin produced a commentary on the book of Revelation, at least not very far,” so he feels comfortable with saying that if they didn’t bother then I can continue to accept a-millennialism, the a-millennialism of fifth century Augustine!
Well they may not have produced a commentary on the book of Revelation, but how many hundreds of times did Luther and Calvin denounce the Papacy as the seat of the Antichrist? How many hundreds of times did Luther and Calvin denounce the Roman Church as that great apostasy? I see the seeds of premillennial historicist thought there. Yes, they were more focused on building and establishing a Reformed Church in place of the Papal Kingdom. At first Luther’s set out to reform the church that he was in, which was the Catholic Church, but when he was excommunicated by those papal thunders, those papal bulls, well then, he came to understand what we may call the second pillar of the Reformation, which was the protest.
The Protest was a witness against the Roman Church and the Papacy which identified them as the II Thess. 2 great apostasy or falling away with its man of sin seated in the temple of God, the Papal chair in the midst of the church. The first pillar would be reformed theology, salvation by faith in Christ alone by grace alone as opposed to the many idolatries and penances imposed by the Roman Church. The second pillar would be the pillar of protest against the Roman Catholic Church as that great apostasy, and that’s the problem I have with the a-millennialists view of eschatology: they toss out the second pillar of the Reformation from which the very name Protestant, is derived. Instead they simply recognize the Roman Catholic Church as just another denomination so that they could even have the Pope speak at their 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation because there is no protest anymore. The protest is dead, as the papacy has proudly announced, “the protest is over,” and that’s where a-millennialism leads you. I feel sorry for them, but I do believe that Christ will return and those who are alive and remain will be changed and I don’t believe that’s at the second resurrection, I believe that’s at the first resurrection as literally expressed in chapter 20. Witness E. B. Elliot, Protestant Historicist, and author of the most exhaustive Protestant treatise ever written on the Revelation, The Horae Apocalypticae, a product of the completely evolved Protestant Reformation, and so justifiably pre-millennial historicist.
Reformed faith holds that God is absolutely sovereign, even of all the evil in the world; he is Lord of Satan, Lord of the ungodly nations and peoples, Lord of all sin and darkness; Lord of Antichrist and his forces; being lord over them all he uses them for the accomplishment of his own purpose. All the rantings and raging of the beast against God and his people only serve to fulfill His purpose as well. It is right here that Reformed Historicism provides the believer with great comfort and peace as he lives in these last days. Nothing and no one can possibly overthrow his God and thwart his purposes. His cause is and will be triumphant and therefore every elect child of God will reach the goal of his salvation.
Reformed eschatology is covenantal in focus, covenant theology has always been an important part of the Reformed faith as the eternal purpose of God concerning all things is viewed in connection with God’s eternal covenant of grace with his people in Christ: a covenant that embraces all of creation to Christ, the head of the church and creation, and the mediator of the Covenant is at the center of God’s eternal purpose with all things. All that God has done in the past, is doing in the world now and will do yet in the future is for the realization of his covenant plan in Christ. The end goal to which all things are leading is the realization of God’s gracious covenant and redemption in Christ when the end comes, and there in the return of Christ, God’s covenant will be complete, or I’m going to say, will be completed.
Because I believe in the pre-millennial historic view here, I believe there is a natural timeline in the scripture. I see it demonstrated over and over, as we have covered in the first three lectures of this very series I’m doing now. And I believe that the millennial reign of Christ will be the Sabbath millennium, and many of you have followed along and have seen my posts and realize that we are getting near the end of the sixth millennium. And if we are right, and the millennial reign of Christ will be a physical literal reign of Christ upon his return, and we will rule and reign with him in our immortal glorified bodies; because when we see Him we will be like him. We should find much comfort in this literal understanding of Rev. 20, as I certainly do. Many Christians and many who died as children, as babies and being under the cover of their parents who were killed for Christ’s name, entire cities and towns and tribes and peoples were wiped out, on the run most of their lives, many of them only during periods of their life, but they suffered great persecution. I believe that we’ll all be raised, and we’ll see what this world will be like. I think that it will be a demonstration that has been sorely lacking: There is an accusation that God needs to demonstrate and will demonstrate during the millennial reign, so that nobody could say, well if we had good government and if Satan hadn’t been loosed to have his way in government, as he said, “all of these kingdoms are mine,” and we see that as a reality that all of these kingdoms are under his dominion right now in the earth. That’s why they use force and there’s wars and rumors of wars, and all of these terrible things going on. No one will be able to say we could have done better, or made the salvation choice if only: because near the end of the Millennial reign, Satan will be loosed to call to his side those who have chosen to reject the Gospel, and that regardless of the most advantageous circumstances rendered to the fallen race of Adam even under the best government and world order ever.
But even now the elect understand why He allows it, because God is faithful and we know that all things work together for good to those that are called according to his purpose, for all those that love God. He uses all of these things to conform us to the image of His only Begotten Son, whom even the scripture reveals, was matured through suffering. How much more us?
 City of God, Book XX, Chapter 7
3 thoughts on “Part Four – In Defense of the Historical Method of Interpretation”
Thank you for this series!
So glad someone appreciates this.
I definitely do. I am a Reformed pastor and I have been teaching Reformed eschatology…or so I thought until someone challenged me, over 20 years ago, to look again at the Westminster Confession’s statements on eschatology! Your work, and esp the reprinting of the older historicist writings, has been a great blessing.