In my last few debates with premillennialists concerning eschatology, the discussion has led away from Scripture and towards discussions about what the early church fathers believed. Premillennialists claim that their view was the predominant view in the early church, and that the “Roman Apostasy” was responsible for its absence until shortly after the Reformation. It is this subject matter, as well as other historical issues, that prompted this blog.
First and foremost, I need to put church history in its proper place. The absence of an earthly “millennium” in Scripture is reason enough to reject it, even if every church father in history held to it. Scripture is the final test of doctrinal truth, not popular vote. That said, we should also be very slow to overturn a doctrine that has been established by the church fathers for centuries. It is arrogant to ignore the works of men who have labored in both Word and Doctrine, so church history does carry some weight when interpreting Scripture.
In light of this, was premillennialism the predominant view in the early church? In order to answer that question, we need to carefully define what we are looking for. Dr. Michael Vlach confuses chialism with premillennialism when he writes,
“The doctrine of Premillennialism has strong support in church history. In fact, Premillennialism was the prevailing millennial view for the first 300 years of church history. As the historian Philip Schaff states, “The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment". (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2:614).”
The Biblicist Website makes the same error, claiming that “The term chiliasm has been superseded by the designation premillennialism...". This is simply not true. A chiliast is one who simply believes in a literal millennium, and that would include classical postmillennialists as well. In order to establish premillennialism in the early church, it will need to be shown that,
1.) The Church believed that Christ’s Return would take place before the millennium.
2.) The Church believed that the millennium was a literal earthly reign.
It is difficult to establish the eschatological beliefs of many church fathers, as some seemed to change their view over time, and others were just inconsistent. However, once premillennialism is clearly defined as above, we shall see that true premillennialism was rare in the early church (it did exist), and those who did hold this view had other eschatological beliefs that are inconsistent with the modern view.
“But it is not correct to say, as premillenarians do, that it was generally accepted in the first three centuries. The truth of the matter is that the adherents of this doctrine were a rather limited number. There is no trace of it in Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Tatian, Athenogoras, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Dionysius, and other important church fathers.” (Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, p. 262).
“Among the Apostolic Fathers BARNABAS is the first and the only one who expressly teaches a pre-millennial reign of Christ on earth. He considers the Mosaic history of the creation a type of six ages of labor for the world, each lasting a thousand years, and of a millennium of rest; since with God “one day is as a thousand years.” The millennial Sabbath on earth will be followed by an eighth and eternal day in a new world, of which the Lord’s Day (called by Barnabas “the eighth day”) is the type.” (Phillip Schaff – History of the Christian Church Vol. II, p. 617)