Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2009, p. 34.
Postmillennialism in the Reformed Tradition
The postmillennial theory of the end that appears in the Reformed tradition can, and should, be distinguished from the modernist postmillennialism described in the preceding article. The millennium proposed by Reformed theologians is supposed to come about by means of the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of the law of God, rather than by evolutionary development and human effort. The future “golden age” envisioned by Reformed men will honor Jesus Christ as king of the then triumphant kingdom of God. And at the end of the allegedly Reformed millennium Jesus Christ will finally return bodily to the earth in order to conduct the final judgment and to renew the creation, although some proponents of this theory gladly postpone that return for hundreds of thousands of years.
Within this postmillennial camp, there are two faintly distinct groups. The one consists of the older Puritan, Presbyterian, and Reformed theologians and their contemporary disciples. These held, and hold today, that the preaching of the gospel will eventually convert large numbers of persons, likely a majority, in all nations, so that the church will enjoy a “golden age” of earthly victory in history and the world will experience a time of unparalleled earthly peace and prosperity.
Of great importance to these postmillennialists are “revivals.” Revivals are abrupt, extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit converting large numbers of persons. Many of these postmillennialists pin their hopes for the “golden age” on a future great revival, which will convert a majority of Jews and then a majority of Gentiles everywhere on earth. Describing how the “glorious work” of the coming millennium “shall be accomplished,” Jonathan Edwards mentions in the first place that “the Spirit of God shall be gloriously poured out for the wonderful revival and propagation of religion…. This pouring out of the Spirit of God…shall soon bring great multitudes to forsake that vice and wickedness which now so generally prevails…. The work of conversion shall break forth, and go on in such a manner as never has been hitherto…. Vast numbers shall suddenly be brought in as it were at once.”¹ This is the postmillennialism taught by Jonathan Edwards in his The History of Redemption; described by James A. De Jong in his book, As the Waters Cover the Sea: Millennial Expectations in the Rise of Anglo-American Missions 1640-1810²; and enthusiastically promoted by Iain H. Murray in The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy³ and by J. Marcellus Kik in An Eschatology of Victory.4
This form of postmillennialism found creedal expression in the Savoy Declaration of 1658.
As the Lord is in care and love towards his Church, hath in his infinite wise providence exercised it with great variety in all ages, for the good of them that love him, and his own glory; so, according to his promise, we expect that in the latter days, Antichrist being destroyed, the Jews called, and the adversaries of the kingdom of his dear Son broken, the churches of Christ being enlarged and edified through a free and plentiful communication of light and grace [that is, revival—DJE], shall enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable, and glorious condition than they have enjoyed.5
The other distinguishable group in the postmillennial camp within the Reformed churches is the Christian Reconstructionists. These include Rousas J. Rushdoony, regarded as the founder of the movement; Gary North; Greg Bahnsen; Kenneth Gentry, Jr.; David Chilton; Gary DeMar; and Douglas Wilson.6 This brand of postmillennialism is notable for its emphasis on the role of the law in realizing the millennial kingdom of Christ. Proclamation and enforcement of the law of God must accompany the preaching of the gospel in order to bring about the “golden age.” Gary North has written, “If the Christian church fails to build the visible kingdom by means of biblical law and the power of the gospel…then what kind of religion are we preaching?”7 It is worthy of note that as a power bringing about the millennial kingdom the gospel lags behind the law.
During the millennium, according to Christian Reconstruction, the Old Testament civil, or judicial, laws that governed Israel will be binding upon the then “Christianized” nations (viewed by the Christian Reconstructionists as the Messianic kingdom). These laws will establish the kingdom during the millennium. Hence, this postmillennial school is also known as the “theonomic” movement (“theonomic” means ‘God’s law’).
Christian Reconstruction postmillennialism is also distinguished by its vehement charge to the churches that they exert themselves aggressively to realize the millennium. If the Puritans and the older Presbyterians were content to wait upon the Spirit to realize the millennium through their preaching and writing, the Christian Reconstructionists are in a hurry. They are millennial activists. They would hasten the work of the Spirit upon which their reconstructionist hearts are set by prodding the churches. The main duty of the church, according to them, is to establish the millennium.
Dominant in the millennial thinking of the Christian Reconstructionists is dominion. They are ambitious that the church, or the Christian Reconstructionists (Rushdoony had little regard for the church), have dominion in and over the world—earthly dominion in every sphere of human life. For this reason, their postmillennialism is sometimes referred to as “dominion theology.”
With the exception of Christian Reconstruction’s peculiar doctrine of the restoration of Old Testament civil law, the differences between the postmillennialism of the Puritans and older Presbyterians and the postmillennialism of Christian Reconstruction are merely a matter of emphasis. Like Christian Reconstruction, the Puritan doctrine too longed for the millennium as the church’s triumph over her foes and put pressure on the churches and their ministers to exert themselves strenuously, by vast prayer-chains and other means, to realize the millennium as the church’s hope.
The doctrine of the Puritans and of the older Presbyterian and Reformed theologians and the doctrine of Christian Reconstruction are essentially one. In fact, Christian Reconstruction has simply adopted the exegesis of two passages of Scripture that are vitally important in the controversy over the millennium, Matthew 24 and Revelation 20, by the Presbyterian theologian J. Marcellus Kik. In his introduction to the reprint of Kik’s postmillennial interpretation of Matthew 24 and Revelation 20, Rushdoony wrote:
Postmillennialism will again prevail, however, because it is the truth of God and His enscriptured word. As an eschatology of victory, it will inspire men with the power of God, and, as with great saints of old, and the Puritans of yesteryears, lead again and more enduringly to the triumph of Christ in every area, bringing every sphere of thought and action into captivity to Christ. The writings of J.M. Kik give us that eschatology of victory which Scripture sets forth.8
In treating of postmillennialism, I will concern myself with that form of the theory that appears in the Reformed tradition, ignoring the modernist, evolutionary conception. And I will concentrate on those (fundamental) elements of postmillennialism that the Puritan and older Presbyterian doctrine and the contemporary doctrine of Christian Reconstruction have in common. That is, I will examine the strictly postmillennial notion concerning the last things without entering into Christian Reconstruction’s doctrine of theonomy, which properly belongs to a study of the relation between the Old and the New Testaments.
Reformed amillennialism with its interpretation of Revelation 20, as set forth earlier in this series of articles, is challenged by a postmillennial expectation of the future that has its own, radically different understanding of Revelation 20. The challenge arises, not from outside the Reformed tradition, but from within the Reformed churches. Admittedly, the challenge to an amillennial explanation of the things that must shortly come to pass and the defense of a postmillennial explanation of these things have come from prominent Reformed and Presbyterian theologians.
What are the main elements of this postmillennialism? What are its biblical grounds, especially its interpretation of Revelation 20? What is the Reformed amillennial criticism of the postmillennialism in the Reformed tradition? And why does, and must, Reformed eschatological orthodoxy, that is, amillennialism, condemn postmillennialism as false doctrine and as a spurious hope?
1 Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers & Authors, n.d.), 305, 307).
2 Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1970.
3 Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1971.
4 Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971.
5 The Savoy Declaration, 26.5, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1983), 723.
6 Representative works advocating postmillennialism by Christian Reconstructionists include Rousas John Rushdoony, God’s Plan for Victory: The Meaning of Post Millennialism (Fairfax, Virginia: Thoburn Press, 1977); Gary North, Dominion & Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987); David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Tyler, Texas: Reconstruction Press, 1985); Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992); The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on the Millennium 3, no. 2 (Winter, 1976-77); The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology 15 (Winter, 1998); and any issue of Douglas Wilson’s magazine, Credenda/Agenda.
7 Gary North, Dominion & Common Grace, 143.
8 Rousas John Rushdoony, “Introduction,” in J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), ix.