Previous article in this series: June 2011, p. 397.
An exception to the rule that postmillennialism is and must be preterist in its interpretation of the biblical passages that prophesy dark days for the church towards the end is the seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel. As a prominent member of the theological movement known as the “further reformation,”¹ Brakel was heavily influenced by the English Puritans. He was an ardent postmillennialist.
Brakel gave what surely must be one of the most complete and optimistic descriptions of the postmillennial expectation ever written. Only Warfield’s exceeds it.
In the last days…the antichrist [for Brakel, the papacy as the essence of the Roman Catholic Church] and the Turk [Islam], the two main enemies [of the church], will be utterly destroyed, the devil will be bound for a thousand years; and in that time of his binding the Jews will be converted, and there will be an extraordinary spreading of the church among the heathen. The church will excel in peace, the knowledge of God, and holiness. God will make known His presence in His church in an extraordinary way. Jesus alone will be the King. No one will presume to dominate the church, but she will be left to herself as an ecclesiastical state. There will be an outstanding fruitfulness [of all this]. From all this, no other conclusion can be drawn than that the millennium will be a glorious condition of the church.²
Brakel then recognized the objection to the bright earthly future of the church that he had painted in glowing color, that such passages asLuke 18:8, Matthew 24:37-39, and II Timothy 3:1 teach that the “last times will be the worst and most miserable times” for the church in the world.³ Earlier, Brakel had explained a number of significant passages that warn of future tribulation for the church as having been fulfilled in the past, already in his day. The two witnesses of Revelation 11 were the forerunners of the sixteenth-century Reformation.4 The time of the dominating power of the beast of Revelation (which for Brakel is the Roman Catholic papacy) ended at the Reformation.5 To this considerable extent, Brakel practiced the preterist interpretation of Scripture’s prophecies of tribulation for the church in the last days that is characteristic of postmillennialism.
Nevertheless, contrary to most postmillennialists, Brakel refused to explain all the New Testament passages that teach dark and troublous times for the church in the last days as referring to a time that is past, whether AD 70 or the sixteenth-century. Rather, he explained these passages— Luke 18:8, Matthew 24:37-39, and II Timothy 3:1, among others—as referring to the short period between the loosing of Satan at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:3, 7-9) and the second coming of Jesus. “In that time there will be a great falling away and a severe persecution of the true believers by Gog and Magog.”6
Thus, Brakel handled the passages prophesying tribulation for the church in the last days exactly opposite the way in which most postmillennialists handle them. Rather than explain them as having been fulfilled in the past, long before the millennium, he explained them as being realized in the future, after the thousand years of the church’s “golden age” has ended. To play off the odd language of the preterist postmillennialists, rather than “preterize” the passages, Brakel “futurized” them. But the effect is the same: None of the New Testament’s prophecies of apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation interferes with the coming of the “golden age.” All of these passages are effectively referred to a future time, as the preterists effectively refer them to a past time, so that the hope of the glorious earthly dominion of the church is undisturbed.
A Temporary Messianic Kingdom
Yet another fundamental element of postmillennialism is the conviction that the millennial kingdom of Christ, although lasting for a thousand years, or, as some postmillennialists teach, hundreds of thousands of years, will end with the second coming of Christ. It will be temporary. At the coming of Christ, the kingdom will be established in the new creation as the kingdom of the triune God. The mediatorial kingship of Jesus Christ will end. He will continue to reign over the kingdom, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, as the second person of the Trinity. No one denies that Christ will reign over the kingdom of God forever. Scripture is clear that Jesus Christ “shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33). But, according to postmillennialism, His reign as the Messiah, as the glorified Son of man, will have been consummated.
The basis of the teaching that the Messianic kingship of Jesus Christ and His Messianic kingdom are temporary is I Corinthians 15:24-28:
Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.
The postmillennial explanation of the passage is that Christ progressively rules in history by His word and Spirit, putting down all rule, authority, and power, so that eventually He realizes, within history, the millennium of the earthly dominion and glory of the church. When the millennium has run its course, Christ will come again in the body, to raise the dead and conduct the final judgment. On that occasion, He will abdicate as the Messianic king, turning over to the direct rule of the triune God the kingdom that He—Jesus—has brought to its fullest victory and splendor. So the postmillennialists understand the phrases in I Corinthians 15: “when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God”; “he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet”; and “then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”
Jonathan Edwards wrote:
The meaning [of
] is, that Christ shall deliver up that kingdom or dominion which he has over the world, as the Father’s delegate or vicegerent, which the Father committed to him, to be managed in subserviency to this great design of redemption. The end of this commission, or delegation, which he had from the Father, seems to be to subserve this particular design of redemption; and therefore, when that design is fully accomplished, the commission will cease, and Christ will deliver it up to the Father, from whom he received it.7
Benjamin B. Warfield taught the same as the great American Puritan:
An even more important fact faces us in the wonderful revelation we have been considering,
the period between the two advents is the period of Christ’s kingdom, and when He comes again it is not to institute His kingdom, but to lay it down (verses 24, 28). The completion of His conquest, which is marked by conquering “the last enemy,” death (verse 28), which in turn is manifest when the just arise and Christ comes (verses 54, 23), marks also the end of His reign (verse 25) and the delivery of the kingdom to God, even the Father (verse 24)…. Jesus holds the kingship for a purpose (verse 25), namely the completion of His mediatorial work, and…when it is accomplished He will restore it to Him who gave it to Him (verse 28), and thus the Father will again become “all relations among all creations.”8
J. Marcellus Kik, who is followed by the Christian Reconstructionists also in this aspect of his postmillennial doctrine, likewise taught that “the Messianic kingdom, as such, ceases to exist [at the second coming of Christ—DJE], as is clearly indicated in I Corinthians 15:24-28…. There was a period of time when Jesus received the kingdom and there will be a period of time when He will surrender it to the Father.”9
That the Messianic kingdom is strictly temporal and temporary, ending at the conclusion of the millennium, demands that the kingdom become the outwardly, visibly powerful and glorious reign of Christ that postmillennialism teaches, within history. Otherwise, the kingdom of Christ never attains the absolute dominion and supreme glory in all the creation that Scripture reveals God has appointed for His Christ. On the view that the Messianic kingdom ends with the coming of Christ and the creation of the new heaven and earth, the postmillennial conception of the glorious state of the church in history isnecessary.
But if, on the contrary, the Messianic kingdom is everlasting; if Jesus is an everlasting king as the Christ of God; if, in fact, His coming again, rather than writing finis to His kingdom, will be, and is intended to be, the consummation of His kingdom; if at His coming He transforms for allHis citizens (and not only for those who happen to live during the millennium of postmillennialism) the kingdom of the cross of history into the kingdom of glory of eternity; if the outwardly, visibly powerful and glorious kingdom of Christ is the goal of history (at the coming of Jesus Christ), rather than an event within history, why, then, the postmillennial dream concerning a kingdom of glory within history is not necessary, is, in fact, among other serious errors, guilty of grievous confusion of the order of the coming of the kingdom, as determined by God and made known in Scripture.
Postmillennialism, then, is unholy impatience with the divine timetable.
The Failure of the Church
Yet one more essential element of postmillennialism is its blame of the church for the failure of the millennial kingdom to appear. Postmillennialists must answer the question, why, if the millennial kingdom in all its earthly glory and dominion is the great purpose of God in history, does this kingdom not appear? Why has it not appeared for some two thousand years? If, as postmillennialists charge, the present spiritual form of the kingdom is, in fact, the defeat of the kingdom (for the kingdom will be victorious only when it rises to earthly dominion), why has the kingdom of the risen Christ not yet conquered? Why has the Messianic kingdom been defeated in the world for about two thousand years?
And, one might add, why does the kingdom show no sign whatever of converting the majority of humanity, “Christianizing” all nations, and ruling the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century?
The answer of many postmillennialists is that this sorry state of affairs regarding the Messianic kingdom is the fault of the church. The kingdom has not yet come in its power and glory because of the failure of the church. If only the church would bestir herself to subdue the nations by the gospel and the law, the “golden age” would soon arrive.
Kik charged that the reason why “there is still a remnant of paganism and papalism in this world is chiefly the fault of the Church.” Kik bitterly lamented that Christ has placed in her [the church’s] hands the chain by which she can bind Satan. She can restrain his influence over the nations. But today the Church bemoans the fact that evil is becoming stronger and stronger. She bemoans the fact that the world is coming more and more under the control of the devil. Whose fault is that? It is the Church. She has the chain and does not have the faith to bind Satan even more firmly. Satan is bound and the Church knows it not. Satan can be bound more firmly and the Church does it not!Attempting to rally the troops to the great calling of establishing the earthly kingdom of Christ, Kik urged, “With sufficient faith in Christ we could crush Satan under our feet shortly.”10
Gary North speaks for Christian Reconstruction when he accounts for what the men of Christian Reconstruction must regard as the defeat of Christ’s kingdom and the victory of the kingdom of Satan for the past two millennia, with no sign of a reversal of fortunes insight at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The only thing that is holding up the victory of God’s home guard [in establishing the millennial kingdom of earthly dominion] is the home guard’s lack of confidence, lack of training, and lack of tactics.
Christ is waiting for His church to surround Satan’s last outpost. Christ is waiting for the work of the leaven to replace Satan’s leaven in the dough of creation.11
An earthly victory of the church within history; the conversion in the future of masses of Jews, if not the entire race and nation; preterism in interpreting all passages of Scripture that warn of tribulation for the church in the last days; the cessation of the Messianic kingdom at the (bodily) coming of Jesus; and blaming the church for the singular failure of the earthly kingdom to rear itself up in history are essential elements of postmillennial doctrine.
In light of these elements must Reformed amillennialism critique this significant challenge to orthodox eschatology.
¹ Dutch: nadere reformatie.
² W. a Brakel, Redelijke Godsdienst, vol. 2 (Leiden: D. Donner, 1893 [the work was published originally in 1700]), 325. This and all other quotations from Redelijke Godsdienst in this article are my translation of the Dutch. The concluding section of Brakel’s dogmatics, treating of eschatology by explaining the book of Revelation, was omitted in Soli Deo Gloria’s 1995 publication of Brakel’s dogmatics in English as The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Volume four ends with the cryptic notation that because of the controversial nature of Brakel’s explanation of Revelation, this part of his dogmatics is not included in the publication of the English translation.
4 Ibid., 238.
5 Ibid., 263.
6 Ibid., 325.
7 Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), 343.
8 Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Prophecies of St. Paul,” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 625.
9 J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 17.
10 Kik, Eschatology of Victory, 250, 196, 19, 20.
11 Gary North, Unconditional Surrender: God’s Program for Victory (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1988), 366, 332; the emphasis is North’s.