Previous article in this series: May 1, 2012, p. 346.
As is true of all doctrinal error, postmillennialism stems from culpable misunderstanding, or deliberate corruption, of Holy Scripture.
The “Millennial Glories” of Old Testament Prophecy
The basic exegetical error of postmillennialism is its interpretation of Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming Messianic kingdom. Postmillennialism gets its doctrine of a future “golden age” from Old Testament prophecy of the glories of the coming Messianic kingdom. With its prominent, consistent teaching of abounding lawlessness, appalling apostasy, and great tribulation in the days leading up to the return of Christ, the New Testament does not lend itself to postmillennial optimism. Indeed, postmillennialism dismisses the confession of this New Testament teaching as “pessimism.” Postmillennialism sits in the Old Testament, especially in the Old Testament prophecies of the coming kingdom of Messiah.
But postmillennialism explains Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom of Christ in such a way that the New Testament realization is physical rather than spiritual, earthly rather than heavenly.
Deliberately, I refrain from describing postmillennialism’s erroneous exegesis as a “literal” interpretation. Much as postmillennialists boast of their literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy (as do also the dispensationalists), they do not, in fact, interpret Old Testament prophecy literally. They cannot.
For example, the prophecy ofconcerning peace in the coming Messianic kingdom, a favorite passage of postmillennialism, has the nations beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. No postmillennialist interprets this prophecy literally. Were the great, military nations of the world, now armed to the teeth, one day to live in peace, under the reign of the saints, they would not beat literal swords into literal plowshares. They would scrap tanks, jets, nuclear carriers, and missiles and concentrate on agriculture, industry, and trade. American generals would not stand by forges transforming swords into plows.
Or, to refer to another prophecy that is dear to the hearts of postmillennialists,cannot be interpreted literally even by the most ardently literalistic postmillennialist. Postmillennialism does not think that the millennial kingdom will be a re-created “Jerusalem” ( ). The citizens of the kingdom will not be “[Jerusalem’s] people,” that is, Jews ( ). It will not literally be the case that all weeping and crying will cease during the “golden age” ( ). Penitent sinners and newborn babies will still cry during the millennium. Postmillennialists do not even hold that God will “create” new heavens and a new earth to be the site of the millennial kingdom, as promises. He will make some significant changes in the earthly creation, according to the postmillennialists, but He will not create it anew.
Even the postmillennialists are forced to acknowledge that the Old Testament prophecies use symbolic language, which must not, and cannot, be interpreted literally.
But the error of postmillennialism—the grievous exegetical error of postmillennialism—is that it interprets the figurative language of Old Testament prophecy, specifically concerning the coming Messianic kingdom, in such a way as to make the fulfillment earthly, physical, sensual, carnal.
The prophecy ofconcerning the peace of the Messianic kingdom is explained by postmillennialism as earthly peace. During the millennium, the Republic of Ireland will co-exist peacefully with Northern Ireland. The Arab states will smile on the United States. The various tribes in Africa will no longer exterminate one another in murderous hatred, but live together harmoniously.
The long life foretold inis interpreted as referring to greatly extended physical life on earth for all the citizens living during the millennium, at least for all the saints. All the godly will live hundreds of years before they die. Likewise, the related prophecy con cerning houses and vineyards is explained of physical security and material prosperity.
Some postmillennialists, more consistent than their fellows, do not hesitate to explain the prophecy of wolves feeding with lambs and of lions eating straw like cattle as fulfilled in a millennial change of the physical nature of animals.
This interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, particularly prophecy of the Messianic kingdom in the new dispensation, is utterly mistaken. It is a deviation from classic Christian exegesis of Old Testament prophecy. It is certainly contrary to established Reformed principles of the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.
Commenting on the very passage that is of extraordinary importance for postmillennialism,, John Calvin wrote:
Now the Prophets hold out those things which relate to the present life, and borrow metaphors from them; but it is in order that they may teach us to rise higher and to embrace eternal and blessed life. We must not fix our whole attention on these transitory blessings, but must make use of them as ladders, that, being raised to heaven, we may enjoy eternal and immortal blessings.¹
Herman Bavinck expressed the Reformed principle of the right understanding and interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.
This kingdom [of Messiah] is sketched by the prophets in hues and colors, under figures and forms, which have all been derived from the historical circumstances in which they lived . . . . But into those sensuous earthly forms prophecy puts everlasting content . . . . Prophecy pictures for us but one single image of the future. And this image is either to be taken literally as it presents itself—but then one breaks with Christianity and lapses back into Judaism—or this image calls for a very different interpretation than that attempted by chiliasm [millennialism].²
This “very different,” and correct, interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, Bavinck continued, is a “spiritual” interpretation:
The New Testament itself—and there can certainly be no doubt about this—is the spiritual and therefore complete and authentic fulfillment of the Old Testament. The spiritualization of the Old Testament, rightly understood, is not an invention of Christian theology [much less of Reformed amillennialists—DJE] but has its beginning in the New Testament itself.³
Postmillennialism is guilty of the egregious error of forcing the New Testament reality of the kingdom of Christ into the mold of the typical, earthly, sensuous language of the Old Testament. Reformed, Christian exegesis, in contrast, understands Old Testament prophecy in the light of the New Testament. The New Testament reveals that the reality—the fulfillment—of Old Testament prophecy, particularly concerning the Messianic kingdom, is spiritual.
The new temple of Ezekiel 40-48 is not a pile of bricks, however splendid, reared up one day on a hill in Palestine. It is far, far better. It is the resurrection body of Jesus Christ and His church, made up in the New Testament largely of Gentile believers and their children (; ).
did not foretell the restoration of a dilapidated building. Neither did it prophesy the restoration of an earthly rule of the royal house of David, resulting in a carnal kingdom of racial, national Jews and in their fertile fields and healthy vineyards. Rather, the prophet was foretelling that the gospel of Jesus Christ would go out to all nations, so that elect Gentiles would be translated into the kingdom of Jesus Christ ( ). In this spiritual kingdom of Christ, the Gentiles would enjoy the riches of spiritual salvation. This began at Pentecost.
In symbolic language, familiar and expressive to the spiritually immature saints of that time, Old Testament prophecy promised the coming, spiritual reality of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. It looked ahead to the coming of the kingdom as one. The New Testament distinguishes this one coming of the kingdom as two fold: the beginning of the coming in New Testament history by the gospel, and the perfection of the coming by the wonder of the return of Christ in the body.
The prophecy ofconcerning peace among the nations is fulfilled today in the communion of saints, who are from all nations. Gentile believers live in peace with Jewish believers in the church by virtue of their mutual reconciliation with God through the blood of the cross. They also live in peace with each other, Germans with Dutch and whites with blacks. “He [Jesus Christ] is our peace, who hath made both one . . . and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh” ( ). This spiritual harmony is the reality of the beating of swords into plowshares. Meanwhile, the world of ungodly nations is convulsed with physical war. And toward the end of history, the united world of the ungodly will make war on the saints in the great tribulation.
This present, spiritual reality of peace, Christ will perfect at His coming. By the wonder of the resurrection of the elect from all nations into sinless life and by the banishing of the reprobate ungodly into outer darkness, Christ will so establish peace among all the nations in the new world that there is not, and never again will be, so much as a ripple of discord. Perfect holiness makes perfect peace.
The Prophecy of Isaiah 65
promises a new creation in the day of Christ, that is, the wonder of His recreation of the present world. This is the authoritative interpretation of by the New Testament. In the “day of the Lord,” when the “heavens shall pass away with a great noise and . . . the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up,” there will be “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” Reformed amillennialists, with Peter and the apostolic church, hope for this day and for this new creation ( ; see also ).
Then, and not before then, there will be no death in the creation, or sorrow, asprophesies in highly figurative language. All the inhabitants of the new world will live forever. It will be a world of security, joy, satisfaction, and prosperity. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” ( ).
Cursed sinners, on the other hand, will die forever, outside the new creation.
Because Christ will have liberated the new creation from the curse, also the non-rational creatures—the animals—will share in the blessing of the perfected kingdom of Christ, as once they shared in the blessedness of the kingdom of Adam (compareand ). All the creatures will share in the liberty of the glory of the children of God ( ).
There is already, in New Testament history, a beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 65. This beginning does not await a “golden age” still in the future. It was a reality in the time of the apostles. It is a reality today. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” ().
The fulfillment of Isaiah 65 is the spiritual life in Christ by faith of every regenerated child of God in the time between Pentecost and the second coming of Christ. The new world that is coming in the day of Christ already breaks into the present world by the gospel in the power of the Spirit of Christ. It breaks into the heart of every elect child of God. It makes him a new creature—a heavenly man on the earth, a spiritual human in a physical universe. To him and for him, all things have already become new.
There is already in his life a beginning, not only of deliverance from sin, but also of transcendence above earthly life. He lives the life of heaven (; Heid. Cat., Q&A 51). Not only does he not sorrow as those who have no hope, but he now also rejoices with unquenchable joy. He rejoices always in Jesus Christ ( ). Already now, his work is not in vain, but useful and profitable, for his work is in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, from whom it will have its reward ( ). Indeed, already now he is very really delivered from death. There is no elect, covenant infant whose life is cut short, though it dies at birth. Nor is there an old saint who has not filled his days. Whoever lives and believes in Jesus Christ shall never die ( ).
Enjoyment, by faith, of the beginning of the Messianic kingdom and hope for the perfection of the kingdom at Christ’s coming—this is the New Testament application of the Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom.
Of earthly, sensuous, carnal pleasures, peace, and prosperity in a future millennium, the New Testament knows nothing.4
1 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 401.
2 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 654, 658.
3 Ibid., 660.
4 For a more detailed critical examination of postmillennialism’s explanation of “those glorious prospects in Old Testament prophecy,” especially, and a more thorough Reformed, amillennial interpretation of Isaiah 65 regarding “a spiritual fulfillment,” see David J. Engelsma, Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (Redlands, CA: The Reformed Witness, 2001), 90-115.