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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review of: “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism” by Greg L. Bahnsen (Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol 3 No 2, 1977)

You thought Postmillennialism had died out a century past? Well, it’s back. Greg Bahnsen has written an eloquent defense of the return to Postmillennialism, available here. What follows is my initial thoughts. I will probably continue to 'refine and polish' this review, so bear that in mind if the initial comments don't seem to reflect the final version.

Excerpts of Bahnsen’s article follow, interspersed with my comments.

“In this article I discuss the recent decline in the espousal of postmillennialism, defend it as a basic system of theological thought against certain misguided criticisms, elaborate its key tenet in contrast to amillennialism and premillennialism, and supply a general defense of its acceptability in the light of the history of Reformed theology.”

First of all, in even using the terms Postmillennialism, Amillennialism, and Premillennialism, Bahnsen tilts the field in his favour. I cannot entirely fault him for this, as these are the theological terms in common use. But note that they all refer to something called a ‘millennium.’ This millennium is that thousand-year period referred to in Revelation chapter twenty (cilia eth in Greek and mille annum in Latin), which neither postmillennialists nor amillennialists actually expect to ever occur. No, their millennium is simply “a period of great happiness or human perfection” (Webster’s) of indefinite length.

Now note, that there is absolutely nothing of either great happiness or human perfection in Revelation chapter twenty, but these must nonetheless wrest from those fifteen verses a couple of words and insert them into their very names. Premillennialism—we may as well simply call it Millennialism (indeed, early opponents called its proponents Millenaries or Millenarians)--naturally follows from a belief that the thousand-year period that features so prominently in Revelation 20 is actually of a thousand year’s duration. Thus what is being contrasted is a literal interpretation of the scriptures, versus anything else—and whilst there is but one right interpretation, there are an infinite number of wrong ones. There are therefore not three competing eschatological perspectives, but only two: belief, and unbelief. Postmillennialism and amillennialism are but two sides of the same coin.

Secondly, Bahnsen puts the cart before the horse. He starts right in by claiming that “the years shortly after the turn of the twentieth century witnessed a general decline in the published advocacy of postmillennial eschatology (he actually traces the roots of this decline back to the late seventeenth century).” For an article with 123 footnotes—none to be found anywhere in the introductory pages—this tome is conspicuously lacking support for several of its key assertions, this being the first. From this unsupported assertion, he jumps to concluding that “these combined elements in turn produced the secularization of conservative, supernaturalistic, biblical postmillennialism.” Note that he has so far given no evidence whatsoever for “the earlier belief in a progressive triumph of Christ’s kingdom in the world.” He is simply begging the question.

Without having ever laid the foundation of showing that orthodox postmillennialism even existed prior to this long decline, his conclusion of its list of causes is rather ironic: “The overall outcome was the discrediting of Scripture’s historical accuracy and the undermining of the objectivity of its theology.” Discrediting the Scriptures is the very cause attributed to the doctrine of postmillennialism by its detractors, and Bahnsen’s failure to provide an alternative origin to the doctrine leaves his position wide open to that very attack.

At this point, we will jump to the next section of Bahnsen’s essay, as what should have been his concluding paragraph actually occurs near the beginning of the article—we, however, shall address it last. In this section, he attempts to characterize “the three fundamental theological positions” of eschatology, comparing and contrasting them to each other. Alas, here, right when he is attempting to give the opposition’s view on things, the footnotes experience another hiatus, and we are left with his word on what others claim to believe.

“People . . . take important exegetical issues pertaining to the millennial question and attempt to use them to delineate the three fundamental theological positions; however, these particular exegetical issues are not decisive for the central and general claims of the school of thought.”

Again, Bahnsen begs the question, as there are not three fundamental theological positions, but only two: a straightforward interpretation of what the Bible actually says, or theological wresting of the words of Scripture into a framework devised by Man. Increase the level of wresting, and you begin to slide down the scale from one end of the continuum to the other, with many possible stops along the way. It is no more logical to limit the number of stops to three, as to five, adding pre-wrathism and posttribulationism to the “fundamental theological positions” of eschatology.

But further: there is no such thing as a doctrinal framework of “premillennialism.” The term has no meaning whatsoever, except as an acceptance of the literal reality of the thousand-year reign of Christ. Having accepted the fact that he will reign on earth, it’s impossible to believe that his return to Earth will occur after that reign, or that no such reign will in fact occur—so both postmillennialism and amillenialism are rejected as a matter of course, without going any further to develop a timeline as to that return. Once you adopt a framework into which that timeline fits, “premillennialism” conveys nothing further toward any theological position—unlike postmillennialism and amillenialism, each with distinctive positions attached to those titles, details varying as they may.

Now, as Bahnsen describes the “three fundamental theological positions,” he admits that not every proponent of each position adheres to everything described therein; but it is interesting how he emphasizes that the two opposing positions hold out a bleak outlook for the success of Christ’s disciples in fulfilling the Great Commission—to “make disciples of all nations, teaching them to do all that I have commanded you.” Instead, in each of these competing frameworks, the nations grow farther and farther from obedience to God, despite the gospel being preached throughout the entire globe (as if that in itself could fulfill Christ’s commission). In Bahnsen’s view, only postmillennialists have any hope of actually being able to obey Christ’s final command.

In fact, pretribulationists are, at worse, ambivalent about the likely success of the Great Commission prior to the Rapture; but they are united in believing that it will be fulfilled before the Second Coming. Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” The doctrine of immanence alone forbids this from being necessarily fulfilled before the Rapture; in any case, it will be fulfilled by the end of the Tribulation period (which Bahnsen, unlike any of its actual proponents, locates “at the very end of the church age.”)

“Finally then, over the long range the world will experience a period of extraordinary righteousness and prosperity as the church triumphs in the preaching of the gospel and discipling the nations through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit; however, the release of Satan at the very end of the age will bring apostasy from these blessed conditions.”

So Bahnsen wraps up his overview of the “three” positions. But note, he gives postmillennialism credit for what could just as easily happen under pretribulationism, with one small adjustment:

“Over the long range the world will experience a period of extraordinary righteousness and prosperity as the church triumphs in the preaching of the gospel and discipling the nations through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit; however, the removal of the Holy Spirit at the very end of the church age will bring apostasy from these blessed conditions.”

Under postmillennialism, the last 2000 years of Satan being bound on the one hand, and the Holy Spirit being active on the other, has very little to show for it in the way of a global golden age; yet things must needs get much better, without any change to the one factor or the other. A pretribulationist, however, can look back on 2000 years of progress, with an average of over one tribe or nation a year sending forward a representative to sing around God’s heavenly throne, and most of that progress having been made only in the last 10 per cent of this present age. In short, a pretribulationist view is much better at explaining the present reality than a postmillennialist one.

“Premillenarians believe the world is growing increasingly worse, and that it will be at its very worst when Jesus returns. Amillenarians agree with the premillenarians on this point.” So Bahnsen quotes the amillenarian Cox, of half a century ago. But this premillenarian of Cox is a straw man. There is no correlation between the amillennialist’s and the pretribulationist’s depiction of the world at the time of Christ’s return. For the postribulationist, the world is under such a travail of destruction and judgment that Christ’s return in glory must be hastened for the elects’ sake, that there be still some of them left to enter God’s earthly kingdom. For the amillennialist, as least as Bahnsen describes the position, this period is God’s kingdom on earth. There is nothing to shorten for the elects’ sake; the elect don’t need saving from anything, as they are all on the verge of going into eternity anyway.

“It becomes apparent that the essential distinctive of postmillennialism is its scripturally derived, sure expectation of gospel prosperity for the church during the present age.” So Bahnsen, but this conclusion is woefully lacking in every way. In the first place, we all have the same scriptures—so if anything is to be derived from them, there’s no reason why it should serve to distinguish one system from another. No, what distinguishes the various eschatological systems is the extent to which they derive from outside of the Scriptures.

Furthermore—but I repeat myself—there is nothing in pretribulationism to keep it from deriving an expectation, either from Scripture or from simple observation, that every tribe and nation be evangelized by the end of the present age. Scripture indicates that it will happen before the Second Coming; observation may yet allow it to happen even before the Rapture. Yet Bahnsen must have millennialists reject this hope along with the amillennialists.

“In short, postmillennialism is set apart from the other two schools of thought by its essential optimism for the kingdom in the present age. This confident attitude in the power of Christ’s kingdom, the power of its gospel, the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer, and the progress of the great commission, sets postmillennialism apart from the essential pessimism of amillennialism and premillennialism.”

To which I say, “Absolutely not!” It was pretribulationists who predicted that the hope of world Jewry for a restoration of the state of Israel would be fulfilled as part of the outworking of scriptural prophecy; amillennialists and postmillennialists alike must dismiss this unprecedented national revival as both prophetically and eschatologically insignificant. It has largely been pretribulationists, along with their fellow millennialists, who have reaped the bulk of the global harvest of souls from an exponentially increasing number of tribes and nations; it has been primarily millennial missionaries who have focused on evangelism and discipleship, while amillennialists and postmillennialists focused on the social gospel; and it is millennialists who believe in the power of prayer to hasten the return of Christ, rather than focusing on good works or political activism to hasten the arrival of a golden age, or to merely bide time until the number of the elect finally reaches its fill.

It is true that both perspectives have a ‘back-up plan.’ Should things head south, pretribulationists have only to contend that all lost ground will be made up, and more, by the efforts of Tribulation Saints. Postmillennialists have only to expect that their generation is not the last one, and present reverses will eventually be themselves reversed. But how have their respective Plan A’s turned out?

Postmillennialism’s Plan A was to conquer the heathen nations by the edge of the sword, failing the success of primary education efforts. Thus Elliot’s evangelization of the Algonquins was considered a success, either by assimilating the tribesmen totally into the English culture as it conquered New England, or it killing off all those who still held to the ways of their forefathers. England’s military might was seen as a way to ensure the dominion of the gospel from the rising of the sun, until the going down of the same. But what did England’s military might avail? England now goes to war, when it does, as an ally of Muslim nations, while Muslims thronging from her former dominions fervently transform her own churches into mosques. And what of Postmillennialism’s numerous predictions that Jews would turn to the gospel? Well, this has finally begun to come in just in the present generation, but in spite of Israel’s official opposition. In fact, the growth of the church has largely been, these past two centuries, under governments that do all they can to either suppress it, or supplant it. This was never in view of the postmillennialists.

Pretribulationists, however, have from their beginning two centuries ago, predicted the restoration of Israel, but in unbelief: an army of dry bones. Indeed, premillennialism has prospered in proportion to the fortunes of Israel, as their ancient land was first populated by Zionists, then wrested from a millennium and a half of Muslim control, then declared independent by the offscouring of Europe following the devastation of the Holocaust. Pretribulationists have been quite adamant that the national conversion of Israel cannot happen until after the Rapture, when believing Jews make up the critical mass of Tribulation Saints.

To contrast the preeminent difference between the two, postmillennialists saw Israel converted, but without any nation of their own to rule; pretribulationists saw Israel first restored as a nation, and only in the following dispensation turning en mass to Christ. The course of history has so far favored the predictions of pretribulationism, rather than postmillennialism.

I should say something more about pessimism. I grant that Bahnsen wrote this essay in 1976, at a time when pretribulationists were fixated on the year 1981 as the likely start of the tribulation (in order to have Christ return by 1988, ‘one generation’ after the rebirth of Israel). China was only beginning to emerge from the Cultural Revolution; the Soviet Union showed no signs of decline; and the emerging nations of Africa were embroiled in civil war. Global cooling was being forecast, and pollution was a big concern; the nuclear arms race showed no signs of abating; and peace in the Middle East seemed beyond reach. It was a pessimistic time, so it’s no wonder that pretribulationists showed an inordinate eagerness for Christ soon removing them from this world of grief.

Ironically, the same turnaround in the world’s fortunes that revived postmillennialism also went a long ways toward erasing a major distinction between it and pretribulationism: as one ‘prophetic’ deadline after another passed without the Rapture occurring, pretribulationists awoke from their long slumber and realized that not only did ‘immanent’ not mean ‘soon,’ it didn’t even mean ‘likely to happen in this generation.’ “Coming events cast their shadows before them” seemed to be less and less useful in application. Pretribulationists started to respond more like postmillennialists, endeavoring to reach every tribe and nation, and thus hasten the return of Christ.

But History has a lesson to tell us. Great revival tends to both follow, and be followed by, great apostasy. Take the area of Asia Minor, which was the most Christianized part of the world at the turn of the second century. During the early twentieth century, visible Christianity in that entire region was reduced to a single congregation, in ancient Smyrna. Christianity found a foothold in the North of Korea first, but the communist invasion reduced it to a tiny remnant, while the Christians taking refuge in the less evangelized south of the peninsula saw that region become a major sending base for world missions within their own lifetimes.

In short, evangelizing an entire nation is not the same as evangelizing the entire world. The church in England, from which sprang the modern missions movement, is in its dying throes. In Asia, the continent to which those first modern missionaries were sent, the church is growing exponentially. The course of history is much more favorable to the pretribulationist model—in which heaven will be filled with martyrs from every tribe and nation—than the postmillennial model—in which the whole world will become not only evangelized, but discipled. And it is the populace of India, China, and Korea that is embracing the gospel first—not their governments (as if Constantine’s example were one to emulate).

Samuel Hopkins saw an essential connection among revival, missions, and the millennium. In 1793 he demonstrated from Scripture that Christ’s church must come in this world to a state of prosperity. Hopkins interpreted Revelation 20 figuratively and said that the millennium will be characterized by peace, holiness, benevolence, knowledge, and joy. Science and technology will develop remarkably and commerce improve. Financial prosperity and general health will see an upswing. Agriculture, as well as the mechanical arts, crafts, or trades will all see vast improvement. More leisure will allow the pursuit of education and understanding; books will spread rapidly. Mankind will be unified under God’s blessing, and the church will rid itself of schisms as discipline becomes charitable and pure. That is, widespread cultural transformation will company the global conversion of mankind. Thus, the mission effort of the church “will serve to promote and hasten on the happy day when the Heathen shall be given to Christ for his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession.” So Bahnsen.

Hopkins’ secular predictions have all come true, although he (along with every other postmillennialist of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) did not think through the implications of scientific wonders being applied to the art of war, so that each successive global conflagration of the twentieth century killed more than all the previous recorded wars combined.

Now before we get any further, it’s important that we examine the doctrine of pretribulationism, which Bahnsen cites as the final 19th-century nail in the coffin of “historic” postmillennialism (he needs to do this, as it wouldn’t do to admit that orthodox postmillennialism still existed at the time modernist postmillennialism was in its 20th-century dying throes). Bahnsen claims, with little support, that dispensationalism, with its embedded doctrine of a pretribulational rapture, first found wide diffusion in the Scofield Reference Bible, Scofield having received the doctrine from Darby, and Darby from Irving, the translator into English of Lacunza’s book in 1826. To this book Bahnsen would have us trace the beginnings of the modern pretribulationist doctrine.

Now, pretribulationism is of course not overtly taught in Scripture, else it would not have taken nearly two millennia for it to emerge. But it could have emerged at any time, once someone accepted as literal and attempted to reconcile the scriptural prophecies concerning the End Times. Pretribulationism’s doctrine of immanence emerged from an attempt to reconcile the four times Christ states in Revelation, “I come quickly” with the fact that hundreds—now thousands—of years had passed without his appearance. There are certainly other reasons why a pretribulationist understanding would emerge from a literal reading of the Scriptures, but this, I believe, was the original impetus to the doctrine. According to this interpretation,“soon,” which had been the the expectation of the apostles (James 5:8, 1 Thes. 4:17, John 21:23) becomes “immanently,” as unexpected as a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43, 1 Thes. 5:2, 2 Pet. 3:10). And, since all of the three verses just cited are thought to refer to the whole end-times package of rapture, tribulation, second coming, millennium, and final judgment, the rapture is therefore seen as the very first sign that the End Times have begun. Millennialism goes so far as to accept both a literal reign of the Beast, and a literal reign of the Christ. Pretribulationism goes even farther, accepting a literal judgment of Christ upon all the ungodly at his return. In none of these systems is there any place for setting a date of Christ’s return ahead of time, as he himself sternly warned that this could not be done (Mark 13:32). Yet millennialism has been haunted throughout its history by those who have done that very thing. To judge the system, however, by those who abuse it to its face, is wrong.

Given Christ’s prohibition on date-setting, there is nothing inherent in pretribulationist doctrine that requires one to expect Christ’s return within his own lifetime, or even allows him to order his life in any other way whatsoever than if Christ’s return was known not to be due for another millennium. Yet Bahnsen implies rather strongly that pretribulationism, as a system, teaches otherwise. He does start providing footnotes about the time he makes this assertion, and though it’s not entirely clear from the sources cited, he appears to rely heavily on secondary sources, namely the opponents of pretribulationism. Not a single pretribulationist, so cited, is quoted as writing in his own work anything along the lines that “the imminent return of Christ totally forbids all working for earthly objects distant in time.” For an assertion so provocative, this is an unacceptable omission and implies that no such sources actually exist. In researching this review, I’ve not had access to many of Bahnsen’s cited sources, but I have read, as the foundation for my understanding of the various views, direct and often extensive quotations from the published works of their respective proponents. I’ll say here that if (in one of his many unfootnoted quotes) by F. W. Newton he refers to P. W. Newton, author of Five Letters on Events Predicted In Scripture as Antecedent to the Coming of The Lord (London, 1847), then not only did this Newton write in opposition to Darby’s pretribulationism, but his testimony (now known to us secondhand), as a hostile witness eschatologically, yet a longtime associate of Darby, also utterly cleared Darby of the charge that he based his doctrine in any way on Irving’s teaching. Irving’s movement itself set an 1833 date for the Rapture, as reported by Robert Baxter, one of their own apostles.

Bahnsen takes umbrage at a long list of authors who dismiss postmillennialism as a dead issue (it is here that he finally starts providing footnotes with regularity). “The fact that an era of gospel prosperity and world peace has not yet arrived would no more disprove the Bible’s teaching that such an era shall be realized (in the power of God’s spirit and the faithfulness of Christ’s church to its great commission) than the fact that Christ has not yet returned disproves the Bible’s teaching that such an event shall take place!” But what is being mocked by these authors, and rightly so, is Millennial Dawnism: “For the Darkness shall turn to Dawning, and the Dawning to Noonday Bright, and Christ’s Great Kingdom shall come on Earth, a Kingdom of Love and Light.” When Ernest Nichol penned those words, postmillennialism did in fact push a gradual emergence of progress toward the millennial ideal. Bahnsen still hasn’t demonstrated that the postmillennialism that he is pushing has any history before the middle of the last century. He can hardly fault writers for not giving it its due if they never heard of it. Nothing can prove him wrong, for however many centuries that this goes on, until Christ does in fact rapture out his saints.

Bahnsen also scoffs at the idea of immanency: “Indeed, it was the error of the foolish virgins to expect the imminent coming of the bridegroom.” Here he reveals his ignorance. While it was undoubtedly the opinion of the earliest Christians that Christ would return in their lifetimes, as well as being the hope of every pretribulationist, that is not what immanency means. Immanence simply refers to the fact that Christ could return at any time, because the Rapture is the very next item in the prophetic timetable. The parable of the virgins illustrates this beautifully: All the virgins realized that the return of the bridegroom was the next item on the agenda, and that it could occur at any time, so they had to remain ready until it did. But the foolish virgins assumed, as have foolish pretribulationists from the beginning, that ‘immanent’ necessarily meant ‘soon,’ and therefore did not bring extra oil for their lamps in the event that the bridegroom’s coming was delayed. The wise virgins, however, did not lose their belief in a literal return of the bridegroom when the oil in their lamps ran low, but simply went with Plan B and re-filled their lamps from the supply they had brought along just in case.

Bahnsen concludes, “Current day writers have offered no good prima facie reason for ignoring or rejecting postmillennialism as an important theological option for biblical believers. It has been unwarrantedly dismissed in the past fifty years on the basis of newspaper exegesis, misrepresentation, two-edged criticisms, and premature or unfounded charges. Postmillennialism deserves to be taken seriously and considered in the light of Scripture; quick dismissal or ignoring of it in recent years has no good justification.” I will grant Bahnsen this: his eloquent defense has deprived us of a reason for ignoring postmillennialism—thus this review. But the prima facie reason for rejecting postmillennialism is the same as ever it was: it’s incompatible with the teachings of the Scriptures, unless they are wrested all out of shape and crammed into the box Bahnsen’s predecessors have prepared for them. No further reason was needed at the time this was done, nor is one needed now.

Now, postmillennialists will say that I have misrepresented Bahnsen, and they are probably right. I have spent way more time and space on this review than I intended, but not enough to make it fit for publication in a journal. I leave myself open to the same review that I have made of Bahnsen, and am quite willing to stand corrected where I have misrepresented anyone. My only interest is the truth.

Update: Bahnsen's position is much more thoroughly refuted in this book, published at the height of pretribulational disappointment in 1988.

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