PrefixesPMT 2016-007 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In my two previous articles, I pointed out the fact of gradual development of eschatological positions. A consequence of this gradualistic development is that the modern terms we use for the millennial views will not be found in antiquity. But they are helpful for us to sort out the eschatological options before us as evangelical Christians.

In developing a systematic eschatology we may sort out the standard evangelical viewpoints along millennial lines (though the actual question of the millennium in Rev 20 really should not be central to the discussion). In attaching prefixes to the term “millennium” we modify the second coming of Christ in terms of its connection to the millennium: amillennial, premillennial, and postmillennial. The three basic positions may be briefly defined in terms of their chronology as follows:

Amillennialism: The privative a in “amillennialism” emphasizes that there will be no earthly millennial kingdom as such. As amillennialist George Murray puts it: “amillennial, a term which indicates a denial of any future millennium of one thousand years’ duration.”

Premillennialism: The prefix pre indicates that eschatological system that expects a literal earthly millennial kingdom which Christ introduces by his second coming before (pre) it. This kingdom will transpire on earth under Christ’s direct rule.

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Postmillennialism: The prefix post points out a lengthy (though not necessarily a literal thousand year long) earthly period in which Christ’s kingdom influences the world, which period will conclude at Christ’s second advent. Puritan era postmillennialism tended to expect a literal thousand-year millennium introduced by the conversion of the Jews (rather than the return of Christ) as the last stage of Christ’s earthly kingdom. Modern postmillennialism tends to see the thousand years as a symbolic figure covering the entirety of the Christian era.

An important sub-class of premillennialism arose in the 1830s. We know it as “dispensationalism.” Generally dispensationalists often attempt to link the two different systems, to beef up their historical argument. But we must understand that historic premillennialists strongly disavow any commonality with dispensationalism. Premillennialist George E. Ladd vigorously protests the equation of dispensationalism and historic premillennialism. He even calls any equating of the two a “mistake.” This explains why the popular book edited by Robert G. Clouse is titled The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. Anthony A. Hoekema notes that “divergent interpretations of [Revelation 20] have led to the formation of at least four major views about the nature of the millennium or the millennial reign here described.” Many other evangelicals recognize four basic positions, including for instance amillennialists Grenz and Riddlebarger, as well as premillennialist Grudem.

Blomberg and Chung design their recent important historic premillennial work for the express purpose of distinguishing premillennialism and dispensationalism: A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind Eschatology (2009). In that work we note the following strong distancing: The two systems “are two very different kinds of movements,”  “two versions of futurist premillennialism,” which involve “fierce divisions.” They lament that “Ladd paid a price for his [premillennial] views; for the next three decades, he told his Fuller students about the recriminations and condemnations sent his way by angry dispensationalists.” In fact, “Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary also paid a price” for allowing “various premillennialist views, which produced intense outside opposition for decades.” They speak of “the differences between dispensational and nondispensational premillennialism and the intense concern of their respective adherents that they not be confused.”

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Classic dispensationalists are aware of their own distinctive differences, as well. Ryrie even comments: “Perhaps the issue of premillennialism is determinative [for dispensationalism]. Again the answer is negative, for there are those who are premillennial who definitely are not dispensational. The covenant premillennialist holds to the concept of the covenant of grace and the central soteriological purpose of God. He retains the idea of the millennial kingdom, though he finds little support for it in the Old Testament prophecies since he generally assigns them to the church. The kingdom in his view is markedly different from that which is taught by dispensationalists since it loses much of its Jewish character due to the slighting of the Old Testament promises concerning the kingdom.” Ryrie even argues for “The Necessity of Dispensationalism” over against premillennialism.

Allis offers us a helpful eschatological sorting device, which Adams modifies. It works quite well in classifying the three basic millennial positions. Two questions tend to sort the positions into one of the three most basic schools. These questions are:
(1) What is the chronology of the kingdom?
(2) What is the nature of the kingdom?

The chronological question focuses on the timing of Christ’s second advent in relation to the kingdom’s establishment. If his coming is before the kingdom, then the position is premillennial; if it is after the kingdom, then it may be either amillennial or postmillennial. The question regarding the nature of Christ’s kingdom highlights its historical character. If the kingdom will have a radical, objective, transforming influence in human culture, it is either premillennial or postmillennial; if it will not, it is amillennial.

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