Here is a book review of A Case for Historic Premillennialism which I just finished for Calvin Seminary’s journal. My review won’t be published until November or next April, so it looks like new media triumphs once again. I teach at a premillennial, pretribulational seminary (we’re mostly progressive dispensationalists) and I wrote this review on non-dispensational premillennialism for an amillennial journal. This would be a minefield, except that one’s view of the millennium these days seems to matter as much as a CIA briefing to Nancy Pelosi. Thankfully we are past the time when a certain view of the end was identified with the literal, only way to read Scripture. I’m reminded of my mentor, Joe Crawford, who said that each view of the end had problems, and that the easiest way to get someone to agree with your view was to teach them the others.
Here’s the review:
Most of the chapters in this book are papers presented by the faculty of Denver Seminary at their 2007 biblical studies conference. As the title suggests, their purpose is to combat the popularity of dispensational premillennialism by making the case for the original form of premillennialism which is often “left behind” in the evangelical mind. Unlike classical dispensationalism, which began with John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century, separates Israel from the church, and argues for a pretribulational rapture; historic premillennialism traces its origins to Irenaeus in the second century, does not divide Israel and the church, and believes that the church will endure whatever tribulation is coming with the rest of the world (although they do not go into detail, the authors distinguish classical dispensationalism from progressive dispensationalism, which they call a “very close cousin” to historic premillennialism [xix]).
The other major difference, and the reason for this book, is that dispensational premillennialism is far more popular than the historic kind. Dispensational premillennialism has benefited from popular books, such as Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series; popular schools, such as Liberty University and Dallas Seminary; and popular preachers and Christian leaders, such as John MacArthur, Charles Swindoll, and Jerry Falwell. In comparison, the last significant champion of historic premillennialism was George Eldon Ladd, the Fuller Seminary professor who died in 1982 (or 1983, depending if one accepts the date given on xvi or 67). Ladd’s works are widely read by other scholars, but they are unknown by the millions of evangelicals who have learned from dispensational premillennialism to read signs of an impending rapture in each new development in the Middle East. Ladd himself had much in common with amillennialism. He “liked to say in class that he could have been an amillennialist if it were not for Revelation 20” (67).
As with any work of multiple contributors, the chapters in this volume are uneven. Most interesting to the Reformed readers of this journal are Timothy Weber’s clear description of the rise of classical dispensationalism and its impact on the evangelical world; Craig Blomberg’s use of the New Testament to refute the pretribulational rapture; and Donald Fairbairn’s measured argument that the earliest Christians were premillennial. Sung Wook Chung’s chapter on a Reformed case for premillennialism sounds intriguing, but it fails to persuade because it commits a mistake which was repeated by enough of the other contributors that it became a significant weakness of this volume.
Dispensationalists claim that a millennium is needed for God to fulfill the covenant promises he made to Israel as a nation. But if historic premillennialists believe that the church has replaced Israel, then what theological rationale is left for the millennium? The authors in this book agree that the millennium is needed for God to redeem this world in this history. On this score they claim to be in a better position than their Reformed counterparts, whose amillennialism allegedly suffers from Gnostic tendencies. Sung Wook Chung explains: “on account of its overemphasis on the soteriological dimension of the covenant of grace throughout the Bible, Reformed covenant theology has not paid deserved attention to the kingdom dimension of God’s work within history” (134) and so they deny “the fulfillment of the physical millennial rule on the earth” (135). The Reformed “understanding of God’s blessings is distorted by their unwitting gnostic tendencies, which disregard and ignore the importance and value of the physical in God’s eyes” (144).
Because “the Edenic covenants of blessing and the law were given in the context of this earth,” Sung Wook Chung argues that “they must be fulfilled on this earth before its entrance into the eternal and transformed state of the new heavens and earth” (143). The “new heavens and earth are eternal in character,” and so any promises kept there are not promises that were kept in this world and in this history (143). “The millennial kingdom will signify the completion of the Lord’s redemptive program on this earth. After that, we will have the new heavens and new earth, which will last eternally” (145, his emphasis). This view is repeated on the final page of the book, where Chung and his co-editor Blomberg claim that “historic premillenialism would appear to still be ‘one up’ on amillennialism by insisting that God will fully vindicate his purposes for this universe, even before the eternal state” (172, their emphasis).
What are we to make of this claim? While it is true that premillennialism has historically provided a healthy correction to those who claimed that this world is unimportant, from the first Gnostics who opposed Irenaeus (112) to past amillennialists who held a spiritual vision of the eternal state, this is no longer necessary today. Many of today’s amillennialists, especially in the Dutch Reformed tradition, claim that God will redeem this creation when he returns to inaugurate the new heavens and the new earth. And since this restoration will occur in our time and space, it occurs in this history as well (e.g., see Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 274-87). These amillennialists believe in the redemption of this world in this history as much as any historic premillennialist. Thus, the authors of this volume commit the fallacy of the straw man when they claim a comparative advantage over amillennialism. This may have been true in the past, but no longer.
Ironically, it may be historic premillennialism itself, as presented in these pages, which is more susceptible to charges of Gnosticism. Craig Blomberg suggests that the new heavens and earth represent “a time after history, in which the present creation will have disappeared” (87). If our final salvation occurs in some other place and some other time, what does that imply about the ontological goodness of our present place and history? Is the millennium merely God putting a period on this world so that the really good stuff can begin? More telling is the fact that this volume is dedicated to Bruce Demarest, a distinguished theologian at Denver Seminary and defender of historic premillennialism. In his book, The Cross and Salvation (Crossway, 1997), Demarest explains that after God consummates his plan for this world during the millennium then he will usher his saints into their “eternal home in heaven,” where they “will be thoroughly transformed into a qualitatively different kind of body suited for existence in the heavenly world” (471-78). It is this expression of historic premillennialism rather than amillennialism that is in danger of falling into the Gnostic temptation of denigrating our present time and place.
Despite this reservation, this book reminds Reformed leaders to distinguish between historic and dispensational premillennialism and to monitor the eschatological understanding of their congregation. Many Reformed laypeople have been influenced more by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins than by Scripture, and until a Reformed writer produces a popular amillennial eschatology, say Left Behind: For a Reason, it is likely to remain that way.