A Book Review from Books at a Glance
by Timothy M. Haupt
In his preface to Millennium: Historical & Exegetical Debate, Martin Erdmann writes, “There has never been a time . . . when millennialism has been universally accepted as a valid doctrine of the Christian Church. During the second and third centuries, the Church party which rejected its validity was gaining in strength, until this party occupied a prominent place at the ecumenical council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. From then on the majority of Christians accepted an anti-chiliastic position for the next 1000 years. . . . Still, this triumph [of anti-chiliasm] could not eclipse the fact that the outstanding characteristic of the patristic era was the Church’s pronounced adherence to chiliasm. Most of the early Church fathers anticipated the bodily resurrection of the righteous and the inauguration of a millennial kingdom at the Second Coming of Christ” (xiii-xiv).
Erdmann’s thesis is that Revelation 20 promises a literal, earthly millennial kingdom prior to the final judgment, and he argues this thesis on both historical and exegetical grounds. Historically, Erdmann contends that the Jewish apocalyptic tradition looked forward to a messianic Golden Age prior to the final judgment, that John’s presentation of the millennium in Revelation 20 corresponds to the Jewish apocalyptic chiliastic expectation, and that John’s own premillennialism was then disseminated throughout the Asiatic church and beyond, until it was effectively countered by Origin and Dionysius in the third century, and Augustine in fourth and fifth centuries. Exegetically, Erdmann attempts to show that a literal hermeneutic yields a premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20, and that it was the introduction of the allegorical exegesis of the Alexandrian school over against the Antiochene school of interpretation that shifted the eschatological position of the church decisively in the direction of amillennialism.
In the first chapter, Erdmann surveys the millennial hope of Jewish apocalyptic literature. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was common for critical scholars to posit that the chiliastic expectation of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition was borrowed from the pagan conception of a future paradisal age. Erdmann admits that while some influence is undeniable, the majority of influence came from the Hebrew Bible. Yet Jewish apocalyptic literature is distinct from its prophetic predecessor. Apocalyptic literature is more symbolic in its visionary revelation and is more broadly focused on the world at the end of the age, as opposed to a narrower focus on Israel and the fulfillment of the covenant in the prophets. Erdmann then traces the reception history of apocalyptic literature within the Jewish community, noting that while it was almost universally rejected as canonical and ignored by Rabbinic literature, yet it was immensely popular, and thus influential, among the Jewish masses. Erdmann next provides a detailed list of the characteristics of apocalyptic elements, elements he suggests were informed by three-hundred years of “oppression and warfare which produced a climate of religious fanaticism and mystical imagination” (21). According to Erdmann, “Apocalyptic literature offered [the Jews] an emotional panacea which enabled them to endure their existence” (22). Finally, Erdmann compares the millenarianism of the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (as representative of Jewish apocalyptic literature as a whole) with John’s Revelation. According to Erdmann, both share the hope of an earthly messianic kingdom, yet John’s Revelation stands apart from Jewish apocalyptic literature in that: (1) it is not pseudonymous; (2) it contains no mysteries of cosmogony, astrology, or ancient history from the beginning of the world; (3) it presents an explicitly christological conception of history (27).
In the second chapter, entitled “Millennialism of John,” Erdmann first surveys the various millennial views, using A. A. Hoekema as the representative of amillennialism, Loraine Boettner as the representative of postmillennialism, George Eldon Ladd as the representative of historic premillennialism, and John F. Walvoord as the representative of dispensational premillennialism. Erdmann explicitly claims only to be premillennial (p. 211), evidently historic premillennial. In the second half of the chapter, Erdmann provides his own exegesis of Revelation 20:1-10, utilizing what he terms the “plain sense” of the words. The result is the standard premillennial interpretation of the passage.
In the third chapter, Erdmann examines the hermeneutical principles employed by the early church. Erdmann contends that the foundational principle of patristic exegesis was the christological interpretation of Scripture, which was itself grounded in the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Erdmann writes, “Reading the Old Testament from the vantage point of the New was thus made imperative for a correct understanding of both. Thus every line of patristic thinking converged to the center of the Scriptures, Jesus Christ, the Messiah” (96-97). But even with this common commitment, not everyone agreed on the interpretation of Scripture. “These adverse reactions of both the Jews and the Gentiles were reason enough to conclude that, in order to understand the Scriptures, more was needed than the human mind was capable of comprehending. The Church Fathers discovered that a spiritual, and thus to them a correct, understanding of Scripture was a special gift of God to every believer” (99). In time, however, the so-called “spiritual interpretation” became untethered from the grammatical-historical interpretation, and the result was the allegorical hermeneutic, as perpetuated by the Western Alexandrian school, exemplified in the three-fold schema of Origin (the historical, typological, and devotional senses of the text) and the four-fold schema of Augustine (the historical, etiological, analogical, and figurative senses of the text). While Augustine attempted to rein in the figurative sense by tethering it to canonical doctrine and the principles of love and faith, his restrictions ultimately proved unsuccessful. Augustine’s scheme then developed into the famous four-fold classification of the historical, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses that dominated medieval exegesis. The Antiochene school, on the other hand, attempted to emphasize the historical sense of the text over against the allegorical sense, and thus “became known for their literal approach” (102-103). Erdmann posits that the allegorical proclivities of the Alexandrians were owing to the influence of Platonism on the West, while the literal hermeneutic of the Antiochenes was influenced by Jewish exegetical principles. In contrast to the untethered allegorizing of Alexandria, the Antiochenes developed a restrained typological hermeneutic. Erdmann’s contention is that these different hermeneutical commitments, rooted in different hermeneutical influences, led to the dominance of chiliasm in Asia and the East, and the dominance of anti-chiliasm in Africa and the West.
In the fourth chapter, Erdmann traces a line of historical descent from John, who wrote Revelation from within the context of Asiatic Christianity, to Papias (AD 60-130), the bishop of Hierapolis, to Irenaeus (130-202), who though he spent most of his life in Lyon in the West, was born in Asia Minor, and whose Adversus Haereses “is one of the most important sources of millennial expositions in the ante-Nicene literature” and who alludes to Papias as a source of his own views (112). Erdmann paints a picture of a thriving premillennialism in Asia Minor during the first two centuries, a premillennialism profoundly influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature popular among the strong Jewish presence there. The main features of Asiatic chiliasm are: (1) the reconciliation of the animal world; (2) the extraordinary fruitfulness of the earth; (3) a human lifespan of one-thousand years; (4) the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem. Asiatic chiliasm was marked by varying degrees of material/sensual emphases.
In the fifth chapter, Erdmann explores the chiliasm of Justin Martyr, who while living in Ephesus engaged in a debate with a Jewish man named Trypho, in which he expressed his millennial expectation. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew is thus another important source for Asiatic chiliasm. Most significant in Justin’s chiliasm is his dependence upon the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah 65; yet according to Erdmann, he was also influenced by Jewish apocalyptic sources. However, Justin’s chiliasm was somewhat confused, as Erdmann notes, and bears only a passing resemblance to Jewish apocalyptic literature.
In the sixth chapter, Erdmann surveys another document for early Christian chiliasm, the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 150). The Epistle of Barnabas is significant for three reasons. First, it is the first extant Christian document to describe the history of the world in terms of the “cosmic week” – six days/ages, followed by a seventh millennium of rest at the Second Coming of Christ, followed by an eighth and eternal day in the new world, of which the Lord’s Day is the type. This structure bears some resemblance to the Gnostic idea of the “ogdoad.” Second, it is also significant in that it emerged from outside of Asia; the author, according to Erdmann, almost certainly belonged to the Jewish Christian community in Alexandria (153). Third, it is significant because it was demonstrably influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature, a source common to Asiatic chiliasm. Interestingly, however, the Epistle of Barnabas shows no acquaintance with John’s Revelation.
In the seventh and eighth chapters, Erdmann tells the story of the rise of the allegorical method in Alexandria, and its decisive influence upon the rejection of chiliasm in the Western church. Erdmann identifies three main culprits: Origen (AD 185-254), Dionysius (AD 190-265), and Augustine (AD 354-430). Erdmann is particularly harsh in his criticism of Origen: “Origen thus contributed tragically to the corruption of the Christian faith. Instead of enlightening the minds of his students with the truth of the Scriptures, he introduced a form of syncretism into the Church which combined elements of pagan mysticism and Greek philosophy with those of Christianity” (161-162). Dionysius cast doubt upon the apostolic authorship of Revelation, and effectively refuted chiliasm in Egypt. The result, according to Erdmann, was that “the Church lost a living faith in the impending return of Christ, and the prophetic Scriptures, pointing to the reign of Christ, came to be applied to the current age and to the Church, with far-reaching results” (170). With the hermeneutical structure of chiliasm thus toppled, Augustine stepped in to erect a new eschatological vision known as amillennialism, a vision set forth in his magisterial and influential De Civitate Dei, in which the millennium of Revelation 20 is not a future hope but a present reality. Augustine’s amillennialism came to dominate the church for the next thirteen centuries.
The ninth and final chapter is a summary and conclusion of the whole, in which Erdmann decides in favor of premillennialism as having both historical and exegetical superiority.
In Millennium: Historical and Exegetical Debate, Erdmann presents a strong argument, rooted in solid and extensive research. His familiarity with both Jewish apocalyptic and patristic literature is vast and impressive. He effectively demonstrates that premillennialism/chiliasm was a force to be reckoned with in the early church and that there is an affinity between some themes of Christian chiliasm and that of Jewish millennialism. Additionally, Erdmann generally maintains an appropriate academic and irenic tone throughout, despite at times resorting to the pejorative charge that those who do not hold to a premillennial interpretation do not read the Bible “literally” and “spiritualize” Old Testament promises.
In the foreword, Dr. Trevor Craigen (The Master’s Seminary) states, “Frankly, the millennial debate is at a stalemate, and nothing more can be said to move it forward” (xiii). In the case of this reviewer, Dr. Craigen’s words proved prophetic. Full disclosure: I (the reviewer) hold to an amillennial eschatology. Having given Erdmann’s argument what I trust is a fair hearing, I did not find it persuasive. I will leave aside my critique of Erdmann’s exegesis of Revelation 20:1-10, as the lines of demarcation between the premillennial and amillennial interpretations of that passage are well-established. I will also refrain from discussing the obvious disagreement over the continuity of the covenants and the identity of the people of God, theological convictions that exercise tremendous influence upon one’s eschatological position. Rather, I will focus my engagement on four areas in which I find Erdmann’s thesis unconvincing.
First, half of Erdmann’s thesis focuses on the hermeneutical method used in the exegesis of Revelation 20. Erdmann contends that amillennialism replaced premillennialism as the church’s dominant eschatological view when the allegorical method of the Hellenistically-influenced Alexandrian school replaced the literal, grammatical-historical method of the Jewish-influenced Antiochene school. Erdmann repeatedly accuses the amillennial view of failing to read the Bible literally. Typical is this paragraph on page 70: “Although it is possible to come up with a spiritualized interpretation of the millennium, it is better to interpret the whole scene [of Revelation 20:1-10] in an ordinary fashion, exegeting the natural sense of the words. Such an interpretation will lead to a premillennial position which argues for a literal millennium and the binding of Satan following Christ’s Second Coming” (70). According to Erdmann, premillennialism refuses to “spiritualize” Scripture, but rather interprets it literally according to the “natural sense” of the words. But the idea that words have a “natural sense” independent of their genre-informed context is a hermeneutical fallacy. A symbolic passage interpreted literally is not interpreted in its natural sense, and is, in fact, misinterpreted. This commitment to a “literal” interpretation runs throughout Erdmann’s work, as when he explicitly states that “the terms ‘grammatical-historical’ and ‘literal’ hermeneutic are interchangeable” (54n53). This is a false equivalence, as the grammatical-historical method takes into account the genre of literature in which the text was written. Interpreting symbols symbolically is not the same thing as spiritualizing. Erdmann himself admits that Augustine, who plays something of the villain in Erdmann’s story, “in his attempt to guard the interpretation of Scripture from the onslaught of unbridled fantasy, argued for a controlled use of the allegorical method on the basis of two hermeneutical rules. A spiritualized interpretation is only acceptable if it corresponds to both the clear meaning of another biblical passage and the Christian principles of love and faith” (102). This principle, known as the regula fidei, is precisely how those who hold to the amillennial view come to their conclusions, which are neither arbitrary nor untethered from the rest of the biblical canon. Strangely, Erdmann himself writes about Jewish apocalyptic literature, “Yet, the visionary nature of the apocalyptic language and the symbolic descriptions of how the culmination point of history would be reached militated against any attempt of a literal interpretation” (24), an admission that would seem to undermine Erdmann’s thesis.
Second, Erdmann asserts that premillennialism was the “original position” of the church until a “progressive divergence” occurred in the third through fifth centuries (160). This may, in fact, be the case, but it is not proven in Erdmann’s argument, which only establishes that chiliasm may have been the majority position in Asia Minor. It is true that he cites two works from Alexandria, the Epistle of Barnabas and A Refutation of the Allegorists, but the former does not even mention the book of Revelation and appears to be influenced by Gnosticism, and the latter was effectively confronted and snuffed out by Dionysius. Two others mentioned, Irenaeus of Lyon and Justin Martyr, are noted specifically because of their connection to Asia Minor. Furthermore, Justin’s chiliasm was conflicted at best (see page 144). Erdmann succeeded in establishing that premillennialism was a major eschatological position in the early church, but he did not conclusively prove that it deserves the pride of place to which he assigns it as the “original position” of the church prior to the rise of the Alexandrian school.
Third, a major component of Erdmann’s argument is that a line of continuity exists between Jewish apocalyptic literature and John’s Revelation. Erdmann writes, “In all likelihood [Jewish apocalyptic literature] was influential in the composition of Revelation and thus extending its ideas and genre into the Christian era” (18). But Erdmann is unclear about just how much influence Jewish apocalyptic literature had. “The apocalyptic tradition was perpetuated in its Christianized form in the book of Revelation. Its author must have been an expert on Jewish apocalyptic, as his use of apocalyptic imagery suggests. However, he also demonstrated the resourcefulness of his mind in that he composed a piece of literature which exhibited numerous examples of originality” (24). Indeed, writes Erdmann, “The dissimilarities . . . are just as pronounced and numerous [as the similarities]” (27). If similarity only exists in the expectation of a future millennial kingdom, then Erdmann’s argument begs the question by assuming in its premise the truth of the conclusion. Revelation 20 must describe a future millennial kingdom, because the Jewish apocalyptic tradition looked forward to a future millennial kingdom, and John was influenced by the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, the evidence of which is that he also looked forward to a future millennial kingdom. But if the similarities go further to the “visionary nature of the apocalyptic language and the symbolic descriptions,” which Erdmann admits “militated against any attempt of a literal interpretation,” then Erdmann’s argument likewise fails (24).
Finally, grounding a premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 in the chiliastic hope of the Jewish apocalyptic traditions is prima facia unconvincing. Is not the dominant message of both Jesus and His apostles that their contemporary Jewish brethren failed to rightly interpret the Old Testament promises of the Messiah and the nature of His coming kingdom? “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (Jn 5:39-40). “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8). The eschatological expectations of unbelieving men ought not to be a determining factor in the interpretation of the biblical text. One might suggest that Augustine’s appeal to the regula fidei is a better interpretive model.
Though Dr. Craigen’s pessimistic prediction proved accurate, and Erdmann’s book does not tip the scales in favor of premillennialism, it is a welcome addition to the conversation, providing an open window into the chiliastic expectations of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition and of a number of patristic writers. Premillennialists will undoubtedly find their position bolstered, and amillennialists will find points to critique, but all will be edified by wrestling with Erdmann’s historical and exegetical arguments.
Timothy M. Haupt