The second Article of the Christian Creed is, in the version of the Creed we call the Apostles’, “and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord”. The next five Articles after this one, comprise a lengthy clarifying statement of Who this Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, in Whom we confess our faith, is. Together these make up six of the twelve Articles, or half the Creed. The seventh Article, which is our subject today, is the last of these.
The seventh Article pertains to a matter which has proven very controversial and divisive among Christians especially in the last century and a half. The controversy and division is not usually over the content of the Article, which is a fairly simple assertion, but about the very complex systems of interpretation that theologians have built up around it.
The Article in the Apostles’ Creed is inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos. Our Book of Common Prayer renders this in English as “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” The inde or “From thence” points back to the previous Article in which Jesus is confessed to have ascended to Heaven where He sits at the right hand of God. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan version of this Article is καὶ πάλιν ἐρχόμενον μετὰ δόξης κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς· οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος. In the Book of Common Prayer this is translated as “and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” As you can see, the Article is quite simple in both Creeds. In most cases the extra words in the conciliar Creed simply make explicit what would already be understood in confessing the material common to both Creeds, i.e., that the predicting coming is πάλιν –again – and μετὰ δόξης - with glory. The longest piece of additional material in the conciliar Creed - οὗ τῆς βασιλείας οὐκ ἔσται τέλος – whose kingdom shall have no end – is an assertion implicit in calling the Son of God by the title “Christ” for this is precisely what “Messiah” or “Christ” means, the predicted “Anointed One” who would arise from David’s seed to rule as king over Israel and all the earth forever.
This is about as basic as a confession of faith in the Second Coming gets. The First Coming of Christ was in humility, to submit to arrest, false accusations, unjust condemnation, torture, and death on the Cross, to accomplish our salvation. The Second Coming will be in judgement on both those living at the time – it just doesn’t sound right to refer to these in English in any other way than the expression used in the Book of Common Prayer here and in the Authorized Bible “the quick” – and the dead. This is precisely what the New Testament says about the Second Coming and so we find in this Article about the Second Coming the entire Quattuor Novissima (Four Last Things) – Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell – encapsulated.
It is when eschatology goes beyond a simple assertion of belief in the Second Coming, the Final Judgement and by implication the Four Last Things, and the eternal Kingdom of Christ that matters get controversial.
The writers of the New Testament speak of the Second Coming as an event they expect to live to see. This is not because they had been misled about the timing of the event, as liberals who reject the infallibility of the Scriptures claim, much less because they were right about the timing and it took place two millennia ago as preterism, a deadly heresy of our own day claims. It is because they paid heed to what Jesus Himself had said about this event – that the timing was a total mystery, unknown to anyone but the Father, and that rather than unprofitably looking into this, they should maintain an attitude of watchfulness, expecting His Coming at any moment, because it will come like a thief in the night. These instructions, clearly, were not just for the Apostles, or even for all of Jesus’ first generation disciples, but the entire faith society that Christ would establish through the Apostles, the Church. The instructions were intended to show us how to avoid the opposite errors we were most likely in our fallen human nature to fall into the further away we got from the Ascension without the Second Coming having occurred, the error of abandoning our watchfulness on the assumption that it having been so long it will be still longer until He comes if He does at all, and the error of thinking that the closer we get to the Second Coming the less the warnings against date-setting apply.
Attempts to develop a more detailed eschatology than what we find in the Creed inevitably involve attempts to decipher and interpret the Book of Revelation, the last book in the published order of the New Testament, taken by nearly everybody to be the last book of the Bible to have been written – it is usually dated to the 90’s of the first century – and the last book of the New Testament to be accepted as canonical by the Church. It is also the hardest book of the New Testament to interpret or rather the easiest book to misinterpret. It is written in vivid allegorical imagery, the meaning of some of which is explained in the text, for example, that the dragon refers to Satan, while much of it is left without such explanation, and all or nearly all of it, makes allusion in one way or another to something in the Old Testament. There has never been a true consensus as to its meaning. The terms premillennialism, a-millennialism, and postmillennialism, denoting the three major competing systems of eschatology, pertain to the interpretation of the thousand years of the twentieth chapter of the Book of Revelation. None of these can truly claim to be the small-o orthodox, or small-c catholic view, if we use the Vincentian canon as the standard of what is small-o orthodox and small-c catholic. The tests of the Vincentian canon are antiquity, universality, and consent. Premillenialism passes the test of antiquity. It was the view held by the Apostolic Fathers or at least the Apostolic Fathers whose views on the matter can be determined from their extent writings – St. Justin Martyr, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Papias of Hierapolis, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas – and by many of the most important second century Fathers, including St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus of Rome and the apologist Tertullian. It fails the test of universality, however, having virtually disappeared for most of Church history. If any of these views passes the test of universality it is a-millennialism, but it arguably fails the test of antiquity, for while very old, there is no evidence of it prior to the second century, and the earliest evidence for it is among heretics like Marcion of Synope. The version of a-millennialism that grew to become near universal arguably owes its influence in the orthodox ancient Churches to St Clement of Alexandria and especially his protégé Origen. Origen’s reputation as a doctor of the ancient Church – he was her first real systematic theologian – helped a-millennialism to overcome the bad reputation of its early heretical associations around the time that the premillennialism of the Apostolic Fathers and the succeeding generation fell into disrepute through association with the Montanist sect. Postmillennialism passes none of the tests, none of the three interpretations pass all three. In this, perhaps, we see the wisdom of the Lutheran tradition in taking the same position with regards to the antilegomena – the books of the New Testament whose canonicity was disputed in the early centuries – that all orthodox Protestants take with regards to the deuterocanonical or ecclesiastical books of the Old Testament, i.e., leave them in the Bible instead of removing them like hyper-Protestants, but do not apply to them to establish a doctrine. (1) Nothing in the Creed requires support from the antilegomena for its establishment. Neither premillennialism nor a-millennialism nor postmillennialism can be established without interpreting the most difficult of the New Testament antilegomena.
Contrary to a claim that is often heard, chiefly among Eastern Orthodox theologians, the phrase “whose kingdom shall have no end” was not added to the conciliar Creed to condemn chiliasm, as premillennialism was called in the early Church. The phrase was added to the Creed by the Council of Constantinople (381 AD), and one of the heretics condemned at that Council was Appollinaris of Laodicea, but Appollinaris was condemned for denying the full humanity of Jesus Christ, not for his eschatology. It was the third Article of the Creed, not the seventh, that was expanded to counter Appollinaris. The phrase “whose kingdom shall have no end”, taken from the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel According to St. Luke was added to counter a different heretic, Marcellus, who taught that the Trinity was a temporary arrangement, that Christ’s Kingdom would end when the Son handed the Kingdom back to His Father, and dissolved His Personhood into that of the Father. (2) By the time the Second Ecumenical Council rolled around, chiliasm had become a minority viewpoint, but it was certainly not condemned by the Council. It was still taught by the leading Western theologian of the day, St. Augustine of Hippo, who did not renounce it for a-millennialism until early in the next century amidst the events that led him to write The City of God.
Indeed, the beauty of the simplicity of the seventh Article of the Creed is precisely that it does not speak to matters such as these one way or another but simply affirms what is essential to the Christian Faith with regards to the Second Coming.
One of the reasons for the shift away from chiliasm and towards a-millennialism in the centuries leading up to the first Ecumenical Councils was the growing idea that the premillennialists were repeating the mistake of the first century Jews. The first century Jews were looking for the Messiah to come as a Conqueror Who would deliver them from the rule of Gentile empires like the Roman, restore David’s Kingdom, and establish that Kingdom over all the earth so that the tables were turned and the Gentile nations would come pay homage to the Son of David in Jerusalem. Those who rejected Jesus as the Christ, did so because His Coming was very different from that, He came and submitted to the injustice of being tortured and crucified, to offer Himself up as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. Those who held to chiliasm believed that the mistake of these Jews was to fail to recognize that Christ would come twice and to miss Him because they were looking for Him as He would appear at His Second Coming. The a-millennialists came to believe that the mistake of the Jews was deeper than this, that they were wrong to look for a political deliverer rather than a spiritual Saviour, and that the chiliasts were wrong to borrow Jewish apocalyptic millenarianism and apply it to the Second Coming of Christ.
In our day that reasoning has been pressed to an extreme that goes much further than the a-millennialists would allow for into a denial not just of premillennialism but of the Second Coming as we confess it in the seventh Article of the Creed. The origins of this heresy go back to the Counter Reformation in which Jesuit theologians in response to certain Protestants who misapplied various negative characters in the Book of Revelation to the Roman Communion and its leadership argued that the passages these Protestants were misapplying referred to first century individuals and institutions and so were long-fulfilled. Later, this sort of argument would catch on in response to the revival of premillennialism in the nineteenth century. The revival of premillennialism was itself a response to the spread of the apostasy of liberalism throughout Protestantism. Many conservative Protestants looked to premillennialism to help understand this apostasy and in the hopes that it would provide them with a means of combatting it. While some turned to premillennialism in basically the same form that it had in the early centuries of the Church, newer forms of premillennialism were also developed. The one that gained the most influence among evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants is the dispensationalist premillennialism taught by John Nelson Darby, the Church of Ireland curate who became one of the founders of the hyper-separatist sect the Plymouth Brethren and popularized among other Protestants by the Scofield Reference Bible. This form of premillennialism is characterized by a hermeneutic that makes hair-splitting distinctions and consequently multiplies events – it divides the Second Coming in two, His Coming for the Church then at a later date His Coming in Judgement, it divides the Final Judgement into at least two Judgements, usually more, and so on. The most important flaw in its theology, however, is that it interprets the present period – the Church Age or the Age of Grace, between Pentecost and The Rapture – as a parenthesis in the Age of Law, which will be resumed and wrapped up after the Rapture. One of the implications of this, that has become more explicit in dispensationalist theology over time, is that it treats the God of the Bible as being basically a tribal deity, Who only really cares about national Israel, and Who has allowed other nations to worship Him in the present for the purpose of making national Israel jealous. This contrasts heavily with the strong Old Testament emphasis that the God Who made a Covenant with Israel was the God of the whole world Who made His Covenant with Abraham and his descendants in order to bless all the nations of the world. Similarly, the idea of the Age of Grace as a parenthesis in the Age of Law is a direct contradiction of St. Paul’s third chapter in his epistle to the Galatians in which the Law is the parenthesis in God’s program of salvation based on Promise and Grace. One error breeds its opposite, and in response to this departure from historic, traditional, and Scriptural orthodoxy, several theologians adopted the old Jesuit preterism and flushed it out into the claim that all Biblical prophecy has been fulfilled, that the Second Coming and the Final Judgement and the Resurrection all took place in the first century, in the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70. Dispensationalism thought up multiple versions of the Second Coming, the Final Resurrection, the Final Judgement, and every other simple eschatological concept, needlessly complicating it all, in order to fit everything into its idea of a Divine Program of History that is ultimately all about national Israel. The preterists, by contrast, collapsed every prophesied event – the Second Coming, the Final Resurrection, and the Final Judgement – into a single event, the divine Judgement on national Israel in the destruction of the Temple, also making everything about the national Israel. It is quite obvious from the standpoint of historical, traditional, orthodoxy that dispensationalism and preterism share the same unhealthy obsessed fixation on national Israel, albeit approaching it from opposite perspectives. Preterism, however, takes it to the point of denying an Article of the Creed. For all the flaws of the dispensationalist version of premillennialism, it does not do this. Saying that there will be a temporary earthly version of the Kingdom of Christ on this earth before it is translated to the New Earth is not a denial that the Kingdom of Christ will have no end.
Preterism in its denial of the seventh Article of the Creed is heresy. While all heresy is serious this is a particularly deadly one. Every heresy contains a germ of truth for that is the nature of heresy, to take a truth and twist it and distort it until it becomes a denial of other truth. In this case, the truth is that Jesus spoke prophetically about the destruction of the Temple and the events of AD 70 in general. Several of His parables refer to these events and a plainer prediction of the destruction of the Temple was what promoted His disciples to ask Him about when this would occur and when His Coming would be. He answered both questions in the Olivet Discourse. Preterism takes this truth, and twists it to claim that the judgement upon Israel for rejecting Christ in the destruction of the Temple was the Final Judgement and fulfilled all prophecy of the Second Coming including the prophecy of the Final Resurrection which nothing that took place on AD 70 even remotely resembles. (3) This repeats the error of Hymeneaus and Philetus that St. Paul warned St. Timothy against: “whom concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some”. (II Tim. 2:18). It tells Christians not to take the attitude of watchfulness that Jesus Christ enjoined upon His followers. By telling Christians that there is no future Second Coming to look for they tell them to disregard what St. Paul wrote to St. Titus that the “grace of God that bringeth salvation” and which hath “appeared to all men” i.e., in the First Coming of Christ, teaches us “that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works”. (Tit. 2:12-14). By denying to Christians what St. Paul calls our “blessed hope” preterism leaves Christians with no hope. Hope is essential to Christianity, being linked forever by St. Paul with the faith by which we trust in the grace of God and the charity, or Christian love, from which all good works must flow, in the final verse of his much beloved chapter on that love (1 Cor. 13). Preterism, however, essentially takes the words Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate (Abandon all hope, ye that enter here) that Dante inscribed on the entrance to hell in his Inferno, and writes them over the door of the Church.
Against the preterist heresy small o-orthodox Christians profess our faith that the same Jesus Christ Who visibly ascended to Heaven forty days after His bodily Resurrection will just as visibly return from Heaven in the same Resurrected body. The first time He came, He came to be the Saviour of the world. In His Second Coming He comes as Judge of the world. The Final Judgement is a Judgement of the whole world – not just of the generation of Israel that rejected Him- but of everybody, “the quick” – those living at the time - and “the dead” – everybody who had ever lived and died (2 Tim. 2:1). The dead will be raised for this Judgement, as prophesied, both in the Old Testament (Dan. 12:2) and the New (Jn. 5:28-29). The Judgement will be of everyone’s works, everything they had done including their thoughts and words (Matt. 12:36), because that is the nature of judgement. Since the Judge of the whole world is Perfect in His Justice, we know that this Judgement will not be as depicted in some pagan mythologies, where one’s good deeds are weighed against one’s bad deeds, with the outcome determined by which side is heavier. Imagine if earthly temporal human courts dispensed judgement in this manner, and murderers were let off the hook because all the people they didn’t kill outweighed the few that they did. It would not resemble justice at all. While the idea of a Final Judgement where we are held to account for our every thought, word, and deed, and where whatever good we have done does not offset whatever evil we have done, is a sobering one, especially since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) it is not something the believer need look forward to with dread and trepidation because the One Who will be the Judge on that Day is the One “that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:34) and from His love we can never be separated (Rom. 8:38-39). (4) Trusting that He Who is the “Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” has saved us by His grace, we look forward to His Coming and the Judgement, knowing that after this comes the ultimate manifestation of His Kingdom, the life of which we have begun to live even now in this life in the Church, and that His Kingdom shall have no end. As John Newton put it:
When we've been here
ten thousand years
Bright, shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun
(1)See the sixth of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion for this position with regards to the ecclesiastical books. “Ecclesiastical books” is the designation the Church Fathers gave to the books and portions of books found in the Greek Septuagint, the Christian Old Testament, that were not found or at least were not extent at the time in the Hebrew Tanakh of the Jews. The Roman Church calls these “deuterocanonical”, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not give them a separate designation. They are called “the Apocrypha” in the sixth of the Anglican Articles of Religion and in orthodox Protestant Bibles like the original Authorized Version and Luther’s Bible in which they are placed in their own section between the Testaments. This is an unfortunate designation because this term was used by the Church Fathers to designate a completely different set of writings. Dr. Luther, Martin Chemnitz, and other Lutheran Reformers, thought that the seven New Testament books designated as antilegomena should similarly not be applied to in order to establish doctrine – and Dr. Luther similarly segregated them from the homolegoumena, the undisputed books of the New Testament, in his German Bible – but this position was never articulated in the Lutheran Confessions of the Book of Concord.
(2) See Francis X. Gumerlock, “Millennialism and the Early Church Councils: Was Chiliasm Condemned at Constantinople?” Fides et Historia, 36:2 (Summer/Fall 2004), 83-95.
(3) What I just call “preterism” in the text of this essay is sometimes called “full preterism” or “hyper-preterism” to distinguish it from what is sometimes called “partial preterism” which interprets much of the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation as having been fulfilled in AD 70 but affirms a future literal Second Coming, Final Resurrection, and Final Judgement. Since “partial preterism” does not deny an Article of the Faith it is not a heresy and in my opinion it is best not to call it by the same name as the heresy that denies a literal future Second Coming, Final Resurrection, and Final Judgement.
(4) In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus talks about the Final Judgement when the world will be divided into “sheep” and “goats”, each judged by their works, the “sheep” being rewarded for the works of mercy they did to others which the Judge takes as having been done to Himself, the “goats” being punished for their neglect of such works. Real people, of course, are not divided into people who consistently do good at every opportunity and people who never do good. In the goats part of Jesus’ parable we find people who are punished for the evil they have done with the good not being brought in to offset the evil, demonstrating God’s Justice, that He is not like some insane judge who lets a murderer off because of all the people he did not kill. In the sheep part of the parable we find people who are rewarded for the good they have done, with none of the evil they have done being held against them. Both are judged for what they had done, because nobody can be judged for anything other than what they have done. The radical difference in the way in which the works of the one are judged from the manner in which the works of the other are judged is due to the one being “sheep” and the other being “goats”. While it is not spelled out what the basis of the distinction is there is a hint of it in the parable. The Judge accepts the good works the sheep did to others as unto Himself, and takes the goats’ neglect of good works to others as a neglect of Himself. He Who comes at the end of time as Judge, had already come before as Saviour. Those who accept Him as He came in His First Coming are the sheep who will be accepted by Him at His Second Coming. Those who reject Him as He came in His First Coming are the goats who will be rejected by Him at His Second Coming as Judge.
Post a Comment