Eschatology – Part 16

Eschatology – Part 16

As we have seen throughout this series, eschatology influences hermeneutics, your view of the church, and a number of other important doctrines. In the early church John’s Revelation gave believers hope in the face of persecution. Thus they read Revelation 20 literally, but because of their antipathy of the Jews, interpreted the Old Testament figuratively, arguing that they replaced Israel in the affections of God.

Later, when the Roman persecutions began to wane, the church distanced itself from earlier pre-millennialism. They modified the earlier figurative approach to hermeneutics by reading John’s Revelation allegorically while giving the Old Testament a more literal reading. As the New Israel, they needed the Old Testament structure to organize. Meanwhile, the need for a figurative interpretation was necessary to reach the Greek mind in an almost exclusively Gentile church.

It is rather ironic that pre-millennialism with its literal approach to Scripture was rejected because it was too fleshly, too worldly, due to its belief in an earthly kingdom during the millennium. Ironic in that pre-millennialism was replaced by a-millennialism which now argues that pre-millennialism is invalid precisely because it isn’t worldly enough. It is accused of being so preoccupied with the eternal that insufficient attention is giving to building God’s kingdom on earth here and now.


I have already introduced the relationship between eschatology and the doctrine of the church. Because of the implications, I want to develop this connection further.

In the Old Testament God had a dual commitment; He was committed to individuals and to the nation of Israel. Both commitments were an expression of His elective grace. God’s commitment to a perpetually apostate nation was an illustration of His grace. The issue of Israel being worthy of God’s grace is no more an issue than whether the individual believer is worthy of grace.

God emphasizes this point in Hosea. God’s prophet is commanded to marry the harlot Gomer. The marriage is nonsensical and void of reason. After her marriage to Hosea she continues her life of infidelity. God says that this is an object lesson of His love and commitment to the nation of Israel. Like Gomer, Israel lusts after pagan gods, habitually violating her covenant with God. Still, God is faithful to His betrothed.[1]

In the New Testament, God has only an individual commitment. The church, which comprises the elect, is an organism rather than an organization or institution. There are institutional expressions of the church, such as Baptists, Reformed, Presbyterians, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc. But God has no commitment to any of these institutions. None of them go to heaven, only individuals. There is no such thing as an elect institution in the New Testament.

There are, in the United States, in excess of 2000 denominations, each believing that they adequately represent God. Augustine, the “father” of a-millennialsim said that there was no salvation outside of the church, by which he meant the institutional manifestation of the Roman Catholic Church (a position currently held by the Roman Church). This means that none save one of the 2000 plus denominations have God’s blessing, and none of those affiliated with these denominations can consider themselves saved.

It seems to me that there are two fundamental presuppositions that undergird historic a-millennialism: 1) The conviction that the Mosaic Covenant continues to be normative in the church which is the New Israel. 2) The apostolic tradition whereby the Holy Spirit continues to lead the institutional church, giving it an authority higher than that of the individual believer, and to which the believer is amenable.

The two presuppositions are intertwined and interdependent. The second is relative in application, from the Roman Catholics on one extreme and possibly the Baptist on the other. For example, a Baptist church, with a congregational form of government, may have rules that restrict the behavior of the members, such as no drinking, gambling, or smoking.

There is a natural propensity for the church to assume that God has entrusted to her what has not been entrusted to the individual believer. This is a different question from the need for church discipline as outlined in I Corinthians 5 and that of interdependence which is the theme of I Corinthians 12-14; the mutual dependence of the members of Christ’s Body is not the same as saying that God has a special commitment to an institution in the New Testament.


Structure requires control, and the church discovered that the Old Testament pattern was useful. Moreover, with the passing of time the antipathy that existed between Rome and the church subsided, and as Kirsch notes, the church responded by viewing an alliance with Rome as a possibility. “There is no doubt that this turn of events did such towards weaning the Christians from the old millenarianism, which during the time of persecution had been the expression of their hopes that Christ would soon reappear and overthrow the foes of His elect.”[2]

As noted in Eschatology, Part 6, the earlier Clement (mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 as distinguished from Clement of Alexandria) refers to the presbyters as “priests” and the bishops as “high priests”[3] This Old Testament mind-set which saw the church as the New Israel served well in bringing structure to the church. Still, it wasn’t until the third century that church buildings began to appear. Harnack notes that prior to this time people met in private houses, while men like Paul might hire a school for his lectures.[4] As Harnack says, “One thing is clear, and this is, that the idea of a special place of worship had not yet arisen. The Christian idea of God and of divine service not only failed to promote this, but excluded it, while the practical circumstances of the situation retarded its development.”[5]

The beginning of the third century, particularly during the peace that reigned from the emperor Gallienus to the beginning of the fourth century, saw “…the growth of the Christian congregations, the ecclesiastical consciousness, and the complicated requirement of the priesthood and the cultus[6] (which approximated more than ever to those of paganism), involved not only larger buildings but buildings for special purposes (e.g., chapels for the martyrs).”[7]

In the early years of the church each community was a self-sufficient unit while at the same time a reproduction of the collective church of God. “We do not know how this remarkable conviction arose, but it lies perfectly plain upon the surface of the apostolic and post-apostolic ages. It did not originate in Judaism…Nor did the conception spring up at a single stroke. Even in Paul two contradictory conceptions still lie unexplained together: while, on the one hand, he regard each community, so to speak, as a ‘church of God,’ sovereign, independent, and responsible for itself, on the other hand his churches are at the same time his own creations, which consequently remain under his control and training, and are in fact even threatened by him with the rod….Here the apostolic authority, and, what is more, the general and special authority, of the apostle as the founder of a church invade and delimit the authority of the individual community, since the latter has to respect and follow the rules laid down and enforced by the apostle throughout all his churches….”[8]

The early expression of Christianity in the Roman world was unique. Void of any political or ethnic undercurrents, it was a society uniting fellow-believers resident in any city. Assuming a relationship of the closest ties, strangers became instantly yoked through their commonality in Christ. It was a bond that provided spiritual benefits while imposing duties, creating a sense of stability for the individual. “It was this, and not any evangelist, which proved to be the most effective missionary. In fact, we may take it for granted that the mere existence and persistent activity of the individual Christian communities did more than anything else to bring about the extension of the Christian religion.”[9]


Harnack describes the church as an organism naturally bonded in geographical groups. The vitality and life that created such an attraction to outsiders was based on the unity of the Spirit. As Paul Johnson notes, the gifts and the Spirit precluded the need for organization.[10]

The absence of organization, however, means the absence of control. As the church matured and heresies flourished, thinking men saw the need to establish control. Union replaced unity. In John 17 Jesus prays for unity and Paul rebukes its absence in I Corinthians. Paul argues in I Cor 12 that the Holy Spirit gave gifts to all believers making them important, but no believer has all the gifts, making him dependent. This was meant to enhance unity.

If the history of the church has taught us anything, it is that union tends to destroy unity. With union you have a vested interest in the system, which in turn breeds disagreement. You can see this phenomenon in movements like Promise Keepers. Organization is at a minimum and union is not an objective. Thus people from various traditions and doctrinal persuasions can join together in beautiful harmony.

These same men, when they sit on the boards of their churches, find such a spirit of unity evaporate. The reason is obvious: An endeavor to ensure union inhibits unity.

None of this is to suggest that union is wrong. A cardinal principle of hermeneutics is that the believer is free to do whatever the Bible does not prohibit. There may be compelling reasons to organize. But we do well to remember that God has no commitment to the organizations that we create.

United in His Spirit,

[1] Hosea 2:19-20

[2] op.cit., Kirsch, J.P., The Catholic Encyclopedia, Millennium, pages 307-309.

[3] op.cit., The Epistle of S. Clement to the Corinthians, The Apostolic Fathers, page 30.

[4] Cf. Acts 19:9.

[5] op.cit., Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol II, pages 85-87.

[6] Cultus: The beliefs, rites and ceremonies of a religious system.

[7] ibid, pages 85-87.

[8] ibid, Vol 1, pages 431-444.

[9] ibid, pages 431-444.

[10] op.cit., Johnson, A History of Christianity, page 44.