Eschatology – Part 17

Eschatology – Part 17

The British, Roman Catholic historian, Paul Johnson, in his A History of Christianity, notes that although the Christian community, during the closing years of the first century, had a “homogenous and extremely virile body of doctrine… it had no organization behind it. Paul did not believe in such a thing. He believed in the Spirit, working through him and others. Why should man regulate when the Spirit would do it for him? … Its leaders exercised their authority through gifts of the Spirit, not through office… Worship was still completely unorganized and subject to no special control. There was no specific organization to handle funds. And there was no distinction between a clerical class, and laity.”[1]

Adolf Harnack makes the same point, noting that by the close of the second century bishops sought to increase their own dioceses by restricting the erection of bishoprics in other towns. By 325 AD, the episcopal form of government was in control, entirely taking away the rights of the laity. “Henceforth it (bishopric) became an object of desire, coveted by everyone who was on the look-out for power, inasmuch as it had extraordinary forces at its disposal.”[2]


The Montanist controversy, which arose in the Roman province of Asia about 172 AD, had a number of facets to it. Primarily it was a prophetic movement emphasizing a pre-millennial view of the imminent return of Christ. It erupted at a time when the consolidation of episcopal power, with authority residing in the bishop, occupied the attention of the church. Montanists believed in the ministry of the laity, but their wild, eccentric claims threatened the apostolic tradition embraced by the bishops.[3]

Harnack notes that the Montanist controversy was both a struggle to ensure a more pious life as well as the freedom of the laity to practice their “priesthood.” It was only after the Montanist conflict was finally suppressed that the church was able to reach its collective goals. Prior to their suppression, individual Christians relied only upon God and their spiritually endowed brethren. After the close of the second century, the bishops became entrenched as the teachers, high priests, and judges of the church.

Earlier, Igantius had compared the bishop’s position in the individual church to that of God over the whole of the Church. This was later modified so that bishops were regarded as representatives of the apostolic office. The organized power was then directed towards “such brethren of its own number as refused submission to the church upon any pretext whatsoever.” This in turn prevented the “catholic church” from recognizing or tolerating any form of Christianity whatever outside its own boundaries.

Cyprian (third century bishop of Carthage) concluded that a bishop was essential to every community, and without one the church could not survive. [4] This movement towards a monolithic organizational structure resulted in fierce resistance by the Roman government during the third century.

By way of example, Paul of Samosata was one of the first Christian leaders to combine ecclesiastical office with high civil rank. Paul, as the protégé of Zenobia, the celebrated Queen of Palmyra, was made Bishop of Antioch when Antioch became hers after the defeat of Valerian. In 272 AD Antioch fell to the Roman Emperor Aurelian, who ordered Paul to step down in deference to Aurelian’s choice of Bishop. It was the first know intervention of a secular power in church matters.[5] As Rome saw the church increase in political strength, it sought to control the church. A new wave of persecution resulted.


Since Tertullian was a Montanist, this may be a good place to introduce him. Born in Carthage of pagan parents about 160 AD, he was educated in law and rhetoric, and was a master of Greek. He made law his profession, moving to Rome where he gained a reputation as a jurist. Around the turn of the century he was drawn to the Montanists by their rigorous system of morals. He was a strong advocate of millenarianism.

He was the first and possibly the most outstanding Latin theologian, and one of the most prolific writers of the Latin Fathers. Because of his theological grasp, combined with his proficiency in both Latin and Greek, he appreciably influenced theological thought in the Western Church. Tertullian followed the earlier Patristics in embracing a pre-millennial view of eschatology while arguing that the promises made to Israel have passed to the Gentiles.

About 200 AD Tertullian wrote De Praesciptione Haereticorum. Praescriptio is the technical, legal term for the statement which a defendant in a law suit inserts in his speech containing the grounds on which he urges further proceedings should his case be stopped.

Tertullian reasoned that Praescriptio is the means by which orthodoxy can stop the pretensions of heretics. Truth has been entrusted to catholic Christianity, and the church alone possesses ancient catholic tradition, the Scriptures, and the right to interpret them. It was apostolic succession that played an indispensable role in enabling the Gospel to be faithfully transmitted to us.[6] In short, Scripture cannot be interpreted by the ordinary laity. It must be done through the church, and then only through apostolic succession.

Interestingly, it was after he wrote De Praesciptione Haereticorum that he converted to Montanism. This man who was a scourge of heretics, eventually joined a heretical movement. “He could not continue to endorse an orthodoxy which denied any independent role to the Spirit and insisted that all communication with the deity should be through the regular ecclesiastical channels.”[7]

Tertullian might be called the first Protestant. Because he was such a towering theological figure in the life of the church, he, by and large, escaped the violent attack leveled against Montanism. “The sects which attracted the largest followings were, as a rule, the most austere and God-fearing; but, being the most successful, they had to be the most bitterly assailed on moral grounds. There is thus a sinister Goebbels’ Law about early Christian controversy: the louder the abuse, the bigger the lie.”[8]

Tertullian’s chiliast views can be seen in his hermeneutics. He acknowledged as legitimate the practice of allegorizing Scripture in the church of his day, but by and large resisted doing it himself, preferring the literal sense instead. You would think that, following the example of the Patristics, he would allegorize the Old Testament in a wholesale fashion. But in this he is remarkably restrained, holding that there was a permanent, unchanging moral ethos in the Old Testament.

“Having virtually removed the burden of a legalistic Old Testament religion, he introduced a legalistic New Testament one….He decides the question of whether Christians can be soldiers simply on one word of Christ, His telling Peter to put up his sword, disregarding all other evidence….The tendency to turn Christianity into a baptized Judaism, observable in many aspects of the life and the thought of the third century, finds its earliest exponent in Tertullian.”[9]

This enigma of a man teetered between fighting heretics and being one himself. He defended the millennial hope against the Gnostic Marcion, who denied that the Christian can have any hope for a world created by the God of the Jews. Tertullian contended that Christians have an eschatological hope for this earth and for this age. Marcion was similar to the hellenistic spiritualizers who postulated a present dualism of heaven and earth in their endeavor to explain away the biblical doctrine of death and the resurrection. This was a mysticism that taught the oneness of the soul with God. Later we will explore more fully the influence of Gnosticism on the church.

In John’s Revelation, John says that there will be two resurrections following the return of Christ.[10] As noted earlier in this series, this is a crucial point in the millennial debate. In order for a-millennialism to work, the first of the two resurrections must be interpreted figuratively and the second literally. Pre-millennialism interprets both resurrections literally. A-millennialism teaches that the first resurrection takes place when the believer is converted to Christ. “It was this very doctrine – with its identification of the first resurrection with the resurrection from sin in baptism – which was later to prevail in millenarian interpretation.”[11]

Tertullian anathematized this teaching of Marcion that the first resurrection was spiritual. He argued that if John had thought of the first resurrection in this way he could not have specified that there would be one thousand years between the two resurrections. “According to Tertullian the two resurrections would both be at the end of the age, with the millennium between them.”[12] This was a rebuttal of the Gnostic teaching that the material world was bad and only the spiritual good. O’Hagen calls this “material re-creation” (cf. issue #12).

“But unwittingly, and against his will, Tertullian helped to discredit the millennial hope by joining the Montanists…. It was not unnatural that in the fight against Montanism and rigorism the church suppressed this eschatology altogether…. By the end of the second century, then, chiliasm had been severely harmed by fanaticism and Judaism.”[13]


We see, then, the converging of several forces. First, a Gentile church held the Jews responsible for the death of Christ and the persecution of the church. They concluded that Judaism did not represent God, and that the church was the New Israel. Second, we have a viral laity who, in their exuberance, mingle heresy with truth.

Then add to this mix those concerned individuals who not only longed for a more stable church, but were persuaded that if they were in control they could bring it about. As they became successful in their endeavor to consolidate, they were a threat to Rome who wanted to control them. An alliance between church and state was not all that odious, for with the sword of the state in their hands, the church could control an unruly laity.

In a way chiliasm was a catalyst. The early church, as seen in men such as Justin Martyr, sought to distance themselves from any perceived political ambition, while embracing the millennium of Revelation 20 as their hope. But when the millennium of Revelation 20 was divorced from the fulfillment of God’s promises to the nation of Israel, it drifted in unhealthy, sensual directions.

With the ascendancy of the hierarchy of the church, the Old Testament Theocracy afforded a pattern of structure and control. As persecution waned, the millennium was no longer considered an essential doctrine, and its demise served the needs of an increasingly temporal perception of the mission of the church. The “New Israel” was about ready to compete with the state in defining a vision for the world. With the conversion of Constantine in the first part of the fourth century, the time was ripe for the church to assume her imperial role, ready to confront and conquer the world.

Awaiting His Kingdom,

[1] ibid, page 44

[2] op.cit., Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol 1, page 437.

[3] op.cit., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, pages 732-733.

[4] op.cit., Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol 1, pages 470-471.

[5] op.cit, Cross, The Early Christian Fathers, page 176.

[6] ibid, pages 139-140.

[7] op.cit., Johnson, A History of Christianity, page 50.

[8] ibid, page 51.

[9] Chadwick, H., The Journal of Theological Studies, Clarendon Press, Oxford, Vol XII, Hanson, R.P.C., Notes on Tertullians’s interpretation of Scripture, 1961, page 279.

[10] cf. Revelation 20:1-6, esp. vv. 5-6.

[11] op.cit., Bietenhard, The Millennial Hope in the Early Church.

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.