Eschatology – Part 22

Eschatology – Part 22

May 1997

Dear Co-laborer,

Eschatology, part 22


It seems certain that the doctrine of a future termination of this world as we now know it, held no place in the Graeco-Roman world, apart from the beliefs of Jews and Christians. The six centuries between Alexander the Great and the Emperor Constantine was an age of syncretism, of the mingling of religions, a period during which Europeans civilization was influenced by Oriental beliefs rooted in Hinduism. For example, astrology was a religious philosophy; it was an attempt to formulate the influences which to a certain degree molded the lives of all dwellers under the roof of heaven.[1]

During these years of confluence, material re-creation, established in Jewish apocalypse and carried forward in the church through premillennialism, arrested the tendency of the church to cut her historical ties. As already noted, reason suggests that the material world is evil, a world from which to escape. Oneness with God upon death, with no hope of a future physical re-creation, the premise of Gnosticism, was a short step from agreeing that the historicity of Christianity was unimportant.


In order to make the link between amillennialism and the propensity to sever Christianity from history, let’s take a brief look at Tyconius. His primary ministry encompassed c. 370 – c. 400, making him a contemporary of Augustine (c. 354-430). Interestingly, he was a Donatist lay theologian with whom neither the Donatists nor the Catholics were not all that comfortable.

Tyconius reasoned that the whole of the New Testament eschatological expectation had to be interpreted figuratively, including Revelation 20. He lived in expectation of the second coming, believing that Christ would come in 380. In summary, Tyconius said the millennium is the present age in which the saints Providentially overcome sin. This is the first resurrection: from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. The second resurrection is literal and future.

A person participates in the first resurrection through being born again in baptism. The millennial rule of the church lasts until the end of the age. The twelve thrones are the judicial office of the church. Christ’s throne is His incarnate body to which the saints are added, and He sits at the right hand of power from where He rules. That rule is now, in the church.

The souls of the righteous are those who die with Christ in present affliction. Tyconius reasoned that this is necessarily prior to the resurrection, for only their souls are mentioned in Rev 20, and if a corporal rule was intended, martyrs would have a part in it. The millennial rule of Christ is shared by the dead as well as the living.

Those who have a part in this kingdom do not bear the mark of the beast, but the Divine image and likeness, the image in the body and the likeness in the soul.

The figurative 1000 years indicates that this is not a future rule, but the finite, perfect rule of the church-age, which continues until the end of the world.

In spite of Augustine’s opposition to Donatism, he embraced Tyconius’ understanding of eschatology, incorporating it in his famous City of God.[2] Augustine mentions that he too had once understood the millennium as a universal Sabbath replete with spiritual joys, but abandoned this interpretation because of the wild exaggerations found in other Chiliasts. Interestingly, Augustine is only one in a long list of critics who accuse Chiliasts of viewing the millennium as a time of orgies and satisfying of fleshly appetites. But in all of the reading that I did in the Patristics who embraced chiliast views, I found none who actually make such statements. All sources accusing the Patristics of excess are second hand, causing me to wonder if, to a certain degree, it was polemic, endeavoring to discredit chiliasm.

In support of his new view taken over from Tyconius, Augustine used Mark 3:27, arguing that the strong man is Satan, his goods Christians, and he is bound in such a way as to be kept from Christians, shut up in the abyss, which is the heart of the wicked. At the end of the age he will be loosed to test the church.[3]


Let’s pause and take a brief look at Donatism and its impact on the church. Donatism was a separatist, pure church movement in North African. It began when a group of laymen refused to accept Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage on the ground that his consecrator, Felix of Aptunga, had been a traitor during the Diocletianic Persecution. Were men holy because of their hearts and lives, or because of their office? The Catholic Church said it was the consecration of the office; the laity said it had to be the life. The schism continued until the African Church was destroyed by the Arabs in the 7th-8th centuries.[4]

Although I am a Donatist by temperament; I want things to be pure, clean, neat, and orderly, the implications of Donatism are disquieting. It is easy to side with the Donatists in arguing that sin and impurity disqualify the minister and invalidate his ministry. I like the image of a pure, unspotted church standing over against a godless world.

In the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30) the Donatists argued that the field containing the wheat and tares was the world. Augustine countered that it is the church. Augustine’s image of the church was a secular institution, containing the people of God, but also the unregenerate. The distinction between the world and the church is real, but it is eschatological rather than sociological or historical; the are separable only in the final judgment.

In this I find myself more Augustinian than Donatist. Tyconius separated from Donatism at this point as well; he elaborated a theology of the church’s holiness as eschatological. The parable of the wheat and tares is the church, not the world. In truth, it is impossible to distinguish between wheat and tares in any fellowship. In every man’s heart resides greed, avarice, and lust; the enemy is rarely external. Solomon noted that the difference between the oppressor and the oppressed is opportunity. “A man must learn to accept the darkness within himself and pray to be able to live as a question in God’s sight: how much more must a Church do likewise!”[5]

On the other hand, Augustine saw the church as the sole, exclusive abode of holiness. There was no salvation outside the institutional manifestation of the “Holy Catholic Church,” and only within the church were the sacraments valid. His was an expanding church, confident of conquering a world which had been promised to it by the prophecies of the Old Testament. It is easier to side with the Donatists in opposition to this view.

The principle reason Tyconius rejected the Catholic church was its readiness to call in the state to persecute fellow Christians when those Christians disagreed with official doctrine and policy. But since the church is, in a real sense, secular, in Augustine’s mind this did not present a conflict. “The true Church was both holy and worldly; in some sense it had also always to suffer persecution from the world. In no way, at any rate, could it be identified with any worldly institution, and conversely, no worldly institutions could ever validly claim to be ‘Christian’ or ‘sacred.’

“In Augustine’s eschatological perspective, the distance between the only true Christian society and any historical society, past, present or future, was infinite. His recasting of the vocabulary of ecclesiology implied that in so far as one could speak of any society possessing any quality of sacredness, one could do so only in virtue of its eschatological orientation. The eschatological orientation required was identity with the City of God; and this was the sole prerogative of the Church. There could be no other ‘Christian society.’ In the final analysis, there are only two ‘cities;’ there is no hierarchy of related societies.”[6] We will look more closely at the City of God in the next issue.


There are two principle reasons why Augustine rather than Tyconius is considered the father of amillennialism: First, Tyconius was a Donatist layman who lacked the stature and prestige of Augustine. Second, Tyconius did not sense the direction amillennialism took in severing its historical roots.

There was a growing tendency in the third century for the church to assimilate Greek thought and culture. This culminated in Origen’s synthesis of Christianity and Hellenism, which had a profound influence on theology and the social and political attitude of Christians. When he broke with millenarian tradition, he also severed the concrete realism of Christian eschatology, substituting in its place cosmological speculations of Greek philosophy.

“The historical facts of Christian revelation consequently tended to lose their unique value and became the symbols of higher immaterial realities – a kind of Christian Mythos… Salvation consists not in the redemption of the body, but in the liberation of the soul from the bondage of matter and its gradual return through the seven planetary heavens to its original home.

“Consequently there is no longer any real unity in the human race, since it consists of a number of individual spirits which have become men, so to speak, accidentally, in consequence of their own faults in a previous state of existence…The traditional conception of the Church as an objective society, the new Israel, and the forerunner of the Kingdom of God fell into the background as compared with a more intellectualist view of the Church as the teacher of an esoteric doctrine of gnosis which leads the human soul from time to eternity.”[7]


The two mother religions of the world are Judaism and Hinduism; all other religions flow from these. Judaism sees history as linear, the material world as important, and the people of God firmly rooted in history. Hinduism sees history as cyclical, the material world as evil, and history as unimportant.

The material re-creation promised in the prophetic portions of the Old Testament were embraced by the Patristics in what was called Chiliasm. As the church matured, it was more widely accepted, developed political ambitions, and in an endeavor to accommodate the prevailing world view, embraced tenants of Greek philosophy, Hindu in origin.

By the third century men like Eusebius, in cutting their tie with chiliasm, found themselves embracing a predominately Gnostic or Hindu world view. The eschatology of Tyconius, in part arrested this drift, but it wasn’t until Augustine that it was checked.


[1] op.cit., Burkitt, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, page 3.

[2] op.cit, Augustine, City of God, Book 20, chapter 7.

[3] op.cit., Bietenhard, The Millennial Hope in the Early Church, pages 12-30.

[4] op.cit., Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, page 419.

[5] Markus, R.A., Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Cambridge at the University Press, 1970, page 124.

[6] ibid, page 125.

[7] op.cit., Dawson, St. Augustine and His Age, pages 49-50.