Millennium as Motive for Mission

social gospelI’m midway through a massive chapter (80 pages) in Transforming Mission called “Mission in the Wake of the Enlightenment.” In it Bosch is exploring and mapping the broad contours of mission from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. This is a complex time period with a multitude of motives (reasons for mission) and motifs (dominant missionary themes). It is an impressive chapter. I really love how Bosch is tracing paradigms that are operating behind the events and not simply recounting history. To me this is a more beneficial take on church history than something like Miller’s Church History. In this post I want to look at how the Enlightenment paradigm shaped the divergent views on the millennium (Rev. 20).

Millennium and Mission

From the beginning there was an intimate correlation between mission and millennial expectations.

–David J Bosch, p. 314

The Puritans came to North America (~1630) with millennial expectations. They viewed themselves in the third epoch of Calvin’s threefold scheme of church history and came to plant a garden in the wilderness, from which the millennium would grow naturally to the ends of the earth.

Millennial hopes in America were further shaped by the theology of Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening (~1730-1740). His eschatology was postmillennial. After Edwards, in the nineteenth century, fostered by the optimistic national mood, postmillennialism continued to dominate. People felt that the millennium was close to dawning and that it wouldn’t erupt on the scene in apocalyptic terror, but unfold organically and naturally due to technological and social advances. This also was an extension of the Puritans’ vision. War, famine, oppression, slavery, etc. would gradually disappear. This “‘horizontalist’ interpretation of the dawning millennium was paving the way for an increasingly secularized understanding of God’s reign” (Bosch, p. 282).

By 1830 the effects of the Second Great Awakening (~1790-1825) were fading. The Civil War broke out in 1861 and destroyed the evangelical unity in America that the Awakenings had created. Even though slavery was abolished, the war left many problems unsolved. Most importantly, the golden age that postmillennialists anticipated was not inaugurated and now seemed further away than ever. This tattered optimism gave way to a new despondency in some religious circles.

The broad river of classical evangelicalism divided into a delta, with shallower streams emphasizing ecumenism and social renewal on the left and confessional orthodoxy and evangelism on the right.

–Richard F. Lovelace

Fundamentalism and Social Gospel

The difference between the secular and the religious had been gradually widening since the mid 1700s. Historically, there had been an implicit accord in missionary activity between “service to souls” and “service to the body” that was reflected in the synthesis of church and state, mission and colonialism, conversion and development. The Pietist missionaries maintained this heritage in the early 1700s. However, as the Enlightenment paradigm continued to erode the church’s authority and sway over society, this union dissolved and the spiritual welfare of people became the missionaries sole concern. The sacred and the profane were cleft and polarized.

By the twentieth century, “service to souls” had developed into Fundamentalism and “service to the body” had developed into the Social Gospel. Behind the two movements lay two different eschatologies.

Progress, technological advance, and materialism were canonized by the Social Gospel as the harbingers of the already dawning millennium, after which Christ would return. Theologians aligned with postmillennialism abandoned the supernatural trappings of the advent of Christ’s earthly reign, while premillennialists retained them.

The Civil War, however, in principle destroyed the belief that one could be both and evangelist and an abolitionist, both postmillennialist and upholder of the belief in a supernatural kingdom of God, and define sin as both public (or structural) and private (or individual). The Enlightenment had caught up with the North American churches. Having originated in Puritanism and having come to full bloom in postmillennial evangelicalism, North American Protestantism split. The one wing opted for premillennialism, which developed into fundamentalism; it had learnt to tolerate corruption and injustice, to expect and even welcome them as signs of Christ’s imminent return. The other wing formally remained postmillennial, but their millennium gradually became almost completely this-worldly; it consisted to a large extent, in an uncritical affirmation of American values and blessings, and the conviction that these had to be exported to and shared with people worldwide.

–David J Bosch, p. 284

All this to say that it’s amazing to me that a doctrine that is technically “non-essential”, i.e. not an item of the faith, one that we Christians can have different opinions on and still maintain our oneness, is extremely potent and important because of its implications. Different views on the millennium reflect different paradigms. If we want to understand each other, we have to dig deeper than our exegesis until we hit the underlying bedrock of our paradigm.

7 thoughts on “Millennium as Motive for Mission

  1. That’s really cool. As I was reading your description of the post-millennial view, it seemed to fit well with a modern world view, as in technology and progress will solve the world’s problems. It seems like that view might hold less credibility in a post-modern worldview. If one is more disenchanted with the idea that the forward march of technology and progress will solve humanity’s problems, a premillennial view might seem more appealing. Then again, another component of the post-modern worldview is that truth is relative and not absolute. That might make a premillennial view less appealing.

    Don’t know which would line up more with the post-modern mind, but your post does a good job of illustrating how the view of the millennium has been shaped by the cultural outlook in the past and how it has affected the paradigm of the church.


    • Great points. Yes, postmillennialism accommodates the modern paradigm of progress. What’s interesting is that although WW2 was the final blow for the postmillennial doctrinal scheme, the social dimension survived and in a sense reinvented itself under the guise of the emerging church, which is thoroughly postmodern. Somehow the pendulum swung. So while the doctrinal view of the millennium is mostly obsolete, the ethos is alive and well. So postmillennialism used to explicitly align with modernism, but now it implicitly aligns with postmodernism.

      Fundamentalism is a response to the modern paradigm but combats it in the same paradigm. So in the modernist controversies of the early 1900s in America- miracles, evolution, higher criticism, etc. – Fundamentalism entrenched itself in doctrinal fidelity through logic, evidence, proof, rationality. It fought fire with fire. Think of the late 19th century Princeton theologians or eventually Josh McDowell- Evidence that Demands a Verdict. This kind of propositional rigor and certainty is definitely manifested in the New Calvinism. They are fighting postmodernism with modernism in a sense. Someone wrote somewhere that maybe they are popular because of the certainty they offer to people who are sinking in their postmodern ambiguity. However, most Calvinists seem to be amillennialists. But I think that their views on the millennium are shaped more by their hermeneutic and their view of the covenants and the true Israel than it is by postmodernism or modernism.

      Hope you can make sense of this!


      • I’m trying. And for anyone else following along, this little diagram helps me:

        Okay, help me clarify a point: In a decidedly post-modern emerging church, how can one even expect a post-millenium (is that a word?) to occur? Seems like a mighty big disconnect. But then again, maybe the ambiguity of postmodernism gives someone the flexibility to say, “Hey, maybe the millennium has already begun! How do you know it hasn’t?”. I don’t understand get it. I guess the question I’m asking is how did post-millennialism reinvent itself to appeal to post-modernists?


        • Those are the classic illustrations. There is also a good/short summary with illustrations in the ESV Study Bible in the intro to Revelation. Also, in Grudem’s Systematic Theology ch 55.

          The way I understand it is that the postmillennium view- that Christ will return after one last golden age in human history that is inaugurated through the advances of knowledge, science, technology, democracy- is not that widely accepted anymore. Correct me if I’m wrong anybody. WW2 and the 1960s shattered the modern paradigm and postmodernism really set in. Going into WW1 America was in the modern paradigm. Going into Vietnam America was in the postmodern paradigm. Think about the differences in outlook.

          It would be interesting to actually ask someone in the emerging church movement what their view of the millennium is. Regardless of what their doctrinal view is though, they are operating in the postmodern paradigm. And what I’ve noticed with them is what Lovelace calls the “rivulets of the left.” They seem more concerned with the journey, questioning assumptions, narratives, social issues, even ecumenism. These are all by-products of postmodernism.


          • I see what you’re saying about the change in outlook between WW1 America and Nam America. I agree that the postmillennial view is not that widely accepted anymore. Plus, Scofield’s Bible did a good job of popularizing the dispensational premillennialist view at least in America. Like your Bosch quote from above illustrates, post-millennialism has morphed into this weird other thing. Exporting American values kind of a thing. I don’t know. I think the two main views today are really premillennialism and amillennialism (of which there are many adherents b/c of reformed [Reformed?] theology.)

            On your other topic on the emergent churches view of the millennium, this may be helpful (or not): The Christianity community on Reddit recently did a Theology series on different topics. One was the millennium. It was in the Ask Me Anything (AMA) format. Don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but basically someone gives a little introduction and then people start asking questions and voting on the best questions. Then the original poster tries to answer the highest ranked questions. Here’s the link:


            Maybe too much info, but it’s neat to see some of the discussions and common questions. Specifically about the emergent church movements view of the millennium, we could always post our own question! I’m sure someone will try to answer it.


          • Actually, I would suspect that the emerging church movement would also be amillennialist based on a response to a question from that Theology AMA series.

            Regards0 asks: if we’re living during the 1,000 years right now, then how is it we seem to be deteriorating and a globe culturally, morally, economically etc etc. It feels like the world is getting a lot worse before it’s getting better.

            Craigellachie responds: We aren’t getting worse. The media makes it feel that way. For instance just in the USA

            Then he gives a bunch of links to back that up like Lowest violent crime ever, Highest life expectancy ever, Infant mortality is also at an all time low, etc.

            and continues: The world on the whole is pretty much the best it’s ever been and it keeps getting better. Now it isn’t all roses and some things like the environment have been royally screwed but it’s sort of funny that the same people decrying the non-existent social decline are the same ones responsible for much of the real environmental damage we do.
            Another great thing about today’s world is that it has never been easier and it has never been more effective to give to charity. There exist more options than ever before to help those in need be it micro-finance or mosquito nets or any of the hundreds of thousands of successful charities that exist. The world is an awesome place, have faith in it and contribute.

            Sounds like that would fit perfectly with the post-modern emergent church.


  2. Pingback: Postmodern, Open-minded Churches | life and building

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