I’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.
- Postmillennialism (jonahmb.wordpress.com)
- The Transition from Postmillennialism to Premillennialism (lifespringschool.org)
- Deut. 15; Psalm 102; Isaiah 42; Revelation 12 (thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/loveofgod)
- The Hope of Christ’s Return (lifeandbuilding.com)
- Seven Unsolvable Problems | Psalm 72 (lifeandbuilding.com)