This is part 1 of a 5 part series on “#datpostmil?” View Part 2
A Friendly (and Reluctant) Response to James White (and All My Postmillennial Friends)
Reformed Christians who follow James White have been keeping the media buzzing recently with the news that, as of a couple weeks ago, he embraced Postmillennialism. You can hear his message on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlS4vmHgtWA.
I have been urged to respond to White. I do so in some ways quite reluctantly. James White has been a kind and useful friend to Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary of which I am President. More than that, he has been a highly influential force for the defense and spread of Reformed truth. Times I cannot number I have heard his name mentioned as one of the influences which brought our students to a Reformed way of thinking. I admire his ability to defend our faith in a debate context. Though I sometimes will take such a debate if I think it will serve the interests of truth, I am not a debater. But James White has that gift in great measure. I am thankful for it.
I am reluctant to respond to White on this subject for another reason. I have a number of other esteemed friends in the Reformed Baptist ministry who also embrace postmillennial views. I have no desire to offend or alienate those friends. I hope they do not take these blog posts as either offensive or as a sign of any alienation in my heart from them. They certainly are not so intended and mean no such thing.
Finally, I am reluctant to respond (and emphasize that it is a friendly response) because it seems to me that too many in our camp are ready to anathematize those with whom they disagree on differences that are well within the bounds of both the orthodoxy of the Confession and the Reformed tradition. I think that the postmillennial view of eschatology is within those bounds. You will find no anathemas here. You may find warnings against errors that it could lead to in its ripple effects. You may find warnings against some views often associated with Postmillennialism. But you will not find name-calling or anathemas in these posts.
But, of course, I have chosen to respond. No one is forcing me to do this. It is really a sense of obligation which makes me do so. It is a duty to the truth of God’s Word which (I hope) constrains me to write. It is the errors and ripple-effect dangers associated with postmillennial views that force me to write.
Something else moves me. I hope I have a sense for the dangers of eschatological loose-thinking honed by reading eschatology for many years. I fear that such loose-thinking will derail the progress made over the last several centuries in the church’s understanding of eschatology. Progress should be an idea that is attractive to Postmillennialists. Yes, I have to admit that I view Postmillennialism as loose-thinking.
What is Postmillennialism?
Before we start arguing eschatology, it is important that we state some clear definitions and make some careful distinctions. Let me begin by saying that I follow the common paradigm which distinguishes four major eschatological positions that are within the general bounds of orthodoxy. They are Dispensational Premillennialism, Historic Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism.
Of course, by saying that they are all within the general bounds of orthodoxy, I do not at all mean that they are all equally correct or biblical. I only mean that, in my view, none of these views is per se heretical and outside the bounds of the Christian faith. There are views that are. The Liberal and Hyper-preterist denials of a future Second Coming are outside the bounds of orthodoxy and heretical, but the views I mentioned above are not outside the bounds.
And I must state another clarification, as well. I do not regard all these views as equally within the Reformed confessional tradition or as equally consistent with my own 1689 Baptist Confession. I happily grant confessional status to Postmillennialism and, of course, Amillennialism. Swallowing hard, I even grant it to Historic Premillennialism. I do not, however, regard Dispensationalism as consistent with confessional subscription. Leaving aside its views of prophecy, both its views of the law of God and the church of God contradict the Confession.
But all this brings me to a problem I have pointed out in my books on eschatology. It is a problem that simply has to be considered in the present context. Perhaps I am ill-informed, but the eschatological movement in his thinking to which James White confesses in his sermon is really a movement most recently, I think, from an amillennial view to a postmillennial perspective on eschatology. The problem is that in a certain sense Amillennialism is postmillennial.
What do I mean? Simply this. Both views believe that the visible and bodily return of Christ to the world takes place after the thousand years (or millennium) described in Revelation 20:1-10. Amillennialism is, then, postmillennial in its view of the return of Christ. This being the case—if Postmillennialism and Amillennialism are to be distinguished—another and different distinguishing feature must be found to differentiate them. Without such a clear distinction, the whole discussion will be fruitless. Whether Postmillennialism is the correct eschatological view surely depends on a clear definition of what it is—and especially what it is in contradistinction to Amillennialism.
Postmillennialism … Amillennialism: What Is the Difference?
I have said that any meaningful debate over the biblical merits of Postmillennialism as opposed to Amillennialism must assume a clear distinction between the two systems. I believe one exists. I hope now to make it clear.
But perhaps I must first tell you what it is not. I do not believe that the distinction is merely in one’s level of optimism about the church and its future. Postmillennialists make points by decrying the Pessimillennialists. It is true of Premillennialism, and especially Dispensationalism, that it has been horrendously and destructively pessimistic about the future of the church in this age. I imagine—at least it is my opinion—that there have been some Amillennialists that have also fallen into what may fairly be called Pessimillennialism.
But I think that there are many of us Amils who have not fallen into such a spirit of pessimism about the church. I happily describe myself as an “optimistic Amillennialist.” I am very optimistic about the future of the church. I want to say more about this in a future blog post. I should only add here that I do not think such optimism about the church entails optimism about the world in this age. The Bible teaches that it “lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) during this age.
But optimistic Amillennialism is not the same as Postmillennialism. At least, I have never thought so. Why? Because no clear theological or prophetic distinction between Amillennialism and Postmillennialism can be achieved by a psychological assessment of how optimistic one is!
To get to a sound, theological distinction, let me point out an interesting thing about the term, millennium. This interesting ambiguity in the term may be seen in the Webster’s New World Dictionary. Under the entry on millennium it has three definitions:
1. A period of a thousand years 2. In theology, the period during which Satan will be bound and Christ will reign on earth … Rev, 20:1-5 hence 3. Any period of great happiness, peace, prosperity, etc. imagined golden age.
Do you see the double meaning of millennium? Like many words millennium has both a denotation and a connotation. Its denotation or plain meaning is simply a thousand years and beyond that the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20. Its connotation or “halo meaning” is that it speaks of a great golden age of happiness, peace, and prosperity (and we may add of righteousness).
Why is this important? It is important because Amillennialists are postmillennial with regard to the denotation of millennium, but they are not postmillennial with regard to the connotation of millennium. That is, we amils believe that Christ is coming back after the thousand years. We do not, however, believe that this thousand years is what the millenarians conceive it to be. It is not a great golden age of happiness, peace, prosperity, and righteousness in which such blessedness is the dominant tone of the world and in which evil is subdued under these things.
This brings us to a second and key distinguishing feature of Postmillennialism. This second key and crucial feature of Postmillennialism can be seen in this way. It is most obvious that the last 2000 years have not been such a golden age of righteousness, prosperity, and peace. Oh, of course, there have been great blessings bestowed on the church and even in common grace on the world! Certainly! But just glance at the 20th Century of the Christian era and you will see that it is anything but a golden, millennial age. The names of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot glare at us from the history books. The First World War, the Second World War, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, the rise of secularism, naturalism, and the dominion of evolutionary views in science contradict our millennial hopes. All these things, furthermore, were instrumental in destroying the rosy optimism of the Postmillennialism of an earlier age.
Yes, but the Postmil says, Christ will subdue these things and bring in the golden age before He returns. This is, of course, the postmillennial response to the contradiction of earlier postmillennial hopes. Despite earlier disappointments, a future is coming before the Second Coming of Christ which will bring the golden age long hoped for.
I know that this is the postmillennial reply. To this reply my response is … Exactly! Here we come to the distinguishing feature of Postmillennialism. To maintain its millennial hope for a golden age, of necessity, it must conceive of the gospel age—the period between Christ’s First and Second Advents—as divided into two distinct periods. The first period is the humiliation of the church. The second period is the triumph of the church. There is the time of the persecuted church and the time of the triumphant church. These are successive periods which characterize the gospel age.
Such a distinction has been foundational to the thinking of many Postmillenialists in the past. It is crucial to any clear distinction between Amil and Postmil today! But is it biblical? That is the question to which we must now turn in posts to come.
This is part 1 of a 5 part series.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.