Saturday, June 06, 2009

Covenant Theology and Historic Pre-Millennialism

I've been reading through Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (eds.), A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to the "Left Behind" Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 200). The best article, I think, is the one by Sung Wook Chung on "Toward the Reformed and Covenantal Theology of Premillennialism". When I first saw the title I thought of an infamous sermon by John Macarthur that people who are Reformed must be dispensational premillennial. Sadly, that was about as convincing as saying that reggae music should be the official sound of the Klu Klux Klan. Since Reformed folks tend to be either amillennial or postmillennial, I was intrigued as to whether Chung could present a good case for a Reformed and covenantal premillennialism; in short, I think he does!

Chung affirms his covenantal approach in seeing a unity in the covenant of grace from Gen. 3.15 to Rev. 22.21, but points out a few problems with standard covenant theology. First, there is an overemphasis on the soteriological dimensions of the covenant of grace which has neglected the kingdom dimension of God's work in history. Second, Reformed theology tends to spiritualize key passages of the Bible which command a more literal interpretation, e.g. Rev. 20.1-6. Third, by overly focusing on the covenant of works in Gen. 2.15-17, Reformed theologians have not correctly understood the significance of Gen. 1.26-27 for the reality of God's rule. Generally, I think this is correct. The dichotomy between emphases on Redemption (in Reformed theology) and Kingdom (in Dispensational theology) could said to be a false one since covenant and kingdom are correlative concepts. That is not to say that Reformed and Dispensational theologies are remotely reconciliable, they are not, but covenant theology does not have to dispense with the theocentric aspects of God's rule in its understanding of the application of the redemptive story.

Chung offers an "alternative" covenantal reading of Genesis 1-2. For him, Gen. 1.26-27 stands as the archetype of the covenants of promise/blessing found in the later OT. Gen. 1.26-28 is no simple "cultural mandate," but shows that God intends to establish his rule on earth through his vice-regents. Gen. 2.16-17 shows the conditional nature of God's covenant with his people where Adam plays the role of priest who must demonstrate fidelity and loyalty to the King as representative of his progeny. Gen. 2.16-17 is the constitution for the kingdom in Eden. Thus, the character of the dominion of God in Eden was that God wanted Adam to have a priestly and kingly role. Adam was blessed and commissioned by God to rule over the whole creation as king and to worship God. In the Fall the execution of that task was lost and it would be recovered by the seed of Gen. 3.15 who will bring restoration to the dominion of God to a new edenic garden.

Chung sees here two covenants in the Garden of Eden, one unconditional and another conditional, but both are geared towards establishing the Adamic kingdom over the entire creation. It was God's original purpose and plan that humanity might exercise dominion over the entire creation, not just spiritually, but physically as well. As God's image, Jesus Christ represents God's authority, dominion, reign, and glory. He also represents humanity before God as well. Jesus fulfills the roles first given to Adam by exercising dominion over creation (Gen. 1.26-28) and by exercising love and obedience to God (Gen. 2.16-17). Jesus succeeds, then, in reestablishing the kingdom of God among humankind. On the Abrahamic covenant, this also had a physical orientation (land, descendents etc) and Chung contends that those who interpret the promises spiritually do so on account of their "unwitting gnostic tendencies" (oooh aaaah!).

Chung does not avoid the white Elephant in the room - why does Jesus Christ have to reign with all believers alive at the parousia for a thousand years? Why is the millennium even necessary? For Chung, in the millennial kingdom, Jesus fulfils the priestly and regal dimensions of the first Adam's kingdom. Interestingly enough, Rev. 20.6 demonstrates that those who will reign in the millennial kingdom will be both kings and priests. The millennial kingdom on earth will be a restoration and fulfilment of the Edenic kingdom on earth. In this sense, the premillennial kingdom is the penultimate realization of the kingdom promise/blessing in the context of the current world, whereas the new Jerusalem in the new heavens and earth is the ultimate realization of the kingdom promise/blessing in the context of the eternally transformed cosmos.

I find Chung's thesis attractive (all the more so because the historical premillennial view seems to square with Rev. 20.1-6 and second century interpretations of Revelation by Papias, Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian were millennial). Still, I don't know whether historical premillennialism will displace amillenialism as the default position among reformed theologians. Some would obviously contest his interpretation of Genesis 1-2. Furthermore, Greg Beale's "inaugurated millennialism" in his Revelation commentary and Kim Riddlebar's A Case for Amillennialism, continue to make the amill view a very attractive option for many.

10 comments:

Mike Koke said...

Hey Michael, I have actually been doing a series on evaluating Dispensationalism and just posted on eschatology/millennium. I critiqued some dispensationalist distinctives but in the end felt that premillennialism just made better sense out of Rev 20:1-6. I wonder if you would be interested in taking a look: www.thegoldenrule1.wordpress.com

Steven Coxhead said...

I believe the key to this issue is Paul's timeline of events in 1 Cor 15:20-28. According to Paul, Christ will rise first, then at his coming all who belong to him (v. 23), then there will be the time of the end when the kingdom is given over to the Father (v. 24). The question is: in Paul's thinking does the eita of the time of the end immediately follow the resurrection of believers, or can we fit 1,000 years in somehow between vv. 23-24? The problem with trying to fit 1,000 years in there is that Paul says that the end will only take place after Christ's work of defeating the enemies of God has been accomplished (v. 24), the last enemy being death (v. 26). If the last enemy is death, it makes sense to understand the resurrection of believers as being a consequential benefit of the defeat of death. The fact that Paul alludes to Ps 110:1 in v. 25, and that the early church saw Jesus' ascension into heaven as being the fulfillment of this (Acts 2:33-35), also suggests that Paul understood the current period of human history as being the Messianic age during which the rule of Messiah is being extended over the nations (in fulfillment of Ps 2), through the preaching of the gospel. If this is Paul's timeline, I would argue that the principle of the analogy of Scripture should lead us to interpret the more difficult passages of the book of Revelation in a manner consistent with the "clearer" eschatology of Paul. In this way, it makes sense that the time of the binding of Satan in Rev 20:1-3 equates with the time of the gospel going out into the nations--as a direct consequence of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, Satan has lost his deceptive hold over the nations--and, therefore, that the millennium equates to the period of time when the Messiah is ruling at the right hand of God. This isn't spiritualising things away in my opinion, because even though the Messiah is currently in heaven, his rule is being extended over the earth.

Steven Coxhead said...

Just to add further, the rule of Messiah being extended over the earth is in fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. In this way, amillennialism, understood correctly, need not be viewed as suffering from gnostic tendencies. The earth hasn't been "left behind," but there is an acknowledgement that the throne of Messiah is currently located in heaven before it descends to earth.

Michael F. Bird said...

Steven,
I think in principle what you say is fine. The problem is, which is the clearer passage for developing a chronological account of the end: 1 Cor 15.23-24 or Rev. 20.1-6. You could say that Rev. 20.1-6 is the clearer passage and we should take 1 Cor. 15.23-24 in light of it rather than vice-versa. I find the amill option attractive for its simplicity and the fact that you could the messianic era as the millennium in the present. Even so, it creates a problem in the reading of Rev. 20.1-6 (I don't think the first resurrecgtion is spiritual) and the millennial view seems also to have been the earlist.

Edward Pothier said...

"(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 200)"

With tongue-in-cheek I suggest that the above bibliographic info for the Bloomberg/Chung book on Historic Premillennialism has an amusing typo (or HP is older than usually believed).

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Mike. I agree with you about the difficulties in relation to this issue. Still, I would argue that Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 15 is didactic, whereas everyone acknowledges there are metaphorical and symbolic elements in the book of Revelation. In situations like this the clearly didactic should be our guide. I also note that believers have been raised up with Christ and seated in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6). Being in Christ, that's not totally metaphorical, but we can't say that it's literal in terms of our current physical experience. Could that be the first resurrection of Rev 20:4? It's difficult, I know, but does Rev 20:6 only apply to Christian martyrs? I might not die a martyr's death, but I still hope that the second death will have no power over me. Do the truths of Rev 20:4-6 not apply to me in Christ now, even though I still have my head (at least for now)?

Sean LeRoy said...

The best line evah..."unwitting gnostic tendencies"...LOL. Luv it!

Open Air Campaigners said...

Historic Premillennialism makes the most sense as I do think it comports most naturally with Scripture. I think there is too much speculation about the meaning of key eschatological passages of Scripture in the Amillennial position. The fulfilling of God's mandate for man to reign (Genesis 1:28) makes most sense to me as being fulfilled in man ruling with Christ (the second Adam) for 1000 years whether the 1000 years is figurative or literal.

scott said...

What stance does the author of " A Case for Historic Premillennialism" take concerning Daniel's 70th week?

Don C. said...

scott said...What stance does the author of " A Case for Historic Premillennialism" take concerning Daniel's 70th week?


The book is a collection of essays written in defense of historic pre-millennialism. My one disappointment in an otherwise excellent book was that there was no essay dedicated to the topic of The 70th Week. The essay titled 'Judaism And The World To Come' touches on it. But not with the level of detail I would have wished.