Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Question Of The Power Of The Gospel: An Amillennial Response

Moses Flores comments
| Faith

Recently, an article [1] was released by Lamont English concerning the “power of the Gospel” which turned out to be nothing more than a polemical writing for a postmillennial eschatology. While I commend my fellow brother, Lamont, there are quite a few troubling things in the article that should be addressed from an amillennial perspective.

In particular, I would like to address the rhetorical tactic of the article that may have gone subtly unnoticed, the proof-texts offered and the exclusion of others, as well as the Gospel in itself as distinct from its effects.

While I will be addressing Lamont English in particular, I intend to write in an informative manner for the reading audience. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I hope that I can offer some constructive criticism and correction of several assertions and implications, especially to the charge of all other eschatological positions that are not Lamont’s to be “unbiblical” but especially in defense of Reformed Amillennialism. Even if not persuasive, the truth must at least be seen that the Bible is the material cause for the doctrine of the millennium by other Christians and not the rather serious and slanderous charge of an “unbiblical” source. I hope that brother Lamont will be willing to retract his charge and exhibit more charity toward others who are not like him theologically. 

Defining Terms

For those readers who are unfamiliar with these theological terms, the passage about the millennium in question is from Revelation 20:1-10. The “1000 years” mentioned in this passage and its various interpretations are what give the textual material to the various understandings of the “millennium” in Christian theology.

The term postmillennialism is given to say that Christ returns after the “1000 years.” Postmillennialism is a view of the end of the world that believes that Christianity will become so dominant upon the earth that nations will eventually become Christianized and lead to an unprecedented era of world peace and righteousness before the second coming of Christ. There are variations of this view as some postmillennialists believe that era will simply become the consummate stage while others believe that there will be a loosing of Satan that will bring an intense persecution just before Christ’s return. Most postmillennials tend to read Revelation in a preterist manner, which means they believe that the visions do not describe current or future events but concern the past. In particular, they believe it describes the destruction of the temple in 70 AD or the destruction of the Roman Empire.

Premillennialists believe that Christ will return before the commencement of the “1000 years” of peace on earth. The older form of premillennialism teaches that Christ will return to rule on the earth for a literal 1000 years or some lengthy but definite period of time before bringing the final judgment and consummation of redemptive history. During this period, the nations will be under the rule of Christ. A more popular version of premillennialism, known as Dispensational Premillennialism, teaches that Christians only will be “raptured” out of the world into heaven wherein Christ will return to restore the Jewish people to their earthly kingdom and fulfill promises made to them about the restoration of the Kingdom on earth involving seven years of “great tribulation.”  Dispensationalist read the book of Revelation from a “futurist” perspective which is to say that they believe that the majority of the book describes events that are still yet to take place after the rapture of the church.

The term “amillennial” is rather misleading as the alpha privative “a-” suggests a denial of the millennium altogether. This is not so. Amillennialism understands the number “1000” to be symbolic in apocalyptic genre for a definite but extended period of time. Amillennialist understand the time period described in Revelation 20:1-6 to be concurrent with the entire church age from the first coming of Christ to the second coming of Christ. In this sense, amillennialists prefer the terms “inaugurated millennialism” or “realized millennialism” over “amillennialism” which was given to them by their opponents. Hence, to be clear, a “realized millennialists” believes what the images represent in Revelation 20:1-6—the binding of Satan and the reign of the saints, are already taking place. The images from 20:7-10 remain not yet fulfilled as they are descriptions of what takes place immediately before the return of Christ and the destruction of Satan in the lake of fire. Amillennialists do not all read the book of Revelation the same way as they come in preterist, historicist (as the Reformers were) and idealists variations.

Sly Tactics

The first issue to address is the bait and switch of the article. The article begins with an assertion from Romans that the “Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.”  To this any Christian gives a hearty, “Amen!” But notice that Paul says that it is the power of God “to everyone who believes.” It is the power of God unto salvation for the individual as well as the community of believers. “Believes” is singular-present-active in the Greek. For all the individuals together who believe, the Gospel is the power of God in their lives unto salvation. A hearty “amen” indeed!

The question that is then asked whether the Gospel is powerful enough to counter specific instances of brokenness in the world. Lamont imposes an answer on non-postmillennial Christians: that the Gospel is not powerful enough to turn the tide of the moral decay around us because “that is what is predicted in the Bible.” According to Lamont, “This popular and understandable yet misguided train of thought is due to unbiblical eschatological views such as Historic Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialism, and Amillennialism.” What a complete and willful distortion of these views and especially of Amillennialism! This is a completely unfounded assertion to slyly imply that these do not believe in the power of Gospel to achieve a postmillennial world! I want the reader to be well aware of what they are being asked to acknowledge.

While I am not a Premillennial, I can assure you that many of the faithful brothers and sisters who hold to their view do not at all deny the power of Gospel unto salvation. What is being imposed by Lamont on this text is that if one does not hold to postmillennialism, then they must necessarily deny the power of Gospel. What the discerning reader should see is that what Lamont is really saying is that if you do not believe the power of Gospel is displayed as a particular eschatology, then you must deny what the text says altogether. This amounts to basically saying, “If you don’t understand it the way I do, then you must not really believe in it at all!”  

" Unfortuneately, this article is simply a demonstration of this kind of polemical rhetoric."—@prchdaword

We can come to this conclusion by asking what standard Lamont uses to judge others’ readings of Biblical eschatology as “misguided”. It is clear that he is using his own reading as a standard but without offering an infallible warrant as to why? Anybody can make that assertion. Giving meat to the assertion is what gives is credibility, not merely making it. Unfortunately, this article is simply a demonstration of this kind of polemical rhetoric. It does not offer the standard hermeneutic that judges all others nor the justification for it. With no way to know, Lamont is asking the reader to put their faith in his own words.

But again, examining the text of Romans 1:16-17, is Paul really attempting to say that the Gospel is power of God unto salvation for governments and cultures? Is Paul arguing in Romans 1:16,17—or the entire book of Romans, that the entire world will be Christianized before the consummation? How can he in light of the doctrine of election and predestination in Romans 9-11? Paul clearly says that some will be hardened. In fact, just after this text, Paul will argue that God will give some over to their own hearts and debased minds (Rom. 1:18-32). Does this mean that the Gospel fails? No. Because it is the power of God to those who believe. It accomplishes what God intends in those who are believing. I will grant that cultures can be influenced by Christians, but is that what Paul is concerned with here? A culture doesn’t believe per se. 

“Culture is the shared beliefs and values that drive the behavior of a group of people.”[ii] These beliefs can be implicit or explicit. Cultures are revealed through artifacts like art, tools and writing.  Cultures are social products of people-groups. Culture reveal beliefs through behavior. Can this be changed? Of course! Can it be Christianized? Yes. History has seen it in the Holy Roman Empire and other Christian societies that have existed including those formed after the Protestant Reformation. Isaiah 2:1-4 and 60-66 all speak of a renewed culture that will be present on the entire earth.

The issue regarding eschatological positions is usually the timing of all the eschatological events that the Bible speaks about that must take place. Amillennials and Premillennials do not deny that any event must take place that the Bible prophesies. The issue comes down to when they believe that they do. Lamont attempts to assert that his particular view of the timing of when this will take place is correct without offering exegetical support especially in the light of many different opinions among Christians through the ages. 

The discerning reader should be aware of Lamont’s handling of Romans 1:16 here and what is being read into it.

I used to work at a martial arts school and was trained how to sell programs to parents. One of the tactics that they taught us, which I never felt comfortable with, was to ask a series of questions to the parents of things that they wanted for their children like self-confidence and character development. You would run them through a series of questions to which they would obviously say, “yes” to and then make a jump to why they should, therefore, sign up for the program. The trick was basically to ask questions in such a way that they did not want to say “no,” so that they could not have a logical reason to say no to signing up for the program. The rhetoric used in much postmillennial rhetoric is the same bait and switch tactic. If I can ask questions in certain ways caricaturing other positions, then no one should logically have a problem with what I want them to believe. That is precisely the rhetorical tactic that is being used here.

“Do you believe the gospel fails?” To which any Christian would say, “well, no. Of course, not!” “Ok, so why aren’t you a postmillennialist then?” Do you see the tactic? It is disingenuous.

Lamont further maliciously paints with a broad brush to demonize other views and exalt his own with his rhetoric asking if the Bible speaks of “a humiliating defeat of the Gospel before the Eschaton…” Obviously not. The Gospel has already happened. Christ has already achieved full and perfect atonement for His elect. All His elect will be infallibly called, justified and glorified as Romans 8:29-30 teaches. Hence, the Gospel has, will, and does achieve the salvation of the elect unto salvation. The question to ask is whether the Bible teaches that God’s elect are to be so numerous at a particular point or era in history before the Second Coming that a complete Christianization of the world happens? Different Christians disagree for different reasons. Issues of Calvinism and Arminianism vary one’s answer  here more than eschatology does. In answer to this question, no scriptural support has been provided.

Selective Texts

It is easy to paint what picture we want from the Bible. Many theologians and scholars have come to see the problems with using selective verses to construct doctrinal positions.[iii] The most obvious one is interpretation of those texts in question. Lamont has thrown out many texts without offering interpretation. The problem with this is that Lamont is basically asking the reader to assume a particular eschatology first and then come to a conclusion on the text. He is asking that one reads in an eschatology prior to any exegetical work[iv]. This is not good exegesis but a prime example of eisegesis. This is not a charge to be taken lightly and I say it with fear and trembling.

Consider Psalm 2. In the Old Testament, this was a coronation Psalm possibly sung when a king of Israel was installed on the throne. The Psalm alludes to 2 Samuel 7 and the Davidic covenant in which David’s heir was to be a “son” to God and sit on the throne of Israel in an eternal dynasty. The destruction of the kingdom and exile transformed the understanding and application of the Psalm. We know from the New Testament’s application of this text that it is a messianic psalm about Christ. In Acts 4:25-26, the Christians use the psalm in prayer and understood that the “nations raging” was seen in the life of Christ as Herod and Pontius Pilate persecuted Christ. So far, so good for the postmillennialist. 

However, consider how the early church saw themselves in their prayer, and in that context that now it was the Jews who were gathering against the church and “raging” against it. In Acts 4:29, the church prays that God would continue to see the current expression of the nations raging coming from the Jews as they persecuted the church. The Jews had become identified with “the nations” and “the peoples” who were plotting to destroy Christ by destroying his Church. The Church, being mystically united to Christ, is now being persecuted  as the Lord’s anointed on earth. This is now the understanding that the church had of the application of Psalm 2. Hence, they prayed for boldness to proclaim the gospel, not for relief. They understood that suffering through persecution would come upon them. The understood the vanity of their “ragings.” Psalm 2:1-2 demonstrates the futility of the persecution of the nations upon, not only Christ, but upon the church because in the end, they are only doing what God had predestined them to do (Acts 4:28). We must consider from the Psalm itself and its application in Acts 2, that the persecution of God’s anointed is part of God’s plan to gather the nations to be judged. But God is not thwarted. The Gospel does not fail even in the light of predestined suffering and persecution. All God’s enemies will be destroyed and his anointed One and ones will be exalted.

Interestingly enough, the international conspiracy laid out in Psalm 2:1-2 can be seen as alluded to in Revelation 20:7-10 (cf. Rev. 16:14) when the nations “gather” around the camp of God’s people to destroy them. Instead, they are destroyed and the futility of their counsel is seen as Christ returns to destroy them and rule with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:9 cf. Rev. 19:15). The postmillennialist is quick to assert the rule of the nations but dismiss the plotting of those same nations against God and his people as the early church understood. 

I could go on to exegete how the other Old Testament passages were understood by the New Testament authors, but for the sake of space I will only say that simply asserting passages is not exegeting them. This is especially true of the parables about the Kingdom of God in Matthew 13. 

Disturbingly, Lamont equivocates the world with the church at one point in his overzealous reach to promote postmillennialism.  He offers Matthew 16:17-18 a demonstration that the ship isn’t going to sink. However, the context of the promise is for the church and not the world. For Lamont’s question to be answered negatively, the reader must implicitly equivocate the church and the world as one and the same.  

The effects of the Gospel are NOT the Gospel

Lastly, I would like to conclude by pointing out a categorical error that many postmillennialists make and that is the confusion of the Gospel itself and the effects of the Gospel. According the New Testament, the Gospel is a proclamation of the work of Jesus Christ performed in His life, death, resurrection and ascension. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 points to the historical acts that comprise the Gospel proper. The problem is confusing what the Gospel is with what the Gospel does. This is like confusing justificaiton with sanctification. 

When Lamont asks if the Gospel suffers defeat, clearly it cannot. It is already accomplished! That is why it is “Gospel”—an announcement of good news! Simply asking the question in the manner Lamont does already redefines the Gospel to mean the effects of the Gospel. This is not to the deny the effects that the Gospel brings. Certainly the Gospel has the power to end oppression of the poor, to end racism and all Christians—premillennial, amillennial and postmillennial, believe that all these things will end. All Christians believe that God has destined the world to be rid of sin, to be rid of death and hostility. But to demand a particular timing for it is NOT the Gospel proclamation itself. 

Again, for Lamont’s questions to be answered in a postmillennial manner as he asks them, he would have us implicitly turn the Gospel—the substitutionary and completed work of Christ, into a particular Kingdom agenda that Christians must work to bring about. It is to turn the good news of a finished and completed work of a Kingdom we receive, into news about a Kingdom we must work to bring about. 

Concluding remarks

I hope that my words have not been harsh toward my brother. I know Lamont endeavors very much to bring about racial reconciliation in the world and in the church. Along those lines I would plead with my brother that he not be a “spiritual racist” and look down upon those whom Christ died for as “unbiblical” and “misguided” simply because they do not share his eschatology. This would be most grievous as it is the same logic that drives racism and is from the same spirit. I would plead for a more respectful tone and for more exegetical interaction rather than assertions from texts without demonstration of the meaning suggested. I have offered a particular take on Psalm 2 and its use by the New Testament that would seem to contradict the Postmillennial understanding of it. Is the New Testament’s use right or is the Postmillennialist view? If I have erred in my understanding, I hope that exegetical demonstration can be made rather than simply saying, “your hermeneutic is misguided.” 

I would like to conclude with some quotes from Amillennials concerning culture and history to the consummation. Is it really as bleak as Lamont portrays?  According to Anthony Hoekema, “the Kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and new earth.”[v] Hoekema says that the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God means that all areas of life should reflect the presence of the Kingdom including having a “philosophy of culture.”[vi]  However, the presence of the Kingdom also brings the presence of the judgment of the new King upon those who will not bow to King Jesus.  These will continue to exist alongside the inaugurated form of the Kingdom until Christ returns.  Hence, for realized millennialist, there is an “optimism about the success of the Gospel throughout the world, while expecting this triumph to proceed through an era marked by common ills (natural disasters, wars, injustice) and the persecution of the church from without and the continuing struggle with sin, false teaching, and schism from within.”[vii] In Horton’s view, he is optimistic about the spread of the gospel (probably due to his Calvinism[viii]) while pessimistic about the culture around which is probably due to his Two-Kingdoms approach to culture[ix]. Then you get other amillennialist like Tim Keller who do not hold to Two-Kingdom but have a more transformational model when it comes to the Gospel and culture.  My point here is that Amillennials hold a variety of stances when it comes to the Gospel and culture as Michael Allen points out in his book Reformed Theology.[x] Hence, it would be best not to lump all amillennials together is my plea with my brother, Lamont. 

 

[1] “Is the Gospel Truly Powerful?” by Lamont English ( https://newcitytimes.com/news/story/is-the-gospel-truly-powerful ).

[ii] Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck, Designed to Lead: The Church and Leadership Development, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Co., 2016), 15.

[iii] For example, see “The Problem with Proof-Texting” by Michael Patton (http://credohouse.org/blog/the-problem-with-proof-texting ) .

[iv] I understand that with a hermeneutical spiral, one always has presuppositions with which they come to any text. Nonetheless, in the hermeneutical spiral, it is through exegesis that one’s approach to a text is affected.

[v] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, (Grand Rapids, W. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 45. 

[vi] Ibid., 54.

[vii] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing Co., 2011), 428.

[viii] Not all amillennials are Reformed in their soteriology.

[ix] Not all amillennials are Two-Kingdoms in their cultural models.

[x] See Center Church by Timothy J. Keller (2012, Zondervan Publishing Co.) 228. 

 

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Moses Flores

A PCA guy who loves the Bible and theology