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Anti-Postmillennialist Makes a Weak Case

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While I was in Moscow, Idaho, over the weekend taping marathon sessions on God and government and eschatology with the folks at Cross Politic, David Engelsma’s name came up in an after-dinner conversation. I can’t remember what triggered the topic, but just a few days before, I had received an invitation to debate Mr. Engelsma on the topic of “Common Grace.” I declined.

I spent five days in the midst of postmillennial thinking among some very talented, dedicated, successful, entrepreneurial, and industrious Christian postmillennialists. They don’t just talk about postmillennialism, they live it every day. It’s become a natural part of their thinking, from churches, campus ministry, Christian school, book and curriculum publishing, entrepreneurship, video and podcast production, college, and a great deal more.

One thing Doug Wilson said caught my attention. We were discussing the French Revolution during a round table discussion and how its advocates changed the calendar to reflect their man-centered, anti-Christian, statist worldview by beginning their revolution with a New Year 1 and a ten-day week. Doug pointed out that secularists have tried to do something similar by no longer using BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini/In the Year of Our Lord) and changing it to BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era). For postmillennialists, BCE means Before Christ’s Empire and CE means Christ’s Empire. This is the natural thinking of a postmillennialist.

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference on postmillennialism in Torrance, California, on the topic, “Evidence that Postmillennialists are Winning the Prophecy Debate.” Ken Gentry also spoke. Kirk Cameron was there at my invitation. He gave a great talk about his prophetic pilgrimage.

While waiting at the airport after the conference to return on the redeye back to Atlanta, I came across the following post on Facebook: “Prof. D. J. Engelsma gives a devastating rebuke to the Postmil notion of ‘Christianizing the world.’” The poster asked for comments. Here was my first comment: “David Engelsma is fixated on the common grace argument. That’s a Christian Reformed Church amillennial problem. Engelsma uses almost no Scripture. His eschatology is closer to dispensationalism.”

I later added this comment:

The Common Grace amils that Engelsma condemns [he is anti-common grace] share his prophetic position: “These common grace Dutch scholars and their North American academic disciples have all been amillennialists. As amillennialists, they believe that Satan’s earthly kingdom and influence will expand over time until Jesus comes with His angels in final judgment.” [1]. This is Engelsma’s position as well.

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Englesma spends more time on the creeds and confessions than he does on Scripture. Instead of offering a detailed counter-exegesis to a preterist interpretation of Matthew 24, he assumes, like dispensationalists, that it is a prophetic description of end-time events: “This interpretation of Matthew 24 is basic to the postmillennial denial of apostasy, Antichrist, and great tribulation for the church in the future,” he writes. “For in the light of this explanation of Matthew 24, the postmillennialist goes through the entire New Testament rigorously applying all prediction of such things to the destruction of Jerusalem.”

When a prophetic passage is about a soon coming judgment, then yes, the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem is in view, and Prof. Engelsma doesn’t give any exegetical evidence to the contrary.

While I am impressed with creeds and confessions of the church, they are not equal to Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 31 says as much:

III. All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

In fact, the WCF was changed on an eschatological issue: the antichrist. The original WCF identified the papacy as the antichrist. Here is the original version from Chapter 25:

  1. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

Here’s the American revised version:

  1. There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.

Prof. Engelsma is fond of quoting confessional statements while giving little regard to biblical exegesis in his article “Jewish Dreams” that appeared in the January 15, 1995 issue of The Standard Bearer. “Jewish Dreams” are dreams without Christ. We have Jesus Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2) who has “all authority … in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:18) who “must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:25).

Yes, Engelsma does reference a few Bible passages, but only as props to support an already accepted confessional statement that he believes excludes postmillennialism from the status of orthodoxy. Proof-texting and confession-citing do not substitute for sound biblical exegesis.

Engelsma calls postmillennialism a “heresy.” Is he willing to include, for example, John Owen, the principal author of the postmillennial Savoy Declaration, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Marcellus Kik, and John Murray as heretics because of their postmillennial beliefs?

Consider A. A. Hodge, son of Princeton professor Charles Hodge, who served as Professor in Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary from 1877 until his death in 1886. Hodge made the case that “the kingdom of God on earth is not confined to the mere ecclesiastical sphere, but aims at absolute universality, and extends its supreme reign over every department of human life.” [2] The implications of such a methodology are obvious: “It follows that it is the duty of every loyal subject to endeavour to bring all human society, social and political, as well as ecclesiastical, into obedience to its law of righteousness.” [3]

In addition, he had no problem in teaching that there are political implications to the preaching and application of the gospel. Consider the following:

It is our duty, as far as lies in our power, immediately to organize human society and all its institutions and organs upon a distinctively Christian basis. Indifference or impartiality here between the law of the kingdom and the law of the world, or of its prince, the devil, is utter treason to the King of Righteousness. The Bible, the great statute‑book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise. The King said, with regard to all descriptions of moral agents in all spheres of activity, “He that is not with me is against me.” If the national life in general is organized upon non‑Christian principles, the churches which are embraced within the universal assimilating power of that nation will not long be able to preserve their integrity. [4]

In addition to a lack of rigorous exegesis and ignoring Reformed stalwarts, he also fails to reference the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Larger and Shorter catechisms and instead quotes Peter Toon’s interpretation of the assembly’s work. Engelsma is selective in the way he presents the confessional statements of the church. He chooses what suits his purpose.

In the Larger Catechism the kingship of Christ is said to be evidenced by Christ’s “overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory” (LC, Q. 45). Thomas Ridgeley (c. 1667–1734), in his massive commentary on the Larger Catechism, published between 1731 and 1733, gives a decidedly post-millennial interpretation of the Assembly’s position:

We freely own, as what we think agreeable to scripture, that as Christ has, in all ages, displayed his glory as King of the Church, so we have ground to conclude, from scripture, that the administration of his government in this world, before his coming to judgment, will be attended with greater magnificence, more visible marks of glory, and various occurrences of providence, which shall tend to the welfare and happiness of his church, in a greater degree than has been beheld or experienced by it, since it was planted by the ministry of the apostles after his ascension into heaven. This we think to be the sense, in general, of those scriptures, both in the Old and New Testament, which speak of the latter-day glory. [5]

The Shorter Catechism is no less postmillennial. “Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” (SC, Q. 26). The evidence of His exaltation is made visible to His Church when He does “gather and defend his church and subdues [her] enemies” (LC, Q. 54).

The Larger Catechism in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer states, “we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, [and] the fullness of the Gentiles brought in . . . and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends” (LC, Q. 191).

None of these examples squares with Engelsma’s notion that “the church in the end-time will be a persecuted church, not a triumphalist church” (173). Paul says that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Just before this verse, Paul tells Timothy:

Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men [see verses 1-7] also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith. But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, just as Jannes’s and Jambres’s folly was also. Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me! (vv. 8-11).

By the way, the answer to LC Question 191 is almost identical to that of The Savoy Declaration (26.5), which Engelsma condemns! It seems, therefore, that the Helvetic Confession is out of step with the other great confessional statements of the Reformed churches.

Prof. Engelsma insists that passages like Matthew 24, 2 Thessalonians 2, and 2 Timothy 3 address conditions near the time when Jesus returns at the end of history. While this view is popular today, especially among dispensationalists, it cannot survive exegetical scrutiny. There is a great deal of biblical and historical evidence to demonstrate that these passages refer to conditions leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

This does not mean that Christians don’t go through periods of tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 20:30; Rom. 2:9; 5:3; 8:35; 2 Cor. 1:4). The apostle John writes, “I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 1:10). This was nearly 2000 years ago!

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Postmillennialists do not do their work in an exegetical vacuum. I devoted hundreds of pages of detailed exegesis to Matthew 24:1–34 in my books Last Days Madness and Wars and Rumors of Wars. More than fifty pages were devoted to 2 Thessalonians 2 in Last Days Madness. I also discussed Titus 2:13 in detail. In each case, I showed that these passages, and many more like them, refer to events of the first century. Moreover, I was able to demonstrate that numerous non-postmillennial Bible commentators agree with me.

Prof. Engelsma claims that the solemn duty of the Protestant Reformed Churches “from the soon-coming Christ [is] to expose the hopes of postmillennialism as ‘Jewish dreams,’” language taken from the amillennial Helvetic Confession of Faith. The “soon-coming Christ”? Prof. Engelsma sounds more like Hal Lindsey, and the late Dave Hunt and Tim LaHaye than a Reformed Christian when he concludes his article with these words.

Be prepared for the Antichrist!
Hope for the second coming of Christ!
Hope only for the second coming of Christ!

So, if a new Hitler rises, “Hope only for the second coming of Christ!” Don’t work to keep him from rising or stop him if he and his minions gain control? Englesma doesn’t seem to understand the biblical definition of antichrist (1 John 2:22; 2 John 7), how there were many of them, they were alive in John’s day, and their existence was evidence that “it was the last hour” (1 John 2:18) for those in John’s day.

Dave Hunt, an anti-Reformed author, wrote How Close Are We: Compelling Evidence for the Soon Return of Christ. The church has been preaching the “soon-return of Christ” for centuries. This doctrine has been the bane of Reformed theology, the benefit of dispensationalism, and the ruin of civilization.

Jesus said that He would return in judgment before the last apostle died (Matt. 16:27–28; cf. John 21:18–23). Jesus promised His disciples that He would return in judgment to destroy the temple before their generation passed away (Matt. 24:2, 34). The Thessalonians knew the identity of the man of lawlessness and the restrainer. “You know what restrains him now … The mystery of lawlessness is already at work,” Paul wrote (2 Thess. 2:6-7). It is evident, therefore, that Paul is describing events that the Thessalonians were familiar with.

Revelation 1:1 states that the events about to be revealed “must shortly take place.” The time is said to be “near” (1:3) for those who first read the book. We are told in the last chapter of Revelation that the described events “must shortly take place” (22:6). Jesus said that He was coming “quickly” (22:7). And to confirm what was said in the first chapter, “the time is near” (22:10). The book of Revelation was written nearly two-thousand years ago. If words mean anything, then the events of Revelation are now history.

Prof. Engelsma can follow the dispensationalists and claim that these time indicators are fluid and do not mean what they seem to mean, or he can deal with them honestly and get back to doing exegetical work and quit relying on the confessions to do his thinking for him.

  1. Gary North, Millenniliasm and Social Theory, 82[]
  2. A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1890] 1990), 283.[]
  3. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283.[]
  4. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283–84.[]
  5. Thomas Ridgeley, Commentary on the Larger Catechism, previously titled A Body of Divinity: Wherein the Doctrines of the Christian Religion are Explained and Defended, Being the Substance of Several Lectures on the Assembly’s Larger Catechism (Edmonton, AB Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, [1855] 1993), 1:562.[]
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