He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Poythress on II Thess 1....and the error of Postmillennialism

Vern Poythress comments upon eschatological matters relating to 2 Thessalonians 1:

...Postmillennialism says that, through the gospel, allegiance to Christ and Christian obedience will gradually spread through the world until the great majority of people are Christians. Societies and their institutions will be progressively conformed to the will of God, and an era of great peace and prosperity will ensue before the Second Coming.

In my opinion, it is possible that this sort of thing might happen. In fact, because I am awed by the power of God for salvation in the gospel (Rom 1:16), I am optimistic about the future. Christ may return very soon, but if he does not return in the next hundred years, we may see a great harvest for the gospel. Some other amillennialists display the same optimism.17

What, then, is the difference between this sort of "optimistic amillennialism" and a full-blown postmillennialism? Is there any significant difference at all?

2 Thessalonians 1 helps to indicate one difference that remains. 2 Thessalonians 1, I claim, asks us to focus our hopes on the Second Coming of Christ, not on a hypothetical millennial prosperity taking place before the Second Coming. The rest of the New Testament has a similar focus. Thus, in my mind, the main issue separating contemporary amillennialists and postmillennialists is not the issue of mere possibility, that is, the issue of what might possibly happen if Christ's return is still some decades away. Rather, the issue is whether biblical promise and prophecy invite Christians to focus hopes on such a millennial possibility. Is such a prosperity the main focus of prophetic expectation, and is it a certainty guaranteed by prophecy? Postmillennialists say yes, and on that basis they expect confidently that the Second Coming is still quite a long way off. Hence they find it theologically inappropriate and psychologically impossible to focus their most urgent, immediate hope and expectation primarily on the Second Coming....

...2 Thessalonians 1 is in tension with postmillennialism, insofar as postmillennialism wants to focus hopes on a coming millennial prosperity. The text of verses 5-7 indicates that Christians may continue to expect trouble for awhile. They are to anticipate relief from the Second Coming, not merely from a coming time of millennial prosperity, as postmillennialists would have it.

(To be sure, persecutions come and go, as can be seen in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel as well as in the Book of Acts. Christians may sometimes have a measure of "relief" when persecution subsides or when persecution takes more "civilized" forms like ridicule. But the focus for our hope, according to 2 Thessalonians 1, is on the Second Coming. Whether the troubles vary in form or whether Christians may at times expect to be in a numerical majority is from a theological point of view a matter of merely secondary interest.)

Some postmillennialists have endeavored to escape the implications of 2 Thessalonians 1 by postulating that 2 Thessalonians is actually describing the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. rather than the Second Coming.19 According to David Chilton and some other contemporary postmillennialists, not only 2 Thessalonians but most of the other NT passages that have traditionally been understood as describing the Second Coming are in fact describing the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The language is figurative rather than literal. Chilton applies a similar procedure to 1 Thess 5:1-9.20 But he believes that 1 Thess 4:13-18 and 1 Cor 15:51-58 are about the Second Coming.21

We cannot enter into all the details of Chilton's system at this point. But we claim that this kind of approach cannot reasonably be sustained in dealing with the Thessalonian letters. 1 Thess 4:13-18 is about the Second Coming. 1 Thess 5:1-10, which is right next door to 1 Thess 4:13-18, must also be about the Second Coming. Hence, 2 Thessalonians 1, which builds on 1 Thessalonians, is also about the Second Coming. Nothing in either letter has any real tendency to point in a direction different from this understanding.

Chilton and others like him can find what they want in the Thessalonian letters only because they first read in what they afterwards read out. But their interpretations disintegrate once we try steadfastly to put ourselves in the shoes of the Thessalonian Christians. Paul only stayed in Thessalonica for a few weeks (Acts 17:1-10). Moreover, even though Paul had talked to them about the Second Coming (2 Thess 2:5), the letters show that the Thessalonian Christians were confused. They did not completely grasp even relatively basic matters of eschatology. The Thessalonians did not already have a mastery of some esoteric eschatological system.

Now Paul understood the situation of the Thessalonians and their capabilities. Paul would not have used language in such way that the Thessalonians would almost surely misunderstand.

Once we understand the level on which Paul must communicate to them, it follows that 1 Thess 4:13-18 is about the Second Coming. The transition in 5:1 is not violent. Hence, The Thessalonians will understand the "times and dates" of 5:1 as the times and dates regarding the events associated with the Second Coming. Hence 5:1-10 is about the Second Coming.22

Next, 1 Thessalonians in the main background for 2 Thessalonians. In view of the sustained concern for the Second Coming in 1 Thessalonians, the Thessalonian Christians are bound to understand 2 Thessalonians 1 as a continuation of the same topic. The question is not whether one can invent an interpretive scheme, such as Chilton's, capable of interpreting the whole passage figuratively. The question is whether the Thessalonians have any significant clues that would lead them to turn away from what from their point of view is the most obvious meaning.

In short, there is no escaping the fact that from the standpoint of the Thessalonian Christians 2 Thessalonians 1 is "obviously" about the Second Coming. Paul knew the capabilities of the Thessalonians and did not intend to confuse them. Hence, Paul was actually talking about the Second Coming.

Chilton (p. 120) has one further argument:

Clearly, Paul is not talking about Christ's final coming at the end of the world, for the coming "tribulation" and "vengeance" were specifically aimed at those who were persecuting the Thessalonian Christians of the first generation. The coming day of judgment was not something thousands of years away.

Chilton, from his "secure" vantage point centuries later, knows that the Second Coming was thousands of years away. Hence, Paul could not be referring to the Second Coming. But unfortunately for Chilton's interpretation, neither Paul nor the Thessalonians had the same knowledge that Chilton now has. Neither Paul nor the Thessalonians knew how far away the Second Coming might be. For all they knew, they might be alive when the Lord returned (1 Thess 4:15, 18; 1 Cor 15:51). Hence, it is perfectly appropriate for them to look forward to the Second Coming as the time of vengeance and vindication. Chilton's interpretation works only by projecting his later standpoint onto the Thessalonians. It is quite evident from the nature of Chilton's argument that he has not put himself in the shoes of the Thessalonians; he has not engaged seriously in grammatical-historical exegesis.

Moreover, from the point of view of first century Christians, regardless of whether we wait a short time or a longer time for Christ's Second Coming, the fundamental judgment takes place at the Second Coming, not merely at death or through some earlier historical calamity or blessing. Hence the principle that Paul expresses in 2 Thessalonians 1 is valid not only for the Thessalonians of the first century but for all Christians who are undergoing persecution.

...Curiously, a dispensationalist like Walvoord (Rapture Question, 235-245) and a postmillennialist like Chilton show similarities here. Both appeal to the fact that the Second Coming did not take place in the first century, in order to invalidate the reference of 1:7-10 to the Second Coming. Both interpret 2 Thessalonians 1 within a complex, fully articulated eschatological position, with little regard for the question of whether the Thessalonian readers were as sophisticated as they.

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