The Orthodoxy of Postmillennialism

Ryan M. at The Two Cities, after reading a comment of mine, has written a second part to his essay on Amillennialism and the Two Kingdoms doctrine. In this second post he disputes my claim that Amillennial and Postmillennial views are part of one continuum. Less cautious than Richard Gaffin, whom he quotes in critique of Postmillennialism, Ryan argues that all Postmillennialism – not just the theonomist Postmillennialism of 1990 – largely ignores the fact that ‘a fundamental aspect of the church’s existence’, until Christ’s second coming, ‘is (to be) “suffering with Christ” ’. While not a Postmillennialist myself, I think it important to defend a basic compatibility between Postmillennialism and the Two Kingdoms.

The transformation of society, the gradual and painful conforming of all peoples to the rule of Christ, cannot remove all suffering. Who, asks St Paul, will deliver me from this body of death? For until this body of death (both the body politic and the bodies of individual persons) is replaced with a immortal body, this corruptible with an incorruptible, Christians will continue to suffer and groan for the perfection of the coming age. Not even a Postmillennial ‘golden age’, if biblically orthodox, can erase the realities of original sin and physical death.

It’s true in any scheme, then, that the Church by the covenant of her baptism will be a suffering servant with Christ until the dead are raised at the Last Day, and that true victory comes when Christ – for who else is able? – destroys the last enemy. A triumphalist form of Postmillennialism, with no need for Christ to deal the decisive blow to the corruption of the world, is simply heretical, and no one need mince his words to dignify such a doctrine.

Within orthodox bounds, however, the degree to which the Church will become outwardly free to preach the gospel, and the degree to which the nations will yield outward obedience, is a continuum. I don’t know the outcome of the Church’s life in the world, but its sanctification must have something to do with this created order as well as the next: it cannot but be related to the present created order, because the very place where it happens is this present evil age, the age of corrupted creation needing redemption. For if creation isn’t in any sense being restored, then what is there to redeem? It’s precisely as created beings that the elect are being saved, saved to reach their original, natural end.

Our suffering, Ryan says, advances a spiritual kingdom but not a temporal one. He adds,

It is [Christ’s] kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world that experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is this knowledge that leads us to live a life of suffering, that we may invite as many as possible into this invisible kingdom, even at great cost to ourselves.

There are, I think, two problems in this statement, which denies that Christ now has a visible kingdom at all, insisting that only at the Last Day will the kingdom of this world to any degree become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. First, the statement misreads Richard Gaffin; second, and more importantly, it is semi-Nestorian. I shall address both in turn.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, to which Dr Gaffin must subscribe as a teaching elder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, distinguishes clearly between the Church as the assembly visible here on earth and the Church as the elect of all time, invisible from our current vantage point. Because authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to Christ – contra Premillennialism – the WCF calls the visible Church ‘the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation’ (xxv.2). This visible kingdom on earth, Protestants hold, is temporal: it represents the spiritual reality but is not identical to it.

One of two things, then, must be granted:

  1. Dr Gaffin’s Amillennialism is incompatible with the WCF, and his subscription to that document is either mistaken or disingenuous.
  2. Ryan’s Amillennialism actually differs from what Dr Gaffin presents.

Though I may be proved wrong, I trust by default that the former isn’t the case, and that the latter is: that Ryan’s Amillennialism, which conflicts with the WCF, is not the same as Dr Gaffin’s Amillennialism, which is fully compatible with the WCF. I leave it to others to determine the truth of this matter.

Now I shall move on to the problem of Christology. Both Ryan and David VanDrunen, with their interpretation of the Two Kingdoms, are in the company of 16th-century Puritan Thomas Cartwright. A major problem for this group’s position is that the arguments for it rest on a Christology that divides the divine and human agency of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The problem, exposed in Cartwright’s time by Richard Hooker, is explained for the present matters by Brad Littlejohn, to whose blog I direct you. I have only one thing to add to Brad’s presentation: by Cartwright’s logic, one cannot pray for the good governance of the world ‘through Christ our Lord’, since he who rules such temporal affairs is the divine Logos and not the human Christ.

Amillennialism must not be allowed to conflict with orthodox Christology, any more than Postmillennialism may conflict with the absolute need for Christ to return in person and put an end to pain and suffering. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. As for me, I think the moderating positions of Old Princeton are worth a second look before being classified as ‘transitional and therefore to be replaced by higher-evolved forms’.


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