Notes by Dr Rowland Ward from The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide,
pp. 270-272 (in 2006 expanded edition)
At several periods of church history the view has been quite widely advocated that Christ returns to set up a millennial kingdom of 1,000 years based at Jerusalem, the end of which will be closed by an apostasy and the general resurrection and last judgement. The 1,000 years of Revelation 20 is identified with this earthy reign of Christ. This approach had some followers in the second century and later, in the 17th century (chiefly among the Fifth Monarchy men), and from about 1830 with the rise of the Brethren movement. Its roots lie in a literalistic approach to Scripture promises, and pessimism about the church in its present form. The Old Testament promises seem to have had inadequate fulfilment, and a future millennium is projected during which they will be fully and literally fulfilled.
Difficulties in the pre-millennial approach include:
(1) A failure to grasp that the Old Testament kingdom was a prefiguring of the realities to come in Christ, just as were the sacrifices of the Mosaic law. The New Testament is emphatic that Jesus has succeeded to the true throne of David (Acts 2:30ff) which is in heaven and that a rebuilding of earthly Jerusalem as the centre of Jesus’ reign is not to be thought of, nor a restoration of the temple and sacrificial system.
(2) Sundry disharmonious elements exist including, placing a cluster of events as chronological indicators near the end; the necessity of a resurrection of some believers at the beginning of the millennium and others at the close, thus breaking up the general resurrection; the mingling of glorified saints and unglorified persons; and the problem of what actually is achieved during the millennium with which is connected the nature and basis of salvation during it.
(3) In the form of dispensationalism, which had significant impact on American evangelicals from 1870 to 1970, many additional complications arise of which it is not necessary to speak here.
Two other approaches are known as post-millennialism and a-millennialism. Post millennialism means Christ comes after a future period (not necessary a literal 1,000 years) during which the church will know considerable blessing and revival. A-millennialism accepts the passage in Revelation, but interprets it as the period between the ascension and the return of Christ when Satan is bound sufficiently so as to ensure the spread of the gospel among the nations.
Post and pre-millennialists agree that the optimistic expectation of the Old Testament is fulfilled, the former saying in and through the church by the ministry of the word and the power of God’s Spirit in the conversion of multitudes, and the latter by positing an earthly kingdom of outward splendour, and having some pessimism about the value and function of the church. The a-millennial position is nowadays commonly somewhat pessimistic and does not expect a general conversion of mankind, and is also commonly futurist in orientation, putting the apostasy, tribulation, and man of sin just before the end rather than seeing these as operative throughout Christian history.
In the Westminster period the a- and post-millennial positions were common and in the form that optimisim for the ultimate success of the gospel was dominant (cf. Larger Catechism 191). A few in the Westminster Assembly, such as Dr Twisse and Thomas Goodwin, influenced by the writings of J.H.Alsted and Joseph Mede, taught that the power of Papal antichrist would soon collapse and a literal millennium begin marked by a glorious but not personal appearance of Christ for the resurrection of the martyrs and the conversion of the Jews. This is not classic pre-millennialism. The pre-millennial position proper was advocated by an Independent pastor, John Archer, who published The Personal Reign of Christ Upon Earth in 1642 [although even here Christ appears briefly at the beginning of the millennium ca. 1700 and then withdraws and rules through his saints, page 23 of 1642 edition]. The Confession does not allow for a pre-millennial position, which was not only rejected by mainstream Puritans but was also discredited for the next 150 years by the excesses of the Fifth Monarchy Men.
I have not located any Scottish Presbyterian minister who was premillennial in the period 1560-1700, and the subscription required in Scotland might be held to exclude even the most limited pre-millennial approach, given that the message of salvation requires modification in the millennial period. Nevertheless, a few Scots ministers, such as R.M.McCheyne and the Bonar brothers, adopted pre-millennial views in the 1830s, but did not have them as the focus of their preaching, and again it was a passing phase. In America the situation was rather different, and a stream of pre-millennial opinion (its literalism reactive to modernism) remains in some parts of American Presbyterianism, and certainly in an earlier period was too near the centre of the stage.
The following principles, in part derived from a study of the significance of the parables of Matthew 13, embody a suggested approach.
1. The kingdom of God that was the subject of Old Testament promise and expectation has begun with the ministry of Jesus.
2. Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom and equipped them so that they could bring out the old treasures (promises) as well as new (fulfilments), and told them to make known from the housetops what he had taught them in private. The post-resurrection data concerning the kingdom and the church cannot be regarded as other than the public proclamation and elucidation of that revealed in principle by Jesus.
3. Any interpretation of the Old Testament which disregards the disclosures made by Jesus cannot be correct. The Old Testament must be interpreted by the Gospel not the Gospel or the future by a reading of the Old Testament which bypasses the Gospel.
4. The present form of the kingdom is that state of affairs which arises from the Father giving authority to his Christ. It begins with the public ministry of Jesus and is to have a future world wide development to be climaxed by the return of Christ in glory to usher in the eternal kingdom.
5. The Old Testament promise and expectation is to find its fulfilment in and through the church as the realm where kingdom blessings are now experienced.
6. The devil will oppose the work of the kingdom but force is not to be resorted to gain conversions. The consummation will come when the harvest is ready, but will be unexpected and unannounced. A gradual and steady progress cannot be safely inferred from the data, nor can we establish more than that evil will continue in greater or less degree until the consummation.
7. Christ’s return will be personal, visible and bodily. It will not be on earth to be seen by a few but in the heavens to be seen by all. It will be accompanied by the general resurrection, last judgement and the eternal kingdom.
8. The watchword for the Christian is faithfulness in a hostile environment.
“Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.”