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Volume 14, Issue 2: Eschaton

Amillennial History

Jack Van Deventer

Several years ago I came across an article on the Web by Kim Riddlebarger that, among other things, touched on the history of amillennialism. What struck me was Riddlebarger's difficulty in tracing amillennialism's history. That was odd, I thought, since amillennialists often claim their position traces back to the early church. Why would it be that difficult? Indeed, after checking several church history books at the university library, I found a noticeable absence between "Allegorization" and "Anabaptist." Amillennialism is nowhere to be found. Riddlebarger wrote, "[T]he term amillennialism, as we will see, was not used in the nineteenth century, and the origin of the term is shrouded in mystery. Accordingly, Gaffin asks the poignant question in this regard, `Who coined the term amillennial?'"1 Gaffin continues, "What prompted the invention of the word amillennial?"2 Since the word postmillennial was already in common use before the word amillennial, it's safe to assume that amillennialism represented a departure from postmillennialism. And, it was a recent departure.

Amillennialists agree that the term amillennialism is of recent origin.3 Strimple wrote, "The term amillennialism has been widely current since sometime in the 1930s, although when it was first used remains a mystery."4 O.T. Allis referenced a 1943 article by amillennialist Albertus Pieters stating that Abraham Kuyper coined the term. (Kuyper died in 1920.) Allis was unsure whether or not Pieter's claim was true.5 Peiter's 1937 book was less specific, "Recently, those who take this view have begun to call themselves, or to be called `amillennialists.'"6 No attribution to Kuyper was made and it remained unclear who originated the term, amillennialists or their opponents.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) had no reference for the word amillennialism in its 1915 and 1929/1930 editions. However, a premillennial document in 1915 made reference to postmillennialists and "anti-millennialists."7 A 1921 pamphlet entitled Non-millennialism vs. Pre-Millennialism stated that "Post-millennialists [were] rapidly changing to Non-millennialists," where the non-millennialist position was certainly the doctrine that would later be called amillennialism.8 Erickson wrote that large numbers of postmillennialists changed their positions to amillennialism.9 This shift was large enough to prompt a book by dispensationalist Charles Feinberg called Premillennialism or Amillennialism? in 1936. This is the earliest use of the term I've found so far.10
Amillennialist Louis Berkhof was defensive when the position's historicity was questioned. He wrote (apparently in 1938 or earlier), "Some Premillenarians have spoken of Amillennialism as a new view and as one of the most recent novelties, but this is certainly not in accord with the testimony of history. The name is new indeed, but the view to which it is applied is as old as Christianity."11 Adams, with similar hyperbole, wrote, "Augustine strongly advocated amillennialism, and it was the exclusive view of all the Reformers."12 Since several amillennialists claim Augustine as one of theirs, it's important to quote R. Bradley Jones refutation of his amillennial colleagues: "Some writers speak of Augustine as an Amillennialist. This is hardly accurate. He can more correctly be classified as a Postmillennialist."13 Moreover, Bahnsen's historical survey of leading reformers demonstrates the amillennial claims above to be groundless; rather the reformers were predominantly postmillennial.14
J. Marcellus Kik believed amillennialism began with the writings of Geerhardus Vos who wrote extensively on eschatology from 1911 to 1930 and later. Kik wrote, "It was not till the advent of Geerhardus Vos that the amil position was introduced. I am personally sorry that the remarkable talents of Vos were diverted from the historic Princeton position."15 Kik lamented that the postmillennial heritage of Princeton, represented by theological greats such as Archibald Alexander, Joseph A. Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield, had eroded. Vos' doctrines were a departure from postmillennialism such that the new theological perspective warranted a new term for identifying it. The terms anti-millennialism and non-millennialism were used until the word amillennialism eventually stuck.
Returning to Gaffin's question regarding the invention of the word amillennial, one is left wondering what prompted the development of the doctrine behind the invention. Clearly pessimism had permeated the Church from 1880 to 1920. Premillennial pessimism with its emphasis on Armageddon, Antichrist, ruin, and rapture had become the buzz of the day. Postmillennialism was viewed as unrealistic given the increased apostasy, liberalism, wars, etc. that were viewed by many as the signs of the nearness of Christ's coming. Having become convinced of history's downward spiral, yet having rejected dispensationalism as unbiblical, presbyterian, and Reformed people were in need of their own theological rationale for pessimism. Not wanting to be left behind, they apparently believed they needed a theological basis for abandoning their traditional postmillennial doctrines of gospel success, historical optimism, and conversion of the nations to Christ. The amillennial solution was to reassign the biblical victory passages to the heavenly or spiritual realm. The kingdom of God was allegorized, spiritualized, and explained away as other-worldly, another spiritual dimension, a land beyond time and beyond our grasp. The prophecies of doom and destruction, of course, were retained and applied to the earthly realm. In other words, keep the curses, discard the blessings. Although a younger doctrine than dispensation-alism, amillennialism met the same need and fit the mood of the day.

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