Eschatology of the early church fathers

Pastor David Squyres asked a great question in response to last Friday’s post on premillennialism:

“Do you think this is a view the Church fathers held? I ask because it seems relatively new to me, and would help if I could see it in a more historic sense.”

The early church fathers did not all hold to one millennial position. Their theology of last things, like every other area of theology, was in infancy and still developing. Though the coming return and judgment of Christ were clearly defined in the early creeds, no specific mention was made of the millennium. However, it is very interesting to note how “premillennialism” developed and then declined in the first few centuries. These men were much closer to the ministry of Christ and the apostles, and were experts in the Greek language, so their testimony should not be dismissed lightly.

Church historian Philip Schaff observes:

The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age [i.e. the era prior to the Council of Nicea in AD 325] is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius; while Caius, Origen, Dionysius the Great, Eusebius (as afterwards Jerome and Augustin) opposed it...

…the crushing blow [against chiliasm] came from the great change in the social condition and prospects of the church in the Nicene age. After Christianity, contrary to all expectation, triumphed in the Roman empire, and was embraced by the Caesars themselves, the millennial reign, instead of being anxiously waited and prayed for, began to be dated either from the first appearance of Christ, or from the conversion of Constantine and the downfall of paganism, and to be regarded as realized in the glory of the dominant imperial state-church. Augustin, who himself had formerly entertained chiliastic hopes, framed the new theory which reflected the social change, and was generally accepted. The apocalyptic millennium he understood to be the present reign of Christ in the Catholic church, and the first resurrection, the translation of the martyrs and saints to heaven, where they participate in Christ’s reign. (Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Chapter XII, Section 158. Logos users can view here).

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One thought on “Eschatology of the early church fathers”

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Stephen! I would not have come upon Schaff's research had you not pointed it out.

    Have you read Worthy Is The Lamb, by Ray Summers. He argues pretty hard that the view of the early chruch was amil. However, his view disturbs me since he NEVER sees Christ visible return being depicted in Revelation.

    Is it possible to hold that Rvelation had application to its immediate context while also pointing to far out future events? I ask because it seems some people see it either throught the lense of history, or the telescope of the future.

    Again thank you so much for the kind way in which you present things.

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