Theology Adrift: The Early Church Fathers and Escatalogy |

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Theology Adrift: The Early Church Fathers and Their Views of Eschatology [Excerpts]


In 1962, philosopher-scientist Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to signal a massive change in the way a community thinks about a particular topic. Examples of paradigm shifts include Copernicus’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Each changed the world of thought (some for better, some for worse) in a fundamental way.

From a political perspective, Constantine’s Edict of Milan, issued in AD 313, constituted the formal beginning of a major paradigm shift that signaled the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval period. That edict legitimated Christianity and impressed upon it the Empire’s stamp of approval.

It is a fair question to ask: “Why do we care about the eschatological views of the early church fathers?” We as evangelicals emphatically agree with Hodge that “the true method of theology… assumes that the Bible contains all the facts or truths which form the contents of theology.” As Ryrie cogently put it:

The fact that something was taught in the first century does not make it right (unless taught in the canonical Scriptures), and the fact that something was not taught until the nineteenth century does not make it wrong unless, of course, it is unscriptural.

From a theological perspective—specifically an eschatological one—the Edict of Milan also signaled a monumental paradigm shift—from the well-grounded premillennialism of the ancient church fathers to the amillennialism or postmillennialism that would dominate eschatological thinking from the fourth century AD to at least the middle part of the nineteenth century. Yet… the groundwork for this shift was laid long before Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313. In the two centuries that led up to the edict, two crucial interpretive errors found their way into the church that made conditions ripe for the paradigm shift incident to the Edict of Milan. The second century fathers failed to keep clear the biblical distinction between Israel and the church. Then, the third century fathers abandoned a more-or-less literal method of interpreting the Bible in favor of Origen’s allegorical-spiritualized hermeneutic. Once the distinction between Israel and the church became blurred, once a literal hermeneutic was lost, with these foundations removed, the societal changes occasioned by the Edict of Milan caused fourth century fathers to reject premillennialism in favor of Augustinian amillennialism.

The crushing blow for premillennialism came with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, by which Constantine reversed the Roman Empire’s policy of hostility toward Christianity and accorded it full legal recognition and even favor. Historian Paul Johnson calls the issuance of this edict “one of the decisive events in world history. With it, no longer was the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church. Rather, Christianity would be, in many ways, a mirror-image of the empire itself. “It was catholic, universal, ecumenical, orderly, international, multi-racial and increasingly legalistic.” It was a huge force for stability. Hence, Christianity after 313 would become worldly, rather than other-worldly.

The church’s new-found favor from Rome caused dramatic upheavals. Jerome complained that “one who was yesterday a catechumen is today a bishop; another moves overnight from the ampitheatre to the church; a man who spent the evening in the circus stands next morning at the altar, and another who was recently a patron of the stage is now the dedicator of virgins.” He wrote that “our walls glitter with gold, and gold gleams upon our ceilings and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ is dying at our doors in the person of his poor, naked and hungry.”

Thus, the focus of the church changed from looking for ultimate comfort in the world beyond the grave to seeking comfort in this world, in the here and now. Christianity was viewed as “a religion with a glorious past as well as an unlimited future. As a result, it suffered what Johnson called “a receding, indeed, disappearing, eschatology.”