1902 Encyclopedia > Millenium


MILLENNIUM. In the history of Christianity three main forces are found to have acted as auxiliaries of the gospel. They have elicited the ardent enthusiasm of many whom the bare preaching of the gospel would never have-made decided converts. These are (1) a belief in the speedy return of Christ and in His glorious reign on earth;. (2) mystical contemplation, which regards heavenly bless-ings as a possible possession in the present life; and (3) faith in a divine predestination of some to salvation and others to perdition. Each of these forces has at particular times proved too strong for church authority and burst the embankments with which the church had at once narrowed and protected Christian life and thought. They have produced ecclesiastical, social, and political convulsions, where the elemental force of religious conviction has destroyed all organization, whether of church or of state. They have released from its fetters the free spirit of Christianity, though often enough they have associated with it a fanaticism more damaging to the gospel than the temporiz-ing policy of the hierarchy.

First in point of time came the faith in the nearness of Christ's second advent and the establishing of His reign of glory on the earth. Indeed it appears so early that it might be questioned whether it ought not to be regarded as an essential part of the Christian religion. That question, however, will scarcely be answered in the affirma-tive. The ideas of the Sermon on the Mount, or the pregnant thoughts of the Pauline theology, are independent of the expectation that the kingdom of glory will shortly be establishsd. On the other hand, it must be admitted that this expectation was a prominent feature in the earliest proclamation of the gospel, and materially contributed to its success. If the primitive churches had been under the necessity of framing a " Confession of Faith," it would certainly have embraced those pictures by means of which the near future was distinctly realized. But then these pictures and dreams and hopes were just the things that made systematized doctrine impossible; it is possible to formulate the mythological ideas, but not the shifting imagery of the imagination.

In the anticipations of the future prevalent amongst the early Christians (c. 50-150) it is necessary to distinguish a fixed and a fluctuating element. The former includes (1) the notion that a last terrible battle with the enemies of God was impending; (2) the faith in the speedy return of Christ; (3) the conviction that Christ will judge all men, and (4) will set up a kingdom of glory on earth. To the latter belong views of the Antichrist, of the heathen world-power, of the place, extent, and duration of the earthly kingdom of Christ, etc. These remained in a state of solution; they were modified from day to day, partly because of the changing circumstances of the present by wdiich forecasts of the future were regulated, partly because the indications—real or supposed—of the ancient prophets always admitted of new combinations and constructions. But even here certain positions were agreed on in large sections of Christendom. Amongst these was the expecta-tion that the future kingdom of Christ on earth should have a fixed duration,—according to the most prevalent opinion, a duration of one thousand years. From this fact the whole ancient Christian eschatology was known in later times as "chiliasm,"—a name which is not strictly accurate, since the doctrine of the millennium was only one feature in its scheme of the future.

1. This idea that the Messianic kingdom of the future on earth should have a definite duration has—like the whole eschatology of the primitive church—its roots in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, where it appears at a comparatively late period. At first it was assumed that the Messianic kingdom in Palestine would last for ever (so the prophets; cf. Jerem. xxiv. 6; Ezek. xxxvii. 25; Joel iv. 20; Daniel vi. 27 ; Sibyll. iii. 49 sq., 766; Psalt. Salom. xvii. 4; Enoch Ixii. 14), and this seems always to have been the most widely accepted view (John xii. 34). But from a comparison of prophetic passages of the Old Testa-ment learned apocalyptic writers came to the conclusion that a distinction must be drawn between the earthly appearance of the Messiah and the appearance of God Himself amongst His people and in the Gentile world for the final judgment. As a necessary consequence, a limited period had to be assigned to the Messianic kingdom. It is not altogether improbable that the mysterious references to the sufferings of the Messiah had also an influence on some minds. This, however, is doubtful. It is certain at all events that the whole conception marks the beginning of the dissolution of realistic and sensuous views of the future. The age was too advanced to regard the earthly Messianic kingdom as the end. There was an effort to find a place among the hopes of the future for those more spiritual and universal anticipations, according to which eternal and heavenly blessedness will be the portion of the faithful, this earth and heaven will pass away, and God will be all in all. As to the period to be assigned to this earthly kingdom, no agreement was ever reached in Judaism, any more than in the detailed descriptions of its joys and pleasures. According to the Apocalypse of Baruch (xl. 3) this kingdom will last " donee finiatur mundus corruptionis." In the Book of Enoch (xci. 12) "a week" is specified, in the Apocalypse of Ezra (vii. 2S sq.) four hundred years. This figure, corresponding to the four hundred years of Egyptian bondage, occurs also in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a). But this is the only passage; the Talmud has no fixed doctrine on the point. The view most frequently expressed there (see Von Otto in Hilgenfeld's Zeitschrift, 1877, p. 527 sq.) is that the Messianic kingdom will last for one thousand (some said two thousand) years. "In six days God created the. world, on the seventh He rested. But a day of God is. equal to a thousand years (Ps. xc. 4). Hence the world will last for six thousand years of toil and labour; then will come one thousand years of Sabbath rest for the people of God in the kingdom of the Messiah." This idea must, have already been very common in the first century before Christ. The combination of Gen. i., Dan. ix., and Ps. xc. 4 was peculiarly fascinating.

2. Jesus Himself speaks of only one return of the Son of Man—His return to judgment. In speaking of it, and of the glorious kingdom He is to introduce, He makes use of apocalyptic images (Matt. viii. 11, xxvi. 29 ; Luke xxii. 16; Matt. xix. 28); but nowhere in the discourses of Jesus is there a hint of a limited duration of the Messianic kingdom. The apostolic epistles are equally free from any trace of chiliasm (neither 1 Cor. xv. 23 sq. nor 1 Thess. iv. 16 sq. points in this direction). In the Apocalypse of John, however, it occurs in the following shape (chap. xx.). After Christ has appeared from heaven in the guise of a warrior, and vanquished the antichristian world-power, the wisdom of the world, and the devil, those who have remained steadfast in the time of the last catastrophe, and have given up their lives for their faith, shall be raised up, and shall reign with Christ on this earth as a royal priest-hood for one thousand years. At the end of this time Satan is to be let loose again for a short season; he will prepare: a new onslaught, but God will miraculously destroy him and his hosts. Then will follow the general resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and the creation of new heavens and a new earth. That all believers will have a share in the first resurrection and in the Messianic kingdom is an idea of which John knows nothing. The earthly kingdom of Christ is reserved for those who have endured the most terrible tribulation, who have withstood the supreme effort of the world-power,—that is, for those who are actually members of the church of the last days. The Jewish expectation is thus considerably curtailed in the hands of John, as it is also shorn of its sensual attractions. " Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection; on such the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." More than this John, does not say. But other ancient Christian authors were not so cautious. Accepting the Jewish apocalypses as. sacred books of venerable antiquity, they read them eagerly, and transferred their contents bodily to Christianity. Nay more, the Gentile Christians took possession of them,, and just in proportion as they were neglected by the Jews—who, after the war of Bar-Cochba, became indiffer-ent to the Messianic hope and hardened themselves once, more in devotion to the law—they were naturalized in the Christian communities. The result was that these books became " Christian " documents ; it is entirely to Christian, not to Jewish, tradition that we owe their preservation. The Jewish expectations are adopted, for example, by Papias, by the writer of the epistle of Barnabas, and by Justin. Papias actually confounds expressions of Jesus with verses from the Apocalypse of Baruch, referring to the amazing fertility of the days of the Messianic kingdom (Papias in Iren. v. 33). Barnabas (Ep., 15) gives us the Jewish theory (from Gen. i. and Ps. xc. 4) that the. present condition of the world is to last six thousand years from the creation, that at the beginning of the Sabbath (the seventh millennium) the Son of God appears, to put an end to the time of "the unjust one," to judge the ungodly and renew the earth. But he does not indulge, like Papias, in sensuous descriptions of this seventh millennium; to Barnabas it is a time of rest, of sinlessness, and of a holy peace. It is not the end, however; it is followed by an eighth day of eternal duration,—"the beginning of another oworld." So that in the view of Barnabas the Messianic reign still belongs to oirros 6 aloiv. Justin (Dial., 80) speaks of chiliasm as a necessary part of complete orthodoxy, although he knows Christians who do not accept it. He believes, with the Jews, in a restoration and extension of the city of Jerusalem; he assumes that this city will be the seat of the Messianic kingdom, and he takes it as a matter of course that there all believers (here he is at one with Barnabas) along with patriarchs and prophets will enjoy perfect felicity for one thousand years. In fact he reads this view into the Apocalypse of John, which he understands to mean that before the general resurrection all believers are to rule for a time with Christ on earth. That a philosopher like Justin, with a bias towards an Hellenic construction of the Christian religion, should nevertheless have accepted its chiliastic elements is the strongest proof that these enthusiastic expectations were inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the 2d century. And another proof is found in the fact that even a speculative Jewish Christian like Cerinthus not only did not renounce the chiliastic hope, but pictured the future kingdom of Christ as a kingdom of sensual pleasures, of eating and drinking and marriage festivities (Euseb., H. E., iii. 28, vii. 25).

3. After the middle of the 2d century these ex-pectations were gradually thrust into the background. "They would never have died out, however, had not circumstances altered, and a new mental attitude been taken up. The spirit of philosophical and theological speculation and of ethical reflexion, which began to spread through the churches, did not know what to make of the old hopes of the future. To a new generation they seemed paltry, earthly, and fantastic, and far-seeing men had good reason to regard them as a source of political danger. But more than this, these wild dreams about the glorious king-dom of Christ began to disturb the organization which the churches had seen fit to introduce. In the interests of self-preservation against the world, the state, and the heretics, the Christian communities had formed themselves into compact societies with a definite creed and constitu-tion, and they felt that their existence was threatened by the white heat of religious subjectivity. So early as the year 170, a church party in Asia Minor—the so-called Alogi—rejected the whole body of apocalyptic writings and denounced the Apocalypse of John as a book of fables. All the more powerful was the reaction. In the so-called Montanistic controversy (c. 160-220) one of the principal issues involved was the continuance of the chiliastic expectations in the churches. The Montanists of Asia Minor defended them in their integrity, with one slight modification : they announced that Pepuza, the city of Montamis, would be the site of the New Jerusalem and the millennial kingdom. Modifications of this kind, which have often appeared in later times in connexion owith the revival of millennarianism, are a striking evidence of the tendency of every sect to regard its own little membership as the centre of the world and its fortunes as the kernel of universal history. After the Montanistic controversy, chiliastic views were more and more discredited in the Greek Church; they were, in fact, stigmatized as "Jewish" and consequently "heretical." It was the Alexandrian theology that superseded them; that is to say, Neo-Platonic mysticism triumphed over the early Christian hope of the future, first among the " cultured," and then, when the theology of the " cultured " had taken the faith of the " uncultured " under its protec-tion, amongst the latter also. About the year 260 an Egyptian bishop, Nepos, in a treatise called zXeyyps oXX-qyopLo-Tuw, endeavoured to overthrow the Origenistic theology and vindicate chiliasm by exegetical methods. Several congregations took his part; but ultimately Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, succeeded in healing the schism and asserting the allegorical interpretation of the prophets as the only legitimate exegesis. During this controversy Dionysius became convinced that the victory of mystical theology over " Jewish " chiliasm would never be secure so long as the Apocalypse of John passed for an apostolic writing and kept its place among the homologoumena of the canon. He accordingly raised the question of the apostolic origin of the Apocalypse; and by reviving old difficulties, with ingenious arguments of his own, he carried his point. At the time of Eusebius the Greek Church was saturated with prejudice against the book and with doubts as to its canonicity. In the course of the 4th century it was removed from the Greek canon, and thus the troublesome foundation on which chiliasm might have continued to build was got rid of. The attempts of Methodius of Tyre at the beginning of the 4th century and Apollinarius of Laodicea about 360 to defend chiliasm and assail the theology of Origen had no result. For many centuries the Greek Church kept the Johannine Apocalypse out of its canon, and consequently chiliasm remained in its grave. It was considered a sufficient safeguard against the spiritualizing eschatology of Origen and his school to have rescued the main doctrines of the creed and the regula Jidei (the visible advent of Christ; eternal misery and hell-fire for the wicked). Anything beyond this was held to be Jewish. It was only the chronologists and historians of the church who, following Julius Africanus, made use of apocalyptic numbers in their calculations, while court theologians like Eusebius entertained the imperial table with discussions as to whether the dining-hall of the emperor—the second David and Solomon, the beloved of God—might not be the New Jerusalem of John's Apocalypse. Eusebius was not the first who dabbled in such speculations. Dionysius of Alexandria had already referred a Messianic prediction of the Old Testament to the emperor Gallienus. But mysticism and political servility between them gave the death-blow to chiliasm in the Greek Church. It never again obtained a footing there; for, although, late in the Middle Ages, the Book of Revelation—by what means we cannot tell—did recover its authority, the church was by that time so hopelessly trammelled by a magical cultus as to be incapable of fresh developments. In the Semitic churches of the East (the Syrian, Arabian, and iEthiopian), and in that of Armenia, the apocalyptic literature was preserved much longer than in the Greek Church. They were very conservative of ancient traditions in general, and hence chiliasm survived amongst them to a later date than in Alexandria or Constantinople. It is to these churches that we are mainly indebted for the extensive remains of the old apocalyptic literature which we now possess. From remote cloisters of the East Europe has recovered within the last forty years many works of this kind which once enjoyed the highest repute throughout Christendom.

4. But the Western Church was also more conservative than the Greek. Her theologians had, to begin with, little turn for mystical speculation; their tendency was rather to reduce the gospel to a system of morals. Now for the moralists chiliasm had a special significance as the one distinguishing feature of the gospel, and the only thing that gave a specifically Christian character to their system. This, however, holds good of the Western theologians only after the middle of the 3d century. The earlier fathers, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, believed in chiliasm simply because it was a part of the tradition of the church and because Marcion and the Gnostics would have nothing to do with it. Irenseus (v. 28, 29) has the same conception of the millennial kingdom as Barnabas and Papias, and appeals in support of it to the testimony of disciples of the apostles. Hippolytus, although an opponent of Montanism, was nevertheless a thorough-going millennarian (see his book De Aniichristo). Tertullian (cf. especially Adv. Marcion., 3) aimed at a more spiritual conception of the millennial blessings than Papias had, but he still adhered, especially in his Montanistic period, to all the ancient anticipations. It is the same all through the 3d and 4th centuries with those Latin theologians who escaped the influence of Greek speculation. Commodian, Victorinus Pettavensis, Lactantius, and Sulpicius Severus were all pronounced millennarians, holding by the very details of the primitive Christian expectations. They still believe, as John did, in the return of Nero as the Antichrist; they still expect that after the first resurrection Christ will reign with His saints " in the flesh" for a thousand years. Once, but only once (in the Gospel of Nicodemus), the time is reduced to five hundred years. Victorinus wrote a commentary on the Apocalypse of John; and all these theologians, especially Lactantius, were diligent students of the ancient Sibylline oracles of Jewish and Christian origin, and treated them as divine revelations. As to the canonicity and apostolic authorship of the Johannine Apocalypse no doubts were ever entertained in the West; indeed an Apocalypse of Peter was still retained in the canon in the 3d century. That of Ezra, in its Latin translation, must have been all but a canonical book,— the numbers of extant manuscripts of the so-called 4 Ezra being incredibly great, while several of them are found in copies of the Latin Bible at the beginning of the 16th century. The Apocalypse of Hermas wTas much read till far through the Middle Ages, and has also kept its place in some Bibles. The apocalyptic " Testamenta duodecim Patriarcharum " was a favourite reading-book; and Latin versions of ancient apocalypses are being continually brought to light from Western libraries (e.g., the Assumptio Mosis, the Ascensio Jesajx, <fcc). All these facts show how vigorously the early hopes of the future maintained themselves in the West. In the hands of moralistic theologians, like Lactantius, they certainly assume a somewhat grotesque form, but the fact that these men clung to them is the clearest evidence that in the West millennarianism was still a point of " orthodoxy " in the 4th century.

This state of matters, however, gradually disappeared after the end of the 4th century. The change was brought about by two causes,—first, Greek theology, which reached the West chiefly through Jerome, Rufinus, and Ambrose, and, second, the new idea of the church wrought out by Augustine on the basis of the altered political situation of the church. Jerome, the pupil of the Greeks, feels him-self already emancipated from "opiniones Judaicse"; he ridicules the old anticipations; and, though he does not venture to reject them, he and the other disciples of the Greeks did a great deal to rob them of their vitality. At the same time the influence of Greek theology was by no means so great in the West that this of itself could have suppressed chiliastic views. It was reserved for Augustine to give a direction to Western theology which carried it clear of millennarianism. He himself had at one time believed in it; he too had looked forward to the holy Sabbath which was to be celebrated by Christ and His people on earth. But the signs of the times pointed to a different prospect. Without any miraculous interposition of God, not only was Christianity victorious on earth, but the church had attained a position of supremacy. The old Roman empire was tottering to its fall; the church stood fast, ready to step into its inheritance. It was not simply that the world-power, the enemy of Christ, had been vanquished; the fact was that it had gradually abdicated its political functions in favour of the church. Under these circumstances Augustine was led, in his controversy with the Donatists and as an apologist, to idealize the political side of the catholic church,—to grasp and elaborate the idea that the church is the kingdom of Christ and the city of God. Others before him may have taken the same view, and he on the other hand never forgot that true blessedness belongs to the future ; but still he was the first who ventured to teach that the catholic church, in its empirical form, was the kingdom of Christ, that the millennial kingdom had commenced with the appearing of Christ, and was therefore an accomplished fact. By this doctrine of Augustine's, the old millennarianism, though not completely extirpated, was at least banished from the realm of dogmatic. Eor the official theology of the church it very soon became a thing of the past; certain elements of it were even branded as heretical. It still lived on, how-ever, in the lower strata of Christian society; and in certain undercurrents of tradition it was transmitted from century to century. At various periods in the history of the Middle Ages we encounter sudden outbreaks of millennarianism, sometimes as the tenet of a small sect, sometimes as a far-reaching movement. And, since it had been suppressed, not, as in the East, by mystical specula-tion, its mightiest antagonist, but by the political church of the hierarchy, we find that wherever chiliasm appears in the Middle Ages it makes common cause with all enemies of the secularized church. It strengthened the hands of church democracy; it formed an alliance with the pure souls who held up to the church the ideal of apostolic poverty; it united itself for a time even with mysticism in a common opposition to the supremacy of the-church; nay, it lent the strength of its convictions to the support of states and princes in their efforts to break the political power of the church. It is sufficient to recall the well-known names of Joachim of Floris, of all the numerous Franciscan spiritualists, of the leading sectaries from the 13th to the 15th century who assailed the papacy and the secularism of the church,—above all, the name of' Occam. In these men the millennarianism of the ancient church came to life again; and in the revolutionary move-ments of the 15th and 16th centuries—especially in the Anabaptist movements—it appears with all its old uncom-promising energy. If the church, and not the state, was. regarded as Babylon, and the pope declared to be the Antichrist, these were legitimate inferences from the ancient traditions and the actual position of the church. But, of course, the new chiliasm was not in every respect identical with the old. It could not hold its ground without admitting certain innovations. The " everlasting gospel" of Joachim of Floris was a different thing from the announcement of Christ's glorious return in the clouds of heaven; the "age of the spirit" which mystics and spiritualists exjiected contained traits which must be-characterized as "modern"; and the "kingdom" of the Anabaptists in Minister was a Satanic caricature of that kingdom in which the Christians of the 2d century looked for a peaceful Sabbath rest. Only we must not form our ideas of the great apocalyptic and chiliastic movement of the first decades of the 16th century from the rabble in Munster. There were pure evangelical forces at work in it; and many Anabaptists need not shun comparison with the Christians of the apostolic and post-apostolic ages.

The German and Swiss Reformers also believed that the end of the world was near, but they had different aims in view from those of the Anabaptists. It was not from poverty and apocalypticism that they hoped for a reforma-tion of the church. In contrast to the fanatics, after a brief hesitation they threw millennarianism overboard, and along with it all other " opiniones Judaicae." They took up the same ground in this respect which the Roman Catholic Church had occupied since the time of Augustine. How millennarianism nevertheless found its way, with the help of apocalyptic mysticism and Anabaptist influences, into the churches of the Reformation, chiefly among the Reformed sects, but afterwards also in the Lutheran Church, how it became incorporated with Pietism, how in recent times an exceedingly mild type of " academic " chiliasm has been developed from a belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, how finally new sects are still springing up here and there with apocalyptic and chiliastic expectations,—these are matters which cannot be fully entered upon here. But one remark ought to be made in conclusion. A genuine and living revival of _chiliastic hopes is always a sign that the church at large has become secularized to such a degree that tender consciences can no longer feel sure of their faith within her. In this sense all chiliastic phenomena in the history of the church demand respectful attention. But when attempts are made to find room for millennarianism in a dogmatic system, it must always assume a form in which it would be utterly unrecognizable to the millennarians of the ancient church, who, just because they were millennarians, despised dogmatic, in the sense of philo-sophical theology. The claims of chiliasm are sufficiently met by the acknowledgment that in former times it was associated—to all appearance inseparably associated— with the gospel itself. Those who try to remodel it, so as to conserve its " elements of truth," put contempt on it while they destroy it; for it was in its day the most uncompromising enemy of all remodelling, and it can only exist along with the unsophisticated faith of the early Christians.

Cf. Schürer, Lehrbuch der Neutestamentlichen Zeitgeschichte, 1874, §§ 28, 29 ; Corrodi, Kritische Geschichte des Chiliasmus, 1781. A thorough history of chiliasm has not yet appeared. (A. HA.)

The above article was written by: Adolf Harnack, D.D., Professor of Church History, University of Giessen.

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