Saturday, July 22, 2006

John Calvin an Amillennialist?

This is from a question posed to Kim Riddlbarger by a reader named Christian T.

Since Calvin was amillennial (using different terminology I guess) and since I'm amillennial, and since I learn a lot from Calvin, and since Calvin never wrote a commentary for the Book of Revelation I'm wondering what would come closest to reading Calvin's take on the Book of Revelation?

Kim Riddlebarger's Answer:

I would caution that we not try and put Calvin in any of the modern eschatological categories. As Richard Muller points out, Calvin’s eschatology is essentially pastoral and non-speculative [Richard Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of the Federal Tradition (New York: Oxford University press, 2000), 171]. Calvin is very difficult to pin down on a number of these points because he wrote before many of our modern categories were clearly defined.

Take for example, the millennial question, “A” “Pre” or “Post.” As Berkhof admits, amillennialism may be the historical position of the church since the days of the apostles, but the term itself was not used until early in the twentieth century (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 708). If we were to ask Calvin about his millennial views he would probably say millennarianism in any form is the view of fanatics. Calvin would have known only two options, non-millennarianism or chiliasm. Since amillennarians are technically postmillennial (Christ returns after the thousand years of Revelation 20), Calvin, I think would simply affirm he was a non-millennarian and argue something like an optimistic amillennial view, especially given his confidence in the spread of the gospel.

What can we say about Calvin’s eschatology?

1). He saw the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as the key point in history (cf. Calvin’s commentaries on John 12:31 and Genesis 17:7).

2). Since he believed that God’s decree lies at the foundation of human history, therefore he held to a linear view of history and a final judgment.

3). Based on his comments on John 5:25 and Isaiah 26:19, he would have likely held that the first resurrection (cf. Revelation 20:4-5) was the conversion of the believer.

4). In his comments on Matthew 24:27, Calvin believes Christ’s coming as lightening is a reference to the spread of the gospel, which means that this prophecy is already fulfilled, and which in turn guarantees the second coming. Christ’s coming brings the fulfilled kingdom–and herein lies Calvin’s objection to the chiliasts (millennarians), who do not see this kingdom as come until after an earthly millennium has transpired after Christ’s return.

5). Along with the kingdom of God, comes the kingdom of Antichrist (cf. Calvin’s Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). Calvin sees the continuing spread of the kingdom along with a protracted conflict upon the earth with the kingdom of Antichrist. One clear manifestation is found in the papacy, but can also be seen in antichristian forces such as Islam. In an important passage from the Institutes, Calvin writes,

However, when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are the signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine, Daniel (Daniel 9:27) and Paul (2 Thessalonians 2:4) foretold that Antichrist would sit in the Temple of God. With us, it is the Roman pontiff we make the leader and standard bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. The fact that his seat is placed in the Temple of God signifies that his reign was not to be such as to wipe out either the name of Christ or of the church (Institutes IV.ii.12).

This means Calvin was not postmillennial--in the sense of modern postmillennarians who believe that the earth will be effectively Christianized. Calvin’s confidence was in the gospel, not the transformation of culture.

6). Calvin wisely warns us not “to worry more than the Lord over details of time” (Commentary on Matthew 24:29, 36).

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