CONCERNING "ULTIMATE THINGS"

 

"Ultimate Things" by Dennis E. Engleman, Conciliar Press, Ben Lomond, California, 1995 (abbreviated as UT hereafter).

It is true as the title says that it is "An Orthodox Christian Perspective on the End Times." As such, it  becomes clear, as one reads on in the book, that much of the theology that is being discussed originates around the time of Augustine who was consecrated Bishop of Hippo and held that position from 395-430 AD. Some years earlier in 313 AD, Constantine in his Edict of Milan legalized Christianity throughout the Empire. In 325 the first Council of Nicea consolidated Christianity under the orthodoxy imposed by Constantine's Edict. Some dissenters to that orthodoxy were exiled. This should immediately send out warning signals about those that maintained that orthodoxy.

            In 380 AD the Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. By the time of his appointment as Bishop of Hippo in 395, Augustine was a key thinker and a Christian leader in the Empire. As a result, his opinions and statements carried unusual weight. These opinions carried through into the subsequent Roman Catholic and other Orthodox Churches. Later, at the time of the Reformation, the emerging protestant church leaders also went back to Augustine for their doctrines rather than the early church Fathers. It is against this background that I make the following comments about some matters addressed in the book you loaned me.

            It should be observed that the book refers to the Church Fathers frequently. However, this is done in an Orthodox context where the definition for Fathers includes the time of Augustine and even much later. In this note, I will use the term Church Fathers in a far more restricted and correct sense to specifically mean those who lived in the first and second centuries, some of whom had been instructed by the Apostles themselves. In this way we can be a little more certain that we are closer to the understanding that the Apostles had.  The period of the true Church Fathers does not extent as far as the time of Augustine.

The first thing that immediately becomes apparent is the resulting Orthodox definition of the Millennial reign of Christ, during which the Bible says the Devil is bound in the Bottomless Pit [Revelation 20:1-7]. This was taken by Augustine, and  subsequently by later RC and Orthodox church leaders, to be the Church Age, however long that Age should last. Augustine writes "But while the devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years. ... The Church even now is the Kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven."  [UT, p.60]. This is at variance with the opinion of the first Church Fathers early in the second century AD, but the reason why the Orthodox variant emerged is interesting. Let me explain it this way.

            The Scriptural text used by the Apostles and early Church Fathers was basically the ancient Alexandrian Septuagint Greek (LXX) and the paleo-Hebrew from which it was translated about 285 BC. The genealogical data from these texts indicated that the Creation of the cosmos occurred sometime in the period 5700 to 5500 BC. Josephus places it at 5555 BC according to Playfair [Young's Concordance], and a reading Josephus confirms that this is a valid estimate. It also confirms that the ancient LXX chronology is correct. Examples could be multiplied. By way of illustration, Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch (115-181 AD), calculated that the world was 5698 years old at the time of the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. Julius Africanus (c.160-240) was sure that 5531 years had expired between the Creation and the Birth of Christ. And so we could go on.

            Please bear with me for the story continues. These early Church Fathers, generally believed in a literal Millennium of 1000 years in which Christ will reign over the whole earth. Some called this the Millennial Sabbath. From this Biblical concept there developed the idea of what might be called the "Earth's Great Week." This idea was expressed first by a Jewish Christian, Barnabas, in Alexandria, Egypt, around 117 AD. He believed that man would have 6000 years on earth corresponding to 1000 years for each of the 6 Days of Creation. Then the 7th Day corresponded to the Millennial Sabbath of 1000 years with Christ reigning from David's throne. Following this was to be the New Heaven and New Earth and the New Jerusalem. Even though a literal 1000 years for the Millennium of Revelation 20 is a Biblical entity, it was not a Scriptural idea to allocate 1000 years to each Day of Creation. Nevertheless, this plausible basis for mankind's history was adopted by many of the Church Fathers. As a result, they expected the Lord to Return and inaugurate the Millenium sometime in the vicinity of 300-500 AD. This was done, as we noted above, on the basis of the Scriptural genealogy in the LXX and paleo-Hebrew which placed Creation roughly 5700-5500 BC.

            The Church Fathers who expected Christ to Return and inaugurate the Millennium of a literal 1000 years included: Justyn Martyr (100-165 AD), Theophilus of Antioch (115-181 AD), Irenaeus (120-202 AD), Hippolytus (c. 236 AD), Tertullian (150-225 AD), Cyprian (200-258 AD), Commodian (200-275 AD), Lactantius (240-320 AD), Methodius (d. 311 AD). They all affirmed their Millenarian views with comments like those of Victorinus of Petau, who died around 304 AD, and wrote: "The true sabbath will be in the seventh millennium of years, when Christ with His elect shall reign." [Victorinus :"On the Creation of the World"]. Lactantius wrote that God's "religion and truth must labor during these six thousand years, while wickedness prevails and bears rule..." whereupon "all wickedness must be abolished from the earth, and righteousness reign for a thousand years; and there must be tranquility and rest from the labors which the world now has long endured." [Lactantius, "The Divine Institutes" 7.14]. Similar statements were made by other early Church Fathers.

            In other words, it was generally agreed that the Millennial reign of Christ was a period of a literal 1000 years. In my study of Scripture, I have found in a number of instances that prophetic scriptures were fulfilled to the very day. This is also the approach that the early Fathers took. The problem that arose was the additional idea from Barnabas which suggested an approximate time when this Return would occur. We know that Christ did not return about 300 to 500 AD. But by 395 to 430 we have the time of Augustine. The Church leaders during this period had noted that Christ had not returned and offered an alternative interpretation of the Millennium as a result. The one important event that had occurred around the expected time was the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. As a consequence, the church leaders at the time, like Augustine, concluded that the Millennium was the church age and that the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven was the Church. The Church of Rome later carried this a little further and claimed the kingdom was exclusively the Roman Catholic church on the basis of Augustine's statements.  Thus we have two erroneous doctrines, one from Barnabas, one from Augustine, which have contributed to a mis-understanding of what the Scripture is actually saying.

The related issue is that, if the Millennium is the Church Age as the Orthodox churches often teach, then Satan must be incarcerated in the Bottomless pit at this time. However, we still see him very active during this entire period. Because of this, one orthodox minister of my acquaintance in Australia did not believe in Hell, and certainly did not believe in an actual Bottomless pit. His thinking went this way: if Satan is still active and the Bible describes him as being in the Bottomless Pit at this time, then the Pit and Hell do not exist. Note that this logical step is a further compounding of wrong doctrine which leads to unscriptural conclusions. Since the matter of the Millennium is crucial to any understanding of prophecy, this is the issue that needed clarification first.

            In conclusion, it is apparent that the early Church Fathers believed in a literal 1000 year reign for Christ on earth. They got this from the Apostles, particularly John, who got it from Christ Himself. The falling away from that doctrine has come as a result of two men trying to impose their timetable and their thoughts on the Word of God and producing a corrupt Truth which has then been promulgated down the centuries. It is for this reason that I believe that our own reading of the Word of God for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is to be preferred to any church Tradition, no matter how long that tradition has been held.

           

On this matter the book UT has this to say on p. 24 "It is Holy Tradition, transmitted through the Fathers which gives Christians a firm basis for understanding and critiquing the events which surround them." I strongly disagree, and also in passing note that the use of the word "Fathers" there is misleading. Instead of this, I take Jesus own words to us in John 16:13, 14. "When the Spirit of Truth has come [which He did at Pentecost], He will guide you into all Truth; and He will show you things to come." I place my trust in Him and His guidance, which He has promised to give, rather than in a church tradition.