Thursday, December 22, 2011

Early Church Fathers & Eschatology

One persistent theme that’s rehashed against pretribulationalism is the argument that it’s not found in the Didache and the early church fathers (ECF) didn’t teach it. Following on from that, the ECF appeared to hold that the church would suffer under the Antichrist, thus the early church was posttribulational.

In 2002 Dr Steve McAvoy wrote two articles for the Conservative Theological Society (Posttribulationism’s Appeal to Antiquity Parts 1 & 2) that address the issue. They can be sourced from Galaxie.Com for a modest yearly subscription fee.

McAvoy quotes Ladd and Gundry:

“Let it be at once emphasized that we are not turning to the church fathers to find authority for either pre- or posttribulationism. The one authority is the word of God, and we are not confined in the strait-jacket of tradition… While tradition does not provide authority, it would nevertheless be difficult to suppose that God had left his people in ignorance of an essential truth for nineteen centuries” George Ladd, The Blessed Hope.

“We’re dealing here with perspective, of course, not proof. For Bible-believing Christians, proof lies in the pages of Scripture, and the view that seems to represent its meaning most naturally is the view that seems best to adopt. Agreed. But Christians belong not only to current communities of faith. They also belong to a community of faith that spans the whole of church history. And since the Spirit of God has been at work throughout that history, Christians should at least respect primary beliefs of the church at large, past as well as present, and suspect the new and novel at least to the extent of requiring extraordinarily good scriptural evidence in its favor.” Robert Gundry, First the Antichrist.

So which is it - tradition or Scripture? The point Ladd and Gundry (and others) try to sell is that, while one must primarily rely on Scripture, the church couldn’t have been wrong until Darby discovered or invented the doctrine. God didn’t leave His people in ignorance.

Yet, as McAvoy and others point out, the church quickly espoused replacement theology (still predominantly the case) which led to interpreting certain prophetic passages non-literally and from a church perspective. The same may be said of soteriology up until Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (1517 AD) and the advent of the Reformation. Could the church have possibly been wrong for so long over such a primary issue as salvation? Where did the ECF stand on TULIP?

Many pretrib apologists will also argue that, from the outset, the eschatology of the ECF wasn’t developed anywhere like it is today. The rapture doctrine wasn’t on their radar. How many rapture references of any kind does one find in their writings? There wasn’t any systematic eschatological statement of faith. For a number of reasons, Amillennialism and the allegorical approach to hermeneutics quickly shaped the church’s eschatology.

Amillennialists will argue the early church was “clearly amillennial”; but I would counter that even if that were the case, the Bible clearly isn’t. Scripture is the final arbitrator. It seems inconsistent that people with differing beliefs rely on the teaching of the ECF to critique pretribulationism. This is especially a problem for those whose teachings are relatively modern developments as in some newer forms of posttribulationism, preterism, Covenant Theology and prewrath rapturism.

Let me try to illustrate. Preterists might have a hard time explaining to most ECF that Christ actually arrived in 70 AD but that they’d missed the event. In fact, don’t partials technically teach two “second” comings of Christ? Gundry might have trouble selling his postmil Sheep & Goats Judgment and maybe even his two-stage first resurrection. Would the ECF nod in unanimous agreement with prewrathers over the meaning of Matt 24:22? And what about that interesting multi-phase “single parousia”? Did the ECF have a consensus on the meaning of the Day of the Lord? I doubt it.

Appealing to the ECF to determine the validity of a doctrine is somewhat simplistic. Perhaps it’s best to stick to Scripture after all.

Further reading:

Answering The Arguments Of Post-Tribulation Rapture Position





Hippolytus is one ECF who is often cited against pretribulationism. Yet McAvoy is quite right when he points out that the ECF read the church in key prophetic texts. Hippolytus, who taught that the Antichrist would spring from the tribe of Dan and who would raise the kingdom of the Jews, writes:

By the woman then clothed with the sun,"he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father's word, whose brightness is above the sun. And by the "moon under her feet" he referred to her being adorned, like the moon, with heavenly glory. And the words, "upon her head a crown of twelve stars," refer to the twelve apostles by whom the Church was founded. And those, "she, being with child, cries, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered," mean that the Church will not cease to bear from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the world. "And she brought forth," he says, "a man-child, who is to rule all the nations;" by which is meant that the Church, always bringing forth Christ, the perfect man-child of God, who is declared to be God and man, becomes the instructor of all the nations. And the words, "her child was caught up unto God and to His throne," signify that he who is always born of her is a heavenly king, and not an earthly; even as David also declared of old when he said, "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool." "And the dragon," he says, "saw and persecuted the woman which brought forth the man-child. And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent." That refers to the one thousand two hundred and threescore days (the half of the week) during which the tyrant is to reign and persecute the Church, which flees from city to city, and seeks conceal-meat in the wilderness among the mountains, possessed of no other defence than the two wings of the great eagle, that is to say, the faith of Jesus Christ, who, in stretching forth His holy hands on the holy tree, unfolded two wings, the right and the left, and called to Him all who believed upon Him, and covered them as a hen her chickens. For by the mouth of Malachi also He speaks thus: "And unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings."

Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel

Writings of Hippolytus

Note also:

Those who wish to point out what the early church fathers taught when criticizing pretribulationism may also want to examine what many of the ECFs thought about Mary's perpetual virginity.

No comments: