By Kenneth L. Gentry Jr
Historical hope is the distinctive feature of postmillennialism which sets it apart from the other eschatological positions. Postmillennialism is easily argued on the basis of many Scripture texts establishing our hope in history. However, there are texts that amillennialists seize upon to paint a bleaker picture of history. Reformed scholars R. Fowler White, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., and Robert Strimple have emphasized these passages as evidence against postmillennialism.
In this article I am continuing a reply against the Reformed theologians specifically and amillennialism more generally. Please note that in the first article in this series I provide the fuller bibliographic information, whereas below I will simply list the scholars name and page number. Let me now continue my analysis of the biblical passages speaking of Christian suffering.
I will now reflect briefly on White’s expansions on and enhancements of the amillennial suffering argument. The reader should be aware that by now I have dealt with much of the core concern in his suffering theology, his “hermeneutic of persecution” (White, 176). Nevertheless, his enhancements deserve additional contemplation.
Before I begin I must quickly dispatch an erroneous charge he brings against the postmillennialist. I would not agree that postmillennialists “basically dismiss . . . as irrelevant” the “church’s perseverance in persecution for understanding her victory” (White, 168), for: (1) How could any evangelical deem the necessity of “perseverance in persecution” as irrelevant? Much of the church’s history has been spent under the grueling fire of persecution. This cannot possibly be dismissed as an irrelevancy. This charge is a sample of an all too frequent tendency to argumentative overstatement. (2) Postmillennialists affirm that anytime the church is persecuted she must “endure to the end” (Matt 24:13) for the “the testing of [our] faith produces endurance” (Jas 1:3). We believe that the church must endure persecution when it comes, as an important aspect of “her victory,” as per White (168). But we do not believe that experiencing persecution in all times is a necessary condition of her victory, or else she cannot be victorious now in America nor will she be victorious in heaven. (3) Our apparent dismissal of the suffering motif is due to the point of conflict in the eschatological debate. Postmillennialists necessarily highlight this distinctive difference between our view and the other evangelical eschatological options: our expectation that external persecution must gradually fade away. Hence, our placing “at the center of recent interaction” the church’s “future cultural victory (White, 162). We no more dismiss suffering by not emphasizing it in our writings than Paul dismisses the resurrection of the unbeliever by never mentioning it in his writings. Likewise Beale’s emphasis on Christ’s death surely does not effectively “dismiss” his interest in the resurrection (q. v., White, 172, 173).
But now I will consider +White’s two specific enhancements to the suffering argument: irony in redemption and perseverance as victory.
White reminds us of the startling means by which God effects his will and blesses his people: He does so by the twin principles of redemptive and retributive irony (White, 170). For instance, Gen 3:15 serves as a “biblical paradigm” which establishes for us that “the eschatologically significant moral principles by which [God's] enemies would defeat him would end up being the very means by which he defeats them; in addition, the actual results effected by God are the opposite or a greater degree of the results intended by his enemies” (White, 170). In the eschatological debate Gen 3:15 becomes a “crucial consideration” for demonstrating redemptive irony, i. e., ultimate victory through apparent defeat. In addition, Christ’s New Testament suffering confirms this ironic pattern of victory: “When it comes to our conception of the victory of the church, we see that it follows the ironic principles of Christ’s victory” (White, 175). Ultimately we must recognize that “God is seeing to it that the means by which Satan’s anti-kingdom intends to defeat Christ’s kingdom-church end up being the very means by which the latter defeats the former” (White, 176).
The postmillennialist would respond to White’s observations as follows:
1. Ironic Victory is Biblical
Postmillennialists recognize the redemptive irony principle: Satan’s rebellion against God finally backfires. White has presented a clear, concise, and helpful summary of the principle which I as a postmillennialist appreciate. I agree with his argument—until he draws wrong conclusions.
2. Ironic Victory is Postmillennial
In addition to White’s samples of redemptive irony, the postmillennialist urges an additional irony: the small, persecuted church of the first century shall one day emerge as the universal, dominant church of the last century. We must not “despise the day of small things” (Zech 4:10). In fact, Matthew organizes the revelation of the kingdom in a surprising and ironic context: In Matt 12:28 Christ proclaimed the presence of the kingdom (the kingdom is present); in 13:53-58 Matthew records Christ’s rejection (the kingdom appears to fail). Yet between these two kingdom data, the kingdom parables explain the irony of the kingdom’s method: it grows from a small seed to a great plant (13:31-32); it acts like a little yeast leavening the whole (13:33).
The Jewish Messianic fervor expected a conquering Messiah to overthrow the pagan world (e.g., John 6:15; Luke 24:21); the Messiah instead was slain by the pagan world—with a view to his transforming it (Luke 19:10; John 3:16-17; 12:31-32). Thus, Christ’s victory in the first century was “now and not yet,” an unfolding, developmental reality rather than a full-blown imposition; since then he is “waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet” (Heb 10:13) though (ironically) they are already subjugated (Eph 1:19-22; Col 2:15; 1 Pet 3:22). Though Christ is already the conqueror, “we do not yet see all things subjected to him” (Heb 2:8). Whereas in history Satan employs the sword against the church in history, the sword of the Spirit will win the victory—also in history.
3. Ironic Victory is Historical
Each of the irony samples in the “biblical paradigm” from Gen 3:14-19 provided by White are historical—except the one that marks the distinction between the postmillennial and amillennial camps (White, 170). Note that: the serpent sought to be like the most high, but was brought low—in history. The craftiest creature became the accursed creature—in history. The woman desired to rule her husband, but was ruled by him—in history. Man from the dust wanted to be like God, but was brought back to the dust—in history. The serpent sought the woman as his ally, but she became the mother of the righteous conqueror—in history. The serpent subdued man, but the man’s son Son of Man subdued the serpent—in history.
The one place this irony parallelism fails is seen in White’s words: “The serpent makes all the woman’s seed into children of the devil; but by the grace of redemptive judgment, God determines to make a division among the woman’s fallen seed, promising to convert a remnant into children of God” (White, 170-71). It appears that the serpent sought the destruction of the human race—and won! God only saves out a “remnant.” This startling failure is actually predicted in the application of White’s form of the irony argument: “the actual results effected by God are the opposite or a greater degree of the results intended by the serpent” (White, 171). Thus, we observe, Satan destroys the great mass of mankind, and God saves “the opposite”: a small remnant. Surely this is not the irony God intends.
In addition, White argues that the culture impacting victory of God promised in the protoevangelium will not come about in this temporal realm, but awaits the consummational new earth: “the earth will yet be ruled and filled by a righteous immortal seed of man to the glory of God” (White, 171). Over against this interpretation the postmillennialist asserts that God does not give up on history.
4. Ironic Victory is Admitted
But ironically(!) all of this redemptive irony argumentation is admitted by White as irrelevant to resolving his debate with the postmillennialist. “This study makes clear that the church’s present victorious reign is not merely in principle. We can and must talk about the church’s victory in history, whether she ever emerges as the organon of world culture or not” (White, 175, emphasis mine). So then, White’s own analysis of the victory principle—which involves perseverance—may be maintained “whether . . . or not” the postmillennial scheme is true. And after all, the postmillennialist asks why should we not expect Christian dominion since we possess “the eschatological, Pentecostal presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church” (White, 165, citing Gaffin)?
(To be continued)