By Kenneth L. Gentry Jr
Biblical eschatology is an important realm of theology. It differs from systematic theology in looking at theological issues historically as they unfold in Scripture. Amillennialists dismiss postmillennialism as overlooking biblical theological categories. In Zondervan’s debate book Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (1998), Professor of Systematic Theology, Dr. Robert Strimple criticizes my postmillennialism for a failure in this area. Let me explain.
According to Strimple, postmillennialism allegedly distorts the two age structure of biblical revelation. Strimple argues against postmillennialism that “our Lord knows of only two ages, the present age and the age to come” (p. 63). In his footnote he explains how this contradicts postmillennialism: “Postmillennialism seems to posit three ages: the present evil age, a future ‘golden’ age (see Gentry’s definition reference to ‘a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which . . .’), and the ‘age to come,’ of which the New Testament speaks” (p. 63, n 8).
1. Postmillennialism Accepts the Two Age Structure
Actually, I wholeheartedly concur with the two age structure of biblical eschatology, as carefully outlined in Geerhardus Vos’ construction of redemptive history along these lines. In fact, I vigorously urge this in my Response to Blaising’s premillennial essay where I outline some problems with the premillennial scheme, one of which is their expectation of a “future appearance of the fulness of Christ’s kingdom in an age (dispensation) separate and distinct from the present era, despite this present era being the ‘last days’ (Acts 2:16-17, 24), the ‘fulness of times’ (Gal 4:4). If these are the ‘last days,’ how can more days follow in a whole new era?” (p. 255).
And Strimple should know this for I point it out in my opening essay in my exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15: “As Paul is then in the first century, so are we now in our day awaiting the eschatological coming of Christ and our resurrection. . . . At his second coming history is over in that the resurrection occurs at ‘the end’; there will be no millennial age on the present earth to follow” (p. 48). I do this on more than one occasion: “Isaiah indicates the ‘last days’ will be the era witnessing these things — not some era after the last days: ‘in the last days’ (v. 2) means ‘during.’ According to the New Testament the ‘last days’ begin with the coming of Christ in the first century. They cover the remaining days of temporal history until the Second Coming of Christ, which will be ‘the end’ (1 Cor 15:24; cp. Matt 13:39-40, 49). Hence, they are the last days — with none to follow.” (p. 36). Thus, I vigorously argue that we are now in an age that continues until Christ returns; there is no separate age wherein the millennial conditions await us.
2. Amillennialism’s Problems with the Two Age Structure
Oddly enough, I could turn Strimple’s argument upon him, were I to employ his argumentative methodology (which prefers seeking theological-implications from my presentation rather responding to my express-affirmations). Let me explain. Strimple strongly urges a two age structure of history. And only two ages. But he sees in the postmillennial expectation of cultural victory an implied third age. Remember, he argues that “Postmillennialism seems to posit three ages: the present evil age, a future ‘golden’ age . . , and the ‘age to come’” (p. 63, n 8). I have already shown the charge that postmillennialism suggests a separate age is mistaken. But what if we turn the tables on Strimple and employ his methodology against him? I believe I can as easily demonstrate that he holds a three age view from his own express-affirmations, as he can by implication from my eschatology. How so? Recalling what I state in the preceding paragraph, let us note what Strimple himself believes. Strimple vigorously asserts: “our Lord knows of only two ages, the present age and the age to come” (p. 63). He continues in that same paragraph to note that “this age” is “the present age, this evil age.”
Thus, all of history is “the present age,” whereas Christ’s second coming establishes the second age, “the age to come” (as Strimple agrees, p. 63). But now questions arise regarding this simple, two age structure. And when we raise them they can as easily imply more than two ages as does postmillennialism (allegedly) on Strimple’s theological critique. Consider the following theoretical charges against Strimple.
(a) Strimple’s system theoretically implies that Christ’s first coming establishes another “age” distinct from that which prevails in the Old Testament and from that which will be established at his second coming. After all, does Christ’s coming to establish the eschatological kingdom effect any difference in the outworking of the historical order, as compared to the time (age?) before the coming of the kingdom? Surely it does. It establishes a remarkably different redemptive-historical reality: Now the gospel is no longer confined to one nation but goes into all the world; now Satan is cast down and Christ enthroned in triumphant victory. Remember that Strimple argues that postmillennialism’s hope of a remarkable betterment of the world because of the progress of the gospel implies a third age. Why does not Strimple recognize the same implication in his own system, with the vast redemptive-historical differences between the old covenant era and the new covenant era?
(b) Strimple’s system theoretically implies that Christ’s first coming initiates a distinct “age” known as “the last days.” Does he not believe that since New Testament days we are in a separate time period/age that he designates “the last days”? Does he not believe that these “last days” are distinguished from the former days in the Old Testament? He writes: “the last days began with the advent of Christ” (p. 64); and: “There is every reason to think that the Bible views ‘this age’ as having begun with the very beginning of history, while from the New Testament perspective the ‘last days’ began with the advent of Christ” (p. 64). If he can then argue (rightly, I believe) that “the last days are the last lap of this present age” (p. 64), why cannot I as a postmillennialist argue that the full cultural victory and dominion of the gospel in history prior to the second advent is the “last lap of this present age,” and not a wholly separate age?
(c) Strimple’s system theoretically implies that Christ’s first coming establishes a unique “age” blending “the present age” and “the age to come.” Does not Strimple himself argue that at Christ’s first coming “the powers of the age to come have broken in now for those who are united to the risen Christ by faith” (p. 63). Thus, the “age to come” is already present in some sense now since the first advent. Consequently, this creates an “age” unlike that in the Old Testament. Consider that: in the Old Testament we have “the present age”; in eternity we have “the age to come”; but since Christ’s coming we are now living in a mixed age. This is an age that Strimple, Vos, and others (including me) deem a “now but not yet” experience.
Why cannot I charge that this by implication suggests another age in distinction from the pure “this age” experience in the Old Testament and the pure “age to come” experience in eternity? Notice that the two ages overlap in the present since Christ’s coming. In fact, Richard Gaffin writes of “the outlook basic not only to Paul but the entire New Testament that the Messiah’s coming is one (eschatological) coming which unfolds in two episodes, one already and one still to come, that the ‘age-to-come’ is not only future but present.”
(3) In the final analysis, the contemporary postmillennialist does not urge a separate and distinct “age” which comes with the cultural victory of the gospel. Rather we see the present eschatological kingdom as surely and firmly established in the first century. But according to Christ’s own description this kingdom is to grow to maturity as a “mystery” (Mark 4:11; Matt 13:11), imperceptibly by degrees. It grows like a seed of grain cast into the ground which eventually produces a mature grain (Mark 4:26–29), like a mustard seed in a garden that later becomes the tallest plant in the garden (Mark 4:30–32; Matt 13:31–32), like leaven in three measures of meal that permeates the whole three bushels of meal (Matt 13:33). By divine design it providentially blossoms in history gradually over time—it does not establish a new redemptive-historical age, but matures the present kingdom over time.