The Early Church Fathers: Amillennialism and Universalism
Posted by Job on October 15, 2008
According to William J. La Due, who can hardly be considered fundamentalist (he has been a professor at St. Francis Seminary and Catholic University of America) in The Trinity Guide To Eschatology (which I do not recommend) Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Hippolytus were millennialists. It was those who came later, such as Origen, Jerome, and Augustine who rejected it, and Origen and Augustine in particular for amillennialism.
What happened? Simple: the influence of Greek paganism. From La Due’s writings, it is easy to connect the dots and come to the conclusion that 1) amillennialism was required for universalism and 2) universalism was needed to resolve the conflict between Christianity and Hellenism. Despite the claims of universalists that their interpretations are more consistent with the overall body of scripture, the truth is that Origen and the rest simply used a grotesquely out of context interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:28 (When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all) to justify their refusal to reject Greek pagan religion.
La Due further stated that the first prominent theologian to try to merge Christianity and Hellenism was Clementine of Alexandria, who died in the early 3rd century. This Clementine was the first Christian advocate of purgatory. By this Clementine imported the Greek mythological concept of purgatory into Christianity as a key component of universalism. (The Vatican II returned to Clementine’s doctrine by using purgatory to facilitate “all religions and good people who follow them lead to heaven” pluralism as opposed to “everyone whether religious or not and good or evil goes to heaven” universalism.)
Augustine incidentally rejected universalism. Further the Roman church did not get around to officially condemning Origenism in 543 and 553. (Augustine’s view of purgatory, by the way, were much closer to Jesus Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man than they were to contemporary or historic Roman Catholic doctrine on the matter.) However, only Origen was so condemned, not Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, or the many others that played with this doctrine, including Ambrose of Milan. La Due suggests that the real reason why Origen was condemned while the many other universalists were not was Origen’s proto – Mormon doctrine of pre – existence, not universalism. Perhaps condemning universalism would have meant condemning purgatory as well?
In any event, it certainly looks like Origen and his fellow travelers rejected the endtimes views of the early church because millennialism (and ultimately eternal punishment) made doctrines that conformed to the worldviews of the Greeks unworkable. We see the same thing going on today, with not only so many leading evangelicals following the lead of Vatican II Roman Catholics and theological liberals in adopting pluralism to please the current philosophical mindset, but many also adopting annhiliationism (the belief that sinners will simply cease to exist based on the notion that the worth of man is so great that God cannot judge mankind as He sees fit without being considered cruel and tyrannical). By contrast, Augustine taught that the reason why sinners would be resurrected and receive new incorruptible bodies on judgment day would be so that the flames of the lake of fire would never consume them!
Alas, it is regrettable that so many Reformed evangelicals either believe in the pre – tribulation rapture (i.e. John MacArthur or Albert Pendarvis) or amillennialism (e.g. R.C. Sproul). It is even more regrettable that many Reformed amillennialists insist that amillennialism was the mainstream position of the early church. On the other hand, it does appear that my oft – proposed theory that the Constantism (the Roman imperial church and the Roman Catholic Church) adopted and promoted amillennialism to justify its goals of co – opting Christianity for political and military ambitions – dominionism or official theology – is problematic, as amillennialism has to go with the practice of worshiping saints and Mary and the doctrine of purgatory as yet another thing that cannot be blamed on Constantinism because it predated his takeover of Christianity by at least 100 years. Amillennialism is not evidence of how the Roman Empire took Christianity off its path, but rather how the Roman Empire adopted a faith that had already long veered from its apostolic foundations.
So instead, amillennialism, purgatory, saint and angel worship, and the heresies concerning Mary were simply attempts to make the faith acceptable, conformed with, and relevant with the world. Am I exaggerating, then, to say that Clement and Origen of those days are the emergent leaders like Rick Warren, Erwin McManus, Rob Bell, and Dan Kimball or political Christians like James Dobson, Barry Lynn and Bill Moyers today? Not a whole lot, and probably not at all. Whether it is Hellenism or enlightenment rationalism or postmodernist consumerism, James 4:4 and Romans 12:1-2 still applies.