Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory |
of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus (Titus 2:13)
The Early Church Fathers
and Their Views of Eschatology
From a political perspective, Constantine's Edict of Milan, issued in AD 313, constituted the formal beginning of a major paradigm shift that signaled the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval period. That edict legitimated Christianity and impressed upon it the Empire's stamp of approval. It provided in pertinent part:
We grant both to Christians and to all men freedom to follow whatever religion each one wishes, in order that whatever divinity there is in the seat of heaven may be appeased and made propitious towards us and towards all who have been set under our power. . . . And since these same Christians are known to have possessed not only the places in which they had the habit of assembling but other property too which belongs by right to their body. . . you will order all this property. . . to be given back without any equivocation or dispute to all those same Christians. 2
While the edict was couched in terms of tolerance to all forms of religion, its significance and historical impact lies in the fact that its author, Constantine, was the first Roman emperor openly sympathetic to Christianity. 3
From a theological perspective -- specifically an eschatological one -- the Edict of Milan also signaled a monumental paradigm shift -- from the well-grounded premillennialism of the ancient church fathers to the amillennialism or postmillennialism that would dominate eschatological thinking from the fourth century AD to at least the middle part of the nineteenth century. 4 Yet, as explored below, the groundwork for this shift was laid long before Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313. In the two centuries that led up to the edict, two crucial interpretive errors found their way into the church that made conditions ripe for the paradigm shift incident to the Edict of Milan. The second century fathers failed to keep clear the biblical distinction between Israel and the church. Then, the third century fathers abandoned a more-or-less literal method of interpreting the Bible in favor of Origen's allegorical-spiritualized hermeneutic. Once the distinction between Israel and the church became blurred, once a literal hermeneutic was lost, with these foundations removed, the societal changes occasioned by the Edict of Milan caused fourth century fathers to reject premillennialism in favor of Augustinian amillennialism.
This paper explores these two interpretive errors on the part of the post-apostolic fathers that set the doctrine of eschatology adrift from its secure biblical moorings and resulted in an acute paradigm shift from premillennialism to amillennialism. But first we must address a foundational question: Why do we care? Why does it matter what the early church fathers believed about eschatology anyway? Don't we as conservative Protestants embrace sola Scriptura? Isn't that enough? The answer to these questions is discussed in Chapter Two.
Why Study the Eschatological
Views of the Early Church Fathers