The Protestant Reformation and Premillennialism

Rolf Sons

Martin Luther (and the other Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century) caused immeasurable transformation to the church by demanding reform. They declared the theology of the church in Western Europe to be a deviation of biblical, apostolic teaching. The rallying call of the Reformers was sola Scriptura, which meant the Bible alone was their authority, in contrast to the pope, church councils, or tradition. In calling the church to live with the Bible alone as her authority, the Reformers did not attempt to transform their eschatology.

The neglect to apply the principle of sola Scriptura to all Scripture has resulted in many Christians denying a literal, plenary interpretation of the Bible. For instance, the historical portions of the Bible are considered allegorical, and the prophetic sections of Scripture suffer an even worse fate.

The Reformation (1500-1650) was a theological revolution, and biblical interpretation also witnessed a transformation because of it. Ramm wrote, “Although historians admit that the West was ripe for the Reformation due to several forces at work in European culture, nevertheless there was a hermeneutical Reformation which preceded the ecclesiastical Reformation.”1 Zuck explained the forces at work as “the literal approach of the Antiochene school and the Victorines.”2 The legacy of scholasticism was also a contributing factor to the Reformation, since the biblical languages were revived during this time. Men such as Luther and Calvin returned to the biblical text and the natural attractiveness of the more scientific, literal interpretation of Scripture.

The importance Luther gave to literal interpretation also meant an emphasis upon the original languages. Rejecting allegory, Luther emphasized sensus literalis. He stated, “We shall not long preserve the Gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained.”3 Nevertheless, one must be more than a philologist, historian, or even theologian; the Holy Spirit must illumine the mind of the interpreter. “Luther called for a ‘simple’ or ‘literal’ reading of Scripture that relied on neither philosophical distinctions nor complicated, formalized theological arguments of objections and replies.”4

Luther’s writings were filled with eschatology, but he was not a revolutionary (dissimilar to some of the sixteenth century Anabaptists). He interpreted events in his time as fulfilling prophecy. Thus, current events, such as the so-called 1529 apparitions, the heat wave subsequent to the solar eclipse of 1540, the spread of syphilis, and the changing water level of one of the commercial waterways of central Europe were interpreted as signs of Christ’s return.5 The papacy was considered the Antichrist and the Turks were regarded as the Antichrist’s servants.6 Luther’s identification of the Antichrist meant “the last day is at hand” and the end of history was near. Luther viewed his present time as that of great tribulation, which would be climaxed, without delay, by the return of Jesus Christ.7 Sometimes he spiritualized the millennium, whereas other times Luther taught that the millennium had already passed. Luther did set dates for the end of the age, and for the most part believed he was somewhere in between the millennium and the end of the age.8 John Calvin also believed the papacy was equivalent to the Antichrist.9

Luther did not develop his eschatological views systematically, because the priority of his emphasis was upon soteriological issues; thus, he could maintain the amillennial (Augustinian) perspective of Roman Catholicism. The Reformers abandoned the allegorical method of interpretation (characteristic of Catholicism) in all areas but eschatology. Amillennialism is the prophetic viewpoint of the Catholic Church, and it was also the prophetic viewpoint of the great Reformers. The reason that the Reformers retained the amillennialism of Catholicism was due to the time in which they lived. They did embrace a grammatical-historical interpretation of the Scripture in regard to soteriology and ecclesiology. Since eschatology was not a major issue, the Reformers did not have the opportunity to apply their hermeneutic consistently.

By the late 1500s and early 1600s, premillennial interpreters began to flourish, as a consequence of biblical interpretation during the late Reformation period. During the nineteenth century, the French Revolution and the actions of Napoleon anguished Christians, which caused some to fear that the Emperor may be the Antichrist; thus, a renewed interest in biblical prophecy developed. For instance, Lady (Theodosia) Powerscourt held one of many meetings that sought to address prophetic concerns. John Nelson Darby (1800-82) was invited to the Powerscourt Conferences of 1831 to 1833, which had a lasting influence upon him. The transition from the present church age to the millennial kingdom, in which Israel had prominence under Christ’s rule, was understood by interpreting the seventieth week of Daniel 9 as future. Based upon his resolute belief in a literal interpretation of Scripture, he developed a precise design for eschatological events. Darby believed in a distinction between Israel and the church that extends into eternity. He also taught that dispensations are economies of God, and that the church age is a parenthesis. Darby first began to articulate his views of a pretribulational rapture and to develop his dispensational thinking during convalescence (from Dec 1826 – Jan 1827). By 1833, he developed a complete systematization of eschatology, or what is known as premillennial dispensationalism.

Although dispensationalism was not systematized as a doctrine until the 1800s, with John Nelson Darby, there were individuals throughout the history of the church who affirmed a dispensational system of some variety. Two early dispensational proponents include Baptist James R. Graves (1820-93) and Presbyterian James H. Brookes (1830-97). Dispensationalism was communicated widely by means of annual Bible conferences, such as the Niagara Bible Conference (1878-1909), and numerous publications. Either a Bible institute/college or seminary, which articulated dispensational teachings, was founded in almost every principal metropolitan region in the United States. Initially, dispensationalism was taught among Baptists, Bible and independent churches, and a significant number of Presbyterian congregations. Many of the Pentecostal denominations, such as the Assemblies of God and The Foursquare Church, adopted dispensationalism, and it was also dominant within the charismatic movement throughout the 1960-70s. While dispensationalism is still widely taught among evangelicals and fundamentalists, its influence first began to dissipate within academia in the 1950-60s. Dispensational teaching also declined in the 1980s, as more charismatics, evangelicals, and Pentecostals became concerned with social issues.

Undeveloped aspects of dispensational theology can be identified prior to the nineteenth century, especially among the early church and even centuries prior to Darby. Classical dispensationalism (ca. 1878-1940s) is a term denoting the theology of dispensationalists—both in the United States and United Kingdom—between the writings of Darby and Lewis Sperry Chafer (especially the latter’s multi-volume Systematic Theology). The interpretative notes within the Scofield Reference Bible are representative of classical dispensationalism. One significant aspect of classical dispensationalism was the dualistic notion of redemption, with regard to heavenly and earthly purposes. Revised (modified) dispensationalism (ca. 1950-70s) is a designation adopted from the 1967 revision of the Scofield Reference Bible. Revised dispensationalists rejected the eternal, dualistic distinction between earthly and heavenly peoples, with emphasis instead upon the two peoples of God (Israel and the church), each with different responsibilities dispensationally, yet both eternally saved in the same manner. Another important emphasis was the rejection of two new covenants, one for national Israel (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:7-12) and one for the church (Luke 22:20). Progressive dispensationalism (1980s-present) denotes a recent development that is regarded as abnormal from classical (traditional) dispensationalism, particularly as these dispensationalists perceive more continuity between Israel and the church. Progressive dispensationalists also affirm an “already, not yet” aspect to the Davidic reign of Jesus Christ, which means the Lord’s reign is “already” inaugurated (as He reigns upon the throne of David in heaven), albeit complete fulfillment of the David reign is “not yet” as it awaits the future millennial kingdom; therefore, the Father’s throne and the Davidic throne are synonymous.

Throughout the history of dispensationalism, there has been systematic development since the time of Darby. Modern dispensationalists continue to develop and refine dispensationalism; however, progressive dispensationalism remains controversial for introducing fundamental changes to dispensationalism, as progressive dispensationalists are perceived as departing from refinement of the views of former dispensationalists and introducing drastic revision. By the early twentieth century, dispensationalism became the most popular evangelical system of theology.

The Reformers endured such incredible persecution under the Catholic Church that it was only natural to spiritualize Scripture and understand the pope to be the Antichrist (it is, therefore, understandable why the Reformers developed their conclusions!). The Reformers abandoned the allegorical method of interpretation (characteristic of Roman Catholicism) in all areas but eschatology. Amillennialism is the prophetic viewpoint of the Catholic Church, and a non-literal millennium was also the prophetic viewpoint of the Protestant Reformers. The reason that many of the Reformers retained the amillennialism of Catholicism was due to the time in which they lived. They did embrace a grammatical-historical interpretation of the Scripture in regard to soteriology and ecclesiology. Since eschatology was not a major issue during the Reformation, the Reformers did not have the opportunity to apply their hermeneutic consistently; yet when that did occur, it lead to the revival of premillennialism (which originally was held extensively by the early church). As the church celebrates the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, believers can be thankful for the revival that ensued in reasserting the gospel of grace through faith in Christ alone, and how the interpretative revitalization led to the renewal of ancient premillennialism.

1 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, 3rd rev. ed. (1970; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) 51-52.
2 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Victor, 1991) 44.
3 Theodore G. Tappert, ed. and trans., Luther’s Works, gen. ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) 4:114-115.
4 Marit Trelstad, “Scholasticism as Theological Method,” in Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation, 2 vols., ed. Mark A. Lamport (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) 2:694.
5 Luther’s Works, 54:134.
6 Ibid. 54:346.
7 Ibid. 54:134.
8 Richard G. Kyle, The Last Days Are Here Again (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 61; Gordon H. Johnston, “Reformation Hermeneutics,” in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, gen. ed. Mal Couch (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996) 164.
9 John Calvin, Commentary on First John [online] (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed 29 June 2017) available from

Midnight Call - 09/2017

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