A. J. Gordon, D.D.
Part III Chapter I.
The Reformation was virtually a republication of the gospel; it was the Christian era beginning anew, and repeating in substance the primitive features of the religion of Jesus.
The historical school of interpreters have found in the tenth chapter of Revelation a graphic and powerful prefigurement of this event: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven clothed with a cloud; and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire; and he had in his hand a little book open.” From the description of this mighty angel we can hardly fail to identify him with the glorified Christ, the Angel of the Covenant, as already pictured in this book (1:13-16). There is the same countenance “as of the sun shining in his strength,” the same mighty voice, and the same burning feet. The conception seems to be that of Christ appearing in history to reaffirm His testament. But that which identifies this representation most certainly to our mind is its likeness to a similar scene in the Old Testament, a point hitherto overlooked, so far as we are aware. For the keys to the Revelation are generally found in the Bible itself, events of its history being so paralleled or reproduced in the Apocalyptic imagery as to render the meaning apparent.
Now the scene of the second giving of the law, as described in Exodus, seems to be substantially rehearsed in this chapter of the Apocalypse in order to figure the second giving of the gospel. The circumstances were identical. As the tables of the law had been destroyed on account of the idolatry of Israel, so now the statutes of the gospel had been annulled by the gross idolatry of the papacy. But, God having commanded Moses to hew two tables of stone, like unto the first that were broken, the servant of God stands upon Mount Sinai holding the tables in his hand. “And the Lord descended in the cloud,” (Ex. 24:5). So in the second giving of the gospel we behold “a mighty angel come down from heaven clothed with a cloud.” There is the same “proclaiming” with a loud voice in either instance. “The pillars of fire” to which the angel’s feet are likened complete the identification, so that we have the pillar and the cloud in both scenes. “Behold I make a covenant before all thy people,” says Jehovah on the mountaintop. In the Apocalypse this renewed covenant is graphically symbolized by the bow overarching the angel: “And the rainbow was upon his head.” Moses, with the two tables of testimony in his hand received anew from Jehovah, and the one addressed in the Apocalypse with “the little book open,” received from the hand of the angel, —this completes the parallel. And if we may conclude, with many commentators, that the “little book open” is the gospel restored after its long suppression by the idolatrous Church, then the verisimilitude is most striking between the restoration of the law and the restoration of the gospel.
How such truths as justification by faith blazed out anew from the reopened Testament at the Reformation is well known; and the long-lost doctrine of Christ’s glorious appearing as the hope of the Church could not fail in like manner to be revived as soon as the Scriptures were unchained. We do not say that primitive Chiliasm was restored in its entireness to the creed of the Reformed Church. Attention was so much occupied with the saving truths of the gospel that its sanctifying hopes were not duly emphasized. Beside there were gross and repulsive caricatures of ancient millenarianism appearing here and there to create revulsion from the true. Satan’s tares were not only sown in Christ’s newly-ploughed field, but they were so rank and forward in their growth as to forestall attention, and prevent the real wheat from being recognized when it should appear. But this fact is very noticeable, that, as the features of Antichrist began to be descried (to catch sight of) in the papacy by the Reformers, the mind inevitably went forward to Him who was to destroy this Man of Sin “by the brightness of His coming.” So ripe was the apostasy, so near seemed the epiphany; so developed was Antichrist, so imminent seemed the coming of Christ. Clear and intelligent were the voices that began to break forth from among the disenthralled subjects of the pontiff. “The world, without doubt, —this I do believe, and therefore say it, —draws to a close. Let us, with John, the servant of God, say in our hearts to our Saviour Christ: Come, Lord Jesus, come.” 1 So spoke Ridley in 1554; and his fellow-martyr for the truth, Cranmer, said likewise: “We ask that His kingdom come, for that as yet we see not all things put under, Jesus Christ. . . . As yet Antichrist is not slain. Whence it is, we desire and pray, that at length it may come to pass and be fulfilled; and that Christ alone may reign with His saints, according to the divine promise, and live and have dominion in the world according to the decrees of the Holy Gospel, and not according to the traditions and laws of men, and the will of the tyrants of this world.” 2 And Hugh Latimer spoke to the same intent: “Let us therefore have a desire that this day may come quickly; let us hasten God forward; let us cry unto Him day and night, ‘Most merciful Father, Thy kingdom come.’ St. Paul says: ‘The Lord will not come till the swerving from the faith cometh,’ (2 Thess. 2:3), which thing is already done and past. Antichrist is already known throughout the world: wherefore the day is not far off. Let us observe for it will one day fall on our heads.” 3
These are testimonies which gleam with the light of martyr-fires already kindling upon their confessors, —fires which were sent to purify that hope which is itself the purifier of the saints. As an old coin stamped with the image of some forgotten king, but so worn by use that the royal countenance has disappeared, yet being subjected to a powerful heat gives back the obliterated face again to the beholder, so the image and superscription of the coming Christ, our advent Redeemer, long effaced from the gospel by idolatry and vain philosophy, reemerged in the martyr-fires of the Reformation; and once more men read and repeated the words thereon: “Behold, I come quickly.”
As to the other reformers, Martensen, the eminent Danish theologian, has expressed his regret that when Luther and his coadjutors, under God, set their hands to recover the primitive faith, they should not have restored apostolic millenarianism, and given it a place in the reformed creed. But Luther did not reject it, though this has been alleged. “The Jewish opinions” so pointedly condemned in the Augsburg Confession, which he assisted in drafting, really had reference to the notion of a millennium in the flesh, or the setting up of the kingdom of God in this present evil age and before the advent. Some extreme Anabaptists had exhibited this travesty of a sacred truth, and in carrying out the idea had stirred up sedition and brought scandal upon the Protestant movement. At these the disavowal was aimed. 4 The article in question really condemns the post-millenarianism now so greatly in vogue among us. It reads: “They condemn others also, which spread abroad Jewish opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall get the sovereignty in the world, and the wicked be brought under in every place.” That the godly will not get the sovereignty of the world, and subdue the wicked before the resurrection at Christ’s coming, is what true Chiliasm has always avowed.
How strongly the principal reformers emphasized this view, as against the notion of world-conversion and regeneration before the advent, now so widely accepted among religious teachers, will appear from two or three quotations. “Some say,” writes Luther, “that before the latter day the whole world shall become Christians. This is a falsehood forged by Satan that he might darken sound doctrine. Beware, therefore, of this delusion.” 5 And John Knox, the intrepid Scotch reformer, likewise declares: “To reform the whole earth, which never was, nor yet shall be, till that righteous King and Judge appear for the restoration of all things.” 6 Of the unfitness of the conception of the kingdom appearing before the King, of the triumph of the saints before the triumph of the Saviour, John Calvin thus speaks: “Christ is our Head, whose kingdom and glory have not yet appeared. If the members were to go before the Head, the order of things would be inverted and preposterous; but we shall follow our Prince then when He shall come in the glory of His Father and sit upon the throne of His majesty.” 7 These selections sufficiently indicate how strongly the negative aspects of Chiliasm were maintained by the Reformers. When we hear their positive avowals of the certainty and imminence of the Lord’s second advent, their position becomes even more clearly defined. Hear Knox in his letter to the faithful in London, in 1554: “Has not the Lord Jesus, in spite of Satan’s malice, carried up our flesh into heaven? And shall He not return? We know that He shall return, and that with expedition.” Luther in his weariness of the Reformation battle cries out affectingly: “There is no more help or counsel upon earth except in the last day. I hope, too, that it will not be much longer before it comes; I believe that the gospel will become so despised that the last day cannot be far off, not over a hundred years. God’s Word will again wax less and fall off, and great darkness will come for want of true and faithful ministers of the Word. Then will the whole world run wild, sensual, and live in all security without reflecting. Then shall the voice come and sound, ‘Behold, the Bridegroom cometh,’ for God will not be able longer to endure it.” 8
If the excesses of certain Anabaptists prejudiced Luther and his associates so that they did not give millenarianism that recognition in the reformed theology which it deserved, the fidelity of others of this sect— “many of whom,” says Harnack, “need not shun comparison with the Christians of the apostolic and post-apostolic ages” —had much to do with keeping it alive in Christendom. This, Harnack distinctly recognizes, declaring that, while the Reformers followed too much the teachings on this subject which had prevailed in the Catholic Church since the time of Augustine, “millenarianism nevertheless found its way, with the help of Apocalyptic mysticism and Anabaptist influences, into the churches of the Reformation, chiefly among the reformed sects, but afterwards also into the Lutheran Church.” Of these reformed sects we can only speak briefly. The lineal descendants of the Anabaptists—John Bunyan’s spiritual kinsmen and fellow-sufferers in England—presented a confession to Charles II., which embodies “the purest early Patristic millenarian doctrine of any creed in modern times.” There were apostolic names among the more than twenty thousand Baptists who, in giving their adhesion to this document, declare: “We are not only resolved to suffer persecution to the loss of our goods, but also life itself, rather than decline from the same.” The confession contains a touching avowal of the pilgrim condition of Christ’s disciples until His advent, on which event their hopes are placed: “Though now, alas! many men be scarce content that the saints should have so much as a being among them, but when Christ shall appear, then shall be their day: then shall be given them power over the nations to rule them with a rod of iron; then shall they receive a crown of life which no man taketh from them.” If the Westminster Confession was less explicit so far as giving any formal expression of Chiliasm, it at least sets the hope of our Lord’s ever imminent return into conspicuous prominence, declaring: “Christ will have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come.” With the Evangelical party in the Episcopal Church this has been so strong a conviction and article of faith as to render them its most conspicuous champions in modern times.
Among the fathers of Congregationalism, especially those who planted the gospel in America, the ancient doctrine was strongly held and ardently preached. New England theology was in the beginning as deeply colored with millenarian hopes as primitive Christianity itself. The Mathers, who preached in the city in which we write, and whose sepulchres are with us to this day, were bold confessors of apostolic Chiliasm; and considering how strongly other eminent men of their day echoed their sentiments, Davenport, Spaulding, and Walley, we must conclude that this precious faith had found another blooming period in connection with this eventful planting of the gospel. But, alas! as in the beginning this doctrine was wrecked on the philosophy of Augustine, so now it disappeared before the mighty logic of Jonathan Edwards. For, in his “History of Redemption,” though he speaks clearly of the literal advent and resurrection, the millennial hope of God’s Church is so spiritualized and attenuated as to be utterly unrecognizable; and from his day the Church, of which he was so eminent a light, has drifted more and more toward that post-millenarianism which may have had not a little influence in producing the baleful fruits of eschatology now ripening among us.
All that we can give in our brief space is only the merest outline of the renaissance of millenarianism. The clearest traces of the revived hope of the Church, however, appear in the noble line of Apocalyptic expositors—a true apostolic succession—beginning with Joseph Mede, born in the same half century in which Luther died, and coming down to Elliott in our own century. Their way is like the path of the just that shineth more and more unto the perfect day; in their hands the prophet’s lamp glows with ever-brightening beam towards the millennial dawn. Indeed, whenever men have turned from dogmatics to Scripture, a revival of millennial views has been inevitable. So it was that when the great evangelical exegete Bengel appeared, and began to unchain the Word of God and allow it to speak for itself, such an impulse was given to advent truth that, according to Hengstenberg, “Chiliasm obtained an almost universal diffusion through the Church.” 9 And yet, as ever, there were many adversaries. Of Bengel, Dorner says: “His works were the first cock-crowing of the new kind of exegesis the Church so greatly needed.” But before the cock-crowing was fairly heard, the advent faith was thrice denied by the incredulous question: “Where is the sign of His coming?” For in the same century with Bengel wrote Whitby the Arian, the author of that “New Hypothesis” in eschatology called post-millennialism, which now rules so largely in the theological schools of this country, —a spiritualizing system whose ultimate tendency has been to obscure the doctrine of a literal advent, a literal resurrection, and a literal kingdom, and to put far off the day of the Lord. Just as Judaizing conceptions brought the doctrine of the millennium into disrepute in the early ages by carnalizing it, so this interpretation has tended to discount it in our times by spiritualizing it. Once more, however, has come a reaction towards the ancient teaching. For in our own generation has been witnessed such a flaming-up of the torch of primitive adventism as has not been known since the first century. The learned exegete and the humble Bible-reader—the one searching with the critical eye of scholarship, and the other with the single eye of faith—have reached the same conclusion, and joined to sound out together the cry, “Behold, He cometh!” What eminent expositors are today standing forth to give their bold adhesion to this much-maligned doctrine! What eloquent preachers have risen up to sound out the cry, “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh!” What ardent evangelists are going through the land bearing in their hands the relight lamp of prophecy, opening and alleging that “this same Jesus, who was received up into heaven, shall so come in like manner as He went up! “What gifted poets have tuned their lyres to this exalted theme, so that now, “with their garlands and singing-robes about them,” they are heralding with Milton, their choir-leader, “the eternal and shortly expected King!” What crowded assemblies are gathering for conference and mutual encouragement concerning this lofty theme! All these things constitute an undisputed sign of that greater sign, “the sign of the Son of man in heaven,” coming to heed at last the sigh of groaning and travailing creation, to renew the face of the earth, that it may be to the Lord “for a name, for an everlasting sign, that shall not be cut off.”
1 Lamentation for the Change of Religion.
2 Catechism of Edward VI., 1553.
3 Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer,
4 “And as at the time, among other calumnies, this blame was also cast upon us, as if the gospel taught and encouraged rebellion and undutifulness toward authorities, we had, by these words of the Confession, to free ourselves of such imputations.” [Melancthon’s Works, vol. 26, p. 366.].
5 Commentary on John, 10:11-16.
7 Psychopannychia, p. 55.
9 “To whom else do we owe it that the Orthodox Church of the present time does not brand the Chiliastic view of the last times as a heterodoxy, as is done in almost all the manuals of dogmatics, so that there is scarcely a believing Christian now who does not take this view?” [Delitzsch].
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