Christ's Return and the Westminster Confession of Faith

 

Gordon H. Clark

 


 

No one knows the date of the day of judgment nor that of Christ's return. Yet some people have foolishly attempted to set the date. What is more possible, though it has given rise to divergent views, is the attempt to list in chronological order the various events that immediately precede, accompany, and follow Christ's return.

The Confession [Westminster Confession of Faith] has very little to say on Christ's return. Its last chapter gives a relatively full account of the judgment, but only in the last few phrases of Section III. is Christ's return mentioned at all. Yet it would seem that there is more material in the New Testament on this subject than on the identification of the Pope as the antichrist. Historically this lack of balance is understandable; but theologically it is unfortunate. Because the struggle with Rome centered on justification by faith and the sole authority of the Bible, the order of events concomitant with the second advent was not a matter of discussion. Calvin, for example, though he wrote commentaries, wrote none on Revelation.

For the last hundred years, however, the details of eschatology have evoked a great deal of interest. Before World War I there was a theory widespread that the Gospel would permeate the world, that nearly everyone would accept Christ, that therefore a millennium of righteousness would be introduced, after which epoch Christ would return to earth. This is the theory called postmillennialism. David Brown, last century, wrote The Second Advent in its defense. This seems to have been the view of St. Augustine also, as may be seen in the City of God, Book 22, last chapter, where he speaks of an age of rest following the present age but preceding the resurrection and the eternal state.

In this century postmillennialism is not so popular. One reason for its decline in popularity is the disillusionment caused by two World Wars. The Christian missionary enterprise in Asia seems to have been a failure; Africa may go communist; and the moral collapse in the United States is no harbinger of a righteous society. If the Bible really predicts a rule of righteousness ushered in by the ordinary preaching of the Gospel before Christ returns, such an epoch must be located in the far distant future, contrary to devout hopes for an early advent. Of course, too, Scriptural material is used to convince us that there will be little or no faith on earth when Christ returns.

Premillennialism is a second view of the Lord's return. It is simply that the course of history continues with its wars and rumors of wars, getting no better and very likely worse, until Christ comes in flaming fire to take vengeance on them that obey not the Gospel, and to set up a rnillennial kingdom of righteousness. This view was held by such scholars and exegetes as Alford and Zahn.

Dispensationalism is a species of premillennialism that has attracted more attention than the scholarly views of Alford and Zahn. In addition to the idea that Christ comes to initiate the millennium, dispensationalism teaches that Christ comes again twice rather than once: he comes secretly and then seven years later he comes publicly. It also denies the doctrine of the covenant and holds that some men have been saved and other men will be saved apart from the sacrifice of Christ. Further, dispensationalism teaches that the Reformation, instead of being the greatest spiritual awakening since the apostles, is represented by the church at Sardis in Revelation 3:1 and was an epoch of deadness and works that are not perfect. Obviously the present writer is a little less than enthusiastic about such a view; but what is particularly peculiar is this: even if some of the dispensational details should be true, how can people that honor the Bible put such tremendous emphasis on these details, while at the same time they pay little or no attention to some of the much more important doctrines? For a critical analysis of dispensationalism we suggest 0. T. Allis' Prophecy and the Church.

Because dispensationalism has brought premillennialism into disrepute in some quarters, there is renewed interest in a third view, amillennialism. This is the simple view that there is no millennium at all. Christ just comes and heaven ensues. The amillennialists claim that the Westminster Confession favors them, though one researcher asserts that the Westminster divines were postmillenarians. The Confession itself asserts neither the postmillennial or premillennial view. Nor does it assert amillennialism. In the Larger Catechism there are phrases about a general resurrection that do not favor premillennialism. But whether the authors of the Confession individually accepted one view or another, they refrained in the Confession from either asserting or denying a future millennium.

The Reformers were in general opposed to premillennialism. Just as in the early church some people interpreted Christ's death as the payment of a ransom to the devil, and so, illogically, brought the idea of ransom itself into disfavor with later liberal theologians; so too the extravagances of the chiliasts or millenarians in early Protestant times brought the premillennial idea into disfavor. The Westminster divines, however, were wise in avoiding a choice among these views: the subject was not ready, nor is it yet ready, for creedal determination. Loraine Boettner, whose book The Millennium is one fourth a defense of postmillenarianism and two thirds an attack against premillenarianism, makes a notable statement on page one, which ought to be reaffirmed by advocates of all three views:

"Each of the systems is therefore consistently evangelical, and each has been held by many able and sincere men. The differences arise, not because of any conscious or intended disloyalty to Scripture,"

but, may I add, because there are disagreements in exegesis.

Because there is much interest in and study of the subject at present, a few considerations and a little exegesis will be here appended. Of the three views the denial of a millennium seems least tenable. The Bible in four consecutive verses explicitly mentions a period of a thousand years. Further, the passage refers to conditions on earth rather than in heaven because during the period Satan cannot deceive the nations as he formerly did, and after the period he deceives them again. This period of time may come before or after Christ's return, and the accompanying events may be in one order or another, but the Bible definitely predicts such a period in history.

Nor is it true that the idea of a millennium is found only in Revelation 20. The designation a thousand years is found only there, but predictions of a future rule of righteousness are frequent. For example, Psalm 72 says, "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea . . . his enemies shall lick the dust . . . Yea, all kings shall fall down before him, all nations shall serve him. Another familiar example is Isaiah's prophecy about a time when the nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares and learn war no more. Such passages as these ill accord with the denial of a millennium of righteousness.

If, now, the Scripture predicts a millennium, obviously Christ must return either before it or afterward. Of these a reason or two may be mentioned for preferring premillennialism. First, to return to the Book of Revelation, if this book allows any place at all for Christ's return, it is chapter nineteen. An amillenarian interpretation that would deny any reference to Christ's return, other than Revelation 22:7,20, would be an incredible interpretation. It is impossible to believe that the Apocalypse never refers to the greatest of all apocalyptic events. The dispensational view that Christ returns between chapters three and four is a wild, unsupported speculation. Accordingly, if Christ's return is mentioned in chapter nineteen, it comes before the thousand years of chapter twenty.

It is often objected that the book of Revelation is highly figurative and that therefore we must be guided by the literal passages in the other books. This is a sound principle. But regardless of how figurative it is, and how doubtful many of its identifications may be, the points mentioned are as clear as any literal language could make them.

After these positive considerations it may also be noted that objections to premillennialism often sound peculiar to the ears of its advocates. Without extending the discussion unmeasurably, overlapping objections by four gentlemen may be offered as samples.

The Lutheran theologian I.A. Dorner argues that premillennialism disparages the Gospel in that the victory of Christianity is not secured by what God has already given, but depends on events other than preaching. If this objection were sound, it would rule out Christ's return altogether, and the resurrection of the saints as well, for these events are not the effects of preaching. Dorner, fortunately, is not consistent and does not use his objection to deny these events.

The Baptist theologian A. H. Strong, who explicitly puts the millennium before Christ's coming, argues that the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 requires a literal, physical resurrection of the saints, whereas I Corinthians 15:44,50 "are inconsistent with the view that the resurrection is a physical resurrection ..." This is a strange argument, for Strong himself says, "The nature of Christ's resurrection, as literal and physical, determines the nature of the resurrection in the case of believers" (Systematic Theology, Vol. III, pp. 1008, 1011, 1012, 1018).

Charles Hodge also uses the same odd argument and contends that there cannot be a literal resurrection when Christ returns, after which the saints dwell on earth and share the glories of Christ's reign here, because "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God" (Systematic Theology, Vol.111, p.843). But Christ in his glorified body walked on earth.

A. A. Hodge insists that the view is Jewish in origin and judaizing in tendency. But, we recall, the idea of the Covenant is also Jewish in origin, and the Confession does not disguise its dependence on the Old Testament along with the New. In fact, so far as an alleged judaizing tendency is concerned, the fault of many premillenarians, which fault we do not condone by any means, is rather an antinomianism that sharply contrasts with the legalism of the judaizers.

It is no doubt true that the dispensationalists deny the present kingship of Christ and contradict the teaching of Ephesians on the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Church, the body of Christ. But arguments against a heretical sect are irrelevant when applied to a view that is free from these unscriptural positions.

Now, finally, much is made of the Scriptural scheduling of many events at the return of Christ, and the conclusion is then drawn that all these events are simultaneous. But the Scripture does not speak of the coming of Christ in the ordinary English sense of an arrival. The Greek word is parousia, and it means presence, rather than coming. It is used in pagan literature to denote a king's tour of inspection. During the tour many things can happen at different times, and yet all are "at" his presence. Hence it cannot be insisted upon that all that occurs at Christ's Parousia must be simultaneous. Various events can be placed at various times during the span of the millennium.

There is one advantage, however, that so-called amillennialism has over the nineteenth century form of postmillennialism. By the assertion that there is no reign of righteousness in the far distant future, only after which Christ can return, amillennialism allows us to hope that Christ will return soon.

This blessed hope, as the first few paragraphs of this chapter indicated, sustains one's equilibrium and equanimity under the intolerable moral and political conditions of this century.

Peoples that have not emerged from savagery have a vote in the United Nations and help in their irresponsible way to control our lives. Communistic Russia was granted several votes in that unfortunate organization, but the United States has only one. Delivering China from the terror of Chiang Kai Chek to the beneficent rule of the Reds can be explained only as insanity sent by God to punish a disobedient people. Within the United States, republican government is breaking down under the impact of mob demonstrations. And the college population wallows in liquor and lewdness.

The world is very evil; the times are waxing late.
Be sober and keep vigil; the Judge is at the gate:
The Judge that comes in mercy, the Judge that comes in might,
To terminate the evil, to diadem the right.

We look forward to and hope for the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, when he shall have dominion from sea to sea, when his enemies shall lick the dust, when all kings shall fall down before him and all nations serve him. Even so come, Lord Jesus.

 


What Do Presbyterians Believe? Gordon H. Clark. Presbyterian and Revormed Pub. Co. Nutley, NJ. 1965, chapter 33, pages 268-273.