Home » Early Church » History of Millennialism and Chiliasm in the Patristic Age

History of Millennialism and Chiliasm in the Patristic Age

Apostolic and Ante-Nience Fathers in the Second Century

As Philip Schaff noted, “The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism.”[1] Important teachers of this include Pseudo-Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and many others.[2]

In many senses, the Jewish believe in a coming messianic kingdom appears to have been accepted and Christianized by these early fathers.[3] That is, that Christ would come again and reign for a thousand years, that

Out of the Apostolic Fathers, Barnabas is the “only one who expressly teaches a pre-millennial reign of Christ on earth.”[4] The Epistle of Barnabas chapter 15

Papias of Hierapolis also believed in a millennial reign, which he said was supported by Apostolic tradition.[5] According to his student, Irenaeus of Antioch, Papias remarked that:

“As the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand dusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine. And when any one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.” In like manner [the Lord declared] that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear should have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds (quinque bilibres) of clear, pure, fine flour; and that all other fruit-bearing trees, and seeds and grass, would produce in similar proportions (secundum congruentiam iis consequentem); and that all animals feeding [only] on the productions of the earth, should [in those da’ys] become peaceful and harmonious among each other, and be in perfect subjection to man.”[6]

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr also expressed in his works a “millenarian hope,” which is based upon the prophecies of the Old Testament, but also Revelation 20.[7] In a most relevant passage from his Dialogues with Trypho, he mentions that others do not agree, but he must.

“Then I answered, “I am not so miserable a fellow, Trypho, as to say one thing and think another. I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion [A literal millennial], and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.” [8]

Irenaeus of Antioch

Irenaeus, in sharing his views on this, also noted, that this meant that when looking at the promise of the restoration of Israel, that a person shouldn’t allegorize that (Haer 5.35).[9] He argued that the reign of Christ here on earth was a reward for the trials of that the faithful have gone through, but also a preparation for the more glorious creation in heaven (Haer 5.32.1).[10]

Tertullian

Tertullian’s belief in the millennium was based in part on his reading of Revelation, but also on his Montantist beliefs.[11] It also appears that he had a more detailed work on the subject, De Spe Fidelium which has been lost.[12] But his belief can be gleamed from On the Resurrection 25 and Against Marcion 3.24; 4.29 as well as in other places.[13]

So for example, he wrote in Against Marcion: “But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem”[14]

The Montanist Sect

While it is hard to claim with any certainty, that the Montanist, were chiliasts, the fragments of a prophecy which is said to have been written by their founder, would appear to reflect such a belief.[15] Moreover, Tertullian, as noted above held to a chiliastic belief and defended it a work, written after becoming a Montanist.[16] (Refer to the above section for more detail).

Ante-Nience Fathers in the Third and Fourth Century

Third Century

Hippolytus of Rome

Hippolytus, who wrote the oldest known Commentary on Daniel, speaks of the world as coming to an end around 500 years, after the birth of Christ.[17] He further noted, that after this, there would a “thousand-year ‘Sabbath’” which awaited those who believed in Christ and was based upon what is seen in Revelation.[18] See (4.23 cf. 4.10)

Commodian

Commodian (Commodianus)’s views are seen in his work The Instructions of Commodianus in favor of Christian Discipline, 43, 44.[19] He mentions that for a thousand years “flames on the nations, and the Medes and Parthians” will burn before “they are delivered over to Gehenna.”[20] He further relates that after the resurrection, Christ will rule for Jerusalem and the saints will be revived and those who survived the Anti-Christ, “they themselves live for the whole time, and receive blessings because they have suffered evil things; and they themselves marrying, beget for a thousand years.”[21]

See below for Nepos of Egypt.

Fourth Century

Victorinius of Pettau

Victorinius of Pettau beliefs are mentioned in his commentary on Revelation and in his work On The Creation of the World.[22] In On Creation of the World, Victorinus sees that each day of creation was likened to the amount of years given to the earth.[23] He notes how the Sabbath day has not been observed correctly and there will be an eighth day (of a thousand years) where it shall be.[24] “Wherefore, as I have narrated, that true Sabbath will be in the seventh millenary of years, when Christ with His elect shall reign.”[25] He states this more plainly in his Commentary on Revelation. “I do not think the reign of a thousand years is eternal; or if it is thus to be thought of, they cease to reign when the thousand years are finished.”[26]

Lactantius

Lactantius, belief is seen in his Divine Institutes (7.24) and Epitome of the Divine Institutes 71,72.[27] In the Divine Institutes, he makes constant references to the Sibylline chronicles. He expressly mentions his belief in the thousand years, following judgment and the resurrection “of the righteous, who have lived from the beginning, will be engaged among men a thousand years.”[28] In the Epitome again notes that Christ will reign in the Holy City with the righteous for a thousand years.[29] In addition, that Satan will “be imprisoned, that the world may receive peace, and the earth, harassed through so many years, may rest.”[30]

Methodius of Olympus

Methodius of Olympus’ Chiliast comments appears in his works Banquets of the Ten Virgins (9.5) and Discourse on Resurrection. [31] In the former he writes, of the millennium as the true Sabbath.[32] After the day of judgment he writes he’ll “celebrate with Christ the millennium of rest, which is called the seventh day, even the true Sabbath.”[33] Unfortunately, most of his works have not been translated. According to Roger Pearse:“Aglaophon or On the resurrection (Ἀγλαοφῶν ἢ περὶ ἀναστάσεως), in three books.  It refutes the idea of a purely spiritual resurrection. … A small piece is translated in the ANF.”[34]

Changing Views in Nience and Post Nience Fathers

During this period, the methods of interpretation began to shift. The teachers of this period shifted away from a literal interpretation of Revelation and a belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ. Origen is one of the first major opponents of Chiliasm, who viewed the belief as “a Jewish dream,” and preferred an allegorical meaning. [35] Others would join him, such as his student Dionysius the Great who opposed its revival under Nepos in Egypt.[36]

Within this period, as mentioned Nepos in Egypt revived some form of Chilism. Eusebius in 7.24 writes that certain Bishop of Egypt named Nepos taught those under him, an interpretation “in a more Jewish fashion” and that Nepos’ belief in the millennium was “of bodily indulgence on this earth.”[37] Nepos, evidently, wrote a work on his interpretation of Revelation called, Refutation of the Allegorists.[38] Presumably, this work reflected a literal interpretation of Revelation, against a more spiritual idea.

Eusebius then quotes a fraction of Dionysisus’ dispute with Nepos. It should be noted that except for his belief in Chilism, Dionysisus appears to have quite a high regard for this Bishop of Egypt.[39] Furthermore according to his report, Nepos’ book was highly regarded by the brethren in Arisone, and the work well written enough that it took him “three days in a row,” to convince them of a more allegorical approach.

According to what Dionysisus’ relates, Nepos taught that “Christ’s kingdom will be on earth” in a literal sense.[40] He writes of it more negative terms, but that is his point.

As Schaff noted, “crushing blow” came when Constantine converted and the Roman Empire became Christianized. No longer facing persecution and instead seeing a winning Christianity shifted the views of many.[41] This is really the same for both the Eastern and Western side of Christianity.[42] Negative views on such a belief are seen readily among writings of this period, such as Eusiebus of Caesarea, which calls such believes as having “small intelligence” (H.E. 3.39, 13; 7.24.1).[43]

The ODCC article mentions “Millenarianism came, however, increasingly to stress the carnal pleasures to be enjoyed during the thousand years of the saints’ earthly reign and eventually a revulsion against the whole concept set in, initiated by Origen and completed by St Augustine.”[44]

Within this time, period, Apollinarius of Laodicea, is also said to have expressed a chiliastic belief.[45] (His heretical views concerning Christ, however would not endure the position to others). “Epiphanius (anac. 77:36–38) states that Apollinarius expected persons to rise with resuscitated physical bodies and to observe both male circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws.”[46]

Augustine in his earlier career, expressed “an austere  version of the millennial hope” (Serm. Mai 94.4; Sermon 259.2; C Adim. 2.2).[47] For example, “Therefore, the eighth day signifies the new life at the end of the world; the seventh day, the future rest of the saints on this earth. For the Lord will reign on earth2 with His saints, as the Scripture says.”[48] Or as he noted in Answers to Adimantus “But just as we are told of that rest of God’s after the making of the world, so on the seventh day, that is, at the end of this age, we shall attain the rest that is promised to us after the works that we have in this life, if they are righteous works.”[49]

Augustine shifted away, however, from Chiliasm and instead formed a new theory which reflected the millennium as symbolic of the Church age. From that period, Chiliasm, was no longer a major belief and was often tied to heretics, even among the Reformers.[50]


[1] Schaff, 2:614.

[2] Schaff, 2:614.

[3] Schaff, 2:614.

[4] Schaff, 2:615.

[5] Schaff, 2:615-616.

[6] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 33, Section 3, In ANF 1:562.

[7] Braian E. Daley, “Chiliasm” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 1:238

[8] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chap. 80, in ANF 1:239.

[9] Daley, 1:238.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Schaff, 2:618.

[12] Schaff, 2:618.

[13] Schaff, 2:618.

[14] Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 3, chapter 24, in ANF 3:342.

[15] Daley, 1:239.

[16] Daley, 1:239.

[17] Daley:1:239.

[18] Daley, 1:239.

[19] Schaff, 2:618.

[20] Commodian, Instructions, 43, ANF03

[21] Ibid., 44.

[22] Schaff, 2:618.

[23] Victorinus, Creation of the World, ANF07

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 20.6, ANF07

[27] Schaff, 2:618.

[28] Lactantius, The Divine Institues, 7.9, ANF volume 7.

[29] Lactantius, Epitome of the Divine Institutes, 72. ANF7

[30] Ibid.

[31] Schaff, 2:618.

[32] Methodius, Banquest of the Ten Virigins, 9.5, ANF 6.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Roger Pearse, “The works of Methodius,” http://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2011/10/28/the-works-of-methodius/ Accessed 5/5/2013.

[35] Schaff, 2:618-619.

[36] Schaff, 619.

[37]Eusebius, 7.24, in my eusebius book

[38] Ibid. Check with AYBD, ODCC, and Schaff?

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Schaff, 619.

[42] Daley, 1:329.

[43] Daley, 1.329.

[44] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Millenarianism.”

[45] Daley, 1:240.

[46] AYBD, s.v. “Chiliasm.” Check.

[47] Daley, 1:240.

[48] Augustine, Sermon 259.2 in New Translations of the Church Fathers, 368-69.

[49] Augustine, Answers to Adimantus, A Disciple of Mani, 2.2 in The Works of Saint Augustine: The Maichean Debate, ed. Boniface Ramsey, (New City Press, 2006), 177.

[50] Schaff, 619.

[51] ODCC, “Millenarianism.”

 

 


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