Evangelical Christians have of late been quite fond of domesticating their theology to the cool rationalism and academic standards of contemporary scholarship. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in recent trends in the realm of eschatology. If you interact with evangelical New Testament scholarship at any level, you quickly come to realize how “out of fashion” it is to be pre-tribulational. Right now, the hip thing is to hold a post-tribulational eschatology (among the premillenialists, anyway), which is even dubbed with the hip sounding if not somewhat misleading moniker, “historic premillennialism.” For these types, the exacting and inductive exegesis of pre-tribulationalism seems too strained to be true.^ Moreover, pre-tribulationalists have those quirky “Left Behind” books on their side (an admitted embarrassment to the doctrine), and dispensationalism has throughout its history been spotted with its fair share of “date-setters.” Who does not cringe when the locusts with stingers in their tail (Rev 9:7-11) are equated with artillery-equipped helicopters? After all, the church, and “historic” Reformed theology in particular, have never been so–well–strange as those quirky pretribulationalists.
Well, not so fast.
Henry Chadwick notes that date setting was going on even among the early church fathers:
Millenarian belief originated in a fusion of various strands. Babylonian astrology contributed the notion of millenial periods under the seven planets. Psalm 89.4 (‘A day with the Lord is as a thousand years’) provided a key for the interpretation of the seven days of creation in Gen. i; and the Epistle of Hebrews (iv,4-9) interpreted the sabbath as a symbol of heavenly rest. By putting these elements together it was natural to form the notion, found in Irenaeus and Hippolytus, that world history will last 6,000 years leading up to a seventh millennium under the reign of Christ.*
Another example would be Jonathan Edwards and his theological climate. This is how Marsden summarizes it:
Like almost all Protestants, [Jonathan Edwards] saw the Church of Rome as the Antichrist that would be defeated in the last epoch of human history before the millennium. Guided by other expositors, he had made literal calculations from biblical prophecies and worked out a scheme for when these events were likely to take place. One conventional Protestant interpretation of prophesies concerning ‘the beast’ in Daniel and the Apocalypse, for example, was that Antichrist or the papacy would be defeated 1,260 years after the rise of the papacy. Edwards followed those who said that A.D. 606 marked the Pope’s ascendancy, so that meant the decisive blow against papal power was likely to occur around 1866.**
In assessing such apocalyptic thinking, we must be reminded that such expositions of biblical prophecies were commonplace among some of the best thinkers of the era. Isaac Newton is the most prominent example. ***
I am not here advocating or defending date-setting; I am very much opposed to it. My point with these observations is that throughout the history of Christianity, its eschatology has frequently had a certain “strangeness ” about it in its speculations concerning the prophecies in the Bible yet to be fulfilled. Before we romanticize about past eras and “historic” views of different doctrines, we should realize that sometimes history is not so neat and tidy.
Moreover, though no one ever gives it as the reason for embracing or rejecting a certain doctrine, we do move with trends and fads more than we realize, and we ought to be careful about moving towards or away from any doctrine because of its current “hipness” or “unhipness.” The power trends have on our reasoning process (particularly that of younger theologians) should not be underestimated; ideas that are perceived to be in fashion (whether that perception is conscious or not) do by that fact gain an advantage in persuasiveness. Much has been made of late of how “hip” it is at present to be “Calvinist,” and this too will change. Woe to us if even our theology is based on trends.
^Actually, Bruce Ware is ‘pretrib,’ and he’s pretty hip.
*Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Pelican Books, 1967; repr. New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 78, n. 1. Origen was the first prominent Christian writer who subverted more “liberal” eschatological views (see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (2d ed.; London: Adam & Charles Black, 1960), 473.
**George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale, 2003), 88-89.