ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATIONS BY ORIGEN, AUGUSTINE, AND THE EARLY ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Clement of Alexandria was a well-known Christian scholar of the 2nd century. He became the head of a catechetical school in Alexandria in 190 AD. While in this post, he wrote three books that have survived. Clement adopted an allegorical method of interpreting the Bible, using Greek philosophy as a means of understanding Scripture. He taught Origen, who became the early theologian of the Eastern Church.
Origen (185-254 AD), considered the greatest scholar of his age, was born in a Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt. A prolific writer, Origen authored more than two thousand works, including commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. Origen was primarily responsible for making allegorical interpretation of the Bible the standard hermeneutic from his time through the Middle Ages and beyond. Because he included many concepts from Plato in his teaching, he is considered a father of both orthodoxy and heresy. It is believed his writing contributed to Augustine’s conversion (nearly two centuries later) to this philosophy/theology. Prior to Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and the liberal school of theology at Alexandria, which spiritualized and allegorized Scripture, a premillennial eschatology view prevailed within the church.
It wasn’t until Augustine of Hippo Regius in Numidia, Roman North Africa, was converted to Christianity in the late 4th century AD that amillennialism became the dominant view of eschatology in the church. Amillennialism doesn’t mean there isn’t a millennium but is just the span of church history in which Christians live, then die, then go to heaven. Christ doesn’t rule and reign from the earth but merely returns to the earth and judges the world. Augustine’s viewpoint became the prevailing doctrine of the Roman Church, and it was adopted with variations by most of the Protestant Reformers along with many other teachings of Augustine. The writings of Augustine, in fact, caused the decline of premillennialism by most of the organized church.
“Augustine conceived of the present age as a conflict between the City of God and the City of Satan, or the conflict between the church and the world. This was viewed as moving on to the ultimate triumph of the church to be climaxed by a tremendous struggle in which the church would be apparently defeated, only to consummate in a tremendous triumph in the second coming of Christ to the earth. Augustine held that the present age of conflict is the millennium. Following as he did the chronology of the LXX, which is somewhat longer than Ussher’s chronology (using the Masoretic text), he found that the Christian era is the sixth millennium from creation. In contrast, the Masoretic text reckons the Christian era begins in the fourth millennium.
This age apparently began somewhat before Christ, according to chronology, but Satan, in any case, was bound during the lifetime of Christ on earth (Luke 10:18). Augustine put it, “This binding of Satan began when the church began to spread from Judaea into other regions, and lasts yet, and shall do until his time be expired.” Augustine considered the progress of the millennium in his day (400 AD) well advanced and predicted the consummation would occur in the year 650 AD. Augustine, however, qualified his date setting. He states: “In vain therefore do we try to reckon the remainder of the world’s years…. Some say that it shall last four hundred, some five hundred, some a thousand years after the ascension. Everyone has his view; it was vain to try to show on what grounds.”
Revelation 20 was, therefore, a recapitulation of the present age, which Augustine held was portrayed in the earlier chapters of Revelation. The present age, for Augustine, is the millennium promised in Revelation 20. Augustine, however, also held to a future millennium to round out the seven millenniums from Adam, which he believed comprised the history of man. This future millennium, he believed, was not literal but is synonymous with eternity – a use of the number in a symbolic sense only. In Augustine, then, we have specific and concrete teaching on the millennium. There is no future millennium in the ordinary meaning of the term. The present age is the millennium; Satan is bound now; when Christ returns, the present millennium will close, and then the future millennium or eternity will begin.
It is clear that in arriving at his conclusion regarding the millennium, Augustine used the principle of spiritualizing Scripture freely. While he did not use this principle in interpreting Scripture relating to predestination, hamartiology, salvation, or grace, he found it suitable for interpreting prophecy. A candid examination of his interpretation leaves the examiner with the impression that Augustine did not give a reasonable exegesis of Scripture involved. Augustine’s doctrine that Satan is bound in this age – an essential of his system of interpretation – is a notable illustration of spiritualized and strained exegesis (cf. Luke 10:18 and Revelation 20:2-3). Nothing is clearer from Scripture, the history of the church, and the Christian experience than that Satan is exceedingly active in this present age against both Christians and unbelievers.
The exegesis of Augustine on Revelation 20, as a whole, fares no better. After concluding that the binding of Satan is synonymous with the victory of Christ in His first advent, he draws the strained conclusion that the first resurrection of Revelation 20:5 is the spiritual birth of believers. The Augustinian concept of the binding of Satan has already been shown to be without Scriptural or historical warrant. Certainly, there has been no real change in the working of Satan in the world and plainly no lack of activity of Satanic forces. The concept of progress and a triumphant church, while not stressed by Augustine in a postmillennial (and/or a millennial) way, falls far short of fulfillment or even significant attainment. The Christin era has been no golden age of righteousness, nor has the church conquered the world. It is more accurate to recognize that the world has, to a large degree, possessed the church.
The Roman Church did not make any significant advances in the doctrine after Augustine, and Protestant teachings did not fare much better. Without attempting, within the limited discussion possible here, an analysis of the whole Protestant Reformation, it is safe to conclude that the early years of Protestantism saw little, if any, advance over the Augustinian view. It is clear that the great Protestant leaders such as Calvin, Luther, and Melanchthon are properly classified as amillennial. As far as millennial teaching was concerned, they were content to follow the Roman Church in a weakened Augustinian viewpoint.
Because of the analytic treatment of amillennialism from a modern viewpoint, it will be sufficient here to observe the broad trend of amillennialism in modern times. For the most part, amillennialists of today, such as Allis and Berkhof, claim to follow in the hallowed tradition of Augustine while admitting the need for adjustment of his view to the actual modern situation. A new type of amillennialism has arisen, however, of which Warfield can be taken as an example, which is actually a totally new type of amillennialism.
The new view instead follows the line of teaching that the millennium is distinct from the church age though it precedes the second advent. To solve the problem of the correlation of this interpretation with the hard facts of a world of unbelief and sin, they interpreted the millennium as a picture not of a time period but of a state of blessedness of the saints in heaven. The new amillennium view requires spiritualization not only of Revelation 20 but of all the many Old Testament passages dealing with a golden age of a righteous kingdom on earth.” 4. Amillenniallism from Augustine to Modern Times | Bible.org
Augustine originally embraced Chiliasm, in which Christ would return to the earth after 6,000 years of history (LXX reckoning). Some early Chiliasts put the date of the Second Coming, the beginning of the literal millennium, somewhere near 500 AD, within mere decades of the sack of Rome. With the sack of Rome by the German Visigoths in 410 AD, the Chiliasts seized upon the catastrophic current events of the day to relate them to Christ’s imminent return (Second Coming). Some even taught that Christians would enjoy wonderfully carnal delights during the millennium, but before then, the world would go through great tribulation.
“Augustine began to believe this literal view of the millennium to be unnecessarily foolish, making Christianity vulnerable to the mocking critique of the pagans. Those who preached about carnal delights in the soon-to-be future millennial reign of Christ had become too ‘worldly’ in their thinking. Instead, Augustine refused to speculate on when the Second Coming might happen. But in order to see how this more thoughtful view fit within his larger understanding of the Bible, he had to rethink the meaning of the millennium.
A renegade but very talented Bible teacher, a man by the name of Tyconius, helped Augustine out here. Augustine did not agree with all that Tyconius taught, but Augustine was intrigued by the idea that the “binding of Satan” in Revelation 20:2-3 happened, not at Christ’s Second Coming, but rather at his First Coming. Christ bound Satan at His work on the Cross in the 1st century AD, at the very beginning of the millennium. Satan’s influence was not fully eliminated, but his power was greatly restrained, at least until he would be later released towards the end of this millennium. Only at the very end of the millennial period would Satan temporarily have his way for a brief time.
So, even if the Roman empire were to perish, it did not mean “the end of the world.” Jesus would still rule and reign in his church. People should put their trust in God and not in political empires. As a result, Augustine understood the “millennium” to be synonymous with the age of the church and that the “1,000 years” should be interpreted figuratively, ending at an unknown time, thus avoiding the temptation of the Chiliasts, who were forever trying to fix dates for Jesus’ return.
Augustine’s argument eventually won the day. The old Roman empire, as the people knew it at the time, eventually did crumble. The northern hordes did further plunder the riches of Roman cities. But the church, over the succeeding centuries, was able to preach the Gospel among these barbarians and eventually win them over to Christ. From those many nations, Christ continued to build His victorious church. This demonstrated that despite the loud rancor of Satan, he was still bound, and his power was limited. The flow of history appeared to vindicate Augustine’s views.
Chiliasm, as associated with the belief in historic premillennialism, soon faded from view, and Augustine’s amillennial interpretation maintained dominance, for the most part, in the minds of Western Christians, until about the 17th century. The fracture of European Christendom, occasioned by the events of the Reformation, led some Protestant thinkers to eventually rethink the meaning of the millennium. But it was not until the 19th-century birth of dispensationalism with its emphasis on God’s future purposes for national, ethnic Israel, and the founding of the modern nation-state of Israel in 1948 that premillennialism once again flourished within the thinking of the evangelical church.” https://sharedveracity.net/2018/02/13/ Why Saint Augustine Changed His Mind About the Millennium | Veracity (sharedveracity.net).
In my opinion, Augustine was searching for another hermeneutic to explain Revelation 20:2-3 other than Chiliasm for pious reasons. He chose to forsake the literal interpretation of a 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth (after Jesus’ second advent) for an allegoric interpretation where the millennium was simply another name for the Church age. Augustine held that the present age of conflict is the millennium, and its duration is indeterminant. This view of allegorizing the millennium spread to allegorizing other prophecies of the Bible relating to future events and eschatology. This change in Augustine’s eschatology resulted in a change in his soteriology as well.
Premillennialism began to die out in the established Catholic Church during the life of Augustine (A.D. 354-430). Chiliasm was suppressed by the dominant Catholic Church but survived through various “fringe” groups of Christians during the medieval period. During the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptists and Huguenots helped to revive premillennialism, and it was adopted among some Puritans during the Post-Reformation era.
During the Reformation era (1517-1648), reformers like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, John Calvin, Hugh Latimer, Nicolas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. They argued for a religious and political redistribution of power to the authority of Bible pastors and political leaders. The key ideas of the Reformation were a call to purify the Church and a belief that the Bible, not tradition, should be the sole source of spiritual authority.
Augustine’s writings were a great influence on these learned men of God. Martin Luther joined the Order of Saint Augustine at Erfurt, Germany, in July 1505 and received a spiritual formation that focused on “Great Father Augustine.” Luther’s theology was heavily influenced by Augustine in spiritual issues of sin, predestination, grace, faith, and interpretation of Scripture. In the development of his theology, Martin Luther turned to the writings and thoughts of Augustine more than to any other individual source except the Bible. This also included an amillennial interpretation of the book of Revelation and other eschatological Scripture.
Like the medieval church before him, Luther rejected a future physical millennial reign and interpreted Revelation 20 as a description of the historical church rather than the end of history. In the present age (after Christ’s death and resurrection), the church must continue to endure the hostility of both the world and Satan until the lordship of Christ is made clear at the end. Luther also had a problem with the Jews. At first, he was sympathetic to their plight and believed they could be converted to Christianity, but when he heard rumors of Jewish efforts to convert Christians to Judaism, his sympathy was replaced with hatred. He believed God had deserted the Jews and turned His attention to the “new Israel,” the Christian church. Luther thus accepted the existing notion that the promise given to the Jews was now transferred to the Church.
“By 1543, Luther proposed seven measures of control should be taken against the Jews in Germany. (1) burn their schools and synagogues; (2) transfer Jews to community settlements; (3) confiscate all Jewish literature, which was blasphemous; (4) prohibit rabbis to teach, on pain of death; (5) deny Jews safe conduct, so as to prevent the spread of Judaism; (6) appropriate their wealth and use it to support converts and to prevent the lewd practice of usury; (7) assign Jews to manual labor as a form of penance.
As a biblical theologian, Martin Luther struggled with the relationship between Jewish (Old Testament) and Christian (New Testament) Scriptures—a struggle not yet resolved. But when Luther concluded that God had rejected the people of Israel, he violated his own theological method. Luther was not an anti-Semite in the racist sense. His arguments against Jews were theological, not biological. Luther was but a frustrated biblical scholar who fell victim to what his friend Philipp Melanchthon called the “rabies of theologians”: drawing conclusions based on speculations about the hidden will of God. Luther erred because he presumed to know God’s will.” Was Luther Anti-Semitic? | Christian History | Christianity Today.
The great preachers in Europe and the colonies in America during the Great Awakening (1726-1760), such as Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, David Brainerd, and others took up the eschatological mantel of amillennialism (and postmillennialism or a combination of both). “Jonathan Edwards, a postmillennialist, believed that the millennium would arrive approximately 1,260 years after 606 A.D. when the Bishop of Rome was recognized as having universal authority. This date of 1886 AD was reckoned by applying the year-day theory of interpretation to the twelfth chapter of Revelation.
Thus, the millennium was imminent, and the revival fires of the Great Awakening could very well be harbingers of the coming age when great progress in technology would free mankind from material concerns to engage more fully in the noble exercises of mind and vital religion. At this time, the kingdom of the Antichrist will be utterly overthrown, and there will be a national conversion of the Jews. Following the millennium will come a period of great apostasy and tribulation, which will be superseded by the personal Second Coming of Jesus Christ in infinite majesty. The saints will be gathered unto their Head, forever to be in his presence, and the wicked will be summoned before the judgment seat of Christ.” The Eschatology of Jonathan Edwards (kevinstilley.com)
“Dispensational premillennialism (sometimes called futuristic premillennialism) developed later than historical premillennialism. It was popularized by John Darby, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, in the 1830s and by Cyrus Ingerson (C.I.) Scofield, who published Darby’s ideas in the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. This eschatological view was popularized in the early 19th century… not discovered. You could say it was re-discovered as there are several examples of dispensational writings that originated very early in the Church.
A sermon by Pseudo-Ephraem (4th-6th century titled “On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World” states, “All the saints and elect of God are gathered together before the tribulation, which is to come, and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins.” Other examples include Codex Amiatinus (ca.690-716), Brother Dolcino (d. 1307), Increase Mather (1693-1723), John Gill (1697-1771), Morgan Edwards (1722-1795), and others.” 5. Survey of Eschatological Views | Bible.org
The greatest development and spread of premillennialism since the early church came in the late 1800s – early 1900s with the rise of U.S. Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism. Starting in the British Isles and spreading to America, premillennialism (in its dispensational form) has become prominent in the Evangelical faith. Dispensational Premillennialism employs a more consistently literal hermeneutic when interpreting eschatological Scriptures than the other views.
Dr. David L. Cooper describes the golden rule of interpretation: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”– Dr. David L. Cooper (1886-1965), founder of the Biblical Research Society.
Clearly, this golden rule has been ignored by some of the great Soteriology preachers of the past, from the early Church to modern times. Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, and O.T. Allis were all Amillennialists who allegorized Scripture “when the plain sense of Scripture made common sense.” John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield were all Postmillennialists who also allegorized much of eschatology and prophecy. They substituted the Church for Israel regarding God’s promises to “His chosen people” when there was no Scripture to substantiate this claim. The great preachers of the early Church, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and modern preachers G.E. Ladd and Alexander Reese all believed in Historic Premillennialism where their eschatological interpretations did not give a reasonable exegete of the Scripture involved (in my humble opinion).
The duration of the Messiah’s kingdom on earth was never given in any of the Old Testament prophecies. Not until Revelation 20 does John declare it will last for 1,000 years, thus the name “millennial kingdom.” Revelation 20 follows Jesus’ 2nd Coming as described in Revelation 19. So, the order of eschatology (study of end things) is established in the book of Revelation. The pre-tribulation rapture is found in Revelation 4. The seven-year-long tribulation is found in Revelation 5-19. The 2nd Coming of Christ is described in Revelation 19. The millennial reign of Christ is found in Revelation 20, and the eternal order with a new heaven and earth is found in Revelation 21–22. The golden rule of interpretation indicates these will all be future physical and literal events and not some kind of allegory.
Jesus spoke of this kingdom as recorded in the book of Acts. After Jesus’ resurrection, and on the day of his ascension, the apostles asked him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” Two angels who stood nearby told them, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:6-7,11). Jesus confirmed His kingdom would come but told them they didn’t need to know when it would come. Why? Well, can you imagine their reaction and despondency if Jesus told them it would be another two thousand years before He returned to restore the kingdom to Israel? They were all expecting it to be within their lifetimes, probably within seven years after Jesus’ death, in order to fulfill Daniel’s prophecy of 70 sevens.
Ever since this time, Christians throughout the ages have been wondering when Jesus would return. The worse things got with persecutions, wars, famine, plagues, etc., the higher expectations became, as Christians in that particular age believed they were experiencing the great tribulation. I would imagine this is why the Jews were so willing to accept Simon Bar Kokhba as their Messiah in 132 AD when he led a ruinous revolt against Rome from 132- 135 AD. This was more than six decades after Jerusalem and the second temple were destroyed in 70 AD.
The early Chiliasts of the 1st – 3rd centuries thought this as they believed Jesus would return after 6,000 years. Hippolytus employed the creation-week typology widely accepted in the west until Augustine. He set the time of Christ’s return to 500 AD. This would be the “sixth day” or 6000 AM (anno mundi) according to the Septuagint chronology. I’m sure expectations for the return of Christ ran high after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, especially for the remaining (but dwindling in number) Chiliasts, as they believed there were only nine decades left until the 6th day (6,000 years) which they speculated (according to the LXX chronology) would occur in 500 AD.
The expectation of the imminent return of Christ always spikes after a major disaster. In the 8th and 9th centuries, it was the invasion of the Muslims. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was the wars of the Crusaders against the Muslims. In the middle of the 14th century, it was the Black Death plague. In the middle of the 15th century, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks. The list is exhaustive and continues unto modern times, with two world wars in the 20th century and a major war between Russia and Ukraine now in the 21st century.
Of course, the number one sign of the return of Christ, especially for dispensational premillennialists, is the return of Israel as a sovereign nation (in their ancient homeland) on May 14, 1948. This should be proof to the amillennialists and postmillennialists that the Church hasn’t (and never has) replaced the nation of Israel regarding God’s promises to them. Another indication we are in the last days is given in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (prevalent sin comparable to the days of Noah and Lot). Also, we now have the technology for the prophecies of Revelation 11:9 and 13:13-18 to be fulfilled. However, the major sign that we are living in the end times before the Tribulation and the Second Advent is the convergence of all the signs given in Matthew 24:3-14 and the other synoptic gospels.
As a modern Chiliast (dispensational premillennialist) with a belief in the millennial week theory, I believe that Christ’s return is imminent. Unlike the 1st – 3rd century historic premillennialists whose chronology was based on the Septuagint text, I believe the correct chronology of the history of mankind is given in the Masoretic text. In this reckoning, major biblical events occurred every 2,000 years. Abraham was born on the “second day” (2000 AM). Abraham is not only the father of the Israelites but the father of all the faithful. “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16).
Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and ascended back to heaven, and the Church was born on the “fourth day” after approximately 4,000 years (4000 AM) of recorded history. “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
According to my reckoning (Chronology of Mankind: 6,000 Years of History Pt 1 :: By Randy Nettles – Rapture Ready), we are now (2023 AD/ 5982 AM) 18 years away from 6,000 years of recorded history according to the Bible and secular historical sources. Seven of those years will be taken up by the future Tribulation, so that leaves 11 years shy of six millennia. If there is a gap period between the Rapture and the Tribulation, that could possibly account for a year or two, which would leave us 9 or 10 years shy of 6,000 years. For a 6000-year chronology reckoning, a .0015 % margin of error would be 9 years. In other words, we are fast approaching the sixth day (6000 AM) milestone in human history. Will something significant and prophetic happen on the sixth day as it did on the second and fourth days? According to biblical history, I believe the odds are pretty good.
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:7-12).
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!