Thursday, February 22, 2007

Postmillenialism and 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff.

As stated in the previous post, I think I am becoming a postmillennialist.

This is a big thing for someone like me who, being brought up in the Brethren Church, only 7 years ago was some sort of dispensational premillennialist. Moving to amillennialism was paradigm-shifting enough and yet, I think, set me on a trajectory that seems now to be heading towards postmillennialism (many of the reasons that persuaded or confirmed me in becoming an ‘a’, when combined with a biblical expectation of gospel progress, more readily fit with being a ‘postie’ - e.g. the Church as the New Israel, the importance and transformation of this creation, the present reign of Christ from heaven through the gospel). In particular, looking at Mark 4, Daniel 2, Psalm 2 & 110 with fresh eyes has been illuminating.

However, last night we had a bible study on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. On the interpretation given during the study, this passage is a ‘problem text' for postmillennialism. Knowing that no doubt postmillennialists have thought about these verses before, and come up with some answers, I thought I’d throw the problems/questions out into the blogosphere and see what comes back (not that somehow the answers given will 'settle' the whole question for me - the point is to aid ongoing thinking and discussion).

1. Several features of the text seem to contain an expectation of the imminent return of Christ. In particular 4:15, 5:4-10.

2. Whilst 1. could be a problem for an ‘a’ position too, it could be argued that it can be more readily reconciled with a position which says ‘Christ could return at any time, all that has to happen is for the kingdom to stretch into all nations’ than with a position which says ‘Christ will return after his kingdom has dominated the globe'.

3. This seems especially to be the case for those verses in 5 where Paul seems to be using the return of Christ like a thief as an incentive to faithful gospel living for the Thessalonian church (would this make sense if Paul believed there really was no way the resurrection day would come during their lifetime? Yes, this gives us problems in an ‘a’ position too in some respects, but the problems ‘seem’ bigger for a ‘postie’).

4. If these verses in 5 refer to Jesus’ ‘coming’ in AD70 (which surely is a possibility), has Paul presumably changed subject from the end of 4? Why the sudden change in subject? Or would a postie position somehow commit us to seeing the the events described in 4:13-18 as about AD70 too (which seems more difficult to my mind)?

5. Similarly, if these verses in 5. refer to Jesus’ coming in AD70 to judge Jerusalem, why does this have the implications it does for the Thessalonians (such that they wouldn't want to be caught unawares by that coming?)? Surely it makes more ‘natural’ (warning, exegetical presumption about the natural reading of this text) sense for the coming in 5:2 to be the day when the Thessalonians will escape wrath and obtain salvation?

NB. I'm already thoroughly unconvinced by the premillennial/'rapture'/dispensational reading(s) of this text that I've heard, so we don't need to go there.

13 comments:

Big Pete said...

Is the new style an optimistic view of blogging?

Pete said...

Yes, it is. The future is bright, so my blog is orange.

Anyway, shouldn't we be being quiet and reflective and that sort of thing?

Where are you at on this whole millennium issue?

Big Pete said...

I am being quiet and reflective by looking at peoples blogs!

Re the mill fun and games. Like the majority of the students here I arrived firmly a-mill. However in the last 6 months I have been challenged by a lot of the discussions on this (yes Ros over coffee). Currently I am still a-mill but with a growing appreciation for the post-mill argument.

I have a nagging doubt though that isn't one particulalry verse but the general tenor of the NT that the doesn't seem to portray the +ve society post-mills are expecting. Also the argument the post-mills use to justify the Jesus return like a thief in the night seems quite unconvincing. Something like 'when all nations are under the rule of Christ etc then Jesus will return like a thief in the night.' I know there will be some still outside the kingdom even in the post-mill view but the repeated warning of Christ's return doesn't seem to fit into the post-mill idea.

Could be wrong, it has happened once or twice before.

Anyway 10 more minutes of quiet day, then more coffee!

matthew said...

Pete

These are great questions, and as a convinced postmill, this is a passage I find quite difficult. Here's my best shot at answering your questions.

(1) Interesting, I'd read 4.13-18 as referring to the final coming in glory of Christ, and 5.1-11 as AD70 (see below), but 4.15 suggests that Paul really does think that the coming of the Lord is imminent (not just possibly imminent), because it sounds like those who are currently alive are left until the coming of the Lord. Dunno what to make of 4.13ff now - more thought required. It does seem problemmatic that in AD 40-odd, Paul thinks that those alive will remain till AD70, but also problemmatic that he'd think that the final coming is so imminent. I'm not sure how 4.13ff would make sense on an AD70 reading. And yeah, I think 5.1ff probably refs to AD70.

(2) Well, maybe. But I think it's a problem for both if you think Paul's talking re the final coming.

(3) Well, I think it's about AD70...

(4) Compare 5.1 with 4.9: "Now concerning..." seems to introduce a change of subject. So it's quite possible that 4.13ff could be about the final coming, with a change to 5.1ff being about AD70. I think that's what's going on, although I think some Postmills would think that 5.1ff is about the final return of Christ. Dunno *why* there's a change in subject, but it seems to me that there is. I agree, hard to reconcile 4.13ff with AD70 (although I've said that about other passages in the past and changed my mind!).

(5) Yes, I think that the day of the Lord is the day to escape wrath and receive salvation. But...remember the context of Acts 17. Paul evangelises in the synagogue, some believe, and then the Jews set the city in uproar, attack Jason's house, drag them before the city authorities, such that Paul and Silas flee. The Thessalonian church is founded, and probably living in the context of intense hostility from the synagogue. For Jewish converts, presumably there is therefore a great temptation to return to the synagogue. Now, in AD70 Jesus and his church are vindicated, and the Old Covenant order is dismantled and judged. Don't want to be part of the people who are judged/experience God's wrath at that point, do you? And if you remain alert you will be vindicated and saved/delivered from those who are currently opposing you as they're put to shame.

Does that make sense? I think it's the best I can do.

Matthew

Pete said...

Thanks a lot Matthew, lots to think about.

Having looked at 4:9 and 5:1 I think I agree that 5:1 clearly brings in a change of subject, whereas 4:13 is a continution of sorts from 4:9-11 (or perhaps parenthetical? or is 4:13-17 parenthetical and 4:18 a conclusion to the subject embarked on in 4:9?).

In that light, the possibility of a change of subject in 5:1 makes more sense (and actually it's only the presumption of an a-mill framework that ties the day of the Lord exclusively to the resurrection day).

Your answer to 5) makes a lot of sense, especially in the light of 2:14-16, where their tribulation and the general tribulation of the church at the hand of the Jews is tied together, climaxing in the promise of God's imminent wrath upon them.

One possible difficulty though is 1:10 where the three ideas of
a) Waiting for the return of the Son
b) Resurrection, and
c) Being saved from the wrath to come

are all interwoven, possibly suggesting a legitimate link between resurrection day and the (imminent?) wrath from which the Church is to be saved. I stress the 'possibly', but the collation of the three ideas is interesting.

I'm aware that these passages create problems for the amill too, and I have a slight dissatisfaction that the way the amill would deal with this problem is by 'fuzziness' of some sorts ('we simply don't know when Jesus will return so no problem Paul seemed to believe it was imminent, even though he knew the gospel hadn't yet reached into the whole world, especially in the AD40s!').

Hmmmm. More thought required.

Pete said...

Pete (other one)

I think most (all?) of the thief in the night passages are viewed as relating to AD70, which solves the problem you highlight.

Of course, a-mills do the same thing, in that Jesus will return like a thief when the gospel has reached every nation/tribe etc. I agree the degree of uncertainty seems greater for the a-mill though, which fits with reading 'thief' texts as being about the very end of history.

I think also that there are a number of texts which, it could be argued, do predict or portray the world/society postmills expect. The difference is that we read them with amill glasses on and assume they are exclusively about what will happen at the consummation. I have some specific ones in my mind but I've got to dash now so I'll post them up later.

matthew said...

Pete

Thanks for your interaction, esp for drawing 2.14-16 to my attention.

I'm not sure what exactly the relationship of 4.9-12 and 13-18 is, but I think you're right 4.9-18 is one section in some way, and it's an amill assumption that day of the Lord = Last Day return of Christ that leads most translations and commentators to link 4.13ff with 5.1ff.

On 1.10, since the resurrection in view isn't the general resurrection, but Jesus' own resurrection, I wonder if it's possible that the coming of the Son from heaven is again AD70, the point of the resurrection here being (a) the vindication of Jesus against "this generation" who killed him and upon whose head is coming the blood of all the prophets and (b) his installation as judge of all, with AD70 being a particularly significant and prominent judgment-act of the risen Christ within history. In which case, they're waiting for Christ-the-vindicated-Messiah-judge to come and judge Israel/Jerusalem, and at the same time, and in the very act of doing that, to deliver them from the (AD70) wrath which is coming. Not sure, but I think it may be possible.

Celal Birader said...

I have read commentators on Matthew 24 who say that some verses simultaneously refer to AD70 *and* to Jesus's second coming. Why cannot 5:1-11 be about AD70 *and* Jesus's second coming as well? If that were the case, would that further support or undermine the case for postmill ? Or put another way, why do feel 5:1-11 must necessarily exclude a reference to Second Coming ?

Pete said...

Celal

Thanks for commenting. I had no idea you read my blog. Welcome. I hope you are well.

Regarding your question, I guess the answer depends on whether you think prophecies have

a. One referent (with many applications, even typological-fulfilment type ones).

b. Many referents.

DF, for example, plums for a. Whereas I guess b. has been the default evangelical position for a while (the old 'peaks of the mountain range' illustration from Fee and Stuart I think).

I have questions about both at the moment, though my main question with a. is whether it properly accounts for the sense in which Christ *fulfils* prophecy (and the OT in general) in a climactic way. An interesting question would be *who is the single referent in the Abrahamic promise?* I am uneasy with seeing Christ as only a typological fulfilment of this promise. But maybe there is a promise/prophecy distinction I'm not getting?

However, I am attracted to a. because it elevates typology, which I've suspected for a long time is actually a (the?) fundamental category for understanding the relationship between successive phases of biblical revelation, especially Christ and all that preceded him. It is (imho) a more fundamental category than prediction-fulfilment.

My question with b. is, if prophecies can have multiple referents, what is the prophecy *actually about*? It leaves things rather vague. The obvious example is the babylon prophecies in Revelation. If Babylon has no single referent then how do we know if the prophecy has/will ever *come true*? It all starts feeling a little supra-historical and possibly gnostic in some way.

A more basic *problem* with the suggestion re. Mtt 24 and 1 Thess would be that there is little indication in the text which *bit*/in what way the prophecy refers to each event (AD70 or 2nd coming) and how we can even tell? Even those very strong on multiple referents would probably feel that the prophecies refer to their various referents in differing ways.

Pete said...

Matthew

Thanks, I think that's atleast a possible reading.

The only *trouble* is that there's a theme in the letter of the coming of the Lord and what seems to be final-end-of-history judgment. See 2:19, 3:13, 4:15 & 5:23. Read in the light of those verses, does 1:10 not seem to be saying that the believers are waiting for that final coming of the Son?

Or maybe I'm missing something/ seeing something that's not there?

btw, does anyone know of any preterist/postmill commentaries on 1Thess, or even just published treatments of this passage? No doubt there are some.

matthew said...

Pete

I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, so I'd better stop. More though required on my part, though I guess I'd want to take each of those verses in turn and think through which "coming" is in view. I'm not aware of a preterist commentary on 1 Thess, but Keith Mathison offers a preterist reading of 5.1ff in _Postmillennialism_. I don't remember what he says, save that I picked up the change in subject in 5.1 from him.

M

matthew said...

On the typology/referent thing: I'm at (a) - one referent, multiple typological fulfilments. And I guess that Fee/Stuart's peaks are typological fulfilments. Within this, can't we just say that some antypes are less significant/final/conclusive than others, with Christ being the big, climactic fulfilment. iow, if R=referent, and f=fulfilment, for many prophecies, I think you get something like: R->f->f->f->f-> ***F*** (Christ), such that ***F*** is in a very real sense far more significant even than R, and is really the thing that R is all about?

Pete said...

Thanks again Matthew

I guess if we're going to *run* with any sort of typological fulfilment of prophecy, and match that with the significance of Christ in redemptive history (both of which we'll want to do if we take the bible seriously) then we've already accepted that there can be an *F* that is bigger and badder than the original *R*.

I'd still like to think about what that means for the promise to Abraham and why, if it was truly fulfilled (R) at one point, would someone expect there to be any typological fulfilments (f) never mind a climactic one (F). I suspect this has something to do with the relationship between what we're saying about prophecy and covenant. Maybe I'll leave that particular one for another day.

And, I'll take a look at Mathison, thanks.