The Millenium: What the early church believed, part 2 of 4

In my last entry I began the conversation regarding the hope of the early church, specifically as seen through a short analysis of the Epistle of Barnabas and Tertullian.  I consider these two individuals to be the bookends in the discussion of historic premillennial eschatology. I mentioned before that there is a distinction between historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. One might summarize the difference in these views as one that holds a premillennial eschatology in a general sense with an expectation of Christ’s return and theocratic rule (historical) and one that holds it in a specific sense, with an eye towards specific fulfillments before, during and after the return of Christ (dispensational). It’s the difference between a flannel-board summary in Sunday school and a detailed reading of the Left Behind series. This is not to say that the early church only casually acknowledged a premillennial expectation but simply to say that it was understood in a less complex fashion.

As we continue with our look at the hope of the early church, we turn to Justin Martyr. Justin was an early Christian apologist (defender of the faith) born around the turn of the second century. He gives us many personal details in his writings. His early studies centered on the pursuit of philosophy. He was Gentile by birth and converted to Christianity after years of “soul-searching” through various philosophies. His conversion came upon the directive of an old man he met while walking along the sea shore. Through this shoreline conversation the mysterious man proceeds to expose the flaws of Platonic thought regarding the soul compared to the infinite wisdom of Christ and the Prophets. Justin describes his conversion through this encounter saying, “When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable” (Dialogues, 8.1). From this point on he would only be possessed by the true philosophy, that of the Wisdom of God’s Word. We will see now how his defenses of the Christian faith reveal a premillennial eschatological hope.


Justin Martyr’s Apologies

According to Daley, Justin is “the most important and innovative of the apologists.”[1] His two Apologies as well as Dialogue with Trypho were intended to provide a defense for the Christian faith to both the Roman and Hellenized Jewish worldviews.[2] When reading his apologies, one can clearly discern the accusations to which Justin is responding. While answering claims of incest and cannibalism, Justin points to the moral uprightness of Christians and begs the question, “Who else is like us Christians?”[3] The reason for being so, Justin says, is because Christians are looking forward to a next state of life to which those in Christ will live with him and those apart from him will be punished. This future hope drives Christians to share that hope with others through good deeds and upstanding citizenship, and leaves them fearless in the face of persecution.[4]

When reading Justin, and early church writings in general, resurrection language is brought to the forefront. In regards to eschatology, the resurrection receives much more time in ink than mentions of a future millennium.[5] Specifically within Justin’s apologetic writings, he takes a stand against the persecution of Christians based solely on the title “Christian.”[6] In this and subsequent writings we see Justin playing the role of responder. In fact, Justin’s theology is revealed as one continuous response to outside objection. The persecution of fellow Christians awoke Justin and gave him impetus to establish exactly what Christians in his day believed, and how outside accusation should be considered false.[7] A.W.F. Blunt makes the observation that Justin’s Apologies are nothing spectacular in regards to writing and construction, yet they do contain moral distinction and a “reverence for truth and nobility of character.”[8] He also makes the statement that Justin’s arguments are not well formulated and his sentence structure is often weak.[9]

In briefly summarizing Justin’s Apologies, the intention is one of response. His task was to provide a defense for the Christian faith by answering each objection with truth statements and facts regarding the Christian life. In his Apologies, the focus is placed more so on comparison of Christians to other peoples in the attempt to halt the smear campaign against them. In so far as he did this, he “lays great stress on the Christian expectation of coming judgment and reward.”[10] This the expectant hope of a Christian, however, his Apologies do not establish a succinct premillennial view. For this, we will now turn our focus to Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.

Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue is a piece to which Justin converses with the Hellenized Jew, Trypho. Thomas B. Falls surmises that the details may be fiction, but the “broad outline appears to have been founded in fact.”[11] He continues to state that Trypho is most likely a Jewish refugee from the previously ended Bar Kocheba revolt (ca. 135).[12] This dialogue sets out a defense for Christianity against Judaism. This writing takes a somewhat less reactionary tone, as with the Apologies, however the goal remains the same. According to Keith Hopkins, the goal of Justin’s Dialogue “was to show that Christianity was predicted by and had superseded Judaism…and that Christianity was superior to and incorporates pagan philosophy.”[13] So what are the claims made within the Dialogue as it relates to historic premillennialism?

It is in the Dialogue where we see Justin’s claim towards a millennial kingdom most clearly. Justin relates the temporary inheritance of Joshua with the eternal inheritance found in Christ.[14] An explicit exposition of the millennial kingdom is laid out in chapters eighty and eighty-one of the Dialogue. In these passages, Justin quotes Isaiah 65:17-25 regarding the blessed state of the new Jerusalem and concludes his remarks by stating that this place is the millennium written of by the apostle John in Revelation 20:4-6.[15] This conclusion is espoused in response to Trypho’s question regarding whether or not Christian’s truly believed that they were to rein with saints of old in a New Jerusalem.[16] While the tone of Justin’s Dialogue is not as confrontational as it is in his Apologies, one can still sense an air of reactionary response within his writing. As claimed earlier by Daley, Justin’s writings were aimed at providing a defense towards Romans and Hellenized Jews, and with his Dialogue, he sets out to convince the latter.

Summarizing Justin

Justin’s task is one of response. He seeks to react to the world around him and in doing so, provides a basis for Christian beliefs as held within the second century church from which he writes. He responds to persecution as well as false claims against the Christian faith. He puts forth arguments for the importance of resurrection in the flesh, which runs in tandem with a future hope ultimately found in Christ and a New Jerusalem of the millennial kingdom. He is not a systematic theologian, and as Blunt previously notes, his overall style is somewhat lacking. However true this may be, he sets forth writings that undoubtedly reflect the second century church. What is even more important, is that he sets the stage for someone who will work on Justin’s heels and respond to the current day heresies found within and around the church. In the work of Irenaeus, he sets forth to defend the faith not just from baseless claims but also from spiritual teachings that twist Scripture and the message of Christ. Irenaeus responds in such a way that solidifies the historic premillennial view of the early church.

[1] Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 20.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Kaye, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (London: Griffth Farran Browne & Co., 1800), pp. 19-21; 36-37.

[4] Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 21.

[5] This conclusion is based solely on my reading and research for this essay. The material regarding the second century church’s hope of resurrection is much more accessible than writings which speak to the hope of a future millennium following the return of Christ.

[6] Kaye, The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, 5.

[7] Ibid., 2-3.

[8] A.W.F. Blunt, The Apologies of Justin Martyr (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), pp.xi-xii.

[9] Ibid., xi.

[10] Daley, The Hope of the Early Church, 21.

[11] Trans. Thomas B. Falls, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), xv.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity (New York: Free Press, 1999), 330.

[14] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 169.

[15] Ibid., 125-127.

[16] Ibid., 125.


2 thoughts on “The Millenium: What the early church believed, part 2 of 4

  1. Thanks for these posts buddy. I am learning from them. I especially appreciate the distinguishing between historic premillennial and dispensational premillennial—I’ve been curious about the difference but haven’t had the time to look into it. Looking forward to parts 3 & 4!

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