Some Remarks at the Dawn of the New Millennium
The transition to the new millennium has come and gone with great festive fanfare, but with hardly a hitch in terms of global problems and difficulties. Doom theorists were quickly put to silence and the world continued as before. Most of us are getting used to the novel habit of writing 2001 in our diaries and cheque books, and the busy pace of life has for many hardly allowed much reflection on the significance of the transition from one millennium to another.
However, from the perspective of faith this transition is important, and the dawn of a new millennium represents a significant milestone for the world, and especially for the church of Christ. It certainly forms an incentive for us to discern the times! For partly due to the perceived threat posed by the Y2K problem, and partly due to the general climate of relativity and change in which we live, there are today a wide range of prophesies and predictions of imminent doom coming over the world. And the religious market has joined the parade as well, for one can purchase a good deal of books that make predictions concerning the end time realities that are dawning upon our world. Armageddon seems to be nearby! 1
My objective in these articles is to suggest that although the change to a new millennium itself is very significant and noteworthy, we need to approach it through the glasses of Scripture, that is, with a spiritual view on the unfolding events of our time. Also our calendar with its unique system of dating falls under the providence and guidance of God. So even though we are aware there may be some minor inaccuracies associated with this dating, we speak of the “year of our Lord 1999,” the “year of our Lord 2000” and the “year of our Lord 2001.” The passing and changing years still fall under the lordship of the risen Son!
From a strictly historical point of view, the church entered the second millennium at 1000 A.D. Contrary to the opinion of many there is not much evidence supporting a widespread social upheaval around that date. 2 Whether Pope Sylvester II, the pope of the day, held a special mass is even disputed, and at any rate, it was not long before everyone realized that the world was just continuing as before, and that the dawn of the new millennium, although in itself a significant milestone, did not bring any special cosmic or extra terrestrial manifestations with it.
The same may be said as we enter the third millennium. Most if not all of the predicted manifestations of chaos and upheaval did not materialize. The regularity of the seasons in a new millennium is a testimony of God’s faithfulness. However, we can say that the marks of disorientation and social instability are more pronounced than ever before. And that forms reason enough for the church to be more vigilant in changing times.
Fervour in the Air!
There is no doubt that we live in times of increased instability, times of greater foreboding with regard to the end of the world. Perhaps it is a sense of emptiness and doom that contributes to tragedies like Littleton, Colorado and Taber, Alberta. Certainly a sense of the apocalyptic and the imminent end of the word pervades events like the David Koresh burning at Waco, Texas, and the gruesome suicide of the followers of Beep Bop who thought they were getting on to Haley’s comet. We could mention things like the Oklahoma bombing, cult murder-suicides in Quebec (order of the Templars) and so on. A lot of events show the down side of dabbling in the dangerous waters of excessive, misdirected spirituality.
In all this, we need to distinguish between the millennium as dictated by our calendars and the millennium as a concept sparking excessive radical movements. Here the use of the terms are related, but not the same. The first meaning of the word simply points to a period of 1000 years on the calendar. The second meaning includes and suggests in it the related ideas of a special or distinct period of time set apart for special divine purposes. Although the idea itself has strong roots in the Old Testament, the term “millennium” was first used to describe the “thousand-year” reign of which John speaks in Revelation 20:1-6. The period described there was often – and still is – taken in a literal way, but then it was often given its own special twist. So the term “millennium” was also associated with the coming of a golden age of one kind or another. Often this golden age was seen more as discontinuous with our normal time, or as a rapturous culmination of it, rather than an actual part of calendar time that we live by today. So over the years the term millennium has broadened out to include many groups, actions and movements that have expected an imminent future period of glory to be ushered in by God at any specific predetermined date. Hence we also speak of millenarian movements which have crossed the path of the church’s history from time to time, and still crosses that path to this very day. And the change to the year 2000 functions for many as a catalyst and spawning ground for the breeding of these sorts of ideas. 3
What are these millenarian movements like? Movements of spiritual excess, or millenarian movements have been around a long time. Many of them have chosen their own dates for the world’s end, and still today many predictions are being devised on the basis of our calendar marking the imminent end of the world. We are going to take a look at these movements to remind ourselves that these things going on today have a good deal of historical precedent. But such an exercise has the additional benefit of reminding us that we must not go beyond what God has revealed to us in his Word. Scripture itself gives clear indications concerning the signs at the Lord’s return to his people. We do not need to conjure up theories, prophesies or fantasies beyond this revelation. And if we stick to what God has revealed in his Word, we find that there is no need for overdramatic reactions, but we may continue with our regular task in confidence and trust as we look forward with greater intensity to the day of the Lord’s return.
One of the first of the sects to pose a danger for the church was the group called the Montanists. 4 Montanus was a self-styled prophet from Asia minor, who preached the dawn of the new Jerusalem in a town called Pepuza, in about the middle of the second century. He had two women prophetesses who joined him in his movement, Maximilla and Priscilla. Montanus called himself the Paraclete, and he called the age that dawned with his own appearance as the age of the Paraclete. His followers were called “spirituals” and promoted such things as glossolalia, prophesies, visions, and other ecstatic experiences. They also promoted what is called asceticism, that is, the practice of a rigorous life style marked by avoiding any earthly pleasures or pursuits.
The Montanists have many features, but we want to isolate strictly those that are important for our topic. As we isolate some of these features, we notice many similarities to millenarian and ideas and cults today. First of all, Montanus prophesied an imminent end of the world. He promoted the establishment of an ideal society in the new Jerusalem, which was to descend from heaven on to Phyrgian soil. The coming of the heavenly Jerusalem would mark the dawn of Christ’s one-thousand-year reign. Hence this is one of the first millenarian cults of the Christian era. Just as you see among cults today, Montanus summoned all true Christians to come to Phyrgia to await Christ’s return in fasting, prayer, and repentance.
Montanus espouses, on the one hand, a freedom of the spirit. All people shared the gift of the Spirit, both men and women. So there was no need for special offices. Yet on the other hand, a strict and rigorous discipline was maintained. In order to truly be prepared for the golden age one had to refrain from foods and marriage. He promoted a rigorous policy of fasting, and a renunciation of marriage. He also rejected infant baptism, and promoted a believer’s baptism, that is, the baptism of those who had joined his sect. Above all, his teaching was marked by a renunciation of the world and all its gifts and goods.
Marks of the Millenarian Sect
So the contours of the spiritualist and millenarian sect become clear. These sects go beyond what is revealed. They claim to have received prophesies and visions directly from God that go beyond the Bible, and then set dates concerning the imminent return of Christ. They also exhibit elitist tendencies, and claim to have graces of the Holy Spirit that exceed those found normally among the people of God. In effect, they take elements of the divine and internalize them. Hence the ancient sin of the first-century sects known as the Gnostics is revived. They taught that there is an element or spark of God within you, and your participation in and experience of the Holy Spirit determines how life must be ordered all around you. And that, in turn produces a rigorous legalism, a life style determined by strict human laws and regulations.
Here legalism and millenarianism go together! That is understandable since, like legalism, millenarianism too has its roots in the Judaism of the pre-Christian era. 5 With the rejection of the Messiah as revealed by God, the Jews developed an extravagant apocalyptic theology. They coined all kinds of surrogate ideas to amplify and embellish the end-time themes of the prophets. But these were apocalyptic constructions born out of minds that had deviated from the line of the scriptures. Besides using Jewish apocalyptic, Montanus also borrowed from Gnostic literature, and mixed all this with isolated prophecies from the Old Testament.
Another feature of Montanism is the element of radicalism dominating the sect. Tertullian later joined the Montanists but he was never quite as radical as the Montanists were, and later developed his own group. The radicalism of the Montanists implied an impatience with and intolerance to any form of accommodation to human weakness in the church. Of course, the church must radically turn away from sin. But she must deal with sinners in compassion and with temperance. Not so the Montanists! Tertullian, a milder Montanist, held that a second marriage constitutes adultery. But the strict Montanists said that even the first marriage is to be rejected as a distraction from the preparation for true visionary and revelatory experiences. They were spiritualists, and so become rigorous and exacting in their demands upon people. In these demands the good gifts God had granted in creation were despised and demonized.
The Medieval Era
Although there were sporadic movements of excess throughout the early mediaeval era, it is not until the twelfth century that major apocalyptic movements rise again. It seems that as the church went into periods of serious decline in doctrine and moral behaviour, these groups began to spring up again. In the twelfth century one finds the rise of sects like the Cabbalists (Jewish) and the Catharists (Christian). Both of these sects were influenced by Gnosticism and mysticism, and promoted an other-worldly ideal.
Joachim of Fiore
The foremost figure in the medieval period with millenarian overtones is a Cistercian monk in southern Italy called Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202). This brilliant monk followed Montanus in dividing the history of the church into three periods according to the persons of the Trinity. The first age was the age of the Father or of the law; the second was the age of the Son or the Gospel; the third age, to which Joachim was working, was the age of the Paraclete. He saw himself as the new prophet, the one called to prepare people for the golden age. Only, at this point the golden age is different. It is the age marked by the monastic life, a life of study and contemplation, free from the shackles of luxury and the corruption of the world. As Cohn puts it, “the world would be one vast monastery in which all men would be contemplative monks rapt in mystical ecstasy and united in singing the praises of God.” 6
Joachim taught a period of incubation which preceded each period of history. The period of incubation for the first stage of history lasted from Adam to Abraham, for the second from Elijah to Christ, and so for the third from Benedict to himself. Using the figure of forty-two generations, taken from Revelation 11:2, Joachim was able to set the date for the dawn of the judgment and Christ’s return at about 1260, (see also Revelation 11:3 and 12:6). Later, when this date passed without any dramatic occurrences and so left Joachim’s disciples in bitter disappointment, the order of the Franciscans took their cue from Joachim’s theology, and developed their rigorous ideal of poverty on the basis of his messianic predictions. Thus, even though the world did not end at Joachim’s scheduled date, the spirit of radicalism and world flight championed by Joachim was perpetuated within the walls of the official church, and there arose a distinct party of opposition to the predominate spirit of luxury and excess that marked the church, and especially the papacy, of that period.
With Joachim, even though the context has changed, the same millenarian features as one finds with Montanus return. For him the Bible is not enough. And like Montanus, he becomes the herald of a new millennium and a new golden age, the age of the Spirit. This age is marked by rigorous asceticism, freedom from the shackles of world and flesh. One really wonders whatever happened to the women in Joachim’s world, for aside from all those entering the convents, they really do not exist at all. Here again, the old Gnostic error returns: spiritual elitism, world flight, and more concretely, a turning away from the concrete cultural task that the Lord has given to the church. The mundane or everyday tasks of life are considered to belong to a lower realm, the realm of evil or the devil, and the new rule promotes a contemplative existence in which all the desires of the flesh are sublimated to a heaven-connected and heaven-driven ecstasy in which the soul finds ultimate union with God. 7
It ought to be clear by now what exactly is going on in this millenarian movements. They are in fact using the millennium idea to introduce a strange, non-biblical dualism into Christian doctrine. For behind the radicalism and legalism these groups espouse, there is the dominant conviction that created gifts, too, are to be rejected as ungodly and sinful. Joachim himself believed in a thousand-year reign before the return of Christ, not after it. He was in that sense, an early postmillennialist.8 But in fact his model was one which pictured a golden age of an entirely different order than normal life as we experience today, a utopia rather than a millennium.
What was true of Montanus was also true of Joachim, although to a lesser extent. Joachim based his schemes and constructions on the Scriptures, but took a very literalist approach to them, and basically superimposed his view of history upon them. He divided the Old and New Testaments into seven parallel periods, and each numerical pattern in the Old Testament had a counterpart in the new. Here again, as is characteristic of the sects, the Scriptures become the pawn of a preconceived apocalyptic visionary model, and man’s ideas take precedence over God’s Word.
The Post Reformation Period
Let’s take one more step on the path of the church’s history, this time after the period of the Reformation. After the Reformation took root in Germany and Switzerland, and later in France and Holland, a radical movement arose, sometimes (quite erroneously) called the “radical reformation.” It was not a reformation at all, as later events have clearly shown. The movement became known as Anabaptism, and was also associated with a host of millenarian ideas.
The Anabaptist movement is very complex, and for the sake of brevity we can only draw some brief and cursory lines. Finding its beginnings in Switzerland, it developed different manifestations in different regions. The name of this movement appears to indicate that baptism is the chief issue at stake in the doctrinal stance of the Anabaptist. But this is really a misnomer. The practice of adult baptism is only symptomatic of the essential issues underlying the movement, and not the key point. If you look closer, you see that this movement too is millenarian, and combines all the elements that we found in Montanus and Joachim: spiritual elitism, legalism, and an accompanying radicalism.
The sharpest contrasts in Anabaptist thought were seen in Holland and Germany where it really developed. The father of the Dutch Anabaptist movement was Melchior Hoffman, a tanner by trade, who began preaching the Lutheran doctrines in Northern Germany and Denmark shortly after Luther’s famous fallout with the Pope in 1520. Later he ended up in Strassburg, and there developed his visionary ideas. Strassburg was going to be the new Jerusalem, and Christ would institute his millennial reign beginning in 1533. He proclaimed himself a “witness of the Most High,” and he announced the coming of the two apocalyptic witnesses, Elijah and Enoch, of whom he was the former. He began to write provocative letters to the city authorities about the coming end time, with the result that he was arrested and imprisoned, and he remained in prison for the rest of his life. The mode of response he enjoined on his followers was pacifism and quietism. Condemning the civil authorities as agents of the antichrist, he maintained that the kingdom of Christ was coming and one must quietly wait for it. One must let himself be imprisoned for Christ’s sake.9
Here all the features found in Montanus and Joachim resurface, but in a new context and under new conditions. Fundamentally, the dualistic spirit is even much more radical here, in the light of the rejection of the reformatory thrust of the gospel (Calvin!). This was not only a complete misrepresentation of prophecy, but also a failure to respect the limits of prophecy. It seems that as the church rediscovered the riches of the Biblical message, the devil did his worst to undermine it by sending forth ambassadors of revolutionary excess. A spirit of radicalism rules the day similar to that promoted by the Montanists. The end time is pulled into the present, and the division between the wheat and the tares must be manifest right now. There can be no waiting, and no patience with infirmities.
A Reign of Terror
This radicalism flips over into an activist and revolutionary Anabaptist thinking in Holland a short time later. Hoffman was a pacifist, and preached the passive and quiet waiting for the new kingdom to arrive. But an impatience with the existing world order and the existing structures was already implicit in his thought. It was only for others to take the next step. Where waiting no longer brings results, you take matters in your own hand. Here the same old spiritualist-gnostic heresy attacks the church. Apocalyptism and world flight go together. One abdicates his duties of everyday life, and begins preaching the imminent end of the world, claiming to share divine visions and revelations exceeding those revealed in Scripture. 10
The new leader of the Melchoirites (as Hoffman’s followers were called) was Jan Matthys, the baker of Haarlem. He said that there can be no more waiting; one must take up arms and realize the kingdom of God himself through his own actions. No longer was Strassburg the centre of the arrival of the final kingdom. God had rejected it because of disobedience (worldly passivity), and so now Münster in Westphalia became the new candidate for this dubious honour. 11 In 1533, Matthys, with his partner Jan of Leiden, managed to take control of the city and institute a new order. Attacked by the forces of the bishop, they engaged in what they saw as a “holy war” in 1534, a war in which Matthys lost his life.
After the fall of John Matthys, his partner Jan of Leiden came on board and took control of the leadership in Münster. Born in 1509 as an illegitimate son, Jan quickly rose to influence through his oratorical skills. Once in control in Münster, he called himself the king of the whole world. Community of goods was introduced with an appeal to the Old Testament (Abraham and David). He sent apostles out in every direction to proclaim the arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem. A wild rampage of murder, bloodshed and polygamy followed.
Indeed, many Anabaptists of a later period shuddered at the horrible abuses practiced at Münster and other places. Later, the polygamy, the shameless nakedness in Amsterdam, and so on, all disappeared after this early stage of revolutionary Anabaptism. But in principle the ideological and religious perspectives of the later Anabaptist and Mennonites really do not differ that much from these earlier figures of excess. The same spiritualist-gnostic dualism lies behind the one as well as the other, and there is one line from Hoffman to the Anabaptists and Mennonites of our day. The one tends to pacifism and escapism as a weapon to negate the existing forms and structures of society, and the other tends to revolutionary activism. But both have essentially a contrary and revolutionary position over against the real world. There is a love for what they called the “holy congregation” but a rejection of historical patterns as they have unfolded in a specific historical context. The old Gnostic and Montanist error shows itself again, influenced by revolutionary thinking. Not the deliverance from sin stands out but the deliverance from the supposed shackles of the material world.
The central issue in Anabaptist thought concerns the extent of reform and the view on the existing world. Luther and Calvin championed deliverance from the bondage of Rome, which was for them the deliverance from sin and the deliverance from false worship. But behind the thinking of the Anabaptist was the idea of deliverance from the creational ordinances that God has placed on human life, a rejection of natural ties and relationships. Essentially this represents the ancient dualism of Gnosticism, the dualism between nature and grace, and the same principles of world flight that they espoused. And because of this basic misreading of Scripture, the Anabaptist rule was: we can no longer wait! Hoffman’s taught: “Now is the last time! The hour of judgement has come. The witnesses have arrived, and we stand at the dawn of the 1000 year reign.”
Back to the Present
Since the time of the Anabaptists there have been many more radical millenarian movements traversing the church’s history. Especially in England and the United States they have many interesting names like the Ranters, the Shakers, the Quakers and the Seekers. We cannot go into them all. See Cohn 307ff. 12 Even among the Baptists, a very influential group in America today, one finds links to the Anabaptist of the sixteenth century. And among the later sects like the Taborites you find links to socialist and Marxist thinking. In every age people want to escape the shackles of the real world with its divinely given norms and create a utopian world of peace and bliss for themselves, apart from God, but definitely with a god of their own making, whether a pseudo-religious one, or an entire secular or materialist one.
In the United States, millenarian ideas are found among many extreme Pentecostal sects, and also among the more deviant sects like the Jehovah Witnesses, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Mormons. And of course, America as the “land of promise” has for years been the foddering ground for various forms of millenarian notions which people try to import into Christian doctrine: the premillennialists, the postmillennialists, and another noteworthy variant, the dispensationalists who normally also add a 1000 year reign to their scheme of dispensations into which they have divided the history of the world.
In all this, despite many variations and forms, we can trace a recurring theme: people promoting their own prophecies, visions and dreams, and giving them a divine authorship above and beyond what God’s Word teaches. Ultimately it means claiming that the spirit of the divine lies in you, and by virtue of the divine spark in you, you may make absolutely binding statements that go beyond what God has revealed. It becomes the devil’s ruse to turn one away from the concrete place and task God has given to the church in the world.
The church needs to be on guard against movements of this kind. And you can expect that around the change of the millennium this way of thinking explodes exponentially, and more proponents of it are appearing all the time. 13 The marked increase in social and political unrest also adds fuel to the fire, giving us a greater number of prophets of doom and gloom. But the church must not easily be led astray by false prophets. We have quite enough by looking to the Scriptures themselves.
The Sign of the Times
If one judges his time with an open Bible then we can see that the signs of which Christ spoke concerning the close of the age are being fulfilled. In his so called “farewell discourse” of Matthew 24, Christ speaks of wars and rumours of wars, of widespread apostasy and unbelief, excessive opulence and luxury, and a spirit of revolution far exceeding anything appearing in previous generations. All of those signs manifest themselves with increasing intensity in the day and age in which we live. However, on this basis we cannot point to any year or decade in which Christ may return. For although we can read the signs with greater clarity every day, the intensity of those signs needs to be compounded much more, and we can expect greater and more dramatic cosmic signs and wonders to appear before the age draws to a close. In all this the church’s stand is marked by patient waiting, humble submission, and faithful loyalty to one’s duty and task.
The signs recorded in Scripture give us no cause for alarm even as we stand today at the dawn of new millennium. The church enters the third millennium under the sure conviction that all the times and seasons are known by Christ and that He has all the dispensations and ages subsumed under his lordship. And he has promised: “I am with you always to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). For the believer who has his heart set above, where Christ lives, and who lives close to his living words, these promises are enough. He can live and work in peace, knowing God will usher in the final hour in his time and way, when He is truly ready, and when all things will be led to glory.
Scripture also points out that many false prophets will come claiming to be representing the Messiah, but they are not to be followed (see Matthew 24:23-31). Paul warns against collective hysteria that can detract people from their basic Christian duties, (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 2 Thessalonians 2). We must not be looking forward to or promoting a future golden age that will bring escape from what we see as the drudgery and emptiness of everyday existence. Rather, we must see our times as times of refreshing and redemption in which the victory of Christ is already manifest. Despite sin’s power we can and may labour faithfully for Him through changing years, centuries and even in a new millennium.
One of the most significant things those promoting millenarian theories fail to do is observe our common calendar. They are always promoting a golden age in one way or another discontinuous to, or remote from, our own time and space world. But Christ lives and works in this world and already today, He is Lord of the times. The new millennium on our calendars belongs to Him!
The calendar by which we live is the so-called Julian calendar, named after the emperor Julius Caesar who reigned during the period in which Christ was born. He dropped the existing lunar calendar and introduced a solar calendar of 365 1/4 days. This calendar was adopted by the synod of Nicea 325 as the calendar of the church, except that the beginning of the era was now marked by the birth of Christ, 1 A.D. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII brought in some corrections in order to retain the proper link to vernal equinox. But for the most part, this is the calendar we live by, and it is used in most areas of the world as the calendar of international business and diplomacy. In other words, the world’s calendar is essentially one finalized by the church and universalized in the Constantinian era.
All this was accented by the modifications made by a monk in the sixth century A.D. by the name of Dionysius Exiguus. 14 On the basis of the day adopted as Christ’s birthday, December 25, he set the beginning of the New Year as March 25, the date of the feast of the annunciation, marking the day the angel came and announced the coming birth of a Son to Mary. His modifications on this point did not stick, since Pope Gregory’s revisions as referred to above also included putting New Year’s Day back on January 1. However, since the time of Dionysius the church has adopted the expressions A.D. and B.C., and so the decisions of Nicea received universal recognition.
Through additional research, we know today that both Dionysius’ and Gregory’s calculations with regard to Christ’s birth were somewhat in error, and the birth of Christ is now commonly estimated at about 4 B.C. But the point of both Dionysius and Nicea is to be underscored: the Roman leadership may have introduced the calendar, but lordship over this calendar falls to Christ! His work of reconciliation in the context of our everyday calendar has also ended up renaming this calendar and claiming it for his work!
Lord of the Times
Therefore, January 1, 2000 was an ordinary day set and determined by the commonly adopted Roman calendar with all its modifications and amendments. Yet it is for us A.D. 2000, the “year of our Lord” And it is remarkable how much the church has been involved throughout history in fine tuning and regulating this calendar. The fact that almost the whole known world conducts its affairs according to this Christian calendar is another testimony that, whether it is recognized or not, Christ reigns in this world! Since the beginning of time the days and the seasons were appointed by divine determination (Genesis 1:14). Both the lunar and solar cycles contribute to the establishment of the church’s feasts, so marking Christ as the Redeemer of this creation. The times and seasons are in his hand!
Therefore in a world of increased disorientation, sailing as it does into tailspins of shock and disarray, we have an abiding hope which will keep is secure in another millennium:
The earth may shake in great commotion,
The mountains plunge into the ocean,
The seas may roar and rock the hills,
The LORD is near; our fears He stills.
Psalm 46:1, Book of Praise