Before I became postmillennial, I noticed something odd, and since then, some of the oddities seem even more so. Some of the most cogent cultural criticism I have ever read has come from postmillennialists, who described in excruciating and exact detail how and why our culture is falling apart. And yet, back in the day, there were pessimistic dispensationalists, those who specialized in understanding how this world is supposed to be falling apart, and yet who were pointing to culprits like the antichrist bar codes at Safeway. Why was that?
I am an evangelical, the son of evangelicals. And while I know that my optimistic eschatology is not the majority report among evangelicals, I also know that testimonies are common enough fare. So here is my testimony. This is how postmillennialism happened to me.
I am not sure why we did it, but when we founded Logos School, we determined to teach every subject as parts of an integrated whole, with Scriptures at the center. We had a commitment to a world and life view, one that had probably been gleaned from Francis Schaeffer, but a commitment to such a thing in principle is not the same thing as knowing how it all might tie together. But once you start a school with such a commitment, you have all those little pie faces looking up at you expectantly, as much as to say, “Teach me something.” They do this for five days a week, eight hours a day, for nine months out of the year, for twelve years. You have to start hunting for material that will help you with the task of integration, this task you have assigned to yourself. In the early eighties, that meant mining material from the reconstructionists.
I need to tell a side story, one that has an oblique tie-in. In the second or third year of our existence as a school, a large number of children were enrolled, all coming from the same church in Pullman, Washington. This church was ardently dispensational, and antinomian on top of that — followers of a gent named R.B. Thieme. It soon became apparent to us that, as far as these folks were concerned, their girls could do no right and their boys could do no wrong. They started riding our teachers pretty hard, and it all was coming from folks in this one church. So our board wrote the pastor a letter, saying that we were deeply committed to parental involvement, but that until they learned how to communicate with our teachers in a more productive way, we wanted them to lay off. The response from the pastor was that he mailed our letter back to us, with the full text of BS stamped on it in red in various places. Not only did their pastor do this, but he apparently had a stamp on his desk for doing it. After that, they pulled all their kids out of the school, and after that, we got a letter from their attorney threatening a lawsuit, and demanding all their back tuition from the beginning of the year. We knew that we didn’t owe them any money, and in our letter we told them so, but because we weren’t the antinomians, we took the amount they were demanding, and sent them double that amount, and also sent every family involved a Christmas basket. Now I am telling you all this because, before our falling out, the pastor of that church was the man who gave me some of my first Rushdoony books. He gave me Intellectual Schizophrenia and Philosophy of the Christian Curriculum, both of which I read later, in 1985. I have no earthly idea what he was doing with Rushdoony books. Maybe it was because “we fringe elements must stick together.”
The first recon book I ever read was David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, an answer to Ron Sider’s coy guilt-vibe. I believed then, and still believe now, that Chilton wrote a magnificent book in defense of free men and free markets. I read this right book around the time that Logos was taking off, and occupied myself reading a number of other recon books on culture, finance, politics, etc.
In 1983, I was a historic premillennialist, of the G.E. Ladd stripe. But shortly after reading his book The Last Things, everything fell apart. I became a non-millennialist, and I cannot recollect exactly why. There was no traumatic event that caused it, but I clearly remember being an eschatological agnostic. I knew nothing except for the fact that Jesus was going to come again. After that, “don’t push me.” I knew the pre-mill system, but my sensation was that of not being able to get it to fall naturally out of the text.
In the meantime, on another front, I had read Finney’s Reflections on Revival in 1979, which I thought excellent at the time — although I was appalled by some of it. But over time, that appalled sensation grew, and I eventually decided that if revival meant Finney, then I was a foe of revival. This is a preview. Once I became postmill, this meant I had to re-open my study of revival, but instead looking to men like Whitefield and Edwards. But that meant Calvinism, against which I was still deeply bigoted. But my postmillennialism enabled me to deal with the great sticking point for me in Calvinism, which was limited atonement. Postmillennialism enabled me to see it as definite atonement, but not limited. The atonement that covers the earth as the waters cover the sea is not limited. But back to my story.
Through the eighties I was reading more and more of the recons. I had read Rushdoony’s Institutes, along the two books that the antinomian pastor had given me, and I was doing all this because they were about the only people who were making a serious attempt to integrate their faith in Scripture with their knowledge of everything else. That is why I was reading them — but I was not a Calvinist, and I was not a postmillennialist. I was an integrationist, for mysterious reasons, and they were about the only store in town that was selling any.
I never became a card-carrying reconstructionist, for various reasons, but I was gleaning an awful lot from them. I didn’t like their in-fighting, and I thought some of their hermeneutical practices were fruity and extravagant. So I kept my distance. Jump ahead for a moment to the early nineties. When the Turning Point series began, it was clear that they were going to attempt an integrationist project, but without the recon baggage. I contacted Marvin Olasky, editor of the series, and that is how I came to write Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.
But because I had so enjoyed Chilton’s non-fruity economics, when his book Paradise Restored came out, I decided to read it. This was late in 1985. As I was reading, I thought his hermeneutic was entertaining, but fluffy. This was me reading, recall, as an eschatological agnostic. When it came to the second coming, I didn’t think anything, except that it was going to happen sometime, somehow.
While I was reading, something happened that seemed to me largely independent of the case Chilton was making. He quoted 1 Cor. 15:25, and when I read those words, it was as though something snapped in my head. “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.” I can hear my premillennial friends saying that something snapped in my head, all right, but bear with me. I am simply reporting what happened.
Jesus was in Heaven now, and He was reigning from there. He was going to continue to reign from that place until all His enemies here were subdued. All enemies, with the exception of the last enemy, death, were going to be subdued while Christ was still in Heaven. When He returned, He was going to destroy that one, remaining enemy. In the other systems, when Jesus returns, the first enemy to be destroyed is death.
When that verse snapped, like a dry twig, an eschatological paradigm fluttered together in my mind, like some kind of eschatological transformer-bot. Verses from all over crowded to line up together, hand-in-hand, and it was orderly, and amazing, and textual. The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand UNTIL . . .
I have gone through three major theological paradigm shifts — postmillennialism (1985), Calvinism (1988), and paedobaptism (1993). This first one was the only one that was any fun at all. Calvinism was a drag because the doctrines of grace have copper-toed boots, the better to kick in the teeth of your pride. Becoming a Calvinist was like being worked over thugalogians, who didn’t care about my feelings at all. Becoming a paedobaptist was a drag because of the friendships that it cost. That was a sad time. But postmillennialism? Postmillennialism went wheeeeee.
Two last things. My second son-in-law, Luke, grew up in a Reformed environment that made rock-ribbed amillennialism seem like an understatement. When he came to New St. Andrews, he liked the eschatological environment, but hadn’t gotten that part of his studies before he and my daughter became a thing. And so obviously, this meant he and I had to talk eschatology, and he, being a man of integrity, had to check and crosscheck his motives. He didn’t want to be the guy who said, “My, your daughter is quite pretty. Tell me more about this postmillennialism of yours.” I mention this because I recall one time saying to him that I had not preached on postmillennialism since he had gotten to Moscow. He replied, as an expert witness, that I didn’t have to — it pervades everything. It gets into everything. It becomes the context of everything.
So even when postmillennialists get the blues, they do it in a historical comedy, not a historical tragedy. And this why you are set free in your approach to trenchant cultural criticism. In the long run, stupidity never works. Someone who understands economics can now have a long term hope — someday even congressmen will understand economics, and the children will play on the cobra’s den. Right now, pessimists who understand economics are very limited in what can cheer them up. They are limited to things like the Obamacare website roll-out fiasco, and other occasional rays of sunshine like that.
And last. None of this is offered as a strident defense of any detailed system. Gary North once helpfully distinguished the only two real eschatologies — pessimillennialism and optimillenialism. I am the later, of course, because postmillennialists have to be, by definition. Most premills and most amills happen to be pessimistic about the course of human history, but while this is the prevailing sentiment, it is not logically necessary. There are optimillennialists who are amill, and there are also some who are premill. Take Spurgeon, for example. He was thoroughly premill, but an optimillennialist nonetheless.
So, speaking as an optimillennialist, I look forward to the time when advocates of the other systems keep their systems, but join us in our joy.