What Would Calvin Say About Premillennialism?

In 2007 a prominent evangelical (Bible church) pastor suggested that were Calvin alive today he would be premillennial and that true Calvinists should be (pre-trib, Dispensational) premillennialists. Some of us were a little surprised about this breakthrough in Calvin studies coming from the San Fernando Valley.

It is true that some prominent Reformed theologians became historic premillennialists after Calvin and it is true that American Presbyterianism has been traditionally tolerant of a variety of eschatological positions but it is also true that most Reformed folk (whether British, American, or European) have not been premillennal. So far as I know premillennialism (of whatever sort) has been the minority report in Reformed theology. Of course, there is another problem with such claims (and responses to such claims): they are anachronistic.

There is at least some prima facie evidence in Institutes 3.25.5 that Calvin took a dim view of “chiliasm,” i.e., the belief in a literal 1000-year reign of Christ on the earth. He said:

This fiction is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which it is known that they extracted a gloss for their error, (Rev 20:4) since the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the Church, but only to the various troubles which await the Church militant in this world.

There are other places in Calvin where one finds similar sorts of arguments. In his lecture on 1 Thessalonians 4:17 he said,

Now, to assign to Christ a thousand years, so that he would afterwards cease to reign, were too horrible to be made mention of.

To be sure, there it is the limiting of eternal life to 1000 years that troubled Calvin, but the very idea of a literal 1000 year reign of Christ and believers on the earth was not appealing to Calvin. That much is evident from his comments on Acts 1:6-8 in which he said:

Whereupon it followeth that he [Christ] doth reign spiritually, and not after any worldly manner. And that which the apostles had conceived of the carnal kingdom proceeded from the common error of their nation; neither was it marvel if they were deceived herein. For when we measure the same with our understanding, what else can we conceive but that which is gross and terrestrial? Hereupon it cometh, that, like brute beasts, we only desire that which is commodious for our flesh, and therefore we rather catch that which is present. Wherefore, we see that those which held opinion, that Christ should reign as a king in this world a thousand years fell into the like folly. Hereupon, also, they applied all such prophecies as did describe the kingdom of Christ figuratively by the similitude of earthly kingdoms unto the commodity of their flesh; whereas, notwithstanding, it was God’s purpose to lift up their minds higher. As for us, let us learn to apply our minds to hear the gospel preached, lest we be entangled in like errors, which prepareth a place in our hearts for the kingdom of Christ.

No one can know with certainty what Calvin would say or do were he alive today, but I think we can have a reasonable idea of what Calvin thought about the idea of a literal 1000-year reign of Christ on the earth. There is even more evidence that Calvin agreed with with Heinrich Bullinger’s comments in the Second Helvetic Confession (11.10; drafted originally in 1561 and published in 1566):

We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in 2 Thess., ch. 2, and 2 Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.

Another feature of Dispensationalism is the view is that, during the millennium, the sacrificial system be re-instituted. Dispensational writers are aware of the Reformed criticism that the book of Hebrews (9:26; 10:10) says explicitly that Jesus offered himself as the “once for all” sacrifice. They reply that there doctrine does not contradict Hebrews because the re-instituted sacrifices are said to be memorial in nature, though there has been debate among DPPs over whether the sacrifices are merely memorial.

What at least some Dispensationalists seem not to know is that the Roman communion also holds to the re-institution of memorial sacrifices (Catechism of the Catholic Church para. 1357). They also think of their ministry as a sort of re-institution of the Mosaic sacrificial system of worship.

Certainly, there can be no question what Calvin thought about the idea of the re-institution of Mosaic priesthood by the Roman church. He wrote against this notion at such length, in so many places, it’s hard to know where to start, but perhaps his reply to Sadoleto would be a good idea.

Of course Dispensationalists think of themselves and their theology as being utterly distinct from Rome’s but are they? One may be sociologically distinct from the Roman communion but hold views that are substantially Roman. I’m sure this claim, in this context, will strike my Dispensational friends as ironic since they think of us Reformed folk as little more than benighted Protestants entangled with all sorts of Roman holdovers (e.g., infant baptism).

Yes, all Protestants have some practices in common with Rome. The 16th-century Anabaptists made this same criticism of the Reformed. Guy de Bres (the primary author of the Belgic Confession) responded to this criticism by asking, “Romanists pray. Are we supposed to stop praying?” The question is not whether there are common practices but whether we explain our practices in the same way.

It seems to me, therefore, that there is a difference between common practices and a common theology, especially on a topic which was at the center of the Protestant Reformation. It was partly the Roman doctrine of the Eucharist as memorial sacrifice which caused the Reformed churches to condemn it as a “damnable idolatry” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 80).

I wonder if, having isolated themselves from historic Protestant theology, having isolated themselves from the Reformed confessions, having isolated themselves from the life of Reformed congregations where Reformed doctrine is a living, breathing entity transmitted weekly in catechism classes and sermons, having isolated themselves from the broader history of the church, they just do not know the ways in which their theology actually rehearses errors that the confessional Protestants rejected almost 500 years ago?

I realize that the Bible church folk think of themselves as being pre-eminently biblical but perhaps their isolation from the confessional Protestant churches has led them into paths that are actually not biblical?

These comments raise the question as to who is Reformed, i.e., who is it among contemporary evangelicals who actually holds and teaches the same doctrine and system of doctrine that Calvin and the Reformed taught?

This claim about Calvin’s eschatology is an opportunity for us to remember that there is more to being Reformed than simply holding the doctrines of grace. No one doubts that belief in predestination is necessary to being Reformed but is it a sufficient condition of being Reformed? Judged by the Reformed confessions, the answer must be no. We confess a good deal more about the faith than simply the doctrine of divine sovereignty.