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An Optimistic Amillennialism.

Category Articles
Date March 14, 2006

The Promise of the Future, by Cornelis P.Venema

For over 20 years, the standard amillennial textbook in Reformed colleges and seminaries has been Anthony Hoekema’s classic work The Bible and the Future. This state of affairs may soon change because of the recent publication of a new book by Cornelis Venema entitled The Promise of the Future. Dr. Venema, professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, has given the church a well-written and comprehensive textbook on eschatology from a Reformed and amillennial perspective.

The book is divided into six parts and sixteen chapters and covers all of the major topics of individual and cosmic eschatology. The two chapters in Part One set forth the author’s basic presuppositions and also outline some of the most important eschatological concepts found in Scripture: the Kingdom, the Covenant, the Day of the Lord, the “Already/Not Yet” nature of this present age. These chapters provide the reader with some very valuable hermeneutical principles.

In Part Two, Venema deals with the nature of death and the intermediate state. In his examination of these biblical doctrines he deals with several unbiblical views such as annihilationism, soul-sleep, and purgatory. Part Three sets forth one of the central elements of any orthodox Christian eschatology – the future Second Coming of Christ at the final consummation of this age.

The chapters in Part Four deal with various “signs of the times” such as the preaching of the Gospel to all the nations, the salvation of all Israel, tribulation, apostasy, and the rise of the Antichrist. Surprisingly, since it is uncommon for amillennialists to take this position, Venema concurs with the interpretation of Romans 11 held by Charles Hodge and John Murray among others. He agrees that Romans 11 refers to a future conversion of a large number of Jews to Christ. Not surprisingly, Venema argues that biblical references to apostasy, antichrist, and tribulation – while possibly having a first century fulfillment as their primary reference – refer also “to events that will characterize the present age until Christ’s second coming” (p. 145).

In Part Five, Venema evaluates the various millennial views. He notes that broadly considered there are two basic positions regarding the temporal relationship between Christ’s Second Coming and the millennium: premillennialism and postmillennialism. He then points out that within each of these two positions there are two distinctive types. The two types of premillennialism are historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. The two types of postmillennialism are postmillennialism proper and amillennialism. Venema proceeds by first explaining the basic tenets of each of the four major views. He does so in a fair and irenic manner. He then offers a critique of the two premillennial positions, an exposition of Revelation 20, and a critique of postmillennialism proper.

Part Six includes four chapters covering the most fundamental elements of cosmic eschatology: the resurrection of the body, the final judgment, the doctrine of eternal punishment, and the new heavens and earth. In each of these chapters, the author does an excellent job of presenting the biblical view as well as critiquing various unbiblical alternatives. In the chapter on the resurrection of the body, Venema includes a thorough discussion of the nature of the resurrection body as well as an insightful evaluation of the recent debate between Murray J. Harris and Norman Geisler over Harris’s understanding of the nature of the resurrection body. This discussion will prove to be especially valuable to those who are dealing with recent attempts among hyper-preterists and others to revive Harris’s doctrine.

In his discussion of the doctrine of eternal punishment, Venema offers very helpful critiques of annihilationism and universalism, and in his discussion of the new heavens and earth, he offers a needed corrective to those who have tended to picture heaven as an ethereal and immaterial realm. He points out that there is a parallel between individual and cosmic redemption. The individual receives a new resurrection body that is free from sin and the effects of the curse, but the resurrection body is not immaterial. There is continuity between it and the present body. Likewise, there is continuity between the present heavens and earth and the new heavens and earth, and even though the curse will be removed, these new heavens and earth are not some kind of immaterial Gnostic realm.

Venema is to be commended for several things. First, his book is comprehensive without being shallow. He discusses all of the important issues and does so in depth. Second, his book treats those with whom he disagrees (including postmillennialists like myself) fairly. This is a rare trait in eschatological works and one for which we can be thankful when we see it. Finally, and this will be important to postmillennial readers, Venema is one of the few amillennialists who not only claims to be an “optimistic amillennialist” but also actually seems to be one in reality. Unlike many amillennialists, Venema takes very seriously the biblical promises of the power of the Holy Spirit in the spread of the Gospel. He expects widespread conversion to Christ across the world. He expects the conversion of the Jews to Christ. He expects the kingdom of Christ to gradually overcome the kingdom of Satan.

My reservations about the book are few and may be considered more as topics for further discussion rather than as criticisms. I will simply list these as comments:

First, in his criticism of postmillennilaism, Venema only criticizes that version of postmillennialism that understands the millennium to be a specific period of time in our future within the present inter-advental age. There are, however, a growing number of postmillennialists who understand the millennium to be symbolic of the entire inter-advental era. Venema’s work raises the possibility of discussing how much difference actually exists between his “optimistic amillennialism” and those versions of postmillennialism (like my own) that see the millennium as spanning the entire period of time between Christ’s first and second advent.

Second, a primary area of disagreement in interpretation centers on the so called “signs of the times.” Venema allows that many, if not all of these, have primary reference to the first century, but he insists that they have secondary fulfillments throughout the present age and possibly ultimate fulfillments immediately before the Second Coming of Christ. Venema’s discussion shows that the relationship between postmillennialism, “optimistic” amillennialism, and preterism is one that deserves further exploration and study.

All Christians should benefit from Venema’s work. Those who are postmillennialists should especially appreciate the fact that he has rejected some of the most troubling elements of traditional amillennialism – especially the debilitating defeatism found in the writings of some well-known authors. Venema seems to have taken to heart many of the important exegetical and theological points that postmillennialists have made over the years.

Kenneth Gentry has recently written an article about some of the profound changes taking place within evangelical eschatology – the rise of progressive dispensationalism, the resurgence of postmillennialism, and the rise of biblical preterism. If Venema’s book gains a wide hearing, we may be able to add to that list a movement in amillennialism towards a more optimistic and biblical hope for the future. The promise of the future is certainly not one of defeat. It is one of hope, and it is one of victory.

[The above review appeared in back issue of Ligonier Ministries Tabletalk]

http://www.ligonier.org

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The Promise of the Future (ISBN 085151 7935) retails for $39.75 (US), £19.00 (UK and ROW) and can be purchased from the Banner of Truth book catalogue

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