The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism
Part 1: Setting the Stage: The Participants and Theological Principles in the Debate
Conservative Theological Journal [CTJ 02:4 (Mar 98) pp. 19-31]
Larry V. Crutchfield

Prof. Early Christian History and Culture
Columbia Evangelical Seminary, Longview, Washington

Video Planned

The Issue

    Decade after decade, dispensationalists have endured the charge by their opponents that there are no historical antecedents for their doctrine prior to John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) and the Plymouth Brethren. Millard J. Erickson, for example, asserts flatly that “No trace of this theology can be found in the early history of the church.”[1] And Clarence B. Bass declares that “No dispensational writer has ever been able to offer … a single point of continuity between what is today known as dispensationalism and the historic premillennial view.”[2]
    Such charges by one’s opponents are to be expected, but today the same charge is coming from within dispensational ranks. In his review of Progressive Dispensationalism, authored by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Walter A. Elwell reports with obvious satisfaction that “It is…nice not to be told that virtually everyone in church history was a dispensationalist.” Elwell comes to this conclusion because “Blaising and Bock maintain that dispensationalism is both recent and different from most of what went before it.”[3]
    Elwell’s gratuitous and patently false accusation that dispensationalists have claimed “everyone in church history” as their own can be dismissed out of hand. But Blaising and Bock’s attempt to sever dispensationalism from its historic roots requires a careful response. Dispensational premillennialism is neither as “recent” nor as “different from most of what went before it” as these two scholars suppose.
    Dispensationalists, like Charles C. Ryrie, Arnold D. Ehlert, and many others, rightly maintain that “features” or rudimentary concepts of dispensational theology were held by the fathers of the early church and later by certain individuals after the Reformation.[4] Ryrie and Ehlert readily acknowledge that modern, systematized dispensationalism must be traced to Darby.[5] Nevertheless, they insist that there are historical and theological antecedents for this system of theology to be found even in the patristic era.

The Participants

    The terminus a quo of the patristic period is generally fixed with the close of the apostolic age, while the terminus ad quem is set for the Latin church at the death of either Gregory the Great in ad 604 or Isidore of Seville in 636, and for the Greek church at the death of John of Damascus, c.749. This study is limited to the period of church history prior to the Council of Nicea (ad 325), commonly known as the ante-Nicene age. Included here are the writings of the fathers who were contemporary with and in some cases instructed by the apostles, and the church leaders who were in turn the disciples and pedagogical benefactors of those fathers.[6] In other words, our focus will be upon the early church leaders who may be regarded as belonging to what Ryrie calls “the first and purest centuries”[7] of church history.
Church leaders of the first century have traditionally been designated “apostolic fathers.”[8] In this group we find: Clement (flourished c.90–100), bishop of Rome; Ignatius (died c.98/117), bishop of Antioch; Polycarp (c.70–155/160), bishop of Smyrna; Papias (c.60-c.130/155), bishop of Hierapolis; The Didache (composed before the end of the first century A.D.); the Epistle of Barnabas (comp. c.70/117–138); and Hermas’ The Shepherd (comp. apparently in two parts, c.96/140–150). These fathers, along with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, are especially significant for a study of this nature because of their proximity to the apostles and their teachings, notably the Apostle John, author of the Apocalypse.
    Among the influential Christian leaders of the second century we may include the apologist[9] Justin Martyr (c.100–165); the polemicists Irenaeus (120–202), bishop of Lyons, and his disciple Hippolytus (d. c.236), anti-pope bishop in Rome; and from the African school, Tertullian (150–225), apologist, moralist, and theologian. Though they bring little to the discussion, for the sake of completeness and because they are listed as second century millenarians by Peters,[10] we add: Pothinus (c.87–177), Irenaeus’ predecessor as bishop of churches in Lyon and Vienne (in modern France); Melito (d. c.190), apologist and bishop of Sardis; Hegesippus (second century), church historian; and Apollinaris (c.175), apologist and bishop of Hierapolis.
    In the third century, African Fathers have the most to contribute to our study of early features of dispensationalism. Here we find Cyprian (c.200–258), master of rhetoric, bishop of Carthage, and devoted reader of Tertullian; Commodian (c.200-c.275), Christian Latin poet in North Africa and possibly a bishop; and Lactantius (c.240-c.320), Latin Rhetorician, Christian apologist and historian. Of importance also during this period are Victorinus of Petau (d. c.304), Latin exegete and bishop of Petau near Vienne (in modern Austria); Methodius (d. 311), ecclesiastical writer and bishop of Olympus; and Julius Africanus (d. c.240), Christian writer and chronographer. Of secondary value, only by virtue of the fact that nothing but sketchy historical accounts of their positions have survived, are Nepos (c.230–250), an Egyptian bishop, and his successor, Coracion (c.230–280).

The Theological Context

    In order to evaluate the writings of the fathers for dispensational concepts, it is necessary to briefly set forth the main features of “classic” or “normative” dispensational theology as presented by men like C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Ryrie. Perhaps the best recent definition of dispensationalism which incorporates the essential features of 1) the distinction between Israel and the church, 2) the hermeneutical principle of literal or normal interpretation, and 3) the purpose of God in history as the glorification of Himself,[11] is that formulated by Robert P. Lightner. He defines dispensationalism,

"…as that system of theology which interprets the Bible literally—according to normal usage—and places primary emphasis on the major biblical covenants—Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New—and sees the Bible as the unfolding of distinguishable economies in the outworking of God’s major purpose to bring glory to Himself."[12]

    In keeping with this belief that God’s primary purpose is self-glorification, Ryrie suggests that the goal of history is the future millennial kingdom in which the glory of God will be uniquely manifested to all mankind.[13] It is obvious that this system of theology is closely associated with and intimately involved in the study of eschatology. In this regard, Ryrie sets forth the following as the salient features of dispensational eschatology: 1) the hermeneutical principle of literal interpretation, which leads to a belief in 2) the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, which in turn causes one to recognize 3) a clear distinction between Israel and the church, out of which the concept of 4) the pretribulation rapture of the church grows, and the belief in 5) a literal, earthly millennial kingdom during which the covenant promises to Israel will be fulfilled.[14]

The Rudimentary Features

    With this brief outline of contemporary dispensational elements in view, let it be said again, we are not suggesting that in the church’s early history her leaders were dispensationalists in the modern sense of the word. Principles of hermeneutics, for example, were inconsistently applied and the science of biblical interpretation was in a state of flux throughout this period. In addition to this, the doctrine of eschatology has been one of the last doctrines to come to the fore as a topic for theological discussion.[15]
    In light of the relative recency of systematized eschatology, it is not surprising to find confusion on the subject in the early church. It is nevertheless our belief that many of the fathers set forth theological principles that laid the foundation for dispensationalism. The following are among the rudimentary features of dispensational theology found in the literature of the early church.

Literal Interpretation

    During the first centuries, the church’s leaders were faced with a myriad of problems. With neither an established canon of either Testament nor principles of interpretation other than those of the Rabbinical schools, and with the three-pronged challenge of heresy from within and Judaism and paganism from without,16 it is not surprising that the practice of biblical exegesis was anything but uniform. In varying degrees, the early fathers combined the allegorical method of interpretation—which had come down through the pagan Greeks and subsequently Alexandrian Jews like Philo—with the literal method.
    Even though the fathers of the early church, who are the subject of our study, tended to allegorize either relatively little (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian) or a lot (e.g., Barnabas, Justin Martyr), there was nevertheless a marked tendency among those who were chiliasts (i.e., premillennialists)[17] to argue for the principle of literal interpretation and especially in the understanding of prophecy. Ryrie maintains that, “As basic as one believes normal [literal] interpretation to be, and as consistently as he uses it in interpreting Scripture, to that extent he will of necessity become a dispensationalist.”[18] In essence, this is clearly true among the early fathers. We shall see as our study progresses that those fathers who upheld the hermeneutical principle of literal interpretation, at least in theory if not always in practice, also evidenced the greatest number of early dispensational concepts.
    With respect to principles of hermeneutics, the apostolic fathers seemed to pursue one of two lines: 1) either they followed a moderate, straightforward path between literalism and allegorism (e.g., Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, The Didache), or 2) they leaned heavily upon the allegorical method (e.g., Barnabas, Hermas). In Barnabas’ case, the practice was in opposition to the strict literalism of the Jews. On the whole, these earliest fathers simply interpreted the biblical text without any discussion of the method employed.
    A new trend began early in the first century, however, and continued for the next one hundred and fifty years. Even though a fair amount of artificial exegesis was produced by Justin Martyr’s practice of plundering the Old Testament for what he perceived to be its teachings concerning Christ, he nevertheless became one of the first to argue forcefully for a literal interpretation of prophecy. This trend in literalism became even more pronounced in Irenaeus and Tertullian. It was no coincidence that these fathers were all millenarians.
    Running concurrently with the trend toward literalism in some fathers, was the rise of the distinctly Christian allegorism of the school of Alexandria. Begun by Pantaenus (d. c.190) and carried forward by Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c.220), Origen (c.185-c.254), and Dionysus of Alexandria (d. c.264), “Its object, like that of Philo,” writes Farrar, “was to unite philosophy with revelation, and thus to use the borrowed jewels of Egypt to adorn the sanctuary of God.” The result, according to Farrar, was that “Clement of Alexandria and Origen furnished the direct antithesis of Tertullian and Irenaeus …”[19]
    And what was to become of the literal method of interpretation and its progeny—the millennial expectation? With the rising popularity of the allegorical method, belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ seems to have reached a turning point in the middle of the third century. The Egyptian bishop Coracion, who succeeded Nepos, buckled under pressure from Alexandria and abandoned the staunch millennialism of his predecessor.[20] And Hippolytus, the pupil of Irenaeus, is said to have wavered in his stance as well.[21]
    Among the millennialists to follow, some (e.g., Lactantius and Apollinarus of Laodicea)[22] held to the old ways and continued to stress the literal fulfillment of prophecy, while others (e.g., Methodius[23] and Victorinus of Petau)[24] began to lace their views with allegorical interpretations. But whatever the shortcomings of the early fathers in their hermeneutics, Neander’s assessment, as quoted by George N. H. Peters, is fundamentally correct: “Neander (Ch. Hist. vol. 1, p. 388) says that Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, etc., in opposing Gnosticism, directed attention to ‘a sober, grammatical method of interpretation, and leading them to establish the first hermeneutical canons …’”[25]

Israel and the Church

    In the ante-Nicene age, the relationship between Israel and the church was expressed primarily in terms of faith in Christ and the seed of Abraham.[26] The prevailing view among the millenarian fathers was that Israel as a nation had been set aside by God because of her idolatry and unfaithfulness in Old Testament times and her rejection and crucifixion of Christ in the New Testament. Consequently, according to these early fathers, God’s favor was transferred to those among the Gentiles who believed in Christ. Thus as the “new Israel,” the church inherited the promises made to the old Israel.
    Lest covenant amillennialists claim premature support for their system from these fathers, we hasten to point out the following. In the first place, though not systematically presented, the early fathers recognized three categories of the seed of Abraham in Scripture: 1) the physical seed (descendants) of Abraham, particularly through Jacob; 2) the physical/spiritual seed of Abraham, i.e., those among the physical seed who like Abraham were justified by faith; and 3) the spiritual seed of Abraham who are not of his physical seed, i.e., Gentile believers also justified by faith like, Abraham. With these distinctions in view, the fathers nowhere made Israel the church or the church national Israel.[27]
    In the second place, in opposition to the covenant amillennial view, it was no strictly spiritual kingdom for which these early Christian leaders looked. Nor did they equate the church with the kingdom.[28] While the fathers certainly recognized the spiritual dimension of Christ’s coming kingdom, at the same time they believed in a literal fulfillment of the covenants made with Abraham and David.

The Year-Day Tradition

    One of the earliest prototypical features of dispensationalism is the year-day, or sex-/septa-millennial tradition. The background of this tradition and its relation to dispensationalism is explained by Ehlert. He writes:

"It seems likely that the roots of the whole doctrine of ages and dispensations will have to be traced back to the six creative days, and the seventh day of rest, of Genesis, which have been considered prophetically symbolic of a number of periods of development to be followed by a period of utopia, as the Sabbath follows the six days of work."[29]

    Thomas Burnet explains further that,

"…it is necessary to show how the Fathers grounded this computation of six thousand years, upon Scripture. ‘Twas chiefly…upon the Hexameron, or the Creation finish’d in six days, and the Sabbath ensuing. The Sabbath, they said, was a type of the Sabbatism, that was to follow at the end of the World, according to St. Paul to the Hebrews [Heb. 3:11; 4:1, 3, 5, 8, 9, 11], and then by analogy and consequence, the six days preceding the Sabbath, must note the space and duration of the World …And they think, that according to the Psalmist, (Psal. 90. 4.) and St. Peter, (2 Epist. 3. 8.) a Day may be estimated a thousand years; and consequently six days must be counted six thousand years, for the duration of the World."[30]

    Ehlert rightly cautions that while this is not to be confused with modern dispensationalism, it nevertheless seems to have a basic relation “to the main features of the larger doctrine of dispensationalism.”[31] He states further that if one is to approach dispensationalism intelligently, with special reference to its time-period aspect, a knowledge of the background of this tradition is necessary.[32] It is worthy of note that almost every ante-Nicene father who held to the year-day theory was also a defender of millennialism.[33] It was not until the post-Nicene period, after the spiritualizing influence of the Alexandrian school had taken its toll, that proponents of the year-day theory who were not at the same time proponents of millennialism began to appear.[34]

Dispensational Distinctions

    It is possible to find in the writings of the fathers, distinctions and divisions of human history based upon God’s dealings with humanity.[35] While opponents of dispensationalism freely admit that the fathers frequently employed the word “dispensation” and set forth multi-age schemes, they insist that these were merely time-period divisions devoid of significant theological import. C. Norman Kraus’ position is typical.
Kraus, a Mennonite author, notes that the word dispensation combines the two ideas of a time period drawn from the Greek word ??s?s and translated “age” or “world,” with “something of the meaning of the New Testament word ???????a, which means a plan, arrangement, stewardship, or dispensation.” He concludes from this that “Dispensations, then, are periods of time which can be clearly discerned and marked off from other periods by the changing methods which God employs in dealing with mankind. They are stages in God’s developing plan of the ages.”[36]
    Elsewhere, Kraus makes it clear that in his opinion, “The age schemes which were developed by Christian scholars prior to the contemporary dispensationalist movement were generally historical in nature.” In this regard, he points out the prevalence of the year-day theory in the early church.[37] The corollary for Kraus, of course, is that the divisions have little if any theological basis.
    In the first place, as we have said, belief in the year-day theory simply pointed the way to dispensational distinctions. This is seen particularly in the identification of the seventh millennium as something unique and different from God’s dealings with humankind in previous history. Dispensationalists have not said, nor do they say, that this is dispensationalism in the modern sense. They simply say that it was a precursor of things to come.
    In the second place, the year-day doctrine by no means represented all that the millenarian fathers had to say on this subject. In addition to their adherence to the year-day concept, several of the fathers set forth dispensational systems which had nothing to do with time periods. Their focus, rather, was on God’s redemptive dealings with humankind.
    Justin Martyr, for example, presented a fourfold dispensational system (fivefold if the millennium is counted separately),[38] which was based almost exclusively upon the failures of God’s people. With the failure in each economy, there was a corresponding institution of new rites to aid in the nurture of faith and in the quest for righteousness and justification before God. With slight variations, at least the bare outline of Justin’s scheme was repeated by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Victorinus of Petau, and Methodius.[39]
    We find ourselves in basic agreement, then, with Clarence E. Mason, who writes:

"The argument for dispensationalism is sustained by a multiple-age dealing of God with man in His progressive self-revelation. Men of the early church believed and wrote about these various eras. They spoke of various ages. That none of them codified these ages specifically as dispensationalists do today does not deny that they could have been so codified. It is simply not true that there are only two covenants and thus two ages."[40]

    Mason goes on to say that “Dispensationalism had its roots in the very theses of early church chiliasm…”[41] Walvoord affirms the same when he contends that “Dispensationalism should be considered not a new doctrine, but a refinement of premillennialism such as was held by the early fathers. A similar refinement can be observed in all major doctrines in the history of the church.”[42]

Patristic Premillennialism

    Belief in the premillennial return of Christ was a settled doctrinal principle in the ante-Nicene church. In summarizing premillennial teachings, Walvoord writes:

"Premillennialism generally holds to a revival of the Jewish nation and their repossession of their ancient land when Christ returns. Satan will be bound (Rev. 20:2) and a theocratic kingdom of righteousness, peace, and tranquillity will ensue. The righteous are raised from the dead before the millennium and participate in its blessings. The wicked dead are not raised until after the millennium."[43]

    The early church regarded this millenarian expectation as one of the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity. So widely diffused was the doctrine that noted church historian, Philip Schaff, calls it “The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age …”[44] Schaff’s conclusion is supported by the testimony of many other dispensationalists and nondispensationalists alike.
    One of the unique elements of premillennial teaching is the belief that the resurrection of the dead will occur in two main stages. In preparation for the millennium, the resurrection of the righteous or just will take place when Christ returns at the end of the present age (I Cor. 15:22, 23; I Thess. 4:14–17; John 5:28; Rev. 20:4). The resurrection of the wicked or unjust, however, will occur at the conclusion of the millennium in preparation for the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:13).[45] The twofold resurrection doctrine is clearly taught by some of the millenarian fathers.

Imminent Intratribulationism

    Dispensationalists hold that the resurrection and rapture of the just will occur not only before the thousand-year millennium, but prior to the seven-year tribulation period as well (see Dan. 9). The key element of this pretribulational doctrine is the imminency of Christ’s return for the saints. Several church fathers admonished believers to live in daily expectation that the Lord could come for His people at any moment. Henry C. Thiessen summarizes early patristic views on the great tribulation this way:

    "In the testimony of the early Fathers there is an almost complete silence on the subject. They frequently speak of tribulations, but very seldom of a future period known as “the” Tribulation … Though on the whole the testimony of the Fathers is somewhat inconsistent, we seem to have in Hermas: The Shepherd, …a fairly clear indication of the fact that there were those who believed that the Church would be taken away before that period of judgment begins."[46]

    With reference to the imminency of the Lord’s second coming, Thiessen asserts that,

    "It is clear…that the Fathers held not only the pre-millennial view of Christ’s coming, but also regarded that coming as imminent. The Lord had taught them to expect His return at any moment, and so they looked for Him to come in their day. Not only so, but they also taught His personal return as being immediately, with the exception of the Alexandrian Fathers, who also rejected other fundamental doctrines. We may say, therefore, that the early Church lived in the constant expectation of their Lord, and hence was not interested in the possibility of a Tribulation period in the future."[47]

    Walvoord identifies imminency as the central feature of pretribulationism.[48] In fact, the position of the early fathers, says Walvoord,[49] was a type of imminent posttribulationism with an occasional pretribulational inference.[50] For reasons that will become apparent as our study progresses, we prefer the term “imminent intratribulationism.” It is perhaps more descriptive of the tribulational views of the millenarian fathers, and at the same time precludes the false perceptions one might get from the term “posttribulationism.”
    The reason for the fathers’ peculiar hybrid view of the tribulation is, no doubt, attributable to their persistence, like the Israelites caught between God and Baal (1 Kings 18:21), in hesitating between two positions. On the one hand, Scripture clearly teaches that Christ’s coming could occur at any moment and therefore the believer is to live his life in holiness and with an attitude of expectancy. On the other hand, until Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which granted Christianity full legal toleration (ad 313), persecutions of every sort were a present reality for believers in the Roman Empire. For many, the persecutions, coupled with a belief that Christians must be tested and purified by fire (i.e., trials in the form of persecutions for Christ’s sake) to make them fit for God’s kingdom, led to something like the Thessalonian error. The church, it was reasoned, was already in the tribulation. Therefore, it could expect the any-moment return of the Lord.
    We conclude this introduction by agreeing with Ryrie’s affirmation that the church fathers were not dispensationalists in the modern sense to be sure, but that “some of them enunciated principles which later developed into dispensationalism, and it may be rightly said that they held to primitive or early dispensational-like concepts.”[51] Many biblical principles and concepts held by the millenarian fathers were in an embryonic state. And while elements of their teachings lack the sophistication and systematic presentation the modern scholar might like, it should be remembered that these “doctors” of the primitive church lived on the frontier of Christian theological formulation.
    In the second and third parts of this series, we will take a closer look at the elementary dispensational concepts presented by the apostolic fathers. The focus in part two will be upon Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias, while part three will examine the writings known as The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, and Hermas’ The Shepherd. In part four, we will explore the dispensational concepts found in the works of the apologists, especially Justin Martyr. Part five of this series of studies will feature Irenaeus and the polemicists. Finally, our conclusions will be drawn together in part six as we evaluate the dispensational concepts held by early church leaders who endeavored to teach the orthodox faith handed down by the apostles.

Illustration 1

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 111.
[2] Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 14.
[3] Walter A. Elwell, review of Progressive Dispensationalism, by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, in Christianity Today, 12 September 1994, p. 28.
[4] For statements of their respective positions see: Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, revised and expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 61–77; and Arnold D. Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), pp. 5–30.
[5] For a full discussion of Darby’s dispensational theology and its relationship to that of C. I. Scofield, see Larry V. Crutchfield, The Origins of Dispensationalism: The Darby Factor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992).
[6] For an assessment of the relationship between the apostles and early church fathers see Larry V. Crutchfield, “The Apostle John and Asia Minor as a Source of Premillennialism in the Early Church Fathers” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31 (December 1988), pp. 411–427.
[7] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953), p. 26.
[8] The term “apostolic fathers” has been the cause of no little disagreement. The heart of the issue is whether or not to apply the designation to only those fathers, as J. B. Lightfoot states it, “who are known, or may reasonably be presumed, to have associated with and derived their teaching directly from some Apostle, or at least to those who were coeval with the Apostles.” According to Lightfoot, the only fathers who are indisputably qualified to bear the adjectival distinction “Apostolic” on this basis are Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp. [See J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 5 vols. (Macmillian edition, 1889–1890; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.), Pt. 1, Clement, Vol. 1, p. 4] Johannes Quasten, on the other hand, sets forth a more inclusive definition for the term. He says, “The Apostolic Fathers were the Christian writers of the first and second centuries whose teaching may be considered a fairly immediate echo of the preaching of the Apostles: they had either been in personal contact with the Apostles, or had received instructions from their disciples.” On the basis of this definition, Quasten expands the list to include: Barnabas (The Epistle of Barnabas), Hermas (The Shepherd), Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, and The Didache [See Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 3 vols. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1950–60; reprint ed., Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, Inc., 1983), 1:40.] With the exception of the Epistle to Diognetus, which has virtually nothing to contribute to our discussion, for good or ill, we have elected to follow Quasten’s expanded list.
[9] With regard to the designation “apologist,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church says that it was “given to a number of early Christian writers (c.120–220) who belonged to a period in history when the growing Christian Church was meeting with ever-increasing hostility in every department of public life.. .They worked on the frontier of the Church, seeking to defend the Faith from misrepresentation and attack, commending it to the inquirer and demonstrating the falsity of both Judaism and Polytheism” [J. D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), p. 57]. With the exception of Justin Martyr and Tatian, of the ten or so individuals variously assigned to this important group, very little of their writings has survived.
[10] George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus, the Christ, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing House, 1958), 1:495–6.
[11] For treatments of the sine qua non of dispensationalism, that which one must believe in order to be rightfully called a dispensationalist, see Ryrie, Dispensationalism, pp. 38–41; Robert P. Lightner, “Theological Perspectives on Theonomy, Part 1: Theonomy and Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (January-March 1986), p. 34; and Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990), pp. 52–53.
[12] Lightner, Ibid, p. 33.
[13] Ryrie, Dispensationalism…, pp. 18–19.
[14] Ibid, pp. 146-149.
[15] James Orr, The Progress of Dogma (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), pp. 24–30.
[16] F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1886), pp. 164–5.
[17] The English word “millennium,” meaning “a thousand years,” is derived from the Latin words mille (“thousand”) plus annus (“year”). In early church history, the Greek equivalent was chilias (“thousand”) plus etos (“year”)(see Rev. 20:2–3, where civlia e[th is translated “a thousand years”). The belief that Christ’s second advent would precede His thousand-year reign on earth came to be known as chiliasm in the patristic age. The same doctrine today is called “premillennialism.” With regard to the fathers in this study, the terms “chiliast,” “millenarian,” “millennialist,” and “premillennialist,” are all synonymous.
[18] Ryrie, Dispensationalism…, p. 20.
[19] Farrar, History of Interpretation…, p. 182.
[20] See Eusebius’ Church History VII, p. 24.
[21] See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 469. Here, Kelly says that in Caput contra Caius (or Chapters Against Caius), Hippolytus abandoned Irenaeus’ interpretation of the thousand years in Rev. 20 as the literal duration of the kingdom, and rather explained it as “a symbolical number which should be interpreted as pointing to its splendour” [See Kelly’s note: Cap. c. Caium (GCS I, Pt. 2, pp. 246f)]. The “evidence” for this supposed reversal by Hippolytus is weak and unsubstantiated.
[22] Bietenhard says of Apollinarus, “From these accounts we may conclude that Apollinar[u]s kept to the letter of Scripture, that he did not try to evade the prophecies by spiritualizing, and that he combined them with Rev. 20” [Hans Bietenhard, “The Millennial Hope in the Early Church,” Scottish Journal of Theology 6 (March 1953), p. 23].
[23] Methodius Banquet of the Ten Virgins III, I-II. Although Methodius regarded the allegorism of Origen as “perverted” (e.g., From Disc. on Resur. XVIII), he frequently fell into the same trap himself.
[24] Victorinus of Petau Commentary on the Apocalypse 20, pp. 4–6.
[25] Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom…, 1:48.
[26] For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Israel and the church in the ante-Nicene age, see Larry V. Crutchfield, “Israel and the Church in the Ante-Nicene Fathers: Part 1 of Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period” Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (July-September 1987), pp. 254–276.
[27] For documentation on “The Early Patristic Concept of the Seed of Abraham and the Relationship Between Israel and the Church” see the appendix to this article.
[28] Peters observes that “in the earliest writings, there is not a decisive passage which teaches the prevailing modern view. While the fathers insisted on the universal government of God, the Headship of Christ over the church, yet they do not designate the church the Kingdom of God, or profess to be in the Kingdom, but represent themselves as looking for it still future” (Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1:643).
[29] Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism…, p. 8.
[30] Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (London: J. McGowan, n.d.), p. 260.
[31] Ehlert, Ibid, p. 8.
[32] Ibid, p. 22.
[33] The notable exceptions are Papias and Tertullian. In Papias’ case, owing to the fact that only the barest fragments of his writings have survived, there is much about his views that we do not know. The same can be said course for Nepos and Coracion for whom we have no extant writings. With regard to Tertullian, since he barely addressed the subject, it is difficult to say why he ignored a view so prominently held by his millenarian predecessors. The only reference we have found to this tradition in Tertullian’s writings is one concerning “an hebdomad or sevenfold number, as an auspice of our resurrection, and rest, and kingdom” (A Treatise on the Soul XXXVII).
[34] Clement of Alexandria may be the exception. He seems to have been an early proponent of the year-day theory (see The Stromata IV, XXV). But true to the position of the Alexandrian School, he was most likely opposed to the doctrine of millennialism. Since Clement’s anti-millennialism is more presumed than proven, Peters allows his listing among anti-millennialists only “under a protest” (The Theocratic Kingdom, 1:498).
[35] See Larry V. Crutchfield, “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers: Part 2 of Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (October-December 1987), pp. 377–401.
[36] C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958), p. 43.
[37] Ibid, p. 25.
[38] See Crutchfield, “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers,” p. 401.
[39] Crutchfield, “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers”…, p. 400.
[40] Clarence E. Mason, “A Review of ‘Dispensationalism’ by John Wick Bowman,” Bibliotheca Sacra 114 (January 1957), p. 16. Mason’s concluding point here directly contradicts Kraus’ assertion that one of the essential assumptions held in common by the early fathers “is that there is only one basic dispensational division. This is the division between the Old Covenant and the New” (Kraus, Dispensationalism in America, p. 23).
    Naturally the early fathers made a distinction between the Old and New Covenants, between God’s dealings with His people Israel in the Old Testament and His people the church in the New. They firmly believed that Christ was alive and active in the Old Testament, but beginning with the incarnation in the New Testament, that activity took on distinctly new importance and reached far greater proportions. Yet these fathers also maintained that there were differing arrangements of God within the two major divisions of biblical history. They regularly drew dispensational boundaries around Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses in the Old Testament, and around Christ, and to a large extent, the millennial kingdom in the New. It is simply untrue to say, as Kraus does, that the fathers held to only one basic dispensational division.
[41] Mason, Ibid, pp. 19-20.
[42] John F. Walvoord, review of Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, Clarence B. Bass, in Bibliotheca Sacra, 118 January 1961, p. 69.
[43] Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom…, pp. 5–6.
[44] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 2:614.
[45] For a detailed account of the various phases of and participants in the two resurrections, see J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), pp. 395–411.
[46] Henry C. Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), p. 477. For the Hermas reference, see The Shepherd: Visions IV, II. It will become apparent in our examination of the Hermas material that this is not an unqualified pretribulational reference.
[47] Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology…, p. 477.
[48] John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, rev., enl. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979), p. 51.
[49] Ibid, pp. 50-54.
[50] Millard J. Erickson, who is himself a posttribulationist, says “To be sure, the premillennialism of the church’s first centuries may have included belief in a pretribulational rapture of the church …” But he avers elsewhere that “While there are in the writings of the early fathers seeds from which the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture could be developed, it is difficult to find in them an unequivocal statement of the type of imminency usually believed in by pretribulationists” (Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology, pp. 112, 131). This in essence is the position for which we are contending. We do not say that the early fathers were pretribulationists in the modern sense, only that the seeds were indeed there but were crushed under the allegorist’s foot before they could sprout and bear early fruit.
[51] Ryrie, Dispensationalism…, p. 65.