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Martin Erdmann: The Millennial Controversy in the Early Church

The final chapter finds Erdmann recapping his investigation point by point and arguing for a literal interpretation that he finds leading inexorably to a premillennial perspective, though he still does not specifically advocate either dispensationalism or historic premillennialism.

While on the whole Erdmann’s text is a well-written study that is very informative and demonstrates a mastery of much early church literature and obscure texts, it does suffer from a few serious defects. One is Erdmann’s failure to interact with or even acknowledge Charles Hill’s monumental contribution to this field of research, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2001). From a scholarly perspective, any academic work in this field that neglects Hill’s work is shocking. Hill shows that, while premillennialism was certainly current and perhaps even the majority view in the early church, it was far from unanimous, with a host of extremely early texts promoting alternative views. Second, the pitting of Antiochene and Alexandrian schools of interpretation against one another is historically accurate to an extent, but unwise to absolutize, particularly in assuming that one is good and the other bad. It is a matter of history that both schools produced their fair share of heretics. The assumption that one’s hermeneutic is the all-determining factor of theological orthodoxy reflects more of a modern preoccupation with theological method than an accurate historical rendering of the development of Christian doctrine. Third, while Erdmann is typically generous with opponents of his view, he is occasionally guilty of unfair, or at least incomplete, descriptions of certain historical figures. The most obvious example is Origen. Erdmann rightly points out that Origen was posthumously declared a heretic, but wrongly implies that this was so because of his allegorical approach to the Scriptures. If this were so, then Augustine would have also been labeled a heretic due to his own allegorical approach which Erdmann laments. Origen’s real heresy was subordinationism, which declared the Son and Spirit as essentially inferior to the Father, a heresy shared by Justin Martyr and arguably Tertullian, two of Erdmann’s premillennial champions. Thus, it was obviously not for his amillennialism that Origen was declared a heretic, and Erdmann’s inclusion of Origen’s fate, while omitting any similar demerits in Justin and Tertullian, seems inappropriate in the context of this argument.

These criticisms, however, should not dissuade interested readers from benefiting from this otherwise very informative and useful text. Erdmann has provided a valuable resource to the study of early church doctrine.

Reviewed by Matthew K. Thompson

 

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Category: Church History, Winter 2007

About the Author: Matthew K. Thompson is a PhD student in systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He holds a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO.

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