/ eschatology / Robert Kelbe

Changing Eschatology in the RPCNA (Part 1)

This is the first in a two-part series on the change in eschatology within the RPCNA. The first part will explore the postmillenialism prevalent until the middle of the 20th century. The second part will explore the change to amillenialism under the influence of J. G. Vos and the Blue Banner.

Introduction: The 1807 Testimony

In 1807, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, now the RPCNA, published its first Testimony called Reformation Principles Exhibited which had been approved by the Presbytery the year before. Roughly following the chapter divisions of the Westminster Confession of Faith, this original testimony of the RPCNA adds a final chapter on “Testimony-Bearing”. The last paragraph of that last chapter states that

The church may not recede from a more clear and particular testimony to a more general and evasive one but the witnesses must proceed in finishing their testimony rendering it more pointed and complete until God shall according to his promise overthrow the empire of darkness and introduce the millennial state in which the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.[1]

The reference to “the millennial state” is a reference to the standard postmillennial Covenanter eschatology which was dominant in the RPCNA until after the Second World War. According to postmillennialism, Christ comes after the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 during which Satan would be bound. This paper will trace the change from a postmillennial to an amillennial consensus in the RPCNA under the influence of J. G. Vos as the editor of The Blue Banner from 1946 to 1979, culminating in a new 1980 Testimony which, in its statement on eschatology, receded from a more clear and particular testimony to a more general and evasive one.

Historicist Postmillennialism

The original Covenanter eschatology was both historicist and postmillennial. According to the historicist school of interpretation, the symbols of the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls reveal the contours of church history between the two advents of Christ. Historicism was the dominant view of the proto-Reformers and Reformers.[2] It was propagated through the influential 1560 Geneva Bible study notes, and commentaries such as James Durham’s 1680 Commentary on Revelation, and continued in the American Covenanter church until World War 2.

As Steve Gregg notes in his book Revelation: Four Views, “One non-negotiable feature of classical Protestant (historicist) exposition is the assertion that the papacy is ‘Antichrist.’”[3] This view is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 25.6: “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.”[4] It is also clearly stated in the historical section of Reformation Principles Exhibited (1807).[5] The Synod of 1916, on the five hundredth anniversary of Huss’s martyrdom, also resolved “That we regard the Roman Papal System as the Anti-Christ of the Christian Scripture.”[6]

Besides holding to the doctrine of the papal antichrist, historicism also identifies the symbols of Revelation with specific events in history. Historicist commentators have not always agreed in the details of their interpretation, partly because prophecy is best interpreted retrospectively after the events have occurred. By the time of the Reformation, there was a consensus that the seven trumpets symbolized the downfall of imperial Rome at the hands of the barbarian tribes in the west, and the Muslim hordes in the east. However, in their view the seven bowls symbolized the coming judgment of papal Rome which had not yet occurred in history.

After the French Revolution, historicists began to connect the bowls with the events precipitated by the French Revolution, which shattered the power of the Roman Catholic Church.[7] Covenanter theologian and pastor James Renwick Willson, in his 1809 Shaking of the Nations: The Anti-Christian Empire Overthrown, wrote:

In the military machinery of the nations, however, we even now behold the mystery of iniquity, rapidly progressing towards a close. Napoleon Bonaparte, the sword of God and scourge of nations, has been raised up by the God of the whole earth, and endowed with military talents which astonish the world. He has been made an instrument in the hand of “the mighty God, the Everlasting Father” (Isa. 9:6), for tearing down all the thrones of iniquity in Europe (Dan. 7:9). The whole fabric of the Germanic empire is shattered to pieces under the power of his military arm: The house of Austria, that pillar of the anti-Christian throne, has been ground to powder and dissipated to the four winds, by his furious legions; the Popish house of Braganza, in Portugal, he has blotted from the list of crowned despots in Europe; the Spanish monarchy, that focus of inquisitorial persecution and civil oppression, he has, ’ere now, utterly destroyed. It has been overwhelmed with the earthquake of a bloody revolution.[8]

At the same time, there was a recognition that the end was not yet. In 1814 Alexander M’Leod published his influential Lectures Upon the Principle Prophecies of the Revelation, in which he wrote,

The accomplishment of the prediction will be found in the events which grow out of the French Revolution. Very few of these events are as yet fully disclosed. Battles, and blood, and ruin, and death, have undoubtedly been already abundant; but even in these respects, we have seen no more than the beginning of sorrows.[9]

M’Leod himself, following several earlier commentators, predicted the destruction of Antichrist in 1866,[10] 1260 years from the year 606 when Emperor Phocas decreed that the Pope of Rome was the universal bishop of the church, and the beginning of the Millennium in 2001.[11] 1866 came and went without much fanfare. It is unclear whether there was any disappointment at the time.[12] Nothing appears in the denominational magazines, and later Covenanter theologians continued to accept M’Leod’s calculation based on the year 606,[13] which was also the date specified in the 1807 Testimony, Reformation Principles Exhibited.[14]

According to the accepted historicist interpretation, one of the events yet to occur was the Battle of Armageddon. In 1875, David Metheny, RP missionary to Syria, wrote, “Evidently God is preparing the way for the kings of the East. Every obstacle in the way God will certainly remove. This contents me to work here. In all probability the next European war will be dreadful—will change the whole geography of Europe and Asia and inaugurate many of the principles which will, when fairly wrought out, bring about the millennium.”[15] Influential RP pastor and author J. C. M’Feeters predicted in 1897 that the Armegeddon would take place in 1914.[16] He added,

The time since 1870 has been characterized by wonderful progress made by all nations in preparing for war. These have been years of peace, excepting a few brief struggles, enough to test occasionally the military improvements. The world has made vast strides toward perfection in inventing engines of destruction, in amassing and drilling prodigious[sic] armies, in the construction of navies, and in raising revenues for war. The thirty years are well nigh run, if we be correct in reading the prophet's calendar. Such years of preparation for battle the world has never witnessed.

Significantly, American Covenanters never saw the Armageddon in the American Civil War. However, they did see it in World War 1. Even before the armistice of 1918, W. J. Coleman wrote in The Christian Nation regarding “the present war” that

It is entirely within the bounds of probability that this war is the great struggle foretold as occurring in the pouring out of the sixth vial when evil spirits go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. This is not the last, for another struggle is coming under the seventh vial, but it may well be the battle of Armageddon.[17]

J. C. M’Feeters, who had himself in 1897 predicted that the Armageddon would begin in 1914, agreed. Yet he also saw that the battle of Armageddon was not yet over with the armistice: “Surely we are in the thick of the fight. The battle of Armageddon is on, but not nearly over. ‘The kings from the east’ must hurl their forces into it ere the end come.”[18] M’Feeters hoped that instead, the nations would enter into Covenant with Christ, a Covenant that would cause a great revival, instigate a final tribulation, and usher in the Millennium.[19] In his 1922 book, America In The Coming Crisis: an appeal to Christian patriots to align our country with Jesus for her safety in the next war, M’Feeters warned that “The recent world-war, doubtless the Armageddon of the Scriptures, has passed into history, but the problem of peace among the nations has not been solved. Nor will it be till the right relation of nations to Jesus be established…. If the armistice between God and the nations fail, the war must be resumed.”[20]

M'Feeter’s quote shows how connected Covenanter historicism was to their postmillennial eschatology. Historicism does not necessarily require postmillennialism, since Revelation 20 could also be interpreted as a recapitulation of a particular period of church history, not necessarily of a period of time following the battle of Armageddon. However, the Covenanters hoped that their efforts at social and religious reform would usher in the millennium. The millennium is mentioned in virtually every issue of the denominational magazines, in church reports, missions update letters, and articles. The millennial hope was the parlance of the Covenanter church.

In fact, covenanter distinctives, such as abolition, prohibition, refraining from tobacco, and especially the push for a Christian amendment to the constitution were all seen in the light of the millennium. So too was psalm-singing, and Christian missions to the Jews and to the nations. Writing to the Covenanter Young People’s Union in 1913, J. C. Slater summarized the thinking of the denomination as a whole:

No higher compliment can be paid to Covenanter principles than that which is sometimes given by those who do not accept them because “they are ideal. They would do all right for the millennium, but they are not practical now.” That can only mean that Christians who are praying, "Thy kingdom come," can do no better than to adopt Covenanter principles, for if they were universally adopted and practiced, we would be living in the millennium.[21]

As commendable as these principles were, it would seem that their confidence in the coming of the millennium, at least in the way they had hoped for, was misplaced. The second part of this series will show the transition in the RPCNA from a postmillenial to an amillenial understanding of the book of Revelation in the second half of the 1900s. And yet, there are several valuable lessons we can learn from the Reformed Presbyterians of a past generation. First, they earnestly desired to study and to understand the book of Revelation, a book that we give far too little attention to, and yet which is the only book that comes with a blessing for reading, hearing, and keeping the things which are written in it (Rev. 1:3). They knew their mediatorial King was on the throne and they believed that He had told them ahead of time the things that must surely come to pass. Finally, they lived in the hope of the consummation of all things, and that hope changed the way they lived in the present. Unfortunately, that hope was tied to particular interpretation of Revelation 20. However, inasmuch as we cannot know the time of Christ's return, we should be equally motivated to do all that we can to promote the crown rights of King Jesus and always live as if the end is near.

[1] Reformed Presbyterian Church, Reformation Principles Exhibited, 1807, sec. 32.3.

[2] Steve Gregg, Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers, 1997), 34.

[3] Gregg, Revelation, Four Views, 35.

[4] Westminster Assembly, Confession of Faith, 1647, sec. 25.6.

[5] “He who is the visible head of that system of superstition, which, under the Christian name, is the greatest enemy of the Christian religion which ever existed, is on that account alone the man of sin, and son of perdition, [2 Thess. 2.] By virtue of his spiritual supremacy he ruled the nations of Europe; but they never submitted to his authority as a civil Emperor. The Kings of the earth swore allegiance to him, not because he ruled the petty states of Italy, but because he was the Pope. His own civil power, like the magistracy of the nations under his spiritual domination, is one of those horns with which the monster of blasphemy shed the blood of the saints. The Papacy does not cease to be Antichrist, even when stripped of civil authority. The rise of Antichrist is to be dated in the 6th year of the seventh century.” The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Reformation Principles Exhibited, 1807, part 1, book 1, chapter 4. As noted in the preface, “The Historical part is a help to understanding the principles of the Testimony. It is partly founded upon human records, and therefore not an article of faith; but it should be carefully perused as an illustration of divine truth, and instructive to the Church. It is a helper of the faith.”

[6] RPCNA, Minutes of the Synod, 1916, 39.

[7] Specifically, Napoleon, exiled Pope Pious VI in 1798 and put an end to the thousand-year Holy Roman Empire in 1806. E. B. Elliott, Horæ Apocalypticæ; Or, A Commentary on the Apocalypse, Critical and Historical, fifth ed., vol. 3 (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1862), 401, 390.

[8] James R. Willson, “Shaking of the Nations: The Anti-Christian Empire Overthrown,” in Political Danger: Essays on the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ over nations and their political institutions 1809-1838, ed. Gordon J. Keddie (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown and Covenant, 2009), 33.

[9] Alexander M’Leod, Lectures upon the Principle Prophecies of the Revelation (New York: Whiting and Watson, 1814), 473.

[10] M’Leod, Lectures upon the Principle Prophecies of the Revelation, 325.

[11] “Thirty years in addition to the 1260, Dan. xii. 11. will bring about a general improvement among the nations of the world; and 45 years more, or 1335 years from the rise of the Roman apostacy, which will bring us to the year of our Lord 2001, will reveal the happy millennium in its full light and glory.” M’Leod, Lectures upon the Principle Prophecies of the Revelation, 479.

[12] The minority report of the Committee on Questions on Covenanting at the Synod of 1979 alluded to the postmillennial optimism which “enable[d] the members of the church to survive the disappointment of the long-held hope for the coming of the millennium in or about 1866.” RPCNA, Minutes of the Synod, 1979, 180. However, M’Leod actually predicted not the Millennium but the destruction of the Antichrist in 1866, and the beginning of the Millennium in 2001.

[13] For example, J. C. M’Feeters wrote in 1897, “If we can find the beginning of the twelve hundred and sixty days (years), we can easily discover their ending. Many Biblical scholars are willing to express their opinion, that it began with the rise of the papacy, when the pope was invested by the emperor with universal powers in 606. Some fix the beginning a few years later when Mohammedanism appeared. If we look for an event which might appear significant enough to terminate that period, we may find it in the year 1870. At that time the papacy lost the temporal power which it had wielded through long centuries.” J. C. M’Feeters, “Prophecy, and the Times in Which We Live,” in Christian Nation 27 no. 669 (July 21, 1897), 4. Likewise, M. A. Gault wrote a series of articles on “Prophetic Studies,” in which he wrote, “But were there no events clustering around 1866 that mark it as a great prophetic date? One important event was our own Civil War, emancipating four million slaves, and at the same time the emancipating of ten million serfs in Russia. There was also the defeat of the plot of the Romish powers of Europe, to establish a Catholic empire in Mexico, by the execution of Maximillian. It was on July 18, 1870, that the great Vatican Council at Rome declared the Pope infallible. He read this decree oy the light of a candle in St. Peter's Cathedral, amidst a fearful thunderstorm and flashes of lightning. The very next day Napoleon III., his chief political support, declared war against Prussia; and in a few weeks France was crushed like an egg shell in the hand of the German Empire, under the lead of Protestant Prussia. The result was that Rome and all Italy and much of Europe was opened for the circulation of the Bible, and religious toleration which had been prohibited for centuries. Where in all the world's history can we find so many triumphs of the testimony of the witnesses, as these events which gather around 1866?” M. A. Gault, “Prophetic Studies,” in Christian Nation, 58 no. 1480 (January 29, 1913), 4. Interestingly, Gault predicted the millennium in 1941: “In a previous article we aimed to show how the prophetic numbers 1260 and 1290 were fulfilled about the years 1866 and 1896. About those years cluster events which mark the greatest victories of the witnesses over Rome's domination, of both church and state. By the same principle of interpretation, counting from the year 606, we found that Daniel's date, 1335, would terminate about 1941, a year of which it is said, "blessed is the one who lives to see it," for that time will most likely see the beginning of the Millennium.” M. A. Gault, “Prophetic Studies,” in Christian Nation, 58 no. 1481 (February 5, 1913), 6.

[14] See footnote 4. However, there was room for disagreement. In 1878 J. C. K. Milligan promoted another chronology in which the 1,260 years began with the elevation of bishops under Cyprian in 254 and ended with the Lateran Council in 1514 which declared, “There is an end of resistance to the Papal rule and religion, there is no one to oppose; all Christendom is subjected to its Head—that is, to thee.” J. C. K. Milligan, “The Sackcloth Period of the Church,” in Our Banner 5 no. 2 (February 15, 1878), 44.

[15] David Metheny, “Letters from Dr. Metheny,” in Our Banner, 2 no. 10 (October 15, 1875), 413.

[16] “How long will this last? Until the times of the nations be fulfilled. If we deduct 606 from 2520 we will find perhaps the approximate year, 1914. 606 added to 1914 make the perfect number, the 2520, “The times of the nations.” Let none be too positive; let none be too incredulous. It is scarcely possible for human calculation to be perfectly exact concerning that year, yet we may be nearer it than many suppose.” J. C. M’Feeters, “Prophecy, and the Times in Which We Live,” in Christian Nation 27 no. 673 (August 18, 1897), 5. M’Feeters references this earlier prediction in J. C. M’Feeters, America In The Coming Crisis: an appeal to Christian patriots to align our country with Jesus for her safety in the next war (Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1922), 63.

[17] W. J. Coleman, “The Millennium Near At Hand,” in Christian Nation, 66 no. 1673 (January 10, 1917), 5.

[18] J. C. M’Feeters, “Armageddon, A Lost Battle,” in Christian Nation, 68 no. 1728 (January 30, 1918), 6.

[19] J. C. M’Feeters, “The Last, Mighty Conflict,” in Christian Nation, 68 no. 1742 (May 15, 1918), 5.

[20] M’Feeters, America In The Coming Crisis, 75, 78.

[21] J. C. Slater, “Covenanter Young People’s Union,” in Christian Nation 58 no. 1478 (January 15, 1913), 14.

Robert Kelbe

Robert Kelbe

I am a pastor at the Manhattan Reformed Presbyterian Church in beautiful Manhattan, KS.

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