/ Robert Kelbe

Changing Eschatology in the RPCNA (Part 2)

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

The Influence of Vos and the Blue Banner

After World War 2, there was an eschatological sea change in the RPCNA first apparent in the denominational magazine, Blue Banner Faith and Life, edited by J. G. Vos. Vos, the son of the famous Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos, was a minister in the RPCNA and also a Covenanter missionary to Manchuria for 11 years leading up to his expulsion by the Japanese in 1941.[1] Upon his return, he began the Blue Banner from his church’s basement and continued it over the next 33 years, growing it from fifty to over a thousand subscribers. In a letter sent to subscribers when his health forced him to discontinue the magazine in 1979, Vos reflected on his purpose for founding the magazine:

“When I returned from missionary service in the Far East in 1941, I found the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America at a low level of awareness of true biblical Christianity…. After conferring with a good many men and considering and praying about it a good many times, I decided there needed to be a very vocal but simple publication to set forth the true faith of the church.”[2]

Evidently, one of Vos’s goals was to slowly introduce amillennialism to the RPCNA. Vos’s amillennial eschatology was crystalized in his 1936 booklet, The End of the Ages, published in China and translated into Chinese during his missionary service in Manchuria. In this short book, Vos rejects not only premillennialism as unscriptural, but also the postmillennialism of the Covenanter church. He writes, “Some Postmillenarians hold that the millennium will be a literal 1000 years and others believe that the 1000 years are symbolic of a long period of time. We believe the doctrine is an error and a perversion of the Scriptural teaching about the kingdom of God.”[3] This book was reprinted in the Blue Banner in its entirety in 1950-1951, 1960, 1966, and 1974.

Why did Vos reject the historicist postmillennialism of past generations? Perhaps one reason was that the diminishing importance of the Roman Catholic Church, although explained by historicists, made the pope seem increasingly irrelevant as a viable Antichrist. Vos writes,

At the time of the Reformation it was common to hold that the papacy, or some one of the popes, was the Antichrist. Four hundred years have passed since Martin Luther publicly burned the pope’s decree calling it “the execrable bull of antichrist,” and it has become increasingly clear that while the papal system is certainly antichristian, nevertheless the prophecies point to some individual person, or possibly some collective person or institution, which has not yet appeared upon the scene of human affairs.[4]

Another reason might be the repeated failure of significant dates and events anticipated to usher in the millennium, although this would not necessarily entail a rejection of historicism.

A more compelling theory is that Vos was responding the theological pressure exerted by premillennialists who, since the publishing of The Fundamentals, were beginning to dominate American evangelical thought-life.[5] In fact, in The End of the Ages, Vos gives four reasons for rejecting postmillennialism:

1. The signs which Christ predicted as to precede his second coming are such as could all occur in any generation of the world’s history, and therefore he commanded his disciples to watch; but if Christ’s second* coming is to take place after a still future millenium[sic], then he cannot come for 1000 years or a long period of time, and there is no reason for watchfulness.
2. Postmillennialism represents the kingdom of God as coming gradually through the operation of forces now at work in the world, whereas the Scriptures represent it as coming in its final form suddenly and at a definite time, the second coming of Christ.
3. Postmillennialism ignores or minimizes the prophecies of the increase of evil and wickedness during the present age.
4. The kingdom of Postmillennialism, being before the resurrection, is bound to be imperfect and marred by sin and suffering, groaning and travailing in pain.[6]

Significantly, the first three objections are all shared by premillennials.

Vos’s specific form of amillennialism was elaborated in an article titled, “Prophecy, Time, and Eternity,” published in the 1962 Banner and republished in 1966 and 1974. In this article, Vos argues that the absolute fulfillment of the millennium must occur in eternity.[7] This is significant, because amillennialism can take two forms. One form of amillennialism denies that the millennium is a literal thousand years, and yet still refers the millennium to the church age. Since Christ still comes after the millennium, this form of amillennialism is essentially postmillennial. Vos, however, believed that the millennium referred to the eschaton. According to his view, Christ’s return precedes the millennium, making his view essentially premillennial. This allowed him to hold to the immanent return of Christ, which was a forceful argument of the premillennial school.

In rejecting postmillennialism, Vos was well aware that he was moving against the current of the RPCNA. In a circa-1942 typewritten folio titled, “Observations Concerning the Postmillennial View of the Final Coming of Christ,” Vos admits in the “Prefatory Note” that

The opinion is apparently widespread that Postmillennialism is the "official doctrine" or official position of the Covenanter Church concerning the Final Coming of the Lord. This opinion seems to be based upon an assumption that most Covenanters are Postmillennialists and that the belief of the majority is ipso facto the "official position" of the Church. Some members of the Church appear to hold that any other view than the Postmillennial is necessarily heretical and involves disloyalty to the principles held by the Covenanter Church. These "Observations" are written with a view to controverting the above mentioned opinions, and also to demonstrate that serious exegetical considerations militate against acceptance of the Postmilliennial view.[8]

There follows a section on “Postmillenialism and the Subordinate Doctrinal Standards of the Covenanter Church” in which, in question and answer format, Vos asserts that the subordinate standards of the RPCNA – the Westminster standards, and at that time, the original 1807 Testimony – “do not contain anything even remotely approaching statements of the doctrine of Postmillenialism.”[9] Immediately anticipating the objection that the last paragraph of the testimony specifically mentions “the millennial state,” Vos argues that it “does not affirm that this millennial state will be prior to the second advent. This section of the Testimony is equally compatible with Postmillenialism, Premillenialism, and Amillenialism.”[10] He concludes, “Since Postmillenialism is not taught in the creed of the Covenanter Church, it cannot be regarded as the official doctrine of the Church.”[11]

Vos went on to employ the same methodology of using catechism-like questions and answers in the Blue Banner to convince the reader that amillennialism is a permissible view in the RPCNA. One such question from 1946 is representative of many similar questions throughout the years: “What does the Larger Catechism say about a Millennium? Nothing whatever. None of the Westminster Standards mentions a ‘millennium’ or thousand year reign of Christ.”[12] It is noteworthy that this question and others like it were part of lesson plans to be used for Sabbath Schools throughout the denomination.

Another way in which Vos as the editor of the Blue Banner sought to systematically dismantle postmillennialism as the de facto position of the RPCNA is through a section called “Religious Terms Defined”. In this recurring section, postmillennialism, pseudo-postmillennialism, premillennialism, and amillennialism are defined side by side.[13]

Next, the Blue Banner normalized amillennialism through book reviews in which the reviewer noted his acceptance of amillennialism. For example, in 1949, Vos personally reviewed two books favorable to amillennialism, noting that he “heartily concurs in his amillennial eschatology.”[14] In 1952, Vos reviewed another book in which he concluded that “In the judgment of this reviewer the booklet presents a series of very telling arguments for the “perennial” view of the Kingdom of God — the view that the final, absolute fulfilment of the Kingdom prophecies is to be, not temporal, but eternal.”[15] In 1960 E. Clark Copeland wrote in a review, “We welcome this work as a positive statement of the Amillennial view of eschatology, and we heartily agree with the conclusions reached. The approach is praiseworthy. In as much as we find it in harmony with our Confession of Faith, we heartily recommend it. It will prove a valuable reference book in private and church libraries.”[16]

Books espousing historicist postmillennialism, on the other hand, were carefully refuted by Blue Banner contributors, even if they were ultimately commended. For example, E. Clark Copeland rejected the historicism of influential postmillennial writer J. Marcellus Kik: “The statement is made that the Beast of verse 10 was the Roman Empire and the False Prophet was papal Rome (pp. 73, 74). This kind of interpretation is dangerous and robs the book of any practical application except at certain periods of history.”[17] In 1976, Samuel Sterrett reviewed Iain Murray’s book, The Puritan Hope, in which he writes, “It should be noted that the author holds a postmillennial view of Christ’s Second Coming. There are four reasons why this reviewer cannot accept this teaching of our Lord’s Return…”[18] Significantly, throughout the life of the Blue Banner, the reviewers were unanimously amillennial.

By 1976, the tide of popular opinion on the millennium had turned, and Vos finally allowed an article critical of his own amillennialism. That article acknowledged that “Many Reformed Christians today would side with Rev. Vos’s amillennial view. Few consider post-millennialism seriously.”[19] The article goes on to refute the arguments of “Mr. Vos” against postmillennialism. Vos graciously allowed this article to be published, with an “Editorial Note”:

The foregoing article by Professor Gangadean presents a viewpoint and interpretation of Biblical prophecy which differs in some respects from that held by myself as Editor of Blue Banner Faith and Life. During the past thirty years of publication of the magazine we have endeavored to present the view which we believe to be most in harmony with the Scriptures taken as a whole, and most in harmony with the official standards of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, especially the Westminster Confession of Faith and its accompanying Larger and Shorter Catechisms.[20]

Vos goes on to refer the readers to “materials previously published” in favor of amillennialism, including lessons, articles, questions and answers, and book reviews, confirming that these were all part of a strategic effort to promote amillennialism in the RPCNA.

Conclusion: The 1980 Testimony

The rejection of historicist postmillennialism as the de facto position of the RPCNA was finalized in 1980 with the adoption of a new Testimony which softened the Westminster Confession’s identification of the Pope of Rome as “that Antichrist,” by saying instead that “Many antichrists will be present in the world throughout history. Prior to Christ’s coming the final ‘man of lawlessness’ will be revealed. He will be destroyed by Christ.”[21] The use of consensus language indicates that there continued to be those in the RPCNA who held to the doctrine of the papal antichrist, although it was no longer the majority position.

There is no record of debate about this specific paragraph of the testimony in the Minutes of Synod. However, it is clear that by 1980, the tide had turned against postmillennialism. For example, in 1978, the “Report of the Committee on Questions of Covenanting” rejected the use of several proof-texts for public covenanting because those proof-texts assumed a postmillennial eschatology:

After a careful examination of all the passages in the Testimony, chapter 27, paragraph 4, it is my conclusion that the "Public Covenanting" set forth there is derived from a particular kind of Post-Millenial[sic] eschatology, and furthermore that it is this kind of eschatological view-point which is supposedly established by the verses cited in the Testimony. The basic idea of this view seems to be the belief that during the Millenium[sic] all the nations of the world will be related to God in a similar way to that the nation of Israel had been related to God under the O. T. Theocracy. Only when such a Theocratic relationship has been accomplished will Christ (according to this view) return. No one on the Covenanting Committee, however, is willing to support this idea.[22]

Spiritualist amillennialism had won the day.

[1] Byron Curtis, “About J. G. Vos,” accessed Spring 2022, https://bluebanner.org/about#

[2] James Faris, “A Very Vocal But Simple Publication,” RP Witness, May 2015, 15.

[3] J. G. Vos, “The End of the Ages,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 29 no. 3 (July-September, 1974), 18.

[4] Vos, “The End of the Ages,” 12.

[5] Denominational magazines had been writing against premillennialism in the 19thcentury. However, it was after the distribution of The Fundamentals from 1910 to 1917 that the Synod in 1917 wrote a scathing critique of Premillenialism: “Millennialisim as a practical principle stands self-condemned. Any interpretation of the Scriptures which makes no provision for the salvation of man's political nature stands self-condemned… the relation of Pre-Millennialism and Covenanterism must ever be one of irreconcilable disagreement. There is no common ground possible between them. If their position is right, then that of the Covenanter Church is wrong, the historic legend on our banner is wildfire, the faithful contendings of our fathers for liberty and democracy was a mistake, the blood of the martyrs was wasted, and all our present testimony for the royal claims of Christ is for a King with empty titles. RPCNA “Report on Premillenialism,” in Minutes of the Synod, 1917, 84, 86.

[6] Vos, “The End of the Ages,” 17.

[7] He writes, “It is a mistake to assume that all prophecies must be completely and absolutely fulfilled with­ in the confines of time or history. The fact is that many prophecies of the Bible look out beyond the rim of time into the infinite reaches of eternity that lies beyond time.” J. G. Vos, “Prophecy, Time, and Eternity,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 29 no. 3 (July-September, 1974), 34.

[8] J. G. Vos, Observations Concerning the Postmillennial View of the Final Coming of Christ (Santa Ana, CA, circa 1942), 1.

[9] Vos, Observations Concerning the Postmillennial View of the Final Coming of Christ, 2.

[10] Vos, Observations Concerning the Postmillennial View of the Final Coming of Christ, 3. As a historian, Vos must have known that the original sense of the Testimony was postmillennial. Yet he believed that the letter of the law permitted amillennialism.

[11] Vos, Observations Concerning the Postmillennial View of the Final Coming of Christ, 3.

[12] “Studies in the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly: Lesson 45 For Week Beginning November 10, 1946,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 1, no. 8 (October-December, 1946), 166.

[13] See, for example, “Religious Terms Defined,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life, 4, no. 4 (October-December, 1949), 148.

[14] “Reviews of Religious Books,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 4 no. 2 (April-June, 1949), 84.

[15] “Reviews of Religious Books,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 7 no. 2 (April-June, 1952), 101.

[16] “Reviews of Religious Books,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 15 no. 1 (January-March, 1960), 56.

[17] “Reviews of Religious Books,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 13 no. 4 (October-December, 1958), 192.

[18] “Reviews of Religious Books,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 31 no. 3 (July-September, 1976), 27. It should be noted that Murray later wrote the Blue Banner to correct the record, saying that “It is my own conviction that the work which the ‘a-millenniall school have done, makes a return to the traditional ‘post-millennial’ next to an impossibility and I do not think it serves the interests of accuracy to revive the term ‘post-millennial’ though I know it is being done.” “Blue Banner Question Box,” in Blue Banner Faith and Life 32 no. 3 (July-September, 1977), 39.

[19] Surrendra Gangadean, “The Growth of the Kingdom of God”, Blue Banner Faith and Life 31 no. 2 (April-June, 1976), 19.

[20] Gangadean, “The Growth of the Kingdom of God”, 23.

[21] RPCNA, Testimony, adopted 1980, updated 2018, sec. 25.18.

[22] RPCNA, Minutes of the Synod, 1978, 139-140.

Robert Kelbe

Robert Kelbe

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

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