1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Millennium

MILLENNIUM, (a pseudo-Latin word formed on the analogy of biennium, triennium, from Lat. mille, a thousand and annus, year), literally a period of a thousand years. The term is specially used of the period of 1,000 years during which Christ, as has been believed, would return to govern the earth in person. Hence it is used to describe a vague time in the future when all flaws in human existence will have vanished, and perfect goodness and happiness will prevail.

Faith in the nearness of Christ's second advent, and the establishing of his reign of glory on the earth was undoubtedly a strong point in the primitive Christian Church. In the anticipations of the future prevailing amongst the early Christians (c. 50–150) it is necessary to establish a fixed and a fluctuating element. The former includes (1) the notion that a last terrible battle with the enemies of God was impending; (2) the faith in the speedy return of Christ; (3) the conviction that Christ will judge all men, and (4) will set up a kingdom of glory on earth. To the latter belong views of the Antichrist, of the heathen world-power, of the place, extent, and duration of the earthly kingdom of Christ, etc. These remained in a state of solution; they were modified from day to day, partly because of the changing circumstances of the present by which forecasts of the future were regulated, partly because the indications—real or supposed—of the ancient prophets always admitted of new combinations and constructions. But even here certain positions were agreed on in large sections of Christendom. Amongst these was the expectation that the future kingdom of Christ should have a fixed duration - according to the most prevalent opinion, a duration of 1,000 years. From this fact the whole ancient Christian eschatology was known in later times as “chiliasm”—a name which is not strictly accurate, since the doctrine of the millennium was only one feature in its scheme of the future.

1. This idea that the Messianic kingdom of the future on earth should have a definite duration has—like the whole eschatology of the primitive church—its roots in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, where it appears at a comparatively late period. At first it was assumed that the Messianic kingdom in Palestine would last for ever (so the prophets; cf. Jer.xxiv. 6; Ezek. xxxvii. 25; Joel iv. 20; Dan. vi. 27; Sibyll iii .49 seq, 766; Psalt. Salom xvii. 4; Enoch lxii. 14), and this seems always to have been the most widely accepted view (John xii. 34). But from a comparison of prophetic passages of the Old Testament learned apocalyptic writers came to the conclusion that a distinction must be drawn between the earthly appearance of the Messiah and the appearance of God Himself amongst his people and in the Gentile world for the final judgment.

Nowhere in the discourses of Jesus is there a hint of a limited duration of the Messianic kingdom. The apostolic epistles are equally free from any trace of chiliasm (neither 1 Cor. xv. 23 seq nor I Thess. iv. 16 seq points in this direction.) In Revelation however, it occurs in the following shape (ch. xx). After Christ has appeared from heaven in the guise of a warrior, and vanquished the anti-Christian world-power, the wisdom of the world and the devil, those who have remained steadfast in the time of the last catastrophe, and have given up their lives for their faith, shall be raised up, and shall reign with Christ on this earth as a royal priesthood for 1,000 years. At the end of this time Satan is to be let loose again for a short season; he will prepare a new onslaught, but God will miraculously destroy him and his hosts. Then will follow the general resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and the creation of new heavens and a new earth.

That all believers will have a share in the first resurrection and in the Messianic kingdom is an idea of which the author of Revelation knows nothing. The earthly kingdom of Christ is reserved for those who have endured the most terrible tribulation, who have withstood the supreme effort of the world-power - that is, for those who are actually members of the church of the last days. The Jewish expectation is thus considerably curtailed, as it is also shorn of its sensual attractions. "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection, on such the second death has no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years."

Other ancient Christian authors were not so cautious. Accepting the Jewish apocalypses as sacred books of venerable antiquity, they read them eagerly, and transferred their contents bodily to Christianity. Nay more, the Gentile Christians took possession of them, and just in proportion as they were neglected by the Jews - who, after the war of Bar-Cochba, became indifferent to the Messianic hope and hardened themselves once more in devotion to the law -they were naturalized in the Christian communities. The result was that these books became "Christian" documents; it is entirely to Christian, not to Jewish, tradition that we owe their preservation. The Jewish expectations are adopted for example, by Papias, by the writer of the epistle of Barnabas, and also by Justin. That a philosopher like Justin, with a bias toward an Hellenic construction of the Christian religion, should nevertheless have accepted its chiliastic elements is the strongest proof that these enthusiatic expectations were inseparably bound up with the Christian faith down to the middle of the second century.

After the middle of the second century these expectations were gradually thrust into the background. They would never have died out, however, had not circumstances altered, and a new mental attitude been taken up. The spirit of philosophical and theological speculation and of ethical reflection, which began to spread through the Churches, did not know what to make of the old hopes of the future. To a new generation they seemed paltry, earthly and fantastic, and far-seeing men had good reason to regard them as a source of political danger.

But more than this, these wild dreams about the glorious kingdom of Christ began to disturb the organization which the Churches had seen fit to introduce. In the interests of self-preservation against the world, the State and and the heretics, the Christian communities formed themselves into compact societies with a definite creed and constitution, and they felt that their existence was threatened by the white heat of religious subjectivity. So early as the year 170, a Church party in Asia Minor, the so-called Alogi - rejected the whole body of apocalyptic writings and denounced the book of Revelation as a book of fables. All the more powerful was the reaction.

In the so-called Montanistic controversy (c. 160–220) one of the principal issues involved was the continuance of the chiliastic expectations in the Churches. The Montanists of Asia Minor defended them in their integrity, with one slight modification; they announced that Pepuza, the city of Montanus, would be the site of the New Jerusalem and the millennial kingdom. After the Montanistic controversy chiliastic views were more and more discredited in the Greek church; they were, in fact, stigmatized as "Jewish" and therefore "heretical." Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, succeeded in healing the schism and asserting the allegorical interpretation of the prophets as the only legitimate exegesis.

During this controversy Dionysius became convinced that the victory of mystical theology over "Jewish" chiliasm would never be secure so long as the book of Revelation passed for apostolic writing and kept its place among the homologoumena of the canon. He accordingly raised the question of its apostolic origin; and by reviving old difficulties, with ingenious new arguments, he carried his point. The Greek Church kept Revelation out of its canon, and consequently chiliasm remained in its grave. It was considered a sufficient safeguard against the spiritualizing eschatology of Origen and his school to have rescued the main doctrines of the creed and the regula fidei (the visible advent of Christ; eternal misery and hell-fire for the wicked). Anything going beyond this was held to be Jewish.

In the Semitic churches of the East (the Syrian, Arabian and Ethiopian), and in that of Armenia, the apocalyptic literature was preserved much longer than in the Greek Church. They were very conservative of ancient traditions in general, and hence chiliasm survived amongst them to a later date than in Alexandria or Constantinople.

But the Western Church was also more conservative than the Greek. Her theologians had, to begin with, little turn for mystical speculation; their tendency was rather to reduce the gospel to a system of morals. Now for the moralists chiliasm had a special significance as the one distinguishing feature of the gospel and the only thing that gave a specifically Christian character to their system. This, however, holds good of the Western theologians only after the middle of the 3rd century. The earlier fathers, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, believed in chiliasm simply because it was a part of the tradition of the Church and because Marcion and the Gnostics would have nothing to do with this conception. It is the same all through the 3rd and 4th centuries with those Latin theologians who escaped the influence of Greek speculation. Commodian, Victorinus Pettavensis, Lactantius and Sulpicius Severus were all pronounced millennarians, holding by the very details of the primitive expectations.

As to the canonicity and the apostolic authorship of the Johannine Apocalypse no doubts were ever entertained in the West; indeed an Apocalypse of Peter was still retained in the canon in the 3rd century. That of Ezra, in its Latin translation, must have been all but a canonical book - the numbers of extant manuscripts of the so-called 4 Ezra being incredibly great, while several of them are found in copies of the Latin Bible at the beginning of the 16th century. These facts show how vigorously the early hopes of the future maintained themselves in the West. In the hands of moralistic theologians, like Lactantius, they certainly assume a somewhat grotesque form, but the fact that these men clung to them is the clearest evidence that in the West millennarianism was still a point of "orthodoxy" in the 4th century.

This state of matters, however, gradually disappeared after after the end of the fourth century. The change was brought about by two causes - first, Greek theology, which reached the West, chiefly through Jerome, Rufinus and Ambrose, and, second, the new idea of the Church wrought out by Augustine on the basis of the altered political situation of the Church. Augustine was the first who ventured to teach that the Catholic Church, in its empirical form, was the kingdom of Christ, that the millennial kingdom had commenced with the coming of Christ, and was therefore an accomplished fact. By this doctrine of Augustine's, the old millennarianism, though not completely extirpated, was at least banished from the official theology.

It still lived on in the lower strata of Christian society; and in certain undercurrents of tradition it was transmitted from century to century. At various periods in the history of the middle ages we encounter sudden outbreaks of millennarianism, sometimes as the tenet of a small sect, sometimes as a far reaching movement. And since it had been suppressed, not, as in the East, by mystical speculation, its mightiest antagonist, but by the political church of the hierarchy, we find that whenever chiliasm appears in the middle ages it makes common cause with all enemies of the secularized Church.

It strengthened the hands of church democracy; it formed an alliance with the pure souls who held up to the Church the ideal of apostolic poverty; it united itself for a time even with mysticism in a common opposition to the supremacy of the Church; nay, it lent the strength of its convictions to the support of states and princes in their effort to break the political power of the Church. It is sufficient to recall the well known names of Joachim of Floris, of all the numerous Franciscan spiritualists, of the leading sectaries from the 13th to the 15th century who assailed the papacy and the secularism of the Church - above all, the name of Occam. In these men the millennarianism of the ancient Church came to life again; and in the revolutionary movements of the 15th and 16th centuries - especially in the Anabaptist movements - it appears with all its old uncompromising energy. If the Church, and not the state, was regarded as Babylon, and the pope declared to be Anti-Christ, these were legitimate inferences from the ancient traditions and the actual position of the Church.

The German and Swiss reformers also believed that the end of the world was near, but they had different aims in view from those of the Anabaptists. It was not from poverty and apocalypticism that they hoped for a reformation of the church. In contrast to the fanatics, after a brief hesitation they threw millenarianism overboard and along with it all other opiniones Judaicae. They took up the same ground in this respect which the Roman Catholic Church had occupied since the time of Augustine.

How millenarianism nevertheless found its way, with the help of apocalyptic mysticism and Anabaptist influences, into the churches of the Reformation, chiefly among the reformed sects but afterwards also in the Lutheran church, how it became incorporated with Pietism, how it later times an exceedingly mild type of "academic" chiliasm was developed from a belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, how finally new sects are still springing up here and there with apocalyptic and chiliastic expectations - these are matters which cannot be fully entered upon here.

Bibliography - Corrodi, Kritische Geschichte des Chiliasmus (1781).  (A. Ha.)