Tuesday, September 05, 2006


The Kingdom through progress or crisis?
Jeffrey Fletcher

IV. Historical Examples of Catastrophic and Progressive Millennialism
We have explored some of the fundamental elements of both catastrophic and progressive millennialism in conceptual and theological ways. To use our millennial dance metaphor, we’ve learned some of the basic steps to the dance, but to get a better feel for what it looks like, we need to see some examples of the dance. We now turn to three distinct historical periods and see how the community of faith lived out these millennial views.

Sixteenth Century
Catastrophic Millennialism
— From the first century to the reformation, culminating in the radical anabaptist Thomas Muntzer/the city of Munster

The first Christians were catastrophic millennialists. From the apostles who asked the question "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" to the time of Augustine and the fall of Rome, catastrophic millennialism was predominant in the Church. From the time of Constantine until the Protestant Reformation a thousand years later, the doctrine of the Church as the Kingdom was the official position of the Church — and yet, this did not prohibit the common folk in Christendom from embracing catastrophic millennialism.

Abanes chronicles a number of occasions when apocalyptic fervor held sway:

c. 950 the monk Adso writes Letter on the Antichrist . . . the letter was copied and circulated throughout Europe. Adso declared that the Antichrist would rise when the rule of the Frankish kings ended.

c. 950-980: A letter about the Hungarians from the Bishop of Auxerre to the Bishop of Verdun "speaks of widespread apocalyptic reactions among the population."

968: Soldiers in Otto’s army panic at an eclipse, which they see as a sign of the end.

994/996: Abbo of Fleury, an influential French abbot, in his apologetic works relates: "When I was a young man I heard a sermon about the end of the world preached before people in the cathedral of Paris. According to this, as soon as the number of a thousand years was completed, the Antichrist would come and the Last Judgment would follow in a brief time. I opposed this sermon with what force I could from passages in the Gospels, the Apocalypse and the Book of Daniel."

Erdoes has devoted an entire book to the cataclysmic millennial expectations that occurred around the first millennial shift at the year 1000:

Some were certain that the Second Coming of Christ would fall on the last day of the year 999, at the very stroke of midnight. Others were equally convinced that Armageddon would happen a little earlier, on the eve of the nativity when "the Children of Light would join in battle with Gog’s army of hellish fiends." Some fixed the date on the day of the summer or winter solstice in the thousandth year after our Lord’s passion.

Mackey writes:

An epidemic terror of the end of the world has several times spread over the nations. The most remarkable was that which seized Christendom about the middle of the tenth century . . . the delusion appears to have been discouraged by the Church, but it nevertheless spread rapidly among the people. The scene of the last judgment was expected to be at Jerusalem. In the year 999, the number of pilgrims proceeding eastward, to await the coming of the Lord in that city, was so great that they were compared to a desolating army. Most of them sold their goods and possessions before they quitted Europe, and lived upon the proceeds in the Holy Land.3

Apocalyptic terrors in catastrophic millennialism were not limited to the continent. According to Russell, in 1656 a Quaker named James Naylor was believed by some to be an earthly incarnation of Christ. Certain members of the Quaker community in England began to worship Naylor. On October 24 Naylor and his community entered the city of Bristol "imitating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem." Naylor was promptly arrested, convicted and given a nasty sentence which included having his tongue bored through with a hot iron and the letter "B" emblazoned on his forehead, along with public flogging and other forms of humiliation.4

However, all of these examples of catastrophic millennialism pale in comparison to Thomas Muntzer. The story of Muntzer is well documented.

Muntzer was a parish priest near Wittenburg when Luther tacked his 95 theses to the church door. Muntzer came to Wittenburg and pursued his degree in theology. He disagreed with Luther’s "sola scriptura," believing that divine revelation did not end with the apostles. He believed in ongoing revelation. Muntzer taught a doctrine of social revolution. He took an active role in introducing the end time: he thought of himself as God’s scythe for His harvest. Muntzer promoted a communist view of community and is still honored today by the communist world. Muntzer came to Mulhausen in the midst of the German peasants’ revolt. He seized upon the civil unrest among the poor and dispossessed who were ready and willing to invest him with prophetic religious authority. They removed the city council and formed their own "eternal council." Muntzer designed banners for the peasants, consisting of a white flag with a sword and a great white banner with a rainbow, symbolic of the new covenant. Some of the German princes began to attack Muntzer and his people. The people were encouraged into battle by Muntzer, who repeatedly promised to catch the cannonballs in his sleeves and hurl them back. A rainbow appeared in the sky, which the peasants took to be a good omen, but it was not: the peasants were slaughtered; Muntzer was captured and beheaded.

In summarizing the story of Muntzer, Cohn writes: "Muntzer was a prophet obsessed by eschatological phantasies which he attempted to translate into reality by exploiting social discontent."

Muntzer used catastrophic millennialism to lead the poor and marginalized into warfare against the dominant culture. In 1534 leaders in the city of Munster would attempt to establish the apocalyptic Kingdom of God on the earth. They would become the New Jerusalem and their leader John of Leyden, a tailor, set himself up as the "king of the world." The entire population of Munster assembled to worship their "messiah." According to Meissner, "While the population starved to death, he and his entourage lived richly and enjoyed lavish feasts and entertainments."

Eventually, a siege was brought against the city, many starved to death, and Leyden was captured and tortured to death.

These examples should not be seen as in any way normative behavior, but they do illustrate rather vividly the effects of catastrophic millennial beliefs gone out of control. There is the potential for great violence as the oppressed and marginalized target their frustration at the dominant culture under the prophetic leadership of militant catastrophic millennialists.

Progressive Millennialism — Calvinism in Geneva
Was John Calvin a progressive millennialist? According to Erickson, John Calvin’s eschatological teachings aren’t always easy to pin down. Both amillennialists (realized millennialists) and post-millennialists (progressive millennialists) have attempted to claim Calvin as one of their own. However, I believe Calvin’s actions and theology clearly fit the definition of progressive millennialism. And so, just as Thomas Muntzer provides an excellent example of cataclysmic millennialism run rampant, John Calvin shows where progressive millennialism in its extreme form can lead.

Calvin’s life and theology have been well documented and his relationship and interactions with the radical reformers are chronicled superbly by Williams.

Calvin published his Institutes of Christian Religion at about the same time that the radical catastrophic militant community at Munster was collapsing. Calvin dedicated his Institutes to Francis I of France, and warned the monarch not to confuse the kind of restitution movement that happened in Munster with his own vision of reformed Christianity, which he considered to be far more politically responsible. This serves to illustrate a key point: in Munster, radical catastrophic millennialists confronted the political powers and took over; in Geneva, Calvin and the reformed leaders sought to bring the rule of God into the life and leadership of the community. Shelley observes, "The consequence of faith to Calvin . . . is strenuous effort to introduce the kingdom of God on earth."

Tillich writes:

Calvin was a humanist and, therefore, gave to the state many . . . functions . . . Calvin used the humanistic ideas of good government, of helping the people, etc. But Calvin never went so far as to say, with the sectarian movements, that the state could be the kingdom of God itself. He called this a Jewish folly. What he said . . . is that a theocracy has to be established, the rule of God through the application of evangelical laws in the political situation. Calvin worked hard for this. He demanded that the magistrates of Geneva care not only for legal problems, the problems of order in the general sense, but also for the most important content of daily life, namely, for the church. Not that they shall teach in the church or render decisions as to what shall be taught, but they shall supervise the church and punish those who are blasphemers and heretics. So Calvin, with the help of the magistrates of Geneva created the kind of community in which the law of God would govern the entire life. Priests and ministers are not necessarily involved in it. Theocratic rulers are usually not priests, otherwise theocracy becomes hierocracy; rather, they are usually laymen. Calvin said that the state must punish the impious. They are criminals because they are against the law of God.

It was under this Calvinist progressive millennial system that the magistrates of Geneva, with the approval of Calvin, convicted Michael Servetus of heresy for his anti-trinitarian views and had him executed.

The legacy of Calvinism goes far beyond the Reformed tradition in the Church. Calvin’s view of the relationship between the Church and the State and the Kingdom of God, of the ability of lower magistrates to revolt under certain circumstances, made it possible for our modern forms of democracy to exist. Were it not for Calvin’s progressive millennial views, the United States may never have had an opportunity to come into existence.

In contrasting catastrophic and progressive millennialism in the 16th century one thing is clear: catastrophic millennialists who oppose the culture or try to create an apocalyptic Kingdom of God tend to get killed by the state, while progressive millennialists tend to achieve positions of power and influence and lead to the creation of new governments on earth.


Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

I think this article is very interesting. It goes to show that if you want something done, you have to be smart about it. It also shows that by tapping into violence to get the results you want, that same violence can work against you just as well as it seemed to have been working for you. Calvin understood that he had to play ball with the government in order to get what he wanted--- a sort of intelligent and "kinder" manipulation. The Catastrophic millenialists used urban legend to try and rise above their government. It all seemed a little odd to me that so many people would have believed the world was ending.
Had I lived in that era, I will admit I would probably followed Calvin. His approach was much more realistic. I think the world needed some sort of order amist all the catatrophic chaos. It is also interesting to see different types of government come out of the Calvin way of thinking. It seems as though Calvin used himself as a sort of bridge between religion and government, which was probably what was needed at the time.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Esrever said...

What I don’t understand about theologies containing beliefs of predestination is why so many people would choose to follow such a belief. This is not to say that John Calvin was anything shy of brilliant, but what drives people to believe that God’s grace overrules free will? What’s the point of living if God’s will is the sole factor in awarding rebirth? If Calvin truly believed that it was God’s role to determine salvation and damnation, why then did he also “punish the impious” for going “against the law of God”? It’s God’s will that determines all, so it almost seems sacrilegious for Calvin to interfere. Thoughts such as Calvinism are proofs that humans are selfish beings—the five points of Calvinism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_points_of_Calvinism) all deal with the belief that God chooses whom to force His will upon. In other words, the only people who would follow Calvinism are those who believe they possess God’s good grace. The fact that Calvin had so many followers shows that they all believed themselves to be truly righteous, which is undoubtedly a selfish belief. Rather than seeking self-betterment, Calvinists placed themselves on a pedestal above everyone else—they have been chosen directly by God to receive mercy and rebirth. To believe in the five points of Calvinism is to believe that God has granted you specifically total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Under these beliefs, shouldn’t it have been a sin to assume God’s blessings?

2:56 PM  
Blogger FriendofAll said...

On a different topic, the idea of a millennial disaster as a whole, is just a widespread symptom of a trend in many people, especially those whose religions espouse an Armageddon scenario with vague language concerning when it might happen, to panic when they see a somewhat momentous occasion. It's the same kind of thing as the y2K fiasco that had so many people freaking out. The examples given in the article seem to amount to one guy taking advantage of a situation or somehow thinking he has become a "chosen one" and then triggering a massive overreaction or cult movement. Most often, it is the ignorant and underprivileged who buy into these myths and decide to raise up the original idiot as a prophet, or messiah because either they don't know any better, or they'll do anything to try and improve the crap fest that is their life. These kinds of events are generally made worse when the powers that be don't make any effort to provide a calming influence. The case in the 16th century where the people panicked over an eclipse kind of reminds me of that group that committed mass suicide when Hale Bob, or Haley's comet or whatever comet it was made a pass. The sad thing is that the people in the 16th century can plead ignorance for their behavior, but when people do things like this within the last 50-100 years its just evidence of the extent to which people can be superstitious and unthinking sheep.

2:39 PM  
Blogger MagoffinMcMuffin said...

A word on behalf of poor people. I don't think that it's poor people who fall hardest for millenialism. Poor people tend to be less "churched" than populations as a whole and a lot of American millenialisms arise among middle-class people. You have to be educated to be an extremist.

4:31 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:29 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

One of the things that fascinates me the most is the concept of the Apocalypse. Me, you, and everyone on this message board do not live every day saying " We are so doomed."

In fact, with the exception of the Y2K scare, we don't have anything like the overwhelming, catatastrophic milleniumalism of Calvin's time. I wonder how much history was changed by it?


Adso declares the apocalypse arrives right after the Frankish dynasty fails. How many devout Christian nobles and kings suddenly decide *not* to attack the Frankish kings and start the end?

The soldier's in Otto's army panic. Did they lose the battle? Could have lost the war, depending on the situation at the time- changing history.

The vast pilgrimage that occurred- how many people starved to death after the proceeds from selling their goods ran out?

The effect on history of crazy people can never be determined, but it's fun to think about.

Progressive Millenialism, like most things we as a society attach the word "Progressive" too, changed the very face of its world-literally (with us being the end result). Progressive Millenialism was progressive for the reason that I, personally, hold religion itself to be- a calling force higher than man. Whereas Feudalism used God as an excuse to prove that one particular Human had a right to rule (divine right, anyone?) Calvin's concept of a God above humanity made it possible for humans to fight for what amount to "ideals" (Freedom isn't exactly something you can touch, you see). Calvin's concepts are fascinating in just how revolutionary they were...

Revolts? Rebellion? We don't associate those things with Christianity. We don't even think of those as *good* things... but in Calvin's ideas, it could, under the right circumstances, be perfectly justified. More amazingly, his idea of a theocracy not run by theocrats- run by the people- is little short of astounding. Relating back to God above Man, this idea removes hierarchy entirely- your neighbor may be running the Justice department of your church. And since the problem with Theocracy is a holier-than-thou priesthood...

Sounds like Calvin knew exactly what the problem with the Catholic Church was.

6:18 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:55 PM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

In response to elle_ecrit87:

I like the idea of being smart about what one wants done. However, I disagree that Catastrophic Millenialists tried to rise above their governments- when you are scared to death of the world literally ending in the next few years, you aren't exactly prepared to rise above the government.

Considering the theories Dr. Ric Caric has espoused (that, essentially, the feudal societies believed so fiercely that they didn't have an Age of Faith at all), I'd almost state that those believing in the very, very soon-to-happen Apocalypse were actually hampered by it, to the point of acting abnormally (the soldiers, for example, though the people who sold their goods and left are the prime example here).

Likewise, I'd argue that Calvin wasn't so much a bridge between government and religion as a fusion of the two. He was not trying to reconcile both the State and the Church; he wasn't trying to make them cooperate. He wanted them to be one thing, a blending, if you will. Churches run by laymen- states run by churchgoers.

An intriguing idea that is original for its execution, if not premise.

7:35 PM  
Blogger wishlahaylagon said...

It seems to me that many people are so cynical that they can easily embrace a catastrophic millenialist mindset. So many religions prepare their followers for the end of the world and emphasize it to the extent that it is simply inevitable to many. Also I think some people let their self-importance make them believe that they are the ones that such an important event as the world ending should happen to. Catastrophics have quite a few followers and the only reason that they don't keep them is because they are always wrong. Once the people see that the end didn't happen when it was supposed to they know that they were lied to. Otherwise, the zeal that the leaders of catastrophic leaders would be able to lead and probably hold on to power for quite a bit of time. This point is what makes progressive millenialists keep power. People simply can't keep a high level of passion and such for that long of a time. It isn't probable.

9:09 AM  
Blogger FriendofAll said...

A large part of the problem with religious Doomsday prophets is that the people who they are talking too are in a vulnerable position to begin with. They need their religion for answers, comfort, and it's integral to their understanding of the world around them. It makes up part of their identity and can serve to influence them to try harder to reach a higher ideal. They don't need to be told over and over again that we're all going to die in a fiery apocalypse. And that's just in mainstream religions, it gets worse when a cult like situation gets started. Then you've got a particularly charismatic personality telling the faithful that the world is going to end referencing some cryptic and generally ambiguous quote from that particular religion's version of the word of God, and they buy into it because they're there to get answers and "the worlds gonna end on September 23, 2025" is pretty straightforward as divine messages go. It seems like these figures are taking advantage of their positions as spiritual guides and interpreters for God to accomplish some alterior motive, by scaring their charges. However, like wishlahaylagon said the due date for God's Repo service is generally not too far away since people have the attention spans of gnats. Whatever this morally bankrupt charleton has in mind has to come off quickly before people get bored and/or begin to think too much. When Imams, and priests, and other figures focus on the end instead of how to live a good life, they are abusing the trust of their charges, shaming themselves, and mocking the God they claim to worship.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Beatrice Baudelaire said...

On a note parallel to friendofall's comment, I think that there's nothing like the concept of a deadline to inspire more people to actively engage their energy in the persuit of eternal life. Sure, the spiritual leaders of our world can preach ad nauseum about how we should be saved before that ambiguous and possiblely delayable date that we die but if you give millions of people the same deadline to accept God in their hearts your flock will grow exponentially with those afraid of impending damnation. As Muntzer found out, social discontent is equally efficient at fanning the flames of catastrophic millenialism. It is a gamble that seems almost a noble struggle in the likeness of Hollywood's version Wallace in Braveheart. Unfortunately, when your army of the displaced poor falls to their rich, socially elite (and probably better armed and educated in tactics) enemy AND the world doesn't end, all you will get for your troubles is beheaded.

3:21 PM  
Blogger bob_barker_is_my_hero said...

I find it amusing that people in the year 1000 were just as freaked out about the end of the world as people today. People today think that Armageddon is near because of the war in Iraq going on. All of the end of the world talk back then came and went and nothing happened. I think it’s amusing that people still follow the same mind set of preparing for Armageddon instead of just living life. A lot of people have given their lives to their religion because that’s what they believed to be best. This article just goes to show you that there really isn't a point in worrying about when Armageddon will occur or preparing for the end of the world.

9:19 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home