The Hermeneutics of Premillennialism -- By: John H. Sailhamer

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 18:1 (Fall 2000)
Article: The Hermeneutics of Premillennialism
Author: John H. Sailhamer

The Hermeneutics of Premillennialism

John H. Sailhamer

Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587


According to scholarly opinion,1 the rise of the kind of Protestant millennialism that indelibly marked evangelicalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is linked to two primary factors—both of which, it is urged, arose out of, and in response to, the sometimes stolid and inflexible views of the scholasticism of the seventeenth century. Scholars point first to the surge of religious optimism in the wake of the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. At that time, such a dramatic defeat of the Spain was largely interpreted as a harbinger of the fall of the Antichrist, and as such, was a clear and certain signal that the global spread of the gospel and the establishment of the eschatological kingdom of Christ were within the grasp of modern Protestant nations.2 Though not necessarily in itself a millennial idea, scholars argue that “this general optimism was the broad field within which both post- and Premillennialism flourished.”3

The second factor lying behind the rise of modern millennialism was a quantum leap in the quality of the philological tools necessary for the exegesis of biblical texts. Bauckham, for example, argues that for the first time exegesis of obscure apocalyptic texts could be carried out with increasing precision and scholarly acumen. Such close scrutiny of the text and the history to which it might refer, led, in the case of the Book of Revelation, “to the unavoidable conclusion that John’s vision did not fit with any 1,000-year period in the past and that the structure of John’s book assumes that this millennial period would fall at the conclusion of the history of the Church.”4 Millennialism was thus a function of a closer, more precise, scrutiny of the biblical text as well as a reading of historical events, such as the defeat of Spain, in terms of biblical eschatology. Over against this scholarly opinion, the traditional premillennial view of its own rise to prominence appears quite different. The self-understanding of Protestant millennialism, particularly Premillennialism, lays the stress on its

commitment to a “literal” hermeneutic. Throughout its literature, one finds the viewpoint repeatedly expressed that whatever might have been the historical occasion for its resurgence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ...

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