A Survey Of The Doctrine Of The Return Of Christ In The Ante-Nicene Fathers -- By: Thomas D. Lea

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 29:2 (Jun 1986)
Article: A Survey Of The Doctrine Of The Return Of Christ In The Ante-Nicene Fathers
Author: Thomas D. Lea

A Survey Of The Doctrine Of The Return Of Christ In The Ante-Nicene Fathers

Thomas D. Lea*

What did the early Church teach about Christ’s return? The answer to this question can give us perspective for a proper interpretation of this doctrine in Scripture. Many leaders of the early Church were struggling to understand the teaching of Scripture concerning Christ’s return. Their struggles and varied answers can assist our own efforts to answer the question. The views of the ante-Nicene fathers, for example, can function as a commentary to aid our formulating a theology concerning the return of Christ.

There are many varieties of interpretation among the ante-Nicene fathers concerning the significance and nature of Christ’s return. Irenaeus and Origen, for example, are as different in their understanding of Christ’s return as summer is from winter. However, there are also many similar eschatological emphases that appear in the ante-Nicene fathers. There is a general agreement that Christ’s return is near. The fathers believe that the return of Christ will result in judgment on evil and the rescue of God’s people from persecution and hardship. This return is generally seen as premillennial. There is mention of only one stage in the return of Christ.

We of course do not regard the views that we will encounter in our survey with the same authority that we bestow on Scripture. We will, however, increase our own understanding of Scripture by observing the efforts the early Church made to understand the question of Christ’s return.

Since a vast quantity of material is being surveyed, no claim for completeness is intended. This survey, however, will provide enough information to recognize the establishment of general tendencies and features of the doctrine of the early Church concerning the return of Christ. We will emphasize chiefly those areas of agreement concerning the doctrine.

I. The Conditions Surrounding Christ’s Return

The earliest writers on the subject of Christ’s return are the apostolic fathers. The church manual known as the Didache (c. A.D. 120) placed the return of Christ at the end of a time of persecution carried out by the antichrist:

Then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved from under

*Thomas Lea is associate professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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