Just What is “Covenant (Historic) Premillennialism”?

As Chuck sat in church listening to the visiting speaker’s talk on the millennium, he couldn’t help thinking that something just did not sound right to him.  The speaker apparently thought that the millennial kingdom was set up after Jesus returned, but other points seemed “off”. So after the sermon, Chuck approached the speaker and asked him to clarify some things that he had said.  The speaker assured Chuck that he did indeed believe in a coming millennial reign of Jesus. He told Chuck that he used to be Amillennial in his view of Christ’s kingdom, but he changed because he just could not explain away the clear teaching of Revelation 20:1-10. The result of this was that he now considered himself an “historic premillennialist”.  

Chuck also was premillennial but he did not recall hearing of this position before. He had been raised in a church which was dispensational premillennial and figured that what he believed is what all premillennialists believed. So just what is “historic premillennialism”, or “covenant premillennialism” as it is often called?

There is one type of premillennialism that is non-dispensational. It is known as covenant premillennialism though its adherents often prefer to be referred to as “historic premillennialist”; that is, because much of their position was the view that was held by many of the church fathers during the first several centuries of the church.

Covenant premillennialism (CP) believes that the millennium is established after the return of the Lord Jesus to this earth as the King of Kings. Most believe that the millennium is a literal one thousand years, though there is a minority who believe that the millennium is simply an extended period of time. The position of CP is based almost exclusively on Revelation 20:1-6, where the term thousand years is used six times. Unlike dispensational premillennialism, this form of premillennialism does not go to the OT scriptures to support the details of a millennial kingdom. It is largely dependent on the Revelation 20 passage.

George Ladd was a covenant premillennialist who did not accept a millennial kingdom in which Israel has a predominant role because he (like other CP theologians) applied OT prophecies to the church. So in this regard, CP is similar to many perspectives of Amillennialists. Ladd said this:

“Dispensationalism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament. It confesses that it cannot be sure how the Old Testament prophecies are to be fulfilled. (George Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism”, in “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views: ed. R. Clouse: Downers Grove, Ill. Intervarsity, 177. p27)

CP does not make a sharp distinction between the church and Israel, and it regularly spiritualizes the Old Testament. On these major points it is much like Amillennialism and significantly different from dispensational premillennialism. Because of this approach, CP generally believes that the church will remain on the earth during the period of the tribulation, not being raptured out of the world until after this seven year period of time.

In evaluating the speaker at church, Chuck needs to understand that the position of CP has three very real weaknesses. First, as has been mentioned, it spiritualizes the prophecies of the OT, applying them to the church, which is viewed as spiritual Israel. To be able to substitute the church for Israel, one must adopt a dual hermeneutic; and must be able to show from the New Testament that such a change has taken place. There is simply no NT passage which teaches that the church has replaced Israel; but Romans 11 forcefully teaches the opposite.  Second, it fails to give the nation of Israel its proper place in the program of God. The unconditional, eternal biblical covenants ratified by God on oath, were made with Israel, and this requires that the nation of Israel be the recipients of the promised blessings. The fact is that Israel, not the gentiles or the church, is party of these covenants. And as the Apostle Paul made abundantly clear, in Galatians 3:13-18, a ratified (legally binding) covenant cannot be changed in any way. No one has the authority to substitute the church for Israel in these ratified covenants.

The third weakness of CP is an inaccuracy in its view of progressive revelation. It is true, of course, that God has revealed more and more truth progressively over the years. And it is true that the NT reveals new truth and develops truth previously given in the OT. However, CP fails to recognize that many of the OT prophecies should be understood on their own merit because they are clear in their meaning. And the idea of progressive revelation does not mean that the OT cannot be understood apart from the NT, which is basic to the CP position. And further, it does not mean that clear OT prophecies must be reinterpreted, changed or altered. They can stand on their own.

In conclusion, while CP correctly sees a future, earthly reign of Christ, they are carrying many of the interpretive, hermeneutical problems of Amillennialism. Anytime that the covenant nation of Israel is marginalized, the student of Scripture is alerted that there is something amiss in sermon or teaching. So there was good reason why Chuck sensed that something was not quite right in the presentation that he heard.