Friday, June 09, 2017

The First Resurrection Part 1


The key to interpreting Revelation 20:4-6 lies in two highly debated areas. Firstly, exegetes are divided as to the nature of the first resurrection (20:5, 6); secondly, the meaning of the verb ezesan (ἔζησαν) translated by the phrase “and they lived” is highly disputed. This verb is the aorist active indicative form of the primary verb zao (ζάω), and occurs twice in this passage, once in verse 4, and once in verse 5. The meaning of the verb ezesan in verse 4 determines the nature of the first resurrection (20:5).

Premillennialists, including Bible Presbyterians, contend that both occurrences of the verb (ezesan) refer to a bodily resurrection. Accordingly, premillennialists – historic and dispensational - see at least a two-phase resurrection in Revelation 20:4-6. George Eldon Ladd is correct to say that “this is the most important word in the entire passage. The exegete must decide whether or not it means resurrection; and upon this decision will be determined how he interprets the entire passage.”[1]

We recall that according to the premillennial understanding of Revelation 20:1-6, this passage necessarily follows Revelation 19 chronologically. This interpretation ignores the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20. Premillennialism requires both occurrences of the verb (ezesan) to mean a physical, bodily resurrection. In other words, Premillennialism necessitates two bodily resurrections in Revelation 20:4-6. If this point can be contested and repudiated by exegetes, then premillennialism will not stand. Stanley Grenz, expressing the thoughts of Millard Erickson, perceptively notes that “the linchpin of premillennialism is the doctrine of two bodily resurrections. The first will occur at the Lord’s return. The righteous of all ages will rise in order to share in the millennial reign of Christ. Only after the golden age will the rest of the dead come forth from their graves, an event that, however, will place the wicked in the presence of the judge who will consign them to their eternal destiny.”[2]

Thus, premillennialists find in this passage (20:4-6) two separate physical resurrections: the resurrection of the saints, and the resurrection of the wicked, both of which are separated by the millennium. Premillennialists, such as Ladd, find no other resurrection mentioned in this passage other than two physical resurrections. Ladd writes,

“In Rev. 20:4-6, there is no such contextual clue for a similar variation of interpretation. The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous. There is no necessity to interpret either word spiritually in order to introduce meaning to the passage. At the beginning of the millennial period, part of the dead come to life; at its conclusion, the rest of the dead come to life. There is no evident play upon words. The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally.”[3]

In his commentary on Revelation, Ladd quotes Henry Alford’s well-known words:

“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezesan at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan only at the end of a specified period after that first, - if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave; - then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.”[4]

Premillennialists understand the second resurrection as a resurrection of the wicked, which is followed chronologically by the Great White Throne judgment. They reason that, if the second resurrection is a physical resurrection, then what John describes as the first resurrection must also be a bodily resurrection.

In contrast to the premillennial understanding of ezesan (ἔζησαν), amillennialists do not interpret the first resurrection to mean a physical resurrection. The general teaching of the New Testament elucidates a final, general resurrection (Rev. 20:11-15) of both the just and the unjust. This theological understanding, coupled with the analogy of faith, undergird the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6.

Furthermore, we recall that the scene (20:4-6) is set in heaven. The first resurrection, considering the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20, occurs prior to the Second Coming of Christ. Taken collectively, all these factors point to the conclusion that a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:4 is very unlikely. But only an exposition of Revelation 20:4-6 will confirm our suspicion.

Amillennialists have, in general, understood the phrase “and they lived and reigned with Christ” to mean either the believer’s spiritual resurrection during conversion, or the believer’s death and subsequent reign with Christ in the intermediate state. The later position is taken by William Hendricksen,[5] Gregory Beale,[6] Anthony Hoekema,[7] Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg,[8] and Meredith Kline.[9] In both cases, the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection, and occurs prior to the Second Advent of Christ.

The First Resurrection and Hermeneutics

There are serious hermeneutical differences between dispensational and Reformed exegetes. With regard to eschatology, the primary dissimilarity lies in how these scholars interpret Revelation 20:1-6. Reformed expositors tend to apply the analogy of faith, that is, they study Revelation 20 in the light of the teachings of the entire New Testament. The premillennialist, however, finds a two-phase physical resurrection in 20:4-6, and applies this understanding retrogradely into antecedent Scripture. But the entire New Testament is unanimous on the doctrine of the general resurrection. Instead of interpreting the highly symbolical passage of 20:4-6 using clear New Testament passages, the premillennialists insist on imposing a literal reading of 20:4-6 onto plain, New Testament eschatological teachings. George Murray laments:

“The anomaly confronting us here is that one can read the whole Bible without discovering an inkling of this doctrine [the doctrine of two resurrections separated by one thousand years] until he arrives at its third from the last chapter. If, on coming to that chapter, he shall give a literal interpretation to one sentence of a highly symbolical passage, he will then find it necessary to retrace his steps and interpret all the eschatological teachings of the Bible in a manner agreeable to this one sentence. The recognized rule of exegesis is to interpret an obscure passage of Scripture in the light of a clear statement. In this case, clear statements are being interpreted to agree with the literal interpretation of one sentence from a context replete with symbolism, the true meaning of which is highly debatable.”[10]

We have previously discussed the genre of Revelation, as well as the hermeneutical considerations of interpreting such symbolical passages. In the proper interpretation of John’s Apocalypse, we must consider four levels of communication in 20:1-6. “The linguistic level consists of the text of 20:1–6. The visionary level consists of John’s actual visions of a descending angel, a dragon, a pit, the seizing of the dragon, the sealing of the pit, the thrones, and so on. The referential level consists of the historical referents of the dragon, the pit, the thousand years, and the first resurrection. The symbolic level consists of the symbolic significances of the various figures and events depicted.”[11]

Premillennialists, in general, agree that the plain reading of 20:4-6 would support a two-phase resurrection sequence. They contend that a literal rendering of the text will inevitably limit the meaning of the “first resurrection” to a bodily resurrection. Thus, the premillennial exegete finds two physical resurrections in 20:4-6, one in verse 4b, and one in verse 5a. But such a literal approach to this highly symbolical passage does not do justice to the full meaning of the text.

In the previous chapters, it was reiterated that when we consider apocalyptic passages such as the vision of John in 20:1-6, we must not disregard the visionary and symbolical meaning of the text. Poythress correctly perceives that “many premillennialists . . . neglect the possibility of the presence of a visionary and a symbolic level. Instead they move almost immediately from the linguistic level to the referential level. The language of “living” and “first resurrection” is understood in a literal sense. Anastasis (“resurrection”) elsewhere in the NT is always used of bodily resurrection. And, it is claimed, the context of Revelation 20 does not point away from this normal understanding. Hence “resurrection” must here mean bodily resurrection. Hence the first resurrection refers to the bodily resurrection of believers at the second coming.”[12]

Poythress explains that in the communication of the vision to John, the apostle had to see the resurrection of actual bodies. This is an essential element in order for the information to be conveyed to John in visionary format. But the imagery of bodies rising does not in itself determine the referential and the symbolic meaning. What the apostle sees at the visionary stage does not immediately determine the meaning of the vision at the referential or symbolic levels.

Poythress argues,

“What took place on the visionary level? John saw saints come to life and reign (v. 4). In the context of a vision, one could hardly imagine that John’s experience was anything other than seeing a bodily resurrection and its results. John had to see bodies in order for any information concerning people to be conveyed in a visionary format. The visionary level thus includes bodily resurrection and its results. On the symbolic level the text pictures new life and vindication. And what takes place on the referential level? The referent is some kind of new life, but the exact form remains to be determined. The mere fact that the visionary level involves concrete physical representation does not by itself determine the nature of the referential level.”[13]

Therefore, what is perceived at the visionary level must not be extrapolated immediately to the referential and symbolic levels. If the visions of John’s Apocalypse were to be understood literally, specifically the vision of 20:4-6, then that would be a gross misunderstanding of the genre and worse, to misinterpret the meaning of those texts. Poythress recognizes that the crux of the entire controversy is hermeneutical in nature. The disparity between premillennial, particularly dispensational, hermeneutics and Reformed hermeneutics ultimately constitutes the exegetical differences with regard to the text in question.[14]

With regard to Revelation 20:4-6, Poythress summarizes the weaknesses inherent in premillennial hermeneutics:

“Many premillennialists have thus skirted some key issues when appealing to the supposed literalness of the first resurrection. They have neglected the visionary and symbolic levels of the discourse. In fact premillennial interpreters have often applied a similar literalistic interpretive strategy to the rest of Revelation and to much of OT prophecy as well. In such a strategy, the visionary level and symbolic level are virtually collapsed into the referential level. Throughout Revelation the visions are then understood to be direct transcriptions of future history. Partly for this reason most premillennialists are futurist in their interpretation of Revelation.”[15]

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is often adduced by Premillennialists that, since ezesan (ἔζησαν) in verse 5a refers to a physical resurrection – and few expositors would ever dispute this point – then ezesan in verse 4b must also mean a physical resurrection.[16] But there are several considerations which are apparently neglected when one attempts to understand this verb too literally.

Gregory Beale writes,

“In contrast to this literal approach, it is important to recognize that ἀνάστασις (“resurrection”) is found in Revelation only in 20:5-6. Moreover, the ordinal “first” (πρῶτος) with “resurrection” occurs nowhere else in the OT or the NT. This is a hint that lexical study of words expressing the ideas of “first” and “second” needs to be conducted in order to comprehend the full meaning of “resurrection” in the present context.”[17]

Therefore, it is paramount that the contextual usage of “first” (Prōtos) must be explored in our interpretation of the phrase “first resurrection.”

Beale argues that “ζάω (“live”) has a more fluid of range of meaning in the Apocalypse and elsewhere (for the sense of physical resurrection outside Revelation cf. Matt. 9:18; Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 13:4). In the Apocalypse it sometimes refers to physical resurrection (1:18; 2:8) or more generally to some form of physical existence (l6:3; 19:20), but more often it has a figurative connotation of spiritual existence, especially with respect to God’s attribute of timeless existence (six occurrences). In 3:1 the verb refers to spiritual life (and the uses in 7:17 and 13:14 are probably also figurative).”[18] The Apostle John could very well have intended to convey a spiritual resurrection as opposed to a physical one expounded by premillennialists.

However, according to Beale, the “most striking is the observation that elsewhere in the NT ἀνάστασις and ζάω (or the cognate noun ζωή, “life”) and synonyms are used interchangeably of both spiritual and physical resurrection within the same immediate contexts.”[19] Beale provides Romans 6:4-13 and John 5:24-29 as instances whereby the words “life” and “resurrection” are used together within the same context to convey spiritual and physical realities. “These observations do not demonstrate that the same words are used in Rev. 20:4 and 6 of both spiritual and physical resurrection, but only that they can have that dual meaning elsewhere in the same context.”[20]

The premillennialist’s insistence that the same word cannot possess different meanings within the same context is consequently weakened.


[1] Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 265.
[2] Stanley J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 128-129. Cf. Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 97. In a later edition of the same book, Erickson notes, “The premillennialist insists that the two resurrections mentioned in Revelation 20:4-6 are both bodily in nature. Because this point forms the linchpin of the premillennial position, it deserves close scrutiny.” See Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium, 97.
[3] Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 266.
[4] Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (Boston: Lee and Shepard. 1872), IV, 732, quoted in Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 267.
[5] See Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 192.
[6] See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1002-1007.
[7] See Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 232-238.
[8] See Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St. John: Expounded for Those Who Search the Scriptures (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1852; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), 281-282.
[9] See Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975): 366-375.
[10] George L. Murray, Millennial Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1948), 153-154.
[11] Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 1 (1993): 45-46.
[12] Ibid., 46.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Reformed hermeneutics refers to the “historical-grammatical-literary-theological” method of interpretation.
[15] Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” 48.
[16] See Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation: New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 366. Mounce writes, “The strong presumption is that the verb in v. 4 should be taken in the same sense as it is in v. 5. In the second case the statement, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended,” certainly refers to a bodily resurrection at the close of the millennial period. If “they came to life” in v. 4 means a spiritual resurrection to new life in Christ, then we are faced with the problem of discovering within the context some persuasive reason to interpret the same verb differently within one concise unit. No such reason can be found.”
[17] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1004.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 1005.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Thoughts on Theosis: An Intermezzo

Note: During a group discussion regarding Christian sanctification within the context of the book of Hebrews in Sunday school, a relatively new term – “theosis” – was thrown out. As the concept of theosis is more complex than it seems, I have reserved my judgment and deferred my sentence concerning this. But here and now, I shall proffer you a brief treatment of the subject in the following article.

The concept of theosis (θέωσις) is originally an Eastern Orthodox doctrine, and because it is often misunderstood, it is generally frowned upon by scholars from the western tradition. Within Orthodoxy, the terms “deification,” “divinization” and “theosis” are commonly interchangeable, and mean the same thing. Orthodoxy would argue that this is an early patristic doctrine, clearly enunciated by certain early church fathers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Anastasius of Sinai. In fact, Athanasius memorably condensed the entire concept of theosis into an aphorism, “[God] was made man so that we might be made God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 54.3).
We now turn to the definition of theosis within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. According to Reuschling, “Theōsis is a theological concept denoting the goal of salvation to be union with God made possible through a process of deification, or becoming like God or being made divine.”[1]

Here we encounter the elusive phrase “goal of salvation.” Is this “salvation” justification, or is it “salvation” as in sanctification and subsequently glorification? It seems difficult to tease out a distinction between justification and sanctification with the terse phrase.

We ought to ask ourselves, “Are we united to God at justification, or are we being justified by a process of deification?” Furthermore, how are we united with God? The Western Church has no problem with the concept of Christians being “in Christ” or united with Christ at the new birth. As Paul wrote in the epistle to the Ephesians, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses … In him we have obtained an inheritance … In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (ESV, Ephesians 1:7–14).
Perusing the Westminster Larger Catechism question 69:

Q. 69. What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
A. The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him. (emphasis mine)

It becomes apparent that the Reformed tradition likewise propounds the concept of “union with Christ,” the details of which goes beyond the scope of this brief discourse. But the notion of theosis is more than that. It means that we are being made more divine, hence the term “divinization.”
We must inquire, “Does theosis involve a confounding of ontology between Creator and creature, or some form of absorption into the being of God?” What does Orthodoxy mean when they say that Christians are being deified? The Orthodox Study Bible describes theosis as follows:

“This does not mean we become divine by nature. If we participated in God’s essence, the distinction between God and man would be abolished. What this does mean is that we participate in God’s energy, described by a number of terms in scripture such as glory, love, virtue, and power. We are to become like God by His grace, and truly be His adopted children, but never become like God by nature. … When we are joined to Christ, our humanity is interpenetrated with the energies of God through Christ’s glorified flesh. Nourished by the Blood and Body of Christ, we partake of the grace of God—His strength, His righteousness, His love—and are enabled to serve Him and glorify Him. Thus we, being human, are being deified.”[2]
In other words, theosis in Orthodoxy does not mean that man become gods in any ontological sense. Rather, it refers to a process whereby Christians via the participation in God’s “energies,” acquire godly characteristics such as “love, virtue and power,” thereby experiencing communion with God and eventually gaining immortality. These can be identified as what evangelicals describe as sanctification and glorification.

Theosis is a central tenet of Eastern Orthodoxy. This doctrine permeates all of Orthodoxy’s teachings on salvation. This terminology has traditionally been repulsive to the Western Church as it may be misconstrued as the assimilation of man’s essence with God’s essence, thereby confounding foundational doctrines such as divine simplicity and the Creator-creature distinction. This is partially due to the fact that the Western Church has never distinguished God’s essence from His energies.
Bartos elucidates, “Yet Eastern theology says very clearly that “becoming god” does not mean an identification with God’s divine nature (essence) but rather something experienced by adoption, by grace, and by imitation. Generally, the theology of the Orthodox Church understands deification as “the religious ideal of Orthodoxy,” and “the central dogma of Orthodoxy.’”[3]

Problems with Theosis
Would I therefore be correct to say that the concept of theosis is innocuously palatable for Reformed theology? Not quite.

Contrariwise, there seems to be some apparently insurmountable difficulties between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism concerning the concept of theosis. Kärkkäinen agrees, “According to the typical textbook wisdom, the main dividing issue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans is the differing interpretation of the doctrine of justification by faith, and the issue between Western and Eastern churches is the irreconcilable breach between understanding salvation in terms of justification and theosis, respectively. Historically, especially Eastern and Western traditions have been considered to be diametrically opposed to each other.”[4]
Allow us to look at these differences in some details. The most serious of these is the lack of emphasis on the distinction between justification and sanctification within Orthodoxy’s doctrine of salvation and theosis. As Fairbairn rightly observes that, “Orthodoxy’s emphasis on deification or sanctification to the virtual exclusion of justification creates serious problems for Western evangelicals.”[5]

The paramount evangelical doctrine of forensic justification of the believer by faith alone arguably distinguishes heterodoxy from mainstream evangelicalism. For Evangelicals, justification is already accomplished for the believer, and is not a status that the believer is in a process of acquiring. In A.D. 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem was convened, which issued the Confession of Dositheus directed against Calvinism and her teachings. The confession clearly repudiated the Protestant formulation of sola fide in Article XIII, which states that, “Man is justified, not by faith alone, but also by works.” It becomes evident why Orthodoxy’s doctrinal formulation on salvation deliberately avoids a distinction between justification and sanctification, with a de-emphasis on forensic justification. What the Eastern Orthodox Church needs to cogitate upon is the doctrine of justification.
Fairbairn is correct when he states that, “Orthodoxy’s failure to distinguish adequately between justification and sanctification and its lack of emphasis on the former is related to its understanding of grace. We have noticed that Eastern Christendom regards grace as the energies of God which are communicated to people and which deify them.”[6]

Eastern Orthodoxy’s understanding of “grace” is a good example of how theology proper (doctrine of God) affects and permeates all of one’s systematic theology, including soteriology. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there is a distinction between God’s essence and energies. The concept of God’s energies is foreign to the Western Church. Therefore, when Orthodoxy preaches that, in theosis, man becomes more divine, it refers to the infusion of God’s energies into man, and not His essence.
So according to Orthodoxy, grace is God’s energy that is continually infused into the believer as a process, which results in man’s eventual divinization. But Protestantism teaches that God’s grace is His unmerited favour in a salvific sense, which is understood as a one-time legal declaration of the sinner as justified. Fairbairn astutely laments that, “The lack of emphasis in Orthodox theology on this aspect of grace contributes to the Eastern failure to stress the nature of salvation as a free gift. This in turn leads to a failure to distinguish between justification as God’s free acceptance of unworthy sinners when we begin to believe, and sanctification as the process of becoming righteous, a process which involves human effort. While the emphasis on the process of deification itself is appropriate, the lack of stress on the event which begins that process results in a significantly distorted view of Christian life.”[7]

Michael Horton highlights an essential dissimilarity between Eastern and Western theology proper, “Crucial to Orthodoxy is the distinction between God’s essence and energies. The West has traditionally acknowledged only uncreated essence (God) and created essence (creatures), so that union with God would mean union with God’s essence. Yet for the East, there is only union with the energies—which are God, but in God’s activity rather than in God’s being. This marks the crucial difference between pagan Greek henōsis (absorption into deity) and theōsis.”[8]
In other words, “Western theology operates with two categories: whatever is not created is divine. The Eastern church added a third category: divine energies.”[9] This difference in the understanding of God’s essence and energies led to a cautious rejection of theosis by the Western Church. But the recent resurgence in interest in the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis has led to a re-interpretation of Luther’s understanding of deification. Indeed, the dialogue between Finnish-Lutheran and Russian Orthodoxy has culminated in an influential document on the doctrine of salvation entitled, “Salvation as Justification and Deification.” “The New Interpretation of Luther’s theology, as advanced by the so-called Mannermaa school at the University of Helsinki, has challenged the prevailing German Old School approach,” notes Finnish theologian Kärkkäinen.[10]

But such misinterpretation of Luther’s deification theory is nothing new. The “new interpretation” that justification is deification by the Mannermaa school bears an uncanny resemblance to Osiander’s error. Historically, “Andreas Osiander (1498–1552) thought that he was merely extending Luther’s logic when he argued that, in Christ, the believer participates in the deity of God.”[11]
The errors of Osiander have been thoroughly refuted by Philip Melanchthon, Matthias Flacius and John Calvin. According to Calvin, “[Osiander’s] view that Christ is our righteousness solely by his divine nature, whereby he imparts to us “essential righteousness,” was regarded as invalidating the Reformation doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice in the agony of the cross.”[12]

He continues, “That gentleman [Osiander] had conceived something bordering on Manichaeism, in his desire to transfuse the essence of God into men. … He says that we are one with Christ. We agree. But we deny that Christ’s essence is mixed with our own. Then we say that this principle is wrongly applied to these deceptions of his: that Christ is our righteousness because he is God eternal, the source of righteousness, and the very righteousness of God. … Although he [Osiander] may make the excuse that by the term “essential righteousness” he means nothing else but to meet the opinion that we are considered righteous for Christ’s sake, yet he has clearly expressed himself as not content with that righteousness which has been acquired for us by Christ’s obedience and sacrificial death, but pretends that we are substantially righteous in God by the infusion both of his essence and of his quality.”[13]
Similar to Eastern Orthodoxy’s teaching on theosis, Osiander alleges “that we are not justified by the grace of the Mediator alone, nor is righteousness simply or completely offered to us in his person, but that we are made partakers in God’s righteousness when God is united to us in essence.”[14]

Hence, the teaching that righteousness is infused denies the Reformation’s clarion call for forensic justification by faith alone, in Christ alone. Similar to Orthodoxy’s salvation by theosis, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer as a single, particular occurrence is repudiated by Osiander. He asserts “that to be justified is not only to be reconciled to God through free pardon but also to be made righteous, and righteousness is not a free imputation but the holiness and uprightness that the essence of God, dwelling in us, inspires.”[15]
Michael Bird justly conclude that, “Calvin’s Christology will not actually allow God’s essential life to be communicated to believers (and rightly so, to avoid the error of Andreas Osiander that we share in God’s essential righteousness in justification).”[16]

He perceives that, “For Calvin, the believer participates only in the human nature of Christ. Moreover, since there can be no interpenetration of the natures in Christ, participation in the human nature of Christ cannot result in a participation in the divine nature. The upshot is that one simply cannot find the ontological purchase needed for a deification theory in Calvin’s Christology. In my mind, Calvin is at best an advocate of a soft form of deification (i.e., participation), but not in the fully orbed Eastern sense.”[17]

For those who understand salvation as a deification process or theosis, the primary message from Protestantism is that Christ has purchased believers with His blood, and through His lifelong obedience in the fulfilment of the Law and His Passion, His perfect righteousness is imputed to believers by faith alone, and in Him alone. Thus, God pronounces believers righteous in Christ, and justified, not via a process of divinization or infusion of grace, but by forensic justification as a legal declaration.

Lastly, it would be prudent for us to give heed to McGowan’s advice that “there are certain key theological affirmations which must be maintained. First, the Creator-creature distinction; second, the ontological difference between God’s being and human being; and third, the doctrine of the two distinct natures of Christ under the one Person of the Logos. The affirmation of these doctrines will distinguish Reformed theology from various forms of deification theology.”[18]


[1] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, “The Means and End in 2 Peter 1:3–11: The Theological and Moral Significance of Theōsis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 2 (2014): 276.
[2] The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World (Nashville: Nelson, 2008), 1691–92.
[3] Emil Bartos, Deification in Eastern Orthodox Theology (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 7.
[4] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Deification View,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby, and Steven E. Enderlein, Spectrum Multiview Book Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 219–220.
[5] Don Fairbairn, “Salvation as Theosis: The Teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy,” Themelios 23, no. 3 (1998): 47.
[6] Ibid., 49.
[7] Ibid., 50.
[8] Michael S. Horton, “Traditional Reformed Response,” in Justification: Five Views, ed. Paul Rhodes Eddy, James K. Beilby, and Steven E. Enderlein, Spectrum Multiview Book Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 245.
[9] Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 328.
[10] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Deification View,” 220.
[11] Michael S. Horton, “Traditional Reformed Response,” 244.
[12] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 3.11.5, 730.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 731.
[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.6, 731.
[16] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 578.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Andrew McGowan, “Colossians 3: Deification, Theosis, Participation, or Union with Christ?,” in Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Allen (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 170.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Reign of Souls


“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).”

As we begin our exposition of Revelation 20:4-6, we recall that a period of “a thousand years” was described in 20:1-3. Although it is possible to interpret the “thousand years” of 20:4-6 as being distinct from the millennium mentioned in verses 1-3, there are no compelling reasons within the context of the passage to do so. The majority of exegetes, if not all expositors today, agree that the “thousand years” in 20:4-6 is the same millennium described in 20:1-3. Hoeksema concurs,

“It is evident that “a thousand years” refers to the same period during the whole new dispensation as that in which the devil is bound with respect to Gog and Magog.”[1]

This “thousand years” period spans the entire New Testament era, from the First Advent of Christ to just before the Second Coming of our Savior.
The Thrones

The first three verses of Revelation 20 describe a scene on earth, whereby the abyss is the spiritual realm in which the devil and his minions operate. But where is the location of the scene in 20:4-6? When we read verse 4, we notice that there are thrones mentioned in John’s vision. The term “throne” is doubtlessly symbolical, and it is unlikely that in 20:4, John is referring to literal sets of chair for people to sit upon. “There can be little doubt that the portrayal of beings sitting on “thrones” is not intended to express the literal idea of people sitting on actual pieces of furniture and ruling from there. This is, rather, a figurative way of saying that they reign over a kingdom.”[2] The imagery of souls sitting upon thrones signifies the reign of these souls.

Where is the domain of this reign? The location of the thrones will assist us in determining the exact locale of John’s vision. G. K. Beale elucidates that the word “throne” usually refers to a heavenly scene. He writes,

“The heavenly location of the thrones in 20:4 is apparent from the observation that forty-two of the forty-six occurrences of “throne(s)” (θρόνος) elsewhere in the book clearly locate the thrones in heaven. The remaining three uses refer either to Satan’s or the beast’s throne, which is likewise not earthly but located in a spiritual dimension. The “thrones” in Dan. 7:9 also appear to be in heaven (cf. Dan. 7:10-13).”[3]

E. Müller adds that, since the thrones of the enemies of God are located on Earth elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, it is very likely that these thrones of the saints are located in Heaven.[4]

The Souls

Within the context of verse 4, John sees in his vision “the souls of them that were beheaded.” Premillennialists interpret this phrase as describing resurrected saints in glorified bodies, who are seated upon thrones and reigning with Christ in the earthly millennium.[5]

They argue that the expression - “the souls of them that were beheaded” - is a figure of speech called synecdoche, by which a part is put for the whole. For example, we say that there are a hundred sails, meaning a hundred ships. Occasionally, the Scripture does use the word “souls” to represent persons. “Thus all the souls that came with Jacob into Egypt were threescore and ten (Gen. 46:27). In the ark a few, that is, eight souls were saved (1 Pet. 3:20). On the day of Pentecost about three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41). There were in all two hundred threescore and sixteen souls with Paul in the ship (Acts 27:37). Hence the chiliast argues that we must interpret the expression “the souls of them that were beheaded” in the same figurative sense as referring to resurrected persons.”[6]

But there are serious problems with this premillennial interpretation. Hoeksema argues, “The first objection is that whenever synecdoche is employed, whether in our daily language, in secular literature, or in Holy Writ, uniformly a numeral is used in connection with it.”[7] This is very clear when we peruse the examples provided above (i.e. Gen. 46:27; 1 Pet. 3:20; Acts 2:41, 27:37). Eight souls, and not simply “souls,” were saved on Noah’s ark. There were two hundred threescore and sixteen souls with Paul aboard the ship. Scripture always uses a numerical qualifier to accompany the word “souls” whenever it is used as a synecdoche.

The word “soul” (ψυχή), therefore, is not used as a synecdoche in 20:4, and does not refer to living bodies. Beale explains that,

“Though “soul” (ψυχή) can be a substitute for “living body” (8:9; 12:11; 16:3; cf. 18:13), here its combination with “beheaded” is best suited to indicate a distinction between soul and body, as the almost identical combination “soul of those who were slain” clearly indicates. If such a distinction of soul and body is not held, an awkward picture emerges: “bodies of beheaded people.’”[8]

Consequently, based upon word usage and context, “soul” does not refer to physically living saints sitting upon thrones. Besides, “the noncorporeal sense of “soul” is suggested further by its close connection with thrones that are in heaven, not on earth.”[9]

Understood collectively, the thrones and the expression “the souls of them that were beheaded” likely describe a heavenly scene, and not an earthly millennium. This fact alone is devastating to the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, which requires this passage to describe the millennial reign of saints on earth.

The Saints

In his vision, John saw “the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years (Rev. 20:4).” Who exactly are these souls? In order for us to understand verse 4 fully, as well as the identity of these souls who reigned with Christ, we must look at the immediate context of this passage, particularly verses 5-6. It is written in verse 5 that “the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished,” and that the “rest of the dead” will participate in the “second death (Rev. 20:6, 14-15).” It is evident that the “rest of the dead” are unbelievers who shall be “cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15)” at the final judgment of Christ.

Therefore, John is clearly describing the souls of saints in verse 4. According to verse 6, those that participate in the “first resurrection” shall not be harmed by the “second death.” By implication and simple deduction, the “souls” mentioned in verse 4 should encompass all the saints, that is, the Church invisible.[10]

Stephen Smalley notes that “the prophet-seer does not specify the identity of those who are ‘seated on thrones’; nor are the subjects in any part of this scene mentioned by name. But their character and activity make it plain that John is referring broadly to the faithful saints of God. They are the ones who are involved in judgement, and suffer for Christ, and who worship Him rather than the beast; these are also priests of God, who rise and reign with Christ for a thousand years and more.”[11]

Smalley proceeds to argue that “they are ‘souls’ (τὰς ψυχὰς, tas psychas) who had been martyred for their Christian testimony, and existed therefore in that spiritual state which obtains between death and the final resurrection (verse 4a); and, second, they are faithful witnesses who have testified loyally to Christ, and continue to do so, without being called to seal their faithfulness with martyrdom (verse 4b; cf. 13.11-12).”[12]

Beale concurs that the souls in 20:4 refer to the souls of saints who have died, “some through martyrdom and others of natural causes, though maintaining their faith to the end (cf. 14:13: “blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”).”[13] He adds that “it is possible that only literal martyrs are spoken of in 20:4, but, if so, they might be portrayed as representative figures for the whole of the church.”[14] The case, therefore, is strong that the “souls” described in 20:4 represent or refer specifically to the souls of the saints.

Charles Alexander emphasizes the fact that the true Church is a suffering Church. Indeed, it can rightly be called a martyr Church. He writes:

“But the Church as a whole is a martyr Church. Some in recent times have yielded up their lives to cruel death, in faithfulness to Christ, but most of the Lord’s people have been permitted throughout the ages to end their days in peace. Yet what is common to all true believers is that they bear their witness in a world which is hostile to Christ and at enmity with God.”[15]

The martyr Church - the souls of the faithful - will be protected from the “second death (Rev. 20:6, 14-15).” They will reign with Christ for a thousand years in their intermediate state, before the final resurrection of the bodies.

The Reign

It is described in both verses 4 and 6 that the disembodied souls of the saints shall reign with Christ for a thousand years. This reigning with Christ reinforces the point that the vision is not located on earth, but in heaven where Christ is. Hendricksen elaborates further,

“The thousand year reign also occurs where Jesus lives, for we read ‘And they lived and reigned with Christ. . . .’ The question is, where, according to the Apocalypse, is the place from which the exalted Mediator rules the universe? Where does Jesus live? Clearly, it is in heaven. It is in heaven that the Lamb is represented as taking the scroll out of the hand of Him that sat on the throne (Rev. 5). Revelation 12 clearly states that Christ was ‘caught up to God and to his throne. . . Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and ye that dwell therein’. We may safely say, therefore, that the thousand year reign takes place in heaven.”[16]

According to Premillennialism, this reign lasts for a millennium on earth, and spans the entire period during which Satan is bound. It, however, does not last “for ever and ever (Rev. 22:5).” The amillennialist contends that, if these souls are to be physically resurrected at Christ’s Parousia and to be given glorified bodies as Premillennialists claim, they will reign not only for a thousand years, but for all eternity (Rev. 22:5) from the New Jerusalem. In the new, heavenly Jerusalem (21:2), there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), no more death (Rev. 21:4; 1 Cor. 15:53-55), and no more night (Rev. 22:5).

Revelation 20:4, therefore, describes the reign of souls in their intermediate state with Christ, and not the reign of resurrected saints during the alleged Davidic Kingdom on earth. However, this does not settle the millennial issue. The nature of the resurrection (in 20:1-6) lies at the very heart of the millennial controversy. There will be no resolution concerning the millennial debate unless exegetes can agree upon the meaning of the “first resurrection (Rev. 20:5-6).”


Note concerning abbreviated references: Please refer to previous posts for more details of repeated references

[1] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 560.
[2] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 995-996.
[3] Ibid., 999.
[4] See E. Müller, “Microstructural Analysis of Revelation 20,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 37: 233.
[5] For example, see Stephen Khoo, The Book of Revelation (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, n.d.), 99-100. These are printed course notes used in Far Eastern Bible College. Rev Stephen Khoo is the pastor of Bethel Bible Presbyterian Church in Australia.
[6] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 561.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 998.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Cf. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999-1000. Beale writes, “Of course, if only literal martyrs are the focus in v 4, then “the rest of the dead” in v 5 includes believing together with unbelieving dead who are to be resurrected subsequently. The problem with this is that v 6 says that those partaking of the first resurrection of v 4 will not be hurt by the “second death,” and 20:14-15 does not limit the promise only to martyrs or a segment of believers but applies it to all of God’s people who trust him throughout their lives.” See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999.
[11] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 505-506.
[12] Ibid., 506.
[13] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 503.
[16] Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 192.