Premillennialism as a Serious 20th-Century Option For Thinking About the Direction of Human History

SuttonOver at Syndicate, a theology website that has been churning out some very interesting commentary and conversation on new books, a symposium is underway exploring Matthew Sutton’s American  Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins, a doctoral student in intellectual history at Columbia University, edits the symposium that includes Fred Sanders, Janine Giordano Drake, Joel Carpenter, Rachel Schneider, and Joe Creech.

Here is a taste of Jenkins’s introduction to the symposium:

For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.

All signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.

Fred Sanders’s opening review praises American Apocalypse, but he thinks that Sutton has missed an opportunity to explain “what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation.”  He adds, “we learn much about the end of the world but nearly nothing about the post-apocalyptic vision that would inspire characters to think this way.” Sanders, I might add, teaches at Biola University, a school that has deep roots in the premillennialist tradition that provides the subject of Sutton’s book.

Sanders chides Suttton for not taking seriously the various eschatological formulations that rivaled premillennialism in 20th century America.  He asks Sutton why he did not situate the history of American premillennialism in the context of these competing views about the direction of human history.  Sanders is not talking here about post-millennialism and amillennialism, the kind of stuff seminary students study in their eschatology courses.  No, Sanders suggests that communism, environmentalism, patriotism, and progressivism all offer their own eschatological vision.  Fundamentalist eschatology offered men and woman an alternative to these “isms.”  It is a fascinating critique.

Sutton seems to dismiss this argument without really addressing it.  (He titled his response “Those Wacky Premillenialists.” Since he identifies Biola as a premillennialist school, and Sanders teaches at Biola, it is hard not to read this as disparaging).  He writes: “But mine is a not a book about competing eschatologies.  It’s a book focused on the overwhelmingly dominant fundamentalist eschatology.”  Fair enough. But Sanders seems to rightly suggest that premillennialism and fundamentalism did not exist in a vacuum.  Those who upheld these views of the end of the world seemed to define their view of human history over and against other visions of human history.  From a historical perspective, premillennialism was a serious option for thinking about these things–one of many options available to those in the West.  Communism and Progressivism were just as “wacky” to fundamentalists and evangelicalism.

Great symposium.  I look forward to reading the other responses.