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How Did We Get Here? - The Rise of Liberalism

“Postmillennial thought will flourish because it is Biblical and is therefore the eschatology of victory, or of salvation in its full sense. It takes seriously all of scripture and the resurrection. Christ’s victory is in time and eternity, in the world of matter as well as in the realm of the spirit. “The accelerating decline of Christian influence today” of which [Hal] Lindsey speaks is a product of Christian irrelevance. It was not World War I which led to an eclipse of postmillennialism; rather, the growing modernism and atheism led to a rejection by the natural man of that faith which asserted the “Crown Rights of King Jesus” over the world. False eschatologies, by surrendering history to the devil, hastened the retreat of Christian influence and power. Any true revival of Biblical faith will also be a revival of postmillennialism.” -- Rousus John Rushdoony[1]

We have come to a point where we can examine a few of the specific historical factors that made Dispensationalism so popular and postmillennialism decline. The last two articles have examined the historical situation whence Dispensational Premillennialism (DP) was born and how it arose from Darby to recent times. We will now examine how the theological landscape in the church as a whole influenced the popularity of this eschatology. DP was not only born in a time of intense millennial expectation, but it was also born during a time of rising Liberalism in the church at large.

During the 19th century, German Liberal theology began taking hold in the church. Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89), Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922), and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) led this movement. Ideas based on Enlightenment presuppositions such as Darwinism and Higher Criticism also were creeping their way into seminaries. It culminated in the 1920’s during the infamous Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. The "Auburn Affirmation", signed in 1924 by 1274 Presbyterian ministers, denied the “Fundamentals” of the faith: the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles.[2] They called these core doctrines of the faith mere theories. Even Princeton Seminary, where postmillennialism had flourished under such leaders as Archibald Alexander, Charles and A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield, fell into this Liberal trap. J. Gresham Machen[3] soon left the seminary and started Westminster Seminary. Many in the reformed world who were still averse to premillennialism, began to develop the more pessimistic amillennial system for many of these same reasons. At this point, then, various strands of Liberalism dominated Protestant denominations and seminaries in Canada and the United States.

Much of Liberalism (especially Ritschl’s system) was highly positive in the trajectory of the human race and their future. The optimism to which they held looked to many DPs (and others) to be very similar to a postmillennial optimism. In fact, liberals coopted postmillennial themes and incorporated them into their social gospel and humanistic systems. The two systems are, however, not alike in the least. Liberalism’s golden age would come through purely human progression, technological advances, evolution, etc. Another hallmark was a thorough non-supernaturalism. Orthodox Postmillennialism says that social change begins with regenerated hearts, changed by the gospel of the risen Christ. As the Great Commission transforms individual lives, the other spheres of life change and follow this Godly trajectory. During the early 20th century, however, this Orthodox Postmillennialism became wrongly associated by many with Liberal ideas of social gospel. Greg Bahnsen explained it this way:

this modernistic perversion of God’s truth, this antithesis to redemptive revelation and supernatural salvation, called for strenuous and godly opposition by orthodox churchmen. However, in their zeal to stand against the liberal tide, large numbers of Christians threw the baby out with the bath. In disdain for the evolutionary social gospel, sincere believers were led to reject Christian social concern for an exclusively internal or other-worldly religion, and to substitute for the earlier belief a progressive triumph of Christ’s kingdom in the world, a new, pessimistic catastrophism with respect to the course of history.[4]

As these humanistic and progressive ideas swept into the denominations, the pessimistic ideas of DP and its millenarian heritage became more and more popular. Historic events such as the world wars and the events surrounding the land of Israel seemed to boost DP and at the same time disprove the liberal notions of human progress. Then, as Bahnsen says, the ‘baby’ of the Gospel optimism of orthodox postmillennialism was then widely discarded with the ‘bath’ of liberal optimism.

Unfortunately DPs still use these baseless arguments against Postmillennialists. They claim that postmillennialism is rooted in liberalism and its notion of social gospel. This could not be further from the truth. As indicated above, orthodox postmillennialism sees the Holy Spirit empowering the Church to carry out the Great Commission through the spread of the Gospel. Kenneth Gentry quips that “postmillennialism by definition cannot be liberal: “Postmillennialism” holds that Christ will return post the millennium. What liberal believes Christ will return at all?”[5] Postmillennialism, grounded in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, waned as liberalism emerged. One historian puts it bluntly: “In a word, the erosion of postmillennialism was part of the waning of supernaturalism” in the early 1900’s.[6] Linking postmillennialism with liberalism and social gospel, then, has been a common technique among DPs. Many have observed that postmillennialism died during WW1. In fact, it was this Ritschlian liberalism attached to the notion of human efforts and evolution that died, not postmillennialism.

DP, as we will see in upcoming articles, was coming to prominence during this time. The DP movement became more popular in the North American Church after the popular prophecy conferences of the late 19th century, the publication of the Scofield Bible, and many of their leader’s stand for the “fundamentals” against the modernists. The DPs were known for their ‘plain’ and ‘literal’ reading of the scriptures and their hard stance for inerrancy. By the middle of the 19th century, the ‘literalistic’ approach was already recognized as the dividing line between premillennialists and others.[7] At the same time, a liberal and higher critical approach to the scriptures became popular from then to the early 20th century. This was a powerful tool for DP and other premillennialists. They often equated the higher critical approach with postmillennialism; the latter possessing a spiritualist or allegorist interpretation.[8] This allowed their system to catch on in many conservative churches. Many average laymen or pastors were given the choice between liberalism and a “plain” reading; many chose the approach that didn’t deny the resurrection.

This charge that postmillennialism practices some sort liberal spiritualizing is very curious. As historians have pointed out, the millenarian movement relied upon and allied with the Princeton theologians and utilized their outline of the doctrine of inerrancy. Did the Hodges and B.B. Warfield use the same spiritualizing hermeneutic as the liberals? It is silly to think so and it is silly to think that modern postmillennialists hold to a more liberal view of scripture than DP do. Much like the social gospel tactic noted above, the argument that postmillennialism is rooted in a liberal view of bible interpretation is unfortunately still argued by many DPs to this day. The naive and inconsistent “plain and literal” interpretation has been criticized by numerous authors and I encourage the reader to honestly look into this aspect of the DP system (think literal harlots riding beasts, literal bottomless pits, literal floating cities, literal moons turned to blood, etc.). It is often difficult to have discussions with them because they believe their system is the default for all things orthodox and other systems are dismissed because they simply “spiritualize” and “allegorize”.

We must note, however, that many of these early American DPs were warriors against liberalism in their day. Just as today, we give credit to many of our DP brothers and sisters for their high view of scripture. We strongly disagree on theological systems, hermeneutics, and the outworking of the gospel, but hopefully we can appreciate each other’s commitment to the Bible as the word of God. Just don't throw the baby out with the bath.


[1] Introduction: J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1971), viii-ix.

[2] John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2015), 309.

[3] The others who left with Machen for Westminster were O.T. Allis, Cornelius Van Til, and Robert Dick Wilson.

[4] Greg Bahnsen, “The Prima Facia Acceptability of Postmillennialism”. The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter (1976-77): Covenant Media Foundation.

[5] Kenneth L. Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Draper: Apologetics Group Media, 2009), 444-45.

[6] James H. Moorhead, “Millennialism in American Religious Thought,” Journal of American History, 71, no. 3 (1984): 525. Quoted in Gentry, 47-48.

[7] Walter Unger, Earnestly Contending For The Faith: The Role Of The Niagara Bible Conference In The Emergence Of American Fundamentalism, 1875-1900, PhD Dissertation, (Simon Fraser University, 1981), 193-195.

[8] Ibid.

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