Friday, March 16, 2007

"Back to the Future - The Preterist Perspective"

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.

With a recent flurry of books and conferences, the preterist perspective is beginning to make its presence felt in current prophecy discussions. Unfortunately, dispensational eschatology, which arose in the 1830s and is built on the futurist system, thoroughly dominates evangelical preaching, education, publishing, and broadcasting today. Consequently, evangelical Christians are largely unfamiliar with preterism, making it seem to be the "new kid on the block." Preterism, however, is as hoary with age as is futurism. And despite its overshadowing in this century, it has been well represented by leading Bible-believing scholars through the centuries into our current day.

One of the best known and most accessible of the ancient preterists is Eusebius (A.D. 260-340), the "father of church history." In his classic Ecclesiastical History he details Jerusalem's woes in A.D. 70. After a lengthy citation from Josephus's Wars of the Jews, Eusebius writes that "it is fitting to add to his accounts the true prediction of our Saviour in which he foretold these very events" (3:7:1-2.) He then refers to the Olivet Discourse, citing Matthew 24:19-21 as his lead-in reference and later Luke 21:20, 23, 24. He concludes: "If any one compares the words of our Saviour with the other accounts of the historian concerning the whole war, how can one fail to wonder, and to admit that the foreknowledge and the prophecy of our Saviour were truly divine and marvelously strange" (3:7:7).

Another ancient document applying Matthew 24 to A.D. 70 is the Clementine Homilies (2d c.): "Prophesying concerning the temple, He said: 'See ye these buildings? Verily I say to you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another which shall not be taken away Matthew 24:3; and this generation shall not pass until the destruction begin Matthew 24:34....' And in like manner He spoke in plain words the things that were straightway to happen, which we can now see with our eyes, in order that the accomplishment might be among those to whom the word was spoken" (CH 3:15).

Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-215) discusses Daniel's seventieth week as a past event: "The half of the week Nero held sway, and in the holy city Jerusalem placed the abomination; and in the half of the week he was taken away, and Otho, and Galba, and Vitellius. And Vespasian rose to the supreme power, and destroyed Jerusalem, and desolated the holy place" (Miscellanies 1:21). The famed premillennialist Tertullian (A.D. 160-225) writes of the Roman conquest: "And thus, in the day of their storming, the Jews fulfilled the seventy hebdomads predicted in Daniel" (An Answer to the Jews, 8).

Even the Book of Revelation is applied to A.D. 70 by many in antiquity. In his Interpretation of the Revelation Andreas of Cappadocia (5th c.) noted that "there are not wanting those who apply this passage to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus" (Revelation 6:12). Later he commented: "These things are referred by some to those sufferings which were inflicted by the Romans upon the Jews" (Revelation 7:1). According to noted church historian Henry Wace, Andreas's commentary is "the earliest systematic exposition of the book in the Greek church." Andreas himself informs us that he wrote it in order "to unfold the meaning of the Apocalypse, and to make the suitable application of its predictions to the times that followed it."

Arethas of Cappadocia (6th c.) also provides us a commentary on Revelation which, according to Wace "professes to be a compilation" though "no mere reproduction of the work of his predecessor, although it incorporates a large portion of the contents of that work." Arethas specifically applies various passages in Revelation to A.D. 70 (Revelation 6-7).

Jumping ahead in history, we find the Spanish Jesuit Alcasar (1614) who greatly systematized the preterist approach to Revelation. About this same time great reformed preterists flourished, such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Jean LeClerc (1657-1736). In fact, one of the finest intellects of the Westminster Assembly was a strong preterist: John Lightfoot (1601-1675). In his Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (1674; rep. 1989) Lightfoot offered a fine preterist exposition of Matthew 24 (2:308-321), with allusions to 2 Thessalonians 2. Of the Thessalonian passage he argued that the "restrainer" therein "is to be understood of the emperor Claudius enraged at and curbing in the Jews" (2:312).

Lightfoot even adopted the view that Revelation 1:7 speaks of "Christ's taking vengeance on that exceeding wicked nation" of Israel (2:319 and 422). There he interpreted Christ's coming as a providential judgment upon "those who pierced him" (the Jews) from among "all the tribes of the land literally" (Israel). This committed Lightfoot so strongly to preterism that he suggested Revelation's overall theme is Israel's judgment: "I may further add, that perhaps this observation might not a little help (if my eyes fail me not) in discovering the method of the author of the Book of the Revelation" (3:210). This led him to conclude that the "judiciary scene set up in Rev. 4 and 5, and those thrones Revelation 20:1" speak of "the throne of glory" and "is to be understood of the judgment of Christ to be brought upon the treacherous, rebellious, wicked, Jewish people. We meet with very frequent mention of the coming of Christ in his glory in this sense" (2:266).

Moving even closer to our own day, the great hermeneutics scholar Milton S. Terry (1840-1914) published much on the preterist scheme. His preterist convictions abundantly appear both in his classic text Biblical Hermeneutics (1885; rep. 1974) and in a separate work Biblical Apocalyptics (1898; rep. 1988). The renowned Swiss-American church historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893) also published a preterist view of Revelation in his classic History of the Christian Church (1:825-852).

One of the finest preterist commentaries on Revelation ever published was Commentary on the Apocalypse by the noted American Congregationalist, Moses Stuart (1780-1852). The still popular commentary on Revelation by Methodist scholar Adam Clarke (1762-1832) follows much of Lightfoot's commitment to an A.D. 70 focus, as does that found in The Early Days of Christianity by renowned Anglican historian, F. W. Farrar (1831-1903). Baker Book House recently republished The Message from Patmos (1921, rep. 1989) by David S. Clark, father of Presbyterian apologist Gordon S. Clark.

Entering our own generation, several reformed expositions have helped fuel the current revival of preterism. J. Marcellus Kik's The Eschatology of Victory (1971) developed the Olivet Discourse in great detail for us. Even more recent works include: David Chilton's The Great Tribulation (1987), Gary DeMar's Last Days Madness (1991), and my Perilous Times (1998).

The first phase of the current revival of preterist commentaries on Revelation include The Time Is At Hand (1966) by Jay E. Adams and Search the Scriptures: Hebrews to Revelation (1978) by Cornelis Vanderwaal. More recently still we have The Days of Vengeance (1987) by David Chilton, Revelation: Four Views (1996) by Steve Gregg, and my contribution to Marvin Pate's Four Views on the Book of Revelation and my forthcoming A Tale of Two Cities (1999). R. C. Sproul's The Last Days According to Jesus (1998) employs preterism as an apologetic tool in defense of the integrity of the prophecies of Jesus (Olivet) and John (Revelation).

I would add the following book: The Israel of God by O. Palmer Robertson.
As we consider the history of preterism we should be aware of its various branches. Just as premillennialism has cultic (e.g., Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses), dispensational (e.g., Scofield and Ryrie), and historic (e.g., Ladd and Kromminga) expressions, so preterism has three main divisions today.

Liberal preterists (e.g., James Moffatt, Expositor's Greek Testament 1940) generally view prophecies of A.D. 70 as ex eventu pronouncements, that is, as "after the event" pseudo-prophecies. Revelation especially is deemed an editorialized compound of various Jewish and Christian oracles generated from historical responses to Jerusalem's destruction. Liberal preterists correctly recognize the A.D. 70 focus of many judgment prophecies, but wrongly deny the predictive nature of inspired prophecy. Their works often contain valuable historical and grammatical gems that may be sifted from the rubble of critical exegesis.

Hyper-preterists (e.g., J. S. Russell's, The Parousia, 1887, rep. 1983, 1997) provide many fine insights into preteristic passages. Unfortunately, they go too far by extending valid observations gathered from temporally-confined judgment passages (texts including such delimitations as "soon" and "at hand") to passages that are not temporally constrained and that actually prophesy the future Second Advent of Christ. This school of preterism tends to focus all eschatological pronouncements on A.D. 70, including the resurrection of the dead, the great judgment, and the second advent of Christ. Consequently, they leave the stream of historic orthodoxy by denying a future return of Christ and are even pressed by system requirements to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ. This view has developed a cult-like following of narrowly focused and combative adherents.

Evangelical (and reformed) preterists (e.g., R. C. Sproul) take seriously the time texts of Scripture and apply those prophecies to A.D. 70, a redemptive-historical event of enormous consequence. They argue that there God finally and conclusively broadened his redemptive focus from the Jews to all races (Matthew 28:19), from the land of Israel to all the world (Acts 1:8), and from the temple-based worship to a simpler spiritual-based worship (John 4:21-24). Where such time markers are absent from eschatological texts, though, evangelical preterists apply the prophecies to the Second Advent at the end of history. The judgments in A.D. 70 are similar to those associated with the Second Advent (and to the Babylonian conquest in the Old Testament) and are actually adumbrations of the Second Advent.

So, the preterist urges the Christian interested in biblical prophecy to go "back to the future." That is, in many cases we must go back to the original audience and look to the near future. And to understand the historical nature of preterism itself, we must look beyond the current debate to the stream of interpretation running throughout Christian history.

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