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HISTORICISM, PRETERISM AND REFORMED THEOLOGY

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  May 21, 2012 — 6 Comments

Dr. Gentry:

“You are committed to the Reformed faith, yet you don’t take the historicist approach to eschatology which was widely held among the Reformers. Why do you not follow the Reformers in this part of their theology?”

G.K., Minneapolis, Minn.

Gentry’s response:

Thank you for your inquiry. You are correct that I am committed to Reformed theology. However, I differ from the Reformers in that I take a preterist approach to Revelation rather than an historicist approach. I do so for the following reasons:

First, we should remember that Revelation was not well received among some of the Reformers. Martin Luther, the famed reformer and untiring interpreter of Scripture, originally rejected Revelation as non-canonical, complaining, “My Spirit cannot adapt itself to the book.” In his German translation of the Bible, he complained in the preface to Revelation that the book was “neither apostolic nor prophetic.”Fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) refused to take a doctrinal proof-text from Revelation. Calvin himself wrote no commentary on it, despite his writing a very thorough series of commentary on almost all of the Bible.

Second, the Reformers were locked in a literal life-and-death struggle with Romanism. Consequently, they tended to view many judgment passages through the lens of their opposition to Rome. They let application override interpretation in some situations.

Such an exposition is known as an “actualizing interpretation.” “Actualizing interpretations take two forms. In one form the imagery of the Apocalypse is juxtaposed with the interpreter’s own circumstances, whether personal or social, so as to allow the images to inform understanding of contemporary persons and events and to serve as a guide for action” (J. Kovacs and C. R. Rowland, Revelation: Apocalypse of Jesus Christ [Oxford: Blackwell, 2004], 9).For instance, we see this in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) where the Pope is called the Antichrist and the “man of lawlessness.” This not only gives too much credit to Romanism, but clearly misinterprets Scripture. If the Pope were Antichrist, then the papacy existed in the first century, for John confronts the Antichrist in the first century (1Jn 2:18-22). But the Pope cannot be the Antichrist, for John defines the Antichrist as “one who denies the Father and the Son” (1Jn 2:22), as those who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2Jn 7). This is clearly not referring to Roman Catholic teaching.

Third, historicist expositions of Revelation from that era, the 1500-1600s are impossible today. If you can find an historicist exposition of Revelation from that era you will quickly observe that they believed Revelation outlined church history up to their own time, when they believed its final prophecies were coming to fulfillment. Just reading an earlier historicist exposition today refutes it.Kovacs and Rowland note this problem: “Altogether more contentious and daring is the way certain interpreters saw these figures appearing in their own day. For some this reflects a conviction that the last days have come” (Kovacs, 128; referenced above). M. E. Boring seems to be correct when he notes that “although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view” (M. Eugene Boring, “Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” [Louisville: John Knox, 1989], 49).

Fourth, by the very nature of the case historicism suffers from a need of constant revision. The historicist school, also called the “continuous historical,” sees the prophetic drama in Revelation as providing a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach which forecasts future history. Historicists deem Revelation an “almanac of church history.” Historicists apply the numerous judgment scenes to various wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., the rising of Roman Catholicism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II), as well as important historical /persons (e.g., various Popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Mussolini).

According to Alan Johnson, Joachim of Floris (d. 1202) popularized this view, though traces of it are found earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers (Johnson, “Revelation” in EBC, 12:409). As noted above, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers greatly employed it against the Roman Catholic Church.

The weaknesses, though, are manifold. The position almost always assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end. For instance Mede noted in his commentary: “While I write news is brought of a Prince from the North (meaning Gustavus Adolphus) gaining victories over the Emperor in defence of the German afflicted Protestants.”Commenting on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general, Brethren historian F. Roy Coad well states: “Almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time” (F. Roy Coad, “Prophetic Developments: A Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Occasional Paper” [Pinner, England: 1966], 10).

As a consequence, beliefs are in a constant state of revision, especially for Revelation commentators in this school. Consequently, as history has grown longer, older varieties of this interpretive school have experienced a great number of failed expectations. This view long remained “strangely attractive in spite of the recurrent anguish and disappointment it causes” (John Court, Myth and History in the Book of Revelation [Atlanta: John Knox, 1979], 7).

Thus, this approach is continually in revision as it proposes more and more constructions based on the supposed prophetic allusions to historic events. For instance, this view was prominent in the Middle Ages when millennialism began to flourish once again. The system was used to show that “the millennium was about to dawn” (Carson, Moo, Morris, Introduction to the New Testament, [Zondervan] 482).

Furthermore, its relevance is confined to the Western world, with the progress of history traced only in a western direction (apparently where book sales are most profitable!).In addition, it tends to lose its relevance for its original persecuted audience.Its major problem, though, is that harmony among its proponents is almost wholly lacking due to its subjectivity.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 80 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

6 responses to HISTORICISM, PRETERISM AND REFORMED THEOLOGY

  1. Excellent article. The seven churches – church history view has always given me trouble. You have to assume that enough history has passed to be able to mark it off and (your comment) is always needing revision. This would not have been the way 1st century readers would have understood it. Thanks Ken for another great article.

  2. Do those who have held a historicist position also hold to a late date position for the Revelation? It would seem that belief in a late date would out of necessity lead to the historisist position.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 21, 2012 at 6:30

      Historicists can hold to either view of the date of Revelation. The late date does not necessarily lead to the historicist postion. Two of the other positions (futurist and idealist) tend to adopt the late date. In fact, there are even some preterists who adopt the late date. Preterists may hold the late date for Revelation for either of the following reasons: (1) Some preterists apply Revelation to the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century, rather than to the fall of Jerusalem in the first century. (2) Even some Jerusalem-focused preterists have adopted the late date. They see Revelation as a post-AD 70 theological treatise expressing Jerusalem’s collapse in dramatic, symbolic format.

  3. [Kenneth, I ran across this snippet on the net. Any reaction?]

    70 AD Futurism !

    Preterists claim that the “Antichrist” and the “great tribulation” were fulfilled during the 70 AD period.
    If so, why do we find that the arrival of the Antichrist was still expected by writers who lived during and after 70 AD?
    Polycarp (70-167) wrote that “He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead.”
    Justin Martyr (100-168) said that “[Antichrist] shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against us the Christians….”
    Irenaeus (140-202) wrote that the ten kings (Rev. 17)”shall give their kingdom to the beast, and put the church to flight.”
    It’s not true that Francisco Ribera (1537-1591) “revived” futurism because it was never lost during the Middle Ages or prior to that period of time.
    Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) stated: “There remains only one thing – that the demon of noonday [Antichrist] should appear.”
    Roger Bacon (1214-1274) spoke of “future perils [for the Church] in the times of Antichrist….”
    John Wycliffe (1320-1384) referred to “the hour of temptation, which is coming upon all the world, Rev. iii.”
    Martin Luther (1483-1546): “[The book of Revelation] is intended as a revelation of things that are to happen in the future….”
    (Google or Yahoo “Famous Rapture Watchers” to see quotes from many Christian leaders throughout the Church Age which prove that they expected a future Antichrist and a future great tribulation.)
    Preterists use Matt. 24:34 (“This generation will not pass….”) to try to prove a 70 AD fulfillment of “Antichrist.” Since many of them see “these” (Matt. 25:46) fulfilled in the future in Rev. 20, why can’t they apply futurism as easily to Matt. 24:34? After all, the word “this” is the singular form of “these”!
    Church history is fascinating, right?

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. May 24, 2012 at 6:30

      The answer to the question as to why we see people looking for the Antichrist during the AD 70 period is: They were wrong. Christians have held a wide variety of theological views and made many errors — both then and now.

      Regarding futurism’s decline. No one believes that futurism was absolutely extinguished in history. Rather it suffered serious decline and was revived as an academic theological position by Ribera. By the way, I didn’t make this up. This is widely stated among scholars in the field of historical theology. Besides that, the writer whom you are quoting seems unaware that historicists also hold that many prophecies will occur in the future. Simply because someone believes some prophecies are in the future, doesn’t make one a “futurist.” In fact, as an orthodox preterist, I believe many prophecies lie in the future.

      The statement on Matt 24:34 doesn’t make sense. The preterist argument rests on the near-term indicators, not demonstratives.

  4. Hello Mr. Gentry,
    I wrote to you before and thank you for responding to my email. I’m reading Kik’s
    Eschatology of victory (my first preterist book). I just wanted to write and say that there are two men in recent history who still hold to the historicist point of view. Rev. Ian Paisley (one of my favorite Preachers) and Francis Nigel Lee(also postmillennial). My question is can Matthew 24 have a double meaning? not only refering to a past event but to a future event. Any information would be greatly appreciated. God Bless.

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