Of the four interpretive schools of Revelation, one of the most neglected in our times has been preterism. It is however experiencing a strong resurgence in recent days. This seems to be due to two powerful influences: (1) Futurism has warn out the evangelical market with false predictions. (2) As Christians look at the alternatives they find a powerful exegetical and theological case for preterism in recent contributions to the debate.
Preterism is the “ancient history” view of Revelation. Preterism practically points past people to the past, you might say (but I doubt you can say it five time very quickly). As I move toward the end of this series on interpretive approach to Revelation, I will engage preterism in two articles.
The preterist view, is known as the “contemporary imminent” or “contemporary historical” or “imminent historical” viewpoint. It is technically labeled by scholars by the German word zeitgeschichtliche (“contemporary history”). It is a strongly redemptive-historical approach highlighting the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant as the concluding phase of redemptive history, though also including the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire. Thus, it sees Revelation’s fulfillment in the past.
Basically this school understands the great majority (not all, e.g., 20:11–15) of the prophecies in Revelation 4–22 to be dealing with issues and events beginning in John’s own day or within just a couple of centuries thereafter, matters that from our perspective lie in the distant past. Hence, the designation “preterism,” from the Latin word “praeteritus” meaning “gone by,” i.e., past.
The opening and closing statements in Revelation provide key evidence for the preterist interpreter. In those passages John declares the events “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6) for “the time is near” (1:3), consequently the angel commands him “do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (22:6). The fact that Revelation is in letter form also underscores its direct significance for the original audience.
According to R. H. Charles traces of preterism may be found in some early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Victorinus. For instance, premillennialist Victorinus counts the five dead emperors beginning with Galba and sees Nero as the beast. We certainly see its influence in Andreas of Caesarea (AD 611) where he interprets some of the judgment scenes as referring to Vespasian and the Jewish War.
In this regard even dispensationalist J. F. Walvoord admits: “some in the early church may have had similar views.” Preterism seems to become a major interpretive force in 1547 when Johannes Hentenius of Louvain (1499–1564) edits the commentary on Revelation by Arethas of Cappadocia (J. Court; A. W. Wainwright). It is held by Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and Henry Hammond (1605–60), but its most influential systematizer is the Spanish Jesuit Luis De Alcasar (1554–1613) who is “the first to attempt a complete exposition of the entire premillennial [i.e., pre-Revelation 20] part of the book, as a connected and advancing whole falling within the Apocalyptist’s age and the centuries immediately following” (I. T. Beckwith). Many liberals hold this view, though stripped of the supernaturalism of evangelical preterism.
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Two basic views exist within the preterist camp. One holds that the events of Revelation focus both on the destruction of Jerusalem with its temple (AD 70) and the collapse of Rome (AD 410). For instance, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, presents the position that: “We are inclined to adopt that which regards the first series of prophetical visions proper (ch. iv–xii) as indicating the collapse (in part at the time already transpired) of the nearest persecuting power, namely, Judaism; the second series (ch. xiii–xix) as denoting the eventual downfall of the succeeding persecutor, i.e., Rome” (with the final persecutor conquered in the final visions).
The other sees John’s primary focus to be on the events surrounding AD 70, which include both the destruction of the temple and the Roman civil wars in the Year of the Four Emperors (AD 68–69) but says nothing about the collapse of Rome centuries later. A. F. Beagley summarizes this position: John is “concerned with the situation of the Church and its conflict with Judaism and with the Roman government, and particularly with the alliance between these two powers which sought to crush the growing Christian movement. . . . The book depicts primarily judgments which come upon the Jewish people because of their rejection of Jesus’ Messiahship and their persecution of the Christian community, the climax being reached in the description of the fall of Jerusalem (symbolized by the harlot/city, ‘Babylon).’”
The predominant preterist position is the dual Jerusalem and Rome view. It is held by such writers as Ludovicus Alcasar (1614), Alphonso Salmeron (1614), Hugo Grotius (1664), J. B. Bousset (1690), Clericus (1698), Campegius Vitringa (1705), J. S. Herrenschneider (1786), J. G. Eichhorn (1791), Moses Stuart (1845), Friederich Düsterdieck (1884), Philip Schaff (1910), David S. Clark (1922), Philip Mauro (1925), Ray Summers (1951), Martin Hopkins (1965), Andrè Feuillet (1965), Jay Adams (1966), G. B. Caird (1966), William Barclay (1976), Greg L. Bahnsen (1977), M. E. Boring (1989), Wilfred J. Harrington (1991), and Roland H. Worth (1999).
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The view holding that Revelation more narrowly focuses on the AD 70 era is held by J. J. Wetstein (1752), Firmin Abauzit (1733), Jean Harduin (1741), Johann Christoph Harenberg (1759), Johann S. Semler (1766), Johann Gottfried von Herder (1779), H. G. Hartwig (1783), Samuel Herrenschneider (1786), C. Heinrich Heinrichs (1818–21), C. F. J. Züllig (1834–40), J. Stuart Russell (1887), Milton Terry (1898), J. Massyngberde Ford (1975), Cornelis Vanderwaal (1979; 1990), Alan James Beagley (1987), David Chilton (1987), Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. (1989), J. E. Leonard (1991), Bruce J. Malina (2000), Margaret Barker (2000), Michael Barber (2005), and Sebastian Smolarz (2011).
For instance, C. van der Waal (1990: 125) states: “the fact that a whole book is devoted to the fall of Jerusalem proves how dominant this theme is in the New Testament. . . . In Revelation the controversy is: church versus synagogue.” For the most part it is also held by Philip Carrington (1931), Eugenia Corsini (1983), Edmondo Lupieri (1999), and probably Paul T. Penley (2010) who intentionally suppresses his viewpoint but frequently defends the position.
Even a preterist advocate of the Babylon=Rome view, Nigel Turner pauses several times in his exposition to muse over the possible Jerusalem identity. At 11:8 he states: “There is something to be said for the identification with Jerusalem throughout Rev.; one must not too easily assume that the book is directed against Rome rather than the Jews.” In Revelation 17, just before he gives the Rome definition, he writes: “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that all this is very fittingly applied to Jerusalem. . . . so once more the question arises whether Rev. is not really directed against militant and persecuting non-Christian Judaism, which arrested the spread of the Gospel in its earliest days, rather than secular Rome.”
I call the Rome + Jerusalem position “historical-preterism” in that it deals with both the destructions of sacred Jerusalem and secular Rome as significant world-historical episodes. Whereas the Jerusalem-focus view (my own) I designate as “redemptive-historical preterism.” I draw this distinction in that it emphasizes the theological and redemptive — not simply historical — significance of AD 70 as concluding the old covenant when it finally, fully, and forever establishes the new covenant. Just as Beale, Smalley and others call themselves “modified idealists” (Smalley 16; cp. Beale 48), perhaps redemptive-historical preterism could be deemed “modified preterism,” as over against the current majority preterist view.
Though C. Hill is more of an historical-preterist, he puts the matter well: “John takes his standpoint in his own day and age and emphasizes his contemporaneity with his readers. . . . The idea of Heilsgeschichte is the foundation of the view of history which underlies the Revelation and it is from this perspective that the author can address, with comfort and challenge, a church which is on its way to becoming a martyr-church. . . . The Revelation is therefore a book written out of its time and for its time.”
A. Clarke states his position that “the apocalypse contains a prophetical description of the destruction of Jerusalem, of the Jewish war, and the civil wars of the Romans.” This would largely limit Revelation’s events to the AD 67–70 era. Interestingly for this view, M. Barker notes that “there is a remarkable similarity between the portents and oracles reported by Josephus and those in the Book of Revelation.”
Josephus’ work is extremely helpful for providing historical insights into the events leading up to and surrounding AD 70. Indeed, “as a historian, [Josephus] is in fact in an unusually privileged position, for his knowledge of the crisis is to a great extent that of an eyewitness, or else, where he is not physically present, derived from the evidence of eye-witnesses” (T. Rajak). Even more remarkably, he has access to eye-witnesses on both sides.
Thus, in basic terms, this is what we mean by preterism. In my next article I will highlight its weakness and strengths.