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12.2.3. The Beginning of Preterism

As will become evident in our discussion of the futurist system of interpretation, the early church was not preterist in its outlook.

Dr. Henry Alford summarized the early history of preterism this way: “The Praeterist view found no favour, and was hardly so much as thought of, in the times of primitive Christianity. Those who lived near the date of the book itself had no idea that its groups of prophetic imagery were intended merely to describe things then passing, and to be in a few years completed.”1

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), who would have been in a position to know believers who had lived through the events of Nero and the fall of Jerusalem, knows nothing of preterism:

Justin Martyr . . . certainly knew many believers who had lived through the events of A.D. 70. He also clearly regarded the second coming of Christ as a future event. . . . Justin, who could not have written much more than fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, still saw a future fulfillment of both the Tribulation prophecies and the return of Christ in glory. [emphasis added]2

The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve (dated as early as A.D. 70 or soon thereafter) evidences a futurist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, one of the favorite passages frequently used in support of the preterist view.3

Most cite the Spanish Jesuit Alcasar, who died in 1614, as the first real preterist.4 Even then, his development of a preterist interpretation is seen to be in response to the Reformers having identified Babylon with the Roman church and a need to provide an alternative understanding:

[Alcazar’s] work was not free from controversial bias. The Reformers had identified Babylon with the Roman church, and had succeeded in making the Revelation a powerful controversial weapon in their favor. In order to offset this interpretation, Alcazar attempted to show that Revelation had no application to the future. [emphasis added]5

Tenney puts his finger on the heart-beat of preterism. The same motivation fueled Alcasar as modern preterists: a desire to show that what God appears to have predicted concerning the future is in fact not coming upon the earth. It is our conviction that preterism is helping to lay the groundwork to undermine the predictions of the book of Revelation so that a future apostate Church lacks an understanding of the anti-Christ role it occupies prior to His return.

It seems that the further we get from the events of John’s day, the more popular it becomes to understand events of his day as having “fulfilled” the predictions of the book of Revelation. But what is especially troubling about this trend is that evidence seems totally lacking that those much closer to the events and culture of John’s day had any notion of the preterist perspective:6

If the preterist contention that the prophecies of the Olivet Discourse and Revelation were fulfilled in the first century is true, then why is there no evidence that the early church understood these prophecies in this way? . . . There is zero indication, from known, extant writings, that anyone understood the New Testament prophecies from a preterist perspective.7


Notes

1 Thomas Ice, “The History of Preterism,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 45.

2 John MacArthur, “Signs in the Sky,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 113.

3 “The full text of The Didache was rediscovered little more than a hundred years ago, in a codex found in Constantinople in 1873. This document proves that those who actually lived through the events of A.D. 70 regarded Matthew Mat. 24:29-31—the entire Olivet Discourse—as yet-unfulfilled prophecy.”—Ibid., 112.

4 “[A] Spanish Jesuit, Alcasar (died 1614), was the first to interpret the entire premillennial part of Revelation (chaps. 4-19) as falling totally within the age of the Apocalyptist and the centuries immediately following. . . . Alcasar was a thoroughgoing ‘preterist.’ ”—Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 40-41.

5 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957), 136.

6 Contrast the following statement with the claims of Gary North who writes in the publisher’s preface to Chilton: “[the preterist] viewpoint is an old one, stretching back to the early church.”—David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), xv.

7 Ice, “The History of Preterism,” 39.