Biblical Minimalism and
"The History of Preterism"
An Answer to Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice,
The End Times Controversy
(Click here for
By Gary DeMar (of American
My preterist friends have not been able
to find any early preterists in the early church. I would
never say that there is no one in the early church who taught
preterism. . . . Don't be foolish enough to say that nothing
is out there in church history, because you never know.
. . . There is early preterism in people like Eusebius.
In fact, his work The Proof of the Gospel is full of preterism
in relationship to the Olivet Discourse.1
The above quotation was uttered in 1995
by Tommy Ice. As we'll see in this and future articles, Tommy
has not taken his own advice.
Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice have edited a
new book dealing with the increasingly successful Biblical
criticism of dispensational premillennialism by preterist
authors.2 Even with millions of copies of Left Behind being
sold and war a factor in the Mideast, many thinking Christians
are finding dispensationalism to be counter to what the Bible
actually teaches. LaHaye, Ice, and the other contributors
to The End Times Controversy are worried that they are losing
their grip on a market they've taken for granted for so many
Of course, this is not to say that preterism
is competing equally with shelf space carrying prophecy books
in Christian book stores, radio broadcasts predicting that
we are, once again, living in last days, and Bible colleges
where dispensational beliefs are a requirement for graduation.3
Preterist materials are a mere drop in the bucket compared
to the billion-dollar end-time industry that pads the wallets
of failed and poorly studied prophetic prognosticators. Even
so, preterist arguments are making inroads. Debates are being
held on a regular basis around the country. I've debated at
the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) and Moody Bible
Institute, two dispensational institutions.4 My book End Times
Fiction, an analysis of LaHaye's Left Behind series, is in
its fourth printing and can be found in most Christian, secular,
and online bookstores along with my Last Days Madness. LaHaye
and Ice must be feeling some heat since they seem threatened
enough to deal with preterism in a full-length book treatment
of the subject. LaHaye feels safe hiding behind a book dealing
with preterism rather than engaging in a public debate where
he would really have to defend himself.
Pastors are beginning to reassess their
allegiance to the dispensational gods by holding seminars
at their churches to introduce their people to a consistently
Biblical approach to Bible prophecy. This would have been
unheard of just ten years ago. Radio audiences are much more
sympathetic to preterist arguments every time I do a radio
interview. I'm amazed at how many people who call in agree
with me or at least are willing to give preterism a hearing.
The publication of The End Times Controversy
is a great opportunity for preterists to get out their message
since the authors quote extensively from preterist works.
More astute Christians will follow the trail of end notes
and books listed in the bibliography and read them. The brighter
bulbs in the box will find preterist arguments convincing
and reject the dispensationalism of their youth. Many will
be surprised that over the centuries so many sound and trusted
Bible expositors have been preterists.
To help them along, I will analyze some
of the arguments outlined in The End Times Controversy just
in case they find it difficult find their way through the
The Silent History of Dispensationalism
Ice hopes to rebut preterism by writing
on "The History of Preterism" to show that preterism
really doesn't have one. The odd thing about End Times Controversy
is that five of the seventeen chapters use historical arguments
to defend dispensationalism over against preterism. As anyone
familiar with dispensationalism knows, there is scant evidence
of anything resembling dispensationalism prior to 1830.5 Certainly
there is no evidence of dispensationalism among the early
church fathers up until the time of the Council of Nicea (A.D.
325), which produced the Nicene Creed, a document that says
absolutely nothing about dispensationalism6 or even premillennialism.7
In fact, as dispensationalist Patrick Alan Boyd concludes,
even premillennialism is hard to find prior to Nicea.8 As
a result of his study, Boyd admonishes his fellow dispensationalists
"to be more familiar with, and competent in patristics,9
so as to avoid having to rely on second-hand evidence in patristic
interpretation." He suggests that "it would seem
wise for the modern system [of dispensational premillennialism]
to abandon the claim that it is the historic faith of the
Ice should have followed Boyd's counsel
and the directives of dispensational icon Charles C. Ryrie
before he decided to take on the historical argument against
preterism. Knowing that dispensationalism has a recent history,
and critics have used its novelty against the system, Ryrie
The fact that something was taught in the
first century does not make it right (unless taught in the
canonical Scriptures), and the fact that something was not
taught until the nineteenth century does not make it wrong,
unless, of course, it is unscriptural. . . . After all, the
ultimate question is not, Is dispensationalism--or any other
teaching--historic? but, Is it scriptural?11
Agreeing with Ryrie on this point, we can
ask, "After all, the ultimate question is not, Is preterism--or
any other teaching--historic? but, Is it scriptural?"
So even if it could be proved that no form of preterism can
be found in first-century Christian documents, this in itself
does not mean the Bible does not teach it. Ice knows of this
argument, but like so much of The End Times Controversy, he
conveniently leaves out evidence damaging to his position.
William Cunningham's comments on the use of history to establish
orthodoxy are instructive. Although written in the eighteenth
century, the following reads as if Cunningham had Ice in mind:
Where there is not inspiration, there is
no proper authority,--there should be no implicit submission,
and there must be a constant appeal to some higher standard,
if such a standard exist [sic]. The fathers, individually
or collectively, were not inspired; they therefore possess
no authority whatever; and their statements must be estimated
and treated just as those of any other ordinary men. And when
we hear strong statements about the absolute necessity of
studying the fathers,--of the great assistance to be derived
from them in interpreting Scripture, and in fixing our opinions,--and
of the great responsibility incurred by running counter to
their views, we always suspect that men who make them are
either, unconsciously perhaps, ascribing to the fathers some
degree of inspiration, and some measure of authority; or else
are deceiving themselves by words or vague impressions, without
looking intelligently and steadily at the actual realities
of the case.12
While history is important and interesting
to study, it is not authoritative. Just because someone wrote
something nearly 2000 years ago does not make him any more
of a Biblical authority than someone writing today. In fact,
the case could be made that the average second-year seminary
student has much more material available to him than any of
the early church fathers ever dreamed of having and therefore
is better equipped to evaluate doctrinal issues.
Even proximity to the apostles is no guarantee
of getting it right. There were well-intentioned people in
the period prior to the destruction of Jerusalem who got things
wrong and needed direct counsel to correct them (Acts 10;
Gal. 2:11–14). A special council had to be called in
order to clarify doctrinal issues (Acts 15). Even so, some
still didn't get it (Gal. 1:6–10). Paul had to instruct
the Thessalonian Christians on a matter of eschatology so
they would not be "deceived" (2 Thess. 2:1–12).
Peter writes that some of the things Paul wrote are "hard
to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort"
(2 Pet. 3:16). John warns his readers not to "believe
every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are
from God" (1 John 4:1). Paul makes it clear that "even
though we, or an angel from heaven should preach" a gospel
contrary to what had been preached, that angel was to be "accursed"
Given what we know about the history of
doctrinal issues in the infant church, it's surprising that
Ice wants us to believe that the views of uninspired writers,
of which we know almost nothing, writing decades after the
death of most of the apostles, are to be taken as authoritative.
What we do know is that the history of prophetic speculation
has been a persistent embarrassment to the church.13 Many
of the writers claimed as prophetic authorities believed that
Jesus was coming back in their day! Ignatius writes around
the year A.D. 100 that "the last times are come upon
us,"14 words that echo those of the Apostle Paul when
he writes that "the ends of the ages" had come upon
him and the Corinthian Church (1 Cor. 10:11). They both can’t
be right. Given a choice, I’ll stick with Paul. Cyprian
(c. 200–258) writes "that the day of affliction
has begun to hang over our heads, and the end of the world
and the time of the Antichrist . . . draw near, so that we
must all stand prepared for the battle."15 This was a
constant theme in Cyprian’s writings. These men, along
with most of their contemporaries, believed that they were
living in the last days, that the time of the end was near
for them. They were wrong because they misapplied the time
texts. LaHaye and Ice repeat their errors, and in doing so,
demonstrate that they've learned little from history.
Thomas Ice: "Biblical Minimalist"
Ice knows all of this, but he still plows
ahead with an appeal to broad and unsubstantiated historical
claims in his attack on preterism. As we will see, Ice follows
the technique used by liberal "Biblical minimalists":
! Nothing in the Bible can be considered
historical unless the depicted person or event has a parallel
history outside the Biblical text.
! Biblical stories are myth, fiction, or
legend unless they can proved to be otherwise by an appeal
to non-Biblical sources.
! The New Testament does not present a preterist
interpretation unless we can find non-Biblical writers who
interpret prophetic texts in a preterist way.
Even though history is not authoritative,
I'm willing to take the historical challenge outlined by Ice.
He maintains that since all the post-New Testament writers
of the first century were consistent futurists, preterism
cannot be true. This is how Ice states the argument:
It is strange that there is not one shred
of evidence that anyone in the first century understood these
prophecies [in the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation]
to have been fulfilled when preterists say they were. You
would think that if a large body of Bible prophecy were meant
to relate to a specific generation, as preterists contend,
then the Holy Spirit would have moved in such a way so that
first-century believers would have reached such an understanding.16
However, there has not yet been found any evidence that indicates
that the first-century church viewed Bible prophecy this way.
This fact provides a major problem for preterism, which thus
far has proved insurmountable.
* * * * *
There is zero indication, from known, extant
writings, that anyone understood the New Testament prophecies
from a preterist perspective. No early church writings teach
that Jesus returned in the first century.17 If we as God's
people are to understand the prophecies of New Testament in
this way, you would think that the Holy Spirit would have
left at least one written record of this.18
I don't know about you, but I don't need
some uninspired, non-canonical document to tell me what the
Bible already says! As we've seen, this is the argument of
"Biblical minimalists": I won't believe what's in
the Bible unless you can show me the same material "outside
the New Testament."19 Of course, when evidence is found,
the minimalist will claim, "It's not enough; it really
doesn't prove the point; that's not the way I would interpret
it." Jesus made it absolutely clear that He would return
in judgment to destroy the temple, judge Jerusalem, and come
on the clouds of heaven before the generation to whom He was
speaking passed away (Matt. 24:34). When the Bible tells Ice
and his fellow dispensationalists what was to transpire within
a generation, and they do not believe it, then why would they
be convinced by some uninspired document written decades after
the fact? Ice sounds like the rich man who wants Abraham to
raise Lazarus from the dead and send him to his brothers to
warn them about the perils of Hades:
"‘I beg you, Father, that you
send [Lazarus] to my father's house--for I have five brothers--that
he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets;
let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father
Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will
repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen
to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded
if someone rises from the dead’" (Luke 16:27–31).
If Ice does not listen to Jesus and the
New Testament writers on this subject, neither will he be
persuaded if some early church father interprets certain passages
from a preterist perspective. Like the rich man's brothers,
Biblical minimalists all, Ice will find some excuse by demanding
even more evidence. Once I supply the shred of evidence that
he says does not exist, Ice will set a new higher standard
of evidence. Ice wants to use the murky waters of history
to divine what the Bible makes crystal clear.
for Part 2 click
1. Thomas Ice, "Update on Pre-Darby
Rapture Statements and Other Issues": audio tape (December
2. A preterist understands prophetic passages
as being already fulfilled. "The term ‘preterism’
is based on the Latin preter, which means ‘past.’
Preterism refers to that understanding of certain eschatological
passages which holds that they have already come to fulfillment.
Actually, all Christians--even dispensationalists--are preteristic
to some extent. This is necessarily so because Christianity
holds that a great many of the Messianic passages have already
been fulfilled in Christ's first coming." (Kenneth
L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion [Tyler, TX: Institute
for Christian Economics, 1997], 162–163).
3. None of the contributors to The End
Times Controversy teach at any of the mainline dispensational
seminaries. Two are Ph.D. candidates at Dallas Theological
Seminary. But DTS is a mixed bag eschatologically these
days. Not only must Ice and LaHaye's brand of dispensationalism
compete with preterism in the free market of ideas, it must
also deal with "progressive dispensationalism"
within its own camp.
4. These debates are available at www.americanvision.org.
5. Ice confronted me after our debate
at BIOLA (February 2002) about Francis X. Gumerlock's statement
in his The Day and the Hour (2000), a book published by
American Vision and edited by me, that "The Dolcinites
held to a pre-tribulation rapture theory similar to that
of modern dispensationalism" (Day and the Hour, 80).
If Ice wants to claim the Dolcinites as proto-dispensationalists,
he can have them. Gumerlock quotes the Historia Fratris
Dolcini Haeresiarchae in an end note (the English translation
is Gumerlock's): "Again, [he believed, preached, and
taught] that within the said three years Dolcino himself
and his followers will preach the coming of the Antichrist;
and that the Antichrist himself would come into this world
at the end of the said three and a half years; and after
he had come, Dolcino himself, and his followers would be
transferred into Paradise, where Enoch and Elijah are, and
they will be preserved unharmed from the persecution of
Antichrist; and then Enoch and Elijah themselves would descend
to earth to confront the Antichrist, then they would be
killed by him; or by his servants, and thus Antichrist would
reign again for many days. ‘Once Antichrist is truly
dead, Dolcino himself, who would then be the holy Pope,
and his preserved followers will descend to earth, and they
will preach the correct faith of Christ to all, and they
will convert those, who will be alive then, to the true
faith of Jesus Christ" (91–92).
6. "An intensive examination of the
writings of pretribulational scholars reveals only one passage
from the early fathers which is put forth as a possible
example of explicit pretribulationalism." (William
Everett Bell, "A Critical Evaluation of the Pretribulation
Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology" [School
of Education of New York University, Unpublished doctoral
dissertation, 1967], 27). Emphasis added.
7. Gary DeMar, The Debate Over Christian
Reconstruction (Atlanta: American Vision, 1988), 99–101.
8. Alan Patrick Boyd, "A Dispensational
Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic
Fathers (Until the Death of Justin Martyr)," submitted
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree
of Master of Theology (May 1977), 90–91. In a footnote,
the author states: "Perhaps a word needs to be said
about the eschatological position of the writer of this
thesis. He is a dispensational premillennialist, and he
does not consider this thesis to be a disproof of that system.
He originally undertook the thesis to bolster the system
by patristic research, but the evidence of the original
sources simply disallowed this (91, note 2)." Emphasis
9. Relating to the church fathers (pater)
and/or their writings.
10. Boyd, 92. In a footnote on this same
page, Boyd questions the historical accuracy of the research
done on the patristic fathers by George N. H. Peters in
his much referenced three-volume work, The Theocratic Kingdom
(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel,  1988). Boyd sides with
the evaluation of the amillennialist Louis Berkhof when
he writes that "it is not correct to say, as Premillenarians
do, that it (millennialism) was generally accepted in the
first three centuries. The truth of the matter is that the
adherents of this doctrine were a rather limited number."
(Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines [London: The
Banner of Truth Trust, [1937) 1969], 262). Boyd demonstrates
with his research that dispensational author John F. Walvoord
was wrong when he wrote that "The early church was
far from settled on details of eschatology though definitely
premillennial." (Walvoord, The Rapture Question [Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1957], 137).
11. Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism,
rev. ed. (Chicago: Mood Press, 1995), 62.
12. William Cunningham, Historical Theology:
A Review of the Principal Doctrinal Discussions in the Christian
Church Since the Apostolic Age, 2 vols. (Carlisle, PA: The
Banner of Truth Trust,  1979), 1:175
13. Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The
Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917
(Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991) and
Francis X. Gumerlock, The Day and the Hour: Christianity's
Perennial Fascination with Predicting the End of the World
(Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2000).
14. The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians,
chapter 11, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:54. Quoted in LeRoy
Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical
Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 4 vols. (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald, 1950), 1:209.
15. The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle 55.
16. Those who read the Olivet Discourse
did understand what the Holy Spirit was saying: "For
all who were owners of land or houses" sold them because
Jesus had told them that Jerusalem would be destroyed within
a generation (Acts 4:34), and those who remained in Judea
when Jerusalem was surrounded by armies fled to the mountains
17. Ice equivocates on the meaning of
"returned." Partial preterists believe that Jesus’
return to judge Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was a coming similar
to the way He promised to come in judgment against the churches
in Asia Minor in Revelation (2:5, 16; 3:3) and the way "coming"
is used to describe Jehovah's coming in Judgment against
Egypt (Isa. 19:1), Babylon (13:6–10), and Israel and
Samaria (Micah 1:2–4). These passages do not refer
to a future physical and visible "second coming."
The dispensationalist has Jesus coming invisibly in a "rapture"
then again at the end of the tribulation period. This type
of two-stage coming was certainly not taught in the early
18. Thomas Ice, "The History of Preterism,"
The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack,
eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House,
2003), 37, 39.
19. "Most New Testament scholars
and other historians of ancient times look to extracanonical
Christian writings with serious interest, and some scholars
seem to place a higher value on them than on the canonical
writings." (Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the
New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence [Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000], 3).