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Biblical Minimalism and "The History of Preterism"

An Answer to Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, The End Times Controversy

Part 1
(Click here for Part 2)

By Gary DeMar (of American Vision)

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 years.

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 dispensational swamp.

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 church."10

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 responds:

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" (Gal. 1:8).

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 here

End Notes

1. Thomas Ice, "Update on Pre-Darby Rapture Statements and Other Issues": audio tape (December 1995).

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 added.

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, [1884] 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, [1862] 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 (Matt. 24:15–22).

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 church.

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).

 

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Some

say

Bible

prophecy

is

a

non-essential.

Would

those

same

people

say

Biblical

accuracy

is?