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The revival of a preterist interpretation of prophecy, the belief that the majority of NT prophetic texts were fulfilled in events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, was the other contributing factor to explain the cracked foundation of dispensationalism. For nearly 150 years, the preterist interpretation of prophecy, which has a long and distinguished history, was displaced by the sensationalism of dispensationalism. Prior to 1988, there was almost no interaction with preterism even though nearly every major Bible commentary prior to 1850 (Lightfoot, Hammond, T. Newton, Nisbett, Wesley, Gill, Scott, Clarke, Doddridge, et al.) espoused a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). As Frank Gumerlock and I point out in The Early Church and the End of the World, preterism has a long and distinguished history going back prior to the fourth-century works Ecclesiastical History and The Proof of the Gospel written by historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 265-340). These two works are contrary to the claims of dispensational author J. Randall Price that “[t]he first appearance of preteristic interpretation was in a commentary on Revelation by the Spanish Jesuit Luis Alcazar (1554-1613).” In fact, Thomas Ice, who Price quotes in his article, makes the point that “The Proof of the Gospel is full of preterism in relationship to the Olivet Discourse.”
Preterism is making a comeback in scholarly circles and is being taken seriously by dispensationalists as they attempt to deal with its arguments. First there was John MacArthur’s The Second Coming (1999) that included poorly argued sections on preterism that were not changed in the 2006 edition (see my article here). Then came The End Times Controversy, edited by Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice. This was followed by a revised and expanded edition of Understanding End Times Prophecy by Paul N. Benware that includes a 33-page chapter on preterism. Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice wrote Breaking the Apocalypse Code, a response to Hank Hanegraaff’s The Apocalypse Code. The latest is Thomas A. Howe’s Daniel in the Preterists’ Den: A Critical Look at Preterist Interpretations of Daniel. (I doubt that many dispensationalists will read Howe’s book since it retails for $77.00.)
The debate continues, although it’s getting more difficult to find dispensationalists who are willing to be challenged publicly on their views. On October 22, 2008, I debated Barry Horner, author of Future Israel, on whether Matthew 24:1-34 refers to events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or whether Jesus was describing a future Great Tribulation. I commend Dr. Horner for his willingness to defend his position before a live audience.
Dr. Horner went first in stating his position, and while he spent little time dealing with much of Matthew 24, he did make some points that differed from the usual defense for a future fulfillment I hear. He agreed that “this generation” (24:34) referred to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking but went on to claim that it was only a “micro fulfillment.” He based his interpretation on the claim that the Greek word genÄ“tai can be translated as “until all these things begin to take place.” Of all the Bible translations I checked, not one of them translates the passage this way, and there are very few commentators who take this approach. Dispensationalist Stanley Toussaint argues against Horner’s interpretation. “This approach fails to note the significance of the words ‘all these things’ . . . in the same verse. It could hardly be said that all these things began to be [fulfilled] in the lifetime of the disciples. How could Christ begin His coming at the time when it is described as being like lightning? Nor does this explanation fit the meaning of verse thirty-three,” which reads “even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door” (Matt. 24:33).
Dr. Horner appealed to John Calvin in defense of his interpretation of genÄ“tai. Calvin writes: “The meaning therefore is: ‘This prophecy does not relate to evils that are distant, and which posterity will see after the lapse of many centuries, but which are now hanging over you, and ready to fall in one mass, so that there is no part of it which the present generation will not experience.'” Calvin does not mention genÄ“tai. Horner used Acts 8:1 as an example of genÄ“tai as ongoing action. I pointed out that the “great persecution” that “arose against the church in Jerusalem” is not still going on. It was localized and completed in the same way the events described in the Olivet Discourse were localized (Matt. 24:16) and completed (24:34).
If there is a micro-macro aspect to the Olivet Discourse, as Horner maintains, then the Jews are under perpetual judgment. Horner maintained that the use of the second person plural (“you”) throughout Matthew 24 is generic and not specific to that generation. Consider the use of “you” in chapter 23. If “you” does not refer to that generation alone, then the Jews are still “filling up the measure of the guilt of their fathers” as Jews (Matt. 23:32). It was interesting to hear Horner argue that the two uses of “you” in Matthew 21:43 only referred to that generation and not future generations of Jews.
In the afternoon, Horner and I discussed the future of Israel. Horner attempted to argue that anyone who is not a premillennialist is either anti-Semitic or, to use a less pejorative term, “anti-Judaism.” Hal Lindsey pulled the anti-Semitic card his book The Road to Holocaust, essentially claiming that if you aren’t a dispensationalist then you are an overt or latent anti-Semite.
While Horner’s “anti-Judaism” phrase is seemingly less offensive, it carries a similar negative connotation of being “anti-Jew” if you do believe that the entire Old Covenant economy will be reconstituted for national Israel during the 1000-year period of Revelation 20. I questioned Horner’s claim that premillennialism, whether the classic or dispensational variety, is up to challenging what he describes as “Christian anti-Judaism.” I used some shocking quotations from dispensationalists to point out that it’s the dispensationalists who hold to an “anti-Judaism” eschatology. Ouch!
Audio of the debate will be available soon. I will also make available my extensive outline of Matthew 24 that I prepared for the debate as a handout.