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An Incomplete Systematic Theology

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The Christian Faith

Michael Horton is Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California. He has written a number of popular books on a variety of subjects. His latest book is The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way published by Zondervan in 2011 [1]. Horton promotes a two-kingdom worldview that is similar to the cultural and civil quietism found in Lutheran theology. P. Andrew Sandlin offers this short analysis of the cultural and political consequences of the view:

Unlike the Reformed tradition [of which Horton claims to be an advocate], the Lutheran alternative has consistently maintained the “two-kingdoms” theory. The church is the realm of grace, and the state and the wider society is the realm of nature (“natural law”). This theory is ripe for murderous but shrewd tyrants like Adolph Hitler, who take advantage of the church’s withdrawal into the four walls of the institutional church and its willingness to be seduced by a state that can convince the church of the validity of a “natural” regime.

By contrast, few sectors of the church have stood as vigorously and courageously against political tyranny as the Reformed church, because the latter has refused to limit Christ’s authority to the church but has recognized that the magistrate too is bound to submit to the law of God in the Bible. Post-Reformational Calvinists strike fear into the hearts of political tyrants because these Calvinists refuse to limit biblical authority to the church. Two-kingdom advocates, on the other hand, are ripe pickings for these tyrants. [2]

Such a view is reinforced by an “already-not yet” view of eschatology that in reality always seems to be “not yet.” Two-kingdom theology wedded to an “already-not yet” eschatology is a cultural copout, a middle of the road approach that cannot deal honestly with prophetic texts. They read the Bible like dispensationalists. They can’t bring themselves to admit that a text says what it states when compared with passages with similar grammar and word meaning. To admit it would bring down their entire system.

Horton is a full professor at a top-flight seminary. He’s just published a comprehensive 1000-page systematic theology. His section on eschatology runs nearly 90 pages and is mostly definitional. There is a section on Matthew 24 where he argues that a first-century, pre-A.D. 70 fulfillment of the entire discourse, at least up to verse 34, is impossible.

It’s not that Horton is unaware of the debate over when the events of the Olivet Discourse are fulfilled. He uses the word “preterist” a number of times (929, 936, 937, 938, 939, 944), the belief that certain prophetic texts have already been fulfilled. On page 938, he concedes that “some of the apocalyptic images in Matthew 24:29–31 are fulfilled in the events to which Jesus in fact directly refers: namely, the destruction of the temple in AD 70, an event that Jesus explicitly says will be witnessed by some of his hearers” (938). Nowhere does he offer a defense of this claim that only “some” of the images were fulfilled before that pre-A.D. generation passed away.

It is odd that Horton does not deal with the various interpretations of “this generation,” certainly a key verse. He does not explain how some of the events were fulfilled in A.D. 70 and some await a future fulfillment given how “this generation” is used by Jesus elsewhere in the gospels which always means, without exception, the generation to whom He was speaking (Matt. 11:16; 12:41, 45; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12 [twice], 8:38; 13:30 Luke 7:31; 11:29 [in sentence form]; 11:30, 31, 32, 50, 51, 17:25; 21:32). This means that everything prior to Matthew 24:34 had to have been fulfilled before that generation passed away or Jesus was misinformed, an reading of the passage that we as Bible believing Christians cannot tolerate. I realize that there is limited space to treat every subject in a controversy. But since Horton raised the issue and made an argument for a mixed fulfillment, he should have offered some justification for his view. His discussion of Matthew 24 in his newly released book The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples is equally frustrating to read (66–67). [3]

One sentence in his discussion of Matthew 24:14 in The Christian Faith caught my attention: “Since the gospel was obviously not preached to all the nations by AD 70, it is impossible to conclude with preterists that the ‘end’ to which Jesus refers is a past event” (937). The “end” to which Jesus refers is not the end of the world (kosmos), as some translations have it, but the “end of the age” (aion) (Matt. 24:3), a translation that Horton acknowledges in The Gospel Commission (66). That age did end with the abolition of the old covenant (Rom. 13:11; 1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:1–2; 1 Peter 1:20) that took place in principle when Jesus exclaimed “it is finished” (John 19:30) and in fact when the temple and all its rites, types, and symbols were done away with when Jesus came in judgment against the city (Matt. 22:1–14; especially v. 7). Horton is certainly aware of the scholarship surrounding this verse, and if he’s not, I offer the following comments to round out his discussion of the topic

Jesus concludes the first section of Matthew 24, which deals with specific signs that will take place in the lifetime of his disciples (famines, earthquakes, tribulation, war), by stating that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (24:14). Futurists maintain that the specifics of 24:14 are yet to be fulfilled because “whole world” means the entire globe as we know it today, and “all the nations” means all the nations that are in existence today. Since the gospel did not reach the entire globe prior to that first-century generation passed away, the passage awaits an end-time fulfillment.

Preterists offer the following reasons why they believe the events of Matthew 24:14 were fulfilled prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70:

  • The events of Matthew 24 are to take place before “this generation” passes away (v. 34). Jesus always uses “this generation” in reference to His contemporaries (Matt. 11:16; 12:41, 42; 23:36; Mark 8:12; 13:30; Luke 7:31; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17:25; 21:32).
  • The English “whole world” in 24:14 is based on the Greek word oikoumene which is best translated “inhabited earth.” James B. Jordan writes that oikoumene “has the technical meaning of ‘empire, commonwealth’ (in contrast to ‘cosmos,’ which is the whole ordered world of mankind). We get the word ‘ecumenical’ from this, referring to nations that cooperate together in something larger than themselves.” [4]
  • Most modern translations (e.g., NASV and NIV) translate oikoumene in Luke 2:1 as “the inhabited earth.” This means that the gospel of Matthew 24:14 had to go no further than the census workers who were following the decree of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1). See my book 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered for a comprehensive study of the Greek word oikoumene.
  • The use of “all the nations” is not always a reference to every nation on earth. In many cases it refers only to those known nations in which one could travel (Matt. 24:9 [“all nations”]; Acts 2:5 [“every nation under heaven”]).
  • “The end” to which Jesus refers in Matthew 24:14 is the same end described in 24:3 and 24:6—the “end of the age”: the end of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:1–2). That first-century generation was living at the time of “the consummation of the ages” which “has been manifested” (Heb. 9:26). Peter and James confirm this when they write that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7) and that “the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8).
10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered

A study of the original setting, the audience understanding of limited geography, the meaning of “all nations,” how the Greek word oikoumene, often translated as “world” in Matthew 24:14, is used in the New Testament, and the way global language is often understood as hyperbole are crucial to understanding the point Jesus is making when He said to His audience, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole inhabited world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.”

Jesus tells His disciples that the gospel must be preached in the “whole world for a witness to all the nations” (Matt. 24:14). The word “witness” limits the time frame to those who were actually witnesses. No one today was a witness to the events surrounding Jesus life, death, resurrection, and ascension; therefore, Jesus could not have had a future generation in view.

The interpreter would be making a serious mistake if every time he read “all nations” he concluded that the biblical writer had every nation around the globe in mind. The following examples will show that “all nations” and “all kingdoms” often have a limited geographical application (Ezra 1:2; 2 Chron. 36:23; Ps. 118:10; 1 Chron. 14:17; 2 Chron. 32:23; Hab. 1:6; Gen. 41:57; 1 Kings 10:24; Jer. 27:7 [5]; Acts 2:5; Matt. 24:9; [6]; 1 Tim. 3:16).

The word translated “world” in Matthew 24:14 is the Greek word oikoumene rather than the more common word kosmos. This is the only time Matthew uses oikoumene. It is best translated as “inhabited earth,” “known world,” or “political boundary” (e.g., Acts 11:28; 17:6). The same Greek word is used in Luke 2:1: “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.” Rome could only take a census of those who lived within the political boundaries of the empire. This more accurate translation helps us to understand that Jesus was saying the gospel would be preached throughout the Roman Empire before judgment would be poured out on Jerusalem. It’s unfortunate that while modern translations translate (oikoumene) in Luke 2:1 as “inhabited earth,” many still translate oikoumene in Matthew 24:14 as “world.” The following explanation found in Appendix 129 of The Companion Bible offers a clear definition of oikoumene as compared to kosmos: “[Oikoumene] is used of the habitable world, as distinct from the kosmos. . . . Hence, it is used in a more limited and special sense of the Roman Empire, which was then dominant. See Luke 2.1; 4.5; 21.26.” [7]

Paul wrote that the gospel “has come to you,” the Colossian Christians, “just as in all the world[8] (Col. 1:5–6), that is, those living in other parts of the Roman Empire (also see Rom. 15:24, 28). He goes so far as to say that the gospel “was proclaimed in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23), “throughout the whole world” (Rom. 1:8), that is, the world of his day. Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 to confirm his belief that the gospel had gone worldwide: “But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world’” (Rom. 10:18; see also 2 Tim. 4:17).

Even the use of “all the nations” is confirmed by Paul when he declared that the gospel had “been made known to all the nations” (Rom. 16:26), a direct fulfillment of Matthew 24:14. Notice the verb tense: “has been made known.” In 1 Timothy 3:16, we read: “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” All the requirements of a pre-a.d. 70 fulfillment are met when we let the Bible interpret itself.

Hopefully we’ll see some revisions in the second edition of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith. By the way, American Vision invited Mr. Horton to participate in our National Prophecy Conference that will be held at the Ridgecrest Conference Center on June 1–4. In addition, Mr. Horton was invited to American Vision’s offices to discuss our differences since he will be ten minutes away speaking at Midway Presbyterian Church April 9–10, 2011.

  1. Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).[]
  2. R. Andrew Sandlin, “The Betrayal of the Reformed Tradition”: http://bit.ly/hT2mPq. Also see Sandlin, Wrongly Dividing the Word: Overcoming the Law-Gospel Distinction (Mount Hermon, CA: Center for Cultural Leadership, 2010).[]
  3. Horton’s arguments are repeated in his article “Jesus vs. Paul?[]
  4. James B. Jordan, “The Last-Temptations of Jesus: Part 6: Luke, Introduction and first Temptation,” Biblical Horizons 184 (March 2006), 1.[]
  5. All the earth]—i.e., the known, inhabited world, from Elam and Media in the east to Egypt and the Mediterranean seacoasts in the west. Cf. Jer. 25:26; 27:5–6). The Assyrian and Babylonian kings regarded themselves as kings of all the earth, and in their inscriptions were accustomed thus to speak of themselves. This practice was also in vogue among Persian rulers.” (Edward J. Young, The Prophecy of Daniel: A Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949], 97).[]
  6. It’s obvious that “all nations” refers to all the nations in which they had access. Rome was an empire of conquered nations similar to the way the land of Canaan was home to “seven nations” (Acts 13:19; Deut. 7:1).[]
  7. E. W. Bullinger, ed., The Companion Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), appendix 129, 162. For a comprehensive study of the Greek word oikoumene and its use in the New Testament, see Gary DeMar, 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2010), chap. 8.[]
  8. In Colossians 1:6, the Greek word kosmos is used, so even if Jesus had used kosmos in Matthew 24:14, Colossians 1:6 would be evidence that Jesus’ words were fulfilled. The same is true for Romans 1:8: “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world [kosmos].” The Bible uses “world” (kosmos) similar to the way we use it. See Gary DeMar, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2004), chap. 1.[]

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