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Was the Preterist Interpretation of Revelation Invented by the Jesuits?

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Apocalyptic_Woman_(Jáuregui)One of the arguments used against a preterist interpretation of Revealtion is that it was developed by Spanish Jesuit Luis De Alcazar (1554–1613) who wrote a commentary titled Vestigio Arcani Sensus in Apocaplysi or Investigation of the Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse and was published a year after his death. “In this work dedicated to the Catholic Church, he made a new attempt to interpret the Apocalypse by this Preterist scheme of exposition, that is, by the thesis that the prophecies were fulfilled in the past.” [1] Futurists use Alcasar (also spelled Alcazar) to poison the well. Since a Catholic proposed the view, so the argument goes, then it must be wrong because Roman Catholicism as a theological system is wrong.

Of course, Roman Catholics subscribe to the doctrinal statement found in the Apostles’ Creed as do most Protestants. So how much of the Apostles’ Creed is wrong given that Roman Catholics recite it (along with the Lord’s Prayer)? All of it? Some of it? Poisoning the well is a poor way to argue. We might as well claim that the Volkswagen is an evil car because “Volkswagen was originally proposed in 1933 by Adolf Hitler.”

At the time Alcasar wrote, the Protestant Reformers considered the Papal system of the Roman Catholic Church to be the end-time antichrist. The Reformers were nearly unanimous in identifying the Papacy as the Great Harlot of Revelation 17. “For Martin Luther,” a representative of this view, “the Catholic Church was nothing more or less than Babylon — ‘it would be no wonder,’ he wrote in 1520, ‘if God would rain fire and brimstone from heaven and sink Rome into the abyss, as He did Sodom and Gomorrah of old’ — and the pope the Antichrist. ‘If he is not,’ Luther exclaimed, ‘then somebody tell me who is!’” [2] Hundreds of years of Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric could fill a small library.

For centuries the papacy was the unanimous antichrist candidate. [3] The papal system was identified as “both the ‘man of sin’ and the Babylonian whore of which Scripture speaks (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 17–18). In the conviction of the sixteenth-century Protestants, Rome was the great anti-Christ, and so firmly did this belief become established that it was not until the nineteenth century that it was seriously questioned by evangelicals.” [4] For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) included the following in Chapter 25 section 6:

There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God. [5]

 The antichrist designation was removed in 1789 in the American edition. The revised article reads, “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.”

There are groups today that still identify the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church as the antichrist (the historicist view of Revelation), [6] but most evangelicals no longer hold this position even though they (and I) disagree with many of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrinal claims and practices.

Once last point about Alcasar being the founder of the preterist school of interpretation needs to be made. Frank X. Gumerlock, writing in his book Revelation and the First Century, states that “Luis Alcasar’s commentary on Revelation, published in 1614, was not the first to take a preterist approach to the main body of the Apocalypse (Chs. 6–19). [John] Henten wrote his comments almost a century before the publication of Alcasar’s commentary.” [7] In 1545, Henten made these comments on the date of Revelation:

And first it seems to us that John, this apostle and evangelist who is called the Theologian, was exiled onto Patmos by Nero at the very same time in which he killed the blessed apostles of Christ Peter and Paul. . . . [and] that the Apocalypse was written on Patmos before the destruction of Jerusalem. [8]

According to Gumerlock, Henten (1499–1566), or Hentenius as he is also known, “held that Chapters 6–11 of Revelation referred to the abrogation of Judaism, and Chapters 12–19 referred to the destruction of Roman paganism.” [9] Non-preterists might argue that since Henten was a Roman Catholic, he could have had the same goal in mind that Alcasar had, even though they wrote independent of one another. There aren’t many commentaries on Revelation written in the mid-16th century written by non-Catholics, so we don’t have a lot to go on. Neither Luther nor John Calvin wrote commentaries on Revelation.

But those who attack preterism because they claim a Roman Catholic supposedly originated it have a similar problem. Francisco Ribera (1537–1591) was a Jesuit doctor of theology in the Roman Catholic Church who began writing a lengthy (500 page) commentary in 1585 on the book of Revelation (Apocalypse) titled In Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli, & Evangelistiae Apocalypsin Commentarij, and published it about the year 1590. In order to remove the Catholic Church from consideration as the antichrist power, Ribera proposed that most of Revelation refers to the distant future just prior to the second coming. “He taught that Antichrist would be a single individual, who would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, abolish the Christian religion, deny Christ, be received by the Jews, pretend to be God, and conquer the world — and all in this brief space of three and one-half years.” [10]

Ribera’s view sounds very similar to modern-day premillennialism. Let me poison the well a bit more. The Jehovah’s Witnesses follow an end-time scenario that is not much different from the one outlined in the Left Behind series. Appeals are made to 2 Timothy 3, sections of Daniel, and, of course, the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24. Just like the dispensationalists, the JWs point to 2 Peter 3:3–4 to support their claim that those who do not believe we are living in the last days are “scoffers.” As evidence that we are living in the last days, like the dispensationalists, JWs point to “a tribulation that would be greater than any that had yet occurred.” [11] Then there are the obligatory references to nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, pestilence, and what they believe is a yet future preaching of the gospel into all the world of our day.

You will also find that JWs and dispensationalists share the belief that world wars, terrorism, tsunamis, an increase and the size and magnitude of earthquakes, diseases like malaria, influenza, and AIDs are empirical evidence that the end must be near. There is also the common belief that Armageddon is still in our future. Like the dispensationalists, JWs “are convinced of the reality of these prophecies.” [12]

If preterism should be discarded because of its supposed Jesuit beginnings, then futurism should similarly be discarded because of its Jesuit association. Preterism has a longer history going back beyond Ribera and Alcasar. Much remains to be translated.

F.W. Farrar puts the entire debate into perspective:

But to me it seems that the founder of the Preterist School is none other than St. John himself. For he records the Christ as saying to him when he was in the Spirit, ‘Write the things which thou sawest, and THE THINGS WHICH ARE, and the things which are about to happen (ha mellei ginesthai [ἃ μέλλει γενέσθαι]) after these things’ [Rev. 1:19]. No language surely could more clearly define the bearing of the Apocalypse. It is meant to describe the contemporary state of things in the Church and the world, and the events which were to follow in immediate sequence. If the Historical School can strain the latter words into an indication that we are (contrary to all analogy) to have a symbolic and unintelligible sketch of many centuries, the Preterist School may at any rate apply these words, ha eisen [ἃ εἰσὶν], ‘THE THINGS WHICH ARE,’ to vindicate the application of a large part of the Apocalypse to events nearly contemporary, while they also give the natural meaning to the subsequent clause by understanding it of events which were then on the horizon. The Seer emphatically says that the future events which he has to foreshadow will occur speedily (en taxei [“at hand”]) and the recurrent burden of his whole book is the nearness of the Advent (ho kairos engus [“the time is near”]). Language is simply meaningless if it is to be so manipulated by every successive commentator as to make the words “speedily” and “near” imply any number of centuries of delay. [13]

It is curious to see with what extraordinary ease commentators explain the perfectly simple and [un]ambiguous expression “speedily” (en taxei), to mean any length of time which they may choose to demand. The word “immediately,” in Matt. xxiv. 29, has been subject to similar handling, in which indeed all Scripture exegesis abounds. The failure to see that the Fall of Jerusalem and the end of the Mosaic Dispensation was a “Second Advent” — and the Second Advent contemplated in many of the New Testament prophecies — has led to a multitude of errors.” [14]

As Frank Gumerlock and others have shown with the advent of translated works that have never been in English, there is a long history of Christians going back long before either Ribera or Alcasar who interpreted parts of Revelation in a preteristic way.

  1. Le Roy Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 4 vols. (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1948), 2:507.[]
  2. Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 19.[]
  3. Samuel J. Cassels, Christ and Antichrist or Jesus of Nazareth Proved to be the Messiah and the Papacy Proved to be the Antichrist (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1846).[]
  4. Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), 41.[]
  5. http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/westminster_conf_of_faith.html[]
  6. See Dave Hunt,  A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1994) and http://www.whitehorsemedia.com/articles/details.cfm?art=44[]
  7. Francis X. Gumerlock, Revelation and the First Century: Preterist Interpretations of the Apocalypse in Early Christianity (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2012), 40.[]
  8. Johannes Henten, Enarrationes vetustissimorum theologorvm: in Actaqvidem Apostolorvm et in omnes D. Pavli ac Catholicas epistolas ab Oecumenio, in Apocalypsim verò, ab Aretha Caesareae Cappadociae episcopo manga cura collectae (Antwerp: Johannes Steelsius, 1545). Gumerlock’s translation of Primumque hoc nobis videtur, Johannem hunc Apostolum ac Evangelistam, qui et Theologus cognominatur, a Nerone in Patmos relegatum, eodem omnino tempore ille beatos Christi apostolos Petrum et Paulum interemit . . . quod scripta sit in Patmo Apocalypsis ante Ierosolymorum excidium.[]
  9. Gumerlock, Revelation and the First Century, 42.[]
  10. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 2:489–490.[]
  11. Awake! (April 2008), 4.[]
  12. Awake!, 7.[]
  13. Frederic W. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1882), 432-33.[]
  14. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, 432, note 2.[]
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