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Preterist Eschatology in the Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries

By Tim James

Around 1520, Luther had discovered the ‘true’ identity of the ‘Antichrist and his damnation’, namely, Papal Rome as the end-time fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. On February 24, 1520, Luther wrote a letter to a friend Spalatin stating,

“I am practically cornered, and can hardly doubt any more, that the Pope is really the Antichrist, whom the world expects according to a general belief, because everything so exactly corresponds to the way of life, action, words, and commandments.” (Luther, Schriften, vol. 21a, col. 234; translated in Waddington’s ‘History of the Reformation’, vol. 1)

During this time of change there arose a small group of scholars who were caught in the middle of this twofold tension, the Preterists. They held vigorously to the first principle of a literal, historical sense of Biblical interpretation and entered into conflict with the Catholic Church because of their stance. Yet, they also disagreed with the Protestants on the identity of the Catholic Church as the “Antichrist” and were considered the worst of traitors and “papist compromisers” for advocating a different interpretation.

The Preterist scholars contended that the primary message of the NT prophecies were directed to the peoples contemporary with its writing and not sixteen centuries later. Christ himself taught that “This generation” to whom he was presently speaking “would not pass till all be fulfilled.” Lk. 21:32. In the same manner, Revelation opens and closes with the express purpose that it must “shew unto his servants what things must shortly come to pass.” Rev. 1:1; 22:6,10,12,20

The Preterist acknowledged that an application by principal could be made that the Pope was antichristian on a grand scale, yet clearly not the Antichrist of Biblical prophecy. Most Preterists understood the true Antichrist to have been either Nero or the Hebraic personification of the Jewish leadership before A.D. 70.

Likewise, the identity of the Great Harlot was seen by some preterists to be pagan Rome, yet many saw Rev. 11:8 as an indisputable proof that it had to be apostate Jerusalem, “the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” See also Rev. 17:18 and 18:24. The preterist view was not popular among the early Reformers, since it didn’t provide the ammunition they needed against the Catholics.

Catholic Preterists

A Spanish Jesuit of Seville named, Luis De Alcazar (1554-1613) invested forty years of his life to this study which culminated in his 900 page commentary, “Vestigatio Arcani Sensus in Apocalypsi (Investigation of the Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse). In this work which was published posthumously in 1614, Alcazar made a new attempt irrespective of both Catholic and Protestant views to interpret the Apocalypse through the use of critical-historical methods. He concluded that the Apocalypse describes the two-fold war of the Church in the first century; one with the Jewish synagogue, and the other with paganism, which resulted in victory over both adversaries. Frrom makes an intersting note regarding Alcazar:

Alcazar was fully aware that he contradicted certain of the fathers, differed from the Futurists Ribera and Viegas, and was in conflict with Malvenda. While approving of the concept of spiritual resurrection held by Augustine, he contended against his view of the binding of Satan, as well as that of Ribera and Viegas. (Froom, LeRoy Edwin. The Prophetic Faith of our Fathers, 3 vols. (Wash. D.C.: Review and Herald, 1948), vol 2, p.509)

Within the Catholic tradition, the only other scholar of note was Bossuet, bishop of Meaux.   Bossuet saw the Preterist position more as a new weapon to antagonize the Protestants with than a discovery of new truths forgotten as Alcazar did. Educated in the Jesuit tradition, Bossuet (1627-1704) held that since pagan Rome and Judaism had long since fulfilled the predictions, the Protestants were besieging the New Jerusalem. (Froom, Prophetic Faith, vol. 2, p.636). Bossuet sadly lacked the insight to see that the first century fulfilments were divine examples to all ages of any system that raises itself above God’s truth; whether Protestant or Catholic.

Protestant Preterists

Hugo Grotius, or van Groot, (1583-1645) is credited as being the first scholar to openly adopt the Preterist view…. Grotius’ avowed aim was to bring peace out of the horrible conflict between the Catholics and Protestants which was devastating Europe (it was the time of the Thirty Years’ War), and he used his diplomacy to that end while serving as the Sweedish ambassador to Paris. His at first anonymous “Commentatio ad Loca Quae de Antichristo Argunt (1640) (Commentary on Certain Texts Which Deal with Antichrist) sought to remove the great prophetic stumbling-block to reunion. Yet when Grotius’ authorship of the book was detected, it turned “orthodox” theologians against him. Therefore, in 1644 Grotius came out with his last great work, Anotationes, by which he applied the historical-philogical methods from a Preterist perspective.

Another important scholar during this period was Henry Hammond (1605-1660). Not only is he the first English Protestant Preterist, but has also been called the “Father of English Biblical Criticism”. Hammond was a royal chaplain of Charles I and wrote fifty-eight works, his Paraphrase and Annotations (1653) being the best known. In this work, Hammond contended for the Preterist view and was the first English cleric to visibly take a preterist stance.

Prior to Hammond’s Paraphrase, similar ideas could be found in the English schoolmaster, Thomas Hayne’s (Hayne, Thomas, Christs Kingdom on Earth, (1645).) writings. In 1645, Hayne wrote that Daniel’s prophecies had been entirely fulfilled in the history of Israel up through the time of Christ. Joseph Hall (Hall, Joseph, The Revelation Unrevealed, (1650).) concurred, yet noticeably declined to make any similar pronouncement concerning the Revelation of John (1650). Needless to say, these were days of intense revolution regarding the intellectuals and commons alike.

The years 1640-60 witnessed the most complete and drastic revolution which the Church of England has ever undergone. Its whole structure was ruthlessly demolished. . . so wrote William Shaw (Shaw, William A., A History of the English Church during the Civil Wars and under the Commonwealth, Vol. 2, 1900.). In the place of Anglican government under Charles I, the divided reformers provided “a shadowy form of Presbyterianism” with the Directory of Public Worship. During this time Hammond was given a living at Penshurst, Kent, and was a frequent preacher at Paul’s Cross. In 1643 he was made archdeacon of Chichester and member of the Westminster Assembly, yet never sat with them. In 1645 he was made canon of Christ Church, and it was through this period that he realized the theological inconsistency of those coming into power and wrote his Paraphrase (1653).

Christianson’s remarks relate well to Hammond’s situation,

“Peacemaker, however blessed, formed a small minority of those who wrote in the 1640s. The experience of puritans in the 1630s and the apocalyptic filter through which they perceived the lessons of the Laudian uni formity, in large part generated the militancy with which they pushed for reform in the 1640s. Reformers believed that the hierarchy of the Established Church, or its leading members, nearly succeeded in an attempt to bring England back under the yoke of the popish antichrist. (Christianson, Paul, Reformers and Babylon, (1978), p. 184.)

Truly, Henry Hammond was in his own way a peacemaker. He was the theologian who rallied Anglicans less willing to compromise with the Puritan rulers of England, and was the spiritual leader of his circle (Pearson, Thorndike). It was a real tragedy for the Church of England that he died prematurely, shortly before the Restoration movement began. Yet he did not die without attempting to expound a very unpopular Preterist interpretation. Indeed, he saw that the key to explaining the Apocalypse was inherent in the literal historical expression, “Things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1-3).

Modern reformed expositors of Revelation, like Jay Adams, have also noticed this key. Adams even shows that Calvin was preterist in several respects. (Adams, Jay E., The Time is At Hand. (1977), p. 709)

Throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century the famous University of Leyden in the Netherlands, home of the Arminian Remonstrants, continued teaching the Preterist views of Grotius and Hammond. Likewise, in Amsterdam, John Le Clerc, often called Clericus, was another prolific writer. Besides editing many Greek and Latin classics, a new issue of Cotelerius’ Patres Apostolici, the complete works of Erasmus, and some theological treatises of Petavius and Grotius, he published a French translation of the New Testament, and a Latin translation of Hammond’s Annotations on the New Testament in 1698 with some valuable additions of his own. (Froom, Prophetic Faith, Vol. 2, p. 525.)

Therefore, in a Latin form, Hammond’s Annotations (omitting his name for a better hearing) made its influence known on a broader range among the scholars of Europe and as we shall see, especially in Germany.

German Preterists

The eighteenth century was a time of great ferment for the Preterist position. The Catholic Church had brought into being two distinct poles of thought; with the Protestant tradition moving towards the New World and the French Revolution moving towards a sentimentalism of the Old World, better known as Romanticism….

These two distinct poles of thought found their best mix in the German theological schools, and it is here that Preterist ideas flourished. The Preterists again find themselves in an unusual position. Unlike the growing rationalistic trends of Semler who denied the genuineness of both Revelation and Daniel, the Preterists held to a much higher view of inspiration and learned to use the more distinct critical methods to their advantage. On the other hand, as the Reformation worked out the implications of its theology, the fruit of earlier Dutch theologians gave birth to “Pietism”. It was only because of their Preterist position that they were able to balance the issue of head end hearts.

One of the implications of interpreting “the Last Days” in a present context is to be logically forced to admit that “the present is a time of miraculous outpouring before the great and notable Day of the Lord,” compare Acts 2:17-20. Yet, rationally, no real miraculous manifestations were comparable to the text of Scripture, therefore causing some to deny its existence altogether. The answer the Preterists found was in seeing that there were real miracles manifested in the Last Days in 1st century Judea! God still works through prayer as He always did, but not through prophets and apostles like He did during times of special prophetic activity. Since the Great & Notable Day came upon Israel in A.D. 70 with Christ’s Return, we live in a different Age regulated by the Word, not by the gifts of the Spirit.

In 1786 Hernnschneider published his work on the Apocalypse, explaining it as a poem limited to: (1) the overturning of Judaism, (2) the overthrow of heathenism, and (3) the final universal triumph of the Christian church. This encouraged more German preterist work like Johann Gottried Eichhorn (1752-1827), writing in 1791.

Their basic understanding was that of three cities to be found in the Apocalypse: Sodom (or Egypt), Babylon, and the New Jerusalem. The seven trumpets refer to Sodom, or Old Jerusalem, and its destruction, where Christ was crucified. The seven vials pertain to the destruction of Babylon, or pagan Rome, of the seven hills on the Tiber. (Jerusalem rests on seven hills as well, Zion, Moriah, Acra, Ophel, Bezetha, Millo, and the rock of the tower of Antonia.) Therefore, the New Jerusalem stands for Christianity and its triumph then and future triumphs through all coming ages, Eph. 2:7. In their understanding, the book of Revelation is devoted to describing the dissolution of Judaism, the abolition of heathenism, and the dominion of the Church through humble servanthood like Jesus.

Armed with a Preterist perspective of life and history, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) was able to ward off the charge of atheism, and imbued Spinoza’s “mechanistic” monism with the dynamic sense of organic process. Subjectivity and objectivity were seen as interpenetrating aspects of the whole, with the idea of becoming the prime category under which nature, reality, reason, and history were to be understood in this new age. Instead of living in a highly determined (pre-AD. 70) spiritual reality, we are now part of a reality in God far more open as a system and far more sensitive to our input or lack of it; an Age in which good has twice the power than it had before in moral effect.

No doubt this principle can be seen in the small, (politically) insignificant court of KarI August, at Weimar. This small court became the focus of German intellectual life which grew in influence to greatness in the history of the human mind. There were gathered most of the mighty spirits of the golden age of German literature Herder, Wieland, Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul: a constellation of intellect unequalled since the court of Ferrara in the days of Alphonse. (Terry, Milton S., Biblical Hermeneutics., p. 709)

Likewise, William M.L. DeWette (1780-1849) stressed the fulfillment by heathen Rome, yet included both catastrophes. M. S. Terry commented on DeWette,

His views and critical methods were formed under the influence of such theological teachers as Paulus, Gabler, and Griesbach, and are essentially rationalistic. He rejected the naturalistic method, …but showed regard for the religious element of Scripture, and never indulged in light and disrespectful insinuations hostile to its divine character and authority. (Terry, p. 719)

Other Preterists during this time are equally well-known, though largely due to their work in related research. Men like Georg H.A. Ewald (1803-1875) wrote on the Apocalypse (1828) yet is best remembered for his first work, Die Komposition der Genes is kritische untersucht. Friederich Bleek (1793-1859) the professor of theology at the University of Bonn, was a powerful opponent of the Tubingen rationalists, and ably defended the authenticity of the Gospel of John. Two of his many posthumous publications were Lectures on Revelation, edited by Hossbach (1862) and translated into English. Later German Preterist exegetes include Corrodi, Bertholdt, von Lengerke, Scheiermacher, Knobel, and Lucke.

In summary,

The Preterist worldview deserves not only a full re-examination by theologians, but a thorough presentation to the world; if not because of the quality of scholars that held it in the past, then certainly for its consistency, as G.R. Beasley-Murry well said,

The logical consistency of this view is admirable. It has the merit of facing plainly the great stumbling-block of an early parousia and transforming it into the cornerstone of New Testament eschatology. Little wonder that it gained the assent of not a few gifted scholars. (Beasley-Murray, G.R., Jesus and the Future, (1954), pp. 170-171)

During the reformation Preterism may have carried a low social relevance, but today in view of the destablizing influences of Zionism and Dispensatioanlism, it is an idea the world desperately needs. With an ever-growing concern over war in the mideast, a proper understanding of prophecy will become increasingly relevant. It is time for the Preterist voice to be heard among the masses. It must not echo in the quite halls of theologians another century.”