A History of Preterism
When did the preterist interpretation first arise in church history? This question poses a big problem for preterists. If the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation were fulfilled in the first century, why is there no evidence in the early church writings that the church understood things in this way?
There is zero indication from known, extant writings that anyone understood these teachings in this way. No early church writings teach that Jesus returned in the first century.
Not until the post-Reformation period did Preterism begin to show up on the church’s radar. The first clear preterist was Spanish-Catholic Jesuit Luis Alcazar (1554–1613) in his Investigation of the Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse.1 Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) of Holland was “the first Protestant recruit to Preterism.”2 Grotius was “extremely liberal in his religious views” and took a critical approach, called “the historical-philological method,” to interpreting Scripture.3 Grotius was ecumenical in spirit.
He expressed a desire for the unity of the church and was willing to make such extensive concessions to restore union with Rome that he was accused of converting to Roman Catholicism. The reason for his irenic approach was his desire as a Christian and a statesman to bring peace and unity to a world torn by religious wars.4
Henry Hammond (1605–1660) is called the “Father of English Biblical Criticism”5 and first taught Preterism in his Paraphrase and Annotations Upon all the Books of the New Testament (1653). “This volume,” noted David Brady, “contained a brave but lonely attempt to introduce the preterist interpretation of the Book of Revelation to English soil.”6 He followed Grotius closely and “acknowledged his indebtedness in this matter” to him.7
The preterist interpretation rarely appeared in Protestant scholarship until the 1800s. It gained a wide following among German liberals who did not believe the Bible contained predictive prophecy. In the late 18th century, J. G. Eichhorn (1752–1827) introduced a version of Alcazar’s Preterism in 1791 to the liberal German rationalists. Wrote LeRoy Froom: “Soon he was joined by other rationalist scholars, such as G. H A. Ewald (1803–1875), G. C. F. Lucke (1791–1855), W. M. L. De Wette (1780–1849), Franz Delitzsch (1813–1890), and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918).”8
Nineteenth-century British scholar E. B. Elliott called Preterism “the German Praeterist School that was about this time rising more and more into notice and influence: a School characterized by considerable mental acuteness, research, and philological learning; and at the same time by much of the hardihood and rashness of religious skepticism.”9 Nevertheless, the interpretive outcomes of this liberal school are the ones evangelical preterists primarily follow today.
The father of American Preterism is clearly Moses Stuart (1780–1852) of Andover Seminary who “introduced Preterism into the United States about 1842.”10 Dr. Stuart’s commentary on the Apocalypse was a two-volume work that taught the milder form of Preterism that prophesied the defeat of God’s two ancient “enemies”: Israel and the Roman Empire.11 Enoch Pond said of Dr. Stuart’s commentary on Revelation that it was “borrowed mostly from the Germans.”12
Around the 1970s Preterism began its current rise in American evangelicalism. Before its recent upswing, contemporary forms of Preterism tended to be found only within academic circles, providing an occasional commentary here and there. The preterist rise to more popular visibility likely began simultaneously within the ranks of the Churches of Christ and, as it received renewed attention, within the Reformed tradition by the publishing of Jay Adams’s The Time Is at Hand (1966)13 and J. Marcellus Kik’s An Eschatology of Victory (1971).14
However, the most significant impetus to the current rise of Preterism has to be its widespread adoption and propagation by those within the Christian Reconstruction movement.15 Reconstructionist attraction to Preterism appears to have been adopted by the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen and spread through him to many of his disciples who, in turn, propagated it to others like R. C. Sproul.
- Le Roy Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1950), 1:507.
- Ibid., 2:506.
- Ibid., 2:521.
- G. Clouse, “Grotius, Hugo,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 489.
- Froom, 2:524.
- David Brady, The Contribution of British Writers between 1560 and 1830 to the Interpretation of Revelation 13:16–18 (Tubingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1983), 158.
- Froom, 2:510.
- B. Elliott, Horae Apocalypticae, rev. ed. (London: Seeleys, 1851), 4:535.
- Froom, 2:510.
- Moses Stuart, A Commentary on the Apocalypse (1845; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001).
- Enoch Pond, “Review of Professor Stuart on the Apocalypse” <covenanter.org/Postmil/AntiPreterist/pondreview.htm>.
- Jay Adams, The Time Is at Hand (Greenville, SC: A Press, 1966).
- Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971).
- See Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t (Tyler TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991). For a critique of this movement, see H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? An Analysis of Christian Reconstructionism (Portland: Multnomah, 1988).