Historicism and Reformed Theology

Dr. Gentry:

You are committed to the Reformed faith, yet you don’t take the historicist approach to eschatology which was widely held among the Reformers. Why do you not follow the Reformers in this part of their theology. G.K., Minneapolis, Minn.

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thank you for your inquiry. You are correct that I am committed to Reformed theology. However, I differ from the Reformers in that I take a preterist approach to Revelation rather than an historicist approach. I do so for the following reasons:

  • First, we should remember that Revelation was not well received among some of the Reformers. Martin Luther, the famed reformer and untiring interpreter of Scripture, originally rejected Revelation as non-canonical, complaining, “My Spirit cannot adapt itself to the book.” In his German translation of the Bible, he complained in the preface to Revelation that the book was “neither apostolic nor prophetic.”

    Fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) refused to take a doctrinal proof-text from Revelation. Calvin himself wrote no commentary on it, despite his writing a very thorough series of commentary on almost all of the Bible.

  • Second, the Reformers were locked in a literal life-and-death struggle with Romanism. Consequently, they tended to view many judgment passages through the lens of their opposition to Rome. They let application override interpretation in some situations.

    Such an exposition is known as an “actualizing interpretation.” “Actualizing interpretations take two forms. In one form the imagery of the Apocalypse is juxtaposed with the interpreter’s own circumstances, whether personal or social, so as to allow the images to inform understanding of contemporary persons and events and to serve as a guide for action” (J. Kovacs and C. R. Rowland, “Revelation: Apocalypse of Jesus Christ” [Oxford: Blackwell, 2004], 9).

    For instance, we see this in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) where the Pope is called the Antichrist and the “man of lawlessness.” This not only gives too much credit to Romanism, but clearly misinterprets Scripture. If the Pope were Antichrist, then the papacy existed in the first century, for John confronts the antichrist in the first century (1Jn 2:18-22). But the Pope cannot be the Antichrist, for John defines the Antichrist as “one who denies the Father and the Son” (1Jn 2:22), as those who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2Jn 7). This is clearly not referring to Roman Catholic teaching.

  • Third, historicist expositions of Revelation from that era, the 1500-1600s are impossible today. If you can find an historicist exposition of Revelation from you will quickly observe that they believed Revelation outlined church history up to their own time, when they believed its final prophecies were coming to fulfillment. Just reading an earlier historicist exposition today refutes it.

    Kovacs and Rowland note this problem: “Altogether more contentious and daring is the way certain interpreters saw these figures appearing in their own day. For some this reflects a conviction that the last days have come” (Kovacs, 128; referenced above). M. E. Boring seems to be correct when he notes that “although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view” (M. Eugene Boring, “Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” [Louisville: John Knox, 1989], 49).

  • Fourth, by the very nature of the case historicism suffers from a need of constant revision. The historicist school, also called the “continuous historical,” sees the prophetic drama in Revelation as providing a panorama of Church history from the apostolic era to the return of Christ. Historical continuity is the main focus of this approach which forecasts future history. Historicists deem Revelation an “almanac of church history.” Historicists apply the numerous judgment scenes to various wars, revolutions, and socio-political and religious movements (e.g., the rising of Roman Catholicism, the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, World Wars I and II), as well as important historical /persons (e.g., various Popes, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Mussolini).

    According to Alan Johnson, Joachim of Floris (d. 1202) popularized this view, though traces of it are found earlier in the Ante-Nicene fathers (Johnson, “Revelation” in EBC, 12:409). As noted above, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers greatly employed it against the Roman Catholic Church.

    The weaknesses, though, are manifold. The position almost always assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end. For instance Mede noted in his commentary: “While I write news is brought of a Prince from the North (meaning Gustavus Adolphus) gaining victories over the Emperor in defence of the German afflicted Protestants.”

    Commenting on recurring problems in eschatological debate in general, Brethren historian F. Roy Coad well states: “Almost invariably interpretation has been vitiated by the reluctance or incapacity of commentators to visualise their own age as other than the end time” (F. Roy Coad, “Prophetic Developments: A Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Occasional Paper” [Pinner, England: 1966], 10).

    As a consequence, beliefs are in a constant state of revision, especially for Revelation commentators in this school. Consequently, as history has grown longer, older varieties of this interpretive school have experienced a great number of failed expectations. This view long remained “strangely attractive in spite of the recurrent anguish and disappointment it causes” (John Court, “Myth and History in the Book of Revelation” [Atlanta: John Knox, 1979], 7).

    Thus, this approach is continually in revision as it proposes more and more constructions based on the supposed prophetic allusions to historic events. For instance, this view was prominent in the Middle Ages when millennialism began to flourish once again. The system was used to show that “the millennium was about to dawn” (Carson, Moo, Morris, “Introduction to the New Testament,” [Zondervan] 482).

  • Furthermore, its relevance is confined to the Western world, with the progress of history traced only in a western direction (apparently where book sales are most profitable!).

    In addition, it tends to lose its relevance for its original persecuted audience.

    Its major problem, though, is that harmony among its proponents is almost wholly lacking due to its subjectivity.

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Dispensationalism, Jerusalem, and Sacrifices

Dr. Gentry:

I have two questions on how you might respond to some Dispensational explanations of Ezekiel 40-48. (1) Some dispensationalists argue that the dimensions of Ezekiel’s temple are not a problem because the topography of the land will be radically changed in the millennium. They cite Zechariah 14 in defense of this topographical reconfiguration. They also cite the following passages to argue that Jerusalem will be much larger than what it is today: Jer. 31:38-40; Ezk. 48:30-35; Zech. 14;10-11. (2) The other thing relates to Ezekiel’s sacrificial system. They state that since the apostles did not have a problem with sacrifice in the New Testament, then why should we see it as problematic in the millennium? They cite Acts 21:17-26 in support of the idea that the apostles did not have a problem with sacrifice as a memorial and that Ezekiel’s sacrifices will have some efficacy for the unregenerate who are present in the millennium.

I have noticed that recently many Dispensationalists have felt the pressure of Covenant Theologians and have started an attempt to go on the offensive with their system via the internet and find ways to get around Covenant objections.

Thanks, J.R. B.

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thanks for your inquiry. Just briefly I would respond thus:

First, the prophetic texts that speak of Jerusalem being raised up are taken by dispensationalists in a woodenly literal fashion, as you know. But in fact, their interpretation is absurd. For instance, in Isa 2:2 we read:

“Now it will come about that in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Isaiah 2:3

If this were taken literally (as dispensationalists do) note the absurdities involved:

  1. For Jerusalem to be raised up as the highest mountain would involve such tectonic upheaval that it would absolutely destroy the city. Earthquakes are destructive natural phenomena. But this would involve even more catastrophe than quaking. It would engage mountain-building, which is absolutely destructive to a built city.
  2. If it were indeed raised above the highest mountains, it would be uninhabitable. It would be higher than Mt. Everest. This would give it a horribly cold and snowy climate.
  3. Not only would it be uninhabitable, but you wouldn’t see great masses of people heading up the mountain to learn the law of the Lord.
  4. Obviously, this prophecy is speaking symbolically of the exaltation and dominance of God’s kingdom, not its physical elevation.

Second, the matter of temple worship. The problem with the dispensational argument based on Acts is: The old covenant and new covenant overlapped for about forty years. God did not shut down the old covenant immediately. He gave the Jews a generation to understand the changing of the redemptive economy. We should note:

  1. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (written around AD 68-69), the writer speaks of the old covenant as nearing its final conclusion. Notice the verb tenses in this particularly important statement: “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (Heb 8:13). Consequently, in Acts the temple service was still in effect, but winding down. The temple began to be used as a base-of-operations for the Jewish converts to Christ to reach out to the Jews. But when AD 70 comes, the temple is forever removed.
  2. The very idea of the sacrificial system was to point to its conclusion, when it was finally fulfilled and no longer necessary: “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never by the same sacrifices year by year, which they offer continually, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb. 10:1).

    In fact, the text goes on to say: “But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but A BODY Thou hast prepared for Me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In THE ROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF Me) to do Thy will, O God.’ After saying above, ‘Sacrifices and offerings and WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices for sin Thou hast not desired, nor hast Thou taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Thy will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us” (Heb 10:3-15).

    This is why Jesus taught the woman at the well: “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father” (John 4:21). The temple was on its way out. Mount Zion was about to lose its centrality and purpose.

  3. To return to bloody sacrifices even as a “memorial,” would be to turn back to the blood of bulls and goats rather than turning to the blood of the Lamb of God. All bloody rites (including circumcision) have been done away with in Christ.

I hope this is helpful for your discussions with dispensational friends.

Christ’s Baptismal Declaration

Dr. Gentry:

Hi , I was reading in the book of Matthew in chapter 3:17: “and suddenly a voice came from heaven saying , This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Then it says in Luke 3:22: “and a voice came from heaven which said, You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”

I was thinking: Did God the Father say first to John the Baptist’s audience that “This is My beloved Son” and then He said to Jesus: “You are My beloved Son”?

I’m confused . Could you give me a good explaination so if someone asks me why does it sound contradictory, then I could give them a good answer.

Sami K.

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thanks for your question. It shows a deep interest in God’s word — and defending it against those who question it.

It’s possible that two statements were made by God, one for Jesus and the other for the audience gathered to witness his baptism. In fact, the Gospel of the Ebionites does record two statements. But this doesn’t seem likely since each of the biblical Gospels suggest that only one statement was made. If one of the legitimate Gospels had a two-fold statement, your suggestion would be the best resolution to the “problem.”

It seems to me that Mark and Luke recorded the original statement as it was actually heard: “You are My beloved Son.” Notice that they both agree on this statement; Matthew is the one who disagrees slightly.

But when we come to Matthew we read: “This is My beloved Son.” Apparently Matthew is presenting the situation in such as way as to “apply” it to those reading his Gospel. We must keep in mind that the Gospels were written to be read by a particular audience.

In Matthew’s case he appears to change the original direct statement so that his audience to whom he writes will realize its significance. He applies it by pointing out that “this is My beloved Son.” His audience needs to know that this very Jesus is indeed the Son of God.

His applying it in this way suggests that John the Baptist’s original audience actually heard an audible voice making the statement (“You are My Beloved Son”). This was not some internal, psychological experience of Christ. But Matthew took the liberty to change one word (he changes “you” to “this”) in order to let his readership know that this voice was actually heard by all those standing there when Christ was baptized, and also that God’s voice objectively declared that Christ was indeed the Son of God. This is the main point of the matter.

Of course, we notice that the two statements do not contradict one another. In fact, they supplement one another in affirming the same truth: Christ is God’s beloved Son.

In our daily contexts we can alter the actual statement of someone to make a point, without changing the meaning of the statement. For instance, someone might say to me: “I told you this would happen!” But when I report my interaction with that person to someone else (my audience) I might legitimately say: “He told me that this would happen.” The meaning is preserved even though the actual words are altered for the audience.

It would be a much different story, of course, if Mark and Luke said: “This is NOT my beloved Son,” and Matthew “slightly” altered this by dropping the single small word “not,” to say: “This IS my beloved Son.” But this is not the kind of thing that happens in the Gospel accounts. The same truth is affirmed, though slightly adapted for different audience purposes.

Sabbath & Christian Worship

Dr. Gentry:

My question is on the Sabbath and the day worship should be on. Would you point me to the passages that tell the Christian to worship on Sunday. Is there a passage that does away with Sabbath worship?

John P.

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thanks for your question, John. This is an important issue in that we must worship God according to his directives, not our preferences or convenience. And since the Ten Commandments specifically declare the worship day to be the last day of the week (the seventh day, Exo. 20:8-11), we need to know if we are correct in worshiping on the first day of the week.

Just briefly I would offer the following two lines of biblical evidence for the Christian day of worship being changed to Sunday (the first day of the week) from Saturday (the last day of the week).

  1. The Old Testament anticipates a change of worship time.

    In the Old Testament God’s people worshiped on the seventh day of the week, which is the end of the week. The primary reason for this is that the week is structured on the pattern of God’s creation. However, another reason appears relevant as well.

    The drift of redemptive history traces man’s fall and God’s redemption. In the Old Testament God’s people look ahead to redemption coming in fulness in Christ. Thus, their rest was oriented towards the future, when Christ entered history at his incarnation to effect redemption. Consequently, the Jews rested (and worshiped) at the end of their week, showing that redemption had not yet fully come but would arrive in the future.

    Now in the New Testament era we look back to the source of our redemption. Jesus has already come and we work on that basis. Thus, we rest (and worship) at the beginning of our week.

    Interestingly, this forward-looking anticipation is embodied in various Old Testament eighth day ceremonies. The eighth day is, of course, the first day of new week.

    For instance, circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day, signifying a new beginning in the covenant. Elsewhere we read prophecies regarding Christ, who was to be like the sun rising with healing in his wings bringing in a new day: “But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall” (Mal. 4:2). Throughout the Old Testament era, they looked forward to a new morning, a new beginning, in Christ when he comes.

  2. The New Testament records a change of worship time.

    When we come to the New Testament we discover the eighth day being significant once again, but in a new way. Christ was resurrected on the eighth day, which is the first day of a new week (John 20:1, 19). The redemption sought in the Old Testament finally comes in the New Testament and is effected on the eighth day, Sunday.

    Furthermore, we see the early Christians worshiping on the first day of the week, in confirming the change wrought by Christ and his sanctifying a new day.

    For instance, in Acts 20:6-7 we read regarding Paul: “We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and came to them at Troas within five days; and there we stayed seven days. And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.” Notice that the Christians were “gather together” so that they might “break bread.” Note also that Paul preached to them (a rather long sermon!)

    We see this pattern again in 1Corinthians 16:2 where Paul directs the church to do certain things on “the first day of the week”: “On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come.”

    It becomes obvious, then, that the first day of the week is the time for Christian worship in the apostolic church.

I hope this is helpful for your consideration. Thanks for sending us your question.

Israel & Praising Jesus

Dr. Gentry:

The following passage troubles me regarding your preterist position. It states that Israel will one day be converted, and only then will the great tribulation begin (according to the order of verses following Matt 23:39). That verse reads: “For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'” How does the preterist respond to this?

R.G. (Canada)

Dr. Gentry’s response:

This passage often appears as an objection to a preterist reading of Matthew 24, in that it seems to suppose Israel will one day be converted and then the great tribulation will transpire. But this statement does not suppose a future conversion (though I believe Rom 11 does suppose such).

Note:

  1. The word “for” connects this statement with the preceding context. The preceding context is one of unrelenting denunciation, ending with judgment. The “for” must indicate something less than a spiritual praise of Christ and acceptance by God.
  2. The phrase “from now on” is indefinite, holding out only an indefinite possibility. Thus, it does not declare as a matter of fact: “you will see me.” Jesus is denouncing the Jews, not offering them hope, for:
  3. If this pointed to a blessing, it would be out of character in the flow of the narrative all the way from 23:1 through chapter 24. Any sudden idea of Israel’s praising Jesus is totally contrary to the text, see especially 23:31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 37.
  4. The praise here (“blessed is he who comes”) is not necessarily a voluntary, loving praise. It could well be a constrained praise, as in Phil 2:10-11 and Rom 14:11. Given the context, it appears to be constrained and with reluctance.

How is the New Covenant fulfilled in the Church?

Dr. Gentry:

Dispensationalists point out that God promises the new covenant to Israel only. The Jeremiah 31 text clearly mentions only “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” How can we say that the new covenant finds fulfillment in the Church?

R.P.

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Thanks for your question. I hope the following brief answer will be helpful.

First, please note that Jesus and Paul both apply the new covenant to the Church.

The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of the new covenant that Christians take on a regular basis. Christ established the Lord’s Supper with these words: “And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood'” (Luke 22:20). Paul repeats this in his epistle to the Corinthians: “In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me'” (1 Cor. 11:25).

Paul is the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13; 1 Tim 2:7), yet he claims that he is a servant of the “new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). Obviously he sees the new covenant as including the Gentiles.

Second, you will find by reading the New Testament that the Church of Jesus Christ is the fruition of Israel. In fact, many Jewish descriptors are applied to the Church. We are the “seed of Abraham” (Rom 4:13–17; Gal 3:6–9, 29), “the circumcision” (Rom 2:28–29; Php 3:3; Col 2:11), “a royal priest-hood,” (Rom 15:16; 1Pe 2:9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; cp. Ex 19:6), “twelve tribes” (Jas 1:1), “diaspora” (1Pe 1:1), the “temple of God” (1Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2Cor 1:16; Eph 2:21). These terms clearly reflect Israel’s covenantal identity, yet they are applied to the Gentile Church.

Peter designates Christians as “stones” building up a “spiritual house” (1Pe 2:5–9). But he does more: he draws upon several Old Testament designations of Israel and applies them to the church. He calls Christians: “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation” (1Pe 2:9–10; Ex 19:5–6; Dt 7:6). He and Paul call Christians “a peculiar people” (1Pe 2:10; Tit 2:14), which is a familiar Old Testament designation for Israel (Ex 19:5; Dt 14:2; 26:18; Ps 135:4).

Thus, New Testament Christians may even call Abraham “our father” (Ro 4:16) and the old covenant people our “fathers” (1Co 10:1), clearly evincing a spiritual genealogical relation. Employing another figure, Paul says we are grafted into Israel (Rom 11:16–19) so that we become one with her, partaking of her promises (Eph 2:11–20). Jesus teaches that Gentiles are other sheep which must be brought in to make “one flock” (Jn 10:16).

Paul even applies the name “Israel” to Christians: “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). The “and [kai]” preceding “Israel of God,” is probably epexegetical, so that we should translate the passage: “mercy upon them, that is, upon the Israel of God.” Unfortunately, Dispensationalists see Galatians 6:16 applying to Jewish converts to Christ, “who would not oppose the apostle’s glorious message of salvation” (New Scofield Reference Bible). But such is surely not the case. After all, Galatians’ entire context opposes any claim to a special Jewish status or distinction: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26–28). In the new covenant Christ does away with all racial distinctions. Why would Paul hold out a special word for Jewish Christians (“the Israel of God”), when he states immediately beforehand that we must not boast at all, save in the cross of Christ (Gal 6:14)? After all, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15).

Consequently, Jeremiah’s mentioning the house of Israel and the house of Judah poses no difficulties for the New Testament writers. They apply Jewish terms to the Christian faith because it is the fulfillment of Israel.

Third, the dispensational system presents an unnecessary confusion here. Consider: By Christ’s appointment, the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the new covenant (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20; 1Co 11:25). It is to be kept until he comes (1Co 11:25–26). But in dispensationalism, when Christ comes to establish the new covenant with Israel for a millennium, he will do away with the Lord’s Supper (which is the sign of the new covenant), while re-establishing the bloody sacrificial system (which is an old covenant foreshadowing of Christ’s redemptive labor, Heb 10:1–3) as a “memorial.” And the millennial priests will perform this memorial in Christ’s bodily presence for 1000 years.

The new covenant is one of the key stumbling blocks for dispensationalism. As important as the new covenant is in Scripture, dispensational theologians have not been able to settle on a particular view of it. Charles Ryrie’s Basis of the Premillennial Faith outlines three leading dispensational views: (1) The Jews Only View. This is “the view that the new covenant directly concerns Israel and has no relationship to the Church” (p. 107). (2) The One Covenant/Two Aspects View: The one “new covenant has two aspects, one which applies to Israel, and one which applies to the church” (p. 107). (3) The Two New Covenants View. This is Ryrie’s view, for this actually “distinguishes the new covenant with Israel from the new covenant with the church. This view finds two new covenants in which the promises to Israel and the promises to the Church are more sharply distinguished even though both new covenants are based on the one sacrifice of Christ” (p. 107).

Oddly enough, today dispensationalists no longer hold to three views of the new covenant. They now have four views: “there are four major dispensational views of the new covenant” (Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 280). The new covenant creates pandemonium in the dispensational system.

The Mark of the Beast and Computer Technology

Dr. Gentry:

What’s the “Mark of the Beast”? And because your answer will obviously have to have some first century application, isn’t it at all curious to you that for the first time in human history — with microchips, retinal scanners, a growing one-world economy, etc.—that the technology exists to make the “Mark of the Beast” a reality?

F.P. (Raleigh, NC)

Dr. Gentry’s response:

The computer technology of today does not fit the requirement of the text of Revelation for the following reasons:

  1. The mark of the Beast is no more a literal mark than the mark of the Lamb in the next few verses (14:1).
  2. Such a mark is a metaphor for dominion and control. In Rev 13 no one may buy or sell without the mark.
  3. The beast who imposes it has divine pretensions, forcing his worship on the world (13:4, 8). This speaks of emperor worship by Nero Caesar.
  4. This very OT oriented book is using the mark on the right hand and forehead as a negative reflection on God’s requiring his Law on his people (Dt 6:8).
  5. Any present day mark goes against John’s time-frame (near), relevance (persecuted churches), and theme (judgment of Israel).

Thanks for your question. I hope this helps.