Recent Developments in the Eschatological Debate
Eschatology is so often abused today that it has become a source of positive embarrassment to the integrity of the Christian Faith and Biblical Christianity. Two insightful books documenting this dismal state-of-affairs are Dwight Wilson's ArmageddonNow and Francis Gumerlock's The Day and the Hour. A steady flow of recalculated cries for the end perennially rings out from the hollow shelves of Christian trinket stores. Even the smooth entering of a new millennium has not stalled the flow of the dispensational Chicken Littles. It would seem that all one needs in order to be a "prophecy expert" today is either a steady supply of Dapper Dan and access to television air time, or a computer graphics program and a money-hungry publisher. No new developments here!
Yet, despite such abuse, eschatology remains a vitally important aspect of Biblical revelation. Indeed, we should consider eschatology as the whole movement of Biblical revelation rather than simply an individual locus of systematic theology. As Walter Dumbrell has keenly noted: the entire flow of Scripture progresses "from creation to new creation by means of divine redemptive interventions."1 Eschatology is the message of all Scripture, the story of the outworking of redemption. Hence, a careful study of eschatological developments within evangelical theology is an important task for the student of Holy Writ.
In this article I will mention three recent developments in the eschatological debate. I chose these for two reasons: they directly impact the Chalcedon Report audience; and they are making a significant impact in broader evangelical circles. In the mid-1990s, Darrell L. Bock and C. Marvin Pate, two editors involved in Zondervan's CounterPoints series, approached me about these three matters, which are: (1) the radical transformations within dispensationalism; (2) the remarkable resurgence of postmillennialism; and (3) the re-emergence of orthodox preterism.
When Darrell Bock (then of Dallas Theological Seminary) called me in 1994 about joining with him in producing Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (1999),he particularly mentioned his interest in distinguishing this new work from Clouse's The Meaning of the Millennium (1977), now two decades old. He noted that it was now quite dated. Not only were three of the four authors deceased (Ladd, Boettner, and Hoekema), but the eschatological landscape had undergone fundamental changes (except for amillennialism, which is so bland and general as to be asking of prophecy: "Hey, bro! Wha's happnin?"). Bock surprised me when he noted that neither classic dispensationalism nor historic premillennialism would be included (as in Clouse's work) due to the rising prominence of progressive dispensationalism. Furthermore, he requested that I present the re-invigorated postmillennial view which included theonomy and preterism.
Progressive dispensationalist Marvin Pate (of Moody Bible Institute) first called me in 1996 to see if I would be interested in contributing to Four Views on the Book of Revelation. He specifically expressed his appreciation for my preterist writings, noting that they had influenced him in developing his own understanding of the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation. His Doomsday Delusions favorably cited some of my works. Furthermore, he commented that the Four Views book would present two dispensational views of Revelation: classic dispensationalism and progressive dispensationalism, noting that they fundamentally differ in their analysis of Revelation, the capstone of Biblical prophecy. Gone were the days of classic dispensational hegemony. Thus, progressive dispensationalism was asserting itself in the marketplace of ideas, and beginning to shake up the old-line dispensational establishment. And orthodox preterism was beginning both to gain a hearing and to be granted a seat at the table. No longer was the decked stacked against it.
These remarkable episodes in my own experience suggest to me the significance of the three matters I have chosen to highlight in this article.
The Radical Transformations within Dispensationalism
The newer form of dispensationalism is much more theologically astute than the naive sensationalism of its predecessor. It represents a giant step forward in theological discussion, making huge concessions to covenantal theology. In addition, its theologians are of much greater competence, men who are making serious contributions to evangelicalism in a wide range of theological fields.
Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock categorize three distinct forms of dispensationalism: (1) "Classic dispensationalism" includes the earliest phase of dispensationalism from the time of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), through C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) up to and including Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). (2) "Revised dispensationalism" began to percolate in the 1950s and 60s, reaching its full strength and addictive influence with Charles Ryrie's Dispensationalism Today (1965) and the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967). In addition to Ryrie, noted proponents include J. D. Pentecost and J. F. Walvoord. Populist revised dispensationalists are presently in a state of denial over this transmogrification (and by "denial" I do not mean a river in Egypt). (3) "Progressive dispensationalism" began to emerge and take shape in the mid-1980s through discussion among thinking dispensationalists at the annual Evangelical Theological Society meetings. Leaders in this school of eschatological thought include Darrell L. Bock, Craig L. Blaising, and Robert Saucey.
Progressive dispensationalism is clearly not your father's dispensationalism (nor your favorite televangelist's). Radical changes distinguishing it from its antiquated forbears include:
(1) A rejection of simplistic literalism in hermeneutics. Progressive dispensationalists pretty much adopt a genuine grammatical-historical-theological theory of interpretation like the rest of the evangelical world.
(2) A revision of the Israel-church distinction, allowing that Israel and the church are two peoples that would even continue into eternity; revised dispensationalism maintained that distinction only in terms of the earthly outworking of redemption.
(3) A breaking down of the walls of separation between the dispensations. Their dispensations are not discrete, unmixed time frames, but rather evolving stages of historical development. Contained within any particular dispensation are the seeds of the next dispensation so that the dispensations gradually progress (hence the name). This allows that Christ is now enthroned as king in anticipation of His coming earthly-millennial rule.
Numerous additional issues could be highlighted. But these three are sufficient to establish a radical (and welcome) transformation within dispensationalism.
Essential texts for studying the issues include:
Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism: An Up to Date Handbook of Contemporary Dispensational Thought (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint, 1993).
For a shrill revised dispensationalist response, see: Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, eds., Issues in Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1994).
The Remarkable Resurgence of Postmillennialism
Contrary to popular opinion, postmillennialism has never disappeared from the theological scene. Nevertheless, after suffering a radical decline in the early part of the twentieth century, it has experienced a remarkable, major, and notable renaissance in the past thirty years.
Three of the leading figures in keeping postmillennialism alive during the 1950s were Reformed writers, J. M. Kik (An Eschatology of Victory, 1975; actually a compilation of published articles from 1948, 1955, and 1961); Roderick Campbell (Israel and the New Covenant, 1954: Foreword by O. T. Allis); and Loraine Boettner (The Millennium, 1957). Boettner even participated in Clouse's The Meaning of the Millennium four views book (1977) though his advanced age affected his argument.
Postmillennialism's recent resurgence has come about (largely) due to the publishing of postmillennial works in the 1970s and early 80s by the Banner of Truth in Britain and Christian Reconstructionists in America (through the Chalcedon Foundation and the Institute for Christian Economics). Key figures in this publishing revival were J. A. DeJong, As the Waters Cover the Sea (1970), Iain Murray (The Puritan Hope, 1971), Erroll Hulse (The Restoration of Israel, 1982), R. J. Rushdoony (Thy Kingdom Come, 1970; God's Plan for Victory, 1977), Gary North, and Greg L. Bahnsen (the latter two through articles in the Journal ofChristian Reconstruction).
As noted above, the revival of postmillennialism has gained wider recognition and more visible standing. The recent Zondervan publication of Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond (1999) included my distinctly Reconstructionistic brand of postmillennialism in this broad market publication (it sold out of its first two printings in its first forty-five days). A flood of postmillennial books in the late 1980s and 1990s has inundated the evangelical landscape, including: John J. Davis' Christ's Victorious Kingdom (1986), David Chilton's Paradise Restored (1987), North's Millennialism and Social Theory (1990), Gary DeMar's Last Days Madness (1991), my He Shall Have Dominion (1992), Alexander McLeod's Governor of the Nations (rep. 1993), Andrew Sandlin's Postmillennial Primer (1997), Keith Mathison's Postmillennialism (1999), and Bahnsen's Victory in Jesus (1999). A recent noteworthy "convert" to postmillennialism is R. C. Sproul, who invited me to speak on postmillennialism and preterism at his 1999 National Conference in Orlando.
The essence of postmillennialism (contrary to naive perceptions) is not its interpretation of Revelation 20, but rather, it is optimism regarding the progress of the gospel in history before the end comes. Anyone who believes that the gospel of Jesus Christ will exercise a dominant influence in the affairs of men at some point in history is a postmillennialist whether he likes it or not (optimistic amillen-nialism is an oxymoron).
A development within the postmillennial tradition since the 1960s but becoming especially strong by the late 1980s is Christian Reconstructionism, involving "theonomic" ethics ("theonomy"= "God's law"). Theonomic postmillennialism (a feature of Christian Reconstructionism) combines the inter-advental gradualism of the modern generic variety of postmillennialism with the socio-political interests of the older Puritan form. The theonomic postmillennialist sees the gradual return to Biblical norms of civil justice as a consequence of widespread gospel success through preaching, evangelism, missions, and Christian education. The judicial-political outlook of Reconstructionism includes the application of those justice-defining directives contained in the Old Testament legislation, when properly interpreted, adapted to new covenant conditions, and relevantly applied. With a core theological sub-structure firmly rooted in the absolute sovereignty of God (classic Calvinism), Christian Reconstructionists not only have a confident hope in the future (postmillennialism) but also a vision of how that optimistic future will operate in the social and political arenas (theonomy).
Foundational texts for studying postmillennialism today include:
Greg L. Bahnsen, Victory in Jesus: The Bright Hope of Postmillennialism (Texarkana, AK: CMF, 1999).
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (2d. ed.: Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997).
Keith A. Mathison, Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1999).
The Re-emergence of Orthodox Preterism
The word "preterist" is based on a Latin word praeteritus meaning "gone by," i.e., past. "Preterism" holds that many judgment prophecies of the New Testament came to pass in the first century, within the very generation of their utterance. Though these several prophecies were in the future when written, they are now in our past.
Many mistakenly assume that evangelical preterism burst upon the eschatological scene through Reconstructionist publications, such as Chilton's The Great Tribulation (1987), my The Beast of Revelation (1989), and DeMar's Last Days Madness (1991) (all were former students of Bahnsen at Reformed Theological Seminary in the 1970s). Actually amillennialist Jay Adams' The Time is at Hand (1966) was an (early) important seminal text that helped spark the (later) preterist revolution. It was even used by Bahnsen at RTS in his "History and Eschatology" course. Other pre-resurgence books include Campbell's Israel and the New Covenant (1954), Kik's The Eschatology of Victory (1975), and Cornelis Vanderwaal's Search the Scriptures (1978).
Nevertheless, preterism has recently been exegetically justified and evangelically popularized largely by Reconstructionist writers. And once again, major Christian publishers have recently helped fuel the debate: Thomas Nelson's release of Steve Gregg's Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (1996), Zondervan's Four Views on the Book of Revelation (1998), and Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? (1999). Gary DeMar is presently discussing a publishing venture with Thomas Nelson which would release even more preterist books in the broader market. Furthermore, R. C. Sproul has wholeheartedly adopted orthodox preterism and even published a major work on the subject: The Last Days According to Jesus (1998).
Unfortunately, a distortion of preterism is currently gaining advocacy a view variously designated as "hyper-preterism" (Gentry), "Hymenaenism" (Sandlin), or "pantelism" (Jonathin Seriah). A cult-like enthusiasm fuels this unorthodox movement, which teaches that the total complex of end time events transpired in the first-century: the Second Advent, the resurrection, the rapture of the saints, and the great judgment. It is to preterism what hyper-Calvinism is to historic Calvinism: a theological pushing beyond Biblical constraints. This view is not supported by any creed or any council of the church in history.
A "Foreword" to one work from this movement inadvertently highlights the (all too typical) problem: "John [Noe] is not a professional theologian. He has had no formal seminary training, but that may be an advantage." Then again, lacking training in Biblical languages, careful study of exegetical principles, in-depth instruction in systematic theology, and formal schooling in historical theology may not be helpful at all. (This book by John Noe received a scathing review in the December, 2000, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Sadly, this review will dissuade some readers from even considering the orthodox root from which hyper-preterism mutated. I have had numerous letters from folks turning against preterism because of these bizarre excesses.)
The origins of this modern movement arise from and are fueled by many Christians either presently or previously within the Church of Christ sect (e.g., Max King, Tim King, Ed Stevens, and others). Some hyper-preterists have even become Unitarians; see Ed Stevens' own lamentation: "Wanda Shirk & PIE," Kingdom Counsel (April 1994-Sept. 1996): 3-17. Others have begun to apply the Biblical references about hell to the events of A.D. 70, thereby denying the doctrine of eternal punishment. See: Samuel G. Dawson, "Jesus' Teaching on Hell: A Place or an Event?" (Puyallup, WS: Gospel Themes, 1997). The theological structure of the movement appears to be continually mutating. Of course, such should be expected when the position decries creedal moorings and rejoices in being adrift on a sea of untrained theologues. (I guess the hyper-preterists are our gadfly-answers to the dispensationalist embarrassments such as Jack Van Impe and the LaLonde brothers.)
For helpful rebuttals to hyper-preterism, see:
Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (2d. ed.: 1997), App. C.
Jonathin Seraiah, The End of All Things (1999).
R. C. Sproul, ". . . in Like Manner," Tabletalk 24:12 (December 2000): 4-7.
Vern Crisler, "The Eschatological A Priori of the New Testament: A Critique of Hyper-Preterism," Journal of Christian Reconstruction 15 (Winter, 1998): 225-56.
Keith Mathison, Postmillennialism (1999), App. C.
Mathison is currently editing a multi-author response to the hyper-preterists. It should be complete in 2002.
Orthodox preterism is not so much an eschatological system as a hermeneutic tool. It recognizes the interpretive significance of: (1) time-frame indicators (e.g., Mt. 24:34; Mk. 9:1; Rev. 1:1, 3); (2) audience relevance (e.g., the Seven Churches enduring tribulation, Rev. 1:4, 9); and (3) the possible non-literal character of apocalyptic imagery ("falling stars" may indicate "collapsing governments"). However, evangelical preterism refuses to allow one or two time-tied texts to become a black hole that sucks in all other texts that are merely similar. That is, preterism should not make the mistake of averring similarity entails identity, which is the informal logical fallacy known as converse accident (i.e., hasty generalization). That is, just because two texts are similar does not mean they are speaking of the same events (consider the various "Day of the Lord" prophecies in the Old Testament).
Orthodox preterism views the great tribulation (Mt. 24:21 cp., v. 34) and Revelation's judgment passages (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10) as being fulfilled in the first century. Consequently, preterism works nicely with (but is not demanded by) postmillennialism.
Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness (Atlanta: American Vision, 1994).
Kenneth Gentry, Perilous Times: A Study in Eschatological Evil (Texarkana, AK: CMF, 1999).
R. C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).
1. William Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning (Homebush West NSW, Austraia: Lancer, 1985), 161.