ESCHATOLOGY IN HISTORY
Larry T. Smith
© 2003 Rightly Dividing The Word
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It has been said that the victors of a war write its history. I think it would be easy for anyone to see that this would be true. Short of the divine inspiration that led holy men of God to pen the words of the Bible (See 2 Timothy 3:16), the man who holds the pen will always write according to his own particular view. This is why the Bible tells us we are to be followers of God’s Word and not to be followers of man’s opinion (1 Corinthians 2:13), for it is God’s truth that sets us free.
Some men have made light of the fact that I have said you cannot trust history when it comes to determining the date of the book of Revelation. I made this statement because history has many scholars who write in favor of contradictory doctrines and eschatological viewpoints. Therefore in an effort to easily convince people of their prophetic teachings, some of these men simply quote historical accounts that only agree with their view, and bypass those that don’t. These same men better hope that their students never do any further research, for if they do they won’t have to look very far to find the "over-looked" historical facts that were contrary to their teachings.
I do believe history is important. I just don’t believe it is authoritive since it is not the inspired Word of God. I do believe however that the Bible is the standard whereby we can conclusively know all truth. I believe that if Jesus said in Matthew 23 that "all of these things will come upon this generation," then it happened, no matter what certain early Church Fathers assert.
The argument is often made that some "Church Fathers" knew the Apostle John, or they knew someone who knew John, therefore the writings of these men carry a great deal of historical weight. This is nonsense. Peter knew Jesus, and Peter needed a vision from heaven to inform him that his narrow understanding of the gospel's application was wrong. (1) Paul writes, "But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned." Paul did this because Peter would not eat with Gentiles. (2) The writers of the New Testament continually corrected error in the church. (3) If the Apostles and the early Church itself struggled with certain areas of understanding, and Paul warned that after he departed, grievous wolves would enter in, not sparing the flock, (4) as though it took place immediately after his departure, how then can we know which historians were correct and which ones were in error? Paul wrote to the church at Galatia and told them they were already departing from the gospel of Christ, and this was before he departed. You can see from all this that proximity to an event does not assure future generations that past events have been reported or remembered accurately.
Many Dispensationalists, such as Grant Jeffrey and Charles Ryrie, have said that "Premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church." Jeffrey claims to have "embarked on a systematic study of the writings of the early Christian theologians who taught prior to the Council of Nicea in 325." (5) These writings can be found in the ten-volume set of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Jeffrey does not tell his readers that the English translation of the Ante-Nicene Fathers from which he studied is only a small portion of the writings of that era. Most of what the Church Fathers wrote still remains untranslated. There are 218 Latin and 166 Greek volumes that have not been translated. Therefore, we cannot be dogmatic in asserting what the early Church Fathers believed. The works that Jeffrey studied come out to approximately 7,000 pages. (6) While this seems like a lot, the untranslated Greek and Latin works "weigh in at over a million pages." Partial Preterist Gary DeMar challenged Jeffrey’s work and made the following observation, "Jeffrey's criteria for determining if an ante-Nicene father was a premillennialist goes something like this: If a writer believed in a future antichrist, even though he said nothing about an earthly millennium, he must have been a premillennialist since premillennialists believe in a future antichrist. There are numerous amillennialists and even some postmillennialists who believe in a future antichrist. This is true of numerous prophetic events, everything from a great tribulation (amillennialism) to the return of the Jews to their homeland (postmillennialism). Just because someone in the first three centuries held these beliefs does not make him a premillennialist." (7)
When you talk about premillennialism in history then you have to be referring to a literal physical thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. There were only a couple of Historians that you can find that reference it, and one of them was Justin Martyr. As you read many Dispensationalists’ works you will notice that he is quoted in reference to this. (8) The problem with this is Justin himself admitted that there were many Christians of the true faith that did not agree with him in his day.
Another man upon whom Dispensationalists depend for their stance on a future millennial reign is Papias. He also taught along the lines of Justin Martyr. His reliability though has been called into question by one of his contemporaries—Eusebius (260-339 AD). Paul L. Maier’s translation of Eusebius says the following concerning him: "Papias supplies other stories that reached him by word of mouth, along with some strange parables and unknown teachings of the savior, as well as other legendary accounts. Among them, he says after the resurrection of the dead there will be a thousand-year period when the kingdom of Christ will be established on this earth in material form. I suppose that he got these notions by misunderstanding the apostolic accounts, not realizing that they had used mystic and symbolic language. For he was a man of very limited intelligence, as is clear from his books. Due to him, however, many church writers after him held the same opinion, relying on his early date: Irenaeus, for example, and any others who adopted the same views." (Eusebius Page 129, Kregel Publications)
I feel that the greatest defeat to the Dispensationalist claim about history on their side came at the hands of one of their own students. Patrick Boyd did his Master’s thesis on Dispensationalism at Dallas Theological Seminary (which is the most Dispensational Seminary in the world and has had more to do with its influence in America than any other single school). Boyd actually set out to prove true the Dispensationalists’ claim that history was on their side up through Justin Martyr. But what Boyd actually concluded was the claim that premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church is "historically invalid." (9) The reasons for his conclusion are as follows: 1). The writers/writings surveyed did not generally adopt a consistently applied literal interpretation; 2). They did not generally distinguish between the Church and Israel; 3). There is no evidence that they generally held to a dispensational view of revealed history; 4). Although Papias and Justin Martyr did believe in a Millennial kingdom, the 1,000 years is the only basic similarity with the modern system (in fact, they and dispensational premillennialism radically differ on the basis for the Millennium); 5). They had no concept of immanency or a pretribulational rapture of the Church; 6). In general, their eschatological chronology is not synonymous with that of the modern system. (10) Upon reading Boyd’s thesis, one theologian made the following analysis: "Indeed, this thesis would conclude that the eschatological beliefs of the period studied would be generally contrary to those of the modern system (perhaps, seminal amillennialism, and not emerging dispensational premillennialism ought to be seen in the eschatology of the period)." (11) Now you can see why I say that history is inconclusive in determining the doctrinal truths of God’s Word. If one would want to study some of the quotes of the early Church Fathers and Historians on Preterism, just type the word "Preterist" into the search engine on your computer, from those findings choose a site such as the "Preterist Archives," and there you will have enough quotes to keep you busy for several days.
The victors of war are the ones who write its history. The book of Revelation is no different except it was written by a Victor who accurately foretold the outcome of this battle in accurate detail before it ever occurred. This battle was fought against a generation of people that were in rebellion with His New Covenant and with His people. This same generation is mentioned in many of the Old Testament prophecies and New Testament parables. (See Deuteronomy 31:1-30 & Matthew 23:34-38) Peter spoke of this generation and implored his listeners to save themselves from its coming judgment. (See Acts 2:40) Jesus was this victor!
Within the pages of Revelation we find many references comparable in language with those in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. This shows that most of the words of Revelation specifically refer to the events that would occur in regard to His judgment, and therefore it must have been written prior to its 70 AD fulfillment. You can ignore the clear time-text language of Revelation that prove this in preference to those few quotes from man that say it is about a future antichrist’s kingdom if you want. But as for me and my house, we will believe what the Bible says about its meaning and timeframe for fulfillment. To discover this you do not have to look very far; for the very first verse of Revelation chapter one shows that it was not written as reference to an antichrist, but was to be, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ." It goes on to state that it was given, "To show unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass." Jesus’ Word alone is the standard whereby we must base our beliefs on biblical prophecy. When we do, we find His prophetic word to be simple in its interpretation, powerful in its fulfillment, and accurate in its detail. This shouldn’t be difficult to see, after all, the Bible is HIS-story!
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