Of Preterists and
An Interview with
Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr
Volume 12, Issue 6 (July 2001)
PENPOINT: Dr. Gentry, when we speak of “schools” of interpretation or
theological opinion — like “theonomists,” or “postmillennialists,” or
“preterists” — there is a tendency to think of these groups in monolithic
terms, as if all their proponents hew exactly to a single “party line.” In
what ways, if any, does the contemporary revival of biblical
postmillennialism differ from earlier versions within the Reformed tradition
(e.g., Puritan postmillennialism)?
GENTRY: You are correct
that we need to be aware of a lack of lock-step unanimity in any millennial
viewpoint, including postmillennialism. “Puritan postmillennialism” is so
widely variant that for sorting through the various positions, I highly
recommend reading Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature &
Theology 1550-1682 (Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2000).
But in broad strokes we may distinguish between a historicist
postmillennialism (held by the Puritans) as opposed to a preterist
postmillennialism which is currently the more popular view. That is, the
earlier Reformational forms of postmillennialism tended to interpret
Revelation as a picture of all of church history, whereas the preterist view
interprets it as dealing with issues directly relevant to the first
centuries of the Christian church. But in the final analysis the fundamental
reality of postmillennialism remains the same: the gospel will win the great
majority of men before the return of Christ.
P: Were there any “preterists” among the older school of postmillennialism?
G: Some of the historicist proponents were close to being preterists to a
great degree. Westminster divine John Lightfoot (1658), though a
historicist, held that Revelation 1:7 spoke of A.D. 70, and interpreted much
of Revelation in this regard, though he saw it also developing in later
church history. Reformed preterists of the era included Westminster nominee
Henry Hammond (1653), as well as Hugo Grotius (1630) and Jean LeClerc 1712).
P: R.J. Rushdoony, who contributed significantly to the revival of biblical
postmillennialism in the last half of the 20th century, was not a
“preterist” — correct? Where did the “preterist” interpretation in
contemporary postmillennialism get introduced to the stream?
G: Rushdoony was an idealist. Of course, idealism can operate at the same
time as preterism, if handled properly. After all, we believe that the
historical statements of Scripture also establish paradigms for God’s acts
among men. Contemporary reformed preterism arose with J. M. Kik in the early
1950s (two small volumes, Matthew Twenty-Four and Revelation Twenty,
reprinted later as An Eschatology of Victory), was picked up by Jay Adams
(The Time is at Hand, 1966), and promoted by Cornelis Vanderwaal 1978) and
Greg Bahnsen (late 1970s).
P: Is there a hermeneutical or theological connection between
postmillennialism and preterism or is it largely coincidental? Are there
G: Preterism is a hermeneutical tool; postmillennialism is an
eschatological system. Preterism fits nicely with postmillennialism,
but is not a necessary condition for it. Historically most
postmillennialists were not preterists. And there are many
non-postmillennial preterists, such as Jay Adams and Cornelis Vanderwaal. In
fact, on Matthew 24, premillennial Puritan John Gill offers a preterist
approach which I follow quite closely. Today even some “progressive
dispensationalists” are allowing for large preterist inroads into their
system, for example, C. Marvin Pate and David Turner.
P: As a “preterist postmillennialist,” are you aware of any significant “in
house” disagreements among those who share your same overall perspective on
G: Basically there are two competing schools of preterist interpretation
(excluding the various and constantly mutating heretical hyper-preterist
approaches): One school deems Revelation a picture of the Church’s struggles
against two early enemies of the church: one religious, the other political,
i.e., Judaic Israel and imperial Rome. The other branch sees the focus as
concentrating primarily upon Israel, though noting a few places where John
steps back for a broader political context and brings in Rome.
P: I understand you disagreed with Dr. Bahnsen on the interpretation of the
book of Revelation.
G: Dr. Bahnsen was my mentor in theology and exegesis. This was the one
major area where he and I disagreed. He held the Israel/Rome view, I the
Israel-only view. In fact, the last time we got together (about eight months
before his death) he broached the question with me. We enjoyed about a
one-hour interchange on the subject. Actually, he enjoyed it; I sweated it
P: What did he consider to be the most significant indications that
Revelation is dealing with both apostate Israel and pagan Rome?
G: Given the complex nature of interpreting an entire book — especially one
such as Revelation — the matter of discerning interpretive cues is both
important and difficult. Some of the pro-Rome issues he presented to me
were: (1) Revelation 10 (especially v. 11) seems to prepare John for a
change of vision, transitioning from an Israel focus to a Roman focus. (2)
The Harlot’s being seated on the seven hills (Rev. 17:9). (3) Her ruling
over “kings of the earth” (Rev. 17:18). (4) Her relationship with “peoples
and multitudes and nations and tongues” (Rev. 17:15). (5) The enormous
wealth of the Harlot City (Rev. 18), especially coupled with indicators of
prosperity through international trading (Rev. 18:10-19).
P: How would you respond to these issues? They seem quite compelling.
G: Just briefly (for more detail you’ll have to consult my forthcoming
commentary, The Divorce of Israel): (1) Revelation 10 does direct John to
prophesy regarding Rome. And he does do so in Revelation 13 especially, but
also in snippets here and there where the Beast appears. (2) The Harlot’s
being seated on the seven hills seems to suggest her legal dependence upon
Rome to get at Christ and the Christians, not her geographic position.
Remember how the Jews force the hands of the Romans in the crucifixion
account and in persecuting Christians in Acts. (3) I understand “the earth”
to signify “the Land,” i.e., Israel. The “kings of the earth” prophesy
signifies Jerusalem’s own political resistance to Christ and Christianity.
(4) The relationship to the “peoples” highlights the fact that the Diaspora
spread Jews throughout the Empire, allowing her to exercise her influence
beyond Palestine. This universal presence of the Jews was an aggravation to
non-Jews who detested the Jews for their standoffish rituals (see Philo and
Suetonius). (5) The wealth of the city points to the enormous wealth
generated through the temple system by means of the head tax on Jews
throughout the Empire, especially as the Temple was being refurbished since
the days of Herod up until just a few years before it was destroyed. This
wealth was a source of irritation to Roman writers such as Tacitus and
P: What are the most weighty considerations that lead you to the conclusion
that John’s visions focus largely on Israel and Jerusalem?
G: I am constrained by several key issues: (1) John insists that the events
were to occur “soon” (e.g., Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10). (2) The theme of
Revelation in 1:7 occurs almost immediately after the notation of nearness
and seems to point to A.D. 70 as a judgment on the Jews who caused Christ’s
death. (3) Revelation 1:7 is identical in sentiment and very close in form
(combining Zech.12 and Dan. 7:13) to Matthew 24:30. The Matthew verse is
controlled by (a) references to the Temple’s destruction (24:2), (b) focus
on Judea (24:16), and (c) the temporal indicator (24:34). (4) Revelation is
contrasting two cities: “Babylon” and the “new Jerusalem.” In fact, as
Babylon falls, the new Jerusalem is established (Rev. 18; 21). That it is a
“new” Jerusalem strongly suggests its opposition to the old, historical
Jerusalem (cp. Gal. 4:25-26; see also: Heb. 12:18, 22). John paints
Jerusalem as a “Babylon,” an enemy of God who causes her own temple’s
destruction, much like Isaiah calls her “Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 1).
Therefore John presents God on his judicial throne (Rev. 4), presenting his
divorce decree against Jerusalem (Rev. 5; cp. Jer. 3:1-8) noticing the
harlot imagery, forehead, and divorce, capitally punishing her for adultery
(Rev. 6-9, 16-19), then taking a new bride, the Church (Rev. 21-22).
P: Shifting to a related topic. Do preterist and non-preterist
postmillennialists differ significantly in their reading of Matthew 24? Are
there different interpretations of the two “days” even among preterists?
G: Matthew 24 has been subjected to a fairly wide variety of interpretive
approaches. Perhaps the more widely endorsed one holds that the Lord more or
less jumbles together material on A.D. 70 and the Second Advent, in that
A.D. 70 is a microcosmic precursor to the Second Advent. This view makes it
difficult to sort out the verses in regard to which event the particular
verses focus on. Among evangelical preterists two basic positions prevail:
that 24:4-34 focus on A.D. 70 and 24:36ff focus on the Second Advent. The
other view holds that all of Matthew 24 deals with A.D. 70.
P: Is that latter view — that all of Matthew 24 refers to A.D. 70 — what you
have called “hyper- preterism,” or are there “regular” preterists that hold
that interpretation of Matthew 24? How would their interpretation differ
from the “hyper-preterist?”
G: Although it is true that hyper- preterism holds that the entire Olivet
Discourse speaks of A.D. 70, one’s position on that particular question does
not necessarily lock one into the hyper-preterist heresy. The difference in
interpretation at this specific point might be altogether negligible between
an orthodox interpreter and a hyper-preterist. In fact, there are several
verses where we find disagreement among orthodox interpreters and in which
similarity to the hyper-preterist position may be noted. Where the
fundamental differences would arise would be in other passages and on
specific theological questions. If an interpreter is challenged to produce a
passage supporting the Second Advent and he cannot produce one, or if he
cannot affirm a physical resurrection at the end of history, then we have a
P: What considerations in the text lead you to conclude that Jesus is
distinguishing the two events in His prediction?
G: Contextual evidence suggests that Christ is distinguishing two different
comings. One coming is His coming upon Jerusalem in temporal judgment to end
the old covenant era; the other is His coming at the Second Advent in final
judgment to end history (24:36ff). These two “comings” are theologically
related while historically distinct.
For example, by all appearance Matthew 24:34 functions as a concluding
statement; it seems to end the preceding prophecy: “Truly I say to you, this
generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
Consequently, the following events must relate to some episode not in “this
generation.” That would suggest that all prophecies before verse 34 are to
occur in “this generation.”
P: That seems to be borne out by the sense of urgency in the first section
of the chapter.
G: Yes. The character of the first section dramatically differs from that of
the second. In the first section all is chaotic, laden with war and
persecution. In the second section all appears tranquil, with marrying,
eating, and drinking. What’s more, in the early section of Matthew 24 the
time frame is short: “this generation.” In the following section (and
through Matt. 25) the time frame is much longer: “But if that evil servant
says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming’” (Matt. 24:48). “But
while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (Matt.
25:5). “After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled
accounts with them” (Matt. 25:19). It is the very delay of the coming that
tempts the church to forsake her watchfulness.
P: Many interpreters (of differing schools) lay great emphasis on the
“signs” of the coming described in this passage. Can you comment on their
G: Before verse 34, Christ mentions signs pointing to the A.D. 70 coming:
“wars and rumors of wars” (v. 6), “famines and earthquakes” (v. 7), “false
prophets” (v. 11), and so forth. Accordingly, we may know the time of its
approach; it is a predictable event. That’s Jesus whole point — be aware so
you can act when the season of final danger is upon Jerusalem. Christ urges
flight from the area (Matt. 24:16-20), clearly implying there will be time
On the other hand, after verse 34, signs are replaced by elements of
surprise, indicating the coming in that section is unknown and therefore
unpredictable: “they did not understand” (v. 39), “you do not know” (v. 42),
“if the head of the house had known” (v. 43), “coming at an hour when you do
not think He will” (v. 44), “he does not expect Him” (v. 50), and “you do
not know” (25:13). There is no warning — no opportunity for flight — for
there can be no escape from that “day.” All befalls men suddenly (Matt.
Another interesting point is that even Christ Himself does not claim to know
the time of the Second Advent (v. 36). Yet in the earlier section He clearly
knows the time of the A.D. 70 judgment, for He tells His disciples that
certain signs may come but “the end is not yet” (v. 6). He also tells them
these things will certainly happen in “this generation.”
P: Thank you so much, Dr. Gentry, for answering our questions. I’m sure our
readers have been piqued with an appetite to study these questions in more
depth. If they do, they may consult your comprehensive exposition of
biblical postmillennialism, He Shall Have Dominion, and did you say you will
soon publish a commentary on the Book of Revelation?
G: Yes, its title is The Divorce of Israel. It is due out early in 2002, God
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