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The Early Fathers - Praeterists Or Futurists?


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#1 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 06:00 AM

The eschatological position of the Church Fathers has been, and continues to be, a matter of great dispute. All three of the major schools of thought on prophecy (Praeterism, Futurism, and Historicism), insist that their methodology was held by these earliest of Christian expositors.

Given the amount of dispute over this issue, and the difficulties involved in defining exactly which of the Fathers believed what (especially given that many of them wrote little in the way of systematic expositions of prophecy), it is considered by some that the task is impossible, that there is no way to define precisely what the Fathers believed regarding prophecy, and that it is not possible to identify them as having held any of the three major positions.

It is also suggested that the Fathers had no particular position, that their views were simply a mixture of different parts of each of the three main interpretations. It is assumed that this explains why the Fathers sometimes appear to give Futurist interpretations of some passages, and Praeterist interpretations of other passages.

Is it possible to determine if any of the Fathers held to one particular position? Despite the confusion over the issue, the matter can be resolved by establishing certain control principles, and applying them to the writings of the Fathers.

The first step in this process involves defining the three major prophetic positions – Praeterism, Futurism, and Historicism.

#2 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 06:02 AM

The Praeterist position is defined as a view of prophecy which regards the majority of key eschatological passages as having been fulfilled no later than the first century AD.

These include:
  • Daniel 2
  • Daniel 7
  • Daniel 8
  • Daniel 9
  • Daniel 11
  • Daniel 12
  • The Olivet prophecy
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:3-9
  • Revelation (to at least chapter 20)
In order to be considered a Praeterist, an expositor must hold that all of these passages have been completely fulfilled no later than the first century AD.

There are two viewpoints within the Praeterist position – the ‘Partial Praterist’ and the ‘Hyper Praeterist’ views. To the Hyper Praeterist, all eschatological prophecies and events took place in the first century, including the eschatological coming of Christ, the judgment, the resurrection, the Kingdom of God and the fulfilment of Revelation 21-22.

An interpretation of prophecy which agrees with either of these viewpoints is a Praeterist interpretation.

#3 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 06:04 AM

The Futurist position is defined as a view of prophecy which regards the majority of key eschatological passages as being unfulfilled as yet, maintaining that they await fulfilment in the future. Critical to the definition of this position is the view that the events of these key prophecies did not commence or conclude within the first century AD.

These include:
  • Daniel 2
  • Daniel 7
  • Daniel 8
  • Daniel 9
  • Daniel 11
  • Daniel 12
  • The Olivet prophecy
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:3-9
  • Revelation (to at least chapter 20)
In order to be defined as a Futurist, an expositor must maintain an interpretation which denies that these prophecies commenced or concluded within the first century AD, and insists that they have either commenced in the current generation and will conclude in the future, or that they have yet to commence at all.

Central to the definition is an explanation of why there is an unrevealed gap of undetermined duration between the time that the prophecy was given, and the time that the prophecies begin to be fulfilled.

Typical of Futurist interpretations are arguments which claim a ‘postponement’ of these prophecies, in order to explain the absence of prophetic guidance in the Scriptures for the believers regarding the events of the first century AD, up to the present day.

This is the core principle of the Futurist position – that these prophecies did not have their commencement in the first century. Different Futurist interpretations have these prophecies commencing in the generation contemporary to them, or in a future generation yet to come. Note that a belief that the return of Christ is imminent may still be a feature of a Futurist interpretation.

#4 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 06:09 AM

The Historicist position is defined as a view of prophecy which regards the key eschatological passages as unfolding gradually in a fulfilment which commences prior to or in the 1st century AD, and is completed at the return of Christ:

These include:
  • Daniel 2
  • Daniel 7
  • Daniel 8
  • Daniel 9
  • Daniel 11
  • Daniel 12
  • The Olivet prophecy
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:3-9
  • Revelation (to at least chapter 20)


#5 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:00 AM

In addition to these definitions, there are other parameters which can be put in place to determine the position of any of the Fathers, even if explicit statements falling within the definitions previously described are absent.

These are:
  • An expectation of the soon return of Christ

  • An interpretation which places the fulfilment of any of the key eschatological passages within the 1st century

  • An interpretation which places the fulfilment of any of the key eschatological passages after the 1st century

  • A clearly defined time limit (after the 1st century), by which all of the key eschatological passages must be concluded
Let’s examine these parameters individually, to see how they can assist our categorisation of the eschatology of the Early Fathers.

#6 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:06 AM

An Expectation of the Soon Return of Christ


No Praeterist living after the 1st century AD would have any expectation of the return of Christ, since the Praeterist position holds that Christ’s ‘coming’ had already occurred in the 1st century. Any expositor living after the 1st century AD who expected Christ’s soon return to earth, cannot be a Praeterist.

Any expectation which the Early Fathers had that Christ’s return was soon is also contradictory to the Futurist position, since it demonstrates that the expositor had no concept of a vast time gap of undetermined duration between the 1st century and the return of Christ, during which no prophetic events take place (as the Futurist position holds).

Such expectations demonstrate that the expositor had no concept of any ‘deferment’ of the return of Christ in the manner on which the Futurist position insists.

It may be argued that this same expectation of an imminent return of Christ also demonstrates that the expositor could not have been a Historicist, since it would prove that the expositor had no expectation of the extent of prophecies such as Revelation taking place gradually over some 2,000 years.

But whilst it is true that such imminence in the Early Fathers proves that they had no concept of these prophetic events being fulfilled gradually over time in this way, it does not preclude the Fathers holding the Historicist position, namely that the events of these prophecies would be fulfilled during the time remaining until the return of Christ.

#7 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:14 AM

Let us suppose that a certain one of the Early Fathers lived in the 3rd century, and expected the return of Christ very soon, in the next 200 years. In the following illustration, the Historicist perspective of two expositors is contrasted with the Futurist perspective of a third expositor.The first Historicist expositor, writing in 200 AD (column date in bold), has this perspective:

100 AD

[200 AD]

300 AD

400 AD

500 AD

 

[Revelation written]

[Expositor expects the events of Revelation are fulfilled during this time]

[Christ’s return]

The second Historicist expositor, writing in 1500 AD (column date in bold), has this perspective:

100 AD

500 AD

1000 AD

[1500 AD]

2000 AD

 

[Revelation written]

[Expositor expects the events of Revelation are fulfilled during this time]

[Christ’s return]



#8 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:14 AM

Regardless of the time during which they are writing, and the date at which they expect the return of Christ, both of them hold the same perspective – they understand the events of Revelation to be fulfilled gradually, from the time that the prophecy was given up to the time of the return of Christ.

They differ as to their expectation of the time of Christ’s return, they differ as to their expectation of how long the events prophesied in Revelation will take to unfold, and they differ as to their understanding of their proximity to the return of Christ, but both of them hold the Historicist position.

They both believe that the events of Revelation take place gradually over the entire interval between the writing of the prophecy and the return of Christ.

Their perspective may be contrasted with that of the Futurist, which is radically different. Let’s take our two Historicists, and contrast their perspective with the perspective which they would have held if they had been Futurists.

#9 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:17 AM

The first Historicist expositor, writing in 200 AD:

100 AD

[200 AD]

300 AD

400 AD

500 AD

 

[Revelation written]

[Expositor expects the events of Revelation are fulfilled during this time]

[Christ’s return]

If he had been a Futurist, this is what he would have expected:

100 AD

[200 AD]

300 AD

400 AD

500 AD

 

[Revelation written]

[Expositor expects no prophetic events are fulfilled during this time]

[Events start here]



#10 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:19 AM

The second Historicist expositor, writing in 1500 AD:

100 AD

500 AD

1000 AD

[1500 AD]

2000 AD

 

[Revelation written]

[Expositor expects the events of Revelation are fulfilled during this time]

[Christ’s return]

If he had been a Futurist, this is what he would have expected:

100 AD

500 AD

1000 AD

[1500 AD]

2000 AD

 

[Revelation written]

[Expositor expects no prophetic events are fulfilled during this time]

[Events start here]



#11 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:21 AM

The difference between the Historicist and the Futurist positions are very clear. One expects prophetic events to be fulfilled from the time that the Revelation is given, up to the time of the return of Christ. The other expects no prophetic events to be fulfilled from the time that the Revelation is given, up to perhaps three or seven years before the return of Christ.

Regardless of the time that either of our Historicist expositors were writing, and regardless of when they expected the prophetic events to be concluded, both of them held the understanding that the fulfilment of the prophetic events commenced at the time that the prophecy was written, and continued until the return of Christ.

If they had been Futurists, however, they would not have expected any prophetic events to have been fulfilled during the interval between the time that the prophecy was written, up to perhaps three or seven years before the return of Christ.

This difference in perspective is a critical factor in determining whether or not an expositor holds the Historicist or the Futurist position.

Needless to say, any expositor holding either of these views is clearly not a Praeterist.

#12 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 07:31 AM

Fulfilment of Eschatological Passages Within the 1st Century


Certain of the key eschatological passages are considered by both the Praeterist and the Historicist to have been fulfilled within or by the 1st century AD.

Where a particular passage is being considered by an expositor to have been fulfilled within or by the 1st century, only a closer examination of the interpretation (and a consideration of the exposition of other passages by the same commentator), will determine whether this indicates that the expositor is a Praeterist or a Historicist.

But no Futurist regards the key eschatological passages as having been fulfilled within or by the 1st century AD.

Even the ‘70 weeks’ prophecy of Daniel 9, the first 69 ‘weeks of which are considered by Futurists to have been fulfilled by the 1st century, are viewed by the Futurist to have their final week concluding during the three and a half years just prior to the return of Christ, long after the 1st century.

Any evidence therefore that an expositor interpreted one of the key passages as being fulfilled within or by the 1st century, certainly excludes the possibility that this expositor was a Futurist.

#13 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:20 PM

Fulfilment of Eschatological Passages Beyond the 1st Century


Certain of the key eschatological passages are considered by both the Futurist and the Historicist to have been fulfilled within or by the 1st century AD.

Where a particular passage is being considered by an expositor to have been fulfilled byeond the 1st century, only a closer examination of the interpretation (and a consideration of the exposition of other passages by the same commentator), will determine whether this indicates that the expositor is a Futurist or a Historicist.

But no Praeterist regards the key eschatological passages as having been fulfilled within or by the 1st century AD. Any evidence therefore that an expositor interpreted one of the key passages as being fulfilled within or by the 1st century, certainly excludes the possibility that this expositor was a Praeterist.

#14 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:25 PM

A Time Limit For the End of All Things


Any evidence in the Early Fathers that they expected Christ's return before or at a certain date, demonstrates that they could not have been Futurists.

To the Futurist, the time between the giving of the prophecies and the commencement of their fulfillment is both unspecified and uncertain. It is a time duration of unknown length. The time to which the Futurist looks forward is not the time that the prophecies are concluded, but the time at which they begin to be fulfilled.

Any of the Early Fathers who believed that the prophecies would be fulfilled between the time that they were given and a certain termination date at which all of the prophecies would have been fulfilled, reflects a Historcist perspective rather than a Futurist.

In addition, if this termination point is expected to be beyond the 1st century, then the expositor in question cannot have been a Praeterist, since to the Praeterist the termination point for all of the key eschatological prophecies was the 1st century.

#15 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:33 PM

With these principles in mind, we will now examine how the Early Fathers interpreted the key eschatological passages.

The following passages are to be examined:The term 'Early Fathers' is generally applied to certain key Christian leaders between the 1st and the 6th century (100s to the 500s AD), and it is from within this timeframe that the expositors we will examine shall be drawn.

Occasionally quotes from apochryphal or pseudepigraphal works will be cited where relevant. Although these cannot be regarded strictly as 'Early Fathers', they are an important witness to early Christian exposition of these passages, and since they are regularly appealed to by both Praeterists and Futurists in support of their respective positions, it is necessary to include them in our examination.

#16 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:36 PM

Praeterism

Historicism

Futurism

 

Daniel 2

· Fourth empire broken in the 1st century (feet and toes formed):


o   [None]

All of the early Christian commentators who wrote on Daniel 2 held the view that the feet and toes would not arise until the Roman empire fell.

None of them believed that this had been fulfilled in any way in the 1st century. The Praeterist understanding is devoid of any support from the earliest commentators.

Daniel 2

· Fourth empire broken when Roman empire falls (feet and toes formed):


180

Irenaeus

185

Tertullian

c. 194

Clement

200

Hippolytus

c. 230

Origen

280

Methodius

300

Victorinus

306

Lactantius

330

Eusebius

c. 347

Cyril

c. 350

Aphrahat

401

Severus

407

John Chrysostom

340-420

Jerome

c. 450

Theodoret

354-430

Augustine

520

Andreas

Daniel 2

· Fourth empire broken when Roman empire falls, but formation of feet and toes is future:


o   [None]

All of the early Christian commentators who wrote on Daniel 2 held the view that the feet and toes would arise when the Roman empire fell.

They believed this because they could see that the feet and toes constituted the disintegrated remnants of the
Roman empire.

They did not separate the feet and toes from the iron legs with a gap of some 2,000 years as the Futurist does.


The Futurist understanding is devoid of any support from the earliest commentators.



#17 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:41 PM

Praeterism

Historicism

Futurism

 

Daniel 2

· The little stone hits the image in the 1st century, the Kingdom of God is established:

o   [None]

The following Early Fathers believed that ‘the church’ constituted the Kingdom of God:

330

Eusebius

340-420

Jerome

354-430

Augustine

However, they did not believe that this Kingdom had been established in the 1st century, as Praeterists believe it was.

All three of them believed it had been established upon the coming to power of Constantine, the overthrowing of the pagan rulership, and the ‘Christianizing’ of the Roman empire.

This is not what Praeterists believe. It places a date on the coming of the
Kingdom of God which is at least 200 years later than the date at which Praeterists believe the Kingdom was established (commonly the crucifixion).

Daniel 2

· The little stone hits the image at Christ’s return, the Kingdom of God is established:

180

Irenaeus

185

Tertullian

c. 194

Clement

200

Hippolytus

280

Methodius

300

Victorinus

306

Lactantius

c. 347

Cyril

c. 350

Aphrahat

401

Severus

407

John Chrysostom

c. 450

Theodoret

This view of the Kingdom of God is called the ‘premillennial’ view, since it insists that the Kingdom of God will not be established it its fullness until Christ returns.

It holds to a literal return of Christ, and a physical
Kingdom of God on the earth.

Daniel 2

· The suggestions among Futurists as to the time that the little stone strikes the image are too great to list here – there is no common position.

Some believe the little stone hits the image at Christ’s return, at which point the Kingdom of God is established, others believe that the Kingdom of God was established with the work of Christ, and that the Kingdom constitutes ‘the church’ (the so called ‘amillennial’ view).

Of the early commentators, the following could be said to have held an amillennial view of the
Kingdom of God:

330

Eusebius

340-420

Jerome

354-430

Augustine

This view is vastly outnumbered by the premillenial view of the Kingdom which was held by the following early Christian expositors:

115

Papias

110-165

Justin Martyr

180

Irenaeus

c.163

Aviricius Marcellus

185

Tertullian

194 (b.)

Clement

200

Hippolytus

280

Methodius

280

Nepos

300

Victorinus

305

Commodianus

306

Lactantius

c. 347

Cyril

c. 350

Aphrahat

315-386

Cyprian

401

Severus

407

John Chrysostom

c. 450

Theodoret



#18 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:45 PM

Praeterism

Historicism

Futurism

 

Daniel 7

· The fourth beast is the Roman empire:

110-165

Justin Martyr

180

Irenaeus

185

Tertullian

200

Hippolytus

300

Victorinus

306

Lactantius

330

Eusebius

c. 347

Cyril

c. 350

Aphrahat

389

Chrysostom

401

Sulpicius Severus

340-420

Jerome

354-430

Augustine

393-457

Theodoretus

400’s

Paulus Orosius

450

Isidore of Pelusium

520

Andreas

Daniel 7

· The fourth beast is the Roman empire:

110-165

Justin Martyr

180

Irenaeus

185

Tertullian

200

Hippolytus

300

Victorinus

306

Lactantius

330

Eusebius

c. 347

Cyril

c. 350

Aphrahat

389

Chrysostom

401

Sulpicius Severus

340-420

Jerome

354-430

Augustine

393-457

Theodoretus

400’s

Paulus Orosius

450

Isidore of Pelusium

520

Andreas

Daniel 7

· The fourth beast is a future world empire:

o   [None]

Almost all Futurists deny that the fourth beast is the Roman empire.

This places them in opposition to every early Patristic author who wrote on the subject.

Some Futurists believe that the entire fourth beast will be a ‘revived’ Roman empire (or ‘Holy Roman empire’), which comes close to Historicist thinking (Historicists find such a revival in the beast of Revelation 17, not the fourth beast of Daniel 7), but this is not an interpretation found in the earliest Christian expositors.



#19 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:47 PM

Praeterism

Historicism

Futurism

 

Daniel 7

· The 10 horns existed in the 1st century:

o   [None]

None of the Early Fathers believed that the 10 horns existed in the 1st century.

All of the early expositors who wrote on the subject insisted that the 10 horns were the fragments into which the
Roman empire would become divided when it fell.

Daniel 7

· The 10 horns are formed when the Roman empire is divided:

180

Irenaeus

185

Tertullian

200

Hippolytus

300

Victorinus

306

Lactantius

330

Eusebius

373

Athanasius

c. 347

Cyril

340-420

Jerome

354-430

Augustine

393-457

Theodoretus

Daniel 7

· The 10 horns are formed at another time:

o   [None]


All Futurists deny that the 10 horns were formed at the time that
Rome was divided.

This places them in opposition to every early Patristic author who wrote on the subject.



#20 Fortigurn

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Posted 26 December 2004 - 08:50 PM

Praeterism

Historicism

Futurism

 

Daniel 7

· The 10 horns are either:

o   Roman emperors up to the 1st century

· [None]

o   Roman provinces existing in the 1st century:

· [None]

Certain of the Early Fathers did interpret the 7 heads of the dragon and/or beast in Revelation as successive Roman emperors (thus Victorinus, 300 AD), but none of them understood the 10 horns of the fourth beast in Daniel 7 in this way.

It must also be noted that certain of the Early Fathers did interpret the 10 horns as 10 kings who would seize rule over the remnants of the Roman empire when it broke up (Irenaeus, 180 AD, Hippolytus, 200 AD, Cyril, c.347 AD, and Jerome, 340-420 AD), but none of them interpreted these men as emperors of Rome, and all of them held this event to be still future.

Daniel 7

· The 10 horns are the various parts of the divided Roman empire:

180

Irenaeus

185

Tertullian

200

Hippolytus

300

Victorinus

306

Lactantius

330

Eusebius

373

Athanasius

c. 347

Cyril

340-420

Jerome

354-430

Augustine

393-457

Theodoretus

520

Andreas

The following Early Fathers interpreted the three horns as ex-provinces of the Roman empire formed subsequent to its collapse:

200

Hippolytus

300

Victorinus

373

Athanasius

340-420

Jerome

393-457

Theodoretus

520

Andreas

The following Early Fathers interpreted the three horns more specifically as kings of ex-provinces of the Roman empire formed subsequent to its collapse:

180

Irenaeus

306

Lactantius

330

Eusebius

c. 347

Cyril

All of them held that these kings would be ruling over ex-provinces of the Roman empire subsequent to its collapse, so it is clear that they understood the horns to be divisions of the Roman empire which would be formed when it disintegrated.

The ‘Epistle of Barnabas’ is the oldest witness, which explicitly interprets the horns as kingdoms rather than kings, but does not refer to
Rome directly:

‘And the Prophet also says thus: "Ten kingdoms shall reign upon the earth and there shall rise up after them a little king, who shall subdue three of the kings under one.”’

Epistle of Barnabas, chapter 4, section 4, 80-160 AD

Here the 10 horns are interpreted as 10 ‘kingdoms’ to arise out of the fourth beast, which is not identified (though most scholars believe he referred to
Rome).

Daniel 7

· The 10 horns are future powers unrelated to the Roman empire, which combine to rule:

o   [None]

Some Futurists believe that 10 horns are part of a ‘revived’ Roman empire (or ‘Holy Roman empire’), which comes close to Historicist thinking (Historicists find a revived Roman empire in Revelation 17, not Daniel 7), but is not an interpretation found in the earliest Christian expositors.

Some Futurists believe that the horns will be individual men, but most believe that they will be world powers, or nations which combine to form a world power.






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