One reason futurist dispensationalism became popular in the late 1800s to early 1900s was because of the conjecture of the liberal Higher Critics. The authority of Scripture was derided by liberals who saw in Matthew 24, and elsewhere in the New Testament, a promise of the Second Coming in the first century. Jesus stated plainly that “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). According to liberals such as Bertrand Russell in Why I am not a Christian, since Jesus had not returned bodily to the earth by AD 70, then this prophecy was obviously wrong.
In response, most fundamentalists of the 20th century decided to twist the meaning of Matthew 24 toward a future fulfillment. But it is difficult to explain verse 34, “this generation,” as having an application beyond the “generation” of Jesus and the Apostles. This is one reason why many conservative scholars have now turned back to preterism.
Preterists, historicists and futurists all agree that at least some of Matthew 24 was fulfilled in the first century. Even the dispensationalist author Hal Lindsey, in The Late Great Planet Earth, admits that this passage had a partial first century fulfillment. Likewise, many preterists agree that parts of the Mount Olivet passage (Matthew 24, 25) have a future eschatological significance. All orthodox views of Scripture are “partial preterist” views. However, once we accept preterism to any degree, we ought to consider this paradigm to interpret similar passages of Scripture.
This is an important principle when critiquing the historicist view as well. Scripture must interpret Scripture. Historicists often assert that the Jesuits published the first preterist interpretation of Revelation in 1614, An Investigation into the Hidden Sense of the Apocalypse by Luis del Alcázar. They paint the preterist view as Roman Catholic propaganda that was concocted in order to deflect from the Protestant teaching that the papacy is the Antichrist. Yet John Calvin’s preterist treatment of Daniel, first preached in 1561, precedes Alcázar. I often hear historicists say that all of the Reformers were historicists. However, when Calvin preached his preterist exposition on Daniel, he also made applications from Daniel 7 and 9 to Revelation 13 and 17.
A partial preterist view can be traced to one of the earliest Christian commentaries on Daniel, which is contained in The Stromata (or Miscellanies) by Clement of Alexandria in AD 180, and the first known full commentary on Revelation by Victorinus of Pettau in AD 260. Contrary to the claim that preterism is a Jesuit invention, the preterist view has a strong pedigree tracing back to the early Church Fathers. Preterism is not a strange, new doctrine, but a view that is being reclaimed and retaught in our day.