An Interview with Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
The Word, 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 preterist amillennials?
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 eschatology?
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 out.
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 Juvenal.
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 serious problem.
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 significance?
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 to flee.
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. 24:48-51).
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 willing.