Written by Ben C. Dunson |
Monday, January 22, 2024
In the time somewhat near the return of Christ, we should expect a dramatic and widespread conversion of Jews the world over. This will be the very means of God bringing to pass what he promised in his ancient covenants to Israel. Nothing in Romans 9–11 points to a fulfillment of such promises by the year AD 70. I think that only one convinced on other grounds that nearly every future-oriented promise of the New Testament was fulfilled by that date could possibly think otherwise. And it seems to be a shaky foundation indeed to base such a conviction simply on Christ’s prophecy of the destruction of the temple and the fact that many visions in Revelation have an initial fulfillment in the first century.
Preterism is nothing new, but there is a specific preterist argument on the rise that I don’t recall encountering as frequently in the past. Preterism, for the uninitiated, is the idea that all, or nearly all, prophecies in the New Testament were fulfilled in the first century. It is centered in particular on the fulfillment of Christ’s words about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (Matt 24:1–2; Mark 13:1–2; Luke 21:5–24), a prophecy that was fulfilled in the year AD 70. There are some preterists who argue that all prophecies, including those traditionally seen as referring to the second coming of Christ and the final judgment, were fulfilled by that date. They are called full preterists and are heretics. Others, known as partial preterists, recognize that those two events are still in the future, but see nearly every other prophecy of the New Testament as already fulfilled. This view is compatible with classic Christian orthodoxy. It is very difficult to read some parts of the New Testament without at least some sort of partially preterist interpretation. Christ’s prophecy of the destruction of the temple has already been mentioned, but the language of “nearness” (e.g. Rev 1:1–3; 22:6–7, 12, 20; etc.), and the focus on the original readers in the book of Revelation (e.g., Rev 1:9, 19; chs. 2–3; etc.) is difficult to understand if there is not at least some sense in which its visions have already begun to be fulfilled.
The preterist argument that seems to be rapidly rising in prominence today has to do with Israel in the plan of God for this age. To begin with, this interpretation usually includes the argument that Israel in the New Testament is equal with the church, though this argument itself is not unique to preterism. Romans 9:6–8 is one of the most important texts for this view:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
Other texts, such as Galatians 6:16 may support this view as well: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” It may be that this verse, however, is distinguishing between “them” and “the Israel of God.” Even if it is, it is clearly referring to Christian Israelites who are included in those “who walk by this rule,” namely the rule that “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). That could not be said of Israelites who did not follow Christ. Though some would argue that it is only referring to Jewish Christians, 1 Peter 2:9–10 seems more likely to be applying several Old Testament designations for Israel to Christians, probably indicating that the church is in some sense understood as a new Israel:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
The uniquely preterist addition to this argument has to do with the place of Israel in Romans 9–11. The basic gist of the argument is that every mention of Israel in these three chapters is either a reference to the church as Israel or was fulfilled by the year AD 70. This would include even the (from Paul’s perspective at least) future-oriented statements in Rom 11:11–32, culminating in “all Israel” being saved (11:26).
I find this understanding unpersuasive for several reasons, the chief of which is what Paul writes in Rom 11:11–16. Paul began his treatment of Israel’s place in redemptive history writing of his anguish at the unbelief of the majority of his fellow Israelites, despite their having been given the covenant promises of God (Rom 9:1–5). Even though the majority have not believed in Christ, Paul insists that God’s promises have not thereby been nullified (Rom 9:6). He does this first by explaining that there is an election within the covenantal election of Israel as a covenantal people (Rom 9:7–26), which (citing Isaiah) he describes as a remnant within Israel as a whole (Rom 9:27–29).