Review of The Early Church and the End of the World

This review originally appeared in the journal Fides et Historia (Available in PDF page 30)


Gary DeMar and Francis Gumerlock, The Early Church and the End of the
World. Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2006. Pp. xvii + 180. $24.95.

Reviewed by W. Brian Shelton, Toccoa Falls College, Georgia

The Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels is not one that the early church fathers
would have appreciated. Nowadays, popular writings on eschatology tend to be futuristic
and dispensational, frequently marshaling historical and exegetical support from early
church writers to buttress particular and often peculiar perspective on last things. Gary
DeMar and Francis Gumerlock challenge the largest overstated claim about the early
church within this genre: that most of the patristic writers were futurist premillennialists.
The Early Church and the End of the World surveys literature from patristic authors to
demonstrate how many early Christians were not premillennial but even showed preterist
tendencies.
In a convincing collection of historical citations, the authors take a two-pronged
approach: to highlight preterist tendencies among the church fathers and to dispel the
supposed myth of dispensational claims to the same fathers. A preterist view of scripture
maintains that New Testament prophetic passages usually considered future and
apocalyptic were mostly fulfilled within a generation of the audience’s own time, usually
centering on the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. DeMar and Gumerlock’s chapters
are generally chronological or thematic: preterism among first century writers, the
supposed premillennialism in centuries following, ancient and medieval readings of the
Olivet Discourse, patristic dating of Revelation, and historical interpretations of “latter
days” in Acts 2:19-27. The two authors ascribe their name to individual chapters,
allowing this review to cite each author specifically.
DeMar and Gumerlock explore ancient writings on scripture that support preterist
readings. Second century Hegesippius records that James, brother of Jesus, was on trial
with the Pharisees when he claimed that Jesus was about to return just before he was
thrown from the Temple to his death in AD 70. Some recognizable names speak to a pre-
70 fulfillment at times: Eusebius, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Bede, often interpreting
New Testament time indicators like “shortly,” “near,” “at hand,” “at the door,” and “this
generation” as pointing to destructive tribulation in the first century. Plenty of less
recognizable names favoring a pre-70 fulfillment abound, such as fourth century Titus of
Bostra and ninth century Otfrid of Weissenburger. This report of patristic and medieval
comments clearly reveals how preterist interpretations at least on single verses abound,
refuting popular misleading claims for any single patristic eschatology.
Besides showing that the fathers were not all premillennial futurists, DeMar seeks to
disprove those fathers that were. For example, since the Epistle of Barnabas uses the
creation week as a basis for believing that the seventh thousand-year period would be the
millennium, DeMar dismisses it as unbiblical (47), so also for Irenaeus, Commodianus,
and Lactantius. DeMar might delineate premillennialism too narrowly by requiring that a
church father “must state unequivocally that Jesus will reign on the earth for a thousand
years,” as well as requiring that “Revelation 20 must be used to support the claim” (44).
Although the fathers did regularly allude to scriptures for their case, they did not cite or
elaborate as specifically as modern authors, and a church historian ought to allow this
latitude.
The dating of Revelation is crucial to the debate. If one can establish a pre-70 AD
writing, then its contents could anticipate the destruction of the temple under Titus rather
than a rebuilt temple under future Antichrist. Gumerlock surveys four patristic opinions
on the date of Revelation, “very early” under Claudius (Epiphanius), “early” under Nero
(several Syriac sources), “late” under Domitian (Irenaeus), and “very late” under Trajan
(Dorotheus), clearly attesting to a multiplicity of provenance views, and in turn allowing
for various interpretations of its prophecies.
All the major details of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse find a preterist fulfillment in some
ancient or medieval writer, if not several. For example, Augustine said of the historic
destruction of the Temple, “Luke made clear what could have been uncertain, that what
was said of the abomination of desolation referred to the siege of Jerusalem, not to the
end of the world” (87). When Peter’s Pentecost sermon speaks of the darkening of
luminaries, fifth to ninth century Syrian expositors found this referent to be the
crucifixion of Christ. Meanwhile, Greek interpreters between the fifth and eleventh
centuries find partial referents in Jerusalem’s destruction and partial referents in final
judgment. One of the book’s greatest contributions is Gumerlock’s novel translation of
material from Denis the Carthusian, Beatus of Liebana, Apringius, and the Irish
Reference Bible. These medieval commentators “are reflections of earlier patristic
traditions,” evidencing that the Domitian dating was “popular but by no means an
exclusive opinion” among Latin-speaking Apocalypse commentators (151).
DeMar and Gumerlock successfully disprove any claim of a universal patristic
premillennial view of the future. At times, DeMar employs polemics against
contemporary dispensational writers, which only detracts from a very meritorious case
for patristic and medieval preterism. Comments sometimes oversimplify history, such as,
“While history is important and should be studied, it is not authoritative” (6, cf. 9),
without explication of history’s relationship to the authority of scripture. The lack of a
biblical or historical index prevents researchers of particular passages easy access to
abundant historical data. Important historical data on eschatology, especially its medieval
sources, are not contained elsewhere, making this book a useful tool and definitive work
for historical biblical exegesis and eschatological studies. Extremely reader friendly, its
greatest contribution is the marshaling of historical writers against those who broad
stroke the church fathers as dispensational premillennialists.

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