Preterism and Romans 9–11
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). Salvation is by faith, not the works Israel relied on (Rom 9:30–33, unpacked in chapter 10). Paul, then, returns to Israel in Romans 11. Does the fact that the majority of his Jewish kinsmen have not believed in Christ mean that God has rejected his covenantal people Israel (Rom 11:1)? No. Paul again returns to the remnant idea, pointing to himself as one member of that remnant (Rom 11:26).
One could plausibly conclude, then, on the basis of what Paul writes in Rom 9:1–11:6 that God’s faithfulness to the covenantal promises to Israel is exhausted in the remnant of believing Israelites like Paul, an Israel within Israel. But Paul does not stop at Rom 11:6. In the rest of Romans 11 Paul explains the place of Israel in redemptive history in this way: a partial hardening of heart has come upon the covenantal people Israel, which then propels the gospel out to the Gentile world. As the gospel succeeds in the Gentile world many Israelites will “become jealous” (Rom 11:11) in the sense of becoming desirous of the blessings of salvation being extended to the Gentiles, and will themselves return to the Lord in true faith. Paul describes this using the metaphor of an olive tree in Rom 11:17–24: many “natural” branches (covenantal Israel) are broken out of the root of salvation in Christ, while many “wild” branches (Gentiles) are grafted into the tree. God, however, is not finished with the natural branches. They too will be grafted back into the root in God’s time (Rom 11:24), provided they “do not continue in their unbelief” (Rom 11:23).
Although Rom 11:24 seems to indicate a future blessing for covenantal Israel, this is even more clear in Rom 11:11–16. Is Israel’s partial hardening permanent? Have they been cut off from God’s grace forever? No. Their partial hardening is the means through which the gospel goes to the world, but for the purpose of provoking Israel to jealousy and causing them to return to the Lord (Rom 11:11). The gospel going to the world Paul calls “riches for the world” and “for the Gentiles” (Rom 11:12). But these riches are not the end of the story. At the end of that process of Gentile blessing comes Israel’s “fullness” (Rom 11:12). While only some Jews will be brought to repentance and faith throughout most of this age (Rom 11:13), the day is coming when there will be a widespread “acceptance,” or returning to the Lord. Paul calls this return “life from the dead,” clearly linking it with the future resurrection of believers (Rom 11:15).
In Rom 11:16 Paul uses two additional metaphors for Israel’s present and future. First, since the believing Jewish remnant, of which he is a part, the “dough offered as firstfruits” is holy, “so is the whole lump,” that is covenantal Israel, still subject to the covenant promises of God. Second, Paul refers to the whole of Israel as the holy root, which entails that the individual branches are also holy. Does this mean that there are two tracks of salvation, one for Israel, and one for the Gentiles? Not at all. The fact that Israel remains subject to God’s covenant promises means simply that God is not finished with the people of Israel. But for those covenant promises to benefit Israel, the people must return to the Lord, they must not continue in unbelief (Rom 11:23). And the day is coming, Paul says, when they will do so en masse. Once the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (Rom 11:25), Israel’s partial hardening will be removed “and in this way all Israel will be saved,” (Rom 11:26), which is to say, a mass of Israelites large enough to be described as a “full inclusion” (Rom 11:12) and “life from the dead” (Rom 11:15) will come to faith in Christ. That the Israel of Rom 11:26 is covenantal Israel, not the faithful remnant of believing Israelites is clear in Rom 11:28: “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” God’s covenant promises to Israel remain in force. “For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). It is precisely because Israel remains beloved regarding election and for the sake of their forefathers that God will do this dramatic work of widespread conversion before the return of Christ. God’s covenant promises are of no benefit to those who spurn them, even while they remain in force.
In short, my view is that 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.
The view I have defended was once widespread among Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants. It was the prevailing view among the older school of postmillennialists throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, defended ably by the theologians of old Princeton Seminary, which served to spur them on to vigorous missionary work among Jews (see David Calhoun’s Princeton Seminary for more on this). Many postmillennialists still hold it. It is also common among amillennialists (see, for example, Cornelis Venema, The Promise of the Future, pp. 127-39) and is ably defended in John Murray’s classic commentary on Romans.
If the view I’ve briefly defended in this article is correct this does not mean that biblical, covenantal Israel is the same thing as the nation-state of Israel today, though it would mean that contemporary Jews remain beloved “as regards election” and “for the sake of their forefathers.” That is why God will one day carry out this dramatic work of widespread conversion, this “full inclusion,” the salvation of “all Israel,” “life from the dead.” Contrary to our dispensationalist brethren, support for the nation-state of Israel today must be determined on the same basis of justice and prudence that any nation employs to support another nation. I, for one, think it is normally in America’s interest to support the contemporary nation of Israel, but defending that claim is a matter for another time.
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