What Is Preterism?
|And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast trench about thee, and compass thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone up0n another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation. (Luke 19:41-44)|
Preterism is an school of eschatology that embraces a contemporary-historical interpretation of Biblical prophecy. The term “Preterism” is derived from the Latin praeteritus, meaning that which has past. The term occurs in Matt. 24:34 in the Latin Vulgate to describe the time of Christ's second coming: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass ("non praeteribit haec generatio"), till all these things be fulfilled." Full Preterists view the Second Coming and related events as being fulfilled in the events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
"The Time is Fulfilled"
The Old Testament was characterized by a patient waiting for the kingdom and reign of the Messiah. The Jews of Jesus' day recognized that the time for fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets was near. When John the Baptist appeared, "the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or no" (Lk. 3:14). Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the kingdom and reign of Christ, saying: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (Mk. 1:15).
The prophets made no distinction between the first and seconding coming of Christ, but treated them as a unity, interrupted only by a brief absence when the Messiah would be "cut off" (Dan. 9:26). However, the Messiah would return, and "destroy the city and the sanctuary." Jesus taught that his return was so imminent that the apostles would not have opportunity to fully evangelize Palestine: "When they persecute you in this city, flee ye unto another: for verily I say unto, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come" (Matt. 10:23).
Jesus spoke of this coming in his kingdom when he stated: "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matt. 16:27,28). Luke states that the kingdom and reign of Christ would come in the events marking the destruction of Jerusalem: "So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled” (Lk. 21:31,32; cf. II Tim. 4:1).
The return of the Messiah would be in that generation; some of the apostles would live to witness it. Just before his ascension, John was expressly named among the disciples who would be alive at Christ's return: "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow me" (Jno. 21:22).
The nearness of Christ's second coming is affirmed over and over. Paul said, "But this I say, Brethren, the time is short" (I Cor. 7:29). James said, "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh...the judge standeth before the door" (Jm. 5:8,9). Peter stated, "the end of all things is at hand" (I Pet. 4:7). The Hebrew writer makes several unmistakable statements to this effect when he says, "For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry" (Heb. 10:37). The nearness of the day is seen in the fact that his readers would "see the day approaching" (Heb. 10:25).
The apostle John indicated the nearness of the end when he stated they were in the "last time" (Grk. hora, "hour"): "Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time" (I Jno. 2:18). The nearness of Christ's return is repeated over and over throughout Revelation in unmistakable terms, saying, the "time is at hand" (Rev. 1:4; 22:10), "Behold, I come quickly" (Rev. 2:5,16; 3:11; 22:12,20), "Behold, I come as a thief" (Rev. 3:3; 16:15), and the things of the prophecy "must shortly come to pass" (Rev. 1:1; 22:6).
There is nothing difficult in any of this language; all who will may plainly see that Jesus and his apostles taught the first century church to be in earnest expectation of the Lord's return. The difficulty arises not so much from the announced time of Christ's return, but understanding its manner. Because men have been taught that Christ's return would mark the end of the universe, its continued existence beyond the specified time frame has forced them to explain away the express statements of time by resort to theories of delayed fulfillment or double fulfillment, and assertions that Christ and the apostles were simply wrong. Preterism rejects all such theories, maintaining that the time elements cannot be disregarded or explained away consistent with the doctrine of verbal inspiration. The very authority of the scriptures is at stake!
It is a basic principle of hermeneutics that obscure or difficult passages must be interpreted in light of those that are plain. The great hurdle many face in understanding Biblical eschatology is the figurative nature of apocalyptic language. The language of the prophets by its very definition is veiled and obscure; it is marked by poetic imagery, license, and exaggeration, and is impressed with hyperbole, metaphors and symbols. Hence, as between apocalyptic language describing the manner of Christ's return and the plain statements of time given by the Lord and his apostles concerning when it would occur, it is clear that the former must be interpreted in light of the latter and not vice versa.
Preterism maintains that the eschatological teaching of the Lord and his apostles was fulfilled when and as prophesied. However, Preterists insist that the manner of fulfillment was essentially spiritual, not physical, and that language which on its face appears to describe the dissolution of the chemical elements in a cataclysmic end of time and space must be given a figurative construction and interpretation. This is required, not only because of the confines for fulfillment imposed by statements of time, but by the usus loquendi (manner of speech) of the prophets. The following language describing God's judgment upon Idumea and the nations of the world in the days of Assyria and Babylon will help make the point:
Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come out of their carcasses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree. For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment. Isa. 34:1-4,9-10; emphasis added.)
The poetic and figurative nature of the instant language is only too obvious; it describes a time of divine wrath upon the world by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Yet, none will contend that in the dissolution of Edom and the world the stars of heaven were literally dissolved, the heavens rolled together as a scroll, or the dust of the land was turned to brimstone. Edom ceased to exist as a separate people and nation millennia ago, yet none of the physical phenomena described attended its passing. Although language of a universal nature involving the whole fabric of the heavens and earth is employed to describe the judgments announced, its fulfillment is circumscribed in time and manner to the people and era set out. Occurrence of such language and imagery is common throughout the Old Testament in passages describing God's judgment upon various peoples and nations; it is the usus loquendi of the prophets; invariably it is poetic, never literal.
Understanding the figurative nature of apocalyptic language in the Old Testament is essential to the mastery of Biblical eschatology for at least two reasons: First, because identical language is employed by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament and we must know how to interpret it. Do we give it a construction and interpretation consistent with the historical usage of the prophets, or do we suddenly cast aside long established rules of interpretation in favor of a literalistic approach? In his great eschatological discourse on the mount of Olives, Jesus said: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken...Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matt. 24:29,34).
Was it the Lord's intention that we understand him to mean that the stars would literally fall from the sky in the events he described, and not rather that these were figures used to describe events of a political and spiritual nature? If we abandon the historical usage of the prophets and adopt a literal approach, upon what ground are we to base such departure? Are we not upon surer ground to adhere to established methods of hermeneutics? If the usus loquendi of the prophets does not require as much, surely the express statement of time for fulfillment does. Surely, we look in vain for fulfillment of the events described beyond the generation addressed. Within the life of many then living, the world would undergo cataclysmic judgments: from the British Isles to Rome and Italy, Greece, Asia, Egypt, and Palestine: all would suffer divine retribution for the murder of Christ, the rejection of his gospel, and the persecution of his church. Jerusalem would be destroyed and the monarchial "sun" darkened, the priestly "moon" would withdraw its light, the "stars" of the elders and Sanhedrin would be loosed from their orbit as the government and polity of the Jewish nation suffered final and irrevocable dissolution.
Second, understanding the figurative nature of apocalyptic language in the Old Testament is essential to the mastery of Biblical eschatology in the New Testament because of the relation of the parts to the whole. The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Nowhere had the Old Testament ever prophesied the end of the cosmos in connection with the coming of the Messiah, or otherwise. Jesus and the apostles did not prophesy it now. Nothing should be introduced into New Testament eschatological teaching and doctrine that cannot be proved by resort to the Old Testament. Since the Old Testament nowhere teaches that the earth is to be destroyed in one final cataclysmic act associated with the reign of the Messiah, there is no basis for introducing such teaching into the New Testament. To do so severs the continuity between the Testaments as the unfolding of God's redemptive purpose for man. In the Old Testament man was told what to look to in the kingdom and reign of the Messiah; in the New Testament he is assured it is come.
Far from prophesying the destruction of the cosmos, the coming of Christ was to mark an era of unprecedented peace on earth as the kingdom and reign of the Messiah extended to all nations. Christendom would serve to unite the nations of the world politically as in the church the nations were united spiritually. As fellow-members of the same spiritual kingdom, nation would not lift up sword against nation; neither would they learn war any more (Isa. 2:4) .The nations which were divided by language and region would be united in a common language in Christ, as with one mind and one mouth they returned thanks and praise to God their Saviour. However, first, all enemies had to be placed beneath Christ's feet (Heb. 2:8). The destruction of Jerusalem and the civil wars and commotions among the Romans following the death of Nero Caesar represent the subjugation of Christ's enemies and his entrance upon his eternal reign and kingdom. Since the time statements are clear, the apocalyptic imagery of Christ and the apostles must be interpreted so as to conform to them, and not vice versa.
The fulfillment of Jesus' second coming in that generation is a fact certain; no other interpretation can be placed upon this language consistent with the verbal inspiration of the scriptures and sound principles of hermeneutics.
What is Preterism? Preterism upholds the authority and integrity of the word of God against theories of purported postponement and double fulfillment. Preterism is the affirmation that prophecy culminated and came to an end in Christ, and that Christ's prophetic utterances were fulfilled when and as he said they would.
"Non praeteribit haec generatio donec omnia haec fiant." (Matt. 24:34)
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