Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Preterism: What’s the Big Deal? (Part 1 of 4) Introductory Matters

Defining Terms

1. Eschatology (from Greek éschatos, “last”) is the study of last things or the final events of history. Eschaton, the neuter form of the Greek term, is often used with reference to the end of the world.

2. Futurist Eschatology contends that the Bible’s end-time prophecies –Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the end of the world, the final judgment – are yet in the future. Supporters of this view are called futurists.

3. Preterism (from Latin praeter, “past”) or Preterist Eschatology is the belief that all biblical prophecies were completed long ago. “Partial preterism” or “moderate preterism” considers most (not all) biblical prophecies to have already been accomplished, while “full-preterism” or “hyper-preterism” affirms the past fulfillment of all biblical prophecies, including Christ’s return and the final judgment.1 Since the primary historical focus of this theory is the Roman ransacking of Jerusalem in the summer of AD 70, it is also known as the AD 70 Doctrine. Those espousing this view are called preterists.

4. Realized Eschatology or Fulfilled Eschatology is the designation generally applied to the idea of all end-time prophecies having been fulfilled, particularly at the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem.2 However, many who affirm a future eschatology acknowledge a sense in which some eschatological elements (e.g. God’s spiritual kingdom, Christ’s messianic rule, the last days, newness of life) are current realities linked to future expectations. Many futurists also maintain a partial-preterist interpretation of prophecies in the book of Revelation.

5. Revised Eschatology is the assertion made by liberal critics that Jesus and his earliest followers believed in the imminent consummation of end-time prophecies, but as years passed with hopes unfulfilled, concessions had to be made for a less-certain, future expectation.3 Preterists claim the best response to this erroneous charge is their “consistent” interpretation of biblical prophecies.

6. Parousia is the term frequently used in reference to events accompanying Christ’s return. It is transliterated from the Greek parousía, meaning “presence,” opposite of appousía, “absence” (see Phil. 2:12). It could refer to one’s immediate presence or appearance (2 Cor. 10:10) but more often applies to someone whose presence or arrival is anticipated, so the word “coming” is typically used in translation (see 1 Cor. 16:17; 2 Cor. 7:6, 7; Phil. 1:26). In this study the term parousía will be left untranslated to avoid potential confusion between the “presence,” “arrival,” and “coming” nuances.4

The Importance of the Doctrine in the Early Church

Having spent less than a month proclaiming God’s word in Thessalonica, Paul and his coworkers placed much emphasis on the Lord’s parousía (Acts 17:2; 2 Thess. 2:5, 15; cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23), with extensive follow-up information communicated not long afterwards (1 Thess. 4:13-18; 5:1-11; 2 Thess. 1:7–2:17). This teaching was considered just as foundational to the Christian faith as Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Thess. 1:10; 4:14; 5:10).

The apostle clearly affirmed a future eschatology, looking ahead to what was to come. Yet the doctrine was later misconstrued by some, maintaining a realized eschatology as if the day of the Lord had already arrived (2 Thess. 2:1-3).5 This seriously troubled and confused the young church, seeing they had learned from God’s emissaries that the day of the Lord would be sudden and unexpected (1 Thess. 5:1-6) and could not be missed (1 Thess. 4:16-17). For anyone to say otherwise was perplexing, disconcerting, and deceptive. 

Modern-day preterists insist these allusions refer to the Lord’s representative coming in judgment via the Romans against Jewish rebels in Jerusalem about two decades later. But how would this have provided comfort and reassurance to Gentile Christians, nearly a thousand miles away, who were worried about their deceased loved ones missing out on the parousía?  (1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:13-18) 

The Thessalonians were assured of this future eschatological experience involving “the Lord himself” (1 Thess. 4:16), an emphatic statement affirming his personal return (cf. 1:10; 2:16; Acts 1:9-11). This is in contrast to past divine judgments carried out indirectly through the agency of temporal forces.6 The NT doctrine of the parousía is universal and Christocentric, not localized and Romanocentric.

Irrespective of when and where the Thessalonian documents were published, we see how important eschatology was in the early church and the seriousness with which misinformation was confronted. We also witness the discord generated by unorthodox teachings. 

The Resurrection of the Dead?

Paul was dismayed that some in the church, not having God’s knowledge, were claiming “there is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:12, 34). First-century preterests like Hymenaeus and Philetus were alleging, “the resurrection has already happened,” which Paul calls a cancerous message, a deviation from the truth, subverting the faith of some (2 Tim. 4:17-18).

Modern-day preterists believe there is no future resurrection of the dead because, they say, it has already happened. They maintain that the biblical meaning is not the bodily raising of corpses but is strictly spiritual in nature, applicable to the time immediately following the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem. It was “a release from Sheol of all who had been waiting through the centuries to be reunited with God in the heavenly kingdom,”7 involving a “change” in both departed and living saints to immortality and full access to God’s presence, “from being ‘dead in their trespasses and sins’ to ‘alive in Christ Jesus’ ...”8 However, Jesus affirmed the resurrection of “all” who have passed from this life, both “those having practiced good” and “those having practiced evil” (John 5:28-29), followed by Paul’s inclusion of “both righteous and unrighteous” (Acts 24:15).

Jesus certainly believed in the future resurrection of the dead (Matt. 22:23-33; John 5:28-29; 6:39-40, 44, 54; cf. 11:24). In fact, he makes a clear distinction between “this age,” where people “marry and are given in marriage,” and “that age,” inclusive of “the resurrection from the dead,” where people “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-38). Why do preterists still get married?

Paul’s hope was in the future resurrection of the dead (Acts 24:15), taking issue with those who denied this truth (Acts 23:6-8; 1 Cor. 15:12-58). While the apostle and his fellow believers were already raised out of spiritual death to newness of life (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:1-6; Col. 2:12), they were still hoping “to attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:11; also 2 Cor. 4:14).9  Bodily resurrection and final judgment at the Lord’s parousía are assured by the fact that Jesus is literally and physically risen from the dead (Acts 17:31; 1 Cor. 15:20-24). 

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 The Spanish Jesuit Luis del Alcázar wrote Vestigatio arcani sensus in Apocalypsi (1614), advocating a partial preterist view of the NT book of Revelation. James Stuart Russell’s The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (1878) is probably the earliest exposition of full preterism. Max King and his father-in-law C. D. Beagle championed this view in churches of Christ in Ohio in the 1970s. 
     2 Brian L. Martin, Fulfilled Eschatology: A Brief Introduction (Goodyear, AZ: BMD, 2018): 1, <Link>.
     3 Gunther Bornkamm, Paul 206-207; Donald Coggan, Paul: Portrait of a Revolutionary 87, 236; James Denney, The Epistles to the Thessalonians 177; James E. Frame, Thessalonians (ICC) 172-73; Arland J. Hultgren, “The Pastoral Epistles,” in Cambridge Companion to St Paul (ed. J. D. G. Dunn) 143; Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert 161-62. For a response, see K. L. Moore, “Did Paul believe and teach …” Moore Perspective (24 Jan. 2018), <Link>.
     4 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. In describing the Lord’s coming presence, the word parousía mostly occurs in the Thessalonian letters (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8), and just one other time in Paul (1 Cor. 15:23). Elsewhere in the NT only in Matthew (24:3, 27, 37, 39) and in the writings of the three “pillars” (Jas. 5:7, 8; 2 Pet. 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28). Other descriptive terms include epipháneia (“appearing,” “manifestation”) in 2 Thess. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 1:10; 4:1, 8; Tit. 2:13; and apokálupsis (“revelation”) in 2 Thess. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:7, 13; 4:13; cf. Rom. 2:5.
     5 The text reads “has come” [enéstēken – perfect active indicative] (v. 2), not “at hand” (ASV, KJV); cp. “has come” (CSB, ESV, NASB, RSV), “had come” (NKJV), “has already come” (ISV, NIV). 
     6 The six occasions in the OT described as “the day of the Lord”: (a) judgment against ancient Israel (Amos 5:1-27), fulfilled in 722 BC by the Assyrians; (b) judgment against ancient Judah (Lam. 1:12; 2:1, 21-22; Ezek. 7:19; 13:5; Zeph. 1:7, 14-18; 2:2-3), fulfilled around 586 BC by the Babylonians; (c) judgment against ancient Egypt (Jer. 46:1-28; Ezek. 29:1–32:32), fulfilled in 568 BC by the Babylonians; (d) judgment against ancient Babylon (Isa. 13:1-22), fulfilled in 538 BC by the Medo-Persians; (e) judgment against ancient Edom (Isa. 34:5-12; Ob. 1-21), progressively fulfilled between the 4th and 1st centuries BC by the Maccabees; (f) judgment against ancient Jerusalem (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Zech. 14:1-2; Mal. 4:1-6), fulfilled in AD 70 by the Romans (cf. Luke 1:16-17; 21:20; Acts 2:16-21). See K. L. Moore, “The Day of the Lord,” Moore Perspective (1 Feb. 2014), <Link>. If the number seven is employed throughout scripture to symbolize completeness, should we not expect a seventh and final “day of the Lord”?
     7 David B. Curtis, “The Resurrection from the Dead,” The Preterist Archive (9 May 1999), <Link>.
     8 Edward E. Stevens, Stevens Response to Gentry: Detailed response to Dr. Ken Gentry’s critique of the Preterist view entitled, “A Brief Theological Analysis of Hyper-Preterism” (Bradford, PA: International Preterist Association, 1999): 65.
     9 Paul taught extensively on the general resurrection of the dead (Rom. 8:11, 23; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:12-57; 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:1-5; 1 Thess. 4:13- 18; 2 Tim. 2:18), as did others (Matt. 22:29-32; Luke 20:37-38; John 6:39-40, 44, 54; 11:25; Acts 4:2; 17:18; 23:6; 24:15; Heb. 6:2; Rev. 20:4-6, 13).

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