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Modern Preterist theology is very non-conventional, and involves a great deal of learning (or, better put, unlearning) to truly comprehend. Add these two ingredients together, and you have a Biblical theology that can be easily dismissed. Such has been the case for a number of years, in this Futurist theology (New Testament eschatology is yet to be fulfilled) saturated 20th century. Until recently, most of the theological world has happily dismissed the Preterist position of total biblical end-times fulfillment. But the times, they are a-changin’…

When America’s beloved theologian, R.C. Sproul, published his first work on eschatology (doctrine of last things) in 1998, that theological world was stunned to see that he had adopted a partially Preterist view of first-century end-time fulfillment.

Since the publishing of The Last Days According to Jesus, mainstream Christianity has found the Preteristic idea more difficult to dismiss than it had been during the previous century of Dispensationalism’s dominance. With thousands of people departing from “orthodox” theology, due (in part) to the continual postponements of prophecies, and the extremism of modern end-time doctrine, the Preterist view of the Bible (From the Hebrew language’s Preterit [Past Perfect] tense according to Milton Terry) has gone from simply being a grass-roots movement, to being the cutting-edge theology of the day. This view of eschatological fulfillment is gaining a strong foothold in every niche of Christianity, and its revolutionary world view may very will usher in a great reformation rivaling that of the 16th Century for size and scope. Gladly, the “Preterist movement” has seen a gathering of fine people from nearly every doctrinal background, as opposed to the denominational splintering that was associated with the Reformation period.

Simply approaching theology from any such radically different point of view would yield great insights – but the Preterist view (which is not a denomination) doesn’t simply present new ideas, it delivers numerous answers to centuries-old questions.

What is Preterism?

R.C. Sproul defined Preterism as follows:

Preterism: An eschatological viewpoint that places many or all eschatological events in the past, especially during the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. (R.C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 228)

The term ‘Preterist’ is a somewhat obscure way of labeling those who believe that the Roman-Jewish War in the first century is to be associated with end-times Bible fulfillment.

Depending on what percentage of fulfillment one finds in the first generation events determines whether they are considered partial preterist or full preterist. The full preterist view is that the fall of the Second Temple in A.D.70 signified the bringing of redemption and resurrection to mankind once for all time. (Confer with [cf] The Significance of A.D. 70) The partial Preterist is usually much more inclined to see final end-times fulfillment when the earth’s history ends. Many, if not most full preterists insist that the world has no end, and is in the middle of a glorious growth in stature through the work of Christ’s “New Heavens and Earth.

Historically, the term Preterist has been used much more broadly, considering one who found fulfillment in the first century, no matter the degree of fulfillment they held. Both partial Preterism and Preterism fall within the general heading of Preteristic thought, which is often simply called “Preterism.”

This convolution of terms can be quite confusing. An argument has been made that only those who believe (using Sproul’s definition) that all eschatological events are in the past are called “Preterists,” while those who believe that only many eschatological events are in the past (with more in the future) are called “partial Preterists.” As Preterism is the position of total eschatological fulfillment in the past, those who believe in future fulfillments are only partial Preterists. Partial Preterism is another form of Futurism, therefore, and cannot rightfully be called “Preterism,” though historically and contemporarily it generally is. Such hair splitting has become important in this new critical look at New Testament Eschatology. As has been said, it is a time when studying theology is exciting for some and discouraging for others.

The Story of the Bible: God’s Fulfilled Design for the Redemption of Man

The Full Preterist end-times perspective of the Bible can be summed up by Hebrews 8:13:

In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

The ‘Last Days’ in the Bible apply to no other period than the last generation of “Israel after the flesh” at the end of the Old Covenant, which ceased forever on the 9th of Ab, in the year of our Lord 70. When Jesus refers to “this generation” in Matthew 24:34, then, it is was the one to whom he was literally speaking!

Though it may seem that this would make the Bible irrelevant to us today, the Full Preterist view presents the Word of God as complete in the fullest Aorist sense. It is fulfilled and revealed in totality, if one is willing to consider the method of interpretation which sees Jesus speaking to his contemporaries about events they were just about to experience.

Contrary to the typical accusation, the Bible is very relevant to those of this view, and, indeed, the temporal to spiritual hermeneutic of the view (such as that of Paul, cf. I Cor. 15:46; 2 Cor. 4:18) yields new insight into seemingly insignificant passages. To this blessed aspect of Preterist theology, F.W. Farrar concurs, specifically in reference to the ‘Præterist Interpretation’:

“But if he follows the guidance of a more reasonable exegesis, he may advance with a sure step along a path which becomes clearer with every fresh discovery.” (The Praeterist Interpretation)

There is no question that Preterist theology is hard for many people to immediately grasp, making it appear heretical and fearful. It is the utmost confidence of Preterists, though, that this reluctance is soothed by the Word of God — seeing that the Spirit of the Word of God teaches this view most emphatically through every nook and cranny of the Bible. Prets glorify the Bible by asking that the Word of God be the only judge of the position’s veracity, putting traditions and creeds aside. If this is done, and the Bible is allowed to be the final authority for faith and practice, the many misunderstandings of the position will be extinguished.

There are just a few principles that need to be understood in order to fully grasp the Preterist idea. The most important of these is the Biblical significance given to the first century “changing of the guard” from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.

Key #1: “This Generation” saw the passage from Old to New Covenant

The key point to understanding how Preterism can be reliable is to be found in the contrasting of kingdoms in the Bible from the Old Testament to the New. It is the Preterist belief that the physical kingdom of Israel, with all of its physical accouterments (king, realm, sacrifices, throne, law, etc.), was simply a schoolmaster to teach spiritual truths regarding Jesus Christ and His spiritual kingdom (cf. John 18:36; I Cor. 15:50). This method of interpretation is fully supported by the interpretation of Paul, who saw the Old Covenant as a series of “types”, “shadows”, “patterns”, “allegories” and “figures” of things that were to come in Jesus Christ — Who is the fulfillment and fulness of ALL of the promises of God! (cf. Romans 5:14; Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 8:5, 9:9,24, 10:1; Galatians 4:24; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 Peter 3:21).

Paul declared the fundamental principle of this hermeneutic (method of Bible interpretation), by saying, “Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual” (I Cor. 15:46). God revealed the mysteries of the eternal plan of redemption through the usage of temporal shadows. We are told that “Abraham had two sons,” and are thereby given a glimpse into the significance of Biblical allegory and typology. It is through this relationship between the two sons of Abraham that we are shown the eternal purposes of God, in regards to the two covenants, revealed from its previously shrouded mystery.

The Preterist view teaches that the shadows of the Old Covenant were not only to teach the spiritual realities, but that they were to cease when the “fullness” (fulfillments) for which they stood came into existence. In fact, Preterists believe that the Bible teaches that we can date the establishment of the fulfillment of the types by the time of the destruction and dissolution of the shadows.

Key #2: The “Last Days” were the end of Old Covenant, not the New

Based upon this point, it is the Preterist’s belief that the “last days” spoken of in the New Testament were the last days of the Old Covenant, and not those of the New (which has no end). All New Testament eschatology is focused on the ending of the Old Covenant (the body’s shadow) for the establishing of the New (the actual body). The book of Hebrews, which opens with a declaration of the present “last days” (1:1) declares that it was the Old Covenant which was in its last days, stating, “that which waxeth old and decayeth is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).

This is of utmost importance, as the ending of the Old Covenant was the establishing of the New. Hebrews 9:8 lays out the case that until the physical temple and accouterments of the law passed away, the spiritual realities for which they stood as temporal symbols could not be fully established and glorified. Therefore, all end-times prophecies in the New Testament were focused on the dissolution of Old Covenant Israel, as were the end-times prophecies of the Old Testament. This is why the fulfillment of the New Testament end-times prophecies were said to be in fulfillment of the words of the prophets of old (Luke 21:22; Acts 3:21; Revelation 10:7).

Consider the following verses in support of this Preterist assertion, and make up your own mind as to whether or not the last days were upon that generation of men:

“This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” – Matthew 24:34
“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days” – Acts 2:16,17
“Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” – Hebrews 1:2
“Who (Christ) verily was fore ordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.” – I Peter 1:20
“Little children, it is the last time:.. whereby we know that it is the last hour.” – I John 2:18

The Preterist position holds that the Old Covenant and all of its elements (Galatians 4:3; cf. II Peter 3:10) ceased at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70, and that the New Covenant and all of its spiritual elements for which they stood only in shadow (Galatians 3:25; Colossians 2:17; etc.) have been in place ever since.

Preterism at Cutting Edge of Modern Theology

There can be no denying that Preterism requires much study to appreciate in its fullness. What confounds non-students of the Bible, and prejudices them against this position (almost without exception) are first, total unfamiliarity with the Old Testament (How many Christians are even familiar with the fundamental Mosaic books?) and the language of the Bible; and more importantly, a faulty method of Bible interpretation. In addition to these, the relative hysteria against the Preteristic view reveals the ignorance of Christianity’s legacy of doctrinal Preterism.

Sadly, most are not aware of the fact that many (if not most) historical Christian theologians have identified the fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24) with the fall of Jerusalem. Showing this unanimity in the fourth century, Chrysostom wrote regarding the fulfillment of the discourse :

“Was their house left desolate? Did all the vengeance come upon that generation? It is quite plain that it was so, and no man gainsays it.” (A.D. 347, Homily LXXIV, Sec. 3)

Differences Of Opinion Among Preteristic Believers

To recap, Preterists, sometimes called “consistent Preterists” or “full Preterists,” teach that, according to Christ’s testimony (Luke 21:22,32), all prophecy was fulfilled in the first century (including the second coming of Christ). The practical application of this is that we have the fullness of salvation and redemption, which was only still promised for the pre-A.D.70 believers (Acts 3:19; Rom. 13:11; Heb. 9:28; I Pet. 1:9)

Partial Preterists declare that only some of the prophecies of Christ were fulfilled at the desolation of the Jewish nation, with others yet to be fulfilled in the future. The qualifier “partial” is given to show that they are not actually Preterists (as they are ultimately Futurists themselves), but hold to many common doctrines. Unfortunately, many within partial Preterism are quite combative against Preterists, believing that Preterism is outside of the faith, and is a damnable heresy (Our Response).

One of the next great theological battles is set upon either position’s ability to give more honest, truthful answers to the very difficult theological questions involved (eschatology has always been a highly flammable topic for many, no doubt, because of the incredible range of beliefs regarding its time and realm of fulfillment held throughout church history – beginning with the lack of continuity in the late first century and shortly thereafter.). Though Full Preterists share much the same heritage, many partial Preterists are convinced that Prets have left the faith. It is an authority-thing though, as Prets have simply left their faith.

Reformation in Church History… and Church Present

That the Preterist view is only now creating this kind of stir should be no surprise to any student of Church history. All areas of life, theology included, are developed as precept is placed upon precept, line upon line. It wasn’t too long ago that the established church excommunicated scientists for “heresy.”

Also, History has been marked by reformations in other areas of theology, but there has not yet been a good “Church-wide” debate over eschatology in the history of Christianity! The truth of the matter is that there has not yet been such a need! Consider the 16th Century: The effect on soteriology (doctrines of salvation) by the Protestant Reformation was necessitated by the prevailing “orthodox” doctrines of the Catholic Church. Only now, at the end of the 20th Century, do we find such an incredible need for eschatological reformation. The world is right on schedule for a renewal of the first century’s impact upon our lives. The 21st century will mark the second millennial period since Christ’s Advent.

The hysteria surrounding the contemporary doctrines regarding end-times is not new to Christian history. When the year 1000 approached, thousands left their homes, believing that the “millennium” of Christ was ending. Today, millions of Christians have similarly abandoned the world and the vigilance of their faith, due to their belief about end-times. Their doctrinally-based reality leads many to believe that the end of the world (or, at least, their place in it) is upon them. There is much debate regarding the direction Futurist theology has led Christianity and, consequently, the world. I believe it has had self-apparently negative effects in understanding and ethics.

In addition to the preceding reasons why reformation is overdue, we must realize that all Scriptural knowledge was not placed upon the early church. In fact, a quick perusal of our existing early documents will abundantly affirm that there was great disagreement regarding much, eschatology included. Justin Martyr wrote the following around A.D.150 : “Chiliasm (earthly millennial rule of Christ) found no favor with the best of the Apostolic Fathers… the support from the Apologists too, is extremely meager, only one from among their number can with reasonable fairness be claimed (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, v. 25 – 36 ).”

We agree with Johann Neander, who stated, “the words of Christ, like His works, contain within them the germ of an infinite development, reserved for future ages to unfold.” (Life of Christ, 165). Even Henry Alford acknowledged the need for greater revelation, due to his lack of a reliable interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, and the admitted failures of his “double-sense” hermeneutic, in stating:

‘I think it proper to state, in this third edition, that, having now entered upon the deeper study of the prophetic portions of the New Testament, I do not feel by any means that full confidence which I once did in the exegesis, quoad prophetical interpretation, here given of the three portions of (Matthew) chap. xxv. But I have no other system to substitute, and some of the points here dwelt on seem to me as weighty as ever. I very much question whether the thorough study of Scripture prophecy will not make me more and more distrustful of all human systematizing, and less willing to hazard strong assertion on any portion of the subject.’ (July 1855.)

Even if the early church was given all knowledge, so that eschatological development should be odd, the overwhelming majority of their works are no longer in existence. Sadly, thousands upon thousands of Christianity’s earliest works were either naturally consumed, were destroyed by the Catholic church or were buried deep within the vaults of the Vatican library during the dark ages.

Eschatology in Church History

This is not to say, however, that Preterism is a new or novel construction, unfounded by historical writing. In fact, if we were to nominate the eschatological views most consistently held throughout the history of Christianity, the Preterist view of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25, Luke 17 and 21, Mark 13) would be near or at the top of the list. The challenge, in fact, is to find even one early Christian that didn’t teach the Preterist interpretation of Matthew 24. As was shown, the earliest and most significant writers were in unanimous agreement, proclaiming the fulfillment of these prophecies in the time of the A.D.70 destruction of the Jewish temple, city, and nation.

Due to the heavy contemporary reliance upon the work of Iraeneus (who relied upon Papias alone for his Chiliasm, according to Eusebius), Christians have the tendency to think that all early writers were Chialists and Futurists. This is simply not so. The most eminent men of the early centuries were completely satisfied that the desolation of Jerusalem was the working of God in the fulfillment of the promises of Christ that “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matt. 24:34)

As stated previously, the overwhelming majority (if not totality) of early Christian writings support the fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse in the first century. Again displaying the universality of this belief in the in the first few centuries of Christianity, Chrysostom states, in the fourth century:

“For I will ask them, Did He send the prophets and wise men? Did they slay them in their synagogue? Was their house left desolate? Did all the vengeance come upon that generation? It is quite plain that it was so, and no man gainsays it.” (Homily LXXIV, A.D.347)

Origen had the confidence to write the following in the late second century:

“I challenge anyone to prove my statement untrue if I say that the entire Jewish nation was destroyed less than one whole generation later on account of these sufferings which they inflicted on Jesus. For it was, I believe, forty-two years from the time when they crucified Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem.” (Contra Celsum, 198-199)

Displaying why these fulfillments were vital to Christian understanding, no less an authority than Athanasius (A.D. 340) wrote the following:

“Now observe; that city, since the coming of our Savior, has had an end, and all the land of the Jews has been laid waste; so that from the testimony of these things (and we need no further proof, being assured by our own eyes of the fact) there must, of necessity, be an end of the shadow. For as soon as these things were done, everything was finished, for the altar was broken, and the veil of the temple was rent; and although the city was not yet laid waste, the abomination was ready to sit in the midst of the temple, and the city and those ancient ordinances to receive their final consummation. (Athanasius, Festal Letters, VIII)

More recently, Josephus (first-century Jewish author who wrote a history of the Roman-Jewish War) authority Steve Mason wrote that Christianity has been historically Preteristic :

“It has been a standard feature of Christian preaching through the ages that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 was really God’s decisive punishment of the Jewish people for their rejection of Jesus, who died around the year 30.” (Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament)

The power of such statements cannot be overlooked. This directly contradicts the irresponsible statements of many contemporary teachers, who boldly declare that the destruction of Jerusalem had little prophetic significance. These are the same men who hold pious embargoes against study of the writings of the early sacred and secular historians, likely fearing that an examination of them would tend to lead people to believe other than they.

More Than Eschatology

Even though Preterism is largely defined by its eschatology, the greater significance of an understanding of total fulfillment is in understanding the entire purpose for the plan of redemption. The great “rapture” passage in I Thessalonians 4 is about redemption, not just simply physical eschatology. To paraphrase Athanasius, and as stated above, the great purpose of the destruction of Jerusalem was that the temporal shadows might cease, being replaced by that to which they pointed – full redemption in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Preterism is about the fulfillment of all things promised by the Apostles and Prophets. As Luke 21 declares:

And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation in nigh. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up, and lift up your heads; because your redemption draweth nigh. {32} Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass till all be fulfilled. (vv.20,22,28,32)

Included in all things are those events to which many people still look for fulfillment: 1. The second coming of Christ, 2. The Judgment, and 3. The Resurrection (which is the redemption spoken of here – cf. John 11:25,26, John 3:6).