I asserted in the last post on the “firstfruits” that my reading of New Testament eschatology “is not preterism; it is a matter of taking the historical perspective of the early church seriously”. Peter thinks that taking the historical perspective of the early church seriously is exactly what preterists do. So surely, the distinction is spurious?
I have to say, my effort over the years to distance myself from modern preterism has been a little tongue-in-cheek, but there is a serious point to it. Preterism frames our reading of the New Testament in a particular way, both historically and hermeneutically. My contention is that the evolving literary-historical methodologies of New Testament studies will provide, in the long run, a broader and more robust basis for constructing a properly “evangelical” theology for the age to come.
What follows is a quick review of my reasons for resisting the “preterist” label.
- Preterism has its own distinctive history, having to do more with the Protestant polemic against Roman Catholicism than with critical interpretation. The preterist argument is usually traced back to a sixteenth century Jesuit, Luis de Alcasar, who developed it during the Counter Reformation in response to the Protestant identification of Rome with the antichrist. The Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius, likewise, was attracted to the argument for ecumenical reasons.
- There is an a priori and schematic character to modern preterist approaches: interpretation has to conform to established assumptions about biblical prophecy, and proponents can be quite dogmatic. I have had many conversations here with people who seem to think it is necessary to exclude a final judgment / new creation as a matter of principle. The term “preterism” comes from the Latin praeter, which means “beyond”: we are beyond or past the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. I take the view that prophetic texts should be assessed according to content and context.
- Preterism, like most theologically or polemically motivated readings of the New Testament, tends to read retrospectively. It’s a fine distinction, but I think the key to reading the prophetic-apocalyptic material—indeed, to reading the New Testament as a whole—is to develop a forward-looking perspective. It is to ask: how did the future look from the point of view of Jesus and the apostles and how did they make use of biblical-apocalyptic resources available to them to speak about it?
- In this respect, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that the outlook of the apostles and churches in the Greek-Roman world was not the same as the outlook of Jesus and his disciples in Galilee and Judea. Jesus naturally had the fate of Jerusalem and the temple in view (Matt. 23:37-24:2). The apostles were building churches that would have to withstand severe persecution through to the day when the pagan nations abandoned their gods and confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is a shift in eschatological horizon given to us by the historical narrative.
- In the nineteenth century historical criticism arrived at similar conclusions to preterism regarding the historical reference and time-frame of New Testament prophecies but decided that the prophecies were simply mistaken—the world did not end within a generation of Jesus’ death. Historical criticism, however, has come a long way since then, and I think we are now in a position to construct a much more sympathetic account of how New Testament prophecy interacted with its historical context. Notably we have a much better sense of how first century Jews saw their world and developed visions of hope for a transformed future. For an extended discussion of this point see “Narrative-realism, Preterism, and the relevance of scripture”. My impression is that modern preterism is largely driven by nineteenth century assumptions and hasn’t caught up with developments in scholarship over the last few decades, but that is perhaps unfair.
- Modern preterism, it seems to me, is almost entirely focused on, and defined by, the controversy over the fulfilment of prophecy. The narrative-historical approach that I advocate here puts the emphasis not on prophecy but on the historical existence of the people of God. The requires, on the one hand, an integrated approach to the New Testament, but it also pushes us to consider the continuing story of that people, which in the modern context raises important questions about the life and mission of the church after Christendom. This may again be an unfair representation of modern preterism, which seems to be largely an American business—I have no direct experience of it. But I would argue, nonetheless, that a broadly narrative-historical-critical methodology offers the best ground for reconstructing our understanding of, and our relation to, scripture. Antiquated polemical labels such as premillennialist or preterist merely distract, divide and derail us. Preterism gets us close to where we need to go, but to my way of thinking it has reached a dead-end. History, not dogma, gives us a credible future.
I have at times found preterists fractious and disputatious, but I must say that a number of people who would, I think, call themselves preterists have engaged with my arguments here in an very helpful fashion. I also appreciate the fact that my dogged pursuit of the narrative-historical method will appear to many as rigid and dogmatic as the full preterist’s insistence that all New Testament prophecy was fulfilled by AD 70. Can’t be helped.