Why I don’t like being labelled a “preterist”

Read time: 5 minutes

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.

Andrew, thanks for taking the time to respond to my question.

When I refer to myself as a preterist, I do it just to say that I believe most or all biblical prophesy has already been fulfilled. The funny thing is I didn’t start referring to myself as a preterist until I came across your work :)

My views currently waver between partial and full preterism because I’m not convinced the period of the Spirit empowered church/reign of Christ is ongoing, and I’m not convinced Revelation is an actual revelation.

But I see now why you avoid the term “preterism.”

Doug Wilkinson | Thu, 10/06/2016 - 18:24 | Permalink

While some of your criticism of preterism is fair, I don’t think you are engaging some of the recent work that has been done to try to identify preterist thought in the post-70AD early church. Just like justification, eschatology wasn’t systematically defined in this era. But, the foundation of the assumed fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse and Daniel’s 70 Week prophecy found in the early church leads straight to preterism, and doesn’t allow the status of orthodoxy for many non-preterist modern opinions on eschatology. These observations, along with the failure of the world to melt at the 6,000 year point as proposed by early premillennial writers, certainly makes modern premillennialism a precarious system.

In the end, I think your blind spot is making too much of the Roman church as the fulfillment of eschatological hope. It was the smaller of the Christian movements by population and geography in the first 1,000 years of Christianity. Your analysis of eschatology based on the collapse of Roman-based Christendom is a false premise.

Doug, the question of whether the church after AD 70 understood its eschatology in realistic historical terms is a good one. My sense has been that once we get out of the Jewish milieu, the historical frame of reference fades pretty quickly. Apocalypticism survives for a while, into the second century, but loses its historical bearings. Eusebius and Lactantius, however, see in Constantine some sort of fulfilment of New Testament hope, do they not?

What have you got in mind here: “the foundation of the assumed fulfillment of the Olivet Discourse and Daniel’s 70 Week prophecy found in the early church”? Where in the early church?

I don’t think the size of the Roman church has anything to do with my argument. The hope was that persecution would be brought to an end, the enemies of the church would be judged, including supremely pagan Rome as the unrighteous political power the dominated the world from Jerusalem to Spain, believers would be vindicated, and Jesus would be confessed as kyrios by the nations. There is no reference to the Roman church in this scenario.

Also, the analysis has nothing to do with the collapse of European (not Roman) Christendom. That is a development beyond the horizon of the New Testament. It is our problem, not the New Testament’s.

I think it’s fairly easy to see early church writers assuming that the Olivet Discourse and/or the 70 Weeks of Daniel prophecy were fulfilled in the Roman War. Off of the top of my head I’ve seen such assertions in Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Eusebius. I’d suggest reading “The Early Church and the End of the World” by DeMar and Gumerlock for about 40 pages of examples of early and medieval church interpretation following this line. I am not proposing that these writers had a fully formed preterism in mind (some of them were clearly futurists, though I’d argue that they were incoherent in their eschatology). I’m simply saying that they assumed that major foundations of modern eschatology were already fulfilled. Once those foundations are seen analytically for what they are it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than some sort of preterism. If those authors, especially the early ones such as Clement, have some sort of oral tradition handed down to them (which would be the only reason to give them any particular authority on the topic) then modern futurist systems should be thrown out for some as yet unformulated one. Or, the proto-preterism in their statements could simply be taken at face value.

It’s my understanding that the role of the collapse of Christendom in your system is based heavily on the collapse of Christianity as it evolved in the west from what became the Roman church. My point is that there were larger, more important churches that had come and gone long before western European Christendom fell apart. I just don’t see it as that big of a deal, certainly not something that demonstrates a crisis in understanding eschatology.

It’s my understanding that the role of the collapse of Christendom in your system is based heavily on the collapse of Christianity as it evolved in the west from what became the Roman church.

I think you’ve misunderstood my argument, then. The second horizon of New Testament eschatology is judgment against Rome and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of empire or oikoumenē. That horizon has to do with the world from Jerusalem to Spain—the world claimed by Paul’s apostolic ministry for the God of Israel. That establishes the premise, but that’s as far as the political-apocalyptic vision of the New Testament goes. What would happen elsewhere or 1500 years is not anticipated.

But from our point of view as the church in secular Europe (other western churches may or may not see themselves in the same boat), as the direct heirs of that narrative, I think it is a matter of enormous theological-missional significance that the long age of Christian hegemony has been brought to a catastrophic end.

Mark Edward | Thu, 10/06/2016 - 18:42 | Permalink

Bullet point 2 is really the main reason I don’t self-identify as a ‘preterist’ anymore. Where futurism has a predisposition toward reading prophecies as yet to be fulfilled, preterism has a predisposition toward reading them as fulfilled in AD 70. The conclusion is determined first, and everything is bent to fit that conclusion, no matter how much violence is done to text or context to sustain that assumption. Which, of course, is not a ‘critical’ reading of the text, it’s just another form of the exaggerated ‘let scripture interpret scripture’ mode of thought found in futurist eschatology.

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.

Andrew… this seems a bit odd. The more full prêterist take on this does NOT “exclude a final judgment / new creation as a matter of principle” far from it; but simply interprets it other than you do. The full prêterist take would be more like… AD70 WAS the ‘final judgement’ on “the old covenant world” and NOT the time-space universe or “world”, with the ‘new creation’ being Christ’s new covenant world; again nothing to do with terra firma nor the space beyond.

Well, yes, obviously. AD 70 was a “final” judgment on second temple Judaism. The overthrow of Babylon the great is a “final” judgment on the age of classical paganism. And in my view, in Revelation 20:11-15 John, in keeping with much Jewish apocalyptic thought, describes a “final” judgment on a creation or cosmos corrupted by sin and death.

The post-70 A.D. dating of the book of Revelation renders all preterist thought null and void. The earliest Christian historian who recorded the church’s knowledge of the Domitianic dating of Revelation was Hegessippus in 150 A.D. (around the time when most of those who would have known John had likely already died), and this continued to be the unanimous view until about 4 centuries later with the Syriac Peshitta NT manuscript in which someone wrote that John was exiled under Nero.

It is sometimes claimed that the Neronic dating is in the original, but this is impossible since the original lacked the book of Revelation. From what I’ve been able to gather, there is no source or reasoning given for this change in that 6th century manuscript. This is problematic at best, and lacks the authoritativeness that would be required to credibly make such a huge revision to what was commonly accepted and passed down from the end of the first century/beginning of the 2nd.

The same can be said for the Muratorian Fragment, which is the 7th century copy of the 2nd century original, with no way to prove the Neronic dating was in the original. There is no record of any of the early church fathers holding to the Neronic date of Revelation. A fascinating glimpse into the early church fathers and what they believed on a variety of topics is in ‘A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’, over 700 pages compiled by David Bercot. In addition to Hegessippus (who, notably, wrote this prior to Irenaeus), Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Jerome, Sulpicius Severus, and a number of other church fathers both before and not long after the council at Nicaea all confirm that John was exiled to Patmos by Domitian where he received Revelation. The lack of any dissenting view naming Nero in place of Domitian until the 6th century should give early-date advocates pause. So at least most of the events of Revelation are still in our future (some view the messages to the churches as having already been strictly for them and completely fulfilled, while some view each church as symbolic for a different time period, and of course there could be room for double-fulfillment of most of those first 3 chapters).

There was a celebration on Patmos in 1995 commemorating 1900 years (approximately, as in 95 or 96 A.D.) since the Revelation Jesus gave to John. Also, what other events in the 1st century A.D. are ever claimed as taking place 2 or 3 decades earlier (or later, for that matter)? With all of the accurate records kept during the Roman Empire era and surviving today, there is little room for such a vast difference being feasible. It’s commonly believed that Jesus died around 30 or 33 A.D., Paul and Peter were martyred in the 60’s, Nero lived from 37-68 A.D., etc. No one says Jesus died in 3 A.D. or 60 A.D., or that Peter and Paul were martyred in the 30’s A.D. or 90’s A.D., or that Nero actually reigned around the time of Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels. The majority of scholarship places John’s writing of Revelation in the mid-90’s, but somehow preterists think it’s ok to go against the overwhelming consensus of the past 2000 years? The great fire of Rome took place for nearly a week during 64 A.D., but no one places it in 54 A.D. let alone 34 A.D. A powerful earthquake in 60 A.D. devastated Laodicea. And yet no one ever says that earthquake took place in 30 A.D. 30 years prior. With the vast majority of evidence to the contrary, preterism literally rests on this single pillar of the dating of the book of Revelation. And, really, that is no pillar at all in light of the historicity of the late date.

“Why does a later authorship date mean some of the imagery can’t be referring to the destruction of the Temple?”

Because Revelation is a book of prophecy, not history.  The 2nd temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., about 2 and half decades prior to the writing of Revelation.

So you would say that the seven letters that describe the characteristics of the Asia Minor churches are not describing the churches at the time, but churches in the future?  And the heavenly elders and angels worshipping God are were not worshipping him in John’s day or currently, but in the future?  The woman who gives birth to the child who rules the nations — that is some child born in the future and not describing Jesus, yes?  And, afterward, when Satan is cast down from heaven, that does not describe something that happened earlier, but will happen in the future?

Or is it perhaps appropriate to say, similarly to Old Testament apocalyptic prophets, that the images blend some of past circumstances and present circumstances in order to give context to the future projections?

It’s important to note that John was not witnessing the actual birth of Christ here, but a great sign appearing in Heaven (Revelation 12:1) that would reperesent past events shown throughout the chapter.  The sign was being shown to John in the future, while the sign itself pointed to a past event.  These are not one and the same.  The same applies to the devil being thrown out of Heaven.  (vs 3, ‘another sign appeared in Heaven’)

Regarding the rest of your questions, sometimes there is room in the Bible for partial fulfillments or types & shadows of things to come.

Blessings to you.

Thanks for this.

I agree that Revelation cannot be taken as consistently referring to events leading up to or associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome. Nevertheless:

1. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that parts of the text (I would suggest the seven trumpets) have this calamity in view, either because the book incorporates earlier material or as vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy after the event).

2. I think there is a clear focus on the defeat of pagan imperial Rome and the victory of the martyrs in the latter part of the book. This was obviously going to be further off than the fall of Jerusalem, but it still belongs to the historical purview of the early church, not to ours. My view is that it is only the final judgment and the appearance of a new heaven and earth (Rev. 20:11-21:8) that lie in our future.