Thursday, January 7, 2010

Exegetical Eschatology: A War Over Words

Before I start this post, I want to correct something I said previously in this series. In "Four Views of the Future," I stated that "Discussions over the timing...of Christ's return relative to the 'millennium'--premillennial, millennial, amillenial--are discussions about the chronology of future events from a futurist's perspective." This is not really true. Adherents to the other major views also hold certain positions regarding the thousand years of Revelation and its timing relative to the return of Christ--myself included. Please forgive my error.

Also, I said that in the next entry in this series "we'll look a bit more closely at the variations within futurism." I had intended at that time to discuss the pre-trib, mid-trib and post-trib views of the "rapture", and the pre-mil, a-mil and post-mil views of the "millennium" within the futurist camp. I've decided against this, however, as explaining these views this early on in the series is unnecessary, and requires introducing concepts I wish to save for later. So instead, I will discuss these schools of futurism when the relevant topics come up.

Now, in that introductory post I also said that coming up next would be a discussion of "a war over words regarding preterism." Indeed, that is the subject of this post. I feel this is an important addendum to the introduction to the four views of eschatology because the term "preterism" is often met with immediate concern by other Christians. This is because the term has been, as of late, associated with a recent eschatological position that places itself, by its beliefs, outside the orthodox faith of historic Christianity. This needs to be clarified, therefore, lest the orthodox view that historically goes by the term "preterism" be immediately dismissed by my readers.


"But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some." (2 Timothy 2:16-18)
Paul, in the first century, spoke out in this passage against a heresy being perpetuated at that time by, among others, Hymenaeus. Hymenaeus said "the resurrection has already taken place," and Paul likened this to "gangrene," the death and decay of body tissue resulting from injury or disease. As it turns out, this gangrenous heresy has been resurrected in modern times (excuse the pun).

I said in the earlier post that "despite their differences in understanding of the 'end times,' adherents to each of these doctrines have, historically, agreed to the following 'essentials' of the Christian faith: the future return of Christ, the future bodily resurrection of the dead, and the future final judgment and consummation of all things." This is true of the historic view called "preterism," but in the past few decades (at most) a new view that denies these essentials has coopted the term, and as a result orthodox preterists are often met with shock, concern or, at best, disinterest and dismissal whenever they present their view.

Like the Hymenaeus of old, this new view teaches that the resurrection of the dead prophesied by the Bible has already taken place, placing itself outside the pale of orthodoxy. They do so further by teaching that the return of Christ has already taken place; that the final judgment has already taken place; and that the consummation of all things has already taken place. Most Christians who have a limited familiarity with the term "preterist" appear to associate it with this resurrected heresy.


(In much of what follows, I will be relying heavily upon the work of orthodox preterist Dee Dee Warren, host of The Preterist Podcast, whom I highly recommend when it comes to exegetical eschatology. Please reference her article, "[Sem]ANTICS: Perfuming the Hog" and its corresponding podcast episode.)

Those who hold this radical new view insist that the term "preterist" only truly applies to them. This is because the term comes from the root word preter which means "past." Whereas orthodox preterists have historically held that there are biblical prophecies yet to be fulfilled (the "essentials" listed above), this modern reinventing of an ancient heresy teaches that all biblical prophecy has been fulfilled by events in the past. Therefore, its adherents demand, only they can truly be called preterists.

Instead, they argue, the view of orthodox preterists is at best called "partial preterism" or "inconsistent preterism," whereas theirs, if needing a qualifier at all, ought to be referred to as "full preterism" or "consistent preterism." As Dee Dee Warren writes,

"For quite some time now the hyperpreterists have been attempting to ride in on the coattails of doctrinal respectability by usurping a historically orthodox term - preterism. At times they will accept the qualifier of 'full,' but increasingly in their writings they insist upon hijacking the historic term for themselves, and pasting the label 'partial' upon those who hold to the historic and orthodox understanding."

Unfortunately, orthodox preterists--and proponents of other views who might defend the orthodoxy of historic preterism--have passively allowed this heresy to gain ground in the "war of the words." For example, in his defense of orthodox preterism, R.C. Sproul wrote, "Maybe the terms that best describe the two positions are full Preterism and partial Preterism" (The Last Days According to Jesus, pp. 156-157). I, personally, love Sproul's work, read his books (including this one), listen to his podcast and have attended one of his conferences. Yet, writing this sentence was, in my opinion, a mistake. As Dennis Sawnson wrote,

"To take the long-established theological and hermeneutical construct of Preterism and then grant to usurpers the high ground that the terms 'full' or 'consistent' denote, while relegating the established position to that of 'partial' or some other weaker label is to yield ground without reason." (Reformation or Retrogression: An Examination of the International Preterist Association's Claims and Methodology)

On the other hand, some orthodox preterists choose instead to apply a prefix to this modern heresy, calling it "hyperpreterism." As we will see, they argue that it is this view that places itself outside the bounds of the historic faith and meaning of the word "Christian." It does so by taking an orthodox view--that most biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the past--and taking it to an extreme--that all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the past. The definition of the prefix hyper is "implying excess or exaggeration," finding its roots in Greek where it meant "over." Thus, applying this prefix seems reasonable.

So regardless of which side is "winning" in this war of the words, which is justified in their choice of terminology? Are those who teach that all prophecies were fulfilled in the past thus correct in labeling orthodox preterists "partial" preterists? Or are those whose views are within the pale of historic orthodoxy justified in calling this extreme view "hyperpreterism?"


If one looks up the word "preterist" in the dictionary, one will likely find a definition like this: "a person who maintains that the prophecies in the Apocalypse have already been fulfilled." In this war of words, this is used as a sort of "silver bullet" by those who demand that the term "preterist" only truly applies to those who hold that all biblical prophecy has been fulfilled. However, dictionaries define words based on their past usage, and in this case they point to its application in the past to orthodox preterists, not heretics. As Dee Dee Warren has pointed out regarding the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary's definition:

"The source that the dictionary gives for this definition is Farrar (1831-1903.)...Farrar considered himself a preterist, and yet he did not believe ALL prophecy was fulfilled. How is it that Farrar could consider himself a preterist if the definition of preterist, as hyperpreterists would have us believe, which HE ALLEGEDLY WROTE, is a person who believes ALL prophecy is fulfilled? He couldn't. Farrar himself also listed a group of men that he labeled as 'preterists' (see here) and yet none of them believed that ALL prophecy was fulfilled either (as admitted by the hyperpreterist-slanted site where that is found where all four men are listed as 'historic preterists.') How can that be if the hyperpreterist insistence is correct? It can't be. This is not honestly dealing with the definition."

In other words, the dictionary cites as the origin of the word its use by an orthodox preterist in applying it to himself, and to other orthodox preterists, rather than to adherents to the radical view. But Warren goes further:

"Farrar also stated:

'It has been usual to say that the Spanish Jesuit Alcasar... was the founder of the Preterist School... But to me it seems that the founder of the Preterist School is none other than St. John himself.' (The Early Days of Christianity)

"We know that Alcasar (17th century) was not a hyperpreterist. Yet he founded the preterist school?"

So not only did Farrar apply the term "preterist" to himself and other orthodox preterists, but he pointed to another orthodox preterist as the founder of preterism itself. In fact, as Warren notes, Farrar defined the term using the language of orthodox preterism, saying,

"There have been three great schools of Apocalyptic interpretation :- 1. The Præterists, who regard the book as having been mainly fulfilled. 2. The Futurists, who refer it to events which are still wholly future. 3. The Continuous-Historical Interpreters, who see in it an outline of Christian history from the days of St. John down to the End of all things." The Early Days of Christianity

Orthodox preterists use similar terminology, saying that eschatological prophecies in the Bible have been "mainly" or "mostly" fulfilled. As Warren puts it, "It is patently obvious that he was NOT juxtaposing WHOLLY FULFILLED with WHOLLY FUTURE. He used 'mainly fulfilled' to describe the preterist position and that is in fact the orthodox preterist position, not the hyperpreterist position, on Revelation."

It would seem, then, that while modern dictionaries do define "preterism" using language that suggests the extreme view, their citation of its origins points to the historic, orthodox view. As such, these dictionary definitions are not the silver bullet they're claimed to be. Instead, they suggest the term more properly applies to orthodox preterists.


More important than secular dictionary definitions of words, and more relevant to this discussion, labels like "partial" and "hyper" are only necessary when the terms they prepend do not sufficiently indicate diversity within a larger group. But if the terms themselves are sufficient, any prefixes are superfluous and potentially confusing. For example, in one's wardrobe one is likely to find a variety of articles of clothing. Within this larger group that has in common the purpose of covering nakedness, there are several sub-groups: shirts and pants (among others). The terms shirt and pants sufficiently indicate the diversity within the larger group of clothes. It would be unnecessary to refer to "shirts worn on the upper body" and "pants worn on the lower body." All shirts are worn on the upper body, and all pants are worn on the lower body.

In the discussion over prophecy amongst Christians, a similar diversity appears within the larger group. What is the larger group? Christians. What is the diversity therein? Futurists, Preterists, Historicists and Idealists. These terms sufficiently categorize the sub-groups within the larger category, the Church. Certainly, there may be further division within them; for example, amongst futurists there are those who hold that the rapture will occur before the tribulation, those who hold that it will occur in the middle of the tribulation, and those who hold that it will occur afterwards. Hence, labels like "pre-tribulational," "mid-tribulational" and "post-tribulational" may be necessary to further describe diversity within futurism.

However, while there are preterists within the larger group of Christianity who differ in their interpretation of certain biblical passages, they all hold to the same "essentials" held by all Christians regarding eschatology: that Christ will return physically in the future, that all the dead will be physically resurrected, and that the final consummation of all things will occur in the future. Those who hold to this new version of the ancient heresy of Hymenaeus do not fall within the larger group, because they deny these "essentials" agreed upon throughout the history of orthodox Christianity. Thus, it is not orthodox preterism that requires the prefix, since the term preterism sufficiently distinguishes it from other schools of thought within the larger group of the Church. Instead, it is the modern, extreme form that, if worthy of any form of the term, requires a prefix distinguishing it from the orthodox faith.

Here's how Dee Dee Warren puts it:

"sometimes hyperpreterists, and well-meaning non-heretics, will say those of my eschatological persuasion...are simply a variant of futurist. This is boldly historically inaccurate and nonsensical. One cannot be considered a futurist simply because they believe the physical, bodily return of Christ and the physical, bodily resurrection are future. This discussion is framed with an historical Christian context. ALL CHRISTIANS believe those things...Therefore, it is completely redundant to say within a Christian (historical) context that a person is a futurist with regards to these items. Those things are presumed and subsumed within the title of 'Christian.' This would be about as silly as claiming all Christians are preterists simply because they believe the Messiah has already come. All Christians believe the Messiah has already come, so there is no need to make a distinction between Christians on something that all Christians have always believed...
Therefore, in historical context, the terms 'futurist' and 'preterist' have been used to describe a person's belief on the timing of debatable events, most notably, the Great Tribulation, and sometimes, the 'coming,' that is described in Matthew 24...
This point becomes very patently obvious when one throws in the other players into this eschatological dispute - namely historicism and idealism. When those two terms are examined, it is very obvious the issue in dispute is NOT the timing (i.e. futuricity) of the Second Coming or General Resurrection, it is regarding the timing and nature of the events leading up to that point. In orthodoxy, historicists are not those who believe the event known as the Second Coming is manifested throughout history typically through the church age. That is preposterous. Similarly, in orthodoxy, idealists are not those who believe the Second Coming of Christ is manifested ideally throughout the church age, but rather both of these views hold this is a discrete and distinct event yet in our future (even if there are manifestations and applications throughout this age). All these views hold the futuricity in common because that is a basic Christian belief. It does not make any of these views futurist, it makes them Christian."

Forgive the long quote; Warren can, like me, be a bit verbose. Perhaps that's why I enjoy her work. But she puts it exactly right: the terms "futurism" and "preterism," as well as "historicism" and "idealism," are applied where Christians divide in their interpretation of debatable events. They all, however, agree when it comes to the non-debatable events, including Christ's future, bodily return. As such, any seeming variant of one of these groups whose beliefs put it outside the larger group, that of the historic Christian faith, require prefixes and labels, not those within the Church.


For these reasons and more, throughout this series I will refer to orthodox preterism, that view that has existed within the historic Christian faith for millennia, simply as preterism, and its proponents as preterists. Those who've resurrected the Hymenaean heresy will instead be referred to as hyperpreterists.

Additionally, I would encourage my readers to put aside any preconceived notions they have of preterism, as it is possible that any such presuppositions reflect a misunderstanding of what preterists teach, resulting from the war of the words that hyperpreterists have been waging in an attempt to lend legitimacy to their view. My purpose in this series is to take Scripture seriously, and to compare these major views honestly, and if we go into this analysis with a bias against one particular view because of the deception of others outside the orthodox Church, we may fail to properly exegete the text of the Bible.

Finally, like Dee Dee Warren, I urge orthodox Christians, whether futurist, preterist, historicist or idealist, to refuse to allow hyperpreterists to win the war of the words. As Dee Dee writes,

In closing, what I believe is what has historically been meant by the term "preterist," and we should not give up this valid moniker without a fight and let the heretics control our language. Do Calvinists let the hyperCalvinists do this? Do we hear them referring to themselves as "partial Calvinists"? No. Preterism is a theological term with a good history. Don't give it up without a fight. It is the heretics who must add a qualifier, we have no need to except perhaps in way of introduction to distinguish ourselves from this small, vocal, and militant minority. Also, do not play into the hands of semantical games with using their loaded term of "full preterist." If you reject my designation of NeoHymenæan (which I do not use in every instance) [14], I urge you to use the time-tested methodology of adding a "hyper" to the designation and refer to them as hyperpreterists - our theology is like unto a planet orbiting the sun, that is our sphere of reference - those views that are completely out of the universe of Christianity do not share the terminology of orthodoxy. Or take the route of Pastor Seraiah and adopt the new designation for this new heretical systemization of an ancient error - pantelism. But my friend, the term "preterist" belongs to you. Claim it.

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