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Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel

In regard to my first post, "The Coming of Christ, Sacraments etc.", the question has been asked, "What is meant by a preterist approach to biblical eschatology?  What is preterism?"  In response I offer this very brief introduction and overview. 

In a nutshell, preterism is one of the three main approaches to interpreting the "end times" prophecies of Scripture.  These three are preterism, historicism, and futurism.  Of course there are almost endless variations and differences in detail within each of these camps, but they are three distinct approaches. 

Preterists believe that the prophecies of both Old and New Testaments should be first approached with the idea of "original audience relevance" in mind.  This leads them to look for the meaning in the prophecies which was most likely the original intent for those who first received them.  Historicists and futurists are more likely to apply the prophecies to later historical time periods and events. 

Historicists see a progressive unfolding of fulfillment in history from the prophet's time and onward throughout the course of human history.  This would mean that, from our present perspective, many of the prophecies have already unfolded (an example of this would be the classic historicist belief, popular among Protestant reformers, that the emergence of the papacy was the fulfilment of the Sea Beast of Revelation Chapter 13, and/or the Great Harlot of Chapter 17).  But for historicists this also means that some parts of biblical prophecy are yet to be fulfilled in our future (for example, they would still be anticipating "the great tribulation" and "the second coming of Christ" as yet future). 

Futurists, particularly those who are devoted to the very popular Dispensationalist brand of futurism (most fundamentalists and many evangelicals fall into this category) very often apply the prophecies almost entirely to their own generation and to the near future.  Hal Lindsay and the more recent writers of the popular "Left Behind" series of books are in the Dispensational futurist camp.  These are the folks who are always sure that "the rapture" is right around the corner and that contemporary world events are "signs" that we must be living in "the last days."

There is another school of thought known as "idealism" which tries to blend these three approaches.  Idealism proposes that the prophecies weren't intended to have any one specific and detailed fulfillment.  Rather it sees them as generalized pictures of spiritual and historical conditions that are going to be replayed in various ways, and with many variations, throughout history until the end finally comes.  Idealists believe that God intended for prophecy to work in this way so that it might have a "timeless relevance" to Christians in every age.  They might say that each of the three main schools of interpretation is correct in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies.  It seems apparent to me that any thinking student of Scripture and history  could agree to some extent with this observation, although I believe it is wrong to ignore the primacy of "original audience relevance" and "authorial intent" when interpreting biblical prophecy.   In other words, I believe preterism is essentially right to look for the primary fulfillment of Bible prophecies in past historical events relevant to the people to whom they were given, without denying that there are principles revealed in the prophecies which can be applied in some sense to later historical conditions and circumstances.  After all, the human condition is such that the basics of history and spiritual struggle are repeated over and over again.

Within the preterist camp (especially in the past 30 years or so) there is a wide diversity of belief on all kinds of issues.  The more creedally inclined preterists (actually they are partial preterists and partial futurists) still believe that there is a final "coming" of Christ which is yet future.  They hold the preterist view that the apocalyptic passages in the Synoptic gospels and Revelation were pointing almost entirely to First Century events, but would still apply the events at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:7-10) and also the Great White Throne Judgment scene (Rev. 20:11-15) and the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. chapters 21 and 22) to our future.  They usually understand this final coming of Christ to be cataclysmic and bringing about a complete change in the physical order of the universe (this they have in common with all futurists).  Partial preterists are firmly within the Protestant evangelical sphere even though they have been adamantly challenged by Dispensational futurists.  Many fundamentalist dispensationalists would go so far as to consider partial preterists as heretics because the preterist approach effectively dismantles many of their most cherished ideas.  The past 20 years especially have seen a raging "eschatology war" within evangelical theological circles.

The more radical preterists believe that all the prophecies have been fulfilled and that the second coming (which futurists are still expecting) has already happened in the historical events surrounding Jerusalem's destruction in AD 70.  They consider themselves to be "full" or "consistent" preterists.  Many, but not all, of these folks have abandoned sacramental practices because they believe this is consistent with the fact that we're now living in what was, for Jesus and the apostolic Church, "the age to come."  That is, the Old Covenant Age is past (its doom having been finally sealed in the destruction of Jerusalem and The Temple) and we're now living in the Age of the New Covenant.  They believe this present New Covenant Age is also designated in scripture as the time of "the New Heavens and the New Earth."  Partial preterists generally consider "full preterists" to be heretical, or at least heterodox (they usually call them "hyper-preterists") because of their rather extreme and counter-creedal tendencies.

I would recommend the following article by partial preterist Kenneth Gentry as a good starting place for trying to understand what preterism is.  Gentry is an excellent and widely respected Reformed (Presbyterian) scholar who has contributed immensely to the research and debate around this issue.  He has engaged fruitfully with respected scholars in the futurist camp and also has a clear grasp of the issues relating to the more radical and counter-creedal versions of full preterism.  The article is found on the Preterist Archive website which houses a voluminous amount of material relevant to preterism.  One could spend a lifetime wading through the material to be found there (and I would definitely not recommend it, especially for the uninitiated).  Gentry's article will give the interested reader a very good introductory overview for now.  An even better overview and introduction would be R. C. Sproul's book, "The Last Days According to Jesus".  It was in reading this book 20 years ago that my eyes were opened and a paradigm shift began to take place in my thinking about biblical prophecy and eschatology.  The Lord used this shift to also open my eyes to much of what George Fox saw, and it accelerated my already awakening appreciation for early Quaker thought and values.  Gentry's article:

I'd be glad to try and answer any specific questions anyone may have regarding this topic.

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