Preterism by any other name would still be Olivetian
This essay will argue for a new approach to an old way of looking at things. Interpreting the Bible is technically called hermeneutics which refer to rules for interpreting the Bible in its own context. The Bible student may not simply go in to the story and treat everything in isolation or ignore precepts here and there choosing this one or that pell mell. No. The Bible is a manual for transformative god-likeness and each and every story is a paradigm for how to live one’s life for the glory God and the good of others (“On these two commands hang the law and the prophets”); this is obtained by having an healthful hermeneutic for understanding that paradigm. This essay will present a vibrant approach to understanding the inherent parameters set by the New Testament authors so that its readers will make no mistake in understanding precisely the nature of the eschatology of the New Testament.
It happens as often as a person sits down for personal devotions and while it cannot be avoided, it can be helped. Either by tradition and/or translation each and every believer has been influenced to think a certain way about how to understand what the Bible means by what it “says.” Individual Christians take up their Bibles and read and sometimes when they do a bout of cognitive hiccups incurs. Also known as theological speed bumps (this is my own turn-of-phrase), this condition is caused by the power of God’s word jostling the comfortable reader out of his comfort zone. Sometimes what the Bible “says” and what we read into the Bible are antithetical; sometimes, the way we have been indoctrinated to read the Bible is confronted by the Bible itself; and when this happens speed bumps are driven over, or a spell of theological hiccups ensues.
What do these TSBs look like? Everyone has this experience so it will be a soft sell. When a person reads the Bible and finds it saying something completely different than expected, presuppositions are messed with. Presuppositions are those beliefs that are a part of one’s cognitive operating system that are running at all times and are basic to a person’s daily living and touch every area of life, not just faith and practice. Our focus in this essay, however, is in the arena of faith and practice.
Take for instance, the scene in the Garden of Eden. It might escape the casual reader’s notice that the story itself reveals that Adam was right there with the Woman when she was seduced. Now, it is a minor statement but it is of major import and familiarity with the story prevents noticing details at times. One simply might have always presupposed that Adam was playing with a tiger or chasing the shadow of a hawk while the Woman was seduced. Or on a deeper level in the same story it might be presupposed that the prohibition on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was permanent, that it never was to be food for humanity. But upon closer inspection and with an eye for detail, the reader comes to the conclusion, that indeed, Adam was a priest in the garden with a food law imposed on him as training in righteousness. And as God is a God of training and instruction, training wheels are removed when subsequent aptitude is displayed.
Too many treat the New Testament as a new way of doing things without any more to say beyond the redemptive work of Christ. He came to die for the sins of the world thereby bringing the end, not only of the sacrifices, of trying to save oneself by one’s own efforts. Ask any seasoned believer why he needs Jesus and the answer will involve his “obeying God’s law in my place.” John Fesko, in his book Last Things First, depicts this system of operations when he discusses his understanding of the role of Jesus as it pertains to Adam failure in the garden. His depiction is thus: Jesus came to do what Adam failed to; had Adam obeyed and sin not entered the world, Jesus would not have had to come and undo Adam’s mess. It is reasonable to say that this presupposition is running as everyone’s OS when interpreting the New Testament story: something new is happening and it is good news.
True, the New Testament does explain the death of Christ in terms of fulfilling the Old Testament’s expectation; and true, the New has helpful hints about how to get along with each other and the world-at-large. But what about the New Testament story as a whole? Is there something about the New Testament that unites its message more succinctly while allowing for lesser but more familiarities to remain? If the Old Testament was a story of the nation of Israel operating as mediator of salvation to the nations with all its successes and foibles, what of the new? What if the new was not only the story of Jesus, the son of God, who died on the cross for the redemption of humanity? What if, what if the New Testament was the sequel to the old world wherein the former nation of priests is superseded and changed over for a new creation? If that were the case, then just as the old was one story of a nation of priests for the life of the world, so too, the new is one story about a new mediating creation of priests for the life of the world. If this were the case, one would have to be familiar with that very story itself and as it happens, many are not.
Consider the record of Cyrus’s sending Jews back to rebuild the temple (2 Chr. 36:22). He sends the Jews back to rebuild the temple to be a house of prayer for the nations. Reading between the lines, Cyrus wants the Jews to pray for him and his empire precisely because he is a man of faith. But the Jews do not accomplish this task and so put an end to sacrifice because there’s no temple. This is not a good thing because Israel was a mediating nation for the sins of the world and if sacrifice stops, then there is nothing keeping back God’s wrath upon the world and that’s why Cyrus send them back to be that mediating agent. Cyrus believed in Yahweh.
Therefore when Jesus comes on the scene and fulfills Daniel 8 and puts an end to sacrifice, there is then no mediation for the nations except through him: the temple is passe, a thing of the past.
This presentation of the gospel proclamation to the nations in the first century is the great commission. The message is this. The temple is no longer available; it is now fulfilled in Jesus and you need to change your allegiance or perish. Presuppositions about the generalities (love your neighbor; turn the other cheek) of the gospel is preclude the reader from discerning the milieu of the entire New Testament.
The dynamic import of this hermeneutic will be evident. If the New Testament is not merely an historical record of Jesus and his merry band of disciples starting a new way of doing things, there must needs be an overarching motif that informs each of the writings found in the pages of the New Covenant. Every great period piece in literature has its own sitz im leben whence flows its language, idioms, and meaning. Les Miserables, The Grape of Wrath, even The Lord of the Rings: each has a context wherein its meaning lies. The New Testament is no different and unless this motif is discerned, readers will allow their presuppositions to color their readings to dire effects.
The New Testament is not an isolated record of events that does not follow what has been anticipated by the Old. Everything the New Testament addresses flows out of the previous story line in the Old. In fact, the authors of the New intentionally allude to, employ, echo, reflect, utilize, and model their language after the patterns set up in the Old. When this principle is not followed or when the reader is unaware of this paradigm, the Bible is violated and the reader makes out like a kid in a Bible-verse store taking the lion’s share of “what-does-this-mean-for-me?” Also, the hermeneutic utilized by the authors of the New Testament when quoting the Old is often the subject of investigation precisely because a pseudo paradigmatic OS is running; incoherence abounds when authors quote a seemingly random passage as if the writer was merely seeking a text to support his main point. When the reader understands what the author understood, there is no chance of abusing the text.
In Spanish the past tense is called preterit and so the term means past. Preterism is a hermeneutical tool used to contextualize the meaning of Biblical passages because they indeed are all past in terms of their time of writing; but preterism is also necessary as a hermeneutic for the first century redemptive-cultural mileu. Preterism (in any form) is not a popular hermeneutic in the evangelical world because it can pose a threat to key Christian doctrines, namely the resurrection and creation. The reader of the New Testament story most likely will be entirely futurist. What this means is his underlying presupposition is that barring the cross and resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit, whatever else the New Testament seems to expect by way of prophecy remains unfulfilled. Passages which speak of the parousia, or the coming of the Son of Man, or the Day of Jesus/the Lord were not realized in the first century and so remain to be seen. There is great debate over this hermeneutic with particular focus placed on what Jesus taught about the nature of his prophetic utterances against the religious leaders of Israel and whether or not his language and that of Paul and Peter, et al, reflect complete fulfillment within the 40 years of Jesus’ ministry.
If the reader is not solely a futurist, he is preterit. Preterists seek to ascertain whether “this word” from Jesus was exclusively intended for his listeners or “that word” of Paul is still future for present students of his letters. Some preterists (full) argue that everything prophetic and future (including the resurrection) has already happened. Every NT prophetic utterance was fulfilled in the first century after Christ’s ascension. Some preterists (partial) argue that some of what Jesus taught was fulfilled within the generation following his life, but there are other teachings that are yet to come to pass and so are “futurist” preterists. But is there a tertium quid?
I believe there is because both the partial and full preterist are only partly correct. There is another possibility; there is a way to argue that everything prophetic and future (for Jesus’ audience) has indeed happened (full preterist); there is a way to argue that the Bible’s own theology reveals that typology holds forth the final events of history as the Church has always understood them (partial). The events of the first century were still typological just like any other previous historical judgment from God. Some preterists quip, “The NT is not about the end of time but about the time of the end.” This is a true statement, but it does not follow that the Bible has no expectation of the culmination of all things even though there is no NT text to prove such an assertion. This essay will argue for a new moniker that is neither full, nor partial, but Olivetian.
Hyper-preterists (dubbed such by conservatives for its “over-the-top” interpretive zeal) want to call their view full preterism. This leaves the other camp wanting for a better moniker than partial preterist. And to call oneself a preterist at all in either camp requires one to say, “But not that kind….” And yet, a theological position must have a working name; it is just the nature of the beast. A man calls himself Wesleyan, Lutheran, Reformed, 7th Day Adventist and you know to a great extent with what you are dealing. This essay calls for a biblical approach to addressing the issue of eschatology with reference to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 23-25.
Full preterism is incorrect because it fails to take protology into its eschatology: God evaluates and passes judgement on what he creates; therefore, this new creation will be judged at the consummation. Partial preterism fails for two reasons: 1: it fails to account for typology in its eschatology and, 2: its eschatology is based upon an incomplete hermeneutic which is influenced by a dispensational view of the kingdom, a futurist outlook and the traditional doctrine of the resurrection. This therefore distorts clear first century references into trans-historical futurist ones. Reading the majority of NT passages that are clearly first century as if they are about the final coming and judgement is as irresponsible as reading Isaiah 7:14 and teaching that it is only about Jesus.
The preferred designation for a person who believes that the judgement of this new creation and resurrection of men since 70 AD is still future but that everything else in the New Testament has passed must be Olivetian. The so-called Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25 is often misunderstood by many Christians today. On the one hand, this is due to the heavy influence of dispensational theology; on the other hand, it is also due to a lack of familiarity with the Bible’ symbolic paradigm. Dispensational theology has so infiltrated the evangelical church that many who would eschew much of the fallacious teachings are still affected by the residual fallout. For instance, ask yourself this: is there any chance of an imminent return by Jesus? Or this: does the Bible teach that Jesus could come back at any time to end the world as we know it? Many Christians believe so, but this is not biblical. The Bible teaches no such thing and yet many who would deny the main tennents of dispensationalism hold on to this one.
The only reasonable conclusion to hold is that the entirety of Jesus’ ministry was the dissolution of the mosaic economy. This is how his ministry began (flee from the wrath to come) and this is how his ministry concluded: so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth…all these things will come upon this generation. The only reasonable conclusion when reading the rest of the New Testament is that everything after the Olivet Discourse is all about the Olivet Discourse.
So, every Christian is somewhat preterist because there is something within the speech of Jesus in Matthew’s record that a person will see fulfilled within the first century. It might not be fulfillment in toto, but there is fulfillment to some degree. The basest fulfillment is the destruction of the temple and nearly everyone will concede to that: Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and within the timeline he demarcated, it happened. What many do not realise is that the entirety of Jesus’ words in the discourse were also fulfilled within that same time frame and is given eschatological meaning in the destruction of the temple. Everything Jesus promised in Matthew 24-25 has come to pass. If one does not acknowledge that, it is due to either of the two causes mentioned above. This essay will seek to establish that every thing after the Olivet Discourse is about the Olivet Discourse (OD).
There are many issues addressed in the New that must take the Olivet Discourse into account in order to make any coherent sense. And so, everything after the OD is about the OD. For instance, the four Gospels are followed by the Acts of the Apostles but how many who teach it see it as an expression and application of the Olivet Discourse? In the Acts of the Apostles there are many occurrences within its narrative that relate to the OD and yet many who preach through it do not emphasize its genetic dependence upon the Gospels in one crucial aspect (consider the persecution of the church by Judaisers). Luke does narrate what many denote as the “beginnings of the early church,” but they then go no further as if general principles of growing pains are all that are to be gleaned from story. Again, generalities are to be garnered appropriately, but if the radical dependence of the OD is misunderstood and misapplied, the rest of the NT will be read with grievous consequences.
Some generically do attribute and acknowledge that there are passages that must be taken as having first century relevance; consider, for instance, the book of Hebrews. Not only does this epistle elaborate on the finished work of Christ in surpassing the levitical system, but the ramifactions of this supercession find their meaning in the OD. This sheds light on the warnings in Hebrews against unbelief and reverting back to the Egypt that is the Old Covenant system. The OD has been uttered and therefore everything after it is coloured by its tenants. Everything. Jesus say’d in his discourse that the heavens were about to be shaken and Hebrews ends with this very tenant. Futurists will say this is still future but that is simply not the case.
The fundamental principle laid out in the OD is that of Jesus’ coming to end the age and judge the temple. His presence as the King who rules the world is anticipated in every NT epistle and when those expectations are expressed, it is in terms of being imminent. But because the events didn’t play out according to a faulty futurist paradigm, Jesus’ imminent “return” 1946 years ago becomes an ever present possibility for today’s Christian. The book of Hebrews is a crucial epistle for the supremacy of Christ over all things “passing away” (Heb 8:13) and there are many ill treated passages wherein an exclusive first century interpretation is traded for a generic trans-historical one.
So that, when we read, therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking… we are not hearing Paul give generic warnings against not listening to the gospel. It matters that the author uses the first person plural.
One must ask, what does Paul mean when he says, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great deliverance? Escape what? Delivered from what? He is talking about the Olivet Discourse and the judgment coming upon the old creation in the destruction of it in the Temple. Or take the last statement above. What is the world to come that is mentioned? It might help to know that the Greek is specific here, too. The language is more immediate than the ESV intimates. It is more akin to this: For it was not to messengers that God subjected the oikumene “about to” come, of which we are speaking. Notice the “about to” nature of the statement. This happens in the NT epistles more than is consistently translated.
Too, consider this well-known and quoted verse: And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Again, this is not some generic proof text for having to go to church. The day drawing near is not the “final return of Christ at any moment” that many take this to be. The judgment day coming is the one Jesus presented in Matthew 24 and 25.
Changing one’s paradigm is daunting and threatens every fiber of one’s system. But one must begin somewhere. The NT is about one thing. That one thing is multilayered but not indefinable. In the OD Jesus lays out the end game of his ministry. When told why the temple would be razed, the disciples asked Jesus when he was planning on carrying out this mission. It was not thousands of years away. It is not in our future. It was future for his disciples and it came to pass within that generation. Olivetianism asserts that the NT expectation of a cataclysmic cosmological event found its event horizon within the first century. The NT says nothing about how or if or when this present aeon will end. We must get that paradigm from Genesis 1. God creates, evaluates and passes judgement. Since the new heavens and earth of Rev 21 were created in the first century, Olivetianism asserts that we must also expect that aeon to come under God’s squinting eye.