Make your own free website on Tripod.com

A Response to the False Witness of Keith Mathison:
as Found in His Presentation Named Playing With Fire

by Kenneth J. Davies
(Beyond the End Times)

Introduction

At the Ligonier Conference held February 1999 in Orlando, Florida, Keith Mathison presented a critique of the Preterist viewpoint entitled, "Playing With Fire." 1  In this presentation, he attempted to answer the question: "Are there any eschatological positions which are not, or should not be considered valid options by conservative, evangelical Christians, and if so, why not?"

It is not the intention of this author to deal with Mr. Mathison’s brief statements regarding universalism and annihilationism, as these were Biblically sound. It is his presentation of the Preterist viewpoint that is at issue.

Mr. Mathison began with a definition of Preterism, stating that there are basically three types:

  1. Partial Preterism, in which many, but not all, prophecies of the New Testament are fulfilled. Mentioned as adherents of this view were Mathison himself, R.C. Sproul, and Kenneth Gentry. This view looks forward to "the second coming of Christ in glory at the end of the age, the bodily resurrection of all mankind and the final judgment."
  2. "Full" Preterism, 2  which holds that all Biblical prophecy has been fulfilled. According to Mathison, "proponents of this position [believe] we now live in the eternal state. Some proponents are adamant that while the events themselves were completely fulfilled in the first century, they do have ongoing applications to Christians today."
  3. Hyper-Preterism, which also holds that all prophecy has been fulfilled, but that it has no continuing significance for the believer.

After making this brief introduction, Mathison immediately grouped the "Full" Preterists and Hyper-preterists together, under the name of "comprehensive preterists." With the nominal disclaimer that "some things" would not apply to the "Full" Preterists, he began his attack.

Note that many (if not most) in attendance had only recently heard of the Preterist view, and were therefore ill-equipped to discern which comments would apply to whom, and virtually no hint was given by Mr. Mathison to indicate what should be applied only to Hyper-preterism and what would apply to both.

 

Mathison’s Definitions of Orthodoxy and Heresy

Mathison was very precise in his defining of orthodoxy and heresy in order to be able to include eschatology in the category of "essential Christian doctrine," something that has not historically been considered "essential." According to Mathison:

Heresy is "any teaching which conflicts with the essential doctrines of Christianity to the degree that the one teaching this doctrine may no longer be considered a Christian."

Orthodoxy is "that body of essential doctrines which must be believed by all who desire to be accepted and identified as Christian."

What may be used as objective criteria for judging orthodoxy, according to Mathison? Scripture, yes, but, "Who decides what the standard says?" His "tentative answer":

The authoritative interpreter of Scripture is Scripture’s Author, the Holy Spirit, working corporately in the entire communion of saints, past and present, especially, but not exclusively in those with the ruling and teaching gifts, and when the entire communion of saints testifies to the same interpretation of Scripture, we can have some confidence that this interpretation is the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit, Who has been working in them.

What Keith was actually saying here, in a round-about way, was that we must allow the historic Creeds of Christianity determine our interpretation of Scripture. In an email response to David Green’s article, "Preterism and the Ecumenical Creeds," 3  Mathison wrote:

I would obviously disagree with Mr. Green’s assertion that the only way the debate will ever be resolved is through Scriptural exegesis and reasoning. This would be the case if we shared the same creedal presuppositions, the framework for orthodoxy. ….This means we "creedalists" view this debate as a debate between Christians and heretics. That is why we have been forced to approach it in the same way the early Christians combated early heresies. The Scriptures simply do not belong to heretics, and any use of the Scriptures by heretics is a misuse of Scripture.4

Is there a time in history that we can point to when this type of agreement may be found? If we consider the Trinitarian debates, there was a time in Church history when Arianism was considered normative! 5  Notice that in Mathison’s definition of heresy above, he says it involves a conflict with the "essential doctrines of Christianity." Obviously, Mathison includes eschatology among the essential doctrines of Christianity. What does that mean? An "essential doctrine" would seem in Mathison’s definition to be one that requires belief in it, and without which one cannot be saved. Certainly, there can be no question that Preterists believe in, and hold to the essentials of the Faith. And we believe strongly in and hold to Biblical eschatology. The question remains: Is eschatology essential to salvation—to being a Christian?

Historically-speaking, there developed four schools of thought regarding the interpretation of Biblical prophecy: the Idealist, the Historicist, the Futurist, and the Preterist. It is a sad fact that today most people have only heard of the Futurist views: premillennialism (with its associated divisions of pretribulational, midtribulational, and posttribulational), amillennialism, and postmillennialism. This is quite unfortunate, since it allows the mistaken notion to exist that only a Futurist eschatology may be considered to be "orthodox," an impression Mathison was more than willing to cultivate and promote.

 

Historical Considerations

Under this heading, Mathison said that in the early history of the Church, there was little agreement regarding eschatology, except that Christ would "return visibly in glory at the end of the present age," that all would be raised bodily, and that this would be followed by a general judgment. "Every early orthodox Christian creed includes a statement of these basic eschatological doctrines." While this may sound convincing on the surface, Mathison neglected to mention that there was an essential disagreement between the creeds of the East and those of the West regarding the nature of the resurrection. The Eastern creeds stated that there would be a "resurrection of the dead," while those of the West opted for a "resurrection of the flesh," or "body." As Mathison himself said:

[H]istorically, in many cases, it has required the Holy Spirit working in the whole community of believers over a long period of time for us to filter out multitudes of incorrect interpretations and determine what the text of Scripture actually says.

How much time should we expect for this "filtering" process to take? For the doctrine of the Trinity, this took hundreds of years. The Reformation did not take place for 1500 years! Since the subject of eschatology has never been debated in Church history, we should expect the "filtering" to yet be in process. Preterists are at the forefront of the call for eschatological debate today, especially in light of the false accusations of men such as Mathison, and the anathemas of hostile creedalists such as the Reformed Church in the United States.6

What Mathison also failed to mention was that the councils that wrote these creedal statements were too busy defending and defining the Nature of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to have time to debate eschatology. The statements included in the early creeds simply quote Scripture regarding the coming of Christ, etc. Since the language of the New Testament was future tense, they made their confessional language the same.7

We know that as far back as Justin Martyr, there were chiliastic (premillennial) interpretations being offered that insisted on a purely physical manifestation of the kingdom of God. Writings such as the Shepherd of Hermas began to attempt to redefine the time statements of Scripture, based on this literalistic hermeneutic and the assumption that Christ had not yet fulfilled His promises to return. Rather than uphold the integrity of our Lord and His inspired Word by admitting error regarding their ideas of the nature of Christ’s return, they began a subtle attack on the time elements of Scripture.

Had any of the ecumenical councils had time to debate eschatology, we may not be having these problems today. Because this author is not tainted with futurist pessimism, we have the hope that men of integrity, whose desire it is to defend the integrity of Christ and the inspiration and veracity of His Word, will in due time come to agreement regarding the meaning of Scripture.

 

Liturgical Considerations

The dual charges of hypocrisy and heresy were leveled against "comprehensive preterists" because of their celebration of the Lord’s Supper, an eschatological sacrament. Obviously, this was aimed not at hyper-preterists, but at true Preterists, since the hyper-preterist would not partake of the Eucharist. Mr. Mathison alleged that since the text of I Cor. 11:26 says, "you declare the Lord’s death until He comes," it is not only hypocritical, but even heretical that we observe Communion:

If "comprehensive preterism" is true, then I believe not only have all of Christ’s Spirit-indwelt people been bearing false witness about Him in His redemptive acts for 2,000 years, but all of Christ’s people have also borne false witness in the central and most sacred part of our historic Christian worship for 2,000 years. In other words, if "comprehensive preterism" is the truth, then not only has all historic Christian doctrine been false doctrine, all historic Christian worship has been false worship. …[T]he fact that some "comprehensive preterists" continue to observe the Lord’s Supper, I believe, is a huge inconsistency in practice. To do something in remembrance of One who is now present with you, I believe, is simply an abuse of common language and common sense. I also believe that if Christ has already returned, it is as inconsistent for a "comprehensive preterist" to observe the Lord’s Supper as it is for a Christian today to observe Old Testament sacrifices. Paul said these were to be observed "till He comes."

Isn’t this overstating things just a bit, Keith? The pre-creedal Christians of the first century did not have a fully-developed Trinitarian worship or doctrine, yet were they inconsistent, even heretical in their practices? The Christian Church has applied the knowledge and understanding it has at the time to its doctrinal formulas and worship practices. If we can extend grace to the Bereans of the past, why can we not extend that same grace to Christians (and true Preterists are certainly Christians!) today? Have any of us become so complete in our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word to say we "know all things," and that no further reformation is necessary or possible in our doctrinal statements or worship practices? To claim such a position should be considered not only unwise, but the height of arrogance!

In the words of our Lord to the Saducees, "You do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God!" (Mt. 22:29). Examine the texts dealing with the Last Supper. After Jesus had blessed and passed the cup to His disciples, He said, "I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom" (Mt. 26:29). During His absence,8 the disciples of Jesus would proclaim His death in their celebration of the Supper, but at His return and afterwards, they would partake in a new way (Strong #2537: kainoV). To what was Jesus referring here? In Lk. 22:29-30, He said, "I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My Father has appointed unto Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (cp. Rev. 20:4). Is this not the marriage supper of the Lamb spoken of in Rev. 19:7-9? The presence of an "until" does not necessarily imply the cessation of the Lord’s Supper, merely a change in the manner in which it is to be celebrated! Certainly, we still remember with thanksgiving the great sacrifice that made our participation in God’s kingdom possible, but more than that, we rejoice in His glorious return that fully established that kingdom and made complete our redemption (Lk. 21:28; Heb. 9:28; 10:9; Rev. 19:7)!

 

Theological Considerations

1. Christology

The charge of heresy was once again leveled (again, without distinction between true Preterists and hyper-preterists) under the heading of Christology. Mathison said that in speaking to a true Preterist, he was told that one result of the Second Coming was that Christ was present with His followers more fully than prior to His return.

[A]ccording to "comprehensive preterists," Christ returned in AD 70 to dwell in all men, or at least all Christians. Apparently, they’re not referring to the return of His divine Nature, which is omnipresent anyway, and therefore was with the Church always, even immediately after the Ascension. But if they are referring to His human nature, then it is necessary to impute attributes of divinity such as omnipresence to His human nature in order for it to dwell in all men simultaneously. [This would] require the confusion of divine and human attributes, a doctrine historically known as Eutychianism, and a doctrine which was explicitly condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451.

Whereas this may or may not be the understanding of the hyper-preterist, it is not so for the true Preterist! We agree entirely with the confession of Chalcedon, which states that Christ had two natures, human and divine, separate and not co-mingled. However, Scripture is clear that, in some sense, Christ left His disciples, stating He would return shortly (see: Jn. 14:2-3, 18-28; 16:7). He assured them He would send the Holy Spirit to be with them in His absence (Jn. 14:16-17). If Christ was fully-present (spiritually—in His divine Nature) with the disciples, why does Rev. 21:3 say, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God"? It sounds as if Mathison is making a Modalist error (Sabellianism 9), saying that Christ and the Holy Spirit are one Person! It would, however, be as irresponsible of us to make this charge of heresy against Mr. Mathison as it was for him to accuse us of holding to Eutychianism.

2. Bodily Resurrection

According to Mathison, "To deny that our resurrection is, like Christ’s, a ‘flesh and bone’ resurrection would be to repeat the fatal heresy of the Gnostics in the early Church, and the Socinians at the time of the Reformation." He then quoted Francis Turretin: "If this same body that dies is not resurrected, then what has occurred is not a resurrection of the body, but a replacement of the body."

We know that the earliest creeds affirmed simply the "resurrection of the dead," but were changed in the West to "resurrection of the body" or "resurrection of the flesh" in order to expose Gnostics. This language is nowhere found in Scripture. Manifestly, this reflects an interpretation of the Scriptures.

It is assumed that since Jesus was raised physically from the tomb, and "we shall be like Him" (I Jn. 3:2), our physical bodies will be raised in like manner. If it is so obvious that our physical bodies will be raised just as Jesus’ was, why does John say, "it has not yet been revealed what we shall be…"? 10  No promise is given in Scripture of the raising of our physical bodies. On the contrary, the corruptibility of our bodies is emphasized: "Dust you are, and to dust you will return" (Gen. 3:19). Only Christ was given the assurance that His body would never decay: "For You will not leave My soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption" (Acts 2:27, quoting from Ps. 16:10). In fact, Paul makes it abundantly clear that the bodies we shall have in the eternal state 11 will not be the same as that which we now have:

Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body [I Cor. 15:36-38].

Paul continues: "There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. So also is the resurrection of the dead." Note that he does not say, "resurrection of the body," or "resurrection of the flesh."

The body is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.12

Why is it insisted, contrary to the Scriptures, that "the same body that is sown is the same body that shall be raised"? If death has not been "swallowed up in victory" (I Cor. 15:54), the Law must yet be in force, since "the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law (I Cor. 15:56).

As far as the Preterist view being one of "replacement rather than resurrection," so also is Mathison’s view! Let us consider for a moment Mathison’s (creedally) "orthodox" view. If all those that have died since the creation are raised in their "self-same bodies," some form of replacement will be essential. Where is Adam’s body now? Surely, in the 6,000 or more years that have passed since his formation have spread his molecules far and wide. Certainly, it would be no difficulty for our Lord to reconstitute his body in its original terrestrial glory. The problem is somewhat different. Let us imagine a body that was buried even as little as 100 years ago. Plants have grown up over the plot and been eaten by animals. These animals may have been become food for a human being at some time. Even the plants themselves may have been eaten by humans, as in the case of a fruit tree growing up on top of some long-forgotten grave. The tree gains nutrients from the decaying body and produces fruit. The fruit is eaten by a man and becomes part of his body. Surely, in the time that has elapsed since the time of Adam, this sort of thing has happened on more than one occasion! Now, at the time of this resurrection "at the end of time" (another phrase never used in the Bible), whose restored body receives those commonly-shared atoms and molecules? Is not some sort of replacement necessary?

What of those who were born without a limb? Will they not have a new one given to them by our merciful God? It becomes clear rather quickly that Mathison’s view of the resurrection is as much one of replacement as is the Preterist’s!

If the resurrection of the body/flesh was indeed the original doctrine taught by the apostles, how is it that some Christians were able to be convinced it had already come to pass? (See: II Thess. 2:2; II Tim. 2:17-18). Why does Paul bother to reiterate the events that were necessarily to happen first, rather than simply telling his audience to examine the nearest graveyard? If the Day of the Lord was not to come until the "end of history" (another phrase never used in Scripture), and the resurrection was to coincide with it, it seems unlikely that anyone would have been able to convince the first century Christians it had already taken place!

Of course, declaring that the Day of the Lord and the resurrection had taken place before the destruction of the temple and ending of the Mosaic economy was a grave error (no pun intended). If true, it would mean that the Law and temple had a place in God’s eternal kingdom. No wonder the faith of some was overthrown! If the temple system was to be part of the kingdom, it would be necessary to be a participant again! It is understandable why Paul was upset.

Note that Paul makes no distinction between the Day of the Lord that was to transpire shortly and an alleged "final" coming of Christ. (Again, this terminology is nowhere found in Scripture). If his converts were confusing a "metaphorical" coming of Christ with a future "final" return/parousia, why didn’t he simply clarify things by delineating them more precisely? It is apparent that the reason confusion was possible was that there would be no obvious (physical) signs of the resurrection having taken place.13

3. The Doctrine of Sin

Mathison charges that the Preterist view has no "final conquest of sin" in the physical realm. "According to ‘comprehensive preterism,’ sin was decisively defeated and destroyed at the cross, [and] this defeat is progressively worked out in the present age." As with many of his other accusations, he presented no Scripture to support his claims for such a conquest taking place. (He later cited Ezk. 47; Dan. 2; Mt. 13:31-32; I Cor. 15:25 under his "Scriptural Objections"). Mathison’s lack of understanding of the true Preterist viewpoint is manifest when he says, "[The problem] arises because in the ‘comprehensive preterist’ view, the present age never ends, because it is the eternal state." Perhaps he had been speaking to an annihilationist when he came to the conclusion that this is the "eternal state." This writer has no personal knowledge of any Preterist who holds this view.

Jesus explained to His disciples that at the end of the age in which they were living, that is, the Mosaic age (they were still living under the dictates of the Old Covenant), the angels would "gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and all those who practice wickedness" (Mt. 13:41). We know that under the Mosaic covenant, God’s kingdom was manifest on earth in the physical covenant-nation of Israel. However, with the coming of the Messiah, that covenant was made obsolete (Heb. 8:13), and would soon pass away (at the "end of the age"). Jesus Christ paid the price of redemption and ascended to His Father in order to receive His promised kingdom. The manifestation of this kingdom was to be spiritual. The land was a heavenly one (Heb. 11:16), the people determined by a birth in the Spirit, not after the flesh (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3-6). It is a kingdom "not of this world" (Jn. 18:36).

What this means is that the progressive conquest of sin and evil never ends. In the "comprehensive preterist" system, rebellion against God…continues into all eternity. ….[T]he Bible nowhere teaches that God is going to allow blatant rebellion against His sovereign authority to continue forever. It everywhere points to a consummation of history in which all rebellion, all sin, and all evil is going to be conclusively punished and subdued.

The Bible is not a history of the Earth, but the history of redemption. The Scriptures record world events only insofar as they relate to the history of redemption. Since our redemption has been "signed, sealed, and delivered," why should we expect to find the "end of human history" recorded for us in the pages of the Bible? We know from God’s Word that His physical creation is still very young, and may be expected to last for many more millennia. Whether at some time in that distant future God will renew the universe or not, is not revealed to us in Scripture. What is far more important is that we are now living in the "new heavens and earth" promised long ago!

Many make the mistake of taking this language in a literalistic fashion, expecting a new physical creation. This is, however, covenantal language! In Mt. 5:17-18, Jesus said, "Until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle will pass from the law until all is fulfilled." Notice there are two "untils" in that statement. Very few Christians would claim that we are still living under the Old Covenant law today, yet if both conditions have not been met—the passing away of "heaven and earth," as well as the fulfilling of the law—we are still under obligation to follow every "jot and tittle" of the Old Testament law! If, however, we understand that the "heaven and earth" that existed then represented the Old Covenant, we will see that the "new heavens and new earth" represent the New Covenant, "in which righteousness dwells" (II Pet. 3:13, cp. II Pet. 3:5-7; also: Isa. 43:19; 51:15-16; 65:17-25; Rev. 21:5). Our God is a covenant God and deals with mankind on that basis.

 

Scriptural Objections

1.  Hermeneutical

Mr. Mathison accuses Preterists of giving the time statements found in Scripture a "technical meaning," and of "reading them into all eschatological texts." Unfortunately, Mr. Mathison presented no "eschatological texts" with which to prove his point. Nor did he define what sort of "technical meaning" we allegedly apply to the time statements of the Bible.

Perhaps Mr. Mathison would prefer it if we gave words like "shortly" and "soon" a non-technical meaning, such as "after the space of two (or more) millennia have passed." Ad hominem, straw men arguments are easily concocted, though they are just as easily burned up when exposed to the blazing fire of truth. Whereas false and slanderous statements may cause the ignorant to recoil in horror, the Berean will search the Scriptures to see who it is that speaks the truth. If and when Mr. Mathison is willing to show us which eschatological texts he is referring to, we will be glad to present our side (something we were not allowed to do following his seminar presentation—he took no questions or comments before dismissing the "class").

2.  The Millennium

The period from AD 30-70 is too short a time period to fit the symbol of "1,000 years" found in Rev. 20, according to Mr. Mathison. It seems that to more than double the number of years this symbol represents is perfectly acceptable to Mathison, but not to "shorten" it!

Whether literal or figurative, "a thousand years" denotes a vast period of time. To suggest that "a thousand years" is symbolic of one generation of 40 years or less, I believe, stretches credulity to its breaking point. …I would suggest that "comprehensive preterists," with their doctrine of the millennium, are not taking seriously enough Biblical language which clearly indicates a long period of time. I believe this is nothing but hermeneutical arbitrariness. We must take all time frame indicators seriously, those that point to short periods of time and those that point to long periods of time.

In order to understand the meaning behind a symbolic number, we must observe how it is used in Scripture (the Reformers called this the "analogy of faith"). When used in a non-literal (symbolic) manner in Scripture, the number 1,000 represents a perfect whole, or "all." One example is to be found in Ps. 50:10—"For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills." The emphasis is not on the number of hills being great, but as can be seen in this example of Hebrew parallelism, on the totality of God’s rule over and ownership of His creation. He owns the whole number of the beasts of the forest and field. If the book of Revelation had meant to communicate simply a large number, the phraseology of Rev. 5:11 could easily have been employed: "Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne…and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands…." It should be noted that Scripture elsewhere refers to 40 years as "a long time" (Josh. 24:7; Mt. 25:19).

The use of 1,000 is also demonstrated elsewhere in Revelation, for example, the number of the redeemed in Israel is given as "144,000." This is 12 x 12 x 1,000, representing the full number of the redeemed. The number of persons saved in Israel in the first century was small enough to be called a "remnant" elsewhere in Scripture, yet the number 1,000 is still used to represent them (see: Rom. 11:5; Rev. 12:17; cp. Zech. 8:6, 12). If "1,000" truly represents a "huge number," then 144 x 1,000 must be incredibly large! And if a 40-year time span could not possibly be represented by the number 1,000, then neither could 144 times that same number represent a "remnant." Again, we must abide by the temporal delimiters given quite clearly in the opening and closing verses of the book! If the things contained in it were not really going to be fulfilled shortly, then we may ignore or reinterpret all the other parts of the book freely also. If, however, we honor and uphold the integrity and inspiration of the Bible, we will be able to interpret it properly. With this clearly in mind, then, let us examine what the text says:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.

We see his release and its purpose a few verses later:

Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth [or land], Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them.14

The symbol of Gog and Magog is use to depict apostate (physical) Israel, "whose number is as the sand of the sea" (see: Gen. 22:16-17), and the same judgment as that which came upon Sodom was poured out on them (cp. Rev. 11:8—"where also our Lord was crucified").

According to E. W. Bullinger, the number 10 "signifies the perfection of Divine order":15

"Completeness of order, marking the entire round of anything, is, therefore, the ever-present signification of the number ten. It implies that nothing is wanting; that the number and order are perfect; that the whole cycle is complete."16

The squaring of a number (e.g., 102 or 10 x 10) indicates completeness as well.17 Examples of tens in Scripture: 10 commandments, the tithe (a tenth), 10 plagues on Egypt, 10 nations (Gen. 15:19), "unto the tenth generation" (Dt. 23:3), number of silver sockets in the tabernacle (10 x 10—Ex. 38:27).

3.  Progressive Victory in the Present Age

Texts such as Ezekiel 47, Daniel 2, Matthew 13, and I Corinthians 15 were cited by Mathison as "pictures of ongoing, victorious conquest of the kingdom [of God] over all cultures and nations during the present age." According to Mr. Mathison, "All of these texts speak of the gradual growth and victory of the kingdom, but they explicitly or implicitly speak of a point in time, a point in history when the goal of that conquest has been achieved."

"Full" or "comprehensive preterists" claim to believe in Christ’s completed victory, but their teaching implies an eternally-incomplete application of that victory. Scripture does speak of the progressive growth and victory of Christ’s kingdom during the present age, but it also speaks of a consummation to that growth and a victorious end to the fight. A battle of conquest that continues forever is not a victory, it is a stalemate.

If we are now living in the "kingdom age," which both Preterists and Mathison himself affirm, how can it be alleged (by Mathison) that the present age has an "end"? Scripture clearly states that the kingdom has no end! 18 The consummation spoken of in Scripture is the end of the age, in which the New Testament writers were living—the Old Covenant age. The reason the Preterist affirms that this consummation is past is that all things promised regarding it have taken place! The kingdom of God was taken from the Old Covenant-breaking nation of (physical) Israel and given to the New Covenant-keeping (spiritual) nation of Israel—the Church.19 The "harvest" at the end of that age 20 took place in AD 70, and the kingdom was transferred from the physical realm to the spiritual. "All things that offend" 21 were removed, since citizenship in Israel is now determined by spiritual birth (faith in Christ, Israel’s Messiah), and the sinless righteousness of Christ has been imputed to those citizens. Truly, "all Israel" has been saved! 22 Sin and death no longer have dominion in God’s kingdom! The fact that there are still sinners 23 here in the physical realm has no bearing on the victory and consummated effects of God’s kingdom. Yes, we still have the "mopping-up" to do here on Earth, but this does not change the fact that our Lord and His kingdom have obtained victory for us! Only the spiritually blind and deaf would deny this.

 

Ezekiel 47

Although Ezk. 47 speaks of God’s kingdom advancing throughout the land like a mighty river, there are still areas that remain unaffected by it. "But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt" 24  According to Isa. 11:9, "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Certainly, we may expect great victories of the gospel over evil in this physical realm, but it is not in this earthly dimension that we are promised "final victory." It is in the eternal state (heaven) that we fully realize what we have positionally and covenantally now.

 

Daniel 2

The dream of Nebuchadnezzar of what would take place in the "latter days" (Dan. 2:28) revealed that in the days of the fourth kingdom (the Roman Empire), "the God of heaven" would "set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed" (v. 44). This kingdom, we are told, "will stand forever" and "break in pieces and consume all these [other] kingdoms." It would become a "great mountain" and fill the "whole earth" (Dan. 2:35). Whereas some read into this chapter an end to human history and the world, no such thing is mentioned in the text! The time of the establishment of this eternal kingdom is given as the time when the Son of Man would come:

"And behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (Dan. 7:14—see also v.27 and 12:1-3). Since the kingdom of Christ was established during the Roman Empire of the first century, and this kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, we are not in the Last Days, we are in the First Days! 25

 

Matthew 13:31-32

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…which is indeed the least of all seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.

As with many of the parables of the kingdom that Jesus told, this one shows the great influence the kingdom of God would have in the world. It does not, however, state that the world/physical realm will end once the seed is fully grown! It would have been a simple matter for Jesus to add, "And once the tree is grown up to its full stature, and it is filled with the nests of the birds of the air, the tree and the ground and the sky will all burn up," or something to that effect.

 

I Corinthians 15:25

"For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet." Let us keep this verse in its context:

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterwards those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts and end to all rule and authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.26

In many ways, this is simply a restatement of Dan. 2—the kingdoms of the world will be conquered by Christ! Is this not happening even today? The Preterist does not deny that the fulfillment of prophecy has ongoing (even eternal) consequences or results. A rock thrown into a pond may disappear from sight, but the ripples emanating from its impact point continue on for some time. The ripples that began to emanate when our Rock hit the surface of our earthly pond are still being seen today, and will continue to affect the complacency of our world as long as it exists!

The question is: What is the "end" spoken of in this passage, and in what sense was "the last enemy," death, conquered? Jesus Himself tells us what "the end" is in the Olivet Discourse. After telling His disciples about the coming destruction of the temple and persecution they would endure, He said, "But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come" (Mt. 24:13-14). Should the disciples have expected salvation only at the end of time?

Many will say, "Obviously, this has not yet taken place!" If it has not, Jesus is indeed a false prophet, as the skeptics are so fond of alleging, for He also declared emphatically, "[T]his generation shall by no means pass away till all these things take place." 27

We know from the declaration of the Master Himself that "the end" would come before that generation (a 40-year period according to Num. 32:13; Heb. 3:9-10) would expire. Was the gospel indeed preached in "all the world" as He said? If we believe that Jesus is truly God, and the Bible really is His inspired Word, then we must declare it to be true, without equivocation! We have not only the sure Word of our Lord’s prophecy, but the record of its fulfillment in the God-breathed statements of the apostle Paul. He testifies in Rom. 10:18, "But I say, have they not heard [the gospel]? Yes indeed: ‘Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’" He writes elsewhere:

We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus…because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, which has come to you, as it has also in all the world….28

And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death…if indeed you continue in the faith… and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.29

The temple was still standing when Paul wrote these words. The Old Covenant system was still operating as it had for the past two millennia. But "the end" was soon to come. "This generation" was almost over! As Paul said in another epistle, "[T]he God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly" (Rom. 16:20).

 

The 70 "Weeks" of Daniel

One of the promised results of the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision was that there would be "an end of sins." 30 This was to take place "in the latter days," 31 when

[T]here shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.32

These things were to be fulfilled at "the time of the end." 33 When Daniel asked, "How long shall the fulfillment of these wonders be?", the answer was, "it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished." 34

Was there a time of trouble during which the power of Israel was shattered? A war lasting 3 years ("a time, times, and half a time")? We know there was, having a record of the fulfillment of these things in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews. As predicted, these things took place in the days of the 4th kingdom during the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70. The temple was destroyed so that sacrifice and oblation ceased, and everlasting righteousness was brought in.35 An "end to sins" was not only fully accomplished, it was at that time fully applied.

 

Confessional Orthodoxy

Is it only the partial preterist that remains "confessionally orthodox," while the true Preterist and the hyper-preterist are heterodox or heretical? The true Preterist agrees with the Creeds and Confessions as far as the number of parousias ("final" comings of Christ). Although partial Preterists may try to claim, as Kenneth Gentry does, that the coming of Matthew 24 "isn’t a parousia, it’s a metaphorical coming," 36 neither the language of Scripture, nor the language of the Creeds allows for this alleged distinction. The Bible makes no delineation between a coming/parousia of Christ in AD 70 and another (a third coming of Christ?) at a supposed "end of history," and neither do any of the Creeds or Confessions! In spite of this, Gentry has begun to call his inconsistent viewpoint "orthodox preterism." He may want to call himself a car, too, but just hanging around in the parking lot doesn’t make it so! Mathison, too, considers himself to be "orthodox," as do other partial Preterists—confessionally orthodox, that is. Just claiming it, however, doesn’t make it so. The fact is, the partial Preterist is no more orthodox confessionally than the true Preterist! And when it comes to Scriptural orthodoxy, they are far less so! The partial Preterist reads multiple comings of Christ into Scripture. The true Preterist affirms only one, as do the Word of God, the Creeds, and the Reformed Confessions. The burden of proof lies with the partial Preterist to demonstrate otherwise.

It is understandable that those within the Reformed community are reluctant to take a stand that contradicts the historic Creeds and Confessions of the Church. Many true Preterists have suffered the loss of friends, church, and even family because of their adherence to what the Scriptures teach. Yet they continue to steadfastly hold to the truths of God’s inspired, inerrant Word, even at great personal cost. May God vindicate their good names and history record their heroic sacrifices on His behalf with the admiration they so richly deserve.

 

The Value and Authority of Creeds

A Creed, or Rule of Faith, or Symbol, is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church.37

As such, a confession of faith is always the result of dogmatic controversy, and more or less directly or indirectly polemical against opposing error. Each symbol [creed] bears the impress of its age, and the historical situation out of which it arose. …. They embody the faith of generations, and the most valuable results of religious controversies.38

The great debates that produced the historic Creeds of the Christian Church revolved around the Nature of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), not eschatology! The Creeds "contain chiefly the orthodox doctrine of God and of Christ, or the fundamental dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation." 39 Eschatology was never the subject of debate! "When controversies arose concerning the true meaning of the Scriptures, it became necessary to give formal expression of their true sense, to regulate the public teaching of the Church, and to guard it against error." 40 Yet, the Creeds were developed more fully and altered to fit the increased knowledge and learning of the Church. "A progressive growth of theology in different directions can be traced in them." 41

Both confessions and creeds were formed to exclude erroneous beliefs; both were historically conditioned by the heresies they refuted. The creeds’ limitations (e.g. none mentions the Lord’s Supper; they together contribute little on the atonement) and obscurities (cf. ‘descended into hell’ in the Apostles’ Creed, to say nothing of the technical terms of Nicea and Chalcedon) are far more obvious than those of the confessions, which are normally more balanced and thorough.42

"They embody the results of the great doctrinal controversies of the Nicene and post-Nicene ages." 43 Compare the hostility of Reformed Christians to the idea of Sheol being a "place of waiting" for the dead. This is due to the controversies taking place during the Reformation with the Roman Catholic church, which held to a doctrine of purgatory. The Biblical teaching of Sheol was rejected in favor of the idea of the Old Testament saints going immediately into the presence of God at death.

This being the case, we would do well to heed the words of Philip Schaff: "The value of creeds depends upon the measure of their agreement with the Scriptures. In the best case, a human creed is only an approximate and relatively correct exposition of revealed truth, and may be improved by the progressive knowledge of the Church, while the Bible remains perfect and infallible." 44

Conservative Christians may in response be found defending confessions undiscriminately, and forgetting that for Protestants they (like creeds) can only be secondary to Scripture, and are subject to the judgment and revision of Scripture, as many of them explicitly state.45

"Any higher view of the authority of symbols [creeds] is unprotestant and essentially Romanizing. Symbololatry is a species of idolatry, and substitutes the tyranny of a printed book for that of a living pope." 46

Confessions, in due subordination to the Bible, are of great value and use. They are summaries of the doctrines of the Bible, aids to its sound understanding, bonds of union among their professors, public standards and guards against false doctrine and practice. In the form of Catechisms they are of especial use in the instruction of children, and facilitate a solid and substantial religious education…. The first object of creeds was to distinguish the Church from the world, from Jews and heathen, afterwards orthodoxy from heresy, and finally denomination from denomination. In all these respects they are still valuable and indispensable in the present order of things.47

 

Conclusion

Mathison’s conclusion?

In terms of the historic definition of the word, heresy, "comprehensive preterism" would fall under the same category as Arianism, Gnosticism, or Unitarianism, and even if there were no explicit eschatological statements in the Christian Creeds, the doctrine of ‘comprehensive preterism’ would face significant problems because of its implications for the orthodox doctrine of Christ, and the orthodox doctrine of the resurrection. If it is preaching a different Christ, and a different resurrection, it is preaching a different gospel.

That’s a big "if"! What are the "essentials of the faith"? Is it necessary to believe in a future, fleshly resurrection in order to be saved? According to Mathison, if a person does not believe in a future, physical resurrection, he cannot be considered a Christian. In the previously-mentioned email,48 Mathison stated, "…[F]ull-preterism necessarily requires a serious damnable error involving the doctrine of our resurrection." As true Preterists, we do not disagree with Mr. Mathison that the resurrection is "a doctrine which is essential to the Gospel.49 Our disagreement is with the interpretation of this event as recorded in the Creeds. Preterists do not deny the resurrection! The statements of the Creeds, however, involve the interpretation of Scripture, in that they assume the event to be future and physical in nature. Essential to this viewpoint is the redefining of the time statements of the New Testament associated with the Second Coming and the resurrection of the believer. If, on the other hand, we take seriously the time restraints of the Scriptural contexts of these verses, our assumptions regarding the nature of these events will necessarily change.

The Preterist affirms the statements of the Creeds that were debated (e.g., the deity of Christ). We question only those points that were not debated (e.g., eschatology). If salvation is dependent on one’s view of eschatology, which view must one hold to in order to be saved? It is just as possible that futurism is the damnable heresy, for it teaches that our salvation is not yet complete!

The presentations of Keith Mathison at the Ligonier Conference of 1999 were clearly deceptive. He gave his listeners, most of whom had never heard of the Preterist view, the impression that anyone who applies the Protestant hermeneutic to the Scriptures in a consistent manner (i.e., is no longer a futurist) is either a Gnostic, an Arian, a Unitarian, or a Socinian (he called "comprehensive" Preterists all these names). Whereas it is possible to err on the side of placing too much in the past, e.g., the everlasting, present kingdom of God, and thus become a "hyper-preterist," the true Preterist knows from God’s Word that the kingdom of God and its celebrations (e.g., the Lord’s Supper, baptism) are a continuing, present reality. The same is true of Calvinists. There are various divisions of Calvinism, distinguished by how many "points" they hold to, or how extremely they apply the doctrines of grace. Though all these would claim the title of "Calvinist," we know the only true Calvinists are the "five-pointers." Those who hold to less than this are Arminians (they may just as well call themselves "partial Calvinists" or "partial Arminians"), while those who deny man’s responsibility and the necessity of spreading the gospel are "hyper-Calvinists." The same type of distinctions are found within the Preterist view of eschatology. Those who pick and choose which prophecies of Christ’s return they wish to apply to AD 70 and those they want to put off till an alleged "end of time/history" (most often, this is an attempt to remain "confessionally" or "creedally orthodox") are futurists (or "partial futurists/partial preterists"). Those who deny any continuing, present significance to those fulfilled prophecies are "hyper-preterists." The true Preterist acknowledges that all Bible prophecy was fulfilled by the end of the first century (AD 70), and that the results of that fulfillment are ongoing and everlasting. Just as the 4-point Calvinist is fond of labeling the true Calvinist with the epithet "hyper-Calvinist," the inconsistent ("partial") preterist attempts to impugn the Biblical orthodoxy of true Preterists by labeling them "hyper-preterists." Their standard of "orthodoxy," however, is not the Word of God, but the word of man—a collection of man-made, uninspired documents known collectively as "the Creeds."

As Preterists, we hold the Creeds and Confessions of the Church in high regard, and certainly would not advocate their overthrow. We would, however, remind our detractors of a motto of the Reformation: "The Church is Reformed, and always reforming." This means that the Scriptures are our only inspired guide (sola Scriptura), and any man-made interpretations of them are fallible,50 and that periodic refinements will be necessary as our understanding of the Scriptures becomes more clear. Martin Luther had to endure the accusation of "heresy" in his desire to reform the traditions of men that had been elevated above the Word of God. He did not take this accusation lightly, but was compelled to stand on the authority of Scripture alone. As true Preterists, we face the same type of opposition from those who use the Creeds and Confessions in order to hurl at us the accusation of "heresy." Our cry is that of Isaiah, "To the law and to the testimony!" (Sola Scriptura) "If they do not speak according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them!" (Isa. 8:20).

Where the Creeds and Confessions reflect the debates of the Church, statements regarding the Nature of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), we have no disagreement. On the other hand, we are calling for debate in those areas in which little or none took place, e.g., eschatology. The Word of God is the only unchanging set of documents we have (Ps. 33:11). All others are "works in progress."

 

  Endnotes

  1. Quotations taken from a tape of the seminar presentation, "Playing With Fire" (Ligonier Ministries: Orlando, 1996). Although the tape was made in 1999, the copyright listed is 1996.
  2. This is the true Preterist view. Of course, the term "Full" is unnecessary, being redundant. A Preterist is, by definition, "a theologian who believes that the prophecies of the Apocalypse have already been fulfilled" (Webster's Unabridged Dictionary).
  3. A copy of this article may be found on the Internet at The Preterist Archive: http://www.preteristarchive.com/Preterism/fp-creeds.html.
  4. Email dated April 14, 1999, emphasis added.
  5. See: J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978), pp. 237 ff. Hereafter referred to as Doctrines.
  6. To view a copy of this cursing of Preterists, see the Internet site of Rev. Todd Dennis, The Preterist Archive (http://www.PreteristArchive.com/CriticalArticles/ca-anathema.html).
  7. As pointed out admirably by Walt Hibbard in his, "What About the Creeds?" presented at the Warming up to the Preterist View conference (Orlando, Feb. 20, 1999). A tape of the proceedings may be obtained from Kingdom Publications’ website: http://www.preterist.org/resources/index.htm, or by writing: 122 Seaward Ave., Bradford, PA 16701.
  8. Note that Jesus said He was about to depart from them (cp. Jn. 14:16-17).
  9. Cf. Doctrines, pp. 115-123.
  10. I Jn. 3:2.
  11. Note that Preterists do not claim to have "already attained" this state!
  12. I Cor. 15:40-50.
  13. For a fuller study of this subject, see: Murray Harris, From Grave to Glory: Resurrection in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Academie-Zondervan, 1990). For Mathison to accuse Preterists of being Gnostics, Arians, Unitarians, or Socinians is like calling an apple a Cadillac, since some Cadillacs come in red! The differences are obviously tremendous, and to characterize one as similar to the other is a gross misrepresentation, to say the least.
  14. Rev. 20:7-9.
  15. Number in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1979 [Reprint of 1894 ed.]), p. 243 (emphasis his).
  16. Ibid., emphasis his.
  17. Ibid., p. 124.
  18. See: Ps. 145:13; Isa. 9:7; Lk. 1:33.
  19. Mt. 21:41.
  20. Mt. 13:39; cp. Rev. 14:15.
  21. Mt. 13:41, e.g. sin.
  22. Rom. 11:26.
  23. The "seed of the serpent" (Gen. 3:15).
  24. Ezk. 47:11, emphasis added.
  25. If these are indeed the "last days," as Mathison and other futurists allege, the Charismatics/Pentecostals are right to assume the perpetuity of spiritual gifts. Nowhere does Scripture teach that the "sign gifts" of tongues, miracles, wisdom, healing, etc. would cease after the first few years of the "last days" had elapsed.
  26. I Cor. 15:22-26.
  27. Mt. 24:34, emphasis added.
  28. Col. 1:3-6.
  29. Col. 1:21-23.
  30. Dan. 9:24.
  31. Dan. 10:14.
  32. Dan. 12:1-2.
  33. Dan. 12:6—not "the end of time"!
  34. Dan. 12:6-7. Compare this to Rev. 11:2-3; 12:6; 13:5, a book the contents of which were to be fulfilled shortly after John wrote it (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6-7, 10, 12, 20).
  35. Cf. Dan. 9:24; Heb. 9:8.
  36. From a short conversation with Mr. Gentry at the Ligonier Conference (Orlando, 1999).
  37. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990 [Reprint of 1931 ed.]), I:3-4. Hereafter referred to as Creeds.
  38. Ibid., p. 4.
  39. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
  40. Ibid., p. 6.
  41. Ibid., p. 9.
  42. "Confessions of Faith," D. F. Wright. New Dictionary of Theology. Eds. Sinclair Ferguson and David F. Wright (Leicester, Eng.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 154. Hereafter referred to as "Confessions."
  43. Creeds, p. 13.
  44. Ibid., p. 7.
  45. "Confessions," p. 154.
  46. Creeds, p. 13.
  47. Ibid., p. 8.
  48. April 14, 1999.
  49. Ibid.
  50. "All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both." Westminster Confession of Faith (31:4).