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12.2.4. Hermeneutics of Preterism

Although a full discussion of the hermeneutics of preterism is beyond the scope of our purpose here, it is helpful to understand some key aspects concerning how preterists approach the interpretation of Scripture in general, and the book of Revelation in particular.

The hermeneutics of preterism places great emphasis on all passages which convey the notion of “soon” or could be understood as teaching that certain events should have occurred near to the time of the New Testament.

The preterist system of interpretation involves a “slippery slope” where some so-called “time texts” are said to have already been fulfilled (Rev. Rev. 1:3+; Rev. 2:16+; Rev. 3:11+), whereas other equivalent time texts are left as possibly future (e.g., Rev. Rev. 22:20+). The “slippery slope” begins with mild preterism, and leads toward full (extreme) preterism which denies the Second Coming of Christ (heresy). The basic tension preterism has is if some of the passages which state that Jesus’ coming is “near” must indicate His return within the generation that heard these statements, then why not all such passages? Yet if this view is applied to all such passages consistently (the view of consistent preterism ), then passages such as Revelation Rev. 22:20+, “Surely, I am coming quickly,” which an overwhelming number of commentators hold to refer to His physical, bodily return, must also have been fulfilled and so all of Jesus’ promises about His Second Coming must have already occurred. The problem here is that the preterist approach denies the doctrine of imminency. (See our discussion of Imminency.)

Preterists believe in the doctrine of imminency, but deny that passages which teach the any-moment return of Christ have in view His literal Second Coming. “Our study of the New Testament is drastically off-course if we fail to take into account the apostolic expectation of an imminent Coming of Christ (not the Second Coming) which would destroy ‘this generation’ of Israel and fully establish the New Covenant Church.”1 But Scripture teaches that the any-moment coming of Jesus is not just a symbolic “cloud coming” of preterism which is neither discernible by the skeptical world nor by His Church,2 rather, He may come at any moment to gather the Church to Himself (John John 14:1-3; 1Th. 1Th. 4:13-18; 1Cor. 1Cor. 15:51-53).

So one thing to notice concerning the hermeneutics of mild preterism is its inconsistent treatment of passages concerning the coming of Christ. It tends to place as many Second Coming passages in the past as possible, taking care not to post-date passages which are especially germane to Christ’s bodily Second Coming and risk falling into the heresy of full preterism. This is what happened with the late David Chilton. His commentary on the book of Revelation, written while a mild preterist, takes Revelation Rev. 22:6-7+ as having been fulfilled in the first-century.3 Eventually he came to believe that all Second Coming passages found their fulfillment in the first century and became a full preterist, denying a future bodily return of Christ.

It seems that more and more preterists are becoming hyperpreterists. . . . [mild preterism’s view] opens the door for people to move into the heretical position of hyper-preterism. . . . we have already seen the late David Chilton take this route. Walt Hibbard, the former owner of Great Christian Books (previously known as Puritan and Reformed Book Company), once a reconstructionist, moved from partial to full preterism. . . . Once a person accepts the basic tenets of preterism, it is hard to stop and resist the appeal to preterize all Bible prophecy.4

Most preterists stop short of allegorizing away the bodily return of Christ (the error of hyper-preterism). But it is frankly hard to see how any preterist could ever give a credible refutation of hyper-preterism from Scripture, given the fact that the hermeneutical approach underlying both views is identical. Hyper-preterists simply apply the preterist method more consistently to all New Testament prophecy.5

The preterist interpreter views all prophetic passages through a set of glasses which require that nearly all time indicators such as “soon,” “quickly,” “near,” “at hand,” etc. be understood as having had a first century fulfillment. As we mentioned above, for the preterist who holds to a yet future literal bodily return of Christ, there are at least some passages concerning His return which do not have a first-century fulfillment (e.g., Rev. Rev. 22:20+). The problem for the preterist then becomes one of determining which passages teach an imminent return which he will allow to stretch out for nearly 2000 years like the futurist, and which to assert as being already fulfilled by a non-physical cloud coming of Christ. For wherever a “time text” is associated with the return of Jesus which the preterist believes requires a first-century fulfillment, an invisible, spiritual coming of Christ “must” have occurred. But this gets tricky because non-literal, invisible “comings” are a dime a dozen—being impossible to objectively validate since there are no witnesses.6 Here is the Achilles Heel of the preterist hermeneutic: when and when not to “go spiritual” in understanding a passage.

While the initial dilemma is restricted mostly to Second Coming passages, it soon extends outward to a myriad of prophetic predictions because in order to find a first-century fulfillment to the many details which Scripture has revealed as yet future, the preterist is forced into searching historic documents in a sort of “newspaper exegesis after-the-fact” to find some event or persona who has a similarity to the Scriptural text.

Preterists search first century “newspapers” to see what events fit in with their scheme of first-century fulfillment. Though futurists are often charged with practicing “newspaper exegesis,” preterists are the real masters of the art. Interestingly, for the preterist, the closer we move to the time of the Lord’s physical return, the farther we get from the events they believe are indicated in the book of Revelation.7

Sometimes a similar event or persona is found, although never one that fulfills the details of the text for a careful reader. Other times the record of history is unable to produce. This eventuates a symbolic interpretation or spiritualization of the text because some prophetic events are completely lacking a first-century analog. Thus enters another characteristic of preterist interpretation: a flipping back and forth between taking the text literally or symbolically:

The biggest problem with the preterist position is the lack of consistent hermeneutics. They work hard to find historical evidence of [literal] prophetic fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Any time an event described in a prophecy cannot be linked to an actual historical event, preterists immediately resort to a symbolic interpretation of the text. . . . What are the criteria for taking something literally? When does something become symbolic?8

Preterists are inconsistent when they interpret Revelation’s numbers. On the one hand, they interpret the numbers 42 (Revelation Rev. 13:5+), 666 (Revelation Rev. 13:8+), and Rev. 1:1+, Rev. 5:1+, and Rev. 7:1+ (Revelation Rev. 17:10+) in a straightforward, literal fashion. On the other hand, preterists contend that the numbers 1,000, 12,000, and 144,000 are purely symbolic.9

The preterist hermeneutic is like a vehicle with two gears. The route along the text proceeds in first gear (literal interpretation) until a “bump” appears in the road (lack of historic fulfillment). Then the preterist shifts to second gear (symbolic or figurative interpretation) to get over the bump before dropping back into first gear.

Since preterism sees almost all of the book of Revelation as having already been fulfilled in the past, it holds that nearly the entire book is focused solely on the readership of John’s day.10 One wonders how many first-time readers of the book of Revelation who arrive without any special bias would reach the following conclusion of preterism?

The Book of Revelation is not about the Second Coming of Christ. It is about the destruction of Israel and Christ’s victory over His enemies in the establishment of the New Covenant Temple. In fact, as we shall see, the word coming as used in the book of Revelation never refers to the Second Coming. Revelation prophesies the judgment of God on apostate Israel. [emphasis added]11


Notes

1 David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 575.

2 “The nature of the event has to do with a ‘Cloud Coming’ of Christ . . .”—Kenneth L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1998), 123.

3 “In case we might miss it, he says again, at the close of the book, that ‘the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place’ (Rev. Rev. 22:6+). Given the fact that one important proof of a true prophet lay in the fact that his predictions came true (Deu. Deu. 18:21-22), St. John’s first-century readers had every reason to expect his book to have immediate significance.”—Chilton, The Days of Vengeance, 42.

4 Thomas Ice, “Some Practical Dangers of Preterism,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 426.

5 John MacArthur, “Signs in the Sky,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 111.

6 Isn’t this the very reason why the Scriptures indicate the return of Jesus will be visible, global, and unmistakable?

7 Larry Spargimino, “How Preterists Misuse History to Advance their View of Prophecy,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 20.

8 Gordon Franz, “Was ‘Babylon’ Destroyed when Jerusalem Fell in A.D. 70?,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 236.

9 Andy Woods, “Revelation 13 and the First Beast,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 243.

10 “[Preterists assume] that the book uses a future orientation not to describe future reality but to challenge the situation of the original readers. There are two main variations within preterist interpretation: those who see the book describing events leading to the predicted judgment of apostate Israel and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70 and those who understand its focus as describing the situation of the Christian church within the Roman Empire (the conflict between church and state).”—Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 1. Osborne mentions a third variation which has more in common with the idealist interpretation, providing “a spatial interaction between the earthly and the heavenly so as to give new meaning to the present situation.”—Ibid., 19.

11 Chilton, The Days of Vengeance, 43.