And their word doth eat as a canker: of whom is Hymenæus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. (2 Tim. 2:17, 18)
What would you say about a professedly Biblical teaching that denies the physical second Advent of Christ, questions or omits the physical resurrection of Christ and the saints, and denies the physical Judgment of the just and the unjust at the conclusion of history?
You would probably call it heterodox and heretical. And you would be right.
Unfortunately, you would not be talking only about the similar error of Hymenæus and Philetus that St. Paul combated almost two millennia ago, but about an innovative dogma gaining wide acceptance in the modern church—even (disconcertingly) in some Reformed circles.
Often termed "consistent" (read: heretical) preterism, this heresy posits that all (or virtually all) Biblical prophecies—including Christ's second Advent and Christians' resurrection were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70, and that we presently live in the new eon which orthodox believers have always understood to refer to the eternal state. This heresy is promulgated in any number of books, and expressed plainly in R. C. Leonard and J. E. Leonard's The Promise of His Coming (Chicago: Laudemont Press, 1996), which this editorial will consider.
The authors assert that only three interpretations about the imminence of Christ's second Advent as displayed in the New Testament are possible: (1) that Jesus and the apostles predicted and expected an imminent physical second Advent but were mistaken; (2) that their teachings regarding the Advent's imminence really do not teach what they seem to teach; or (3) that these teachings do advocate an imminent coming, but not the sort of coming that Christian orthodoxy holds. HP's (heretical preterists) opt for the third view.
The first view they rightly dismiss as unacceptable to any Christian who embraces Biblical authority (to suggest that Christ and the apostles could have been mistaken in any of their Biblical teachings is monstrous). The second view they discard as incorrect inasmuch as, from the HP perspective, it must twist the meaning of Scripture (since the Bible, they assert, so emphatically teaches the imminence of Christ's coming). This leaves only the third view—the HP view: Christ did come in judgment in A. D. 70, abolishing the old Jewish order and ushering in the new eternal age. This is the second Advent; there will be no physical second coming.
What does this imply about the final resurrection? HP's take great pains to identify the resurrection of the converted with the progressive victory of believers between the death of Christ and A. D. 70.1 While they do not necessarily deny a future bodily resurrection,2 they do not see it taught in the Bible. In other words, the Bible does not give hope of a bodily resurrection: "Even the concept of the flesh, to be transformed in the final day, might have a meaning other than that of the physical human body, when examined according to its theological usage in the New Testament."3 To HP's, the final day is past.
The reason HP enjoys an aura of respectability is that it can point to certain predictions whose fulfillment was most likely in A. D. 70 and to texts which posit the intrusion of the eternal eschatological realities back into the present age. For instance, it is hard to imagine that the coming of Christ predicted in Mt. 26:64 and Mk. 14:61, 62 refers to the second Advent, or that certain portions of Mt. 24 (note vv. 30-34) do not pertain to the destruction of Jerusalem. As Boettner notes, "The Scriptures clearly represent Christ as coming in some manifestations to the people of his own generation and to later generations; and they just as clearly set forth His Coming in glory and judgment at the end of the age. . . . [T]he New Testament does not draw a sharp distinction between the partial, preliminary comings and the final Coming."4 The coming of Christ does not always refer to the second Advent, and sometimes does refer to Christ's coming in judgment on apostate Israel in A. D. 70.
The fact that some New Testament texts may be understood preteristically, however, is no warrant that they must all must be so understood (Mt. 25:31f.; 1 Cor. 1:7, 8; 1 Thes. 2:19; 3:13; 4:16, 17; 5:23; 2 Thes. 1:7-10; 2:8; Jas. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:7; 2 Pet. 3:4; 1 Jn. 2:28). To contend that they must is to make Biblical exegesis the captive of systematic theology. Biblical exegesis is the captive of God and Christian orthodoxy, not systematic theology. Using the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, both exegesis and systematics are "normal science" that operate within a "paradigm."5 For Christians, that unshakable paradigm is the Christian Faith. Sadly, the HP's are quite willing to assault the Christian paradigm. How?
First, they hold that the end of history as the Bible depicts it has already occurred. It is imperative for the HP view to interpret the "world" or "age" whose end the Bible predicts as the old apostate Jewish order.6 They hold that Christ returned at the end of the world (age), but that the end of the age occurred in A. D. 70: "[S]ince they [orthodox Christians] believe the end predicted in the New Testament to be the end of the world as we understand it—including, for many, the end of the physical globe—it does not occur to them that the end might already have taken place."7 Since, nonetheless, the general resurrection is associated chronologically with the second Advent of Christ, it too, in their view, must be a fait accompli: "From the New Testament's point of view the resurrection, unlike the parousia, does not await fulfillment but is an accomplished fact of God's redemptive history. . . . [T]he resurrection is progressive: it does not take place all at once, but is a process at work in the eschatological community during the last-days transition period when the age of the old covenant overlaps that of the new. . . . The resurrection is the reward of that body of believers which, holding to the testimony of Jesus through the last days, emerged from the events of those days as the vindicated remnant of Israel, the true covenant community."8 This resurrection of the believers occurs, according to the authors, in the era between Christ's ministry, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the old covenant order. The authors remind us of texts like Rom. 6:3-5, 8: 9-11 and Phil. 3:10-13 which associate the believer's resurrection in his present life with Christ's definitive resurrection. The theological corollary, according to the Leonards, is that
for the New Testament writers, the resurrection is an ongoing process. It corresponds to the fulfillment in Christ of God's promises to Israel during the last days of the old covenant period. Resurrection is accomplished "by the Spirit" and is a progressive overcoming of sin-death. Because sin-death, according to Paul, is the state of those who are under the Judaic law, resurrection is the condition of being freed from that religious order and occurs at the time this freedom is realized.... It belongs to the transition from the covenant age of the Law to the new covenant age.9
The Orthodox Response
What do we say to this? It is not my intention here to exegetically refute the hyperpreterist heresy—Ken Gentry's and Jim West's articles in the present issue address the heresy from an exegetical standpoint. I will, though, mention three severe exegetical or theological flaws in the HP thesis.
First, the fact that regeneration and sanctification are labeled or identified as resurrection in the Bible does not require that they be exclusively so understood. Imagine my saying that since death in the Bible is identified with the sinner's walking in the depraved preredemptive order (Eph. 2:1) as well as with the Christian's cessation of existence in that order (1 Jn. 3:14), there is no such thing as physical death taught in the Bible! The HP reduction of the Biblical meaning of resurrection is not materially different from that which makes death mean only a form of spiritual death. The fact that resurrection can denote both regeneration and sanctification (as well as other states) is no evidence that it cannot denote physical resurrection, its prime denotation.
Second, the HP denial that Christ's coming is a physical event cannot do justice to texts like Ac. 1:11 whose most obvious sense is that Christ will return to earth in a discrete, physical body. The HP's are intent to argue that they do not deny the second Advent, only a second Advent after A. D. 70. This is at best disingenuous, and at worse deceptive. They do not believe in a physical second Advent of any kind. The heresy is less in claiming that it is past—though this too is heresy—than in claiming it is not physical.
Perhaps the most inconceivable and tortuous exegesis of the Leonards' entire book is that which concludes that the rapture of 1 Thes. 4:17 may very well refer to the first-century's Christians' death [!].10 The very problem Paul addresses is the concern of the Thessalonians that they may never see their (physically!) dead brethren again. To argue that seeing their brethren again in the "death of the rapture" is Paul's comfort makes nonsense of the passage. The descent of the Lord with the saints will include the snatching away of both those remaining alive in him, and the "dead in Christ" who rise first (v. 16). If the rapture denotes (physical) death, to whom does "the dead in Christ" refer? In v. 17, who are those who "are alive and remain"? If the rapture is nothing but physical death, why the differentiation between the dead in Christ and the living who remain? If the rapture denotes death, why should Christ return for those who are already dead? This makes no sense on the hyperpreterist thesis, but does pose a severe embarrassment. Even if v. 16 is taken to refer to the coming in judgment of A. D. 70, it could never plausibly be argued that all those who were alive during that era were "raptured by death" to rejoin their deceased brethren. In any case, who are the "dead in Christ" that are to rise at the destruction of Jerusalem? The entire HP suggestion is senseless.
Third, the definition of the resurrection of the just as a progressive evolution in victory from the old to the new covenant order in A. D. 33-70 leaves the issue of the resurrection of the unjust conspicuously missing. But the very passages that speak of the resurrection of the just speak no less emphatically of the resurrection of the unconverted (e.g., Ac. 24:15). Only if the resurrection of the unjust means a future, definitive physical resurrection to condemnation and the resurrection of the just means a future, definitive physical resurrection to life eternal can we do justice to the very meaning of the resurrection of both just and unjust.
Additionally, in John 11:23f. Jesus links the resurrection of regeneration with the physical resurrection at the last day. In other words, the resurrection of regeneration constitutes the earnest of the resurrection of the physical body which will occur at the end of history. Had Jesus wished to identify the resurrection of regeneration exclusively as a progressive, non-physical resurrection between A. D. 33 and 70, he missed a golden opportunity. Rather, he claimed that the eternal life consummated at the final physical resurrection is an essential effect of the resurrection of regeneration in time and history. The very discussion of resurrection about a physically dead man (whom he soon physically resurrected) implies a physical resurrection. He did not refute Mary's notion that physical resurrection occurs at the last day. He wanted her to know that physical resurrection to life must be preceded by the spiritual resurrection of regeneration. This passage refutes the HP notion of a gradual, spiritual, final resurrection.
The Subversion of Christian Orthodoxy
There are other insurmountable problems with HP. I wish to confront this heresy from a different angle, however—its utter disregard for the eschatological tenets of creedal orthodoxy and therefore historic Christianity. This heresy asks us to assume that virtually the entire testimony of the church in all its sectors has for nearly two millennia been gravely mistaken about doctrines of Christianity so central that St. Paul staked the very essence of the Faith on them (1 Cor. 15:17-19). It asks us to accept the proposition that when the saints throughout the world every Lord's day affirm publicly their faith that Christ will one day return to judge the living and the dead, they are grossly mistaken. It asks us to cast overboard the vital planks of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds which have defined core Christianity for many centuries. It asks us to assume that God is not sufficiently sovereign to protect his church for 2000 years from severe Christological and eschatological error, or that he has willed that his church should be mistaken on a subject at the very heart of her hope and faith.
In short, it asks us to repudiate cardinal tenets of the Christian Faith. We call such teachings heresy, even—perhaps especially—if they are espoused by pious, sincere people who assertedly desire nothing more than to "get back to what the Bible teaches." This was precisely the claim of Arias, who denied Christ's ontological equality with God. Heresy parading under the guise of allegiance to Scripture is no less heretical than modern liberalism that jettisons Scripture altogether—and is in many ways more pernicious.
HP's are aware of their serious deviation from historic Christianity, and offer arguments trying to justify this deviation. The Leonards, for instance, try to excuse their violation of Christian orthodoxy by the following illogic:
To equate membership in the Christian community with doctrinal orthodoxy, as do some interpreters, while insisting that belief in a future coming of Christ is part of that orthodoxy, results in a logical inconsistency which in effect renders the parousia impossible. At a future appearance of Christ, believers would have to abandon their orthodox eschatology in order to recognize that his coming is no longer future. But by abandoning this belief, they would cease to be the people to whom Christ comes. Either orthodoxy need not include a futuristic eschatology, or else it cannot be the test of who belongs to the people of God.11
This is tantamount to arguing that no Old Testament saint could have been bound in the covenant community to hold the sacrifices to be temporarily though genuinely efficacious since the Redeemer in the first Advent would do way with them in his definitive death. In eternity, to have affirmed the physical second Advent prior to history's end will be essential. But the authors' assault on orthodoxy is more disingenuous than their argument first appears, since it is not merely the chronology but the character of the second Advent they attack. The orthodox do not hold merely to the second Advent as future to the present generation but to the physical second Advent, no less physical than the first Advent. We know it has not yet occurred because Christ's physical, bodily presence has not appeared as it did appear in his first Advent.
The Leonards, in addition, employ an interesting and pernicious—though by no means unprecedented—argument in undermining Christian eschatology:
Future-oriented [that is, orthodox, AS] eschatology—be it amillennial, premillennial, or postmillennial—demonstrates a fundamental problem in the interpretation of Scripture. The problem is that the true import [meaning] of the biblical word-pictures of the end of the age was obscured when the church made the transition from a Semitic to a Hellenistic cultural environment. The underlying theological agenda at work in Greco-Roman civilization was not the one operative in Palestinian Judaism during the period before the revolt against Rome.12
In other words, the church was influenced in its eschatological dogmas by Greek thinking and thereby lured away from its primitive Hebrew ideational moorings that use language in such manner as to forbid Christian orthodox interpretation. This is typical canard made famous by liberals like Harnack. "Pure" first-century Christianity was spoiled by Greek thought and philosophy that dominated doctrinal development and the formation of Christian orthodoxy in the first four centuries.13 On this assumption liberals discard the orthodox doctrine of Christ.14 It discounts or ignores God's providence in the formation of Christian orthodoxy, including the shaping of language and thought forms as adequate vehicles for the communication of dogmatic truth at the heart of Christianity.15 Taken to its logical conclusion, it undermines the authority and infallibility of Scripture, which, no less than the creeds and confessions, manifests historically and philosophically shaped language and thought forms. Just as God shaped man and history in such a manner as to convey his infallible word in human language and thought forms, so he shaped man and history in such a manner as to convey accurate dogma in human language and thought forms.
To assert with the Leonards, therefore, that orthodox eschatology can be scrapped because it imposes alien Greek thought forms on Biblical Hebraic thought forms is worse than mistaken; it is destructive of the essence of Christian orthodoxy and opens the door to the subversion of the Bible itself, which, no less than orthodox dogma, bears an unmistakably historical character.
In contrast to the HP's, therefore, all orthodox Christians in all sectors of the church echo Tertullian (c. 155/60-240/50) in confessing that Christ
was crucified, rose again on the third day; and having ascended into heaven, sat at the right [hand] of the Father; ... sent the only Spirit with vicarious power to lead those who believe; is going to come in glory to take the saints into the enjoyment of eternal life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the godless to eternal fire, after the resurrection of both classes and their restoration in the flesh.... This rule, as will be proved, was taught by Christ, and admits of no questions among us, except those which heresies bring in and which make men heretics.16
This is Christian truth, not Hellenic truth.
Historic Christianity and A-Historical Apostasy
We live in a lamentably a- and anti-historical era. Ignorance of—and contempt for—history and tradition abounds. They are no less pervasive in the church than in the secular culture. Sometimes, they are even more pervasive there. Liberalism, by and large, looks on the past as bound by outmoded, supernaturalistic, superstitious, unscientific thought forms and notions which shaped Christian theology, which must now conform itself to the Enlightenment ideas of modernity. This means most of historic Christianity must be scrapped. Conservatives—especially evangelicals—look on the Christian past and the theology it generated as "too Catholic" or "too Protestant" and not sufficiently Biblical. To this way of thinking, historic Roman Catholics and Protestants overlaid their belief systems with mere human traditions, and what we need today is a tabula rasa, a clean slate, from which we can reproduce a truly Biblical Faith that is neither Roman nor Protestant but Biblical. This dangerously naive notion does not recognize its own historically conditioned dogmas which are in no sense equivalent to Biblical teaching, nor how these beliefs inescapably create a tradition—no less traditionary than that over which they thunder against the Western church. The question is not whether there will be a tradition (2 Thes. 2:15); it is whether there will be a tradition that conforms systematically to Biblical revelation.
The Reformed church, not merely the Roman and Eastern, holds that certain core doctrines of Christianity constituting its very essence cannot be undermined by a facile appeal to the Bible. In the words of Princetonian Charles Hodge, "The revelation of God in his Word begins in a fountain, and flows in a continuous stream ever increasing in volume. We are governed by this tradition of truth running through the whole sacred volume."17 There is a "traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time." This, according to Hodge, is "the common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject and which no man can reject and be a Christian."18 By this description of "the common faith" Hodge refers to what we call Christian orthodoxy.
Sola Scripture means that the Bible in the context of Christian orthodoxy is the sole, ultimate touchstone for faith and practice. It no more means that the Bible can be used to overturn cardinal elements of Christianity than the affirmation of the humanity of Christ means we can overturn affirmation of his deity. The Bible does not come to us in a vacuum. It is conveyed to us (usually) in the milieu of historic Christianity.19 Rome errs in assuming itself the exclusive and institutional vehicle of this historical conveyance; but cultists err in assuming themselves capable of interpreting the Bible without recourse to the Faith (HP can be classed as the latter).
Both errors are deadly.
What do we call those who deny orthodox theology proper, like tritheists; orthodox Christology, like Arians; or orthodox soteriology, like Pelagians? We call them heretics. How do we treat them? We rebuke them, and if they refuse to repent, we avoid them (Titus 3; 10, 11).
We dare not treat those who deny orthodox eschatology any differently.
- R.C. Leonard and J. C. Leonard, The Promise of His Coming (Chicago, 1996), 168, 176.
- ibid., 177.
- ibid., 95.
- Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (no loc., 1957), 261.
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1970 ed.).
- Leonard and Leonard, op. cit., 127f.
- ibid., 118.
- ibid., 161, 168, 182, emphasis in original.
- ibid., 171-172.
- ibid., 159, 160.
- ibid., 85, n. 15.
- ibid., 118, 119; see also 82.
- James Orr, Progress of Dogma (Old Tappan, NJ, n.d.), 12-14.
- L. Harold DeWolf, The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective (Philadelphia, n.d.), 72.
- Andrew Sandlin, "Toward a Reformed View of Ecclesiastical Tradition," Journal of Christian Reconstruction (forthcoming).
- William A. Jurgens, ed. and trans., The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN, 1970), 1:120.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1981), 1:113.
- ibid., 113, 114.
- Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism (Philadelphia and Boston , 1964), 79.