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Creedal Eschatology Is Biblical Eschatology
Heresies like “Full” Preterism parade under the guise of fidelity to the Bible over creeds. But the creeds are faithful to the Bible, while heretics pervert the Bible. To be creedal is to be biblical.
Dear friends and supporters:
Biblical orthodoxy is often under attack by alleged believers who claim that since the Bible is the infallible Word of God (correct) and the common Christian creeds are not (also correct), the creeds are wrong (incorrect). (On a recent controversy highlighting this tendency, see “An Open Letter to Gary DeMar.”)
Because the Roman and Eastern churches rely on those creeds as dogma, the creed-opposing crowd assumes Protestants don’t (or at least shouldn’t) view the creeds as authoritative. They fail to grasp that what the Westminster Confession calls “good and necessary consequence” of biblical truth is as binding as biblical truth — because it is.
The orthodox Trinity (for example) is biblical truth summarized as brief systematic theology. That’s what all accurate creeds like the Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian are: mini-systematic theologies. This is why the Reformers all affirmed ancient ecumenical creedal Christianity. The fact that creeds do not occupy the precise role in Protestantism they do in Rome and the East doesn’t mean we orthodox Protestants deny the authority of those creeds. We do not. Why? Because they summarize biblical truth, which is the final authority. (For more on this, read Jaroslav Pelikan’s Obedient Rebels.)
Today one vocal heretical sect opposing the creeds in their doctrines of last things (eschatology) is so-called “full” or “consistent,” preterism, which should be distinguished from partial preterism. This citation taken from the article here specifies that distinction:
Preterism, a Christian eschatological view, interprets some (partial preterism) or all (full preterism) prophecies of the Bible as events which have already happened. This school of thought interprets the Book of Daniel as referring to events that happened from the 7th century BC until the first century AD, while seeing the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as events that happened in the first century AD. Preterism holds that Ancient Israel finds its continuation or fulfillment in the Christian church at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The term preterism comes from the Latin praeter, which is a prefix denoting that something is “past” or “beyond”. Adherents of preterism are known as preterists. Preterism teaches that either all (full preterism) or a majority (partial preterism) of the Olivet discourse had come to pass by AD 70.
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Full preterism holds that all biblical prophecy was fulfilled in the A. D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem and ancient Judaism. Full preterism must, therefore, deny orthodox Christianity since it denies the future (to us) visible, physical return of Christ; the future visible, physical resurrection of the righteous and unrighteous; and the future visible, physical final judgment of both. These doctrines are parts of core, basic Christian belief. For instance, the eschatological portions of the Nicene Creed (shared by all other ecumenical creeds as well as the major Reformation confessions) are these:
He [Christ] will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end…
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come.
Every major Reformation confession — Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational, Anglican, Baptist — affirmed these biblical truths. So did Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In other words, the entire Christian tradition believes these truths. The only quasi-Christian groups that question or deny them are (1) the ancient Gnostics, (2) the more recent anti-supernaturalistic theological liberals, and now, even more recently, (3) the full preterists.
Full preterists deny basic Christian eschatology. Therefore, they’re heretics in the most accurate sense of that word. They are heretical preterists (hereafter HP). (See Ken Gentry’s refutation here.) While there is plenty of legitimate disagreement among orthodox Christians on eschatological issues like the millennium, the tribulation mentioned in Daniel, the timing of the future Second Advent, the identification of the Antichrist(s), and the interpretation of Revelation, there is no legitimate disagreement on the basic biblical eschatology of the common Christian creeds.
Many who deny fundamental Christian doctrines like HP’s, Arians, and Oneness Pentecostals claim they rely wholly on biblical exegesis, while they assert their orthodox critics rely on the creeds.
This charge is false and disingenuous. The orthodox (especially orthodox Protestants) have done massively more, and more rigorous, exegesis than the heretics. They simply know that the creeds accurately summarize the products of all that faithful exegesis and don’t need to re-exegete those passages every time a heretical newbie comes baying for exegesis. Rome and the East assert the creeds are true because they are dogma: we Protestants assert they are dogma because they are true.
In this article, I’ll briefly and simply show three biblical passages (among scores I could mention) that prove the future visible, physical return of Christ. I could do the same for the future visible, physical resurrection and final judgment of the righteous and unrighteous. I’ll try to avoid technical language and Greek and Hebrew. I’ll write as simply as I can.
I’ll also show how arguably the chief HP scholar (actually there are almost no HP scholars, a telling fact) is wrong about these three passages. He is J. Stuart Russell (1816–1895), and the book is The Parousia. This book does a masterful job of showing that many passages often assumed to refer to the Second Advent actually refer to God’s A. D. 70 judgment-coming.
Unfortunately, Russell claims all (or virtually all) of them do. I use this book as a foil because the author is far removed from any present controversy and because the book is considered the bible of HP. (Page numbers from the Russell citations appear in parentheses after them.)
Orthodox Biblical Eschatology
In Acts 1:10–11, Luke’s account of our Lord’s ascension, we read:
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner [or “in just the same way”] as you saw Him go into heaven.” (emphasis supplied)
We can imagine the disciples’ joy over their Friend, the risen Lord, tinged with disappointment at his departure — his very visible and physical departure. God dispatches angels to comfort the disciples with the truth that this very Jesus will return to them one day “in just the same way.” Jesus wouldn’t simply return to earth; he would return in the same manner as he departed — visibly and physically from the heavens.
This obvious interpretation poses problems for the HP’s. Jesus did not return visibly and physically in A. D. 70, so if the standard orthodox interpretation of this passage is true, there is a coming or appearing after A. D. 70. Russell asserts:
There is no indication of time in this parting promise, but it is only reasonable to suppose that the disciples would regard it as addressed to them, and that they would cherish the hope of soon seeing Him again, according to His own saying, ‘A little while, and ye shall see me.’ This belief sent them back to Jerusalem with great joy. Is it credible that they could have felt this elation if they had conceived that His coming would not take place for eighteen centuries? Or can we suppose that their joy rested upon a delusion? There is no conclusion possible but that which holds the belief of the disciples to have been well founded, and the Parousia nigh at hand. (147–148).
But this assumes what needs to be proved. Russell has already decided that the (final) Parousia happened in A. D. 70, so that’s what the angels must have been talking about. He shoehorns his theology into the biblical text rather than let the text tell us what, and what kind, of coming it is. If Jesus were to return “in just the same way” as he departed, it can’t be the A. D. 70 Parousia but the Second Advent.
Creation and eschaton are the bookends of the Christian worldview. To deny the eschaton is no less fatal to the Christian worldview than to deny creation. Hyper-Preterism, therefore, is at war with the Christian worldview.
Russell argues that this can’t be the case, since this now 2000+ year-later Parousia wouldn’t have comforted the disciples. This is a strange, self-defeating argument. For how would a non-physical but fierce judgment Parousia at A. D. 70 comfort them either? There was no comfort, certainly no visibly present comfort, in A. D. 70. All to the contrary.
But the fact is, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (the late R. C. Sproul, a partial preterist, writes that this passage proves a “sharp distinction” between the A. D. 70 and the final Parousia), Christ will return visibly and physically from the heavens and concurrently resurrect the bodies of all deceased saints whose spirits accompany him (including those of the early ascension-witnessing disciples). These deceased saints will, in fact, therefore, see him “in just the same way” as the angels promised. Acts 1 doesn’t promise the disciples won’t die until they see the Lord again. It does promise they’ll see him “in just the same way.”
And at the Second Advent, they will.
Hebrews 9:27–28 reads:
And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. (emphasis supplied)
The author has been extensively arguing the superiority of the new covenant to the old. Here he contrasts the first advent with the second. The difference is simple but dramatic: at his first coming (the incarnation), Christ was surrounded and weighed down by sin, not his own, since he was sinless, but ours. This was at the heart of his ministry as the great high priest. The whole point of priesthood is to deal with sin. No priest dealt with it finally and definitively until Jesus Christ. Thus, this first advent was not “apart from sin.” Sin had a claim on all Jesus was and did: “And the Lord [the Father] has laid on Him [Christ] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). This was not Jesus’ sin (he was sinless), but our sin that he came to pay for and purge.
But when he returns the second time (this is the closest the Bible comes to referring to the “Second Coming [or “Advent]”), he will be entirely “apart from sin.” Sin (ours) no longer lays claim to him. He comes to punish the wicked and reward the righteous. This implies the future final judgment. “[T]hose who eagerly wait for Him” are the redeemed. We need not fear the final judgment since our great high priest has been judged on our behalf (substitutionary atonement). But the unrighteous should fear the judgment after their death and after Christ’s second coming.
Russell’s treatment of these verses is reduced to this single paragraph:
The attitude of expectation maintained by the Christians of the apostolic age is here incidentally shown. They waited in hope and confidence for the fulfillment of the promise of His coming. To suppose that they thus waited for an event which did not happen is to impute to them and to their teachers an amount of ignorance and error incompatible with respect of their beliefs on any other subject.
In other words, the Second Coming had to have been in A. D. 70 or their hopes would have been dashed. But he doesn’t explain why this must be the case. He doesn’t seem to envision that a coming they did not see in their lifetime, one after which all the wicked would be judged and all human history set to rights, could also have comforted them. As my colleague Brian Mattson mentioned to me, “Russell’s logic is so bizarre: it is somehow unworthy of the saints to believe in a promise that isn’t fulfilled in their lifetimes? That would be …. Every single Old Testament saint. It is a glory of the saints to believe God’s promises even if they do not see them fulfilled. Faith 101.”
But the greater problem is that a second non-physical coming in Jewish judgment (A. D. 70) is not parallel to a first physical coming in universal redemption. The distinction in this passage between the first and second advents was not that the first was physical and the second non-physical, the first was universally significant and the second Judaically significant, but that the first was not “apart from sin” and the second will be.
Our Lord is not returning as the earthly sin-bearer but as the heavenly crown-wearer. A. D. 70 was God’s judgment on an apostate Israel. Hebrews 9 predicts God’s judgment on an entire apostate humanity. As the Athanasian Creed declares:
[H]e [Christ] is [presently] seated at the Father’s right hand;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
At his coming all people will arise bodily
and give an accounting of their own deeds.
Those who have done good will enter eternal life,
and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.
Moreover, of what significance is the phrase “apart from sin” to A. D. 70? This has no relevance to God’s judgment on Israel. It does, however, have momentous relevance to the future second advent, when Christ returns, not bearing the sins of many, but judging the sins of all the unrepentant.
The Second Coming is the future (to us) visible, physical coming in final redemption of the righteous, and final judgment of the unrighteous.
Christianity’s greatness has diminished, that is, Christianity historically and culturally considered in the West. By contrast, the greatness of the Christian Faith objectively understood has not lessened: the Lord Jesus Christ and his word and the Cross and resurrection, for example, are just as great today as they ever were. But the Faith at is practiced in the West and particularly as it influences what we nowadays call “public” life is at a low ebb. This diminution has occurred before historically both in the West as well as in the rest of the world, and it has been recovered. A contribution toward that recovery in our own time is the chief objective of this small book.
Get the book here.
1 Corinthians 15
In 1 Corinthians 15:22–28 (which Brian Mattson has addressed briefly but expertly), Paul lays out the basic sequence of new covenant history:
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all 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. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. (emphasis supplied)
This is part of a larger argument against the idea afflicting the Corinthian church that while Christ was raised, he was such an anomaly that there could be no additional resurrection of the saints (see v. 12): Christ’s physical resurrection was the last. But I’m concerned here only with Paul’s eschatology.
His basic outline is simple. (1) Christ rose from the dead. He was the first fruits, meaning he was the first of many who would rise (we, the redeemed). (2) Then he reigns from heaven in the present era. (3) Then he comes back to earth. (4) Then he resurrects the saints (this is the final resurrection harvest of which his own resurrection was the first fruits). (5) Then comes “the end,” at which time death itself (“the last enemy”) will be vanquished. (6) Then Jesus delivers up his present kingdom to the Father, after he has subjugated all his enemies, including death itself. (7) Then God (in eternity) will be “all in all.”
It’s obvious the “coming” mentioned is the Second Coming. Why? Because all Christ’s enemies haven’t yet been subjugated. Because the saints haven’t yet been bodily resurrected as Jesus, their first fruits, was. Because death itself hasn’t been destroyed. Because Christ is still reigning. To say this coming occurred in A. D. 70 means all these things have already occurred. That view is palpably absurd.
But not for J. Stuart Russell. He must have recognized the problems these verses pose for his view (which he admits is “novel” ), because he devotes nine pages to it, while he spends little time on Acts 1 and Hebrews 9. His interpretive contortions consist of these:
Christ handed over his kingdom to the Father at A. D. 70. His present reign in heaven in now over. Jesus is no longer earth’s reigning King. (204)
All enemies subjugated at the Second Coming were the Jewish rulers of the time. The pagan Roman Empire wasn’t actually that much of an enemy. All enemies means all Jewish enemies in A. D. 70. (204–205) This would have been news to all those Christians in the contemporaneous reign of Nero Caesar (A. D. 54–68) whom he ignited as human torches to illuminate his depraved parties.
The destruction of death at the Parousia referred only to the destruction of death to the faithful Jews of the old covenant, not the final judgment of all humanity at the end of history. His reasoning is so bizarre that it warrants a longer citation:
True, the spiritual and invisible accompaniments of that [A. D. 70] judgment are not recorded by the historian, for they were not such as the human senses could apprehend or verify; yet what Christian can hesitate to believe that, contemporaneously with the outward judgment of the seen [on Jerusalem], there was a corresponding judgment of the unseen? Such, at least, is the inference fairly deducible from the teachings of the New Testament. That at the great epoch of the [A. D. 70] Parousia the dead as well as the living — not of the whole human race, but of the subjects of the Theocratic [Jewish] kingdom — were to be assembled before the [heavenly] tribunal of judgment, is distinctly affirmed in the Scriptures; the [old covenant Jewish] dead being raised up, and the [old covenant Jewish] living undergoing an instantaneous change. In this recall of the dead to life — the resuscitation of those who throughout the duration of the Theocratic kingdom had become the victims and captives of death — we conceive the ‘destruction’ of death referred to by St. Paul to consist. (206–207)
So, the dead Jews of the old covenant era were resurrected in (to?) heaven, while the Jews living at the time were “instantaneous[ly] change[d],” despite the fact that no person at the time recorded such a bizarre event of living Jews being resurrected and transported [?] to the invisible heavenly tribunal. This is simply absurd.
According to Russell, we’re forced to believe this passage deals exclusively with old covenant Judaism, despite the fact that the entire force of 1 Corinthians 15 is universal and has nothing unique to say to Jews.
We’re obliged to accept that Jesus Christ is no longer the ruling King, despite the fact that Philippians 2 tells us that he will rule as Lord until every knee, not just every old covenant Jewish knee, bows to him.
We are required to accept that the final resurrection occurred in A. D. 70, that it was a resurrection limited to old covenant Jews, and that the Jews living at the time were resurrected and somehow made to appear before a heavenly tribunal.
This scenario is more bizarre than the most fanciful dispensational interpretation devised.
The Bible teaches in these passages (and others) the future, visible, physical Second Coming of our presently reigning Lord. The common Christian creeds assert this basic biblical truth and others. Every orthodox Christian in history has eagerly affirmed them. Many of us confess them every Sunday. No orthodox Christian would deny them.
And we biblical Protestants affirm them precisely because the Bible teaches them.
The Bible alone is the final authority, but not the Bible and you or I alone in our basement cut off from the church historic and everybody else who ever interpreted it. We Protestants affirm the priesthood of all believers, not the priesthood of each believer isolated from every other one.
If you affirm this creedal eschatology in the face of pernicious heretical denials like HP, I urge you to stand boldly by signing the public statement here.
War on the Christian Worldview
Recall the Christian worldview summarized as creation–fall-redemption. The eschaton and its events like the future visible, physical return of Christ; the future visible, physical resurrection of the righteous and unrighteous; and the future visible, physical final judgment of both constitute the culmination of our Lord’s great work of redemption. Without them, there is no redemption. Creation and eschaton are the bookends of the Christian worldview. To deny the eschaton is no less fatal to the Christian worldview than to deny creation. HP, therefore, is at war with the Christian worldview.
Above all, dear friends, stand fast in the Faith once for all definitively delivered to the saints (Jude 3). There is yet more truth to be mined from the Bible.
But no biblical truth undermines the core Faith all Christians confess. Few writers have expressed this point as potently and eloquently as the great 19th century church historian Phillip Schaff in The Principle of Protestantism, and I’ll conclude with it:
[T]he case of the formal dogmatic tradition … is such as has not for its contents something different from what is contained in the Bible, but forms the channel by which these contents are conducted forward in history; the onward development thus of church doctrine and church life, as comprehended first dogmatically in the so-called rules of faith, above all in the Apostles’ Creed, and then the ecumenical creeds — the Nicene and Athanasian — and still further as orally carried forward, apart from all written statement, through the entire course of church history, so that everyone, before he wakes to self-consciousness, is made involuntarily to feel its power. Tradition in this sense is absolutely indispensable [and unavoidable, PAS]. By this means we come first to the contents of the Bible; and from it these draw their life for us, perpetually fresh and new; in such a way that Christ and his apostles are made present, and speak to us directly, in the Spirit which breathes in the Bible, and flows through the church in her life’s blood. This tradition therefore is not a part of a divine word separately from that which is written, but the contents of scripture itself as apprehended and settled by the church against heresies past and always new appearing; not an independent source of revelation, but the one fountain of the written word, only rolling itself forward in the stream of church consciousness. (bold emphases supplied, italics original)
Yours for eschatological orthodoxy,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
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