Friday, December 7, 2007

Cautioning Preterism

by JM
pret•er•ist ˈprɛt ər ɪst - [pret-er-ist]
a person who maintains that the prophecies in the Apocalypse have already been fulfilled. Compare FUTURIST (def. 2), PRESENTIST.
It is essential for interpreters to focus on the chronological cues given in Scripture. It’s precisely this norm that has led a body of interpreters to regard many of the New Testament prophecies, which have been largely taken futuristically by modern interpreters, as having already been fulfilled.

So, when we read Jesus catering the prophecies of the Olivet discourse to a particular group of guys in a known historical setting that have clear connection with the events experienced in their lifetimes (e.g., such as the destruction of Jerusalem), it is our interpretative responsibility to view those prophecies as having complete fulfillment in that chronological locale rather then in some distant era which holds so relevance to the audience.

“When you see all these things, recognize that He is near; right at the door; truly I say to you too, this generation will not pass way until all these things take place” (Matt 24:33&34).
Again, this would be true of John who addresses seven existing churches about the book he pens,

“Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
Many more instances could be cited.

I believe that this value for chronological fidelity is one that should be taken seriously and would do much to dispel much extravagant thinking within eschatology, as well as to enrich our understanding of history. However, I think many who support it have adopted an unfortunate and unnatural prophetic reductionism that makes the prophetic portraits of Scripture feel like wearing one’s high school pants – too tight and too restrictive. I contend that genre of language found in places like the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation allows for a more flexible reading of chronological markers (e.g., “this generation” “the time is near”), and in fact requires a qualified exception of the interpretive rule which says that the right interpretation is the one the audience would have understood. When I say “qualified,” I mean precisely to keep the Pandora’s box of unbridled subjectivistic interpretation closed. This exception would only apply to particular apocalyptic portions of Scripture, as the context of such portions would demand.

In what follows, I won’t offer a defense for how I believe this to be the case with supposed second coming passages disputed between futurists and preterist. Instead, I offer the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:1-16, affirmed by both futurists and preterists as having its fulfillment in the first coming of Christ, as an example of the kind of flexibility allowed for and arguably required for second coming prophecies. In particular, I contend that if preterists are consistent, their principle of interpretation would lead to a rejection of Isaiah 7 from messianic status. This prophecy contains many of same the qualities that lead preterist to their particular stance on most of New Testament prophecies. If I’m correct, then we have strong precedent which allows us to have a futuristically inclined kind of interpretation as an option in dealing with debated second coming passages.

Isaiah 7 starts out setting up the context of the prophecy. We read of a confederation of apostate Israel and Syria joined to oppose Judah (vs.1). It appears that they previously had great success against Judah, deporting a significant number of people to Damascus (2 Chronicles 28:5-8). Emboldened by their previous exploits, and perhaps motivated by a power play against Assyria, they plan to strike again.

When Ahaz hears the news that Syrians had arrived in Israel, preparing for a second campaign against Judah, it is said that “his heart shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind” (vs.2).

It’s in the midst of this present terror of impending doom that God sends Isaiah to King Ahaz with prophetic hope. God tells Ahaz that though these two kings have planned evil against him, even toppling the Kingdom and setting up another king, “It shall not stand nor shall it come to pass” (vs.7). Not only does God relate the failure of this impending campaign, but also declares that Israel will be shattered within sixty-five years.

We read that King Ahaz was “at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the fuller’s field” when Isaiah gave this prophecy (vs.3). He probably was evaluating the status of the cities water supply, bracing for the imminent attack. As Ahaz stands next to this conduit, having heard the prophetic assurances of Isaiah, he receives an important cue as to the prophecies fulfillment. Though King Ahaz rejects the need for assurances, nevertheless God insists:

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken” (14-16).
Notice which event precedes and signals the above mentioned events: A virgin will be with child and bear a son. Before the boy reaches a sense of moral obligation, the treat to Judah will be dissolved. According to this passage,

•This sign will occur in the midst of this particular threat (vss.5-7)
•This sign could occur no later than 65 years after its utterance (vs.8).
Most date this prophecy at 734. We know that this particular confederacy was broken within two years of this prophecy. Tiglath Pilesar III destroyed Damascus in 732, making Rezin the last king of Syria, therefore destroying the confederacy which could have toppled Judah. We also know that twelve years later Assyria would proceed to topple the Kingdom of Israel, and within sixty-five years (vs.8) depopulated it to the point of obscurity, thus bringing into fruition the saying “the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”

Contextually, therefore, Isaiah 7:14-16 has its fulfillment some six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. If chronologically cues are the decisive determining factor for prophetical placement and fulfillment, as the preterists insist for prophecies like the Olivet Discourse, then one is forced to say that there has been a misreading and misapplication of this prophecy by Matthew.

However, if we instead allow the usage of prophecy to inform our theory of interpretation, it is not at all unreasonable to affirm that some prophecies have multiple layers. Each layer taken by itself fulfills particular elements of the immediate context; however a layer taken by itself will be insufficient to fulfill the totality of the prophecy. In the case of Isaiah 7, it seems that there was a particular young lady that Ahaz knew who was with child and perhaps even gave birth within a few days of his meeting with Isaiah. Whatever the case, this prophecy spoke to him. This sign had immediate relevance. We have to affirm something like this to handle the context properly. However, Matthew records that this prophecy has fuller-fillment in the Messiah.

So at the very least, I’ve removed a principle that leads preterists to immediately dismiss all futurist fulfillments of prophecies which have clear historic fulfillments. This forces the combatants in the overall debate to wrestle with each particular disputed prophecy to identify markers that may suggests a fuller-fillment of an already fulfilled prophecy.