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A Response to the Preterist
By Jonathan H. Barlow
There are really only two dominant arguments against the literary interpretation of Matthew 24. These arguments are not only advanced by preterists, but it also by some partial preterists (those who do not adopt the entire theological program and realized eschatology of the Full Preterists). R.C. Sproul advances this first argument, for instance, in his recent popular book on the subject.
The genesis of this paper is concern over a growing movement within Protestant Christianity. That movement involves the rise of the so-called Full Preterist position. The word preterism has historically been used to label those who find near term fulfillment to be the referent of much of the prophecy of the New Testament including the book of Revelation. In this form, preterism is nothing new and is relatively noncontroversial. The Full Preterist position, however, goes beyond isolated opinions on various texts and constitutes an entire systematic theological position. In this paper, we will be speaking solely about this latter form of preterism and will call it simply "preterism."
In a nutshell, preterism advocates an entirely realized eschatology. Unlike the realized eschatology of the 19th century fostered by liberalism, preterism emerges from conservative, largely Calvinistic, Protestant circles. All prophecy is fulfilled. The Lord has returned again and there is no longer a "not yet" beyond each individual Christian's death and entry into heaven.
A real desideratum in the preterist literature is a scholarly defense of Preterism that presents systematically its precepts and defends them exegetically. Presently, anyone wishing to study what preterists have written must turn to a variety of sources, some of them published only on the internet, and none of them giving the complete picture. There is also the problem of diversity within the preterist position that makes responding to Preterism in general rather difficult. This paper will not attempt a general critique of preterism. It will, however, attempt to respond to what appears to be the fountainhead of preterism -- the interpretation of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24.
Though preterists appeal to a number of texts to support their position, I find in the preterist literature a great deal of emphasis on Matthew 24 as a kind of hermeneutical key that sets the tone for the methods and conclusions of preterist exegesis as a whole. In addition, the preterist literature is replete with testimonies of those who previously believed in futurist positions and when confronted with the preterist exegesis of Matthew 24 felt that they had been previously deceived about its meaning. The thesis of this paper is simple -- Matthew 24 has only been interpreted in a preterist manner by means of various spurious synoptic arguments. If Matthew 24 can be shown to contain references to two historical events -- the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the consummation of history at a future time, then those who have begun their trip down the road to preterism based upon this text should feel compelled to re-examine their destination. I will begin by examining Matthew 24, making an argument for two different referents based upon a literary reading of the text. The preterist challenges to this interpretation will be presented, and then a response vindicating the initial literary reading of the text will follow.
Matthew 24: A Literary Perspective
When we read any piece of literature, including the Bible, we unconsciously make a number of observations about the structure of each sentence, paragraph, and section as well as the relationship between these various units of literature. If we assume the Bible to be a form of intentional communication then the person interpreting the Bible best is the one who diligently seeks to understand the intention of the author as expressed by his structuring the various units of the communication. Providing examples from the Gospel of Luke, Cotterell and Turner illustrate the nature of this literary or discourse analysis of scripture and what we can learn from it as students of the Bible:
Of the Gospel writers, Luke exploits structure more dramatically than the others, so as to bring across the significance of the material he has chosen to relate. So, for example, in Luke 1-2, he sets stories of the annunciation and birth of John and Jesus in a deliberate and staggered parallelism (to clarify their respective roles). Again, he makes the sermon at Nazareth (4.16-30) as paradigmatic, by making it Jesus' first public speech (similarly Peter's Pentecost speech is paradigmatic for Acts). He organizes the whole of 9.51 - 19.28 as a journey toward Jerusalem, and the death-and-ascension (cf. 13.32), which thus provides an interpretive framework for the material contained within the section. ... He also orchestrates a careful and extensive set of parallels between Jesus, Stephen, Peter and Paul, which both makes the point that the true disciple is the one who suffers with Jesus, and that Paul was a true apostle of Christ; at one with and of similar stature to Peter.
Luke is not alone in employing such literary devices; every Biblical author to one extent or another organizes material so that the form and content work together to communicate explicitly and by implication -- Matthew is no exception.
As in the writings of Luke, several dramatic literary features of Matthew readily come to mind. Matthew's gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus -- a genealogy that differs from Luke's genealogy because it traces a different path through Jesus' lineage. One theme of Matthew's supported by the genealogy's structure is that of the importance of the inclusion of Gentiles in the Kingdom inaugurated by the Messiah's coming. The genealogy includes the names of several gentile women brought into the people of God -- Ruth, Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba. Matthew explicitly takes a path through Jesus' ancestry to connect him with Gentiles and Jews. He connects him ultimately with Father Abraham.
Another discourse feature of Matthew's Gospel is his comparison of Jesus to various entities -- Israel and Moses in particular. This is to highlight Jesus' fulfillment of God's intention to bring salvation to his people and to the world:
Jesus as the Perfect Moses:
A literary approach to Matthew takes into account the above observations in its exposition of the text. The intent of a literary approach to the scriptures is not to use the above information to rule out the historicity of the events which are presented. The point is that God providentially worked out the life of the Messiah to fulfill the roles of Moses and Israel, and he also inspired Matthew to structure his Gospel in such a way as to make sure the reader does not miss these features of Jesus' life! Literary devices work in concert with a faithful presentation of events to communicate what is intended.
Thus far we have seen a few examples of structured discourse in Matthew that have been rather dramatic. But our examination of Matthew 24 requires only the appreciation of subtle, yet important, textual features.
The first thing to notice about Matthew 24 is that verses one and two give us the thematic setting -- Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and this prompts the question from "the disciples" in verse 3. The disciples are reported, then, to ask two questions (in response to Jesus' comments) marked by two interrogative words, when will this happen and what will be the sign of Jesus' coming and of the end of the age. Jesus' answer to the question consists of a lengthy discourse, verses 4 through 25:46. One striking feature of the answer is that verses 3 through 34 contain a number of signs yet verses 35 through 51 feature an absence of signs and explicit testimony that signs will be absent (vv. 36, 39, 42, 43, 50). We will comment on the role of chapter 25, another section of this discourse, in a moment.
The first question we must ask is whether the structure of the question from the disciples is programmatic for the structure of Jesus' answer. From history, we know that Jesus' prediction in 24:1-2 was fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In verses 3 through 34 several items contrast with those in 35 and following which make it possible that Jesus answers the question of when the temple will be destroyed in the section constituted by verses 24:3-34. First of all Jesus mentions numerous signs in 3 through 34 and even advises wise attention to the signs as a guide for responsive action -- vv. 6, 14, 15-18, 23, 29, 32. In addition, verse 34 specifically states that the events described will occur in "this generation." In contrast to these points, Jesus specifically says no one knows when this will occur in verses 36, 42, 44, etc. Surely two different events are spoken of if the response to one is fleeing the city (16) and the response to the other is continuance of faithful service (46). Further, it would be too trivial to assert on the one hand that various signs should prompt action (16), that various signs should indicate that the time is very close (14, 33) and simultaneously that the "day and hour" no one knows, not even the Son of God or the angels. Is the whole point of the contrast that the disciples will certainly know the week or month of the event, but not the specific day of the week? This seems to be an unnatural reading of the text -- one that smoothes over the stark differences between the relative ease with which the occurrence of the two events can be predicted.
Thus, it appears that the disciples' question is programmatic for understanding the answer Jesus gives. 24:4-34 answers the first question "When will these things happen" (24:3a). The second part of the question is "what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age" (24:3b). The destruction of the temple is referred to as a "coming" of Jesus in judgement (v. 27, 30). Thus, with regard to the second part of the question, it appears that there are three options. Either:
1. The disciples conflate the "sign of your coming" and "the end of the age" and Jesus answers by distinguishing between the two in 4-34 and 35-51 respectively...
2. The disciples use the word "coming" in a manner distinct from Jesus' use of it in v. 27, thus 24:3a and 24:b are distinct questions in the minds of the disciples and of Jesus...
3. 24:3b is really not a distinct question from 24:3a but rather an elaboration.
I do not favor option three because of the reasons given above for seeing incoherence between 4-34 and 35-51 if they are about the same event. Thus, Jesus' answer should guide us to reject the existence of only one question or at least to reject the idea that Jesus believed the disciples should be asking only one question. Options one and two both recognize that more than one question is asked by the disciples. The difference is that option two views 24:3b as a distinct question from 24:3a and option one views 24:3b as a conflation of two things, only one of which should be included in the second question.
No objective means for deciding between options one and two is readily apparent. It is sufficient to notice that two questions are answered, whether or not the askers knew they should distinguish between Jesus' coming in A.D. 70 and the end of the world.
In summary, a literary reading of the text points to the following outline as the most satisfactory understanding of the discourse features of the text:
(A) The event context: the destruction of the temple (24:1-2)
(B) When will the temple be destroyed, what be the sign of your coming? (24:3a)
(C) What will be the sign of the end of the age? (24:3b)
(B') The signs that will accompany the destruction of the temple (24:4-34)
(C') The lack of signs alerting one to the time of the end of the age. (24:35-51).
The account seems to separate two events: the coming of Jesus in destruction of the temple, thus bringing down the old religious order, and the coming of Jesus at the end of time to judge his servants. If this is correct, then preterism is incorrect because while the temple has been destroyed, it is not the case that when the son of man came in A.D. 70 he judged between all the sheep and the goats in the flesh and sent each off to his respective eternal destiny (25:31-32). 
The Preterist Challenge
There are really only two dominant arguments against the literary interpretation of Matthew 24. These arguments are not only advanced by preterists, but it also by some partial preterists (those who do not adopt the entire theological program and realized eschatology of the Full Preterists). R.C. Sproul advances this first argument, for instance, in his recent popular book on the subject. The first argument makes an appeal to what are seen to be parallel accounts in the other synoptic gospels (Mark 13:1-37, Luke 21:5-38). By comparing the content and structure of the accounts, preterists conclude that Jesus intends his discourse to answer one complex question about the destruction of the temple and the passing away of the Jewish era in A.D. 70. The second argument compares Matthew 24 to Luke 17.
The first preterist argument concerns the nature of the question asked by the disciples in Matthew 24. Only Matthew has "the sign of the end of the age":
Since the other synoptic accounts include material from both before and after the transition we have alleged to exist in verse 35 of Matthew 24, the other evangelists communicate for us that they interpreted the whole discourse to be only in answer to the question of when the temple would be destroyed. 19th Century preterist J. Stuart Russell writes:
"It is generally assumed that the disciples came to our Lord with three different questions, relating to different events separated from each other by a long interval of time ... It is supposed that our Lord's reply conforms itself to this threefold inquiry, and that this gives shape to his whole discourse ... St. Mark and St. Luke make the question of the disciples refer to one event and one time ... It is not only presumable, therefore, but indubitable, that the questions of the disciples only refer to different aspects of the same great event. This harmonises the statements of St. Matthew with those of the other Evangelists, and is plainly required by the circumstances of the case."
Because the other evangelists exclude the clause concerning the end of the age and yet contain much of the same content which allegedly answered that question in Mt. 24, they must be attributing the answer given as being in response to the first part of the question recorded by all three evangelists.
The second argument presented by preterists concerns a reference in the latter portion of Matthew 24 to Noah and a reference to Noah in Luke 17. Here is a chart reproduced from preterist literature  illustrating the combination of material from Mt. 24:4-24 and 24:35-51. The argument is that Luke's combining of the material should obliterate any alleged distinction of referent:
Scott, the author of the chart, comments:
"... a quick examination of Luke 17 will reveal that according to Luke's arrangement of the signs and symbols he only understood Christ to be referring to one event, which, as we have already stated, pertained to the full coming of the kingdom. No distinction is possible when examining Luke's context. He uses the signs from the first part of Matthew 24 and the second part also in an intermingled fashion."
We have seen two chief arguments for the Matthew account having a unitary purpose -- describing the coming of Christ in judgement upon apostate Judaism as dramatically signified by the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Both arguments are synoptic. That is, they appeal to alleged parallels in Mark and Luke to shed light on the discourse in Matthew 24.
A Rejoinder to the Preterist Arguments
The Synoptic Argument from Luke 17
The first leg of the second argument asserts that Luke 17 is a parallel account to Matthew 24. This remains an assertion, however, that is not defended. One author writes,
"That it is a parallel account, no honest person can or would deny. To attempt to deny it would make the Bible unintelligible. Reader, immediately beware of any one who would deny the "undeniable" link between these two passages. Such a person has a "hidden agenda" for the purpose of defending his opinions. The lucid force of this passage must be dealt with." 
This kind of overstatement is unfortunate, however, because it is important to explain what one means by "parallel account". These accounts surely do not record the same speech. Preterists already assert that Luke 21:5-38 is the parallel to the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24. In addition, the speech of Luke 17 occurs in a town between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17:11) and not in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives as the setting of the speech in Matthew 24 is recorded to be. "Parallel", then, cannot mean another perspective, or a separate recording, of the same event. The preterist must be using parallel in the sense that Jesus had a prepared speech that he delivered whenever asked about eschatology and that this speech is given at least twice - in the occasion recorded in Matthew 24, Luke 21:5-38, Mark 13:1-37, and in the occasion recorded in Luke 17. But such a position cannot be proven because nowhere are we told these kind of details of Jesus' homiletical practice. 
Every speaker, however, carries an inventory of metaphors, analogies, and illustrations in his rhetorical toolbox. For instance, a preacher might one week refer to the life of John Newton (1725-1807) in a sermon as an illustration of a dramatic conversion and the power of the Gospel. The next week, however, the life of John Newton might serve to illustrate the ethical changes which accompany true sonship.  We cannot impose a rule upon a speaker, or upon the one who records that speaker's words (the evangelists), that each illustration must only be used in one way. Thus, we must always ask "with respect to what is X event like Y illustration?"
The reference to Noah in Matthew 24:37-38 seems to indicate that the coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah with respect to the unknowability of the timing of the event and the conduct of life as usual right up to the event. In Luke 17, the reference to Noah does not follow a caution about the unknowability of the timing of the events. It comes in the context of a discussion of the coming of the Kingdom which, if identical to the comings spoken of in Matthew 24, must be proven and not assumed. In addition, there is a parallel between Noah's entering the ark (Luke 17:27) Lot's leaving Sodom (17:29) and Jesus' revelation as the Son of Man (17:30). In bringing up Noah, Matthew records Jesus' using the story to illustrate the behavior and experience of the people who did not enter the ark. Luke, however, records Jesus using the story of Noah (and Lot, and Lot's wife) to illustrate losing one's life in order to gain it (Luke 17:33). Christ's "revelation" then, is perhaps his losing of his life on the cross. Or perhaps it is his resurrection. There are many options. But the point is that we cannot simply assume, because the illustration of Noah appears in both accounts, that the illustration is being used with respect to the same event. Likewise, the illustration of the grinders, bedmates and sharers of the field need not refer to the same event either. And in the case of those illustrations, it is even harder to determine their rhetorical purpose.
The Synoptic Argument from Mark 13 and Luke 21
As in our discussion of Luke 17, one must define what is meant by "parallel". If Mark 13 and Luke 21 are to serve as guides to our interpretation of Matthew 24, we must establish that they do indeed refer to the same speech and situation. Preterists tend to accentuate the similarities of the accounts. Let us observe a few dissimilarities, however:
Taken in themselves, these differences may not amount to something that would cause us to conclude that different situations are in view in each of three gospels. But these differences do cause us to call into question the hermeneutical method of the preterist who interprets the Matthean discourse in light of the others. Since Matthew records the disciples' question in the most detailed manner, should we not interpret the other accounts in light of Matthew's highly structured response rather than vice versa? Should we not understand Mark to be recording a response to an unrecorded question? Or could we not even conclude that Jesus' answer challenges the assumption in the disciples' question -- that the end of the age is concomitant with the destruction of the temple? This would harmonize well with Matthew's theme of challenging the disciples in their Jewish provincialism and distrust of gentiles, women, and Samaritans.  Both options are preferable to immediately jumping from the literary context of Matthew to the other gospels in establishing the nature of the question.
The chief reason to call into question whether or not these passages are truly parallel comes in Luke 21:37-38 which informs us that it was Jesus' custom to teach by the temple during the day and then retire to the Mount of Olives at night:
Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet. And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to him in the temple to listen to him. (NASB)
How many times must Jesus have taught about the destruction of the temple, and how many times must Jesus have been asked about the timing of his prediction? The presence of the term "disciples" in reference to those questioning Jesus does not limit the identity of the questioners to "The Twelve". Only Mark specifies the identity of the questioners, naming four of the twelve. The word disciples often functions generically in the Gospels for those who follow and listen to Jesus and an argument would have to be offered for limiting its referent in this context.
While seemingly formidable at first, upon further inspection, the various synoptic arguments produced by preterists for the unitary referent to A.D. 70 in Matthew 24 fall short of convincing. Preterists are found to have assumed many steps which must be proven. Preterist application of analogia fidei has often been arbitrary (as in reading Matthew 24 in light of Luke 21 and Mark 13 rather than vice versa). In addition, preterists have been content to allow surface similarities in language (such as the reference to Noah in Mt. 24 and Luke 17) to carry more weight than is prudent, ignoring the "respect-to-whatness" of the analogies, the nature of speeches and rhetorical practices of speakers.
The preterist literature is replete with appeals to those who disagree with them to stick to the plain meaning of the text. There is a very democratic tinge to their pleas. Witness, for instance, the conclusion to the article "What Will They Do With Luke 17", an article to which I have made reference in this paper:
We are told in Mark's gospel that the "common people heard Him gladly" (12:37). Such simply meant that Jesus' words were easily understood. He didn't use "double talk" to confuse those He was trying to save. With that in mind, this writer submits that if the two accounts above are not parallel and referring to the same singular thing, then the Bible, specifically the words of Jesus, are unintelligible. It requires no theological help or wizardry to understand that they refer to the same thing. But it requires absolute "theological gymnastics" to deny such. No one save the person trying to protect a pet theory would ever dream of tampering with such clear truth. 
I sympathize with the preterist concern to defend the perspicuity of the scriptures. At the same time, however, I do not think that we should allow such a concern to override the need to do careful thinking about the nature of synoptic gospels, how they relate, and the rhetorical and literary dimensions of texts. People of all educational levels must use clean intellectual tools to interpret the scriptures properly. To insist on careful thought does not go against the Bible's concern for the non-scholar. In fact, because of preterism's denial of a second coming of Christ future to us, it is actually
against preterism and for historic Orthodoxy that churchfolk of every background and denomination stand each Lord's Day when they recite the Apostle's Creed in unity.
1. Preterists deny a visible second-coming of Christ. He came again in judgement on Jerusalem in A.D. 70. At that time there was a "corporate resurrection" of all believers, living, dead, and yet to be that was spiritual. Like justification in Lutheran theology which is objectively corporate, even for those who did not yet exist in the first century, so is the resurrection in preterist theology.
2. Many scholars in the field of communication actually hold that communication is by definition intentional. Thus, for example, unintentional body language is not communication. Without weighing in on that debate, however, this paper will simply take for granted that the Bible is an example of intentional communication.
5. Carson writes, "Some have pointed out that three [of the women] were Gentiles and the fourth probably regarded as such .... This goes well with the reference to Abraham ... the Jewish Messiah extends his blessings beyond Israel, even as Gentiles are included in his line." Matthew: Chapters 1 Through 12 in , Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), pg 66.
6. I am open to the possibility that this is not to be taken as referring to the generation of Jesus' audience, but my beginning point will be to assume as much. Determining the nature of Jesus' usage of genea in the gospels, and especially in predictive prophecy is beyond the scope of this paper, especially since this is not a place where I differ from the preterists who also view 24:3-34 as referring to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. I begin to diverge from the preterists at verse 35.
7. Yet this is exactly the contention of full preterists: "The next thing they will throw is what they see as the inconsistency of Jesus giving a host of signs in the first part of the chapter, but then saying in verse 36: "But of that day and hour no one knows" "You see", they say, "one day has foretelling signs, the other not even Jesus Himself knows the time." One day has signs, the other doesn't, therefore it can't be the same day! Sounds good, doesn't it? Dear reader, examine carefully all three synoptic accounts and see if in any of them Jesus ever told them that they would know "the Day" in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem." You won't find it anywhere. The signs He gave them was to tell them when it would be "NEAR" (Matt.24:32-33; MK.13:29; Lk.21:29-31). He never identified the day of Jerusalem's demise." Jack Scott, What Will They Do with Luke 17?
8. Being introduced by "then", I take chapter 25 to relate to what preceded it -- namely the description of the coming of Christ at the end of history. Thus, the parables of chapter 25 as well as the description of the judgement in verses 31-34 seem to comment on and flesh out the events described in 24:35-51. The parable of the virgins illustrates the error of those who would be lax in their preparation for the Lord's coming. The parable of the talents illustrates the opposite error - that of doing nothing in the meantime because of one's belief in the nearness of the second coming.
10. Russell, J. Stuart. The Parousia (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 Reprint), pp. 57-58. Russell's book was first published anonymously in 1878 and after receiving some acceptance, was republished under Russell's name in 1887. The book even receives praise from Spurgeon in his contemporaneous commentary guide. Russell's book has served as a "classic" for preterists and contains many of the same arguments used by preterists today. As a testimony to the rise of interest in preterism, the book has been brought back into print by Baker yet again in 1999.
14. An interesting note is that there is still vigorous scholarly debate over whether Jonathan Edwards read his sermons flatly, or preached with emotion. Jonathan Edwards began preaching in 1734 -- about 1700 years after Jesus' earthly ministry ended -- and yet we cannot determine his homiletical practice definitively. We have even less evidence about Jesus' practice.
16. An argument can be made, however, from 21:37-38 that the location is the Mount of Olives. I have not seen such an argument, however, and will leave that to preterists to develop if they wish. As we shall see later, 21:37-38 will play a key role in vitiating the synoptic links, not establishing them.
17. This has been noted by many commentators -- Matthew's gospel records Christ's disputation with, and rhetorical 'loss' to the Syro-Phonecian woman, Christ's "gentile" genealogy, the parable of the good Samaritan, etc. Matthew seems to be a gospel written to instruct Jews that the gospel of the Messiah was a gospel which includes both Jews and gentiles.
What do YOU think ?
Date: 13 Apr 2009
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