What is Partial Preterism?
by Charles S. Meek
Partial preterism is the view of Bible prophecy which holds to the idea that some of the “last days” events were fulfilled in AD 70 (in conjunction with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple)—but some are yet to be fulfilled.
Various modern theologians are at the forefront of this movement, including: R. C. Sproul (perhaps the most notable theologian of our age) and Hank Hanegraaff (the popular radio teacher— “The Bible Answer Man”). Others include N. T. Wright, Gary DeMar, and Kenneth Gentry. This view has particularly caught hold in Reformed (i.e. Presbyterian) circles, primarily as a result of Sproul’s 1996 book THE LAST DAYS ACCORDING TO JESUS. One graduate of a Reformed seminary said to me that he thinks that partial preterism has become the majority view in conservative Reformed circles. That may or may not be correct, but it is certainly gaining acceptance.
There is surprisingly little teaching and discussion on eschatology in many “main stream” denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc.)—even in their seminaries. This is despite the fact that eschatology encompasses over 25% of the New Testament. The various positions on Bible prophecy are, accordingly, in disarray, but are experiencing an increase in discussion.
The partial preterist camp is especially diverse. There are nearly as many views on partial preterism as there are partial preterists. Even the teaching of the most notable theologians on this subject are murky and confusing on key details. Below are some of the ways that partial preterists mix and match which prophetic passages are past and which are future. I cover all of these views in detail in my book, CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY, and will only give a very brief summary here:
- Some divide the Olivet Discourse into some passages being fulfilled in the past, while some are future. For example, in Matthew 24, they may say that verses 1-34 are past, while verses 35-51 are future. PROBLEM: The parallel passages of Mark 13, Luke 17, and Luke 21 do not allow for this division.
- Some say that ALL of the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in the past, but there will be a DUAL FULFILLMENT in the future. That is, Jesus came “in judgment” in AD 70, but there will be a future “consummate coming” of Jesus in the future. PROBLEM: The Bible only speaks of one Second Coming, one Great Tribulation, one Great Judgment, etc. There is no hint of dual fulfillment. Jesus never says anything like, “I will come (a second time) in judgment in this generation, then come (a third time) in a far distant time.”
- Others say that Matthew 24 was fulfilled in finality in AD 70 (admitting that the strong time-statements therein limit fulfillment to the first generation), but think Matthew 25 is still future. PROBLEM: Matthew 25 contains the same divine presence (“coming”) of Jesus as Matthew 24. It is the same sermon. There is no distinction between these divine appearances. Indeed, in the original text there would not have been an arbitrary separation by chapters. They would have been understood by Jesus’ disciples as one event.
- Still others say that ALL of the Olivet Discourse was fulfilled in finality, but pick and choose other passages outside of the Olivet Discourse such as John 14:3 as being still future, because there is no clear time restriction attached. PROBLEM: We use scriptures to confirm/validate others on the same topic. The Olivet Discourse (and many other passages such as Matthew 10:23; 16:27-28, 26:64; etc.) make it clear that THE PAROUSIA would happen with the destruction of Jerusalem—in the lifetimes of some of those then living.
- Some pick and choose passages out of the SAME TEXT that are still future. For example, one view states that 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 5:2, and 5:23 were fulfilled in AD 70, but verse 4:15 is still future. PROBLEM: This is arbitrary and inconsistent.
- Another version says that 2 Thessalonians 1:10 is future but verse 2:1 is past. PROBLEM: Again—arbitrary and inconsistent.
- Some simply admit that they do not know how to deal with such passages as 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. PROBLEM: The texts of 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 were clearly to be fulfilled during the lifetimes of Paul’s readers (“we who are alive”) and track Matthew 24 point-by-point, which is limited in time to the first-century generation!
- Still another view is that “The only signs that are yet to be fulfilled are the discipleship of the nations and Jesus putting all His enemies under His feet.” PROBLEM: Where is the scriptural support for this?
- Some say that all past the FIRST 3 or 4 chapters of Revelation are future, while others say that only the LAST 3 or 4 chapters of Revelation are future. PROBLEM: There are over thirty passages in Revelation—at the beginning, middle, and end—that limit the fulfillment to “SOON,” “NEAR,” and “MUST SHORTLY TAKE PLACE.” Further, the book of Revelation says nothing about a shift in audience or subject matter—EVER. Revelation is about the same events—in more symbolic language—as Matthew 10:23; 16:27-28; 23:35-39; 24:1-51; and 26:64.
- I have asked multiple high-profile partial preterists to give me a list of passages that were fulfilled in the past and another list that are future. Most are unwilling to answer this simple question. PROBLEM: The evasiveness in answering such a simple question calls into question their entire theory.
Summary: In a formal debate, to show that a viewpoint is wrong, one needs only show that the view is either ARBITRARY or INCONSISTENT. I readily acknowledge my fallibility in these matters. But, as I see it, the partial preterist position is both arbitrary and inconsistent. It is a bit like being partially pregnant. Therefore, at least as it now stands in the literature, it is weak—if not actually falsified. Reflecting the disarray in all areas of modern eschatology, it is shallow and lacking in adequate systemization. This can be excused due to the lack of attention eschatology has gotten in the church at large. Yet, while there is some good theological work behind it (and is far superior to the fantasy system known as dispensationalism), it is struggling from shallow exegesis from fear of peer pressure among theologians.
I have a lot of friends who have adopted partial preterism. To my partial preterist friends, take a deeper looker at this. You may find, as a growing number of us have, that theFULL PRETERIST position not only maintains the integrity of God’s Word, but offers the most optimistic assessment of eschatology. Test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Invitation: For you partial preterists, your response is welcome. For starters, how about stating which of the 16 mentions in the New Testament of Jesus’ PAROUSIA (“presence,” the noun about his Second Coming) that you think happened in the past, and which ones are yet future? Here is the complete list: Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 8; James 5:7, 8; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4; 1 John 2:28.
And how about considering (in context) the 16 Second Coming passages solely in the book of Matthew that contain ERCHOMAI (“to come,” the verb about his Second Coming)? Which ones do you think are past and which are future? Here’s the list: Matthew 10:23; 16:27, 28; 23:39; 24:30, 42, 44, 46, 48; 25:6, 10, 13, 19, 27, 31; 26:64. (Note: There are other Greek words used in the New Testament for the Second Coming, but “parousia” and “erchomai” are the primary words).
For more on eschatology, see my Facebook site Evangelical Preterism and my website