David A. Green
This is a response to Ken Gentry's chapter in Keith Mathison's multi-authored book When Shall These Things Be? Gentry's chapter is the first chapter of the book and is entitled, The Historical Problem with Hyper-Preterism. The main purpose of Gentry's chapter is to show that because (full) preterism deviates from the Ecumenical Creeds of the historic Church, we must conclude that (full) preterists are teaching a corrupt form of Christianity.
Most of Gentry's arguments and criticisms against preterists do not apply to me or to many other preterists. This is because, throughout a significant portion of Gentry's chapter, his method of argumentation is as follows:
1. Refute weak arguments and extreme statements that have been made by preterists. And in some instances, refute weak straw-man arguments that Reformed preterists have not made.
2. Characterize the weak arguments and extreme statements and straw men as definitive of preterism.
3. Do not address weighty arguments that are made by preterists.
4. Thus lead the uninformed reader to think that the preterist camp is made up of nothing but naïve fools.
(Gentry's characterizations of weak arguments as being the strongest preterist arguments and his avoidance of strong preterist arguments, do not bode well for his credibility in this discussion.)
Consequently, I (and many other Reformed preterists) already agree with Gentry in the following regards:
I am not "anticreedal": I do not believe that the Ecumenical Creeds are mere "opinions." I do not deny the necessity, utility and benefit of the Creeds. I do not criticize the Creeds for using "man's language."
I do not believe that using the Creeds to determine orthodoxy is anti-Reformational or anti-Sola-Scriptura (even though Gentry makes me appear to do so, by quoting me out of context on page 45).(1)
I do not accuse creedalists, such as Gentry, of ascribing divine inspiration to the Ecumenical Creeds. (Although when it comes to their reaction to preterism, they do, unwittingly and for all practical purposes, put the Creeds on a par with, and even above, Scripture.)
I do not oppose or dismiss the "institutional church."
I have never been a member of the Campbellite "Church of Christ."
I do not believe that it is impossible to be certain of the truth. I do not believe that the historic Gospel is potentially defective at its root. I do not believe that we should be tolerant of all doctrines in the Church. (On pages 10-12, Gentry gives the distinct impression that all preterists in general take these relativistic positions. I would be very surprised if more than a slim, fringe minority of Reformed preterists did.)
I do not deny the indwelling of the Holy Spirit today. (I would be astonished if any more than a tiny minority of Reformed preterists denied this doctrine.)
The areas of doctrine in which Gentry and I do disagree have already been discussed in my article Preterism and the Ecumenical Creeds. (1999) Even though Gentry read that article and quoted it five times in his chapter, he did not address any of its arguments. Therefore in this response to Gentry I will briefly reiterate and elaborate upon the main arguments from Preterism and the Ecumenical Creeds in the hope that Gentry will respond.
THE ECUMENICAL CREEDS: THE FIRST AND FINAL WORD
Gentry's chapter begins with a brief defense of why When Shall These Things Be? begins with a discussion of the Ecumenical Creeds. Gentry claims that the book begins with the Creeds for this reason:
...To establish the significance of the debate: We are defending the historic, corporate, public, universal, systematic Christian faith. (pg. 2)
In reality however, the book begins with the Creeds for this reason:
Ken Gentry and his editor/co-author Keith Mathison believe that "the first step" in an analysis of (full) preterism is to presuppose the truth of creedal futurism. "Only after" that first step is taken, they say, may we begin to consider (full) preterism.
Or in other words:
They believe that we must first, based on the Creeds, reject preterism before we can consider preterism.
As Gentry tactfully puts it at the end of his chapter:
To get our bearings as orthodox Christians, we need to make a creedal analysis of the problem. Only after obtaining such a theological orientation may we move on to consider exegetical and theological issues. (page 60)
Gentry says that only after we take the "first step" of presupposing that creedal futurism is "infallibly certain"(2) (pg. 44) may we then move on to "consider" (full) preterism in the light of Scripture. (pg. 2) And when he says that we may "consider" preterism, he does not mean that we become free to "consider" the possibility that preterism might be scriptural. He means that we are permitted only to "consider" preterism within the creedal understanding that preterism is unscriptural.
Thus for creedalists it is the Creeds that decisively settle the question at the very outset as to whether or not the Bible (the ultimate authority) teaches futurism. In this sense the Ecumenical Creeds are, for creedalists, the first and final (decisive) word on preterism.
THE BITTER FRUIT OF HYPER-CREEDALISM
Why are the Creeds the "first step" for Ken Gentry and other creedalists when dealing with the issue of (full) preterism? When considering preterism, why do they say we must go to Scripture "only after" we "make a creedal analysis?" Why do creedalists say that we must presuppose --without going to the Scriptures-- that the eschatology of the Ecumenical Creeds is "infallibly certain" and that preterism must therefore be an anti-biblical doctrine?
Ultimately, there is no rational reason for that position. Though creedalists begin on a solid foundation, they abruptly take a leap out of reason and into subjectivism. Let us briefly follow the scriptural premises that lead up to the split between creedalists and (full) preterists:
First: The historic Church is the Pillar and Foundation of the Truth. God has given the Church a sufficient and adequate understanding of the biblical truths that are necessary for salvation. The Church necessarily possesses and preaches the true Gospel because the Church hears God's voice.
Second: The Ecumenical Creeds are an accurate record reflecting and relating the message that the historic Church has "always and everywhere" taught. Therefore the Ecumenical Creeds necessarily contain the true Gospel, since the Gospel of the historic Church is necessarily the truth. In this sense, it is certain that at least the core truth of the Gospel of Christ is contained in the Ecumenical Creeds.
Third: The Ecumenical Creeds therefore cannot contain damnable errors. They cannot contain errors that overthrow or nullify the Gospel in the Creeds. If they did, the Gospel of the historic Church would no longer be the Gospel, but a corruption and counterfeit.
(For example, the Church has always taught the death and resurrection of Christ. That is the Gospel. But if the Church has also taught that Jesus was merely a great teacher and that the purpose of his death and resurrection was to show how wicked Jews are, then the Gospel would not be present in the Church or in her Creeds, despite the fact that the Church has been teaching the death and resurrection of Christ.)
Fourth: The Creeds can contain non-damnable errors, because the Creeds are not Scripture. They are not inspired. (God-breathed) Though the Creeds certainly contain the true Gospel, they also potentially contain non-fatal errors, because the Creeds contain the uninspired interpretive formulations of men.
All conservative, Protestant creedalists agree with these four points. And unless I am mistaken, most (full) preterists of Reformed background also agree with them.
It is when we go beyond these four points that creedalists and preterists part ways. The preterists go this way:
The fourth principle above allows us to propose the possibility that futurism is a non-damnable creedal error. Because the creeds can contain non-fatal errors, and because creedal futurism could be a non-fatal error, preterism could be true.
Inescapably then, we have no option but to prove or disprove preterism exegetically with the Scriptures, not with the Creeds.
This method of reasoning is cautious, careful, and anything but "extremist" or "hyper," as Gentry characterizes it. (pg. 10) How do Gentry and the other creedalists confute this Scripture-based logic, which opens the door to the possibility of preterism? Quite simply, in the same way as all others who attempt to escape from reason: They arbitrarily invent a new rule. And the crucial Rule of Creedalism is this:
Though the Ecumenical Creeds can contain slight, non-damnable errors, they cannot contain significant (serious, major) non-damnable errors.
Hyper-creedalists have pulled this rule out of thin air.(3) Though it is based on nothing whatsoever (other than an inordinate veneration of the Creeds and/or fear of preterism), it is the rule through which the hyper-creedalists justify themselves in closing their ears to even the bare possibility that preterism might be true. It is the crucial principle upon which they rationalize their unequivocal, creed-based condemnation of preterists.
If preterism is true, then futurism is a major, though non-damnable, creedal error. Creedalists arbitrarily hold that this scenario is absolutely impossible.
This is why Gentry and other creedalists will not allow for the possibility that preterists could be fellow brothers in Christ who truly adhere to the Gospel and who embrace the essence and spirit of the Creeds but who take exception to a non-fatal, though significant, eschatological error in the Creeds.
Instead, on the basis of the arbitrary and subjective rule of creedalism, it is assumed that preterists are wicked men who have utterly broken away from "the anchor of historic Christianity," (pg. 10) that we stand against the very "fundamentals of traditional Christianity," (pg. 60) that we are "radically reworking the Christian system," (pg. 6) that we are undercutting the "foundations of Christian theology" (pg. 10) and that we are "attempting to overthrow the creedal convictions of the Christian Faith" itself. (pg. 26)
It is based on the empty notion that the Creeds cannot contain significant non-fatal errors that creedalists condemn preterists as menaces to the life of Christianity. (pg. 1)
In essence then, brothers are being anathematized on the basis of an arbitrary, man-made rule.
This is the bitter and poisonous fruit of hyper-creedalism.
And sadly, it does not end there. For, as we should expect, creedalist error begets creedalist error. Not only is the rule of creedalism subjective, the creedalists' application of the rule is equally subjective. For example:
Gentry says that all three of the major millennial views are compatible with the Ecumenical Creeds, "for each [view] affirms the creedal eschatological core: the future return of Christ, the Last Judgment, and bodily resurrection." (pg. 26,49,50)
While this claim of Gentry's may be "superficially compelling to those who are unschooled in logic and theology," (pg. 42) the fact is that the statement is simply not true, as Gentry's editor and co-writer Keith Mathison demonstrated in his 1999 book, Postmillennialism An Eschatology of Hope. On page 32, Mathison observes:
The Apostles' Creed...implicitly reject[s]...premillennialism. According to the creed, the purpose of Christ's second coming is "to judge the living and the dead," not to establish a thousand-year millennial kingdom.
Mathison says again on page 244:
The fundamental tenets of orthodox eschatology have always included belief in the future visible [second] coming of Jesus for the judgment of all men and the future bodily resurrection of all men.
As Mathison confirms, premillennialism is creedally heterodox. The Ecumenical Creeds teach that Christ will come again to raise the dead and judge all men; while contrary to the Creeds, premillennialism teaches that Christ will come again to establish an earthly, millennial reign.
Since premillennialists contradict a cardinal, creedal doctrine (the second coming of Christ to raise the dead and judge all men), should not creedalists deal with premillennialists in the same way they deal with (full) preterists?
Certainly. But they do not.
Instead, individualism and subjectivism are the order of the day. Premillennialists are considered brothers, while preterists who commit the exact same infraction against the Creeds as they, (significant contradiction of eschatological statements) are considered enemies of the Faith!
Manifestly, individual creedalists, through their own "private judgment," are arbitrarily "picking and choosing" which parts of historic, creedal orthodoxy one must believe in order to be considered a Christian. For the sake of unity with those who are unorthodox / heretical (i.e., the creed-contradicting premillennialists), creedalists have untethered themselves from their own arbitrary principle of hyper-creedalism.
By the irrational standard that they themselves have set, their "tolerance" of premillennialism is "a dangerous latitudinarianism, a theological relativism." (pg. 10) They are giving creedal heretics (premillennialists) "a bright smile and a warm handshake" (pg. 11) at the expense of the Creeds of the historic Church. By their own standard, creedalists are "liberals."
And by any standard, their Scripture-nullifying, man-made rule and their double standard of judgment are the picture of hypocrisy.
There are two paths we can take in the preterism vs. creedalism controversy. We can hold that it is utterly impossible that the historic Church has been teaching a non-damnable eschatological error for nearly 2,000 years. Or we can concede the possibility that it has.
If we deny the possibility, then we base our position on absolutely nothing other than an arbitrary, man-made rule (that the Creeds cannot contain a signficant non-damnable error). And as a result, we will condemn brothers in Christ by means of a subjective determination, so that even if preterists truly are anti-scriptural heretics, they will be excommunicated on the sandy foundation of a fleshly principle.
But if we concede the possibility of eschatological, creedal error, then we are left with only one course of action: To search the Scriptures nobly (ultimately, in an Ecumenical Council) for a deciding judgment for or against preterism.
The road of hyper-creedalism is Pharisaical, man-based and bitter. But searching the Scriptures to see whether or not the Church has been in a non-fatal eschatological error, is the honorable road of righteous judgment. It is God-based. It is reasonable.
1. I and many other Reformed preterists confess the necessity of the Creeds but take exception to the futurism of the Creeds. As I wrote in an exchange of articles with Gary North in 2001:
[Reformed] Preterists do not deny that preterism is a serious or major departure from the creeds. Yet preterists still consider themselves to be members of the historic, Creedal Church. Why? Because preterists deem creedal futurism to be a nonfatal historic error. Therefore, preterists do not call for creedal abandonment, but only creedal revision (of eschatological statements). (Scripture's Anti-Dualistic Doctrine of the Eternality of Evil)
2. It is noteworthy that Gentry is so bold as to confess that he believes that creedal futurism is "infallibly certain." Keith Mathison in his 300+ page book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, (2001) carefully avoided using the word “infallible” in describing creedal statements.
3. In Preterism and the Ecumenical Creeds, I asked this question:What is the basis for the creedalist's belief that serious non-fatal errors cannot universally exist in the Church for centuries?
Gentry quoted that question in his chapter but did not offer an answer. (pg. 33)
And in a public e-mail exchange with Keith Mathison in 1999, I wrote:
The creedalists presuppose that the Creeds absolutely cannot contain a serious, non-damnable error. Is that not one of the creedalists' presuppositions?
Mathison also did not offer an answer.
The Preterist Cosmos