Below is Keith Mathison's brief, informal response to Preterism and the Ecumenical Creeds:Keith Mathison is the author of Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? (1995), Postmillenialism : An Eschatology of Hope (1999), and The Shape of Sola Scriptura (2001).
I finished reading Mr. Green's article Preterism and the Ecumenical Creeds. I do think he is one of the first full-preterists commenting on this subject who seems to have at least partially grasped the real issue between us. I would commend him for making that effort. With that said, let me briefly comment on a few of the most relevant passages from his article.
The Eternal Gospel
In this section, Mr. Green makes the point which inevitably condemns full-preterism. He writes, "For if the creedalists are correct that preterism is a doctrine that is so radically other, that it makes what the Church has always preached throughout history a damnable heresy -- then preterism must necessarily be absolutely false." He continues in the next paragraph, "If preterism makes the historical gospel of the Church into a salvation-forfeiting lie, then preterism must inevitably be nothing more than an invention of modernity -- a damnable, liberal heresy."
This is exactly the point, but it is a point which the full-preterists do not seem to comprehend because their doctrine does radically change the gospel. It radically changes a cardinal element of the Christian faith - our resurrection.
Mr. Green says only two possibilities exist: 1) Preterism is an erroneous and possibly damnable doctrine (I would say definitely here), or 2) Futurism is an erroneous but not a damnable doctrine. For the sake of brevity we'll agree with these two possibilities (with the alteration I mentioned in the parentheses).[NOTE FROM DAVID GREEN: Keith Mathison was correct on this point: If futurism is true, then preterism is definitely (not "possibly," as I said) a damnable doctrine. I later revised the article and dropped the word "possibly" from that statement.]
The Gospel in the Creeds
Mr. Green begins this section by stating "The ancient ecumenical creeds have been deemed by all members of the universal Church -- western, eastern, even Roman -- throughout history as containing the fundimental rudiments of the true Gospel of salvation." He continues several paragraphs later by saying that "it means that the creedalists are correct when they say that we may not refute the elemental traditions of the Gospel which are contained in the creeds." He adds, "We are not free to refute or nullify any of the cardinal elements of the Christian faith."
So far, so good. Mr. Green uses the doctrine of the deity of Christ as an illustration of a creedal doctrine which cannot be challenged without saying the Church has always been teaching a damnable error. Hence, the doctrine of Christ's deity is not up for debate. This is true enough. Unfortunately, in the next section we see confusion begin to enter the discussion.
In this section, Mr. Green begins his attempt to place creedal eschatology in the category of negotiable doctrines, doctrines which are definitely not on the same level of Gospel importance as the doctrine of the deity of Christ. He asks, "Exactly what eschatological doctrines, if any, (after Christ's death and resurrection) are included in the non-negotiable, 'essential Gospels' that if a man does not believe he must be damned?" He continues in the next paragraph, "The creedalists suppose that belief in the (yet) future-ness and, more especially, the physical-ness of the Second Coming and of its accompanying events as taught in the creeds, are absolutely essential to salvation, and that therefore the parts of the creeds which contain those teachings cannot be challenged, even as the doctrine of Christ's death and resurrection cannot be challenged."
Now the problem is that throughout the remainder of this section, Mr. Green gives the impression that the whole discussion concerns nothing more than obscure eschatological issues - that nothing of an essential nature is at stake. Obviously he has to do this, or else preterism fails the test he himself set forth at the beginning of the article. But, there is an essential element of the Gospel at stake in the discussion - the doctrine of our resurrection. Paul in I Corinthians 15 tells us that the doctrine of the resurrection, Christ's and ours, is absolutely fundamental to the gospel. Elsewhere Hymenaeus and Philetus are condemned for their errors concerning the doctrine of our resurrection. The resurrection is not a secondary negotiable doctrine. According to the witness of the New Testament, and according to the witness of the Church in the following centuries, the doctrine of our resurrection is a cardinal element of the Gospel. The Church fought with the Gnostic heretics for years, and a central element of their heresy was a denial of a future flesh and bone resurrection of believers.
In summary, my point is this. I would agree with Mr. Green that we cannot reject the teaching of the creeds on issues which are at the heart of the gospel. But the doctrine of our resurrection is a fundamental Gospel teaching. And most importantly for this response, full-preterism demands a denial of the Church's historic doctrine of our resurrection. If this is the case, then full-preterism fails the test which Mr. Green outlines in the first section of his article.
I have seen six different full-preterist reformulations of the doctrine of our resurrection, and the only thing they have in common is they only thing they are forced to have in common and that is a denial of the Church's historic doctrine of our resurrection. It isn't just the Church's teaching regarding the time (future) of our resurrection that is denied. The Church's teaching regarding the nature (flesh and bone) of our resurrection is also denied.
So to use Mr. Green's own test, either every branch the historic Church has been preaching a false gospel for over 1900 years (since errors regarding our resurrection are not minor errors), or full-preterism is preaching a false gospel. Since I agree with Mr. Green that it is impossible to say the Church has always and everywhere been preaching a false gospel, I am forced to conclude that preterism is preaching a false gospel. The point is that this is not merely a debate over secondary issues regarding the timing of eschatological events. The changes that full-preterists propose to make to the eschatological sections of the creeds have profound effects upon the soteriological parts of the creeds. Their changes drastically alter the doctrine of our resurrection, and the doctrine of our resurrection is a cardinal non-negotiable element of the Gospel.
This is the central issue here, but I would like to also briefly comment on a few other statements Mr. Green makes in this section of the article. Mr Green asks, "If minor non-damnable errors can exist in the creeds, then why cannot serious non-damnable errors exist in the creeds?" There are at least two basic problems here. First, the question assumes that the preterist debate involves non-damnable errors. But as I have tried to explain, the preterism debate involves the doctrine of our resurrection which is anything but peripheral. This leads to the second problem. If full-preterism, which involves a wholesale change in a central Gospel doctrine, can be considered a non-damnable error, then on what grounds could we say that denials of the Trinity or the deity of Christ are more than non-damnable errors?
One last comment on this section. Mr. Green writes, "The basis upon which the creedalists have categorically rejected preterism (and preterists) is arbitrary: The creedalists unauthoritatively assert that God would not allow His Church to make a serious, non-damnable creedal error. Then from that assertion, they unauthoritatively pronounce preterism a damnable heresy." This is an inaccurate statement as should be evident from the previous statements.
In reality, we presuppose (with Mr. Green) that God would not allow His Church to make a serious damnable creedal error. We then note that full-preterism necessarily requires a serious damnable error involving the doctrine of our resurrection). Based upon this, we conclude that preterism is necessarily false. Once Mr. Green grants the first presupposition with us, the rest follows inevitably.
Why Do the Creedalists Rage?
I would obviously disagree with Mr. Green's assertion that the only way the debate will ever be resolved is through Scriptural exegesis and reasoning. This would be the case if we shared the same creedal presuppositions, the same framework of orthodoxy. There is a fundamental difference of opinion about what the debate is about. The full-preterists are convinced that the debate is a debate among Christians over important but secondary doctrines. I am convinced that preterism necessarily demands a change in a doctrine which is essential to the Gospel. This means that we "creedalists" view this debate as a debate between Christians and heretics. That is why we have been forced to approach it in the same way the early Christians combated early heresies. The Scriptures simply do not belong to heretics, and any use of the Scriptures by heretics is a misuse of Scripture.
Summary and Conclusion
I have to make one brief comment about a statement Green makes in his conclusion. He writes, "A time is coming when preterism must be answered with the Scriptures in an ecumenical council in order to authoritatively find whether it is damnable, erroneous or true. History has never seen such a council on prophecy, much less on preterism. We preterists look forward to that council." First, I wonder how many full-preterists would be swayed to abandon preterism even if a future ecumenical council rejected it as heresy. Most seem unconcerned about the contradictions between full-preterism and past councils. Why would a future council be any more persuasive? Second, full-preterism is addressed indirectly in every creed and every confession of every branch of the visible church already. The creeds and confessions of the Church already declare that Christ is presently seated at the right hand of God, that from there He will return physically and that the dead will be raised bodily to be judged by Christ. So in one sense it is inaccurate to claim that the Church has not spoken on the subject.
My conclusion about preterism is also based upon Biblical reason. The Scriptures do teach that false doctrines concerning the nature and/or the timing of our resurrection are damnable (I Cor. 15; II Tim. 2:17-18). This is not creedal reasoning disconnected from the reasoning of the Scriptures.
Mr. Green seems closer to understanding the problems involved in the debate than most other full-preterists I have read. I really hope that other full-preterists read this article because if they think through the implications of it, they will realize that they have to make a choice between full-preterism and Christianity.
[End of Keith Mathison's response]
Read David Green's Response to Keith Mathison.
Back to The Preterist Cosmos Homepage