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Saint Athanasius and Preterism
by Samuel Frost
It comes up from time to time that if Preterism is true, then how has the church “missed it” for so long. Well, they didn’t “miss it.” They got all that God intended for them, and us, to get.It comes up from time to time that if Preterism is true, then how has the church “missed it” for so long. Well, they didn’t “miss it.” They got all that God intended for them, and us, to get.We are forced to ask ourselves within our Rahmenerzählung (framework) what God was intending when he removed what Paul called “the schoolmaster” (Ga 3.24 – paidagogos). With that he also removed “vision and the prophet” (Da 9.25). Athanasius affirmed this in the fourth century: “"Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet: "I will take away from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the scent of myrrh, and the light of a lamp, and the whole land shall be destroyed" [Jer. 25:10]. For the whole service of the law has been abolished from them, and henceforth and forever they remain without a feast. (St. Athanasius, Letters [vi])
"So the Jews are indulging in fiction, and transferring present time to future. When did prophet and vision cease from Israel? Was it not when Christ came, the Holy One of holies? It is, in fact, a sign and notable proof of the coming of the Word that Jerusalem no longer stands, neither is prophet raised up nor vision revealed among them. And it is natural that it should be so, for when He that was signified had come, what need was there any longer of any to signify Him? And when the Truth had come, what further need was there of the shadow? On His account only they prophesied continually, until such time as Essential Righteousness has come, Who was made the Ransom for the sins of all. For the same reason Jerusalem stood until the same time, in order that there men might premeditate the types before the Truth was known. So, of course, once the Holy One of holies had come, both vision and prophecy were sealed. And the kingdom of Jerusalem ceased at the same time, because kings were to be anointed among them only until the Holy of holies had been anointed” – (many thanks to Todd Dennis of Preterist Archives for posting the texts of Athanasius).
Now, does this not sound like something a Preterist would write? I have studied the early church for several years now, and I am finding this kind of material everywhere. I gave a lecture last year at John Anderson’s conference on this very topic. Therefore, when defining “the truth” it must be found in the word of God, for “thy word is truth” (John 17.17). John answered his own question asked by Pilate.
However, as our dear saint has noted, we are without “vision and prophet.” We are not guided by burning bushes, splitting Red Seas, clouds by day and fire by night. These are things seen. Yet, because redemption had not yet come, the children of Israel needed a schoolmaster. Allow me to illustrate by using my own kids as an analogy.
My youngest daughter is 17 months old. My twin sons are 6. My oldest daughter is 14. Big difference in the way that I teach them, wouldn’t you say? Ever notice that children’s books come with bright, shiny, color pictures? The books my eldest reads do not have pictures. Why is that? Because children need to SEE things in order to KNOW things. As philosopher Brand Blanshard taught, children are far more in tune with sensations than adults. A sign of an adult is one who keeps his emotions in check and judges what he sees, for he know looks are deceiving. Children do not know this. If you have small kids, do a little trick. Take two equally weighing balls of clay. Flatten out one ball and keep the other in the form of a ball. Ask the child which one “weighs more.” Ask him which one is “bigger”? Which one is “smaller.” He will not guess that both are same from appearances. I did this test on my own kids.
Judgment is the ability to reason logically, considering various alternatives, weighing various opinions, forming informed decision after much discussion. Such is not the stuff of infants. Infants need milk, not solid food.
Paul spoke of the times of Israel under the Old Covenant as “when I was a child, I spake as a child” but in the coming times of the “renewal of all things” (the new covenant age), “I became a man.” It was God’s intention to grow up his people, raise them from the dead, sit them as equals with him on his throne and let the Great Dialogue begin.
I did not come to Christ through miracle, vision, prophet, apostle, burning bush, floating ax heads and the like. I did not need to hear a voice or see the wheels within the wheels. I did not need to be transported from my body and whisked away into an ethereal realm of symbols and smoke. No one taught me. I had no need of a Teacher. I had no need of a Prophet, or Apostle. Neither did Athanasius. Yet, listen to what Athanasius knew: “"When did people begin to abandon the worship of idols, unless it were since the very Word of God came among men? When have oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among the Greeks and everywhere, except since the Saviour has revealed Himself on earth? When did those whom the poets call gods and heroes begin to be adjudged as mere mortals, except when the Lord took the spoils of death and preserved incorruptible the body He had taken, raising it from among the dead? Or when did the deceitfulness and madness of daemons fall under contempt, save when the Word, the Power of God, the Master of all these as well, condescended on account of the weakness of mankind and appeared on earth? When did the practice and theory of magic begin to be spurned under foot, if not at the manifestation of the Divine Word to men? In a word, when did the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God revealed Himself on earth? In old times the whole world and every place in it was led astray by the worship of idols, and men thought the idols were the only gods that were. But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God, they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation ) Wunderbar!
If you are living under the delusion that for the church to be perfect she must be able to articulate all truth without flaw, then I suggest removing that delusion. Salvation never promised such a thing, and after this temporary earthly tour of duty ends, I will not “go to heaven” to learn everything. I will never know everything. See, the church is perfect according to the word of God, and not according to what we SEE. That is judging the church as a child, wanting to go back to Egypt. Modern day yearning for the good old days sound like this: “wouldn’t it be easier if Jesus just came back and did some really cool miracles? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just discovered the ark of Noah? Wouldn’t it be easier if we could have incontrovertible proof that Jesus returned in A.D. 70? Wouldn’t it be easier if God spoke through a prophet, so that when we have really difficult questions we could just go and consult him? That way, I don’t have to study, read, or put up with your wrong opinions and love you regardless!” Wouldn’t it just be easier to go back to the old covenant when they had prophet, priest and Law to tell them like a schoolmaster everything that they needed to do and believe?
Nah. God has set it up for the mature church. This mature man must walk with the Light. This mature “body” must study, dialogue, argue, love, work patience, learn tolerance, learn to think outside of his own traditions, and, if needs be, replace his tradition with a better one (sometimes at great cost). This bunch needs to learn to love those who profess Christ as Lord, too, but also do it in such a way that might offend. Some Christians actually pray to Mary, and we are witnessing millions of our brothers mourn the loss of Pope John Paul II. I can hear the “religious” gasp at these words. What did he say? They aren’t Christians, they are Catholics! Such a mindset, in disguise, is merely pining for Egypt. We are Preterists, we have our acts together. We need no instructors, no fellowship, no missions. We have arrived. Ah….Egypt is starting to sound good to you, isn’t it?
See, this mindset suffers from “Since-I-Have-My-Eschatology-Worked-Out-Then-I-Am-More-In-Tune-With-God-Than-You-Are Syndrome.” It’s chronic. But it runs among God’s people. Calvinists versus Arminians. Catholics versus Protestants. Immortal Body Now versus Immortal Body at Death. Annihilationists versus Eternal conscious torment. Universalists versus Particularists. And here we thought Preterism would be immune from such things! Ha!
The old covenant represented uniformity: do this and live. There was a tit for tat Law and a dress and dietary code. Everyone was equal. When there was a dispute, you went to the wandering prophet or the priests who would cast lots or use the Urim and Thummim. Occassionally, God would show up in a dazzling display of fire and smoke. Everything was great then….or was it? Ask Samuel. He was in sheol. Hebrews 11.39 states: “And all these (old covenant saints in 11.1-38), having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise.” What did the promise entail? 11.40 tells us: “that they without us should not be made perfect.” Therefore, using strict logic, the old covenant saints, with all their visions, prophets, voices, and miracles were not perfected and did not (indeed could not, for the natural man cannot submit to the things of God) receive the promise. Yet, we, living this side of His Glorious Appearance, have. We have received the Promise and have been perfected, yet, we are without prophet and vision. So, what do we have that they didn’t have? Is the people of God in a worse state this side of His Glorious Appearing than the old covenant saints? From hearing some folks, it would seem as if they would believe that the church is far more worse now than it ever was. Ah….Egypt is calling.
The fact of the matter is, perfection does not mean uniformity. Perfection, in covenantal terms, does not mean an ability to speaks the words of God like Jesus in all theological matters and disputes. Perfection does not mean that temptation is no longer an issue. Perfection is a quality imputed to the body of Christ that, in spite of its experiential weaknesses in the world, maintains it as spotless, without sin and without blemish because it is not of the world. Israel never had it so good!
Athanasius is a representative of those “early church fathers” that “got it.” Oh, yes, he had some errors, too. He still maintained a future bodily return of Jesus. But, so what? Listen to these words: “"But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead... Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?” (Incarnation, Ch. 5). Sounds like Preterism to me. All that Athanasius didn’t “get” were ramifications of what he said. If what he is saying is true in the above quotes, then we, several hundred years later, can trace out further implications that he, because of the times, was simply unaware of or did not see. A theologian of a given time is not expected to know everything. But, in the main, where it really counts and where it really matters, Athanasius “got it.” He wrote, “Have no fears then. Now that the common Savior of all has died on our behalf, we who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law. That condemnation has come to an end; and now that, by the grace of the resurrection, corruption has been banished and done away.” This is just plain old good theology!
What did the early church “get”? They got that the old covenant had come to an end. That got that the body of Christ, together with the saints of the “aforetime”, inherited the promises of eternal life. They “got” that the Scriptures foretold through shadows and types the realities that were “now” received. They got that Jesus had risen from the dead and conquered sin and death. They got that Temple, priest and prophet under the old covenant ceased. They got that Jesus was Risen King who dispenses his grace throughout the whole world to all who call upon His name. Oh, sure, they screwed some things up, too. But, who hasn’t? Welcome to the club. I can hear the voice of one crying to go back to Egypt say, “Yeah, I have messed up, but man, at least I haven’t messed up as much as those Catholics.” Ahem. Yes you have. Even the most knowledgeable of God’s people, who is able to keep himself in check from all temptation, and who offers a correct eschatology stands in the same light as that crack whore that Jesus has welcomed in to his kingdom. The religious and pious hate hearing such things because it cuts through their works and knowledge and how much they have accomplished. Surely you are not equating me with a crack whore. Ahem. Yes I am.
Oh, sure, Kenneth Copeland, a brother in the Lord, needs to be schooled in theology and corrected. Sure, Pope John Paul II had errors. But who can say with him that you helped the fall of Communism! Preterism is ecumenical at its base and demands that those who subscribe to its basic tenets open their eyes to a much bigger world, and a much bigger church. I came out of the Charismatic background, and we didn’t think you were “saved” unless you spoke in tongues, because you were not “filled with the Spirit.” Errnt. Wrong. Then I became a Calvinist. Your salvation was questioned if you believed that you could lose your salvation. Ernnnt. Wrong. Then I became a Postmillennialist and things opened up a little more, but not much. Now, the Methodists were at least given a shot. But when I became a full-fledged rootin’, tootin’ Preterist heretic, the FLOODGATES opened. Maybe God has kept those Greek Orthodox and Catholics around for a reason. I mean, they are still here, and they are still growing. Maybe those Promise Keepers, with their packed stadiums of 25,000 Jesus fans, have something. Maybe these Seeker Friendly groups are on to something. Perhaps these mega-churches are onto something. What in the world is God doing? Preterism offers a working attempt at explaining the diversity within a unity. That is, we are diverse as hell, but we are also one, without sin, without spot, inheritors of the Promise. What, then, unites us? Last I checked Paul gave us a hint: “there is only ONE NAME.” Oh, sure, we disagree about what to do about that name, but we all agree in the name of that name: Jesus, son of God, eternal, uncreated, through whom all things were made, risen savior, redeemer, High Priest, King, Judge, Friend of Sinners, brother, Lord, Son of Man, Son of David. Oh, sure, we might disagree as to how Jesus saves (by freewill or by causation or by sacraments), but we know, in the end, WHO saves. Oh we might fight and fuss over whether or not we should have “teachers” today, or whether or not the National Hockey League will ever get its act together, but we have Jesus.
I strongly encourage you to attend Virgil Vaduva’s Planet Preterist Conference (it’s free!) in which these things will be discussed. I will be there and you can ask me about my Calvinistic, anti-empirical, Clarkian, supralapsarian, Presbyterian Preterism (just to use a few labels).