(Note: This article was originally published on 12/4/2008, but was recently revised. Part 2 is also under revision to be published shortly. Although DeMar’s original article is no longer available, he is still using the same presuppositional arguments to support his Preterist view).
In his article, “Limited Geography and Biblical Interpretation,” Preterist teacher Gary DeMar sets out to localize Jesus Christ’s second coming by “proving” that geographical terminology used in Scripture was based on a first-century understanding of the globe. DeMar writes: “The first rule of Biblical interpretation is understanding a text in terms of its original setting and audience, always asking the question, How would those who first picked up copies of the Gospels and epistles have understood what they were reading?“
DeMar then quotes from Lewis Berkhof’s “Principles of Biblical Interpretation,” in which the author states that “the interpreter must place himself on the standpoint of the author” and that he (the interpreter) must guard against “transferring the author to the present day and making him speak the language of the twentieth century.”
This is the whole premise of DeMar’s argument. While this may sound like a reasonable approach, it is equally true that the author’s intent may be misunderstood if the interpreter approaches the text with faulty presuppositions.
In Volume 1 of his celebrated Systematic Theology, Charles Hodge (1797-1878) argues against what he calls the “speculative method” of interpreters like DeMar, stressing the need for a full and complete induction. According to the approach of Hodge and others, one determines the intent of an author from an inductive analysis of his writings. If the induction is not faithfully carried out, false assumptions can result; and these are exacerbated when the interpreter reasons from the general to the particular, rather than vice versa. It is this method that makes DeMar’s reasoning wobbly.
If actual errors concerning geography entered the Divine narrative, then we can only assign to Scripture a measure of fallibility which would test the evangelical doctrine of “plenary inspiration.” There is not much gray area in this regard. When it comes to inspiration, you’re on one side of the fence or the other. Orthodox evangelical interpreters have generally followed the footsteps of Peter in their understanding of inspiration. Peter wrote: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1: 20-21). But if Holy Ghost-inspired men were moved to indite error into the sacred writings, that doesn’t affect just inspiration. It affects the truthfulness of the Holy Spirit.
It can also tend to cast doubts on the actual extent of God’s knowledge. The dispute takes a twist should the reader accept Gary’s caveat not to read 21st century geographical knowledge into words such as kosmos, oikoumene, and ge. For the caveat holds true only if our concepts of geography are not the same as those of the Bible–which is assuming too much. If the domain of God’s sovereignty is the same now as it was in the first century, where is the need for any geographical limitations? Jehovah Elohim is the God of the whole earth. Is God’s knowledge of geography not the same now as it was then? Was the Third Person of the Trinity merely following a restricted usage? Who would deny that these questions pose grave concerns for any who would maintain Gary’s views and still uphold the infallibility of God’s knowledge? It all boils down to: are the Scriptures inerrant, or aren’t they?
We feel that in Gary’s case, the wish has fathered the thought. Because Preterists insist that Jesus Christ’s second advent was fulfilled in A.D. 70, they are forced to localize His coming to the region of Jerusalem. They have no other choice. In equating His parousia with the destruction of the Jewish temple in A.D. 70, their geography becomes restricted as a logical and necessary consequence. This has nothing to do inherently with inspiration or Divine foreknowledge. It has everything to do with the interpreter’s own presuppositions. In Gary’s case, the geographical terminology of Scripture must be made to conform with the conclusion that Christ returned in A.D. 70. That is how Preterism operates. It is an “a priori” logical approach, not an inductive one.
Under this scheme of interpretation, one must ask: does Scriptural infallibility apply to all facts related, or only a few? Suppose that the term ge (earth) always meant “the land of Palestine,” as Preterists would have us suppose. Well, the writers of the New Testament were Jews, and unto them were committed the oracles of God. Take Moses, for example. Moses was chosen by God to chronicle the history of the world, from its very beginnings. So he ought to know, right? In Gen. 1: 1, we read, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth (eretz).” Applying Gary’s presupposition that one mustn’t read 21st century geographical concepts into the text, the first verse in the Bible shouts: “Houston, we have a problem!”
Here the usage of eretz is universal, and not localized. This makes Gary’s premise lame at the starting gate. If God created the land of Palestine alone, to whom do we assign the creation of the rest of the world? To blame it all on Moses is an exegetical sucker-punch. Again, Moses wrote, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth (eretz), and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth (eretz)” (Gen: 1: 26). Did Moses mean the land of Palestine? It is obviously the Adamic creation he is speaking of, over which God still exercises (as He did when Moses wrote) supreme dominion. We are not reading our own notions into the text. We are interpreting the text.
Note the Greek word ge bears precisely the same sense as the Hebrew eretz. So we ask: did Paul have less knowledge than Moses, when he told the idolaters of Lystra to “turn from these vanities unto the Living God, which made heaven, and earth (ge), and the sea, and all things that are therein” (Acts 14: 15)? Was Paul’s geography limited when he preached that God now commands “all men everywhere to repent because He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the habitable world (oikoumene) in righteousness, by that Man Whom He hath ordained” (Acts 17: 30-31)?
When looking at the text through Gary’s goggles, one wonders what Christ meant when He taught His disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth (ge) as it is in heaven (Mat. 6: 10)? Was our Lord’s geography limited? Was He referring only to the land of Palestine? The lesson here is: Be careful with your presuppositions. Christ used the word ge (earth) in a universal and Adamic sense. He does this quite often, actually. For example: “But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth (ge) to forgive sins… Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house” (Matt. 9: 6). See also Matt. 16: 19; 17: 25; Acts 13: 47; Heb. 11: 15; 1 John 5: 8, etc.
As for eretz, we agree that it is sometimes used in a localized sense. But the word itself does not connote any geographical limitations. It merely means land as distinct from water. To get the actual meaning in a passage, one must look at the context. According to established usage, eretz often refers to the terrestrial sphere over which God rules.
Psalm 33: 14: “From the place of His habitation, He looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth (eretz).
Psalm 115: 16: “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s: but the earth (eretz) hath He given to the children of men.”
Compare with Psalm 2: 8; 72: 19; 96: 1; 138: 4; Isaiah 37: 16; 49: 6; 54: 4; Jeremiah 16: 19; Micah 4: 13; Zechariah 6: 5; 14: 9, etc.
Examining all of the cited passages (which are too numerous to quote in full), we find that God certainly has very extensive notions of geography. This Scriptural meta-context helps us to determine what Christ signified when He gave the Great Commission. “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth (ge). Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20).
Of course, I realize that Gary, as well as other Preterists, would cite Colossians 1: 6 & 23 to show that the Gospel actually had been preached in all the world when Paul wrote. However, Paul was preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God–NOT the Gospel of the Kingdom. Had Israel accepted the Gospel of the Kingdom, Christ would have already returned before they had finished evangelizing the cities of Israel (Matt. 10: 23). But because Israel rejected that message, the Gospel of God’s grace was proclaimed for the obedience of the faith to all nations (Romans 1: 5). This Gospel would be extended geographically as it was received. The fact that Paul wrote that it had been fully preached does not imply any finality, but simply that the Gospel was now ready to be extended even further (see 2 Corinthians 10: 15, 16).
As a Preterist, Gary DeMar believes that the Great Commission was fulfilled by A.D. 70, and that the end of the age occurred with the destruction of the temple. I’m wondering what he thinks Christ meant when He said: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth“? If DeMar agrees that ge is used in a universal sense, then he should at least make allowance for the more classical view that the the discipling of all nations is co-extensive with Christ’s sphere of authority; and that the meaning of the phrase end of the age falls within that context as well.
In Christ’s unfolding of the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13: 24-30; 37-43), our Lord said: “The field is the world (kosmos)” and “the harvest if the end of the age.” Gary DeMar believes that the harvest occurred in A.D. 70. Therefore, he sees the end of the age as occurring at that time. But if this is the case, how are we to understand Christ’s usage of kosmos? In a strictly localized sense, argues DeMar. But what did Christ mean when He said: “For God so loved the world (kosmos) that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3: 16). Again, if “God manifest in the flesh” habitually used words a certain way, we are bound to take that usage into consideration. Otherwise we are doing what Gary says we should never do–reading our own concepts into the text.
Did Christ signify that God only loved the Roman empire, and not other ethnic groups that had yet to be born when He spoke? Again, when Christ said: “As long as I am in the world (kosmos), I am the light of the world (kosmos)” (John 9: 5); did Christ mean to say that He was the light of the Roman empire? Or did He mean the world as fallen in Adam? Adopting the latter (and obviously correct) view cracks the door to a distinct possibility that the end of the age did not occur in A.D. 70; thus pointing the way back to traditional, time-tested methods of interpretation. If the end of the age didn’t happen 2,000 years ago, then Christ’s coming is yet future. If so, Preterism’s presuppositional support crumbles, the exegetical framework caves in, and the whole superstructure falls to the ground.