In the mid-sixties of the first century, the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about a number of pastoral problems that confronted that earnest young man. One of the challenges had to do with a certain false teacher named Hymenaeus, who comes up in both 1 and 2 Timothy. The first time he is paired with a man named Alexander—who is probably the same man as the coppersmith who comes up separately in 2 Timothy. This Alexander was a bad dude also.
“This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
1 Timothy 1:18–20 (KJV)
About a year later, this Hymenaeus is teamed up with a gent named Philetus, and we learn a bit more about the nature of the error he was promulgating. The content of his doctrine was that the resurrection was already a past event. The thing to note is that Paul took this to be a really serious error, and as we note this we need to look at the time stamp.
“But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.”
2 Timothy 2:16–18 (KJV)
Now how important was it to Paul to refute the teaching of Hymenaeus? How serious was this error? Here is the summary. Those who err in this way put away a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19), they make a shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19), they fall into blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20), they deserve to be delivered over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20), it gives way to profane and empty chatter (2 Tim. 2:16), it grows up into ungodliness (2 Tim. 2:16), this teaching will grow like cancer or gangrene (2 Tim. 2:17), it falls into error from the truth (2 Tim. 2:18), and it overthrows the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:18). Pretty dang serious, in other words.
Now this second letter was written around 66 A.D. and according to the full preterists, all the prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled by 70 A.D. This means that Hymeneaus was just four years off. He said that everything was fulfilled and past, and if the full preterists are correct, that wouldn’t the case for another 48 months yet. And yet, despite this, it is quite striking that Paul accused him of some pretty serious misdoing. Was this because he struggled with basic math? Did Hymenaeus forget to carry the two?
First Order Errors and First Order Threats
Given the seriousness of this kind of error, and it really is serious, I have been asked to explain the difference between my reaction to the Revoice travesty, a reaction which was loud and exuberant and continues down to the present day, and our comparatively muted response (thus far) to the controversy over Gary DeMar’s lack of responsiveness to the questions put to him about full preterism. Those questions were posed first in a private letter, and then in a public one. It should be noted that I was a signatory to the letters that posed those questions. Why the difference in our response to date?
The first and fundamental reason is that there is a difference between first order errors and first order threats. Let me define the difference because this is important. What is a first order error?
Any messing around with the doctrines found in the early ecumenical creeds would be examples of first order errors—e.g. denying the Incarnation, or the Deity of Christ, or the fact that God is Almighty, or the final coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Someone who is in error on something like this is, at a minimum, playing around with heresy. But we need to be careful here because the early ecumenical creeds aren’t Scripture, and it is possible for responsible Christians to think that Christ’s descent into Hades is a simple reference to the grave, which it isn’t. That puts them out of step with an early ecumenical creed, but it doesn’t make them heretics. But in the main, on the sorts of doctrines I outlined above, to deny such teachings is to be guilty of heresy. It would be a first order error.
The reformational creeds defined the differences between the Reformed, and Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. The ecumenical creeds defined the differences between Christians and non-Christians. And so to be guilty of a first order error is very serious indeed.
But a first order threat is in a different category, and the definition of this depends on the circumstances, and how many people are being affected. If someone hammers out his own little version of a monothelite heresy (the idea that Christ had only one will), and he has a little theology club that meets monthly in the back of a local coffee emporium, with three to five persons in attendance, the error they are entertaining really is a first order error. But it is not a first order threat because nobody is listening to them. Nobody cares what Hobart P. Longworthy III is teaching back there. The monothelite heresy is a true heresy, but it is not the heresy of the moment. It is not the heresy de jour.
The Revoice project is both a first order error and a first order threat. Sexual confusion has swamped the world outside the church, and the church itself has taken on a great deal of water. The sexual chaos all around us is a global frenzy, and an assault on the image of God in man, which in turn is an assault on the doctrine of God Himself. The lusts that have been unleashed in the name of all that is woke are lusts that will burn down the world, and are already burning down large portions of it.
Arianism was a first order threat in the days of Athanasius, which is why he had to stand contra mundum. It remains a first order error, promulgated by the Jehovah Witnesses, and if you join the local Kingdom Hall you really are walking away from the faith once delivered. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not about to take over anything important. The JW’s are not a first order threat. If someone in your church joined the JW’s, he should be excommunicated, because it really is a first order error. But if your church took out a thirty-second ad during the Super Bowl halftime to attack the pending threat of Arianism, this would be what we should call an over-reaction.
Having said all this, one of the things we have to keep in mind is that Paul does warn us that the error of full preterism is something that can certainly become a first order threat. He tells us this when he says that it can spread “like gangrene.” So that should always be kept in mind as well.
Not Playing Into Anybody’s Hands
So allow me to talk for a moment about tactics in dealing with errors and threats. Suppose I am looking at my Twitter feed, minding my own business, and some outrageous accusation pops up against me. The thing is really over the top, and it could be easily refuted. The first thing I do is click on that person’s profile. The information I usually gain is that this person has seventeen followers. If I reply, what have I done? I have made some troll’s day. I have handed him a microphone, and told to please articulate his slander clearly. Why would I do something as stupid as that?
But suppose I click on the profile, and the person has 130K followers, and let us say that the accusation is just as outlandish as the one made by the first guy. Now what? Now I answer, and the reason I answer is that he has just handed me the microphone. He has made my day.
These are not moral considerations; they are tactical considerations.
In my experience, full preterists generally fall into Churchill’s definition of a fanatic, as those who can’t change their minds, and who won’t change the subject. They are itching for a debate, itching for air time. They want access to microphones. One of the really unfortunate things about this whole controversy is that if someone of Gary DeMar’s stature starts interacting with this error the way he has, then the controversy that erupts could really advance the cause of the error, whether or not Gary holds to it.
That could still happen anyway, but I don’t want to help it to do so.
Now somebody out there is sure to say, “Yah! Afraid to debate the issues, are you? You have just told us that you are trying to avoid a public debate with a qualified full preterist!” Yup. The reason for this is simple. One of the qualifications of an elder is that he be able to refute those who contradict (Tit. 1:9). True enough. This is something I have already done. But the same apostle also tells us that they are circumstances under which you must refuse to talk with them anymore (Tit. 3:10). Refusing to debate is not necessarily a fear of debating.
If the error starts to spread like gangrene—like all our sexual heresies have already done—then, yes, absolutely. Let us engage. But not until then.
So full preterism, in my book, really is a first order error. I don’t believe it is a first order threat, which means that addressing it is not yet an “all hands on deck” situation. And that means we can proceed with all due haste, but without our hair on fire. When I look at the fact that Gary, an honorable man, told me personally that he is not a full preterist, and I look at my schedule and other responsibilities, and then I look at the fact that the genuine full preterists (all 14 of them) would love nothing more than a full-tilt Internet controversy on this topic, which would have the effect of handing them a microphone, I am disinclined to drop everything in order to make them happy. But the issue still must be dealt with.
When sexual revolutionaries promote their madness, and I answer them, I don’t have to worry about handing them a microphone. They own most of the microphones in the world already. That is the reason for the different responses.
There is a practical side to this. Gary DeMar is platformed in various ways by both Fight Laugh Feast and CanonPlus, both located here in Moscow, and both an important part of our suite of ministries. The leadership of both FLF and Canon have asked the session of Christ Church for guidance and direction on what they should do about it. We asked them to hold tight until we have our conversation with Gary—which we are in the process of setting up. If the allegations prove to have been correct, then the orthodox will have no grounds for disappointment in our response. If they are not correct, then perhaps some of the orthodox will be grateful that we refused to be hasty.
Returning to the Return of Christ
I began by pointing to Paul’s vigorous reaction to Hymenaeus. We should conclude all this by pointing to several other things he said in the same epistle about the return of Christ.
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”
2 Timothy 4:1–2 (KJV)
Hymenaeus was saying that the “appearing” had already happened. But this was obviously untrue because when the Lord came, Paul said He was going to judge the quick and the dead, and Hymenaeus was not yet judged. He was still carrying on in his errors. One of the reasons we know the Lord has not yet returned is that full preterists are still here, carrying on the way they do.
“Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”
2 Timothy 4:8 (KJV)
At the end of the day, we must realize that the failure of full preterism is the same failure that undergirds all heresies. It always comes down to a lack of love. Notice how Paul speaks of it here. He refers to faithful believers as those who “love His appearing.” Hymenaeus clearly didn’t love the Lord’s appearing because he was willing to represent it as having been something of a dud.
How could you love the idea of the Lord Himself shouting, and the heavens opening, and the last trump, and the voice of the archangel, and the myriads of angels, and the nations separated like sheep and goats, and yet maintain that it would be the kind of event that wouldn’t even make it into a mediocre historian’s footnotes? C’mon, man.
“For He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, and the peoples with equity.”
Psalm 98:9 (NKJV)
But careful. If you blinked, you might have missed it.