Bill Long 10/02/04
A Suggestive Term from Theology, Law and Rhetoric
Let's begin with the basics. The Latin prefix "preter (praeter)" means "beyond," and is used most commonly in English in words like "preternatural" or "preterhuman" to describe that which is outside of the natural or human. I agree with the OED that these terms should not be confused with "supernatural" or "superhuman;" they are "generally used to avoid the specific connotation of that word."
Language teachers know the word preterite. It is the tense of the verb describing an event that occurred. As I used to say when teaching Greek: "preterite tense, past action." The word is comprised of the prefix plus the verb "to go." Thus preteriteness can be described as "the state or condition of being preterite or past." "He could never come to grips with the preteriteness of their love." A preterist is one whose chief interest is in the past and who regards the past with pleasure or favor. Thus, most historians could probably be denominated preterists.
There is an interesting theological meaning of preterist, first attested in 1843, to describe a person who holds that the prophecies of Revelation have already been fulfilled. I don't know, but I wonder if that term was first invented because of the hoopla surrounding William Miller's (the founder of the Seventh Day Adventists) prophecy that the world would come to an end in 1844. I suppose this could make a theological preterist somewhat akin to a premillennialist (or even postmillenialist, now that I think about it), though I am not sure that the issue has ever been important enough for anyone to sort out the differences or similarities. But now we come to the big word: preterition.
I first ran into the term in my work on Reformed/Calvinist theology about 30 years ago in connection with the study of the end times/last things (eschatology). Preterition is an action by God to "pass over the non-elect."* We actually can get quite
[*Pretermission and its verbal form pretermit mean the same thing, though they do not have such a hardcore theological signification. Jonathan Swift, for example, wrote, "I proceed to refute the objections of those who argue from the silence and pretermission of authors."]
technical here. Some Calvinists argued for two separate "decrees of God" in condemning people, one in which He "passed over" some (preterition) and one in which He actively hardened some against Him (reprobation--the classic example was Pharoah in the Book of Exodus, where God hardened his heart but still beat the crap out of him). Indeed, it becomes more complex still. Some would argue that the actual sending of the sinner to hell consists of a two-fold process: the decree either or preterition or reprobation, combined with the action of damnation. It is like the distinction in law between judgment and execution on the judgment. In other words, once God has either ignored you or actively destroyed you, He makes things final by tossing you in the lake of fire.
Calvinists have historically been very interested in consigning a good portion of the world to hell, and preterition is the more pleasant way to do it. Some think that preterition doesn't make God look so bad because He is seemingly "passive" in people's fate. But, if you think about it more than a few seconds, the result is the same, and whether God declined to throw a life rope to you while you were drowning or actively knocked you over the head so you wouldn't get in the lifeboat, the result is the same. Condemnation. Death. Eternal Punishment. Let's get off this stuff. Ok?
Another one of my favorite subjects in the world is rhetoric. I love the terminology of it, even though people have not adequately explained the history of the tradition, in my mind. Nevertheless, preteritio(n) can be defined as "a figure by which summary mention is made of a thing, in professing to omit it." "It would be inappropriate for me to mention Senator Kennedy's former drinking problem in this debate over health care policy." Well, you mentioned it in saying that you were not going to mention it. This rhetorical device is more popularly known as paraleipsis (and this word can be spelled four ways), the "leaving aside" of something. It is a kind of irony, and is captured by an 18th century writer, "the most artful praises are those given by way of preterition." One may damn by faint praise, but one may also praise by faint mention. I much prefer the suggestiveness of the rhetorical usage to the roughhewn theological concept, don't you?
Finally, it has a connotation in Roman Law, taken over in the common law tradition, which the OED defines as follows: "the omission by a testator to mention in his will one of his children or natural heirs." Ah, and here we have another wonderful distinction, this time in law, between exheredation and preterition. The former means the cutting out of a person from the will by specific mention of disinheritance while the latter is an ignoring of the child or natural heir. A nineteenth century legal dictionary said that the entire omission of a child's name in the father's will rendered the will null: "exheredation being allowed, but not preterition." However, a case from the late nineteenth century also held that a man who passed over his children in his will had effectively disinherited them--"such preterition was held of equal force with a nominal disinherison, and the will could not be set aside as inofficious." Hm....you begin to wonder if the lawyer's problems with the distinction between exheredation/disinherison and preterition might be similar to the theolgian's problem between preterition and reprobation.
In any case, our study of preterition tends to confirm the truth of the old adage, that there are only two types of people in the world: those who divide the world into two types and those who don't.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long