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Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Studies in Eschatology [4]

Type casting the Bible

I have taken up the subject of eschatology and my endeavor has been to share what I have learned. I have received a lot of positive responses to my first three posts on the subject, so I do trust others are profiting from the series. I also hope I am being fair to dissenting positions. My goal is to discuss them accurately without the employment of strawmen.

Before I jump into exploring various eschatology systems, I wanted to spend some time going over a few foundational matters, particularly an examination of the hermeneutical principles brought to the relevant, eschatological texts by the variety of theological systems.

I have observed three broad areas of hermeneutics where eschatological systems will disagree with each other: The relationship of the NT with the OT, How to interpret prophetic passages, and the Israel/Church distinction. These areas will over lap with each other to be sure, but I have found there is enough of a pronounced difference between them that I can present a specific review of each one.

With this post I wish to draw attention to a second area of hermeneutics: The Interpretation of Prophetic Passages.

The word "eschatology" means "those things pertaining to the end-times." The Bible explicitly tells us there will be an end to the whole of human history - the last day. Our world is being directed to a final day when God will bring our age to an end, Jesus Christ will return, and humanity judged. The Bible records many passages of prophetic revelation spoken by a number of godly men who outline the details to these events. All systems of eschatology agree to the certainty of Christ's return and humanity's judgment and the end of all things. Where they disagree sharply with one another is with how we are to understand the unfolding of the details.

As I noted in my last post, a good part of how we apply our hermeneutics to the prophetic passages is dependent upon our theological presuppositions. I pointed out how those who hold to the convictions of Reformed covenant theology will utilize what is called an apostolic hermeneutic, in which the original "OT words are not always the ultimate meaning that the divine author had in mind" [Crenshaw and Gunn, 12]. This so-called apostolic hermeneutic, then, is also believed to provide the proper perspective for understanding the true meaning of the OT prophecies. Hence, what the OT prophet seems to mean by his prophetic oracle at first reading may have some greater meaning, or perhaps mean something all together different, in the NT.

Contrasted with how the apostolic hermeneutic handles the interpretation of prophecy, other non-covenant Reformed Christians believe a prophet's prophecy must be initially understood according to the original meaning it was given. Now, that is not say when we come to the NT, the progress of revelation will reveal extended application of the prophecy to spiritual things pertaining to the coming NT ministry of Christ and the apostles. However, that does not mean the original message of the prophecy is annulled and the NT Church entirely absorbs its fulfillment.

Consider, for example, how James utilizes the prophecy of Amos 9:11, 12 during the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. In response to hearing how gentiles were coming to faith in Christ, James cites Amos 9:11, 12 as foretelling of the time when the gentiles would come to salvation. The typical Reformed covenant position of this passage says James was interpreting the prophecy of Amos, which was originally spoken to the house of Israel, to apply completely to the NT Church. The "raising of the ruins of the Tabernacle of David" and how "they will possess the gentiles," is fulfilled in the new tabernacle, the Church, comprised of both Jews and gentiles [Robertson, 89-108].

But note that James does not cite the entire oracle, just the words spoken about how the raising of the tabernacle of David will cause the gentiles to be possessed. Nothing in the original prophecy of Amos, nor with the citation by James, suggests the remainder of the prophecy, Amos 9:13-15 has been completely fulfilled by the NT Church. Those last 3 verses in Amos speak to the people of Israel, who are called "My people" by the Lord, as being "planted in their land" and "no longer shall they be pulled up." Though Amos originally gave his prophecy to the people of Israel, an additional fulfillment of it is the gentiles coming to faith in Christ. However, that does not mean the rest of the prophecy has been canceled and will no longer be fulfilled as Amos predicted.

What one will notice when these two hermeneutical approaches are compared is that the covenant Reformed position tends towards a more spiritualized application of OT prophecy, where as the non-covenant Reformed positions reads the same prophecies in a more literal sense. And here in lies the center of disagreement between eschatological systems.

The covenant Reformed Christian accuses the non-covenant Reformed Christian of "wooden literalism." Their "literalism" is ridiculed as being absurd: "How can a spiritual being like the devil be bound with a chain?" and "Where's that bottomless pit to be found?" However, non-covenant Reformed Christians will often ridicule his opponent by saying he is unwittingly employing rank, unbelieving liberalism when reading the Bible. If we spiritualize the prophecies of the OT and turn them into metaphors and analogies, what keeps a person from spiritualizing other portions of the Bible, like the creation week of Genesis, or the Resurrection of Jesus?

There is some truth to those accusations. I have in mind Hal Lindsey claiming the locust in Revelation 9 are chemical spraying Apache helicopters and the way certain groups of Reformed preterists mangle the flood narrative in Genesis 7-8. In the end, however, such exchanges are pointless. Both positions acknowledge the authority of God's Word and are attempting to gain an understanding of the text by the use of exegesis. Yet it is the exegesis being interpreted according to theological presuppositions, especially when exegeting eschatological prophetic passages.

I will be bold enough to say all sides cannot be correct in the application of their hermeneutics on prophetic texts. Obviously, as I have wrestled through these issues and have finally settled on my eschatological convictions, I believe my position is the correct one. I have come to that conviction because I believe there is a consistence between my exegesis and hermeneutics when those principles are applied to eschatological theology. For me, that is the key: is my hermeneutics and exegesis consistent and are both being applied consistently to the biblical passages.

So how do I pursue consistency? Allow me to consider four important principles:

1) Prophecy can be defined as "the content of the special revelation which specifically called men received and by which they explained the past, elucidated the present, and disclosed the future" [Kaiser, 42]. The best rule of thumb when interpreting prophecy is to believe the language of the prophets in a natural way [Kaiser, 43], and view the referents of the prophecy in the manner in which the prophet originally intended. Again, see the example above with James citing Amos. Later revelation may clarify or add to the previous prophecy, but it should not be re-interpreted in a way never intended by the original prophet.

2) Prophets often spoke in symbolic and figurative language, but such symbolism should not automatically be spiritualized to mean something different than what the original prophet intended to convey, or be a license to interpret all prophecy with a spiritualized hermeneutic. For example, the book of Revelation certainly contains symbolic images, but does the presence of such symbolism automatically discount chapter 20 from speaking of a real, earthly reign of Christ for 1,000 years - 365,000 days? (I will write about Revelation 20 in a later article).

When interpreting symbolic language, a couple of important principles should be considered. That being, the absurdity of language when taken literally and the clarity when taken symbolically. Matt Waymeyer explains this principles this way,

With symbolic language there is something inherent itself that compells the interpreter to seek something other than the literal meaning ... when the interpreter has concluded the literal meaning of the language is absurd and ought to be abandoned, the symbolic interpretation will yield some degree of clarity to the meaning of the language of the text [Waymeyer, 51].
For instance, when the prophet Isaiah says "The trees of the field will clap their hands," he does not mean to say the trees will come alive like the Ents from The Lord of the Rings (the absurdity of language when taken literal), but the prophet does mean to say there will be great rejoicing with the return of Israel from exile (the clarity of the language when understood symbolically).

3) There is also an important need to recognize a three-fold classification of biblical prophecy: unconditionally fulfilled, conditionally fulfilled, and sequentially fulfilled [Kaiser, 35].

Recognizing these classifications will help with how to interpret the meaning of biblical prophecy. Unconditionally fulfilled prophecy is when God obligates Himself to carry out the terms for the fulfillment. God has bound Himself to see to it that these prophecies are carried out [Kaiser, 35]. Some examples of unconditionally fulfillment is the promises made to Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3, 15:9-21). Conditionally fulfilled prophecy has an "unless" or "if" condition attached to it. The blessings and cursings outlined in Deuteronomy 28 are a good example of this. If Israel obeys, God will bless. If they do not, God will bring cursing. Then sequentially fulfilled prophecy are prophecies fulfilled in stages. A good example is the destruction of Tyre as recorded in Ezekiel 26:7-14. When God judged Tyre, it was started by Nebuchadnezzar, but wasn't finished until Alexander the Great. Elijah's prophecy against Naboth's murder is another example (1 Kings 21:19). The full prophecy impacted Ahab and then his later son, Joram [Kaiser, 38, 39].

4) Understanding the proper application of biblical typology is also relevant with interpreting prophecy correctly. "Typological interpretation is specifically the interpretation of the OT based on the fundamental theological unity of the two testaments whereby something in the OT shadows, prefigures, adumbrates something in the NT" [Ramm, 223]. What is interpreted in the Old is not foreign or peculiar or hidden, but rises naturally out of the text due to the relationship of the two testaments.

Benard Ramm lists six important types seen in scripture:

Persons - For example Adam => Christ

Institutions - The Levitical sacrifices => the Cross of Christ

Offices - The high priest => The ministry Jesus Christ

Events - The wilderness wanderings (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Slavery in Egypt picturing Israel's enslavement in exile (Deut. 28:68)

Actions - Lifting up the brazen serpent => Christ being lifted up in crucifixion

Things - Tabernacle => The presence of God with His people [Ramm, 231, 232; Weir, 68]

The danger with types, however, is reading into them much more than what the original author intended to convey. Also, hunting down types when none really exist. As much as I love A.W. Pink as an author, his writings are filled with discussions on types and anti-types when none really existed in the text. Honestly, some of those boards in the tabernacle were only meant to hold up the curtains. Bishop Marsh, in his book Lectures on the Criticism and Interpretation of the Bible wisely stated, "A type is a type only if the NT specifically so designates it to be such" [Ramm, 219].

Now, we will see these principles worked out as I move along through my series, and I hope to demonstrate how they provide a consistent connection between prophetic passages and eschatological theology.

*******
Sources


Curtis Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III,
Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow, (Footstool Publications: Memphis TN, 1985)

Walter Kaiser, Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Biblical Prophecy, (Baker Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1989)

Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics (3rd rev. ed.), (Baker Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1970)

O. Palmer Robertson, "Hermenuetics of Continuity,"
Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, (Crossway Books: Westchester IL, 1988)

Matthew Waymeyer,
Revelation 20 and the Millennium Debate, (Kress Christian Publications: The Woodlands TX, 2004)

Jack Weir, "Analogus Fulfillment: The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament,"
Perspectives in Religious Studies 9 (Spring 1982)

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12 Comments:

Blogger Fred Butler said...

I plan to be away from the computer for a good part of friday and saturday due to family obligations. I look forward to reading comments and criticism from friendly opposition, but I may not be able to reply with any substance until later this weekend.

6:40 AM, April 02, 2009  
Blogger JOYce ~♥~ said...

Thought it was a good thing to read 1-4 on paper and when clicking on Studies in Eschatology see that there are more thoughts beyond those to take in. Wow. Some words are beyond my understanding so I'm determined to make them and this subject mine if even a little better; thanksgiving!

Hope the next couple of days are blessed for you and the family. :-)

9:30 AM, April 02, 2009  
Blogger JOYce ~♥~ said...

btw, Fred, is there a way to search your site for relative helps as the blogger nav bar is missing at the top of the page? Maybe should be emailing that question...

9:40 AM, April 02, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Joyce,
I took off the nav bar because it looked ugly. I have been meaning to locate a nice little search engine that will search my blog, but I haven't had time to find one. If anyone has suggestions?

Any how, if there is anything specific, let me know I will try to hunt for things.

Fred

10:19 AM, April 02, 2009  
Blogger The Squirrel said...

Fred,

I'm really enjoying this series. It's been a while since I've done in-depth work on eschatology, so it's good to review. While I am dispensational, I really appreciate your even-handedness with the other interpretations.

About the search thingy: I think Blogger lets you put google on your sidebar with one of the “add a gadget” options. I think I remember seeing that…

~Squirrel

1:33 PM, April 02, 2009  
Blogger donsands said...

"Conditionally fulfilled prophecy"

Would that include Jonah preaching to Nineveh: "In 40 days the Lord will destroy you."
And so the Lord did not, because the king and people repented big time. Though God did destroy nineveh 100 years later.

Yet the Openness people, say, "Hey God changed His mind, because He did not know they would repent, and so He was going to destroy them, but He was thankful He didn't have to.

Prophecy is a deep thing of Scripture. Thanks for these lessons.

7:23 AM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Don,
Kaiser uses Jonah as an example of conditionally fulfilled prophecy.

Without getting into all the particulars of God knowing and prophecy, I thought this was a good portion of his book.

Fred

7:37 AM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger JOYce ~♥~ said...

Bar & ugly? I don't care for my being able to click to the next blog without it being topically arranged...doing so in the past has been quite the whoa/woe. Do like being able to search...Pyromaniacs has a Google search area on their blog. hmmm, not sure if that is a feature of blogger via the dashboard?

I was thinking when coming across unfamiliar words that I could search generally online, it would be good to see if you have them used/explained elsewhere on your blog. Like this unfamiliar word: epexegetical. And I was wondering if you had shared concerning Proverbs(did see recommended books on Fred's Bible Talk). I can use the "find next" function with the archives until it be right timing for a search to be up and running...to deal with the way my mind works while reading.

:-)

8:20 AM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger MSC said...

Good stuff Fred. Keep it coming.

8:52 AM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger Greg said...

So far, there's no reason to resort to eschatological fisticuffs with you Fred. You are a knowledgeable fellow, and I am benefiting from this series.

1:41 PM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Greg,
Good. I don't know if I have the energy this weekend for fist-a-cuffs.

2:57 PM, April 03, 2009  
Blogger Greg said...

Maybe just some Revelation baseball then.

10:02 AM, April 04, 2009  

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