When some one says that they want you to take them at their word, what exactly do you think they mean? I think your answer would be that they want you to trust what they are saying. But what is it about what they are saying that you are supposed to trust?
These online dictionaries agree that to take someone at their word is to believe that the person means what they say. If you want (or require) proof that this is how the average Joe takes it, just ask them what it means to take someone at their word.
Okay, I have in front of me a new book by Kevin DeYoung entitled Taking God At His Word
. I have interacted with DeYoung’s excellent post on homosexuality here
, and about much the same thing As I want to talk about today.
The question I want to ask is this: What does DeYoung mean by this? Does he mean that God means what He says? If that is what he says he means then my follow up question would be, “And how much of the time [in the Bible] does God mean what He says?” Or to borrow from the above dictionary definitions, “How much of the time does DeYoung think we are to interpret God’s words ‘literally or exactly?'”
The answer to these queries given by many evangelical writers will hardly be encouraging.
Now DeYoung asks in one post
, “Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel or the sacramental language of John 6 or the psalmist’s insistence that he is righteous or blameless?”
Skipping the “sacramental language of John 6 (There is none. See Jn. 6:64-65), and the case of the psalmist (the contexts always make it clear he isn’t claiming to be sinless), I shall say something about understanding Ezekiel’s eschatology.
Does systematic theology help us know what to do with Ezekiel’s eschatology? Well, if your systematic theology turns Ezekiel’s clear eschatological predictions for Israel into types of Christ and the Church we have a real problem. That would certainly mean that we cannot take God at His word where the prophecies of Ezekiel are concerned! One would either be forced to jettison the claim to be taking God at His word or else change a theology which stopped you taking God at His word.
But it doesn’t stop there because, as anyone knows who reads amillennialists like DeYoung
, Beale and the rest, they allow their theology and their reason to dictate new meanings to very many OT prophecies in e.g., Genesis, Psalms, and both Major and Minor Prophets. That’s a whole lot of God’s Book where, apparently, we cannot take God at His word (in the authoritative senses given above).
In another post
on the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 (& 14) we see his ingenuity hard at work in an attempt to not
take God at His word. I shall not enter into a close examination of his reasoning except to say it is very poor and question-begging. In his fourth (of five) reason for thinking the “144,000 of all the tribes of the the children of Israel” (Rev.7:4) are not
who God says they are, he writes,
The 144,000 is a symbolic number of redeemed drawn from all peoples, not simply the Jews. Besides, if the number is not symbolic then what do we do with Revelation 14:4 which describes the 144,000 as those “who have not defiled themselves with women”? Are we to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men? It makes more sense to realize that 144,000 is a symbolic number that is described as celibate men to highlight the group’s moral purity and set-apartness for spiritual battle.
It seems that if we take God at His word in the Book of Revelation we will be misled. What we must do is rather reason in the way that “makes more sense to [us]“. If that means making Revelation symbolic, so be it. And he adds to this (his fifth reason) that,
The number itself is stylized. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s 12 x 12 x 1000—12 being the number of completion for God’s people (representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb) and 1000 being a generic number suggesting a great multitude. So 144,000 is a way of saying all of God’s people under the old and new covenant.
So one thing you must not do here (and very many other places according to this form of interpretation) is believe God literally means 144,000 male virgins representing the tribes of Israel as listed in Revelation 7:4-8! You must not take God at His word. Remember the definitions above! Putting it this way tends to bring the jolly-sounding soundtrack to a screeching halt doesn’t it?
As far as I can ascertain DeYoung is (along with many of the Gospel Coalition), an old-earth proponent. This post
and its list of recommended books, leaves me with that impression. But does Genesis 1, to say nothing of Exodus 20:11, give the impression that the six days of creation are also symbolical? Or that they are millions, perhaps billions of years long? Would taking God at His word in Genesis 1 and Exodus 20 lead one to such a conclusion? I’m not asking whether or not “it makes more sense to [you]” to believe the earth is billions of years old; I’m asking whether taking Genesis 1 or Exodus 20:11 at its word would lead a person to that belief.
If we take a quick look at the book Taking God At His Word we will see, especially in chapters 3 and 4 about the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, that the focus isn’t really about the entire Word of God, but only about what is necessary for salvation and Christian living.
That is always the way Reformed writers have explained these terms because of their penchant for displacing Israel with the Church and turning all the eschatology of the OT into types and shadows of Christ’s first coming and the Church in Him. Thus, literally hundreds of verses and chapters in both Testaments are made symbolic and typological just as long as they are not about salvation and ethics. Consider this,
The resurrection, some liberals argue, is not to be taken literally as a bodily resurrection, but as a powerful symbol that God can give us new spiritual life and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” – Kevin DeYoung, Taking God At His Word, 31. My emphasis.
Okay, now pay attention to this quotation from Iain Duguid’s Commentary on Ezekiel. The passage in question is Ezekiel’s Temple vision, particularly chapter 43:10-12.
Verses 10-12 sum up the rationale for the temple vision: Ezekiel is being shown these things so he can relay them to his own generation. They must consider the design and “be ashamed of their [former] sins.” The temple vision is not a building plan or a prediction of the future but rather a powerful symbol that addresses the people of Ezekiel’s day…They must consider in particular its “plan” (43:10), its “arrangement,” its “exits and entrances,” along with its “regulations and laws” (43:11). In other words, the temple vision is a pedagogical tool…” 490. My emphasis.
See the trouble? Of course, it was worthless as a pedagogical tool for Ezekiel’s contemporaries if it didn’t actually refer to a temple and priests but to Jesus of Nazareth. Taking God at His word in Ezekiel 40-48, according to Duguid, would be a wrong move.
A little later on Duguid gives this interpretation:
[T]he goal of Ezekiel’s temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.” (481).
To me, there isn’t much to choose between the liberal view of the resurrection as symbolic and the commonly received evangelical view of Ezekiel and much Bible covenant prophecy as symbolic. The only difference is that the liberals disbelieve things like the resurrection, while they believe the Bible teaches things like God created in six literal days, that it teaches a global flood, that angelic beings cohabited with human females, that OT Israelites really believed Ezekiel’s temple would be built one day, and that the NT writers altered the meaning of OT prophecies because they thought that they wouldn’t come true literally.
Of course, liberals don’t believe these will happen any more than they believe the resurrection happened, but they do say the biblical writers believed such things!
Many evangelicals will want to fight for literal interpretation of salvation and ethical passages, but will teach that God didn’t create in six literal days, there was no global flood, that angelic beings didn’t cohabit with women, and that even though OT Israelites may well have expected Ezekiel’s temple to be built in a future day, these expectations (plus a whole host of others) were “transformed” and “expanded” and took a very different shape in the NT than the scores of covenants and prophecies led them to believe.
A last illustration: DeYoung says “Some people don’t like written texts and propositions because they imply a stable, fixed meaning, and people don’t want truth to be fixed.” (36).
I want to say, “Yeah, and you don’t want stable, fixed meanings for vast stretches of the Bible.” I have had cause here many times to show how men like Beale, Goldsworthy, Riddlebarger, Dumbrell, Gentry & Wellum and others state plainly that promises believed by OT saints were not fulfilled as they were led to expect, but underwent transformations and reinterpretations later on. Whence stable, fixed meaning if such a thing is held?
It all appears to come down to which bits of the Bible you are going to take at its word and which ones you are going to turn into metaphors by rhetorical spin. Liberals interpret literal facts and descriptions metaphorically when Jesus’ life is the subject; some evangelicals interpret literal facts and descriptions metaphorically when covenanted prophecy is the subject. How about this as an accurate paraphrase of DeYoung’s criticism of liberals but pointed back at him?
The Bible is not to be taken literally (save for Jesus work & ethics), but rather as a powerful symbol that God can give us new spiritual life and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Kevin DeYoung writes some good stuff and I appreciate him, but that does not mean I’m going to get fobbed off with a book called Taking God At His Word written by someone who does not believe in taking God at His word more than about half of the time.