Some Mud That Sticks: An Insider’s Criticism of Dispensationalism

This is a repost of an article first posted in 2009.


It is well to note that the following charges against dispensationalism are not theological and exegetical in nature, but are more psychological and sociological.  Here is my opinion:

a. Pragmatism


It is our opinion that dispensationalism can be (and ought to be) wedded to a full-orbed systematic world and life view, but only if it begins to take itself more seriously and starts the painful process of self-examination.[1] In order to do this it must divest itself of the pragmatic outlook that it often clings to, and which spoils its thinking and stunts its theological development.  For present purposes we have in mind the following helpful definition of Pragmatism: “Pragmatism as a theory of knowledge says that a person is warranted in believing any proposition or theory that produces good results.”[2]

The lure of pragmatism is its emphasis upon short-term goal setting and tangible “success.”  This vision is what drives American society[3], and Christian institutions and publishing houses have, by and large, fallen for it “hook, line and sinker.”  It is our conviction that most if not all of the observations that follow stem from the influence of a pragmatic mindset.  Comments like “will it sell?” betray this wrong-headed attitude.  The real question is “is this important?,” “is it right?”  It ought to be borne in mind that many of the books cited in important theological works are not big sellers.  But it is superficial thinking to equate large sales numbers with influence. (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (PT.3)

Part Two

After the vision of the enormous temple which ends Ezekiel one is left with some questions.  How could such an immense structure fit in Jerusalem as we know it?  Why would any cultic priesthood be necessary once Jesus had come and died for our sins?  And, doesn’t the Book of Hebrews negate the whole idea of priests and sacrifices?

I am going to leave aside the last two questions until I examine some objections in Part Four.  But this post will answer the first problem.  But before I do that I want to fill in the picture a little more by looking at some more prophetic references.

In Daniel’s prayer of confession in Daniel 9 we see him specifically make supplications for “Your city Jerusalem” (9:16) and “Your sanctuary” (9:17).  Gabriel’s answer addresses Jerusalem (9:24, 25) and the temple, which is doomed to destruction (9:26).  I am not concerned with the identity of the sanctuary in verse 26 (other than to say that, in my opinion, it is not Herod’s temple).  My interest is in whether Gabriel has any positive answer regarding God’s temple.  I believe he does.

In the list of six eschatological details which must be fulfilled after the seventy weeks (490 years) prophecy in verse 24, the sixth concerns the anointing of “the Most Holy” (this particular Hebrew term always designates a devoted thing or place in its other OT uses, never a person, as even some amillennial scholars are forced to admit).  Unless one spiritualizes the other five items and makes the sixth mean something different than its previous uses in the OT, this passage refers to a future temple which will stand when transgression is finished; when everlasting righteousness has been brought in, and all vision and prophecy has been sealed up.  Since none of these things happened at the first coming of Christ anyway (even prophets were functioning many years after Calvary), and since the anointing of the “Most Holy [Place]” is the last on the list, it makes more sense to put the fulfillment of this verse after the second coming.  This fits hand in glove with the provisions of the Priestly Covenant, with Jeremiah 33, and with the predictions in the last part of Ezekiel.

In Joel 3:17-21 we find ingredients which remind us of the kinds of eschatological blessings God promised to Israel.  Jerusalem will be “holy” (3:17), there will be blessings in production and general fecundity (3:18).  And, lo and behold, “A fountain shall flow from the house of the LORD (which means  a temple, just as we saw happening in Ezek. 47:6ff.).

This picture is further enhanced by the prophet Zechariah after the Exile.  For instance, in chapter 1:16-17 the message of the comforting of Zion and of the Lord’s own return to his house were hardly fulfilled from 500 B.C. through A.D. 70.  The Lord did not return to the Zerubabbel/Herod temple at all!  Yet in 2:10 we read,

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion!  For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst…

In the sixth chapter we have a prophecy of the Branch who, as is stated with great emphasis, will build the temple. (6:12-13a).  This man will also “bear the glory” and, as a priest-king (combining both offices in Himself), “will sit on His throne.” (6:13b).

This Messianic prophecy has Christ sitting as King.  He is a temple-builder!  Is this heaven and a spiritual throne and temple?  Only if you are an amillennialist bent on ignoring the Priestly Covenant and its promises.  Chapter 8:3 again has God returning to Jerusalem, which shall be called “the City of Truth”.  This is hardly an accurate description of Jerusalem in the first century A.D.

In Zechariah 13:2-3, after a New Covenant prediction of cleansing for Israel, there is an intriguing passage about a young man who attempts to act the prophet and who gets thrust through by his own parents for doing so.  I take this to apply to the time after Christ has come back in power, when certainly there will be no need of prophets.  I relate it to Gabriel’s fifth prediction in Daniel 9:4 about the sealing up of “the vision and prophecy.”  Then in chapter 14 we find the LORD coming with His saints (14:5c), ruling as “King over all the earth” (14:9), and then a passage which has the nations coming up to Jerusalem to “worship the King” who is explicitly called “the LORD of hosts” (14:16-17).  The “LORD’s house” and “sacrifices” are mentioned clearly in 14:20-21.  The eschatological context includes radical topographical changes which will completely alter Jerusalem – thereby very possibly making room for Ezekiel’s massive temple to be built (14:4-5).

Finally the last prophet in the OT, Malachi, has God directly speaking of “My covenant with Levi” which He wants to “continue” (Mal. 2:4).  In the next chapter, in a context reminding one of the second coming (cf. Rev. 21:11f.), we read about God purifying “the sons of Levi” (3:3) that they “may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness,” (and you need to have a temple to offer such sacrifices).  So the very last Old Testament prophet still appears to think that there is a future function for priests in a temple.  Did this occur in Jesus’ day?  When have Levites been purified?  The only question then is whether one is going to remember the covenant terms in Num. 25, Jer. 33, etc, and stick with them, or whether one is going to turn it magically into “Jesus and the Church” using typological and symbolic alchemy.

As for me, more than enough evidence has been presented to put forward a solid case for an incontrovertible and everlasting Priestly Covenant.  Next time I will consider some objections to what I have written.


Taking God At His Word?

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?

The Collins English Dictionary defines it as:

to assume that someone means, or will do, what he or she says   ⇒ when he told her to go, she took him at his word and left

The Cambridge Dictionary has,

to believe that what someone says is true: He said he’d give me a job and I just took him at his word. If he says there’s $500 in the envelope, then I’ll take his word for it.

The Oxford Dictionaries have,

take someone at their word
Interpret a person’s words literally or exactly, especially by believing them or doing as they suggest.

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 earlier 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.






Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism: A New Heresy

I like to read Roger Olson.  He is one of those thinkers who helps provide balance for my normal diet of Reformed Biblical and Systematic Theology.  Sometimes I disagree with him strongly.  But I always appreciate his erudition and personable style of communicating it.

I linked to this on FB the other day, but I post it here now because I really think it’s an important (and disturbingly accurate) evaluation of many of today’s breed of evangelicals:

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.2)

Part One

Biblical Covenantalism tracks the covenants through Scripture for the sake of putting together a composite picture of God’s plan.  The covenants are the backbone of Scripture.  If we pay careful attention to these covenants as they arise, we will not be able to bypass the everlasting “covenant of peace” which God made with Phinehas and his descendents in Numbers 25.  The fact that a covenant of this kind is casually passed over with barely a mention and not traced out in Scripture is telling.  I think what it tells is that we tend to want to read our endings to the story into passages like this.  Coming to the covenants like this tends to muffle their testimony with a pious overlay of ‘the finished work of Christ.’

The Witness of Ezekiel

Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, was a priest (1:3), but evidently not in the line of Phinehas.  In chapters 10 and 11 we find the vision of God’s glory departing the (literal) Temple in Jerusalem.  Then after many chapters filled with denunciations and the occasional promise of blessing, we arrive at chapter 34.  Ezekiel 34 – 39 are tied together by the repetition of the refrain “mountains of Israel.”  The prophet had employed this phrase before, though sporadically (in chapters 6, 19 & 33), but now it becomes a kind of mantra, appearing eleven times in these chapters.

Examination of the uses of this refrain does not come within the scope of the present study, but I might notice the following:

1. Each usage is connected with a prophetic oracle, whereas in the first part of the book it centers on contemporary events.

2. In chapters 36, 37, and even 38 the reference is to deliverance and kingdom blessing.

3. In chapter 39 the refrain is used to locate the scene of future judgment of Israel’s enemies prior to the kingdom age.

In this prophetic climactic context we read about God raising up David (34:23-24; 37:24-25) in an Edenic environment (34:25-27; 36:35).  This recalls the promises in the Davidic Covenant which we saw in Jeremiah 33.  But the Priestly Covenant is also alluded to by Ezekiel in these contexts.

First, it ought to be clear that we are driven into the future by the New Covenant language of 36:26-28.  Add to this the picture of restoration in 36:34-35 and one is presented with a decision: either turn the whole context into some sort of overdone typological mirage, or take it as read and place it in the eschaton.  This end times scene is furthered with the famous prophecies of the dry bones and the two sticks in chapter 37.  Right at the tail end we come across this statement:

Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst foreverMy tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  The nations also will know that I, the LORD, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (37:26-28).

This sets the scene for what is coming in chapters 40 to 48 and the detailed blueprint for a future temple or sanctuary in Israel’s New Covenant age.

The Millennial Temple and the Priestly Covenant

I take the liberty of speaking of the great temple in Ezekiel 40 and following (which is logically equated with the new sanctuary in chapter 37), as “the millennial temple.”

I referred to the “covenant of salt” with the Levites in Numbers 18:19.  That covenant had to do with the right of the priests to eat off the daily offerings.  This covenant was within the Levitical prescriptions of the Mosaic institutions, but was everlasting and so would be expected to transcend the curtailment of the Mosaic Covenant.  Hence, it is also seen under Israel’s New Covenant conditions. (There is another covenant of salt in 2 Chronicles 13:5 which relates to David and his lineage.  As such it is within the terms of the Davidic Covenant, if not synonymous with it).  As salt does not perish the idea as related to covenant is probably of indestructibility (G. Wenham) and remaining inviolate (A. Noordtzij), although it may invoke a curse against the violator (F.C. Fensham).  Unsurprisingly then, in Ezekiel’s future temple administration the priests are given the offerings as food, just as the covenant of salt would demand (Ezek. 44:29-31).

Just consider these ten lines of evidence (extracted from a previous post) for the actuality of a future ‘Millennial’ Temple: (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.1)

Question: Which plainly stated Covenant in the Bible is most often neglected?

The answer is the covenant which the LORD made with Phinehas in the Book of Numbers.

The circumstances surrounding this covenant centers around the doctrine of Balaam as it was realized at Baal Peor (Cf. Num.31:16; Rev. 2:14).  Amid the idolatry and fornication a Simeonite by the name of Zimri openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp of Israel and took her into his tent to have sexual relations with her.  This happened even while Israelites were “weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.” (Num. 25:6).

Phinehas, who was Aaron’s grandson, witnessed this brazen act of “sexual liberation” and struck the man and the woman through with a javelin (25:8).  This act of priestly zeal stopped a plague which had broken out within the camp which had claimed the lives of twenty-four thousand people.  God’s response to this act was to initiate a “covenant of peace” with Phinehas and his descendents.  This is said to be “a covenant of an everlasting priesthood.” (25:13).

Some centuries later, the Psalmist, in recounting some of the most memorable moments of Israel’s history, referred to the incident at Baal of Peor (Psa. 106:28-31).  In verses 30 and 31 it says,

Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped.  And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore. 

This covenant of peace between God and the descendents of Phinehas comes after the mention of a “covenant of salt” given to the Levites “as an ordinance forever” (Num. 18:19).  The ordinance has to do with eating from the heave offerings.  The exact relationship between these two covenants is not easy to pin down, although they are certainly complementary.  I shall say a little more about this further on.

The descendents of Phinehas the son of Eleazar (Exod. 6:23) include Zadok, who is identified as “of the sons of Eleazar” in 1 Chronicles 24:3.  During the attempted usurpation of the throne by Adonijah (1 Ki. 1:7-8), Abiathar deserted David.  The aged king responded with having Abiathar removed from the priesthood, thus ensuring that Zadok’s line (the descendents of Phinehas), kept the High Priesthood (1 Ki. 2:26-27).  This becomes important when we get to Ezekiel.

The Witness of Jeremiah

Jeremiah wrote during some of the most turbulent times in Israel’s history.  Chapters 30 through to 34 (and even possibly 35) form a sort of thematic scholia on the covenants.  Among the main prophetic teaching in the section is the prediction about “the time of Jacob’s trouble” in 30:7 (cf. Mk. 13:19-20), a forecast about Israel serving “divid their king, whom I will raise up to them” (30:9), God’s overtures of covenant steadfastness towards Israel in 31:1-4, with the LORD even calling the families of Israel “O Virgin of Israel!” in 31:4 and 21.  Then there is New Covenant language in 31:11-12, which goes on to include the line,

I will satiate the soul of the priests with abundance… (31:14a).

This comes before the famous New Covenant promise of 31:31-37.  The next chapter is about Jeremiah purchasing “poor” real estate amid promises of future peace and prosperity (32:14-15, 36-42).  Next comes the great (and much neglected) thirty-third chapter.  First we get a description of the tearing down of the houses to serve as fortifications against the Babylonians (33:4-5), but it quickly turns in outlook to more prosperous times to come, including cleansing from sin (see 33:8).  Then comes the passage in 33:14-26 which cites or alludes to four covenants within a New Covenant setting (This highlights my contention that the New Covenant is needed for the [literal] fulfillment of these other covenants).  Coupled with the promise to fulfill the Davidic Covenant in 33:17-18 and 21-22 are promises that God will also preserve the Levites to minister to Him.  The latter passage reads,

Thus say the Yahweh: If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night [which I take as a reference to the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 8:22], so that there will not be day and night in their season, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant, so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, or with the Levites, the priests, My ministers.  As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, nor the sand of the sea measured [a clear allusion to the Abrahamic Covenant], so will I multiply the descendents of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.

The type of ministry which the Levites are promised is described as offering “burnt offerings…to kindle grain offerings, and to sacrifice continually” (33:18).

While nobody disbelieves the Davidic Covenant in Jeremiah 33, the same cannot be said for the covenant with the Levites mentioned in the same breath.

More to come…


How Old-Earth Creationists Use Scripture

Fred Butler has begun a series evaluating old-earth creationist (OEC) appeals to Scripture.  Naturally, OEC’s have to adopt the same methodology as amillennialists and other adherents of symbolical and typological interpretation and cast doubt on the perspicuity of the most pertinent texts which point to a young earth.  My Rules of Affinity help to weed out this type of eisegesis.

The process is always the same: (1) start with the teaching you prefer; (2) employ unaided reason to set up your argument; (3) appeal to texts which were not written in support of your views by wrenching them from their contexts and reading your inferences into them; (4) cast doubt on clear texts which contradict your preference.  Oh, and pretend you are not dividing your authorities allegiance between the authority of the Bible and an extra-biblical source or sources!

Here’s the link:




A Review of Robert Chisholm’s Commentary on Judges & Ruth

Review of Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2013, 697 pp., $39.99. 

In the past Judges and Ruth have not been particularly well served by commentators (Leon Wood’s Distressing Days of the Judges being one notable exception).  Many studies in the past were more homiletical than analytical.  The Book of Judges presents some unique problems for the Bible interpreter.  Such issues as the date of certain judges, the extent of their careers and influence, the numbers in the Book, not to mention the overall chronology of the period, offer challenges which can impact how one approaches the other historical books.

Thankfully that situation has changed in recent years with the publication of solid works by Butler, Block and Webb, supported by those by Younger and, to a lesser extent, Davis.  Thus, the gap has been filled.  How then does this new contribution from Robert B. Chisholm in Kregel’s Exegetical Library measure up?

Chisholm provides his readers with a long and detailed eighty-eight page introduction to Judges, which, by the way, includes a very useful selected annotated bibliography.  The author quickly orientates the reader to the major problems in the book and surveys the several attempts which have been made to solve them.  The chief problem has always been fitting the various localized activities in the central section, which add up to 410 years, within the framework of 1 Kings 6:1, and its 480 year time slot for all the events from the Exodus to the fourth year of Solomon’s reign.  This taxes all interpreters of Judges, but Chisholm’s careful analysis of the chronology is very well done.  He notes that the pan-Israeli perspective implicit in the narratives (for theological reasons pointing to the ideal unity of the nation, 30-31), do not encourage attempts to compress the chronological markers (37).

The author has worked out three proposals to address the problem of 1 Kings 6:1.  The first two are based on a fifteenth century dating for the Exodus, which is the standard evangelical dating, while the third works with a thirteenth century date.  Of the three options Chisholm himself opts for the second (44 n.47), which excludes Eli and Samuel as judges.

The commentary itself includes extended section outlines, a note on the literary structure, with expository sections.  Then there are separate notes on application, helpfully divided into thematic, theological, and homiletical subsections.  I really appreciated the way the translation has been arranged around the Hebrew clauses.  This feature is bound to be helpful for those who lack competence in Hebrew, but who want to get a feel for the original.  The author’s prose is a little academic but still very readable.  These features make the work both informative and manageable for the busy preacher or Bible teacher.

Chisholm has been given enough space to fully treat his material and he makes good use of it.  The reader will find lots of help from lexical, theological and background sources in each chapter.  If we take the episode concerning Jephthah’s vow as an example, we see Chisholm fully in command of his interpretive choices and well able to furnish a convincing piece of commentary.  Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter (354-355), yet one must not interpret the silence of God in the matter as Divine approval of Jephthah’s actions (364).  While discussing whether an animal may have been in Jephthah’s mind as he made his rash vow, we are informed that “The construction of Iron Age houses would allow for an animal to come through the doors of a house” (353).  Nevertheless, a human being may also have been included in the vow.

In a long footnote he ably dispatches a feminist interpretation of Jephthah’s daughter which turns her into a “poster child for her fellow feminists!” (356-357 n.73).

The Commentary on Ruth covers a hundred and forty-eight pages (with a thirty-two page introduction).  Ruth certainly does not suffer from relative neglect in comparison to Judges, particularly in the exegetical department.  In his comments on the first chapter Chisholm discusses Daniel Block’s interpretation that the author of Ruth views the marriages of Naomi’s sons in a negative light, which is why they died early on in the story.  In effect, God struck them down (595ff.).  As this impacts the interpretation of chapter one quite heavily the lengthy cross-examination of Block’s thesis is profitable as an example of thinking through the text.  As with Judges, the author includes a helpful annotated bibliography of select commentaries on Ruth.  All in all, Chisholm’s work on Ruth is fully up to the high standard of his commentary on Judges.

One significant complaint I have is the inexcusable lack of indices in the book.  Although this would have added twenty plus pages to the book, it would have been worth it.  This decision of the publisher might bear some reconsideration.  Of less import to this reviewer is the way Chisholm handles the numbers in Judges (e.g. 110 n.2).  Notwithstanding this is a very good commentary and is right up there with the one by Daniel Block.

Finally, a word about the book as a product is in order.  As with Kregel’s excellent Psalms Commentary by Allen Ross, this book is well produced, with clear type, legible footnotes, and clear headings.  One can find their way around the commentary without much trouble.  The binding and cover look strong and durable.


This book was sent to me by the publisher.  I was under no obligation to provide a positive review.

Has the Davidic Covenant Been Initially Realized in the Church?

This is a slightly revised version of what I wrote as a response to a question from progressive dispensationalist Darrell Bock about the inauguration of the Davidic Covenant at the first coming of Christ.  

Darrell Bock: How can a dispensationalist see the current application of the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant (see the Last Supper in procuring forgiveness we now experience) and not see the Davidic covenant being initially realized by what Jesus has done, as Luke 3:16 predicts and Acts 2:14-36 proclaims?

My Answer

With regard to the Abrahamic and the New Covenants, I think the NT is very clear about their application to the Church.  Galatians 3 and Romans 4 deal with the application of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Church; at least the parts of it which are appropriate.  1 Corinthinans 11:23-26, 2 Corinthians 3:6 (cf. also 2 Cor. 6:14-18) pin the New Covenant securely on the Church.  These explicit statements settle the question for the Abrahamic and New Covenants.  But the Davidic Covenant is quite another issue.  Here one is dealing with implications and inferences which can bend in different directions.

Firstly, in Luke 3 Jesus has not yet been baptized and presented as Christ. The two phases of Christ’s work are bundled together in the passage in typical OT fashion. The baptism with the Holy Spirit I take to be the New Covenant promise of the Spirit’s vitalizing coming to Israel with the kingdom. There is no Church yet in view as far as the context of the revelation goes. Jesus is rejected by Israel, but He has come, and that fact cannot be reversed. At His coming Jesus introduced the New Covenant (Lk. 22:14-20), yet in a context in which the kingdom is now driven into the future (Lk. 22:29-30).

Thus I see the first phase of John’s prediction; the baptism with the Spirit (Lk. 3:16) initialized in the New Covenant made with those who would be foundational to the Church (Cf. Eph. 2:20). This explains the use of Spirit language in Acts 2 where these ‘foundations’ (minus Paul) were present.

Yet the full realization of that blessing as it pertains to Israel (per John’s audience and context in Lk.3), awaits the Second Advent. At that time Jesus comes in judgment (the “fire” and “winnowing” language in Lk. 3:16 & 17), after which He inaugurates the New Covenant with Israel along the OT pattern.

That there is some sort of “already” aspect here is true, yet I would want to lay stress upon the object of that “already” – viz. the “new man”, the Church, not Israel. Here is where there is some chronological transition between “the Church age” and the “times of restoration” which Peter was holding out to Israel in Acts 3 (and in Acts 2 for that matter). I take Acts 3:19-21 as referring to the Davidic New Covenant Kingdom.

In the Acts passage (Acts 2:14-36) we face several issues, none of which I will pretend to give the final answer to. I will try to move through the passage briefly to bring out the logic of my position.

In Acts 2:14-21 there is the debated use of the Joel prophecy preceded by the “this is that” formula (v.15). The first thing to say is that whichever interpretation is brought to the use of Joel 2, nobody believes these extraordinary happenings (of vv.19-20) actually occurred at Pentecost (e.g. R. N. Longenecker). Further, the Holy Spirit was not poured out on “all flesh” (v.17). So we have to ask, what was Peter doing?

My answer is that Peter was still thinking within the basic framework of OT eschatology and Jewish expectation which we find in the Gospels and in Acts 1:6. His immediate concern in this setting was to point to the Cross and (especially) the Resurrection as the eschatological breaking- in of God into Israel’s history. The “this” of v.15 is answered by the references to the resurrection throughout Peter’s speech (vv. 24, 30, 31, 32). This is what proved that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (v.36).

The reference to the outpouring of the Spirit (vv.17-18, 33) is intended to show the Jews that the New Covenant has been inaugurated, and that there is still opportunity for them to repent and believe (in this sense the baptism of v.38 may be seen as a partial fulfillment of John’s baptism).

Of course, the nation did not believe this message. They rejected it again in chapter 3:12-26, where the expectation of the arrival of the Davidic Kingdom was still patently in the air (see esp. 3:19-21). In other words, these were good faith offers of the kingdom, referred to by Peter as “the times of refreshing” (3:19) and “times of restoration” (3:21), which were rejected by all but a relative few.

Viewed this way the one work of Christ in its two phases of Cross and Crown are still held together in Acts 2 and 3. If so, the “signs and wonders” of Acts 2:19 are in a real sense, still at the doorstep pending national acceptance of Jesus as Messiah; not only crucified Messiah, but Risen Messiah – bringing the two phases into close proximity.

Allowing this line of reasoning helps us with the Joel prophecy. How so? Because the “signs” and “wonders” which Jesus did prior to Calvary (v.22), portend the “signs” and “wonders” of v.19 which speak to the Second Coming. Here I again appeal to Acts 3:19-21 for help.

If I haven’t lost everyone, let me proceed to Acts 2:25-35 and try to fit it into my picture.

Jewish national acceptance in the fact of the Risen Christ ought to have come because the OT predicted it (vv. 25-28 cf. Psa. 16). For present purposes I shall forego verses 25-29 and pick it up in Acts 2:30. Progressive Dispensationalists like Dr. Bock appeal to this verse because it speaks about the “raising up” and the investiture of Christ upon the Davidic throne. If this was what actually happened in Acts 2 I would have to concede the point. But as I see it this “raising up” is a reference to Christ’s resurrection not installation (see esp. v.32). As I have said, the resurrection was uppermost in Peter’s mind in these verses. The next verse proves this by saying that David “spoke concerning (peri) the resurrection.” (2:31). In verse 33 the emphasis is now on the ascension “to the right hand of God”, which I do not take as a reference to the throne of David, for otherwise Acts 3:19-21 makes no sense to me (cf. also Rev. 3:21).

Acts 2:33 appeals to the coming of the Spirit, yet actual fulfillment of the Joel New Covenant prophecy awaits the condition of national repentance, which was not forthcoming. The quotation of Psalm 110:1 refers then to the present continuing session of Christ in heaven awaiting the fulfillment of the Davidic New Covenant kingdom announced, first by John the Baptist, and then by Peter.

I hope this rather convoluted explanation will be seen as viable. Whichever position is taken on Acts 2 and 3, it is easy to get ones theological wires crossed. This is my attempt to sort them out.

An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 1)

This is a revision of a series I wrote some years back.

The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a long and involved one. For many centuries some have approached the Scriptures supposing that they should be interpreted literally whenever possible. Others have believed that one ought to look deeper than the surface meaning to find its true spiritual center. Still others have believed that the Old and (to a lesser extent) the New Testament is opened up by means of three or four hermeneutical strategies. Today, the amount of interpretative proposals for various parts of Scripture is dizzying.

In this article I shall try to review the main schools of interpretation throughout the history of the Church. But we’re going to start off where I intend to end: with the Bible’s own witness.

1. Pointers within the Bible.

If we take certain statements in the Bible itself as our guide, it will help us to see how the Holy Spirit wants us to interpret His Word. For example, Isaiah wrote,

To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isa.8:20).

What is important about this verse is that it implies a standard by which false teaching can be measured. For that standard to have any credence it has to be stable and clear. The prophet’s reference to “the law and the testimony” (cf.v.16) implies that the whole Old Testament is to be viewed as possessing this stable character. Taking a different example, in the opening lines of the Book of Ezra we read,

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. (Ez. 1:1-2)

A simple passage like this presupposes a lot. For one thing it assumes that what God said to Jeremiah could be easily verified by Ezra. It only follows from this that if Jeremiah’s prediction of a return from exile after 70 years had not actually come to pass the rest of the Book of Ezra would have never been written. In the Law the test of a true prophet was whether what he said came true (See Deut. 18:22). For that to be a reliable benchmark the fulfillment would have to match the wording of the original prophecy literally. If this were not the case then anyone could spiritualize the prophecy and claim its fulfillment, no matter what the original wording said.

In John 21:21-23 the Evangelist seems to want to make a point that what God says must be grasped before we can correctly interpret. Thus, we think there is scriptural warrant for stable and plain hermeneutics. The anchor-points for this hermeneutics are God-given and are themselves clearer than perhaps anything else in the Bible. These are the Covenants which God Himself has made with men. But this is something we shall have to return to.

2. The First Two Centuries of the Early Church.

Before anything else is said, we must stress that the Post-Apostolic church was not inspired and should not be looked upon as authoritative in matters of interpretation. However, their use of Scripture is often instructing.

We cannot understand the church of the second and third centuries without knowing something about the difficulties which these early Christians encountered. On the one hand there was the very real threat of persecution from a Roman state not at all sympathetic to the beliefs and aims of these people. And on the other hand there was the persistent problem of heresy, which dogged the early church. These two major issues both played their parts in the formulations of hermeneutics. As a defense against the polemics of the influential anti-Christian Roman writers, such as Pliny the Younger, Menander, Celsus, and Porphyry, believers had to produce apologies that could address them, and in particular, their attacks upon the Old Testament, and their misunderstanding of the Christian God.

But alongside this the Christians had to respond to the rise of Gnosticism and the proliferation of Gnostic writings. To cite two examples, Valentinus (born, c.A.D. 100) was an extremely effective communicator who was perhaps even on the verge of becoming a bishop before his heresies were discovered. It was his followers who first composed commentaries on New Testament books. Second, Marcion (active ca. A.D.140-155) taught that the Old Testament was useless as a Christian document. He also severely edited the New Testament, producing one in which only Paul’s epistles were included, together with a condensed version of Luke’s Gospel, carefully purged of any Jewish “contamination.” All the Gnostics held that the God of the Old Testament was another lesser deity than the God of the New.

This then, was the kind of pressure that was being applied to these early saints and their Scriptures. It is hardly surprising then, that the most prominent Christians of the second century were apologists. The main three were Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-163), a converted Platonist who was the first to use the term “Israel” to describe the Church (A.D. 160). Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200), Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern day France), who wrote extensively against the heretics, produced the first formulation for biblical interpretation: the so-called “Rule of Faith.” This formulation was really a short statement of doctrine. Irenaeus believed that a Trinitarian meaning attached to both Testaments. This Trinitarian schema was observed in the apostolic witness, which, in turn, placed an emphasis upon the Christological interpretation of the whole Bible.

Hence, the Rule of Faith gave a kind of unity to the Church. Consequently, any interpretation which did not measure up to this Rule of Faith (such as the teachings of the Gnostics) could be rejected as contrary to the preaching of the Apostles. The Rule of Faith also made the interpretation of the Bible a province of the Church, and so, of Church tradition. But Irenaeus also promoted non-literal interpretations. In the midst of dealing with heretical teachings he allowed for hidden meanings in some passages of the Bible. As one writer puts it:

“…the early Christians acknowledged that their claim to the Christian meaning of the Jewish Scriptures [i.e. the OT] was less a matter of what these documents said, and more a matter of how they were to be read…For passages obviously commensurate with the Rule of Faith, the reading would be literal (with allowance for genre distinctions and figurative expressions) whereas, for passages that required a second reading to agree with apostolic teaching, that second reading would be figurative.” – William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader, xviii.

One may notice how already the assumed doctrines protected by the Rule of Faith begin to authorize the kind of interpretations deemed acceptable. This side-effect would have serious repercussions later on.

It is worth noticing that all the early fathers of the Church were premillennial in their eschatology. Nevertheless, they also tended to drift to and fro between literal or face value interpretations and spiritual interpretations.

Roy Zuck notes that, “From these early church fathers it is obvious that while they started out well, they were soon influenced by allegorizing.” This form of interpretation became the dominant one from the middle of the second century until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It would therefore be helpful to review this phenomenon before examining the major figures of Jerome and Augustine.

To be continued…