Scripture as Propositional (Pt.2)

Part One

Objection 1: A common objection to viewing Scripture as propositional revelation is that it ends up treating the Bible as a sort of theological concordance, irrespective of the original context of the passage.

Now I agree with that, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Propositional revelation does not necessarily involve treating the Bible as a theological concordance.

Objection 2:  The propriety of associating the ineffable God with human linguistic forms.

Some scholars balk at the idea that God could employ what they consider to be the culture-bound norms of human language.  To these kinds of people the very thought of propositional truth is archaic nonsense; all propositions are up for grabs as our knowledge moves forward.  So relativism and subjectivism comes in (this can be seen in George Lindbeck’s work The Nature of Doctrine, especially pages 119 and 120).  People like this believe that God’s incomprehensibility makes him completely unknowable objectively, and that He is only subjectively knowable.  He reveals himself to the subject through some kind of existential declaration or disclosure.

Of course, that is not what we should mean when we speak about the incomprehensibility of God.  That doctrine is that God is utterly unknowable unless and to the degree to which He reveals himself to us; and He has revealed himself to us in the Holy Scripture. But the Holy Scripture can only be a proper and sufficient revelation of God if it has the capability of being propositional.  These scholars who speak about the “ineffable and infinite God” employing indefinite symbols of language to communicate to us, are not taking a theistic-biblical view of language.  Therefore, they cannot be taking a biblical view of God either. (more…)

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King & Kingdom in Genesis?

This was written as an Excursus for a chapter in the book ‘The Words of the Covenant’

I am well aware of the view held by many respected scholars who believe that “the Kingdom of God” is the main theme of the Bible.[1]  But it must be admitted that it has not been an overarching theme of Genesis, and therefore of the first several thousand years of history.  Though it may be rightly intimated from the image of God of Genesis 1:26-27, and the creation mandate of Genesis 1:28f., that man was to rule over the world for His Maker[2], the idea of a kingdom of God had not yet taken clear shape in the biblical text, especially from the time of the Fall.[3]  What we see, rather, is the story of fallen humanity moving away from their Creator and His program, and a providential counter-movement through Noah to Abram finalizing at some future point in a coming potentate from Judah.  Hence, the kingdom theme emerges very gradually from the Hebrew narrative.  Surely a more prominent theme has been the figure of the coming “Deliverer King”[4] who is promised at the beginning and the end of the Book (Gen. 3:15; 49:8-10).

I am prepared to accept this thesis about the important status of the kingdom of God, but only if one allows certain objections to have their full weight.  The fact is that there are several reasons which militate against this opinion, and it withstands them only on the strength of the totality of the Bible’s broader teaching about the Messiah, seen mainly through the prophetic writings in both Testaments.  Let me unpack these objections below.

Firstly, one cannot brush over the fact that the Book of Genesis places little or no direct emphasis on the kingdom of God, and it is only through making the term do several chores at once that an argument from Genesis can be made.  By “kingdom of God” are we to mean the universal rule of God over all He has made?  If so then I respectfully point out that we are asserting a truism about providence which hardly requires an argument[5]: God is going to be God!  Of course, what can be said about God in this sense cannot be said of man.

Secondly, we might agree with “the recent scholarly consensus [which] largely contends that the kingdom, while present in some sense, nevertheless still awaits a future consummation at the second coming of Jesus Christ, although the kingdom came in provisional fashion at his first advent.”[6]  That is how many people view it, but it requires us to read Genesis, and in fact the Old Testament, with the New Testament already in hand; something which my method here does not permit me to do.

Thirdly, if we define the kingdom of God as God’s reign over the earth and mankind in fellowship with us as vice-regents, we shall have to admit that such a kingdom is eschatological; that it is the goal of the Bible’s eschatology.  Hence, teleology and eschatology move towards the realization of the kingdom of God.  It has not been manifested yet in history.  As Saucy observed,

God’s kingly rule is brought to the earth through the mediation of the kingdom of the Messiah… This pervasive mediatorial kingdom program, ultimately fulfilled through the reign of Christ, is the theme of Scripture and the unifying principle of all aspects of God’s work in history.[7] 

With this I agree, and here the realization of the kingdom of God and the Creation Project are virtually synonymous.  Here one encounters the “mediatorial” idea where God entrusts aspects of the nascent kingdom of God to chosen vessels (e.g. Abraham, David, etc.).  I think this view has been successfully championed by men like Peters, McClain, Pentecost, Saucy, and Vlach.  But in my opinion the actual kingdom of God, understood as “the earthly kingdom of Messiah” is proleptic; that is, seen in advance of its materialization.  It is anticipated more than it is perceived.  The Law of Moses and the throne of David provide concrete yet imperfect instances, not so much of Messiah’s kingdom, but rather of intensified illustrations of God’s universal reign in a fallen world.  Understood this way it is rightly called “mediatorial.”

We find a theocracy, but not the one ushered in at the end of history by “he who comes to whom it belongs” (Gen. 49:10).[8]  If we wish to look for such a kingdom where God’s blessings are mediated to the nations, we will have to wait.    However one sees it, “the earthly kingdom” will always suffer from contingency until the prophesied Messiah comes to rule.[9]

This is why I prefer to think of the arrival of the coming King as the telos of the Bible. It is the King who brings about the realization of the Kingdom of God.  For example, in the time of Jesus, as we shall see, the kingdom was thought of mainly in terms of the future, not the present.  The same is true in the Prophets, as I hope to show.  The mediatorial kingdom view prior to the advent is at best a shadow of the actual kingdom of Messiah.[10]  The consummation of the mediatorial kingdom will be when it is “brought into conformity with God’s Universal Kingdom (see 1 Cor 15:24, 28).”[11]  It oughtn’t to surprise us that the idea emerges as the person of the Messiah comes more and more into focus in the progress of revelation.

King and Kingdom

The term “kingdom” occurs only twice in Genesis (Gen. 10:10; 20:9), and neither usage concerns the kingdom of God.  Genesis 3:15 is at best a pale intimation of this kingdom, with nothing of any substance on the issue being broached to Noah or Abraham.[12]  What can be asserted is that God’s covenant with Abraham included the grant of a land in perpetuity to Abraham’s heirs (Gen. 15).

It is a similar story with the word “king” (melek).  Although it is used many times in Genesis it is not employed to designate the coming Ruler over the future kingdom until Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:7.  Added to this, and as was already noted above, Genesis 41:40 is the sole mention of “throne” in Genesis, and that is a reference to Pharaoh’s throne.  So, to repeat, we find no real development of the kingdom of God concept in the Genesis period.[13]   (more…)

Scripture as Propositional (Pt.1)

The Bible depicts man as specially equipped by God for the express purposes of knowing God’s rational verbal revelation, of communicating with God in praise and prayer, and of discoursing with fellow men about God and his will. – Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Volume 3, 389

Because of the theistic view of language described above we ought not to be surprised when we turn to Scripture and look upon it as information that has been given to us by God.  Information which discloses a cognitive content; things we are to know.

The penalty for neglecting rational criteria in respect to revelational considerations is the constant danger of ascribing subjective impressions and personal decisions to some divine disclosure and demand.” – Ibid, 433

What Henry is speaking about there is the fact that we must approach the Bible, if we approach it as it is…that is the word of God – a revelation of God to man, in an objective way and as an objective disclosure.  It certainly has subjective meaning and makes a subjective impression upon us, but it is objectively true whether we feel anything or are moved one way or another and the objectivity is to be found in the amenability of Scripture to be worded in propositions; evangelical scholars have generally spoken about Scripture as propositional revelation. Holy Scripture is the faithful written testimony of God’s special revelation to man. ‘God has spoken!’  Those three words make all the difference, and the Bible is, by virtue of its inspired nature, the sole source of special revelation. In written form, the Bible is propositional in character; therefore special revelation is propositional in character.

Proposition – an objective disclosure in contradistinction to a purely personal subjective impression.

The Bible depicts God’s very revelation as meaningful, objectively-intelligible disclosure. We mean by propositional revelation that God supernaturally communicated his revelation to chosen spokesmen in the express form of cognitive truths and that the inspired, prophetic, apostolic proclamation reliably articulates these truths in sentences that are not internally contradictory. –  Carl F. H. Henry, Ibid, 456-457

The reason that we are devoting a whole lecture to this issue of propositional revelation is because this is where the battleground is, at least for the next few years, maybe a decade or more. The postmodern ethos challenges propositional revelation and the influence of postmodernism upon evangelical hermeneutics challenges propositionalism and if we don’t have propositional revelation then we don’t have objective truth from God and therefore we have to defend this crucial issue.

The Unsettling Notion of Propositionalism

The kind of definition that I’ve just read from Carl Henry is being challenged even within evangelical circles by theologians who’ve drunk too deeply from the cup of postmodernism and as a result, have over-applied the objections to classical foundationalism; that is that classical or Cartesian foundationalism just deals with certain undeniable truths and as a result leaves everything else up to scientific inductive experimentation. As we have discovered, that idea has been overthrown now and few people hold it. Unfortunately what has happened is that in evangelicalism people like Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Roger Olson, and others have thrown out foundationalism altogether and they have moved on to a different kind all epistemology. Now, we don’t need to throw at foundationalism; we can speak of ‘soft foundationalism’ as many evangelical scholars do today.  Or we can even prefer the kind of transcendental work of Cornelius Van Til which is better than even ‘soft foundationalism’ for an epistemological base.

These writers are attacking the idea of propositional revelation because they claim that to refer to the Bible as propositional turns it into a rationalistic concordance for theology. One writer of the evangelical left has recently objected that this leads to,

…viewing Scripture as a source of information for systematic theology, as such, it is viewed as a rather loose and relatively disorganized collection of factual, propositional statements.” John R. Franke, The Character of Theology, 88 [in a footnote on the same page Franke notices that Carl Henry develops his definition of theology based on biblical propositions in the first volume of his God, Revelation, and Authority.  But interestingly, Franke neglects to refer his readers to Henry’s thorough examination of the pros and cons of propositional revelation in volume 3 of his magnum opus, pages 403-487]

“A Repository of Proof Texts”

Now this idea of propositional revelation necessitating a concordance view of theology, where we just reduce everything down to certain statements to use at the behest of systematic theology, reveals a reaction to certain statements made by men like Charles Hodge in the 19th century which seemed to imply that the Bible was simply a repository of proof texts to be sorted out into the respective corpora of systematics.

This concordance view was not what Hodge intended. Besides whatever definitional failings may be found in Hodge the same cannot be said of Carl Henry; indeed that author offers one of the clearest and best definitions of propositional revelation available when he writes: (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn (Pt.5)

Part Four

The Function of Apocalyptic

Brent Sandy says that understanding the function of apocalyptic literature is probably the most important thing about it.[1]  He says that the main thing is to bring hope in adversity.  As he puts it, “The lofty heights of the [rollercoaster] ride – so unlike anything known on this earth – help the persecuted put their misfortunes in perspective.”[2]  Sandy describes the six effects of apocalyptic upon the hearers[3]:

  1. It creates worshipful awe of the sovereign Lord.
  2. It brings hope and comfort that one day this troubled planet will be rules as heaven is ruled.
  3. It reminds hearers that they are in the midst of the cosmic battle between good and evil.
  4. It lends new courage to those under persecution and threat of death that they will be much better off one day.
  5. It creates an exhilarating image of God coming to earth to right all wrongs.
  6. It encourages to ethical purity since the faithful will receive honor in the new creation.

I personally do not find any of these things convincing.  There is nothing here that straight prophecy doesn’t do also.  In fact, God’s covenants do all this far more legibly and cogently.  If the people will not believe the covenants why would they believe apocalyptic visions?  And do these visions truly bring hope, or do they more usually leave a burning impression of the divine activity?

I submit that the function of apocalyptic is often to reveal the actual supernaturalness of reality and the processes running invisibly behind the Creation Project.  As I will show, certain chapters (e.g. Dan 7 & 8; Rev. 12 & 13) do employ powerful images to get our attention.  But they are all explained in the context.[4]

The Influence of the Covenants

What influence, if any do God’s covenants have upon our understanding of apocalyptic literature?  My position in this book is that the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants, mediated via the New covenant in Christ, provide the road map of the Creation Project.  Because these covenants possess a normative hermeneutical status, nothing in Scripture can contradict the oaths expressed in these covenants.  That is just to say that no genre within the Bible will produce teachings that will contradict the expectations aroused by the things that God has unilaterally sworn to do.

Let us take a look then at the covenantal background found in the major apocalyptic passages.  As we do so I will make some comments on the visions themselves.

Examining the Books  

If we examine the “apocalyptic books” of the Bible without reference to critical scholarship what we see is something different than the recommended formulae.  Ezekiel shows us the cherubim, which have been mentioned previously in e.g. Genesis 3 and 1 Kings 6, but we did not comprehend their strangeness until he described them (Ezek. 1 & 10).  This appears to be a simple case of progressive revelation rather than anything connected to genre.  An important question is, can a genre define whether or not a biblical writer decides to describe what he actually saw?  We can admit that the composite beasts of Daniel 7 and 8 are figurative, but as Murphy has said, the figurative and metaphorical convey literal meanings.[5]   He writes,

Do the writers believe in the unseen worlds they depict? They do.  Do they believe that seers are granted visions into and tours of the unseen world? Yes.  Do they believe that the specifics of that world are accurate as described?  Yes and no… They symbolize things, such as empires and kings.  At the same time, even if an empire can be symbolized by a beast, it can be symbolized in other ways as well.  And both are true and revelatory.  The superhuman power of empires, angels, and demons is real.  How it is presented can change.[6]

Granted that empires are depicted as beasts, these meanings are not difficult to locate, since the prophets give us enough data to know what is intended.  However, for the most part, what the prophets see (e.g. angels, cherubs, fiery horses, temples), are what they seem to be.  They are often not representations of something else.[7]   We therefore need to carefully distinguish between the real and the symbolic in apocalyptic.[8] (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn (Pt.4)

Part Three

Some Major Characteristics of Apocalyptic (with Responses)

Take up any book on the subject and you will be told that the many features of apocalyptic literature can scarcely if ever be found in one single work.  Indeed, a piece of apocalyptic can be absent many of the list of characteristics.  Still, it is worth trying to get at the criteria.  Brent Sandy has provided a list of eleven characteristics (twelve if one includes pseudonymity) of the genre[1]:  I have added some comments to temper them a bit.

  1. “jaw-dropping scenes of animals, rivers, mountains and stars that jump off the page with movielike special effects (Dan. 8:2-14; Zech. 6:1-7)”

– A star went before the magi to guide them; it was actual not apocalyptical.  While some of the animals, say in Daniel 7, are imaginary, this is not necessarily the case with the visions in Zechariah or Ezekiel.  If the prophets could see real spiritual beings (cherubim, seraphim, women with stork’s wings, etc), then apocalyptic is more a category of experience (which includes seeing the supernatural) than has hitherto been admitted.

  1. “natural catastrophes producing cosmic chaos throughout the universe, ushering in the dreadful day of judgment (Is. 24:18-20; Ezek. 38:19-22)”

– These passages describe an epic earthquake; nothing in these passages is figurative

  1. “pernicious and disruptive evil contributing to constant crises and producing a seemingly hopeless pessimism with the course of current events (Isa. 57:3-13; Dan. 7:19-25)”

– Isaiah 57 has a section full of hope for the contrite (Isa. 57:15-20), and Daniel 7 promises that the saints will possess the kingdom (Dan. 7:22, 27).  Sandy has simply ignored the wider context.  In point of fact, it is rare to find judgment or crisis passages in the Prophets which do not contain rays of eschatological hope.

  1. “an underlying determinism resting in the unquestioned conviction that somehow God is maintaining sovereign control (Is 25:1; 26:1-4)”

– It is common to identify determinism as an aspect of apocalyptic, over against the more ‘open-ended’ words of the prophet.  But while there are prophecies which are contingent, there are many others that are quite deterministic.  E.g. Jeremiah’s 70 years’ prediction.  The theology of the Bible is deterministic in terms of God’s eternal counsels.  It is also deterministic in terms of His unilateral covenants.  But it is not deterministic insofar as human decisions are concerned.  The Prophets want the people to repent (e.g. Isa. 5:12-13; Jer. 25:1-7; Hag. 1:5-11; Mal. 3:16-18).  Few people will read Isaiah 25 and 26 and come away with Sandy’s conclusions.  It hardly requires proof that all genres of the Bible stress God’s sovereignty.

  1. “ecstatic expectation that God will intervene and suppress all evil forces working against his predetermined plan (Zech. 14:3-9; Mal. 3:1-5)”

– I am not sure what “ecstatic expectation” means exactly, but I see nothing of the kind in either passage.  Zechariah 14 is a description of what will actually occur at the second coming.  Malachi 3:1-5 describes the effect of the coming of Christ, particularly upon the Levites.  Both can be classified as “literal” descriptions

  1. “ethical teaching aimed at giving courage and comfort to the faithful and confirming them in righteous living (Is 56:1-2; Zech 7:9-10; 8:16-17)”

– This is such a generic category as to be useless.  When does Scripture not give ethical teaching for these purposes?  Further, this is to be expected of a people under covenant

  1. “visions of celestial scenes and beings with an otherworldly perspective (Dan. 10:4-19; Zech 3:1-10)”

– It is not otherworldly according to the biblical outlook.  We are informed about spiritual forces operating in history which are to taken as real.  The Daniel 10 passage includes a vision of a man in linen who is angelic but real all the same.  The “princes” mentioned in the following verses are also real angelic beings.  The genre is not the main thing, the literal beings are!

  1. “heavenly interpreters explaining the scenes in language that may be figurative (Ezek. 40:3-4; Dan 8:15-17)”

– Ezekiel 40 is not figurative.  It is a literal description.  Jesus used figurative language about real things.  Speaking about language which may be figurative is hardly a solid base for a characteristic of apocalyptic.  Ezekiel 40ff. was not taken figuratively in ancient Judaism.  Daniel 8:16-26 provides the interpretation of his vision.

  1. “a dualistic perspective that characterizes things into contrasting elements such as good and evil, this age and the age to come (Dan 12:2; Zech 1:14-15)”

– We should be wary of imputing dualism to the Bible without qualification.  There is good and evil, but evil is not eternal as it is in non-Christian dualism.  There is of necessity a biblical dualism between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons.  We see this in Ephesians 6.  “The age to come” is a favorite phrase of Jesus.  You cannot be an orthodox Christian without holding to these things.  Ergo, how can this represent a genre?

  1. “visions presented in a very stylized structure, with events and time organized in numerical patterns and repetition of similar sets (Ezek 38 – 39; Dan 9:24-27)”

– What does it mean that battle scenes and historical predictions are stylized?

  1. “foundational to all the above, God’s promise to act in the last days to restore his people and establish a new and glorious world order (Is 27:12-13; Zech 8:1-8)”

– If this is foundational, then it is also utterly obvious to any attentive reader of any genre of the Hebrew Bible.  Is Isaiah 11 apocalyptic?  Or even Zechariah 14?  There are in fact numerous cases where the term “apocalyptic” begins to mean very little.  Besides this, some prominent voices declare that eschatology is not the most distinctive feature of apocalypses.[2]

When one steps away from the list for a moment and reflects upon the Bible’s teaching generally there is little new here.[3]  One should also note that about half of the passages Sandy adduces are not really apocalyptic.  At best they are proto-apocalypses.  We may wish to ask how many of these passages are not to be taken literally?  If we are answered by someone who declares, “None are literal, this is apocalyptic”, we begin to see the real problem.  It suits certain positions to deftly consign passages they do not wish to take prima facie to a particular non-literal genre.   (more…)

The Phenomena of Scripture

This piece is based on transcripts of a lecture I gave on the subject.

This lecture on the so-called phenomena of Scripture is necessary because in the modern and postmodern eras it has become more and more common not only to refer to the inspiration of Scripture, which is clearly a biblical doctrine, but to bolster this claim with the assertion of biblical inerrancy; it is perfectly justifiable to think and speak in these terms.  Inspiration includes inerrancy and authority requires inerrancy. 

Evangelicals Against Inerrancy

There are some though who do not take this position, who we would yet call evangelical in most other respects. Contemporaries whom we might identify as non-inerrantists are A.T.B. McGowan, William Lane Craig, and Craig Blomberg.  Older representatives would be James Orr, and Francis L. Patton.  Patton, for example, said this:

To say that the Bible is trustworthy because of its accuracy is by implication to say that we have the right and power to discern between truth and error. You cannot license reason to seek truth and deny her right to see error. It is a hazardous thing to say that being inspired the Bible must be free from error, for then the discovery of a single error would destroy its inspiration. Nor have we any right to substitute the word inerrancy for inspiration in our discussion of the Bible, unless we are prepared to show from the teaching of the Bible that inspiration means inerrancy and that I think would be a difficult thing to do…  

Suppose that scientific proofs should compel you to put another interpretation upon the program of creation as it has compelled you to give another meaning to the word ‘day’. Would you give up the whole of the New Testament?  Without pertaining to any special scientific knowledge, it seems to me remarkable that the biblical account of creation, which so wonderfully taught the essential truth of creation to man ages before science was born, still teaches it to scientific men if their prosaic science has not caused their imagination to suffer atrophy.  But how foolish it would be to give up the Gospel simply because of a dead literalism of interpretation would find no support in a modern textbook on biology. – Francis L. Patton [President of Princeton Seminary, 1902-1913], Fundamental Christianity, 163-165

We see from that quotation from Patton’s book, which was written in 1925, reveals a man who certainly is very clearly evangelical and yet who strongly hesitates to equate inerrancy with the doctrine of inspiration. In fact, that whole chapter has to do with the seat of authority in Christianity and therefore he does not believe either that the doctrine of inerrancy is necessary for the Scriptures to be authoritative.

Now these objections to inerrancy are from a clearly evidentialist perspective, that is from the perspective of someone who is concerned with matching the assertions of Scripture with the ‘facts’ of science.  They serve to show us that this subject of the actual contents of the Bible as we have it, is an important subject for evangelicals to get straight.

A Way to Proceed

I am concerned to answer the objections of those who have claimed to find errors in the text of Scripture as it has come down to us; thus, we are dealing with what has become known as the phenomena of Scripture.

Here is the NT scholar Everett Harrison:

If a person has become convinced by the study of the word that its majesty and perfection can only be accounted for on the basis that the text was free from error as originally given, such a person ought not to be charged with intellectual dishonesty if he refuses to let perplexing problems in the sacred record move him from his solid conviction. He may feel bound to seek explanation for the problems and perhaps be dissatisfied with the explanations he receives, yet he continues to rest in his conviction less the abandonment of his position mean the forsaking of Scripture as the word of God. – Everett F. Harrison, Revelation and the Bible, edited by Carl F. H. Henry [1958], 238

Now what he’s saying here is, as all evangelicals have basically said – including the drafters of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, the Bible in its original manuscripts, in its autographs, is inerrant.  There is a possibility that you may find certain problematical errors which you cannot explain, but you do not have to admit them as errors.  If you have a poor translation you may very well find some errors within it, but those are translation errors not textual errors or errors in the text that has been providentially given to us.  Of course, the word “errors” has to be defined.

What does an ‘error’ mean?

Here is a basic definition of an error:

If the statements that it contains, that is the Bible, concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extra-biblical records, by ancient documents recovered through the archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. – Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 23

In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. As a witness for God, the Bible would be discredited as untrustworthy. (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn (Pt.3)

Part Two

Going Far Beyond the Bible

All of the major advocates of apocalyptic gather data, albeit not exclusively, from outside of the Bible.  Brent Sandy demonstrates his procedure of going beyond Scripture when he says, “In order to understand the language of apocalyptic, we must review the period of world history relevant to Daniel 8 and then examine Daniel’s language.”[1]  He is not alone.  Notice what is entailed in this statement about the genre:

Apocalypse was a literary genre that flourished in the period between the OT and NT (though apocalyptic visions of the future can be found in the OT as well as the NT).[2] 

Here is another statement from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:

Apocalyptic forms of expression were very common outside the Bible, and contemporary readers need to become familiar with that mindset to understand biblical apocalyptic literature and symbolism.[3]

What the author of this article is saying is that one cannot comprehend large parts of Daniel and Revelation, not to mention certain parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew, and some Pauline letters[4], unless one goes beyond the Bible for clues of how the ancients used this sort of imagery.

Holding to this understanding of apocalyptic involves an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.   Whenever we go foraging into profane history, for example, to try to determine genre[5], ideas which are foreign to the Bible are inevitably brought to bear on the text of the Bible, thus essentially undermining the Bible’s own ability to explain itself.

We encounter this again in a recent evangelical work:

Old Testament apocalyptic literature belongs to a genre of Jewish writing that includes both canonical and non-canonical texts.  For a proper understanding of this genre within the context of its historical development, neither of these groups of texts should be examined in isolation from the other.[6]

Notice the position that inspired Scripture is being forced to take.  It must remain content to be analyzed alongside of non-inspired writings and until the accidental artifacts of ancient history have been sifted through.   But letting the Bible be its own interpreter clears away a lot of confusion.  For one thing, one sees the likelihood that later Jewish apocalypses (e.g. The Book of the Watchers; The Testament of Levi) are attempts to copy the biblical writings and put them to use in circumstances of hardship and hopelessness.[7]

Again, if we are going to insist that it is wrong to think of apocalyptic as serving up specific prophetic content, but rather leaving us with an image or impression of something it seems natural that we ask just how God will wrap up history, since basically all the passages that speak of it are lumped together as “apocalyptic” texts.  Will He do it by “rolling up the heavens as a scroll” (Isa. 34:4)?  Will Jesus really come “in the clouds with great power” (Mk. 13:26)?  Will the armies of heaven really follow Him (Rev. 19:14)?  Will there be a great earthquake (Rev. 16:18)?  Will the moon become blood red (Rev. 6:12)?    The answer coming from the apocalyptic corner is No, these are symbols meant to create impressions.  For the record, my answer is Yes!

Reminding Ourselves of the Bible’s “Wild” Worldview

Let us assemble some of the things that people actually saw and experienced in Old Testament times.  It would be a salutary exercise to ponder these events before considering apocalyptic as a genre. (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn – Pt.2

Part One

The ‘Apocalypse’ of John and Picking Sides     

The first composition to call itself an “apocalypse” was the Book of Revelation, written by the Apostle John circa 95 A.D.[1]  “And even there” says Collins, “it is not clear whether the word denotes a special class of literature or is used more generally for revelation.”[2]   But right here at the start I believe we are misdirected.  John expressly tells us that his book is a “prophecy” (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19), and is “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2), which “is the spirit of prophecy” according to Revelation 19:10.  So every indication within the Book of Revelation itself is that it is a prophecy.  Hence the term apokalypsis as John uses it does not refer to a special class of literature, but rather does stand generally for a revelation from Jesus Christ.

After the time of the dissemination of John’s Revelation, other writings used the term,[3] though arguably in service of the genre.  The decision that modern readers have to make therefore is whether to interpret Revelation as if it were self-consciously penned as a piece of “apocalyptic” literature in a continuum with a genre established in the inter-testamental period, or as a straightforward account of what John thought of as a prophecy.  What goes for John’s Apocalypse also goes, for example, for the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah.  The decision will inevitably divide one group of interpreters off from the other.

If we take a sketch of the two sides; the “prophecy side”[4] will declare that only the Bible is needed to decipher the writing and its message, while the “apocalyptic side” will generally see such an approach as obscurantist “biblicism” which disregards the cultural setting in which the writing was given.[5]  This thorough-going biblicist has no difficulty in laying aside the partial understandings of the ancient mindset and listening with both ears to the Bible’s own interpretation, which it provides with reassuring regularity.  As one commentator of the “prophecy” school put it,

In interpreting visions, symbols and signs in apocalyptic literature, one is seldom left to his own ingenuity to discover the truth.  In most instances an examination of the context or comparison with a parallel biblical passage provides the Scripture’s own interpretation of the visions and symbols employed.[6]

But that is a naïve way of looking at the literature according to the apocalypticists:

Biblical scholarship in general has suffered from a preoccupation with the referential aspects of language and with the factual information that can be extracted from a text.  Such an attitude is especially detrimental to the study of poetic and mythological material, which is expressive language, articulating feelings and attitudes rather than describing reality in an objective way.  The apocalyptic literature provides a rather clear example of language that is expressive rather than referential, symbolic rather than factual.[7]

Of course, Collins et al do not believe that works of apocalyptic literature are describing actual events.  He views Daniel for example as ex eventu prophecy, written centuries after the protagonists were dead.  Neither does he hold that books like Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah record genuine predictions.

From this starting point it is a foregone conclusion that Collins and those who agree with him will entertain very different opinions about the nature of apocalypses than the biblicist.  The effect that presuppositions about dating, divine inspiration, predictive prophecy, and borrowing from Canaanite myths[8] has upon ones understanding of the genre is very profound.  But many conservatives have bought into the conclusions of such scholars while trying to hold on to traditional dating.  Moreover, those evangelicals who have drank most deeply from the liberal wells are the ones who end up sounding more and more like their critical mentors. (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn – Pt. 1

This is a draft chapter from the forthcoming book ‘The Words of the Covenant’ 

The purpose of this article is to cast a little doubt upon the generally received view of the reading of biblical apocalyptic literature.  As the unique Word of God, the Bible itself is its own interpreter, and much of the edifice of genre criticism and particularly apocalyptic genre is not based on biblical premises, nor should the “apocalyptic” sections of the Bible be read as if at odds with the understanding of God’s covenants that we have been considering.  In point of fact, read against the backdrop of the divine covenants apocalyptic presents few problems for the interpreter and makes its own contribution to the prophetic big picture of the Bible.

Apocalyptic as We are Supposed to View It

According to the leading writers on the subject, the study of apocalyptic literature only gained impetus in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and really began in earnest in the second half of the twentieth century.  Though there has been some shift in opinion over the past fifty years, the overall consensus is fairly stable.  Mainline scholars have broken down their study into three major strands:

Apocalypse is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”[1]

Apocalyptic includes the “language and conceptions” of the genre of apocalyptic literature.[2]

Apocalypticism is the worldview or mindset of those who wrote apocalypses, and the community for whom they wrote.[3]

John J. Collins, who is the most recognizable scholar writing on the subject, says that,

“A movement might reasonably be called apocalyptic if it shared the conceptual framework of the genre, endorsing a worldview in which supernatural revelation, the heavenly world, and eschatological judgment played essential parts.”[4]

This way of speaking is so inclusive as to embrace nearly everything in the Bible.  Yet only in this sense is Ernst Kasemann’s statement that “apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology” true.[5]

The Bible and “Apocalypse”

In historical-critical assessments of the genre the story goes that a movement sprang up in the centuries before Christ of which some biblical writers were a part.  Some scholars, like P. D. Hanson, believed that the movement had its roots in the 6th century B.C.[6], but for all intents and purposes it is held to have truly sprung up in the 3rd century B.C., thus making all the Jewish writers (including, as they believe, Daniel and Second Isaiah) pseudonymous.[7]  For reasons that have been debated, but which often include pious mysticism, fear and persecution, or plain confusion[8], some writers developed this genre of apocalyptic literature.  Briefly stated, the genre,

…focuses upon a dramatic revelation (Gk apokalypsis) to an outstanding religious figure …a revelation that typically anticipates the climax of history for a deteriorating world with the destruction of the forces of evil and the victory of God.  This revelation is characteristically coded with striking images and mediated through angelic mediators.[9]      

It is not my purpose in this chapter to question the whole genre of apocalyptic.  I do think that for example, Daniel 7 and 8 and Revelation 12 and 13 contain visions and images (e.g. composite beasts) which may represent a certain literary genre.  Also, the angelic messengers to Ezekiel (Ezek. 40 – 48) and to John (e.g. Rev. 17 – 22) appear within a genre of divine disclosure which one may wish to call “apocalyptic.”  But I am of the strong opinion that the angels in both cases were real, and so was much of what they revealed (in the sense that it was not symbolic), so that both the temple in Ezekiel and the New Jerusalem in Revelation should be taken literally.  There is little clear evidence to suggest that the generally accepted perspective on apocalyptic genre should be foisted upon the biblical materials.  For example, although the beasts of Daniel 7:3-7 are figurative in that they stand for something else (i.e. kings and kingdoms), there is no reason to think of the “living creatures” in Ezekiel 1 and 10, or the supernatural horses of Zechariah 1:7 or even the stork-winged women in Zechariah 5:9 in the same way.  In other words, I view Daniel’s “beasts” as impossible creatures[10], but these other beasts as entirely possible.[11]  Discerning the difference is an important part of the literary study of the genre, but it produces little to improve one’s comprehension of the revelation. (more…)

The Use of the Term “Scripture”

The Inspiration of Scripture – Part Three

N.B. This is a companion piece to the articles on Inspiration

“Scripture” usually translates the Greek term graphe.  Sometimes, as in 2 Timothy 3:15 one finds hieros grammata, but it is clear that in the context grammata is referring to the Scriptures of verse 16.  In other words it is just a synonym.  Also, Paul is referring to the Old Testament as a unit – as a whole, and not to the different books of the Old Testament.  This is important because when the translators rendered those words as “Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:15-15, that is, grammata and graphe respectively, they understood that Paul here was referring to the whole of the Old Testament, the whole of the inspired Scriptures together as God’s word.  That is why they translated the article pas not as ‘every’ but as ‘all’ in verse 16.  So the correct reading here is ‘all’ Scripture, not ‘every’ Scripture, is inspired.

This becomes important when you want a doctrine of inspired Scripture which covers the whole of Scripture; the whole and not just the parts; which is to say, a plenary version of inspiration.  Translating pas as ‘all’ avoids any ambiguities and stops liberals to picking and choosing what passages within the Bible they will designate as Scripture and what passages they will say aren’t God-breathed.  (For more on this argument look at Warfield’s article on the term “‘Scripture’ and ‘Scriptures'” in The Inspiration of Authority of the Bible, especially pages 233 – 238, etc.

The designation ‘all Scripture is God breathed’ is passive in form, not active; it is designating what the Scriptures are in fact, not what they are when they are actively employed, or what they are in some continuing dynamic way.  (elsewhere it’s called ‘living and active’, but that is not what Paul is trying to get across here).

Texts from the New Testament that Employ the Term ‘Scripture’

Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. – Mark 12:10

Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament while questioning the Jewish religious leaders.  He is using the designation ‘Scripture’ to speak to what he is about to quote.  However, the inference is that everything in the Old Testament makes up Scripture and therefore is from God.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. – John 5:39

Again ‘the Scriptures’ are a group or body of writings that are holy and are from God.  In Berea the Scriptures were being read and searched. (Acts 17:11).  According to Romans 15:4 the Scriptures have an ongoing effect and influence and relevance for us today.

They were also prophetic:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. – I Corinthians 15:3-4

Because the Scriptures are the Word of God you would expect to find in them the prediction of Christ’s suffering and death in the OT which were in accord with what the circumstances were surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ.  That is Paul’s argument there…the basis for his Gospel.

Theopneustos and the Autographs

Now the Scriptures Paul is talking about in 2 Tim. 3:16 are obviously the ones Timothy knew and read.  That being the case we have an interesting usage of the term theopneustos.  The Scriptures that Timothy was reading were God breathed, at least Paul. In context, Paul is not, first and foremost, dealing with the original autographs.  This is important because evangelicals and fundamentalists have usually said that only the originals were inspired.  The Bible seems to throw a spanner in the works.  We tend to speak of inspiration in the past tense when we are trying to be accurate.  But the Apostle doesn’t.  What is one to do with this?

A former acquaintance of mine who teaches Comparative Religion at Berkeley, certainly no Christian, was amazed that I held to biblical inspiration.  She pointed out to me that we have so many variants among the extant manuscripts that it is entirely indefensible to hold to the conservative evangelical position.

Replying to this, I said two things:

First – if we adopt a provenance view of the origination of the Books of the Bible I think we can only speak meaningfully of inspired autographs, so we’re certainly not disagreeing with the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy or any other statement like that.

Second – such is the wonderful overall agreement of the manuscripts, Hebrew and Greek, plus other ancient witnesses, that we can refer to the Scriptures we possess as God breathed because they have so much of the content and character of the autographs. Indeed this is how Paul referred to the copies which Timothy read growing up.

I like what Geisler and Nix say in this regard:

A good copy or translation of the autographs is, for all practical purposes, the inspired word of God. – Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 44

In fact, most of the passages where the word Scripture is used, do not allude to the original autographs either.  Furthermore, let us suppose that Timothy read a Greek translation of the Old Testament, as is likely.  This translation Paul says is inspired in someway.

Again, let me be clear what I am saying.  I’m not denying inspiration to the originals.  I am facing a fact that is all too often left unconsidered in discussions of this doctrine.

Owen

To show you that I’m not completely around the bend here, let me quote from the great 17th century English theologian John Owen and his view of inspiration.  Firstly, his work On the Divine Original of the Scripture, which is in his Collected Works , Volume 16.  Owen says,

The whole authority of the Scripture in itself depends solely on its divine original is confessed by all who acknowledge its authority.” 297

I certainly agree with that view.  If the originals were not inspired then it is useless to speak about inspiration at all.

Owen says in another place,

Sacred Scripture claims this name for itself.  It has its origin from God, so that what God wants said to the church through the medium of the prophets, apostles, and other inspired writers, was still spoken directly by God and that not only in the primary sense to those whom he delegated his task of reducing his revealed will to written form, but also no less so in a secondary sense. He speaks to is now in his written word, as in days past he spoke through the mouths of his holy prophets. – “A Defense of Holy Scripture”, reprinted in Biblical Theology, 788

According to Owen the modern-day recipients of those original writings are still receiving the Word of God.  This is because of what Owen believed:

It is true we have not the autographa [the originals], but the apographa [or copies] which we have contain every iota that was in them. – The Divine Original of the Scriptures, 301

Turretin

Another great theologian of the past shares Owen’s opinion:

By original texts we do not mean the autographs which we certainly do not now exist, we mean their apographs, which are so-called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. – Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1, 106

Now Turretin is a great scholar, as of course is Owen; they know what they’re talking about, they know that the manuscripts have errors in them.  Owen grants this fact:

For the first transcribers of the original copies and those who have done light work from them, it is known, it is granted, that failings have been amongst them and that various lections [i.e. variants] are from thence risen. – John Owen, Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of Scripture – Works, Volume 16, 355

So Owen certainly knew that the manuscripts had variants, still for all that he could say that the apographs; the copies, were inspired.  He believed this, although not exactly in the same way as the autographs (which is why Turretin talks about those that wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit).  But both men certainly believe we have good enough copies of the originals to call what we have inspired.  Hence, it seems to these men that Paul is not so much bothered with the autographa, as with the state of the extant copies,which if they accurately reflect their originals, may be designated, at least by extension, as inspired.

To summarize, the context of 2 Timothy 3:15-16, and the use of the term “Scripture” to elsewhere in the New Testament, speak about copies, but copies which are reliable enough, preserved enough, and used by God enough to be called theopneustos.

They are not inspired in the way that Peter is referring to in his First Epistle, and they are not the work therefore of the direct concursive influence of the Holy Spirit on the original writers.  But they are, in Paul’s thought, and in Owen’s and Turretin’s, inspired. (more…)