The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

I was wondering what I ought to write about when I stumbled upon my old unfinished series on The Parameters of Meaning.  I think these parameters are quite helpful guides for interpreters, but I clean forgot about them.  Well, I’m going to try to put things right!  Here’s “Rule 9” with a link to the previous eight:

The Parameters of Meaning Rule 8.  

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale spiritualizing or allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal”. There will always be another literal meaning available that preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.

Reminding ourselves that by “literal” interpretation I am just talking about a prima facie or plain-sense reading of the text in its right setting, taking special care to examine the surrounding context before employing a text theologically.  Strange as it may seem, more than one literal reading of a text is possible (hence, these “parameters”).  It is possible to take a literal view of one text which will skew the rest of the passage, or a whole theology.  A few examples will show what I mean:

Prolepticism in Christ’s Sending Out of His Disciples: Matthew 10:5-23

“Prolepsis” involves the representation of an event that is in the future as if it were happening now, or about to happen.  It is a rhetorical way of anticipating an outcome that lies afar off, especially in prophecy.  When Jesus says in John 14:3, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also,” The “You” in the verse extends beyond the disciples and contemplates those who come after them.  The pronoun is proleptic in verse 3 even though in verse 1 (“Let not your heart be troubled”) it may not be.

In Matthew 10 we read of the sending out of the twelve to minister to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (10:6), with basic instructions about what they were to do.  This included preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; a message proclaimed before by both John the Baptist (3:2). and Jesus Himself (4:17).  So far so good.  Let us get to the example I have in mind.  At Matthew 10:23 the Lord says,

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Many Preterists take this verse literally and believe it means that Jesus must have returned before the disciples had traversed the entire land of Israel.  Many would locate this “return” around A.D. 70 in the guise of the Roman armies.  Now certainly they would be taking verse 23 literally, but their literal interpretation would result in a great deal of spiritualization of many other parts of Scripture.  For one thing, one would necessarily have to make the “coming” of Jesus spiritual not physical.  The context helps us see what is going on.  From Matthew 10:16 Jesus begins to warn the disciples about persecutions in a manner akin to the eschatological passages found in Mark 13:9-13 and Luke 21:12-17.  This is prolepsis, just as in John 14:1-4.  The Son of Man (a term most clearly associated with Daniel 7) did not “come” midway through the carrying out of Acts 1:8.  This is an instance when the wrong literal interpretation is being chosen (it may surprise some readers, but rarely is there just one literal interpretation to choose).  Another will fit the context better, perhaps in this case one that reads Matthew 10:16-23 proleptically as reaching into the end times.

“This Generation” Is Not That Generation: Matthew 24:34

Also a favorite landing site for Preterists is Matthew 24:34:

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

Some Bible interpreters understand this verse literally to be referring to the Roman overthrow of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 under Titus.  What this means is that everything else in the chapter has to be fitted in before that time.  This includes things like famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places (v.7), the killing of the disciples (v.9), the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all nations (v.14), the abomination of desolation in the holy place (v.15), many false christ’s and false prophet’s performing great wonders (v. 24), and the devastating physical coming of Christ with angels in un-ignorable fashion (vv. 29-31).  This just didn’t happen.  Houston, we have a problem.  And the parable of verses 45ff. also show that no spiritual coming of Christ is in view.  This is the second advent.

Who then is the “this generation” Christ is talking about?  Well, Daniel 12:11 has the abomination of desolation at the end of time (see also Dan. 11:31 and notice the similarity).  And remember, Jesus was answering the disciples questions, in particular the one about “the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age.” (24:3).  Jesus was speaking about “the end” (24:6, 13, 14).  So the generation referred to in Matthew 24:34 is the generation of “the end of the age” who witness “the sign of Your coming.”  Again, if a literal reading forces you to spiritualize everything else, you have the wrong literal reading.  Another will fit the context without you having to resort to spiritualization or allegory.  Not all literal readings are equal.

The World is Not Always the Planet

One more example of this might help.  This one is not about end times prophecy, though it does concern eschatology.  It comes from Romans 4:

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

A lot of Christians think that “the promise that he would be heir of the world” is speaking about Abraham being promised the literal planet.  But there is a problem with this.  Abraham was made no such promise!  Neither was Israel.  What he was promised was that his literal descendants (Gen. 15:4-5, with v.6 being cited by Paul in Rom. 4:3) were to be very numerous, that they would be given a literal land (Gen. 12:7; 15:7-21).  Also promised to Abraham was that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3).  Nowhere was Abraham promised the whole literal earth.  But further, Paul is not even thinking about the land promise, at least from Romans 1 – 8.  I have written in another place:

The word “world” appears once in Romans 4 so we must look at what Paul is speaking about to determine what he means by it.  As anyone can see from Romans 4:1-5 the Apostle is thinking in terms of justification and righteousness. Faith, not works, is the bridge from one to the other (hence the insertion of Gen. 15:6). Then David is used to illustrate the point at issue (4:6-9). Then we get a question about whether this imputed righteousness is only for the Jews (circumcision – 4:9), which is answered by the fact that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (4:10). This means that his faith-justification to righteousness is not bounded by circumcision, so that those not circumcised may receive justification through faith the same way Abraham did (4:11-12). Those not circumcised would be the rest of the peoples of the world. So far, not a word about the physical land!  Now comes their proof text for land=planet earth, verse 13.  

The Apostle is talking about justification, not the land promise, and the land promise was not that Abraham would inherit the whole planet.  This is an illegitimate use of the literal sense; a better use of it is on hand, even if it might not serve the purposes of certain eschatologies quite as well.

 

Review of ‘An Introduction to John Owen’ by Crawford Gribben

Review of An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life by Crawford Gribben, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020, 190 pages, pbk.

Crawford Gribben is a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and is well known as a scholar of Puritanism, specializing on eschatology. He has written a previous book on John Owen which has garnered him much praise.

This work represents a modest exploration of the life and thought of the Puritan giant John Owen, and comes at the subject from a different angle than most of the biographies and studies of Owen I had encountered before. It is definitely a book by a historian, not a theologian (Sinclair Ferguson’s John Owen on the Christian Life is a good example of the latter). Gribben employs the device of the stages of life to understand Owen, and he is well-suited to the purpose. In particular, Owen’s experiences during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and then in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy provide a good lens through which to view him and his writings.

The book consists of a chapter long Introduction followed by four chapters and the Conclusion. The main chapters deal with “Childhood,” Youth,” “Middle Age,” and “Death and Eternal Life,” as seen from Owen’s perspective. These phases of life are approached via Owen’s own thoughts, intermixed with facts about Owen’s life situations and temperament.  All this is preceded by a full timeline.

Gribben’s Introduction (25-45) is very well done.  He gives the reader much helpful information and sets up the four main chapters well, pulling you in to the life and times of his subject.  Of particular note is the use of contemporary diaries and notebooks which make the oft romanticized figure of Owen more concrete.  Owen’s career was carried on in tumultuous times and in the midst of much personal trouble, ill-health, grief, and even fear for his life.  He achieved much in his lifetime, but Gribben explains that by the end he was surrounded by the scent of failure (39).  Yet his impact was and is considerable, and not only as a theologian.  One of the most interesting things in this book is the description later in the book of Owen’s thoughts on religious liberty (e.g. 94-103, 146-149).  John Locke was a student of Owen and Gribben believes that,

Owen’s political theory – undeveloped as it was – made a very significant contribution to the emergence of the political tradition that has since been described as classical liberalism.  His work anticipated by two decades Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), which would make the best-known intervention in this emerging defense of civil and political liberty. (100-101).

Returning to the main outline of the book, the chapter on “Childhood” sees Owen as a considerate minister to the capacities of the young.  The chapter focuses on two topics; a Primer which I shall discuss in a moment, and Baptism, of which Owen became sympathetic to the concerns of the Baptists.  This part of the book is a bit drawn out, occupying more space than one would expect in a slim volume.  Gribben’s discussion of The Primer is of interest.  For whatever reason, this book was not included in the reprint of Owen’s works by the Banner of Truth, but the author says it “deserves to be recovered.” (48. Although it appears that Owen’19th Century editor, William Goold, was not aware of its existence – 65 n. 40).  “The Primer offers a glimpse into the simplicity he expected of childhood piety… as well as the daily routines of thankfulness that he expected parents to exemplify.” (68). 

Chapter 2 on “Youth” records Owen’s regimen as an Oxford student, and how upon his return to Oxford as its vice chancellor he tried to inculcate an inward piety as well as outward academic excellence, a concern that “met with mixed success” (78).  To address this Owen preached and later wrote his classic On Communion with God, which depicts the Godhead as approachable, kind, and gracious.  The author’s treatment of this great book (82-90) is a highlight. 

The chapter on “Middle Age” is mostly taken up with Owen’s views on religious liberty and worship.  Chapter 4 addresses “Death and Eternal Life” and concentrates on Owen’s views about prophetic portents in his age (although Owen was not much interested in millennial questions – 121-122).  Again, for me this section on his prophetic speculations is over-long.  Better is the treatment of the Beatific Vision, which in Owen is not seeing the Father’s glory but the Son’s (136-141).   

The book wraps up with an informative summary, rightly pointing out that “Owen was much more than a theological clinician,” and that, in fact, 

Owen’s discussion of the spiritual life has contributed, and perhaps even shaped, some of the most important religious communities and philosophies of the last several centuries of civilization in the West.  Owen was so much more than merely the most important English theologian. (146).

All in all An Introduction to John Owen succeeds in its purpose.  There are some engaging and uplifting pages in the book, though there are also a few less compelling paragraphs.  The author sets his subject within his troubled milieu, even if sometimes he is guilty of repetition, especially in his mentioning of the display of the heads and limbs of some of Owen’s revolutionary friends at various points of the book.  This little book humanizes John Owen more than other biographies I have read.  I should have liked some interaction with the great devotional treatises in Volumes 6 and 7 of Owen’s Works, and his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, which is probably my favorite, but it is only 190 pages long.  One can’t have everything.   

This book was supplied to me by the Publisher.                

 

The Angel of the Bottomless Pit: Challenging Our Comfortable Worldview (Pt. 4)

Part Three

I’ve said quite a lot about already about the angel of the bottomless pit, but I’ve not finished.  I believe certain passages of Scripture act as hermeneutical touchstones.  Decisions about what direction to take can be either determinative of where the exposition is going to go, or they highlight the assumptions brought to the text.  One thinks of the Olive Tree metaphor in Romans 11, or the exhortation given to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 43.  The first eleven verses of Revelation 9 are like that.  They ask the interpreter, “Are you going to hold your nerve?” 

Last time I ended by saying something about the strange statement of the angel who rebukes John for worshiping him in Revelation 22:9.  This angel claimed to have been “of your brethren the prophets,” and I stuck my neck out and connected him with Daniel.  I did so tentatively, let it be said, but in the spirit of inquiry.  Still some might object to this because how can a man now be an angel?  I don’t know.  But I do know that the Angel of the Lord isn’t an “angel” either.  (Of course, I realize that some writers insist that the Angel of the Lord is not a theophany, but most accept it).  “The Angel of His Presence” (Isa. 63:9) is, after all, no mere angel.  Therefore, the Bible does use the term “angel” (meaning “messenger”) in what we might call a non-technical sense, at least in respect to the Angel of the Lord.    

What if the Angel of the Abyss is the Beast (Antichrist)?

I have given reasons for linking the angel of the bottomless pit (Rev. 9:11, and an angel looks like a man), with the beast who ascends out of the bottomless pit (Rev. 11:7; 17:8).  I understand this is controversial, but I want to tease it out a bit. 

As stated already, the angel of the abyss is named in Hebrew and in Greek.  His names mean “destruction” or “destroyer.”  If Revelation 9:11 is the sole verse that speaks about him, why would John bother naming him?  Further, the beast who ascends from the abyss and kills God’s Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:7 does this with no introduction.  He just arrives completely unannounced.  Thirdly, this same “beast” goes into destruction (or perdition) in Revelation 17:8.  Here it is with verse before it.

But the angel said to me, “Why did you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, which has the seven heads and the ten horns.  The beast that you saw was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. And those who dwell on the earth will marvel, whose names are not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.” – Revelation 17:7-8. 

“Why did you marvel?”   As if there was nothing to marvel at!  I’ve just landed at one of the trickiest passages in the Apocalypse.  I included verse 7 because it harks back to the vision of the woman and the beast which starts in verse 3.  I’m not going to get technical about the details, but the beast the woman is riding is supporting her; she is not in charge.  Several things are said about the beast that pose problems for interpreters, among which are:

  1. it has blasphemous names, and has seven heads and ten horns (v. 3)
  2. the heads represent mountains and the horns represent kings (vv. 9, 12) 
  3. yet the beast is himself a king (v. 11)
  4. the beast appears to be, from John’s time perspective, past, present, and yet future.  He/it “was, and is not, and yet is.” (v. 8)
  5. Or more likely it could be that within the purview of the vision the beast the past, present, and future references are about the career of the beast, with it’s death interruption (Rev. 13), is in mind.

How can the beast be an individual, as he is in Revelation 17:11-13 (and Rev. 11:7), if he is depicted with heads equating to mountains and horns equaling other kings or kingdoms?  I think if we focus more on the function of the image things get a little clearer.  As we have noted, the beast supports the harlot, but according to verses 12 and 13 the ten kings “receive authority” with the beast, and “are of one mind, and give their power and authority to the beast”; therefore they can be depicted in such a manner.  This “key” helps us to see the continuity in the identity of the beast in Revelation.  

Again as previously noted, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul calls Antichrist by the name “Son of Perdition.”  Interestingly, Jesus referred to Judas Iscariot by the same name in John 17:12 (He also called Judas a “diabolos” in Jn. 6:70).  In Acts 1:25 Peter tantalizingly tells us that Judas at his death went “to his own place.”  The rabbit hole just seems to get deeper.  I’m not sure that I want go there.  Let’s get back to the angel of the bottomless pit.  I believe this angel who comes from the abyss is one and the same with the beast who comes from (ek) it.  Now if they both come from the abyss does that mean that the “earth-dwellers” know where he came from?  Do people know about the “shaft of the abyss”?  And if the Antichrist is from the abyss is he fully human?  I’m just asking. 

How certain am I of the connections I have made?  I would say about 70% certain, so there is quite some room for error.  I have posed some questions about the identity of the angel of the bottomless pit that I find intriguing.  I have not attempted to give definitive answers.  But I will leave you with this: I do believe that this personage is far more weird and frightening and beguiling than he is usually portrayed.  The Tribulation will witness some intensified supernatural activity, and the angel of the bottomless pit will take second place to no one save the figure of the returning Christ.               

THE ANGEL OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT: CHALLENGING OUR COMFORTABLE WORLDVIEW (PT. 3)

Part Two

The Angel and the Beast

We are now in a position to look at the angel of the bottomless pit.  Here is the principal (some say only) verse referring to him:

And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon. – Rev. 9:11

The first thing to notice is that in contrast to the fairly detailed descriptions of the demonic locusts in verses 3-10, the “king” gets one solitary verse and no description.  Well, that’s not quite true; we are told that he is an angel, and seeing as the Book of Revelation is the Book where angels appear with more frequency than anywhere else in Scripture, we might learn something from that.

Before investigating what the Apocalypse says about angels, it should be noted that if Revelation 9:11 is the only verse about the angel-king of the abyss, it doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose other than to tell us that these locust-scorpions are not natural to our terrestrial plane, because locusts in nature have no king (cf. Prov. 30:27).  But we knew that anyway by reading their description.  More problematical is the fact that John bothers to name the angel of the bottomless pit.  Why does he do that if this is the only verse to speak of him?  He doesn’t tell us the names of the mighty angels in chapters 10, 18 and 20.  This angel’s names(s) are his, they are not given to him by the press corps of the day.  No headline is going to proclaim that “Apollyon was seen marshaling his forces in New York an hour ago.”  At least I can’t imagine it.  Why then is he named, in both Hebrew and Greek?  John identifies the angel of the abyss with two names; Abaddon and Apollyon.  Why does he do that?  Isn’t Revelation written to the seven Greek-speaking churches in Asia Minor?  Why bother with the Hebrew name?  Both mean the same thing: “destruction” or “destroyer” (Beale, 502; Thomas, 2.39).  The only reason I can think of why John would tell us the Hebrew name is that this angel will terrorize Israel (as well as other parts of the world).  In which case his name may have more significance to Jews than to Gentiles.  (I am speculating, but at least I’m trying to fit the names into a tribulation scenario). Continue reading “THE ANGEL OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT: CHALLENGING OUR COMFORTABLE WORLDVIEW (PT. 3)”

Short Review of ‘Three Views on Israel and the Church.’

A Review of Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11, Jared Compton & Andrew David Naselli, Editors, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018, 266 pages, pbk. 

It  might be thought that a debate book on just three chapters in one of Paul’s epistles would only be of interest to a marginal group of specialists.  However, the chapters in question are central to the vital theological and hermeneutical issue of the relationship between the nation of Israel and the Christian Church.

This book brings together well chosen advocates of differing views of Romans 9-11; Michael Vlach represents “A Non-Typological Future-Mass-Conversion View,” which interprets the extended passage in line with what the OT writers predict when their words are taken at face value.  Hence, “Israel” is the future remnant who enter the coming kingdom as a redeemed nation on the basis of the major provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant concerning land and ethnicity cum nationhood.  Vlach’s essay, which opens the proceedings, is very well organized and informative.  He is a clear writer, and this clarity and precision also comes across in his responses.  His understanding of what he calls “the place of blessing” regarding the “root” of the Olive Tree as the covenant with Abraham is articulated solidly.  I do not agree with this centralizing of the Abrahamic Covenant in Paul’s argument.  In fact, I believe it weakens Vlach’s argument somewhat (though it is easier to point things out as a non-participant!).  To me, the focus on salvation as the apex of Paul’s discussion (which is not a property of the Abrahamic promises), and the quotation of two New Covenant passages from Isaiah in Romans 11:26-27 put the emphasis on the New Covenant.  This also makes the terminative (already fulfilled) view of Merkle less plausible.  Still, this is a good presentation.

The next position presented is by Fred Zaspel and James Hamilton as “A Typological Future-Mass Conversion View,” in which Israel becomes a type of Christ and the Church.  However, the Jews are still promised salvation en masse in the future.  As broad exponents of “New Covenant Theology” they are tilted heavily towards typology.  They place great emphasis upon motifs such as the “cosmic temple,” and the “second exile.”   I am tempted to reproduce a longish quote by them which explains their typology, but this is a short review so I will be content to say that most of page 80 is incomprehensible to me as a simple reader of the Bible: starting with Cosmic Temple typology, it is easy to turn any which way.  The fact that these scholars believe that the OT writers intentionally included this typology into their books looks like a bad case of self-deception.  It would be better to say that subsequent revelation utilized previous work to shape a type/antitype structure.  In their exposition of Romans 9:6 (“not all Israel who are of Israel”) they hit the nail on the head.  Also their treatment of the Olive Tree metaphor they do well to avoid mixing the Gentiles (i.e. the wild branches) and Israel (the natural branches), even though they believe the remnant who will be saved will finally be incorporated into the Church.  There is much in their main essay to commend.

Benjamin L. Merkle expounds “A Typological Non-Future-Mass-Conversion View.”  Notice the “Non” in the heading!  This view claims that Paul does not teach a future large scale salvation of the Jewish remnant.  Merkle is a skilled expositor, and it is to his credit that does not simply regurgitate many of the typological views of Zaspel and Hamilton.  He is more clear on his “first coming hermeneutic” than are the latter.  Once more, Merkle’s interpretation of Romans 9:6 as meaning an Israel within Israel is to be commended.  Yet I found his insistence on seeing Paul’s concern only with “the present situation” unconvincing.  At least to me Merkle forgets how the Apostle lays out of the question of Israel in Romans 9:1-8, and 11:1.  I was surprised at the lack of attention to the Olive Tree illustration in Merkle’s presentation; especially the way Paul sets it up.  I might also point out that his handling of the covenant issues was disappointing, and this despite earlier criticizing of Vlach in that regard.  Although this is a good article on this view, I wanted to put the brakes on a lot as I read through it.  I felt that there were gaps that needed to be filled.

The editors of this book allowed each side to have plenty of space to set out their respective understandings of Romans 9-11.  In their responses they also had space to maneuver.  Each writer deserves respect for not wasting the reader’s time.  This book is not a throwaway read.  In the rejoinders I thought Merkle fared less well than his opponents.  Both Vlach and Zaspel & Hamilton probed weaknesses in his position.  For example, Merkle had accused Vlach of committing an exegetical fallacy in his discussion of kai houtos in 11:26 (and I don’t believe he does), but Merkle does not escape this charge with his view that the Olive Tree is about individual salvation, nor in his assertion of a cumulative historical interpretation of “all Israel” in 11:26.  Zaspel & Hamilton’s reliance on author-intended OT typology looks like it is actually their NT interpretation foisted back upon the OT writers.  My bias sides with Vlach.  He sticks with the continuity between Testaments that the Apostle takes in his stride.  While I do question his stress on the Abrahamic Covenant, and I personally wish that he had made more of Israel’s election (or “selection”), as in Romans 9:6-10 and Isaac, I thought he took the laurels – even if he was rather too genteel in his response to Zaspel & Hamilton.

In ending this brief review I would like to quote Merkle’s final sentence from his response to Vlach:

In the end, our disagreements relate not merely to the exegesis of a particular text (in our case Romans 9-11), but to our fundamental differences in the relationship between the covenants, the role and function of typology, and our understanding of God’s eschatological kingdom.” (96).

 

THE ANGEL OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT: CHALLENGING OUR COMFORTABLE WORLDVIEW (PT. 2)

Part One

4. The smoke from the pit darkens an already darkened sun.

When I say “an already darkened sun” I do so because of Revelation 8:12:

Then the fourth angel sounded: And a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day did not shine, and likewise the night.

Here the sun is already greatly affected when the fourth trumpet sounded.  As an aside, this verse assumes that, like the sun and the stars, the moon gives off its own light (cf. Matt. 24:29. Do with that what you wish, but I always take the “assured results of science” with a big grain of salt).

A Chronological Conundrum  

Having said this, the question of chronology arises.  When exactly is the fifth trumpet blown?  We have to ask this question because in a purely sequential understanding of Revelation, not only must Revelation 8:12 be considered, there has already been an obscuration of the sun at the opening of the sixth seal:

I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood.  And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. – Revelation 6:12-13.   

This passage looks very climactic, but many assert that it happens prior to opening of the bottomless pit at the fifth trumpet in Revelation 9.  Robert Thomas (ad loc) employs a consecutive structure for the Apocalypse that places the fifth trumpet towards the end of the time covered by the Book, which would be towards the end of the 70th Week.  But Arnold Fruchtenbaum thinks the fifth trumpet occurs about two and a half to three years into the Tribulation.  In my opinion this is hard to reconcile with Matthew 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven… 

Are not Matthew 24:29 and Revelation 6:12-13 describing the same events?  I do realize that some scholars teach that there are five end times “blackouts” (e.g. Fruchtenbaum, Footsteps of the Messiah, 220-221).  Still, even if one allows this for sake of argument, just how many times do the stars fall out of the sky?  This is one reason why I hold that Revelation 6 runs through the entire 70th Week from year 1 to year 7.  From this vantage point I believe the fifth trumpet occurs before the sixth seal.  Revelation 8:12-13 doesn’t fit comfortably after the cosmic mayhem described in Revelation 6:12-17.  It looks anti-climactic.

Facing the Literal 

Whatever one makes of the chronological question, it may be said that the reference in Revelation 9:2 may be to the initial outcome of the opening of the shaft of the pit, in which case it would be of temporary duration.  Therefore, for a certain period (perhaps a few weeks?) the already blighted sunlight is obscured further by the smoke belching out of the pit.

Tony Garland takes an admirably determined literal approach to the description:

The plume of smoke that arose is probably one of the “pillars of smoke” which Joel described in the “awesome day of the Lord” (Joel 2:30). A similar plume of smoke attended the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire (Gen. 19:28). Here we see further evidence that the abyss is deep within the earth and probably of a great temperature due to subterranean activity below the earth’s crust. – A Testimony of Jesus Christ, I. ad loc. 

So the smoke from the pit roars (“like the smoke of a great furnace”) into the atmosphere obstructing the light of the sun and the moon.

5. Infernal “Locusts” come out of the pit and are commanded (by God?) what or who to attack.  They are very particular.

The “locusts” that come out of the pit are not like any locusts any naturalist has ever set eyes upon.  They strike men with something akin to a scorpion’s sting.  They are truly horrific.  Just the sight of one would chill the bones.  They are demonic (though not necessarily demons per se), but they are under authority.  They have a king, whom we shall be studying later, but the command not to hurt the greenery and not to kill people appears to come from God (e.g. what would Satan care about the plants and trees, nevermind humans?).  Beale, 494, notes the same “authorization clause” in Rev. 6:2-8 and 8:2.  Only those 144,000 sealed Jewish males (see Rev. 7:4-8 and Rev. 14:3-4) will escape these creatures.

6. For a space of five months they torment those who do not have the seal of God.

Strange as it seems, the other saints are not said to be immune from the strikes of demonic beasts (although Fruchtenbaum, Ibid, 229, extends immunity to them.  He may be right, but it is a surmise).

Now all of this is quite disturbing: the Tribulation will see the Earth we know altered both by plagues and famines, by the smiting of creation above and below, and by the infernal realm with its real monsters.  But we must now turn our attention to the main character in this plot; the “king” of the locust-scorpions.

And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon. – Revelation 9:11

The king is called “the angel of the bottomless pit.”  He has a name, given interestingly, in both Hebrew and in Greek; the traditional language of Israel and the language (i.e. the lingua franca) of the first century biblical world.  We shall explore this enigmatic king next.    

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Angel of the Bottomless Pit: Challenging Our Comfortable Worldview (Pt. 1)

There are some Bible passages that pose peculiar challenges to interpreters.  These passages confront us with revelations of weirdness.  We are faced with accepting and exploring this weird side of Scripture, or else with smoothing it over, perhaps by not actually dealing with it, but instead just pretending it is obscure, and on that basis, moving on.  Episodes that qualify to be on the list of weird passages would include Genesis 6:1-4 and Joshua 10:11-14, but many could be added.

Certainly one of the strangest of these strange texts concerns the opening of the bottomless pit and “the angel of the bottomless pit” in Revelation 9.  Here is how the passage opens:

Then the fifth angel sounded: And I saw a star fallen from heaven to the earth. To him was given the key to the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit, and smoke arose out of the pit like the smoke of a great furnace. So the sun and the air were darkened because of the smoke of the pit. Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months. Their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it strikes a man. In those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them. – Revelation 9:1-6

As can be seen, this all happens once the fifth angel blows his trumpet.  In the previous chapter, the sounding of the first four trumpets brought about the smiting of four parts of the created order: trees and vegetation; the seas; the waters; and the heavenly bodies (Rev. 8:8-13).  With the fifth trumpet the focus changes.  It is almost as if the four preceding dooms prepared the way for the creatures from the pit and their king.  We read about him in verse 9:11:

And they had as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon. – Revelation 9:11

This is all very odd.  How can we believe it?  Let me set out the details which must be faced:

  1. A “star” falls from heaven to earth.
  2. This “star” is a “him” (autos), who handles a key.
  3. There is a bottomless pit on earth (on earth) that when opened is like a furnace.
  4. The smoke from the pit darkens an already darkened sun.
  5. Infernal “Locusts” come out of the pit and are commanded (by God?) what or who to attack.  They are very particular.
  6. For a space of five months they torment those who do not have the seal of God.

Verses 7-10 describe these creatures, but I shall skip the description and focus upon the six things already listed.  I want to look more closely at each item in the list.  after that I shall turn my attention to the “angel of the bottomless pit” before providing an overall interpretation.

1. A “star” falls from heaven to earth. 

By the time we reach chapter 9 we have already encountered “stars” in the Apocalypse.  Revelation 1:20 is a good example.  There we are told that the seven stars held in Jesus’ hand are “the angels of the seven churches.”  Of course, in Revelation 1 the stars look like small stars (they do not look like angels as they appear as men – e.g. Rev. 21:17).  I think it very possible that in Revelation 9:1 the falling star likewise looks like a small bright object, at least until it lands on earth.  After that it is seen to be an angel.

The fact that the star was seen already “fallen” (perfect part.) is often taken to indicate that the angel is demonic (Beale, 492).  But Beale adduces “proofs” for his view from extra-biblical sources and biblical texts like Luke 10:18, which concerns Satan, and which fits a different context (i.e. Satan’s fall from his exalted position versus this angel’s apparently being sent to the bottomless pit).  It seems better to view this angel as a good angel fulfilling a commission (Thomas 2.27; Ladd, 129).

2. This “star” is a “him” (autos), who handles a key.

The fact that stars can represent angels is itself very suggestive.  I am not the only one whose mind drifts over to Matthew 2:9-10 and the strange behavior of the star that guided the Magi.  Whether that star was an angel or not the fact that angels as stars act to represent (as in Rev. 2 & 3) and perform specific duties (as in Rev. 9) is noteworthy.

The angel is given the key to the bottomless pit once he is in place.  With it he opens it up.  Notice that he is outside the pit whereas the “king” who eventually emerges comes out from within the pit (Rev. 9:11).  Getting ahead of myself for a moment, I believe the “beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit” in Revelation 11:7 is this “king.”

3. There is a bottomless pit on earth that when opened is like a furnace.

Stop shifting in your seat.  We are allowing the text to speak on its own terms.  This is not to be dismissed either as representational picture painting or hollow earth conspiracy theory.  The angel came deliberately down to earth for the purpose of opening a hatch or door in the earth.  Now we could all cast the thought aside if it were not for the fact that there are passages in both Testaments which force us to take a really serious look at John’s words.  Numbers 16:31-33 and Philippians 2:10 spring immediately to mind.  I have always been minded to ponder Paul’s unflustered reference to “those under the earth,” noting (although with a certain unease) that he presents us with “”those in heaven” (check) and “those on earth” (check) before passing smoothly onto “those under the earth.”

So there is a place somewhere on the earth that marks the entrance to the “shaft of the abyss” or bottomless pit, inside of which are imprisoned some extremely nasty creatures and their king; an angel – or so I read it.  The language points to the origin of the “king,” that is, “the angel” as the pit itself.  Again, this means the angel with the key is not the same as the angel who emerges once the pit is opened.  Tony Garland notes, “Later, an angel will be given the same key with which to lock Satan within the same compartment for the duration of the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:1-2).”  It is intriguing to let the imagination roam a bit and to envisage this ghostly smoke belching into the air and these infernal things coming out.

Until recently I have read about these “locusts” with blinkers on, for I have always thought of them as invisible.  They are not!  Why then did I jump to a false conclusion?  It was because of their king.

To be continued

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why We Should Wait!

Are there any among the idols of the nations that can cause rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Are You not He, O LORD our God?
Therefore we will wait for You,
Since You have made all these. – Jeremiah 14:22

We’ve all heard versions of the prayer that goes, “Lord, help me to be patient, and please hurry up about it.”  In my life the lesson on being patient has been probably the hardest one to learn.  In fact, I must confess that I have not learned the lesson very well, and have constantly to relearn it.  If I were to put my finger on the problem it would have to land on the truths brought out in the verse above.

Jeremiah knew a lot about having to wait.  During his ministry he had to preach for God to a people who had set themselves against the truth.  His words often seemed to bounce off the surface of the ears of his listeners.  Moreover, he had to contend with false prophets who would tell the eager hearers what they wanted to hear; the bad times were coming to an end; the Babylonians would be beaten back; God would come to the rescue of Israel.  These were not the messages that Jeremiah was given to proclaim.

Given that Jeremiah had an unpopular message to preach, he had to be a man of patience to continue, day in, day out, to be a herald of, this verse gets to the heart of why we can wait on the Lord, giving over to Him our propensity to rush things or to see matters change overnight.  The prophet poses two questions about the way the world works.  In the first he asks about the idols of the heathen nations.  Can any of them cause rain?  That is, are any of the false gods powerful enough to effect the the weather, especially in that all-important matter of rainfall and showers?  The obvious answer is No!

The second question is directed to God: Is not the answer to such fundamental questions as who provides the rain showers that the Lord is responsible?  What does this mean?  It means that God is very much active in providing rain for the plants and for man.  He is the Maker of the world (and its weather patterns) and He can be approached to effect what He has made.  Therefore (and this is the main lesson), when we go to Him in prayer and petition Him for something, and we have to wait for it, we should be content to wait, knowing that we have been heard.  “Since You have made all these,” You Lord should not be constantly prodded as it were, by our impatience.  Rather we (not to say “I”) ought to be content now to wait, and in that spirit, waiting is worship!

CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (4)

Part Three

Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation

On a more positive note overall is the matter of whether language is merely descriptive or whether it can be said to actually do something. This gets us into the subject of language as “speech-acts.” This view has been defined as follows:

Speech-act theory is a set of pragmatically based principles that were developed at the edge of philosophy and linguistics. The major assumption is that language is not so much concerned with saying as with doing. That is, the use of language is in fact a way of accomplishing things.[83]

Speech-act theory was introduced by the British philosopher of language J. L. Austin in his 1955 Harvard lectures, posthumously published as How to do Things with Words. Austin’s insights, being rather puzzling in places, were improved by John Searle.[84] Both scholars divided speech-acts into locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forms.[85] A locutionary utterance is any act of saying something. Illocutionary acts are what is done in saying something, while perlocutionary acts are what is done by saying something.[86]  An illocutionary speech-act, for example, “It’s time to go” affirms that something is so. So when God makes an illocutionary speech-act, He is affirming the truth (since He cannot lie) about something. Obviously, identifying God’s illocutionary speech-acts helps a person to pay more attention to what God is saying. Thus, illocutions are often considered to be the most important kind of speech-acts.[87]

Although many postmodernists, with their preoccupation with language as a manipulative power tool, will often place more emphasis upon perlocutionary utterances – those expressions which get a person to act or attempt at least to alter the actions of the hearer.

Hill states that propositional sayings ought not to be separated from narratives because “in a sense a narrative just is a set of propositions, albeit about events in time.”[88] But he does say that the Bible contains more than propositions, it “also contains questions, injunctions, and wishes.”[89] While this is true, it does appear that each of these other sayings may be converted into a proposition.[90] The main problem (according to Hill) in biblical hermeneutics is to work out what God is affirming. Speech-act theory’s analysis, particularly of the illocutionary act, is of real help in reaching that goal.

However, there is a word of caution. Briggs points out that since one locution (or simple uttering of words) may entail several illocutions, and some perhaps unintended, in fact, “most locutions are multilayered in some way, and will often admit of unintended illocutions.”[91] For that reason, some interpreters are wary of recommending the theory, at least as a way to get at the message.[92]

Notwithstanding, one must not minimize the obligation to the text as it is understood by the believer.[93] Vanhoozer, in an essay entitled, “From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts” calls attention to the possibility of “an illocutionary act performed on the level of a literary whole.”[94] This is certainly intriguing, especially when Vanhoozer shows the effectiveness of the approach in reading John 21:20-24.[95]

It seems that responsible speech-act analysis is amenable to an attentive form of grammatico-historical interpretation. It involves the reader in the text more because it raises his expectancy.[96]And that is surely a good thing.

Summary in Nine Points

From our survey of some of the major players in modern hermeneutics we can quickly take stock of the main issues:

  1. To define hermeneutics as a set of rules decides the issue beforehand.
  2. Some preliminary understanding (preunderstanding) of a text (both its whole and parts) is unavoidable in every reading.[97]
  3. The ongoing process of a reader’s preunderstanding shaping the text and the text shaping the reader creates a “hermeneutical spiral.”
  4. In this “spiral” the two horizons of text and interpreter “fuse” to some degree, though utter objectivity is never arrived at.
  5. Each individual’s horizon is his or her own. This implies that valid interpretations will differ according to the social, historical and cultural situation of the reader.[98]
  6. This could be taken to mean (and often is) that complete objectivity is an impossible dream, and that, therefore, talk of propositional revelation (wherein truth is situated in the Bible’s propositional teaching) is implausible.
  7. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” further renders propositional truth out of place.
  8. Standard Grammatical-Historical interpretation might be seen as slipping into redundancy, being unable to integrate the findings of modern hermeneutical theories.  However, this is untrue.  But also, it must not be supposed that anything close to the last word has been said about speech-acts.  {Moreover, as Craig Blaising correctly observes: “To postulate a “fulfillment” of…covenant promises by means of a reality shift in the thing promised overlooks the performative nature of the word of promise…” – Craig A. Blaising, “Israel and Hermeneutics”, in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds., Darrell L. Bock & Mitch Glaser, 161}
  9. On a positive note, we can explore the promise of responsible speech-act theory to help us to be more attentive as we read Scripture, and thus, compose our theology.

————————————————————————-

The enumeration of the footnotes follows from the last article. 

[83] Stanley Porter, in I. Howard Marshall, Beyond The Bible, 112.
[84] Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory,” in Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 763.
[85] These are sometimes categorized as utterance, performative, propositional, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. See Tate, 350-351. It is quite usual however to find propositional included in locutionary.“Utterances” in Tate’s taxonomy are just reactive sounds.
[86] Daniel Hill, “Proposition,” in Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 632.
[87] Briggs, 763.
[88] Hill, 632.
[89] Ibid.
[90] I have discussed the matter of propositionalism in chapter 4, “The Revelation of the Triune Creator,” of my dissertation.
[91] Briggs, 764.
[92] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 351.
[93] This is where Vanhoozer brings in a covenantal obligation.
[94] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 192. He is talking about the Book of Jonah.
[95] Ibid, 257ff.
[96] Briggs, 766.
[97] We include Maier’s opinion of preunderstanding, which we think is very helpful.Although he rightly holds to presuppositions, he sounds a note of sanity amid the cheers for “preunderstanding.”

All these and other considerations do not exactly encourage us to cling to philosophical preunderstandings or to take them as our guideposts in listening to revelation. As already stated, conscious and unconscious philosophical influences will always accompany our hearing. But they are present in order to be divested of their leading role. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 36.

[98] This is where one encounters various special interest groups like Eco-Feminists, Marxists, and Gays interpreting the Bible according to their agendas.Remember, in postmodern interpretation there are no metanarratives, only individual community narratives.Thus, each interpretation is as valid as another (unless it stakes a claim to be a metanarrative).

Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (3)

Part Two

Ricoeur

Alongside Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005) stands as the most important philosopher of hermeneutics in the last hundred years. His work is often to be found discussed in evangelical circles today, and for that reason we shall devote a little more space to his work. Ricoeur is concerned with how language is used not with how it is structured.[53] As human existence is communicated through language, the study of the use of language is, therefore, the study of human existence. What is language but existence communicated in symbols or signs? Hence, the study of the way linguistic signs are used (semiotics) becomes a way to study the human being and his significance and self-understanding (semantics). It is hardly surprising to learn that for Ricoeur “man is language.”[54]

Ricoeur believes that contemporary man has become desensitized to symbol and metaphor, and so he is missing in some measure, the hub of his own significance by his failure to experience life in its fullest terms.[55] Ricoeur is a phenomenologist – stressing the activity of the reader once he is impacted by a text.[56] But he utterly rejects man as the starting point in interpretation, preferring a transcendent beginning.[57]His influence is to be seen in several areas.

First, his overall philosophical outlook was hopeful (in contrast to that of the existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre). This meant that he tended to read texts “optimistically” – as, for example, the story of the Fall, which he said contained nothing like “Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.”[58]

Second, he ironically stressed “the hermeneutics of suspicion” whereby one recognizes that, “preunderstanding does indeed influence every interpretive conclusion drawn with reference to the biblical text. Because the baggage brought by an exegete to the reading of Scripture can potentially hinder the hermeneutical process, one must always question every exegetical perspective.”[59]

The third thing Ricoeur is known for is calling particular attention to creative language such as metaphor, narrative and parable.[60] Through careful examination and refection on these language forms he has produced some important thoughts on some important issues within philosophy of religion such as the sort of relationship that exists between God and time.[61] He believed that these ways of expression point us to a fuller appreciation of ourselves and our significance. “The manifesto of hermeneutic philosophy is “existence via semantics”: self-understanding via textual interpretation.”[62]

Lastly, Ricoeur is noted for his focus on genre (the world of the text) and the impact of the text upon the reader’s world (the world in front of the text). The interplay of these “worlds” means abandoning what he calls “the first naivete”: the literal sense, in order to make way for “the second naivete”: finding oneself in and through the world of the text.[63] In other words, the reader must go through a sifting of his faith from a position of fear and emotion to a more level-headed critical understanding of the text (and so the world) in order to have a rational faith.[64] The literal sense cannot supply the truth of existence!

Of course, to comprehend signs truly one must move beyond the signs themselves and concentrate on discourse, hence his focus upon semantics as the key to self-understanding.[65]  Ricoeur also finds himself on the “conservative” side in his rejection of the Kantian idealism of liberalism, which forced churchmen into vainly trying either to prove Christianity to be inductively scientific[66], or to show that Christianity’s “inwardness” made the effort to make it scientific an exercise in missing the point.[67]  And he strikes a chord when he insists that the text must always take precedence over the interpreter.[68]

But he does not believe in the possibility of discovering authorial intention. There is and always will be a “distance” between reader and author. Moreover, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that he learned from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, always makes interpretation a risky business, with “truth,” in a sense far less than certainty but above doubt, being the final goal.[69] Continue reading “Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (3)”