Biblical Studies

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt. 3)

Part Two

Objections to the Cosmic Temple Motif in Scripture

In Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission, both the garden of Eden and the Jerusalem temple are types of the Church, which is confusingly called the literal non-physical temple.[1]   Beale’s thesis, which is fed by many ingeniously interpreted though vague allusions – mainly reliant upon reinterpreting OT texts by privileged interpretations of the NT – is that the OT stories of Adam, Abraham, and Israel recapitulate the same story of failure to extend God’s spiritual kingdom throughout the world.  Jesus, the final Adam, the final Israel, and the final temple (though apparently not the final Abraham), will set everything to rights when He comes, and then it’s a wrap as far as this present creation is concerned.[2]

This is it in a nutshell.  While its supporters readily admit that the cosmic temple has little support from the text of the Bible[3], the main assertion is that ancient temples were mini-universes: models of the cosmos.  Following this understanding, it is the function of the sacred space in Scripture that becomes dominant, not the literal meaning conveyed by the words in context.  This maneuver concentrates the mind on ideas beyond the prima facie wording of the texts and starts it thinking along very different lines, with its own assortment of motifs, types and recurrences.[4]

Alongside of this it is proposed that the tripartite temple structure mirrored the same threefold structure in the cosmos.  Further, we are instructed to view the garden of Eden as a proto-temple which God intended man to gradually push out over the untamed earth until all was claimed for God.[5]

It is clear from some inter-testamental Jewish writings and from Philo and Josephus that some Jews in the second temple period (c. 200 B.C. – 70 A.D.) understood the temple and the priesthood to reflect realities in Heaven.[6]  It is also clear that some ancient cultures saw the act of temple-building as a sort of re-enactment of the creation of the universe.

Josephus attributes cosmic significance to various aspects of the structure.  The veil hanging above the temple gate itself symbolizes the universe ([Jewish War] 5:212-213).  The twelve loaves placed on the table symbolize the zodiac and the months, while the menorah… symbolizes the seven planets (5:218)[7].

Very well, but these sources are not from the time of Moses, never mind Adam.  True, there are some resemblances between Genesis 1 and God’s directions for the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 25 – 31[8], but these possible comparisons are not at all decisive for inferring that the tabernacle was designed as a mini-cosmos.

What about the assertion that, “the three sections of Israel’s temple represented the three parts of the cosmos”?  Beale is convinced that the truth of this is undeniable, and he stakes a lot upon it.  But is it really a fact that ancient peoples of the Near East held to this three-tiered conception?  And is it an established fact that the biblical writers assume the same three-storied view of the cosmos?

Biblical theologian Gerhard Hasel and his son, the archaeologist Michael Hasel argue convincingly that neither is actually the case.  They have shown from Canaanite records that “the gods did not always dwell in the heavens or the upper story of a supposed three-storied universe.”[9]  As a matter of fact,

“The most comprehensive study on Mesopotamian cosmic geography concludes that there was no belief in a three-storied universe…”[10] 

After examining the figurative expressions in the Bible they conclude that “the widespread assumption that the biblical cosmology is that of a three-storied universe cannot be maintained.”[11] If they are right then the theory of the temple reflecting such a three-tier cosmos is in serious trouble.  But again, surely the more important point is how dependent upon speculations and mild possibilities all this is?

What Did the Temple Stand For?

When one narrows ones focus down to the Bible the question “did the earthly temple sometimes stand for the whole cosmos?” needs to be reconsidered.  It is perhaps best to think about it in relation to the question of whether the earthly temple stood as a replication of the heavenly temple.  Of this latter thesis there ought to be no argument, for as Exodus 25:9 and 40 show, God gave Moses a blueprint to follow assiduously.  And the enlargement on this given by the author of Hebrews fills out the picture when he calls Jesus in His High Priestly function,

a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected… – Hebrews 8:2[12]

On the face of it this plainly indicates that there is a “true tabernacle” in heaven of which the earthly one was a replica.  But once this is accepted then the temple = cosmos motif seems less viable, because it would seem to go too far to assert that the heavenly temple itself symbolized the whole cosmos.  This would force one to have to assert a double symbolism; (1) temple = cosmos plus (2) earthly temple = heavenly temple.  Unless the entirety of heaven is right now “the true tabernacle”, which is not the impression one gets from reading Hebrews 8 and 9, then the (1) temple = cosmos parallel won’t work.  This impression is sustained by recalling the picture of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22, which is clearly distinguished from heaven (Rev. 21:2-3).

What this means is that since the true tabernacle is not coextensive even with heaven it cannot picture the cosmos, and for the same reason it cannot represent the cosmos as three-tiered as is maintained by Beale.  (more…)

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The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt.2)

Part One

Firmer Ground

Following the biblical narrative it appears that the design and furnishings of the tabernacle/temple have some correspondence with the Paradise which Adam forfeited.  This “remembrance” would only increase the sense of what was lost and what the Promised One (Gen. 3:15) would restore.  It would act as an encouragement to faith.  And the expectation would only be heightened once it was also revealed that the sanctuary was modeled after one in heaven (Exod. 25:9; Heb. 8:1-5).[1]  These ideas taken together form the backdrop for viewing the earthly temple sanctuary as a place of meeting between God and (one) man.[2]  Once the Redeemer completes eventually His work[3] however, all saints may enter the true Holy Place (cf. Rev. 21:21-26).

If this view is accepted then neither Eden nor the later temple should be seen, in the first place, as a model of the whole Cosmos, but as a “pattern” or “imitation” of “the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.” (Heb. 8:2).[4]  Of course, if the true sanctuary does model the Cosmos then so would the copy.[5]

Cosmic Temple and Typology

However, the usual way this idea is presented in evangelical theology is as a theological motif: a launching pad for a certain typological reading of biblical eschatology.  This motif also depends much on seeing parallels in the way the ancients in other civilizations built their temples to represent their understanding of the universe.  As we’ve seen, sometimes the idea of Eden as a tri-tiered arrangement of garden, land of Eden, and outlying lands is invoked.[6]  Then extrapolation takes over, as one inference is laid upon another.

As imagination kicks into top gear we soon have Adam the priest-sentinel charged with pushing out the borders of Paradise into the wild spaces beyond his habitat while combating the evils which dwell there.  Adam does this so as to supposedly reenact the struggle of God against Chaos in Creation week.[7]  As the biblical story continues Abraham and Israel are “new Adams”[8]  doomed to recapitulate the same scenario, which only ends with Jesus, who, in His resurrection, empowers the Church (which is seen as the “new Israel”) to finish the job.  Presumably Adam (and the other “Adams”) was expected to do this feat literally, but it is now being done spiritually by Christ in the Church.

So according to Beale, who has written many pages describing the garden of Eden as a temple,

The prophecy of the latter-day temple begins in Christ’s first coming and the church through God’s special revelatory presence, the essence of the old temple…Christ was the first expression of this divine presence that had left the old temple, and then his Spirit indwelling the church was the continuing ongoing expression of the beginning latter-day temple.  All along, the symbolic design of the temple was to indicate that God’s “holy of holies” presence would eventually fill the entire cosmos, so that the cosmos, instead of a small physical house, would be the container of this glorious presence…at the climax of all history, the inaugurated indwelling presence of God completely fills the entire cosmos, which appears to have been the design of the Ezek.40-48 temple prophecy all along.[9]  

This scenario plays nicely into the hands of amillennial and postmillennial advocates.[10]  Eden, Adam, the land covenanted to Abraham, the tabernacle and the Jerusalem temple, the people of Israel, are all types of Christ and the Church: the “true temple,” which may typify the Divine Presence filling the whole Cosmos.  The proper interpretation of God’s program resides in the types.[11]  And they supposedly contain the grand story of the Bible, not the covenants, which (naturally) resist typological interpretation!

The groundswell of enthusiasm for this view comes into focus once one has bought into the typology.  The garden of Eden and its recapitulations are interpreted as types of the “true” eschatological temple being extended through Christ’s Church – Christ and His Body being the antitype.  This encourages; indeed it necessitates a supercessionist view of the eschaton.[12]

—————————————————————————-

[1]A straightforward reading of the texts in question makes it unmistakable that this was intended.  The problem then, for both Christian and Jewish interpreters, is what to do with this information.  Sadly, many Christians simply choose to disbelieve it because they adopt theological positions at variance with it.  Some Jewish writers see the Book of Hebrews as a piece of supercessionist polemics, and do not take seriously the agreement between Exodus and Hebrews.  For the latter, see Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple, 243.

[2] That man being the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

[3] What I mean by this is that Christ only completes His great work once Satan is forever vanquished and the “Creation Project” is at an end.  There is much still to be said about this theme.

[4] I.e. As opposed to the one Moses pitched.

[5] The reader is reminded that in the case of Israel’s temple the three-tiered arrangement of the structure is said to correspond to the three-tiered structure of the universe.

[6] This is what G. K. Beale does in, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 32-33, and G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim, God Dwells Among Us, 52

[7] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 40.  Here is a contrary opinion: “The red thread of opposition to pagan mythological notions is also visible in the fiat creation by raising the firmament or expanse (Gen. 1:6, 7) without any struggle whatsoever…The ancient cosmologies are not absorbed or reflected in Genesis but overcome.” – Gerhard F. Hasel and Michael G. Hasel, “The Unique Cosmology of Genesis 1 against Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian Parallels”, in The Genesis Creation Account and Its Reverberations in the Old Testament, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2015), ed. Gerald A. Klingbeil”, 22.  Cf. John W. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 67-68.

[8] E.g. G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 39, 60, 62.  Israel is called a “corporate Adam”.

[9] Ibid, 647.

[10] Even though it’s major proponents tend to be amillennial.

[11] I refer to this as typological predetermination.  It will be necessary to enter for a while into the subtleties, not to say the meanderings of typological interpretation.  But I shall do that in volume two.

[12] E.g. Beale entitles chapter 19 of his A New Testament Biblical Theology ; “The Story of the Eden Sanctuary, Israel’s Temple, and Christ and the Church as the Ongoing Eschatological Temple of the Spirit in the New-Creational Kingdom.”.  One cannot escape the prevalence of replacement theology in this book (e.g. 161, 173, 182 n.65, 215, 307, 574, 770, etc.). On page 211 the redeemed nations are called “authentic Israel,” and new covenant believers (i.e. the church) are “true Jerusalemites.” (671). In his comments on the supercessionist test-text Matt. 21:41 Beale speaks of God “rejecting ethnic national Israel as God’s true people” (680), and of Israel’s stewardship being taken from them and given to the gentiles (681). He says, “Jesus identifies himself with Daniel’s stone which smashes the ungodly nations, which also includes…Israel.” (682).  Proponents of this kind of approach regularly complain that they are not supercessionists, but that is because they have so attenuated the word that it no longer retains its true meaning.

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt.1)

“Israel’s temple was a symbolic shadow pointing to the eschatological “greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Heb. 9:11) in which Christ and the church would dwell and would form a part.  If so, it would seem to be the wrong approach for Christians to look in hope to the building of another temple in Jerusalem composed of earthly “bricks and mortar” as a fulfillment of the OT temple prophecies.” – G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 634

The above quotation presents one of the logical outcomes of adopting the position that the garden of Eden was designed as a “temple,” which in turn symbolized the created cosmos, which needed to be subordinated to its Creator.  This micro-cosmos Eden “temple” was to be expanded by mankind, we are told, until it covered the surface area of planet earth.  The tabernacle and the temple of Israel were related to the Eden “temple” in that they too were mini-cosmoses; yet they also functioned as types of the final temple, the church in Jesus Christ.  The church is the new and real temple which is to expand its “sacred space” until it spreads over the whole of creation.

Explaining the Cosmic Temple Idea[1]

If one spends time reading the older commentaries, articles and Old Testament theologies, one will find no mention of the idea of a Cosmic Temple.[2]  Today the situation has changed and there is a widespread consensus about cosmic symbolism in the ancient world, the Hebrew Bible included.[3] There are, to be sure, impressive parallels between ancient views about temple complexes, the concept of rest, the symbolism of trees and so on, in Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, and certain ideas in the Old Testament.

If we put to one side the vital question of the sufficiency of Scripture for the moment and concentrate on the issue at hand, we can put together a decent picture of the way the ancient Jews, among other peoples, saw the temple as symbolizing the universe.  But whether the Bible ought to be thought of as reflecting this same outlook, as some evangelicals claim[4], is an altogether separate question.

The basic concept involved is well expressed in the following quotations:

It is now widely known that archaeological ruins and texts from the Ancient Near East portray ancient temples as small models of heavenly temples or of the universe conceived of as a temple.[5]

The setting for the world’s true story is the cosmos God made.  In this cosmos he intends to be known and worshiped by his image and likeness.  In that sense, the world God made is a cosmic temple.  Within the cosmic temple God planted a garden, and it appears that [man] was charged to expand the borders of that garden until the glory of the Lord covered the dry ground as the waters covered the sea.[6]

The Ancient Near Eastern temples are also compatible with the…conclusion that the three sections of Israel’s temple represented the three parts of the cosmos.[7]

Our thesis is that Israel’s temple was composed of three main parts, each of which symbolized a major part of the cosmos: (1) the outer court represented the habitable world where humanity dwelt; (2) the holy place was emblematic of the visible heavens and its light sources; (3) the holy of holies symbolized the invisible dimension of the cosmos, where God and his heavenly hosts dwelt.[8], [9]

Eden as a Cosmic Temple?

    Greg Beale, who has been at the forefront of this movement, thinks that seeing Eden as a temple, fated for worldwide expansion, has a lot of promise, helping us to comprehend the Bible’s grand narrative.  His case is built up from allusions, hints, strands, and possible scenarios.  Beneath the surface it is all very speculative, and he often has to qualify his assertions (“possibly”, “perhaps”, “no explicit evidence”).  Rarely does he point to plain and clear statements of Scripture to prove his thesis.  For example, if one asks, where is this idea most clearly spelled out?  Beale answers with Ezekiel 28:

Ezekiel 28:18 is probably, therefore, the most explicit place anywhere in canonical literature where the Garden of Eden is called a temple.[10]

The passage in question reads:

You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities, by the iniquity of your trading; therefore I brought fire from your midst; it devoured you, and I turned you to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all who saw you. – Ezekiel 28:18

As Beale explains in another place, “Ezek. 28:18 says that the sin of the glorious figure ‘profaned your sanctuaries,’ which alludes to Eden as a temple being profaned.”[11]

The Hebrew word miqdashim (“sanctuaries”) is plural, but it may be that the plural is used simply for emphasis[12], so that in itself does not derail the identification of Adam as the “glorious figure” or Eden as a profaned temple.”  But everyone will admit that the passage has been given many interpretations, and the “Adam interpretation” feels less than airtight.[13]  Bruce Waltke believes that, “the description of the king of Tyre is not apt for Adam.  Rather, the imagery fits Satan quite well; an angelic cherub in God’s court…”[14]  When all is said and done, if Ezekiel 28:18 is the most unambiguous place where Eden is referred to as a temple the thesis does not enjoy a very solid biblical foundation.  (more…)

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 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…)