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.

 

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)”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)”

The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism? – Ryrie and Feinberg (Revised)

I made a bit of a hash of the initial post on this because I was in a rush.  Here is an extended and revised version (which is what I should have posted).  It questions the third essential of Ryrie’s proposed sine qua non.

The picture of history that is constructed comes from the base of consistently applied principles of grammatico-historical (G-H) hermeneutics.[i]  The Bible is to read as one would read any other book.  The presupposition here is not that the Bible is like any other book.  Rather, when it is read like one would read another book it becomes apparent that it is unique.  But only plain sense, literal interpretation yields the self-attestation of Scripture with its corollary of ultimate authority.

It is the consistency with which G-H interpretation is employed that makes one a dispensationalist.[ii]  This has been admitted even by those who have opposed it.[iii]  Consistent application of the principles of G-H interpretation, then, is the foremost trait of a dispensational theology.  Ryrie, in his delineation of the essential aspects of the system, actually places this characteristic second behind a fundamental distinction between Israel and the Church.[iv]  This subject bears further investigation.

Ryrie, Feinberg, and the Sine Qua Non  

On pages 38-41 of Ryrie’s important book on Dispensationalism, the author provides what he believes are the three indispensable marks of a dispensationalist.  The first of these essential beliefs is a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church.  Ryrie states: “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive.  The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and the one who does will.”[v]

The other two components of Ryrie’s sine qua non are, as we have seen, a consistent use of normal, plain, or literal interpretation when studying the Scriptures, and, more controversially, a doxological (rather than a christological or soteriological) goal of God in human history.[vi]

However, it should be pointed out that not all dispensationalists completely agree with Ryrie.[vii]  One notable scholar who demurs is John Feinberg of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  Feinberg believes Ryrie’s three essentials need nuancing.[viii]  He also thinks there are six things which, if properly defined, distinguish a consistent dispensationalist.[ix]  They are:

  • Multiple senses of terms like “Jew,” “seed of Abraham”
  • Hermeneutics
  • Covenant promises to Israel
  • A distinctive future for ethnic Israel
  • The Church as a distinctive organism
  • A distinct philosophy of history.
  •   Interestingly, and which pertains more to the present discussion, Feinberg breaks down the traditionally cast distinction between the Church and Israel into the following:

Multiple Senses of the Term “Seed of Abraham.”

  1. First, he defines what he calls the ethnic or national sense, which relates to physical Israel.
  2. Next is the political sense, which calls to mind the geo-political entity that was Israel. As a political state there were citizens who were not physical Hebrews.
  3. Then there is the spiritual sense. Under this identification are those who are the Seed of Abraham because they share like faith in God.  A person could be described this whether Jew or Gentile (Paul even uses this designation to distinguish saved from unsaved Jews in Romans 9:6ff.
  4. Feinberg refers to the typological sense, wherein Old Testament Israel may function as a type of the Church (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:1-6).[x] 

With these more refined senses of what it means to be one of Abraham’s seed, Feinberg writes,

“What is distinctive of dispensational thinking is recognition of all senses of these terms as operative in both Testaments coupled with a demand that no sense (spiritual especially) is more important than any other, and that no sense cancels out the meaning and implications of the other senses.”[xi]

This is a helpful development in view of the oft-cited passages routinely produced by covenant theologians to prove that the Church is now Israel (e.g. Rom. 2:28; 9:6-7;11,16-25; Eph. 2:11-18; Phil. 3:3, etc.).

Ryrie’s Third Sine Qua Non Revisited

In contrast to covenant theology, which, because of its slavish adherence to the “covenant of grace”, must view all things soteriologically, dispensationalists believe the over-arching plan of God is the promotion of His glory through multifaceted means.  As Ryrie puts it, “…covenant theology makes the all-encompassing means of manifesting the glory of God the plan of redemption.”[xii]  Elsewhere he declares that, “The Bible itself clearly teaches that salvation, important and wonderful as it is, is not an end in itself but is rather a means to the end of glorifying God.”[xiii]

In another place Ryrie comments:

Scripture is not human-centered, as though salvation were the principal point, but God-centered, because His glory is at the center.  The glory of God is the primary principle that unifies all the dispensations, the program of salvation being just one of the means by which God glorifies Himself.  Each successive revelation of God’s plan for the ages, as well as His dealings with the elect, nonelect, angels, and nations all manifest His glory.[xiv]

Nevertheless, we think Ryrie has overreached himself on this third point.  While the first two are certainly essentials if one is to be a normative dispensationalist, the third is not.  Stallard, for example, has shown that, “the doxological center for the Bible in Ryrie is replaced by a redemptive center in Gaebelein’s statements about the purpose of revelation.”[xv]

It is very clear that one can be a dispensationalist and not believe that the glory of God demonstrated in a multifaceted scheme is a critical belief of the system, just as one can be a covenant theologian and believe that it is – albeit the other matters definitely play second fiddle to salvation.[xvi]    In fact, I would argue that most dispensationalists are unsure just what the third strand of Ryrie’s sine qua non means!  Continue reading “The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism? – Ryrie and Feinberg (Revised)”

CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (2)

Part One

Footnotes follow on from last time.

The Hermeneutical Landscape

The philosopher of religion Gregory Clark admits that, “[some] sources regularly describe the variety of hermeneutical approaches practiced today as ‘dizzying’.”[22]

In closing his article Clark writes:

“Hermeneutics as a discipline is as wild and woolly as it has ever been, and its future shape and even its existence are impossible to predict.”[23]

Reading the “movers and shakers” in evangelical hermeneutics today is a little foreboding. It might be well to start off then by reminding ourselves of a standard definition of hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics…is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.[24]

It would be helpful to add to this Ramm’s observation that it “stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.”[25]  In addition, Ramm added that what the interpreter is looking for is the single-meaning of any passage: “But here we must remember the old adage: ‘Interpretation is one; application is many.’ This means that there is only one meaning to a passage of Scripture, which is determined by careful study.”[26]

Contrast Ramm’s words with those of the prominent British Old Testament scholar David J. A. Clines who writes:

I have been impressed in this study [of Esther] by the value of as many strategies as possible for reading a text. As a critic of the text, I should hate to be restricted by a methodological purism. What I have noticed is that different strategies confirm, complement or comment on other strategies, and so help develop an integrated but polychromatic reading.[27]

Or again,

My experience with Psalm 23 was enough to convince me that ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are not categories to be applied to interpretations, that, as far as I could see, a text can mean anything at all, and that I myself was (oxymoronically) an absolute indeterminist.[28]

Clines exults that he can explore the text of the Bible with complete methodological abandon. This freedom has not come to him through the mere exercise of the imagination. It is a result of studying the philosophical hermeneutics of people like Roland Barthes and Richard Rorty, both of whom teach that subjectivity is desirable in reading a text.[29]  Objectivity is a mirage, a dream perpetuated by the sort of naiveté demonstrated only by intransigent ultra conservatives.

It behooves us then to briefly chart some of what has been going on in the world of mainline hermeneutics so that we might better access what conservative interpreters are being influenced by, not to mention what dispensationalists are increasingly likely to come up against.

Schleiermacher

Modern hermeneutics started with F. D. E. Schleiermacher (d. 1834). Operating from a background that mixed German Pietism and Kantian Idealism, Schleiermacher believed that to confine biblical hermeneutics to a set of previously drawn up “rules of interpretation” was to decide the outcome of ones exegesis before the text had been analyzed. He stated that for any interpretation to take place the interpreter must provisionally know something about text itself. This he referred to as “preunderstanding.”[30]  There must, he said, be some preliminary understanding of a subject, say, “love,” before that subject can be comprehended from the page. As R. E. Palmer puts it,

“Is it not vain to speak of love to one who has not known love, or of the joys of learning to those who reject it? One must already have, in some measure, a knowledge of the matter being discussed.”[31]

Schleiermacher, then, proceeded to divide hermeneutics into two components, the linguistic and the psychological.[32]  The linguistic or grammatical approach, with which we are all familiar, whereby, “the reader needs to use objective, grammatical methods to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of original languages and the historical and literary contexts of a text.”[33] This he believed in strongly, and, in fact, he made several important clarifications along this line.[34]  But this was not enough. For Schleiermacher, and for many mainline interpreters since his time, the reader has to become connected with the original author’s psyche at the time and place he wrote. This psychological aspect he called “divination.” As he himself said, “The divinatory is that in which one transforms oneself into the other person in order to grasp his individuality directly.”[35]

There must be an attentive acculturation of the reader to the personality of the writer. The reader must “reexperience the thoughts of the author”[36]  He must not only enter his world but, with imagination and empathy, read the author’s intellectual and emotional experience, even his sub-conscience.[37]  If there is any sympathy between subject and object there is an “inspiration” already in the reader which allows him to do this.[38]

Schleiermacher didn’t believe the interpretation ended at a certain point in the process. There would be constant interplay between the reader and the text and the world of understanding of both.[39]  Not only that, but the new understanding generated by the process teaches the reader’s understanding (that is, his “preunderstanding”) before he sits down to reread.

“The fuller (or more accurate) understanding “speaks back” to the preunderstanding to correct and to reshape it. This revision contributes to a better understanding. Hence, to reread a “difficult” book, or even to undertake successive readings, may bring about a deeper understanding of it”.[40]

There is no doubt about Schleiermacher’s influence upon hermeneutical theory. He prepared the ground for all the hermeneutics theorists down to the present day.[41]

Gadamer[42]

Hans-Georg Gadamer (d. 2002), was a student of both Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann. His work on hermeneutics, particularly his tome Truth and Method have been enormously influential. Gadamer is responsible, perhaps more than any other, for shifting the emphasis of interpretation away from authorial intention and on to the reader.[43]  He did this through the rhetorical device of the “two horizons” – the horizon of the biblical text and the horizon of the modern interpreter. The horizon of the reader (also called the “Horizon of Meaning”) involves not only the reader, but the methodological parameters set down, usually unconsciously, by the community of which he is a part. Possible meanings, then, are circumscribed by the interpretive community. As the complexion of the community changes, so do the parameters of viable interpretation and thus the range of possible meanings.[44]  By contrast the “Horizon of the Text” is that “set of assumptions that underlie a text and establish its point of view within its own historical circumstances.”[45]

The aim of hermeneutics is to seek “for the place where the horizons of the text and the interpreter intersect or engage.”[46]  This concept may at first seem innocent enough, since one cannot deny that because of the different historical, cultural and psychological life-situations of ancient author and modern reader one can never be certain that one has fully understood the author’s meaning, only that one has very probably understood it.[47]

But this isn’t what Gadamer means, for he goes on to say that each reader’s situation is different: One cannot affirm the existence (and importance) of one horizon and not others. When we – as twenty-first century American evangelicals – understand Scripture, we do so on the basis of our own horizon.[48]

Thus, one must take into consideration the cultural context of the reader, and, since we all have a cultural context, my interpretation of a biblical passage has no more right to validity than, say, a different interpretation by someone from India.[49] As one writer illustrates the matter,

A linguist asks a group made up of Africans and missionaries to tell him the main point of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. The Europeans speak of Joseph as a man who remained faithful to God no matter what happened to him. The Africans, on the other hand, point to Joseph as a man who, no matter how far he traveled, never forgot his family.[50]

Where does this leave us as interpreters?  For many followers of modern hermeneutical theory it casts more or less doubt upon the idea of objectivity in Bible interpretation.[51]  For this reason Gadamer has been described as standing “on the boundary-line between modern and post-modern thought.”[52]


[22] Greg Clark, “Contemporary Hermeneutics,” in Scot McKnight & Grant Osbourne, editors, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Apollos, 2004), 115.
[23] Ibid, 117.
[24] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 20.
[25] Ramm, 11.
[26] Ibid, 113.
[27] Quoted by Craig G. Bartholomew, “Postmodernity and Biblical Interpretation,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 604.
[28] Ibid.
[29] See W. Randolph Tate, Interpreting the Bible: A Handbook of Terms and Methods, (Peabody, MT: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).
[30] Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons, (Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980), 103. This book, more than any other, is responsible for much of the re-thinking about hermeneutics that has been going-on within evangelical scholarship. Thomas contends, “This… work radically altered the way that many evangelicals interpret the Bible.” – Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 18.
[31] Cited in Thiselton, 104.
[32] David K. Clark, To Know And Love God: Method For Theology, (Wheaton, Ill, Crossway Books, 2003), 104-105.
[33] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” in, eds., Scot McKnight & Grant R. Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 109.
[34] David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 163. Hirsch called Schleiermacher’s aphorisms, found in the first part of his lectures on Hermeneutik, “among the most profound contributions to hermeneutics.” – E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 263.
[35] Cited in Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 107.
[36] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” 109.
[37] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 163.
[38] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 72-73.
[39] Thiselton, 104.
[40] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” in Gen. Ed., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 281.
Note. Schleiermacher spoke of a hermeneutical circle, but the idea of a “spiral” was seen as closer to the mark. A good definition of the hermeneutical spiral is found in Thiselton’s conception of it when he states that “the emphasis lies not only on the inter-action between the parts and the whole, but on a process of revision which modifies the interpreter’s exploratory understanding in the light of the text.” – Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, (London: Marshall Pickering, 1992), 222.
[41] Schleiermacher gave hermeneutics a much wider brief than it had enjoyed prior to his time. He basically made it a way of knowing, not just the text before the reader, but the reader’s world. He moved it into the realm of epistemology.
[42] I move straight from Schleiermacher to Gadamer to save time.A fuller study would have to take into account the work of Dilthey, Heidegger, and Bultmann.
[43] Gadamer emphasizes the text as a distinct voice independent of the author.In his hands this ends up handing interpretive authority to the reader.Hence, the radical form of “reader-response” theory.
[44] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 170.
[45] Ibid, emphasis added.
[46] Harvie M. Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” in ed., Harvie M. Conn, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 188.
[47] Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 17-18, 255, 263.
[48] Bruce Ellis Benson, ‘“Now I Would Not Have You Ignorant”: Derrida, Gadamer, Hirsch and Husserl on Authors’ Intentions,” in eds., Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez and Dennis L. Okholm, Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, (Downers Grove, Il: IVP, 2004), 189.
This is the text of a Symposium held at Wheaton College in 2001. The essays in the book clearly illustrate the kind of “downgrade” which is in process within at least some evangelical institutions.
[49] Thus, there arises the problem of “contextualization.” Upon which see, David K. Clark, To Know And Love God, 99-131. In my opinion Clark goes too far in his development of an “Evangelical” approach to contextualization by not sufficiently seeing the need to critique differing evangelical “cultures.” An even more surefooted appraisal of contextualization which takes the whole “Seeker-sensitive” phenomenon into consideration is David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
[50] Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” 188-189.
[51] One might think of postconservative theologians like F. LeRon Shults.
[52] Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 314.

Following Jesus’ Guidance in Two Important Subjects in Matthew 24

The Olivet Discourse has been a battleground for interpreters from the various schools of eschatology for aeons.  Even futurist premillennial writers offer different opinions on the passage.  Nothing is going to be solved for everyone here, but I do want to call attention to the way that Jesus introduces two themes and later comes back to them again.  If we allow that the Lord is referring to these themes by recapitulating them in His discourse then we have a helpful guide to some sticky problems, particularly the matter of the people “taken” in Matthew 24:40-42.

The Arrival of False Christ’s and False Prophets

And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. – Matt. 24:4-5

At first glance it might appear that Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples, but if that is true can we say this prophecy was fulfilled?  And why would the disciples be fooled by them anyway?

It is better to take seriously the inclusion of proleptic language, which is used by Jesus throughout the chapter.  Proleptic language is anticipatory language, usually in light of far future events.  John 14:1-4.  In those famous verses Jesus uses the pronoun “you” to refer to His disciples in verses 1 and 4.  But in verses 2 and 3 “you” does not refer to the disciples but to those believers who will be living at the time of Christ’s return. Certainly we can see that “you” is used proleptically in Matthew 24:15, 33, 42, and 44.

Once we think about the verses as proleptic they can be matched up with these later verses which are set in the days just before the Lord’s coming:

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.Matt. 24:23-25

In this later passage the false christs and false prophets deceive, not by lamely claiming to be such, but by impressively demonstrating great power to perform signs and wonders.  This means that in the early part of Matthew 24 Jesus is skipping the first question of the disciples (in v.3) and is focusing on the question about “the end” and His coming.

The Taking Away of the Man in the Field and the Woman at the Mill

Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. – Matt. 24:40-42

As noticed above, this text has often been thought by Dispensationalists to relate to the “days of Noah” (vv. 37-39).  In that scenario the comparison is drawn between those who stayed (in the Ark) and those who were swept away by the judgment of the flood.  The trouble with this view is that it would seem to demand that the angels gather every sinner and bring them to judgment.  Christ will be along soon to dispense wrath and destruction at Armageddon.  Some have even thought up the ingenious position that the pretribulation rapture is inserted here in retrogressive fashion.

But if we permit this text to be interpreted by these words of Jesus we get something different (and I would argue, more natural):

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, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. – Matt. 24:29-31.

As stated above, the text has often been interpreted as implying the ones taken are taken to judgment, but I have always felt that it was counter-intuitive.  What we have if we allow verses 40-42 to be interpreted by verses 29-31 is an angelic rescue right before the Lord descends in wrath (cf. Isa. 63:1-6 and Rev. 19:11-16).

This both makes sense of the passage and allows one part of Jesus’ speech to be interpreted by another part.  I rather like that.