Hermeneutics

Why I Read The Scholars Yet Still Believe That God Means What He Says

A rerun of an older post

Recently, I have (not for the first time) been immersing myself in the works of writers who would disagree very strongly with the views espoused at Telos and by traditional dispensationalists in general.  Trawling through these big books, paying attention to each argument and their use of Scripture, and repeatedly coming across assertions that seem to make God guilty of double-talk is, to be brutally honest, a sort of self-imposed torture.  So why do I do it?  I read these works because I want to be informed about the latest arguments against my position.  I want to keep abreast of how many evangelical scholars think.  I don’t want to be a Bible teacher and theologian who is ignorant of what’s going on around him.

Another reason I read books by those with whom I disagree is because if a good argument arises which demonstrates I am wrong, I want to see it.  So far, I have to report that I have not found any argument which impresses me that way.  In fact, the more I read of these men, the more convinced I become that they are, hermeneutically speaking, barking up the wrong tree.

Let me give you an example:

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism – G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431 my emphasis.

You might need to read that statement more than once.  What Beale says is quite startling.  Here we have a respected evangelical NT scholar asserting that OT prophecies about the kingdom had fulfillments which differed from what the prophets themselves predicted!  Since the Author of Scripture is God, we have God giving His prophets a misleading prophecy.  God puts confusing words in the prophets’ mouths!  Naturally, Beale would cry foul.  But think about it.  In Deuteronomy 18:22 we have God telling His people to how they are to test a true prophet sent from Him:

when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.

In this passage God plainly tells His people that they can spot a true prophet from a false prophet by whether what they say will happen actually transpires.  But doesn’t Beale’s view of prophecy render God’s tests of a true prophet utterly futile?

If, as Beale says, an OT prediction can be “transformed” in “unexpected ways” (both terms he uses), we must ask, “How then is one to know if what a prophet has spoken is true or false?”  It seems the only way to really know the answer is if God Himself tells us it occurred, but the fulfillment came about in an unexpected way.

But if that is the case, how could we recognize a false prophet?  If what a true prophet predicted need not come to fulfillment in the way his words would cause one to expect, couldn’t a false prophet declare that what he had predicted came to pass, but also in an unexpected fashion?  Wouldn’t we need God to tell us that what such and such a prophet said was false?  If someone answers, “No, we would know someone was false if what he said didn’t come to pass.”  But that brings us back to Deut. 18:22, and the problem of testing prophets if their prophecies can be unexpectedly “transformed” and, therefore, the fulfillment “not be the kind of [thing] prophesied by the OT,” as Beale puts it.  This reduces God’s Word to absurdity.

I believe that a lot of Reformed theology, when faced with hard questions, reduces down to nominalism.  Nominalism is basically the view that the essence of a thing is summed up in the name (nomina) one appends to it.  Thus, for example, God is good, not because He is essentially good in His character, but because He calls Himself good (which actually reduces to the fact that we call Him good).  This is a subject I need to write about in another post, but I hope you see how this example applies to my subject here: if some scholar says that what God prophesies in the OT can be “fulfilled” in unexpected ways in line with the Beale quotation above, then any declaration of fulfillment can only be on the basis of God saying, “that is transformed and fulfilled in this!”  Until the original (misleading) words were deciphered no one could identify the their fulfillment.  The “fulfillment” would be just that only because God said it was a fulfillment, not because it corresponded to the original words of the prediction.

Imagine someone telling you they were going to do something specific; say, meet you at a certain coffee shop at 9 am next Thursday morning.  You duly arrive there at 9am on the designated day and he never shows.  Then you call him later and he asks you what’s wrong.  He did what he told you he was going to do.  He met another friend at a restaurant at noon.  What he told you earlier was a type of what he actually did.  Hence, he did fulfill his promise, just in an unexpected way!  Who would accept such a lame excuse?  Yet Beale seems to think that is how God operates!

Here’s another quote:

When we see that Israel is, according to the Old Testament, the last Adam, and as later Jewish tradition understood it [they cite a c. 3rd to 5th century AD text], the one undoing the sin of Adam, we see the background for Paul’s understanding of Christ as the last Adam, because as history unfolds, Jesus accomplishes in his person and work what God intended for Israel as a people. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 228

Gentry thinks Israel is “the last Adam,” not because the Bible calls the nation by that name, but because he spies a motif or pattern which he thinks implies such a teaching.  Then he refers the reader to a Jewish midrashic text to substantiate his point.  The Jewish text cited by Gentry (Genesis Rabbah 14) also tells us that Adam was formed with a tail like the other animals (actually, the part he cites [14:6] is equally wacky!).  Moreover, this text was written at least three centuries after the Ascension of Christ. (more…)

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Ten Lines of Evidence for Interpreting Ezekiel 40-48 as Depicting a Literal Temple

Image: Tom Vanderwell

Here is a piece which originally belonged in some correspondence I had with a covenant theologian.  I have added a few things, but I think it makes a decent stand-alone article. 

Some amillennialists think that the original hearers of Ezekiel couldn’t comprehend a future glorious kingdom where Israel is regenerate, and Messiah reigns in justice and righteousness from Jerusalem.  That they couldn’t see a time where priests serve God in a new temple.

I think they could in fact do this from attending to the following passages: Num. 25:10-13; Deut. 30:6f., or Psa. 2, 89, 105, 106, Isa. 2, 11, 26-27, 35, 43, 44, 45, 51, 62; Jer. 23, 30, 31, 33, or Hos. 2:16f. or Mic. 4, or Zeph. 3, or indeed from Ezek. 34, 36-37.

It seems that Ezekiel’s near contemporary Zechariah (6:12-13, 8:1-3; 14:16f.), and Malachi (3:2-3) believed these things too. Zechariah, for example, predicts a future temple built after Jerusalem has been changed topographically where the King is worshiped at the temple (Zech. 14).

No premillennialist, or Dispensationalist (or Biblical Covenantalist) would say that Ezekiel’s audience could know the time when the temple would be built.  They could only know that it would be built.  They could know this because Ezekiel’s temple could only be constructed…

a). once Israel were no longer under the Mosaic covenant – because the service etc. of Ezekiel’s temple does not agree with Moses

b). after topographical changes occurred which would make the huge project possible

c). once the glory of the Lord was ready to return to bless Israel and dwell with them forever.  That didn’t happen in Nehemiah’s day, and it hasn’t happened yet, so logically it must either be the future (or else these chapters form one of the greatest circumlocutions in all of literature!)

Again, Ezekiel didn’t know that the Messianic Kingdom would last a thousand years. He didn’t have John’s Revelation (some who have the Book of Revelation still don’t know that Christ will reign a thousand years!). We don’t have to demonstrate anything that wasn’t revealed after Ezekiel’s time to realize that his original audience knew he was referring to a future temple.

But here are ten evidences that Ezekiel meant us to understand him as referring to a literal temple building complex that will be erected in future Israel.

————————————————————————————-

1. Ezekiel calls it a temple over and over.  E.g. In Ezekiel 40:5, 45 – where the priestly function is mentioned; in 41:6-10 – where its chambers are described in pedantic detail; in 42:8 – where the length of the chambers depends on their position relative to the sanctuary; in 43:11 – where God declares: “make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes, and do them.”  How can any reader take these details seriously and find their fulfillment in the NT church?

Moving forward in the passage, in Ezekiel 43:21 a bull is to be offered as a sin-offering outside the house; in 45:20 – an atonement is made for the simple on the seventh day of the month; in 46:24 – sacrifices are boiled at designated places; and in 48:21 – the huge allotment for the sanctuary is measured (it is very different to New Jerusalem in Rev. 21!).

2. There are laws to perform in the temple (Ezek. 43:11-12).  Quite how one can perform these commands in the church is a mystery beyond the mystery of the church itself.

3. Ezekiel stipulates two divisions of priests, only one of whom (Zadokites) can approach the Lord (44:15).  These Zadokites are given land separate from other Levites (48:11).

4. Ezekiel refers to New Moons and sacrifices (46:1, 6).  New Jerusalem has no need of moonlight (Rev. 21:23).

5. The tribes of Israel are given specific allotments of land all around the temple (Ezek. 48)

6.  The two temples at the beginning and the end of the Book of Ezekiel form a structural arc.  The first temple is literal.  Nothing is said about the more detailed temple at the end of Ezekiel being a mere symbol.  In fact, in Ezekiel 8:3ff. “the visions of God” recorded what really did occur (cf. 40:2), not what would symbolically happen.

7. In Ezekiel 10 the Shekinah leaves the actual temple in Jerusalem by the East Gate.  In chapter 43 it returns via the East Gate and remains.

8. A sanctuary is mentioned in the new covenant chapters (Ezekiel 36 & 37).  For example, after Israel has been cleansed, God declares: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever.” (Ezek. 37:26. Cf. 43:7).

This indicates something about the timing of the fulfillment of the temple prophecy.  This agrees with the timing indicated in the last verse of Ezekiel: “the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The LORD is there” (Ezek. 48:35)

9. At least three times Ezekiel is commanded to pay close attention to specifics: 40:4; 43:10-11; 44:5.  The symbolic interpretation ignores these details when seeking to explain the meaning of the vision.  If an interpretation passes over what God has told us to pay close attention to, that interpretation must be suspect.

10. A future temple is necessary in light of God’s everlasting covenant with the Zadokites’ ancestor Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13; Psa. 106:30-31. Cf. Jer. 33:14f., Mal. 3:1-4).  Zechariah 6:12-13; 14:8-9, 16f., describes temple conditions in Israel which have never yet existed, but which match Ezekiel 36-48.

Please look up the references above and see if I have distorted what the verses say.  I have simply allowed the Bible to speak.  If someone doesn’t believe these evidences and instead wants to interpret a portion of the Bible that is longer than First Corinthians as a “word-picture” or “type”, then let them explain their interpretation from the text.  I think that is a reasonable position.

 

Archive: Forty Reasons for Not Reinterpreting the OT by the NT: The First Twenty

I have been made aware that a group of New covenant theologians have discussed some my list of forty arguments for not reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament.  I intend to write a Response soon.  But I thought it worthwhile to repost the original list.  I have yet to encounter a serious attempt to refute these Reasons.

Introduction

It seems to be almost an axiom within contemporary, evangelical Bible interpretation that the New Testament must be allowed to reinterpret the Old Testament. That is, the New Testament is believed to have revelatory priority over the Old Testament, so that it is considered the greatest and final revelation. And because the NT is the final revelation of Jesus Christ, the only proper way to understand the OT is with the Christ of the NT directing us. Though proponents of this hermeneutic may define “reinterpret” with slippery words like “expansion” or “foreshadowing,” they are still insisting the OT can be, and in some cases, should be, reinterpreted through the lens of the NT.
Not unusually the admission is made that the original recipients of the OT covenants and promises would not have conceived of God fulfilling His Word to them in the ways in which we are often told the NT demands they were fulfilled. This belief in the interpretative priory of the NT over the OT is accepted as “received truth” by a great many evangelical scholars and students today. But there are corollaries which are often left unexplored or ill-considered. Did the prophets of the OT speak and write in a sort of Bible Code which had to be picked through and deciphered by Apostolic authors resulting in hazy allusions and unanticipated concretizations of what seemed to be unambiguous language? Did God speak to men in times past in symbolic language so that we today could unravel what He really meant? Doesn’t this strongly imply that the OT was not really for them, but for us?

Here are forty reasons (there could be more but it’s a good number) why a student of the Bible should not adopt the common tactic of reading the New Testament back into the Old, with the resultant outcome that the clear statements of the Old Testament passages in context are altered and mutated to mean something which, without universal prevenient prophetic inspiration, no Old Testament saint (or New Testament saint who did not have access to the right Apostolic books) could have known.

In presenting these objections to the reinterpretation of OT passages by favored interpretations of the NT I am not throwing down the gauntlet to anyone. If someone wishes to respond to these objections I would be fascinated to read what they have to say. But no one is under pressure to agree with me. However, I hope these forty reasons will be given thoughtful consideration by anybody who comes across them.

I believe, of course, that the NT does throw much light upon the OT text. But it never imposes itself upon the OT in such a way as to essentially treat it as a sort of ‘palimpsest’ over which an improved NT message must be inscribed. By way of illustration, there are huge ramifications in making a dubious allusion in John 7:38 to Zechariah 14:8 a basis for a doctrine of the expansion of the spiritual temple over the face of the earth. Such a questionable judgment essentially evaporates huge amounts of OT material from, e.g., Numbers 25; Psalm 106; Isaiah 2; 33; 49; Jeremiah 30-33; Ezekiel 34; 36-37; 40-48; Amos 9; Micah 4-5; Zephaniah 3; Zechariah 2; 6; 8; 12-14; and Malachi 3, as well as all those other passages which intersect with them. I believe that the cost is too high as well as quite unnecessary.

With that introduction in mind, here, then, are my forty objections for consideration:

1. Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT. Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this. No Apostolic writer felt it necessary to place in our hands this hermeneutical key, which they supposedly used when they wrote the NT.

2. Since the OT was the Bible of the Early Christians it would mean no one could be sure they had correctly interpreted the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.

3. If the OT is in need of reinterpretation because many of its referents (e.g. Israel, land, king, throne, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, Zion, etc.) in actual fact refer symbolically to Jesus and the NT Church, then these OT “symbols” and “types” must be seen for what they are in the NT. But the NT never does plainly identify the realities and antitypes these OT referents are said to point towards. Thus, this assumption forces the NT into saying things it never explicitly says (e.g. that the Church is “the New Israel,” the “land” is the new Creation, or the seventh day Sabbath is now the first day “Christian Sabbath”).

4. Furthermore, this approach forces the OT into saying things it really does not mean (e.g. Ezekiel 43:1-7, 10-12).

5. It would require the Lord Jesus to have used a brand new set of hermeneutical rules in, e.g., Lk. 24:44; rules not accessible until the arrival of the entire NT, and not fully understood even today. These would have to include rules for each “genre”, which would not have been apparent to anyone interpreting the OT on its own terms.

6. If the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT then what it says on its own account cannot be trusted, as it could well be a “type,” or even part of an obtuse redemptive state of affairs to be alluded to and reinterpreted by the NT.

7. Thus, it would mean the seeming clear predictions about the Coming One in the OT could not be relied upon to present anything but a typological/symbolic picture which would need deciphering by the NT. The most clearly expressed promises of God in the OT (e.g. Jer. 31:31f.; 33:15-26; Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14:16-21) would be vulnerable to being eventually turned into types and shadows.

8. It would excuse anyone (e.g. the scribes in Jn. 5:35f.) for not accepting Jesus’ claims based on OT prophecies – since those prophecies required the NT to reinterpret them. Therefore, the Lord’s reprimand of the scribes in the context would have been unreasonable.

9. Any rejection of this, with a corresponding assertion that the OT prophecies about Christ did mean what they said, would create the strange hermeneutical paradox of finding clear, plain-sense testimony to Christ in the OT while claiming the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT. One could not maintain this position without calling the whole assumption under review.

10. The divining of these OT types and shadows is no easy task, especially as the NT does not provide any specific help on the matter. NT scholarship has never come to consensus on these matters, let alone “the common people” to whom the NT was purportedly written.

11. Thus, this approach pulls a “typological shroud” over the OT, denying to its Author the credit of meaning what He says and saying what He means (e.g. what does one make of the specificity of Jer. 33:14-26 or Zeph. 3:9-20?).

12. If the Author of the OT does not mean what He appears to say, but is in reality speaking in types and shadows, which He will apparently reveal later, what assurance is there that He is not still speaking in types and shadows in the NT? Especially is this problem intensified because many places in the NT are said to be types and shadows still (e.g. the Temple in 2 Thess. 2 and Rev. 11).

13. This view imposes a “unity” on the Bible which is symbolic and metaphorical only. Hence, taking the Bible in a normal, plain-sense should destroy any unity between the Testaments. What we mean by “normal, plain-sense” is the sense scholars advocating this view take for granted their readers will adopt with them, which we would identify as “literal.”

14. However, a high degree of unity can be achieved by linking together the OT and NT literature in a plain-sense, even though every question the interpreter may have will not be answered. Hence, this position that the NT must reinterpret the OT ignores or rejects the fact that, taken literally (in the sense defined above) the OT makes good sense. But in ignoring this truth, Christians may pull down upon themselves the same kind of accusations of defensive special-pleading which they accuse religions like Islam and Mormonism of using.

15. Saying the types and shadows in the OT (which supposedly include the land given to Israel, the throne in Jerusalem, the temple of Ezekiel, etc.), are given their proper concrete meanings by the NT implies neither the believer nor the unbeliever can comprehend God’s promises solely from the OT.

16. Thus, no unbeliever could be accused of unbelief so long as they only possessed the OT, since the apparatus for belief (the NT) was not within their grasp.

17. This all makes mincemeat of any claim for the perspicuity of Scripture. At the very least it makes this an attribute possessed only by the NT, and only tortuous logic could equate the word “perspicuity” to such wholesale symbolic and typological approaches.

18. Thus, the OT is deprived of its own hermeneutical integrity. This would render warnings such as that found in Proverbs 30:5-6 pointless, since the meaning of the OT words must be added to in order to find their concrete references.

19. A corollary to this is that the authority of the OT to speak in its own voice is severely undermined.

20. In consequence of the above the status of the OT as “Word of God” would be logically inferior to the status of the NT. The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.

 

“A Possible Problem with Your Reasoning”

I am in the middle of several things right now, but I had the idea of rehearsing a recent interchange with some CT’s and adding a few reflections.  I think it typifies what I tend to run into when trying to communicate my reservations about CT.  I kick it off with a remark made by my main interlocutor about God’s way of communicating.  He declared that,   

God may do other than what the original audience understood. God’s promises will be fulfilled exactly in the way He intended.

I replied with: “Well, that’s the trouble isn’t it? If God raised expectations in the OT which He didn’t intend to carry through, doesn’t that make Him an ambiguous communicator at best (recall Jer. 33:17-26!), and disingenuous at worse?

I then added:

What inside line does —— have that our understanding of God’s promises in the NT won’t be “other” than what we are led to understand? And how are we to put faith in the words?”

My CT interlocutor came back with (numerals and highlighting added):

To suggest that someone’s position you disagree with makes God disingenuous seems desperate. To imagine that every audience understood God’s intentions is naive.  (1) The first disciples of Jesus after three years with Him didn’t get it. (2) There’s only trouble if one is looking for expectations which weren’t the intention of the original author. Did God raise expectations or did the audience? God doesn’t carry out everyone’s expectations. (3) We know for a fact that the Jews of Jesus day had expectations they read into the prophecies. Jesus overturned them and clarified them as did the apostles. Many in His day were looking for a restored national kingdom. Jesus inaugurated His kingdom according to His Father’s will not according to human expectations.  (4) As I said, God may do more than what was understood or expected. God’s promises to us now may be “other” than what we understand. They may be more. They won’t be less.

My reflections:

(1) What is it that Jesus’ disciples didn’t get?  According to the Gospels it was that He would have to die (e,g, Mk. 9:31-32; Matt. 16:21-24; Lk. 9:44-45), NOT that the kingdom, when it came, would be other than a literal restored nation of Israel.  There’s no hint of that.  Not a sausage.  Somebody’s ignoring the context.

(2) He dodged my question by pretending that it was the recipients’ fault that they had false expectations from God’s words.  This would imply also that their faith was false and misguided.  They believed the wrong thing!  But if God wanted us to have faith in Him, how else could He ensure it apart from communicating with words that would guarantee our trust was in the right thing?  If He promised over and over that Israel would be redeemed and restored to their land, which would become like Eden; where Christ would reign from Jerusalem, and God’s sanctuary would be a magnet for all peoples (cf. e.g., Isa. 11; Jer. 33; Ezek. 36-37; Zech.14), wouldn’t that be what was to be believed?  In what world would we be expected to believe anything else?

Notice the example I gave: I said “recall Jer. 33:17-26!”  If God did not mean exactly what He said in this passage, how could anyone be sure He means anything He says anywhere?  Indeed, isn’t that the very conclusion God wants us to come to after reading the passage? If someone will answer, “of course not, He meant that all of this is fulfilled in the Church”,  then the burden of proof has to be on them to explain how God did not raise false expectations.

(3) Notice the dogmatism here.  The expectations of the Jews about the kingdom were wrong.  Jesus set up the kingdom according to the Father’s will but not according to the expectations of the Jews.  Okay, but who raised the expectations?  That the Jews didn’t have it all right is clear (especially their need of righteousness).  But they had a lot right, and nowhere in the NT are we told that Jesus inaugurated the promised kingdom.  In fact, the Lord often talked about the kingdom as future.

Do you have expectations that your sins will be utterly wiped away and you will be given a glorious body and everlasting life?  Who raised those expectations?  Did you?  Did God? How do you know you have eternal life?  Is it not by trusting that God means what He said in the words you are trusting?

(4) For sure God may do more than we expect, but can He do completely differently than what He leads us to expect?

Another CT chipped in with this objection:

(1) Didn’t Jesus, make clear in John 16:25, that he said these things in figures of speech.  (2) They were still expecting him to setup the kingdom at this time (Acts 1:6). (3) They studied, carefully and they still did not understand how Christ’s promises and covenants would be fulfilled (1 Peter 1:10-12).

(4) Is not the purpose of prophecy and promises, not that we fully understand them today, but that when they are fulfilled, we can validate them against the Word of God?  

(1) John 16 has nothing to do with the kingdom.  This is textual transplantation at its worse.

(2) Yes, the disciples were expecting the kingdom, since Jesus had been teaching them all about it (Acts 1:3).  But they asked about the time when He would set up the expected kingdom.  Jesus only corrected them on the timing, not on the expectation.  The inference made by CT that they were mistaken in their understanding of the kingdom finds no foothold in Acts 1.

(3) I Peter 1 is not about the promised kingdom.  Again a text is being misused.

(4) The irony of this statement was entirely lost on my opponent.  How can any “fulfillment” be checked against the Word of God if the words of the original prediction do not match it?  Isn’t that precisely the problem CT interpretation raises?  The point is, the original words of the prophecy can’t be used to verify the fulfillment because it was “fulfilled” differently!

As I said in a comment (slightly edited): “how can one test a prophet whose “prophecy” turns out to be “fulfilled” in a way totally different than the words he used in the prediction?  How can the tests of a true prophet be of any use? In fact we can go further. What is the use of even declaring that such and such will happen if it all turns out so utterly differently?   The OT Prophets might just as well have said nothing for all the use it was.” (more…)

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.6): Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

Part Five

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser.  The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son.  The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not.  Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him.  For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised.  But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”[1]

We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust.  Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2).  And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.

We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception.  Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally.  Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” – 22:2)[2], Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions.  How could he put faith above reason?  He didn’t!  He put reason in service of his strong faith.  This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!”  His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him.  The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning.  This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology.  If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way.  Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.

A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson

There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the Book of Hebrews.  The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods.  When our predisposition to reason independently  is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.  What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22.  That faith did not venture on types and transformations.  Faith took God at His word!  For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value.  To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently.  But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture.  Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.

This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible.  Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round.  Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).

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[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41

[2] Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability – when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny – all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” – W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.5): Hermeneutics as a Test of Faith

Problems with the Promise and Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise – fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel.  Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. [1]

 

This might sound very good.  As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals.  So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament.  But the “promise – fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination.  The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ.  Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT.  Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT.  Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT.  An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.[2]

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church.  In this promise – fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation.  But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?[3]

The Birth of Isaac and the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness.  However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that.  One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear.  After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. – Genesis 18:10

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. – Genesis 18:14

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.  For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. – Genesis 21:1-2

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word.  God means what He says.  The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words.  But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value.  The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18.  This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3[4], is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption.  The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ.  But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location.  The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13).  It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.

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[1] E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55

[2] Ibid, 50.  The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT.  So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.  See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431

[3] I simply pose the question for the time being.  Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely.  In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises.  Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” – Meaning, 424-425.  It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

[4] The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.

Repost: ANSWERS TO THE 95 THESES IN ORDER

I have just returned from a nice rest with my family in Tennessee and will post a new item soon.  Meanwhile, here are the responses I gave to a group of Evangelical scholars who really have trouble with Dispensationalism.  I thought their objections and concerns were often unfair or wrong-headed, although sometimes they were just opposed to their own views.    

For those of you who have wished that yours truly would come into the 21st Century and list my answers to the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism in order…well, you have your wish!

1. Introduction to the Series

2. Responses to Theses 1-6

3. Responses to Theses 7-9

4. Response to Thesis 10

5. Responses to Theses 11-17

6. Responses to Theses 18-23

7. Responses to Theses 24-25

8. Responses to Theses 26-30

9. Responses to Theses 31-36

10. Responses to Theses 37-40

11. Responses to Theses 41-45

12. Responses to Theses 46-48

13. Responses to Theses 49-52

14. Responses to Theses 53-56

15. Responses to Theses 57-60

16. Responses to Theses 61-67

17. Responses to Theses 68-70

18. Responses to Theses 71-74

19. Responses to Theses 75-79

20. Responses to Theses 80-81

21. Responses to Theses 82-85

22. Responses to Theses 86-89

23. Responses to Theses 90-95

24. Reflections on the 95 Theses (1)

25. Reflections on the 95 Theses (2)

The Creation Narrative – Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.1)

Creation and Communication

Without the creation of Adam and Eve the whole sequence of days which preceded them would be a rather futile exercise. If the sequence found in the Bible’s very first chapter is to signify anything as a sequence, it had to be an actual seven day sequence.  Otherwise it is hard to see why ordinal numbers would be used to describe the process.

Also, without observers capable of recognizing and wondering after God’s wonders around them, God’s disclosure, and with it what we call Theology, would be a moot: and so would everything else beyond the Divine Eternity.  God did not have to create to satisfy any longing within Himself.  Although the ideas within the mind of the Creator which led up to Him becoming a Creator are not vouchsafed to us, we must realize that since love is communicative at its core, any creation by the God of love would be language-based.  This is why the creative days lead up to man and God’s speaking to man.  Man is communicative through language for the main purpose of talking back to God in love.  A loving Creator will make a talking creature; someone to converse with and who will talk to Him.  This is what human beings are.  This is our status, our purpose in the world.  Without mankind the world is just a great museum.

To create, the Lord of all things had to impose a purpose upon things. Something for them to do which, though it might reflect His glory in some way, would also make it other than His own majesty. Creation has an integrity all its own. Though it all depends on God moment by moment, yet it has its own God-given value, and is as real as its Maker.

Within this created reality God has placed human beings. Though not hailing from the same conservative viewpoint as myself, Wright and Fuller sum up the Bible’s opening account admirably.

The creation story of Genesis remains unique among the many myths, legends, and scientific explanations provided by the ancient and modern worlds. The opening phrase sets the tone for the whole presentation: ‘In the beginning God…’ God stands at the beginning of all things as their Creator. And this God is not a capricious deity or a blind force; he is not a mere ‘principle of order’; he is a person, who created a good and beautiful world which reveals his glory, his power, and his love. And in the center of this marvelous creation is man, the climax of God’s work, set here as a steward, responsible to his Creator for all he does with the world over which he is given dominion. – G. Ernest Wright & Reginald H. Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God, 49

We “know” God and we image God (Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, “Theology”, the knowledge of God and His works, is the first knowledge available to man. It is the source and context of all other knowledge open to his ken. It does not appear so now because there is something radically wrong with how man thinks.  His source and context has shifted more onto himself than his Maker.  Our plight is, therefore, in a deep sense, hermeneutical. Our interpretation of our environment was intended to be a Divine – human co-operative affair.  All the masses of knowledge which we would acquire would be “wise knowledge” (chokmah), informed by our relationship with our benevolent Lord.  To anticipate the end of the story, this is how it will be after Jesus returns, and in the eternal kingdom.  So the Book of Proverbs reminds us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov. 1:7), where “knowledge” is a synonym for wisdom (as seen in the companion verse, Prov. 9:10).

God the Creator stands behind all true knowledge (as opposed to ‘knowledge falsely so called’ – 1 Tim. 6:20).  And as Adam and Eve came from the hand of God they appear as knowing, communicating beings, fully able to hear and learn from God. The devastation of the Fall, which warped our environment and our senses, instilled in us an independent path of interpretation. It also had the effect of lessening our cognitive powers. As magnificent as are the achievements of men and women (at least from our own point of view), they would pale in significance when compared to what a civilization of perfectly functioning humans could achieve together under God’s tutelage.

The first two chapters of the Bible transport us to a time before the entrance of sin. A time led up to by a meaningful progression of creative work. But as we have said, it was rendered meaningful because God made the man and the woman to understand Him.

Part Two

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8

“Rule” 7

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8: Never ground a teaching on disputed, ambiguous or debated texts (e.g. Matt. 10:23).  At best they may serve to support a given position.  Doctrines should come from the strongest possible connections between text and teaching.

When one is setting forth a proposition, the cogency of it and the logical extent to which it may be propounded depends much on the quality of its substantiation.  The gauge of “quality” would include things such as clarity, context, directness, and of course, relevance.

The descriptions “disputed”, “ambiguous”, and “debated” are somewhat interchangeable, and I do not want to set anything in stone, but for my purposes I have distinguished between them.  Whether you choose to follow me is of little importance to the overall point that I am trying to make.

By a “disputed” text I have in mind the disciplines of textual criticism and Bible translation.  (I want to make clear here that what is considered as spurious by liberal scholars with all of their historical critical biases will be considered authentic by an evangelical Bible believer.  Disagreements with non-biblical forms of scholarship does not concern this subject).  But, for instance, repairing to Mark 16:18 to get biblical permission to handle poisonous snakes in a worship service is wrong-headed in at least two ways.  First, there is nothing in the context about church meetings.  But second, the passage itself is considered a variant reading.  Since the middle of the 19th century the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel have been doubted by many good Christians as being a part of the original text of this Book.  Whether you think they ought to be retained or not (and personally I do), it would be unwise to try to settle a doctrine with a passage that many scholars and commentators are decidedly convinced shouldn’t be there.

In a related manner it would be imprudent to develop a (false) doctrine of a kenotic emptying of Christ’s divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence from the translation of Philippians 2:7 as “He emptied Himself” rather than the less literal but more advisable rendering, “He made Himself of no reputation” (see B.B. Warfield’s masterful article on the passage).

To the degree that there is some ambiguity in a selected passage it is wise to take such a text as a possible supporter of another clearer text.  So, for example, 1 John 1:1 speaks of “the Word of life”.  But is it referring to Jesus Christ or is it referring to the Gospel or the Scriptures?  The majority say that the phrase is speaking of Christ, and it may well be.  But the point here is that if one begins their doctrine of Christ with the verse, or even bases an assertion on the verse, that assertion is only as good as the argument for Christ as the subject of the verse.  Better to go elsewhere.

We are all familiar with the slogan about deriving “the right doctrine from the wrong texts”, and a more serious error still occurs when we get the wrong doctrine from any texts.  One should not start his teaching of any doctrine with a text which is disagreed upon among different Bible interpreters. Whenever setting forth what the Bible teaches (which is always loaded with the claim that this is what God says), one ought in every case to reach for the very clearest and least disputed passages.

If we wish to teach on the deity of Christ or the Trinity we should avoid the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7).  Similarly, we should not be going to 2 Corinthians 3:14 to assert that the OT Canon was closed at the time Paul wrote his epistle, since it is very likely that the Apostle had in mind the Mosaic covenant, which he contrasts with the new covenant of which he is a minister (2 Cor. 3:6).  The issue cannot be decided by such proof-texting.

This Rule also deals with what I have called “debated texts”.  A debated text here is a scripture about which there may be disagreements about who exactly is being addressed.  The text mentioned in Rule 8 says this:

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 (Matt. 10:23)

Once we allow the idea that Jesus is speaking about His disciples in this verse, then the coming of the Son of Man in the context has to be spiritualized as a figurative coming in judgment in A.D. 70.  (This will lead to a violation of Rule 9).

In Mark 11:23-24 Jesus makes a statement that has us all running for the hills:

For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

What on earth is going on here?  The Mount of Olives is still in the same place it was when Jesus made this announcement.  Furthermore, we do not see flying mountains (or houses or people for that matter) unless we taking powerful substances which we should stop taking.  So using the verse to teach on the limitless possibilities of confident prayer rather than using it to underscore the power behind confident prayer in line with the purposes of God would be a violation of this “rule.”

The next Rule picks up where this one leaves off.