God’s Actions Correspond With His Words (Pt. 2)

Part One

We see another instance of the constancy of God’s word in the intertextual links of the seventy years prophecies:

“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove.” – Exodus 23:10-11 (cf. Lev. 25:3-5).

The seventy years captivity was an in-part fulfilment of the “fallow year” requirement:

And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. – 2 Chronicles 36:20-21.

Speaking of Jeremiah, this was what he said:

And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity,’ says the LORD; ‘and I will make it a perpetual desolation. – Jeremiah 25:11-12. (cf. Jer. 29:10).

And this in turn is what provoked Daniel to pray in Daniel 9:2.

I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.

If God’s actions did not follow His words Daniel could not have been certain about the seventy years’ coming to an end. Here we are reminded that faith must have something clear and constant to hold on to; it cannot cling to shadows and allegories by definition (Heb. 11:6). Additionally, even though the judgment was a long time coming, the seventy year rest for the land was the accumulation of its neglected sabbaths over the centuries (cf. Lev. 26:34-35). .

We may not consider it to be a significant example of God’s actions corresponding to those of His words, but Judges 7:7 should not be ignored:

“Then the LORD said to Gideon, “By the three hundred men who lapped I will save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand. Let all the other people go, every man to his place.”

Under God’s instruction Gideon had whittled down a force of 32,000 men to just 300. God declared that those 300 men would do the job of defeating the Midianite army; which they did.

A Few New Testament Examples

I shall only provide a few examples from the NT of this same phenomenon. Again, all I am doing is calling attention to a basic truth about God that is overlooked by so many bible teachers. We shall look at the angelic message to the shepherds:

For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. – Luke 2:11-12.

The angels said more than this, but for my purposes I only need to highlight the directions they gave to the Christ-child. After the experience they returned to their charges.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. – Luke 2:20.

It is needless to itemize the various elements of the Gospel: the virgin birth, incarnation, crucifixion, substitutionary death, resurrection, and ascension. They all are to be believed for what they are; literally.

In the annunciation story to Zacharias (Lk. 1:5-25) the angel Gabriel tells him that he would be mute because he questioned the very words he was told (Lk. 1:20), which once more underlines that what God says He will do He will do.

I could reproduce a long list of examples, but this final one is perhaps my favorite:

Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.” Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?” – John 21:20-23.

Notice that what Jesus actually said about Peter in verse 22 is misunderstood by the disciples but restated exactly the same way in verse 23. The lesson is clear in all of this; God actions will comport with His words. Faith requires nothing less than that. It may be too mundane for many students to notice, but it is the most basic lesson in biblical hermeneutics.

God’s Actions Correspond To His Words (Pt. 1)

Introduction

Modern biblical hermeneutics has become increasingly sophisticated and complex. Yet with all of the subtlety of the “science of hermeneutics” it is easy to forget that the Bible is its own best interpreter. I do not advocate throwing contemporary hermeneutics manuals into the trash; I have benefit from many of them, but I do believe that we can blindly follow these manuals and not take thought for some of the simple lessons which Scripture presents us with. I think this is true because we all have a tendency to ignore the obvious (or what should be obvious), and to think that when we are getting more intricate and using more brain cells we are getting closer to the truth. But I suspect that quite often the opposite is true. The truth is staring us in the face. Indeed, although good things have been gleaned, we have perhaps been traveling interpretive paths which we have forged for ourselves only to discover that we are in the thick of the weeds, stickers and brambles of contradictory ideas and uncertain fads.

One Christian philosopher has well stated,

“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.” – Greg Clark, “Contemporary Hermeneutics,” in Scot McKnight & Grant Osbourne, editors, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Apollos, 2004), 115.

I completely agree with that estimate. I have previously presented some work I have done in classifying the relationships between doctrines and their supporting texts (see The Rules of Affinity), where I demonstrated that, among other things, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity all possess strong affinity with the texts of Scripture that are commonly used to support them. The favored doctrines of different theological “cliques”, not so much.

But there is an important fact about the words of God Himself in Scripture that deserves a great deal more reflection and analysis. It is this:

God’s Actions Always Follow His Words

It may seem almost too basic for some people to swallow, but the God who tells us “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no'” (Matt. 5:36; Jam. 5:12), actually practices what He preaches.  More than that, with rare exceptions owing to a show of repentance (like in the case of Ahab or in the book of Jonah), if God says He will do something then He does it.  This can be sampled in any number pf places.  I’ll start things off in Genesis 1, but before I do I want to present a basic hermeneutical triad:   

A Theistic Interpretive Triad:

GOD SAYS – GOD DOES: God announces what He will do, then He does what He says.  His thoughts equate to his words, and His words equate to His works

GOD SAID – GOD DID: God predicted something, and He brought to pass what He predicted

GOD VOWED – GOD OBLIGATES HIMSELF TO DO: God covenanted something, and later writers still say He is covenanted to fulfill the specific terms of the covenant  

OLD TESTAMENT – The Early Chapters of Genesis

N.B. Please be sure to READ these passages so that my point hits home.  

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light (Gen 1:3 NAS)

Simple isn’t it?  Too simple?  One thing’s for certain, modern hermeneutics books would be totally pointless in creation week.  

Let me drive it home:

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  And God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so (Gen 1:6-7 NAS)

Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth”; and it was so.  And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.  (Gen 1:11-12 NAS)

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years;  and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.  And God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. (Gen 1:14-16 NAS).

All through creation week this is the way God operates.  He states His intention and then He carries it out to the letter.  Now the creation of everything according to God’s will is no trifling matter, but this pattern of God doing what He said He would do is repeated all through the first chapter of the Bible.    

The same pattern continues in Genesis 2 and 3.  God commands man not to eat from the forbidden tree.  When he does he dies (in the real sense of being alienated from his Maker).  Then he signals His intent to make a companion for the man:

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him. (Gen 2:18 NAS)

And what did He do?

And the LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. (Gen 2:22 NAS)

What about Noah and the flood?

And the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD (Gen 6:7-8 NAS)

Notice that the “But Noah” clause makes no sense unless the Lord  really meant to do what He threatened to do.  Well, did God destroy all life from the face of the earth except for Noah and those in the Ark?  That would be a yes.  What about the Ark itself?  Noah could not have had anything approaching the experience that the Lord predicted to him, and the construction of such a huge craft on the basis of what God said was a real act of faith (Heb. 11:7).  Continue reading “God’s Actions Correspond To His Words (Pt. 1)”

The Parameters of Meaning in Order

It took me an eternity (well, ten years) to complete this series. The Parameters of Meaning (as well as the Rules of Affinity) are meant to guide the interpreter of Scripture as the Bible is studied. They are not a hermeneutics manual. They are, however, a set of principles designed to prevent the reader from drifting too far from the biblical text in context.

If anyone spots a weakness in thee “rules” I would be grateful if they would let me know.

The Parameters of Meaning: Introduction

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12: Never confuse application with hermeneutics and exegesis. It is always “explanation before application.” Making application a part of one’s interpretation is a subtle instance of putting an unrestrained ‘theological’ cart before an ‘exegetical’ horse.

Many modern hermeneutics writers tell us that we cannot omit application of a biblical text when we interpret it. I find that to be confusing. In fact, the more I think about it the more confusing it seems. Take the sentence “The NT is composed of 27 Books.” I know what it means, but am I applying it at the same time? When Jesus tells us to pray “Thy Kingdom come” how does He expect us to apply it? Mustn’t we first understand what “kingdom” means here? Again, when we are told to love our enemies, isn’t there a big difference between interpreting what that means and actually doing it?

Asking such questions alerts us to the meaming of application. It boils down to two things: the belief that “this text applies to me,” and the belief that “I need to act on this.” Since acting on something depends upon whether one believes a passage is directed at them the first belief is primary. That is to say, when we believe that a text of Scripture is aimed directly at us we are applying it to ourselves. So if we look again at the three sample sentences above it should be possible to show when application is happening.

  1. “The NT is composed of 27 Books.” – This sentence is an objective observation. It only applies to me to the extent that is describes a state of affairs, similar to “the cat sat on the mat” describes something that occurred. I believe both statements, yet neither one is directed at me. There is nothing to apply. I either believe it or disbelieve it.
  2. “Thy Kingdom come” – In this case I believe that Jesus was referring to the future Kingdom of God after He returns. That is something to pray for, therefore it applies to me. Yet such a kingdom applies to me in a certain way. I pray for it, but it is in my future. I do not participate in the kingdom now. So the type of kingdom to come is not decided by my application, it is decided by the interpretation of this along with other passages. Ergo, my hermeneutic should be separate from the application. If however, a person believes that the kingdom has come; that we in the church are the kingdom, then he believes in his present participation in it, because he has applied the kingdom in the present to himself. Why has he done this? Because the steps of hermenutics and exegesis have been fed by a theology which guides the interpretation and application.
  3. Finally, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. The application of Matthew 5:44 to ourselves is based on the universalistic tone of the Beatitudes and the fact that there are imperatives addressed to the Church that imply the same thing (e.g. Rom. 12:17-21; Gal. 6:10).

The reason why some readers of Scripture hold that application is part of interpretation is because they indulge in forms of theological hermeneutics. Theological hermeneutics is undergirded by the theory of preunderstanding and the postmodern critique of objectivity (e.g. a hermeneutics of suspicion). This appears to move the ground from under the interpreter’s feet. The question of which theology is to be granted a hermeneutical pass comes to the fore, and it is difficult to think of a way to resolve the issue without repairing to a non-theological, non-applicatory form of exegesis. If one is reading oneself into a passage (say in OT prophecy) while trying to understand it in context the exegesis will be skewed. This means that the interpreter should try to hold apart the application of a passage from the determination of what it is saying and to whom (it’s explanation).

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

Parameters of Meaning -Rule 10

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11: While interpreting Scripture with Scripture is valid, it is only to be employed as a check upon interpretation. Using the Analogy of Faith as part of one’s hermeneutics introduces it prematurely and may smuggle ones assumptions into the interpretation.

All evangelical Christians believe that Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. We all can recite at least some words from 1 Corinthians 2:13:

“These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”

But of course, 1 Corinthians 2:13 does not say we compare Scripture with Scripture; that is just assumed. And it’s a decent assumption, since we know that one part of the Bible (say Text B) may be used to throw light upon the part one is trying to understand (i.e. Text A). Scholars refer to this as “the Analogy of Faith” rule, and it is a good rule. The real problem is when Text A has not been sufficiently studied in its context before Text B is brought in to clear things up. Or to put it differently, trouble can ensue when Text B is called upon before Text A has been exegeted to smooth over “issues” foreseen in Text A. The Analogy of Faith is being misused by being introduced too early in the interpretive process. Let me provide an example.

In Ephesians 2 we meet with a verse whose interpretation has caused some controversy:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins – Eph. 2:1

This verse is then interpreted by some Reformed writers through John 11:

Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying.  And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me… Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.” – Jn. 11:41, 43-44.

A classic case of this is to be seen in R. C. Sproul’s book Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, where he relies completely on the Raising of Lazarus story to interpret Paul’s words in Ephesians 2. In fact, Sproul barely expounds Ephesians 2:1 at all, and certainly not in context.

What Sproul is doing (and many others who employ this same device), is that he is trying to establish one of the storied “Five Points of Calvinism” and the teaching of regeneration preceding faith as a necessary part of the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Whether Sproul is right about that or not is not the point. The point here is that he is straying outside of good interpretive parameters in his zeal to prove his case. John 11 refers to a real corpse where the soul has left the body. It is inanimate and cannot think or respond to any stimuli. But the persons being referred to in Ephesians 2:1-3 were never in that state. Paul distinctly characterizes them (unsurprisingly) as conducting their affairs under the influence of the godless world system and of its spiritual ruler, Satan (Eph. 2:2). They were living and thinking. Added to this (again unsurprisingly) their thinking and behavior was dictated by their sinful “flesh.” (Eph. 2:3).

Paul’s description of the state of Christians before they became Christians is that they were living, thinking, planning persons who lived their lives under the thrall of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They were not corpselike. “Ah,” the rejoinder comes back, “they were like corpses because they were utterly unable to respond to the Gospel before being re-vitalized (i.e. regenerated) by God.”

But there’s a problem here. Lazarus’s dead body was literally unable to respond to anything, whereas we are told in Ephesians 2:3 that unbelievers do respond – in disobedience! It makes no sense to speak about a dead body as “responsible,” but sinners are responsible. In Ephesians 2 the deadness (nekrous) is not literal. They hear, they think, they reject. This is because they are “dead in trespasses and sins” – a phrase that is expanded upon in the following verses, as well as in Ephesians 4:17-19, and which is utterly nonsensical if applied to a corpse. Therefore, since the “deadness” of unbelievers includes their active response to the Gospel it does not follow that they need to be regenerated in order to believe, in which case the Jn. 11 analogy is inappropriate. Rather, the “deadness” might require only that they need rousing or convincing or alerting, or all three; something that the Holy Spirit is said to do (Jn. 16:8). We might refer to someone who is sleeping as “dead to the world.” Similar figures of speech are found on the lips of Jesus (e.g. Lk. 9:60 and 15:24, 32). One would not run to either of those passages to prove regeneration before faith of course, yet they are semantically closer to Ephesians 2:1 than John 11:41-44.

My goal here is not to argue with the doctrine so much as to point out how the Analogy of Faith was brought in before the parameters of meaning of Ephesians 2:1 were determined.

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10

Parameters of Meaning – Part 9

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10: Never interpret the Bible via assumptions based on extra-biblical data (e.g. “science”, philosophy, history). These can help but they should never preempt Scripture.

This “parameter” is of course just a reiteration of the principle of the Sufficiency of Scripture, although the emphasis is upon the whole of Scripture’s content, not just that pertaining to the doctrines of our salvation.

The Bible is made up of all kinds of literature, some of it clearly defined, some of it less so. We are often told that each of these “genres” demand their own forms of hermeneutics, which is bolstered by studies in many non-biblical disciplines. I am not here talking about the work of men like Richard Burridge (What Are The Gospels?) and Craig Keener (Christobiography) on the Gospels as a special type of biography, but about ideas like the latest attempts to interpret the Bible through a Cosmic Temple motif, John Walton’s views on the ANE background of the Genesis creation story, the views of all and sundry about apocalyptic, and likewise those who interpret Bible books (esp. Revelation) in terms of intertestamental apocalyptic writings, or the philosophical hermeneutics which have caused so much confusion in the definition of the discipline in recent years.  

One should not use the supposed findings of science to interpret Genesis 1-3.  I respect a person’s right to be an old-earth creationist, but many of them fall foul of importing the conclusions of scientists into their understanding of Genesis 1-3, essentially using say Big Bang cosmology or distant starlight or radiometric dating to guide their hermeneutical approach to the chapters.  R. C. Sproul quotes Bertrand Russell’s “proof” for the unreliability of Jesus’ as a prophet on Matthew 24:34, since “this generation” (i.e. J. S. Mill’s and Bertrand Russell’s belief that it was Jesus’ own generation) did not witness the things He predicted.  This led Sproul to a Preterist view (The Last Days According to Jesus).  But it’s not only covenant theologians who do this.  Pop Dispensationalist Hal Lindsey’s interpreting the scorpions of Revelation 9 as helicopters (There’s A New World Coming). 

Even in terms of what we know about the beliefs of people in the biblical period is impacted by this concern.  For example, OT scholar Richard Hess has said that,

In terms of the future and the Messiah, Routledge views things from an amillennial context.  Everything prophecied in the future was symbolized and fulfilled in Jesus.  There is no future temple or time of peace before the new heavens and new earth.  So when Ezekiel 40-48 describes this in detail, he was just condescending to people who could not otherwise understand except by making them think there was really going to be a temple and a repopulated Promised Land.  Somehow Routledge doesn’t find this deceptive in the least, despite the fact that every example we have until after the New Testament was written believed in a literal fulfillment of a restored temple.” (my emphasis)

– From Richard Hess’s review of R. Routledge’s OT Theology in Denver Journal, Volume 14, 2011.

I have used this quote before, but here my focus is not to prove a point relating to Temple expectations per se, but to call attention to the fact that the Hess comment corroborates the plain-sense interpretation of passages such as Ezekiel 40-48.  Being corroborative it ought never to be given the authority to be a decisive influence on the interpretation of a text.  This is why the lauded Grammatical-Historical hermeneutic cannot be trotted out as a sort of “Band Aid” for “what to do” without knowing what one is doing.  For instance, as John Sailhamer pointed out, G-H interpretation is really G (i.e. grammatical) interpretation, and that for the reason that how much one really knows from history is up for grabs. 

The basic issue being addressed in this “parameter” is that God has infused the Bible with a self-sufficiency; no one needs to grab for external helps to interpret God’s Book.  The principle boils down to a concerted belief in the Holy Scripture’s self-attestation, even in its self-interpreting character.  I have provided reasons elsewhere for the validity of this belief.  These include the “God’s words – God’s Actions” motif wherein what God says He is going to do is what He does; and the nature of the biblical covenants as hermeneutical fixed points to which everything else in the Bible must agree.  

 

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. 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).