Hermeneutics

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).

==================================================

[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.

====================================================

[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.

The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (2)

Part One

If we turn to Covenant theology’s own explanations of their system we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge.  I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says.  Likewise, by “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching.  Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ch. 8).  He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in.  He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way”[10], and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob through the Abrahamic covenant[11], does not last for long.  Needless to say the land promise to Israel withers under the flame of Reformed typology as Robertson’s book progresses (Ch. 13), and the Church becomes “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant[12].

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical demonstration.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (e.g. “if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants.  The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” using the covenant of grace.  How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!  But this maneuver can be carried out under the auspices of this brand of theology due to what Gerhaardus Vos called “a consciousness of the covenant”, meaning the covenant of grace.  I might humbly point out that there are other, more perspicuous covenants that ought to have our attention as Bible readers.

Another noted Covenant theologian who exemplifies the phenomena I have been referring to is Michael Horton.  His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other.  Placing an enormous burden of proof on Galatians 4:22-31, which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value.  He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional.  He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants[13].  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant, whence it can be safely dispatched.  As he says for example,

The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham.[14]

This is an amazing statement.  Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g. Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a New covenant whereby God would circumcise the heart (Deut. 30:6), so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the existing terms of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

What happened?  Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims?  I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a single track in regards to the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patently false reading.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation at all in the Abrahamic covenant itself.  Although the Seed promise (singular) is there, it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic.  All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue.  What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (I have focused on it since it is the main support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  I have no qualms in describing it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants.  It is the lens which makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what encourages them to transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of the dogmas of covenant theology.  But the covenant of grace, together with the “covenant of works”, is nonetheless absent from the Word of God.

=====================================================

[10]  O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 41

[11] Ibid. 42

[12] E.g. 289

[13] See Michael S. Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, 42, 45, 48-49

[14] Ibid. 48

 

The Noahic Covenant and the Interpretation of Scripture

In his Commentary on the Book of Genesis the Reformer John Calvin notices that a reason for God’s covenant promise to Noah was to encourage him in the hard task of obedience in the building of the Ark. By way of application he writes,

For then do we freely embrace the commands of God, when a promise is attached to them, which teaches us that we shall not spend our strength for nought…It is especially necessary that the faithful shall be confirmed by the word of God, lest they faint in the midst of their course; to the end that they may certainly be assured that they are not beating the air, as they say; but that, acquiescing in the promise given them, and being sure of success, they follow God who calls them. – John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I, 258

Calvin is right to fasten on the encouragements to faith of a divine covenant (though interestingly, Calvin interpreted Genesis 2:17, a common proof-text for the “covenant of works”, negatively as requiring meritorious works and not faith.  (See Daniel P. Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 181-182).  But note that his application is on target only if God’s promise means what it says; otherwise faith can find no assurance in what God said. It is a moot point, or ought to be. But it is routinely overlooked in biblical and systematic theology. Covenants become malleable in the hands of many writers. It is our opinion that this contributes in a major way to the disagreements between scholars over just where the biblical covenants function in God’s program.

We might ask, ‘How many people take Genesis 9:11, which include the terms of the covenant with Noah, typologically or spiritually or allegorically?’ The answer would be, ‘nobody.’ And that simple answer is very significant, because it means that this first covenant is interpreted uniformly in what we call a “literal” way. The words of verse 11 mean what they say:

The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. “While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” – Genesis 8:21-22

If this is compared with what God said to Himself in 9:11 we see a close correspondence:

I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth. – Genesis 9:11

This again shows that there is agreement between God’s thoughts (“the LORD said to Himself”) and God’s words in the covenant oath. This brings a certain welcome rigidity to what God says in His covenant. There are over sixty ancient Near Eastern covenants or treaties which have been discovered, and the terms all mean what they say (not that we take our lead from extra-biblical sources). In point of fact, many of these treaties specify in the clearest terms the cruciality of the words in the covenant oath, explicitly saying that the words themselves are inviolate.

To give just two examples taken from a reliable and accessible resource (The following are from Readings From the Ancient Near East, eds. Bill T. Arnold & Bryan E. Beyer, 97-98): From the first part of the second millennium B.C. there is a covenant between two brothers, Abban and Yarimlim pertaining to lands which includes the line,

Abba-AN is under oath to Yarimlim, and also he cut the neck of a lamb. He swore: I shall never give back what I gave you.

The central core of the oath which Abban made to Yarimlim is plain and clear. It cannot suffer typological or symbolical transfiguration into some other thing. Although this covenant is conditioned upon Yarimlim’s fidelity to Abban, the oath binds his successors, and therefore cannot undergo any alteration of meaning without being made void.

In another example (14th century B.C.), Hittite king Suppilulima makes a treaty with Mattiwaza, king of Mitanni, witnessed by a host of gods on both sides. It includes the warning:

If he breaks it or causes anyone else to change the wording of the tablet…, If you, Mattiwaza, the prince, and you the sons of the Hurri country do not fulfill the words of this treaty, may the gods, the lords of the oath, blot you out…

What is noteworthy about this is that the wording, and so the meaning of the wording, is sacrosanct. It is not open to reinterpretation, and the pantheon of gods is called upon to ensure against such a thing. This is standard procedure for ANE covenants, in fact, for all covenants. The reason for it is because the oaths must be unambiguous and must mean what they say. I might go further and say that the choice of words as conveyors of accurate meaning is a sine qua non of covenants and treaties.

Going back to the Bible, the well known example in Joshua 9 where the Gibeonites fooled Joshua and the elders into making a covenant with them makes this point well. As Golding correctly says,

When the Israelites discovered how they had been deluded, they were furious, but could not go back on their oath, which had been solemnly sworn with God as witness (v.19). – Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 70 (My emphasis)

In like manner, the covenant cut by Laban with Jacob in Genesis 31:44-54 makes the same point. The pile of stones (31:46) acted as “a witness” (31:48, 52) to the terms of the covenant (31:52):

This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. – Genesis 31:52

If after striking this agreement Laban would have rose up, strode past the heap and knocked Jacob to the ground, only one of two understandings of his actions would be possible. Either Laban would be knowingly violating the words he just agreed to keep, or, he would have dishonestly and disingenuously made an oath which he knew whose words he knew full well he would not keep. Either way he would have broken his bond. (more…)

A Review of ‘Understanding Prophecy’ by Bandy & Merkle

Review of Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach, by Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015, 264 pages, paperback 

N.B. This review is from the perspective of someone who is less than an enthusiastic supporter of symbolical cum typological interpretations of the Bible, so it will be mainly critical.  However, for those in-tune with the approach of the writers, the book can be recommended as a good explication of the redemptive-historical method. 

This new book on prophecy comes from two writers who differ on whether or not the millennium is here already or whether it is still to come.  Alan Bandy is a historic or covenant premillennialist, while Benjamin Merkle is a covenant amillennialist.  The choice to present biblical prophecy from this angle was clever.  However, this should not be interpreted as anything more than a mere novelty.  As the authors themselves write on the first page of the Preface,

First, we discovered that although our millennial views are different, we actually agree with each other most of the time regarding our interpretation of prophetic texts and our way of seeing the big picture of the Bible. (9)

The admission that the authors “agree with each other most of the time” will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the two eschatological positions, particularly as they are repristinated by the “already-not yet” hermeneutics of G. E. Ladd.

The approach represented here then, is “redemptive-historical” (20 n. 5).  This means they promote what has become the usual way of reading the Bible in evangelical seminaries: with theological assumptions applied by use of symbols and types.  On the next page the writings of T. D. Alexander, Greg Beale, and others are endorsed as further examples of the method being advocated.  These authors admit certain crucial presuppositions in their interpretation which determine their idea of the subject.

From this platform we run into the assertion that the fulfillment of most prophecy is to be looked for at Christ’s first coming (e.g. 10).  So,

Christ is the eschatos of prophecy who gives meaning to all that has happened or will yet transpire throughout human history.  Our approach to prophecy must always be viewed through the gospel and what Christ has already accomplished. (27-28)

A gospel-centered hermeneutic filters all prophecy through the lens of the resurrected Christ. (29)

While these sentiments contain a forceful and persuasive piety, I think they make biblical interpretation more involved than it needs to be.  They also appear to beg the question.  In the first instance both quotations assume that the great stress of the prophetic teaching of the Bible is on the first advent.  But this seems to be palpably untrue.  There are scores of covenanted promises in both Testaments which point to the second advent and events before and (especially) after it.  That is, unless one’s hermeneutics are fashioned in such a way that the prophecies come to be seen as pertaining to the first coming.  As for viewing all prophecy through the gospel and Christ’s accomplishment, the cross and resurrection can be given all the recognition they certainly require without bending the prophetic corpus into the historic past.  For all the world a plain reading of Scripture places an even greater stress upon the coming of the Lord in glory to establish real righteousness and shalom on His earth.  Far better then to let the Bible say what it says without making some of its earlier parts pass through a theological “filter” of the interpreter’s making.

To explain their program the writers call upon “progressive revelation” (31-33), although like most evangelicals today they employ language which sounds like double-speak.  Later revelation can “add to or modify” earlier revelation, but it does not “necessarily supplant or abrogate” previous scripture. This reader begs to differ.  One can nullify earlier statements by declaring they mean something other than their words appear to mean.  Citing Beale, the OT texts “undergo an organic expansion or development of meaning.”  But when one steps back and looks at the result the meaning of the OT passages have not only “expanded”, they have morphed into something else!  As is contended later, “we believe that the text will be literally fulfilled but not necessarily according to the precise wording of the prophecy” (110 n.5).  According to the online Oxford Dictionary, “literally” means,

In a literal manner or sense; exactly:
the driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle 

Notice that the driver in the example above did “fulfill” the direction he was given “according to the precise wording”.  So with all the arguments in the book against plain-sense interpretation one will not be surprised to read that,

If John the Baptist was unsure about the fulfillment of prophecies, what assurance do we have regarding predictions related to Christ’s second coming?  That unfulfilled prophecy will be fulfilled is certain, but precisely how they will be fulfilled is uncertain. (209).

The thesis of the book could not be stated better.  Prophecy as information we can understand is practically mute until God declares it fulfilled.  It is revelation that doesn’t reveal.  I have taken issue with this depiction of God in another place.

The position is then shored up by poking fun at populist dispensational writers like Tim LaHaye and the wacky fringe who do newspaper exegesis while purporting to read the Book of Revelation literally (58).  To show how dispensationalists are mistaken about their understanding of OT prophecy the authors employ Amos 9:11-15 as an example (109ff. This text or Joel 2 is the passage of choice for such discussions).  It needs to be noted that when James uses the passage in Acts 15 he does not say the prophecy is fulfilled. The authors’ case would have been more impressive had they tackled Jeremiah 33:14-26, but who does?

Strangely, when it comes to giving guidance on the Return of Christ the texts are simply quoted with the apparent assumption that they are to be taken, well, literally (179-181).

As said above, if you are taken with this school of interpretation the book has much to commend it.  If, like me, you are not, it could serve as a helpful introduction to what I might call “first coming hermeneutics.”

The book was supplied to me by the publisher.

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

After a ridiculously long delay, I have started to finish off my series on the Parameters of Meaning beginning with this one on Typology.  I believe these guidelines will help Bible students avoid many pitfalls in interpretation by setting limits on what constitutes legitimate hermeneutics.  For those of you interested here are the previous installments:

Parameters of Meaning – Introduction

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2 

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7: Never draw theological conclusions that are based upon typology.  Types are too uncertain and debatable for doctrines to be formulated with them.

The Bible is given, in large part for Theology.  2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us all that

All Scripture is God-breathed [out] and is profitable for doctrine (didaskalia), for reproof, the correction, for instruction in righteousness…

The Greek word didaskalia means “teaching” and is often, as in the above example, translated as “doctrine.”  This word, “doctrine”, signifies the body of biblical teaching cast in the form of propositional truths and life principles.  For doctrines, and, therefore, Theology to be really biblical, they must be clearly traceable to the text of Scripture, interpreted within its proper context.  Our doctrinal formulations should be derived from clear statements of the truth which are accessible to all people.

As we have tried to show with the Rules of Affinity, every major doctrine of the Christian Faith can be ascertained either from direct statements taken from Bible passages (this is usual), or from inferences drawn from direct statements which lead to one inevitable conclusion.  Hence, God has given mankind the essentials of Christianity on the surface, as it were, of His Word.  This being so, it is scarcely necessary to dive into the murky waters of symbolism to uncover theological truth in Scripture.

The Tricky Business of Identification

But leaving that aside, we must ask what is needed for a type to even gain credence as a type.  To begin with, nearly all the best writers on the subject say that typology is intra-testamental. This means that the type is in the Old Testament while the antitype, the fulfillment of the type, is in the New Testament.  So too Leonard Goppelt, in his Typos (ch.1), saw it as his task to examine how the use of typology by NT authors and the church guided the interpretation of the OT.

A 1997 article, “Typology: A Summary of Present Evangelical Discussion,” by W. Edward Glenny (JETS 40.4), provides three competing evangelical views, while commending a fourth; that of Richard M. Davidson, as a way forward.  Davidson himself surveys a host of contrasting theories of typology from both mainstream and evangelical sources, and concludes that they all fall short because “a solid semasiological and exegetical foundation for understanding the nature of typology is never laid.” – Typology in Scripture, 73.  (“Semasiological” refers to the actual meaning of a word as it is used).

Recently, men like RWL Moberly have proposed a typology within the OT itself independent of the NT (at least for Jewish readers).  However, Christian use of this approach will not permit fixity of types unless the NT is ushered in through the back door.  In point of fact the soil out of which much typology has been built is the view that the NT reinterprets the OT.

Hence,

as more revelation was given over time…we discover more of God’s plan and where that plan is going.  It is for this reason that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament becomes definitive in helping us understand the details of the Old Testament…In other words, we must carefully allow the New Testament to show us how the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 85-86 

But it does not follow that later revelation will always work in this way.  One thinks of the Creation account for instance, or the Fall.  And before it can be asserted that the NT has definitive interpretative clout over the OT we must ascertain whether or not the NT is addressing the particular subject the OT text is addressing.  But this brings to light the major problem, which is whether our interpretation(s) of the NT are infused with dogma.  We find such a problem in the above quotation where the authors assume without proof that “the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ”, by which they mean, the first coming of Christ.  Such a massive presupposition will inevitable color their understanding of typology, since they will be searching for types of first advent “fulfillment.”  This will unavoidably lead them into collision with the many OT texts which place the fulfillments at the second advent.  In fact, the very existence of the collision calls forth their typology to handle it!

Theological Pre-commitment 

To illustrate this idea of frontloaded conclusions again, consider this by covenant theologian Mark L. Karlberg:

The dissolution of the temporal, earthly theocracy coincided with the new covenant’s reign of God in the hearts of his people through the Spirit. In the eschatological age of the Spirit the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality unencumbered by the shadowy, earthly forms (types) characteristic of the ancient theocracy. In the period between the advents of Christ the presence of the kingdom is in anticipation of the realization of the land-promise in the consummation. – ‘The Significance of Israel in Biblical Typology’, JETS 31:3 (September 1988), 268

But it ought to be obvious that such a typological approach can only be sanctioned if the NT is given interpretive priority over the New, which is actually only to say that the interpreter’s own theologically determined conclusions about the NT are read back into the OT!  Typology trumps contextual exegesis whenever a theological commitment predisposes the reader to employ it.  The present writer has tried to show that the new covenant insures the literal fulfillment of OT predictions, not hands them over to be “typologized”. (more…)