Hermeneutics

Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (3)

Part Two

Ricoeur

Alongside Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005) stands as the most important philosopher of hermeneutics in the last hundred years. His work is often to be found discussed in evangelical circles today, and for that reason we shall devote a little more space to his work. Ricoeur is concerned with how language is used not with how it is structured.[53] As human existence is communicated through language, the study of the use of language is, therefore, the study of human existence. What is language but existence communicated in symbols or signs? Hence, the study of the way linguistic signs are used (semiotics) becomes a way to study the human being and his significance and self-understanding (semantics). It is hardly surprising to learn that for Ricoeur “man is language.”[54]

Ricoeur believes that contemporary man has become desensitized to symbol and metaphor, and so he is missing in some measure, the hub of his own significance by his failure to experience life in its fullest terms.[55] Ricoeur is a phenomenologist – stressing the activity of the reader once he is impacted by a text.[56] But he utterly rejects man as the starting point in interpretation, preferring a transcendent beginning.[57]His influence is to be seen in several areas.

First, his overall philosophical outlook was hopeful (in contrast to that of the existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre). This meant that he tended to read texts “optimistically” – as, for example, the story of the Fall, which he said contained nothing like “Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.”[58]

Second, he ironically stressed “the hermeneutics of suspicion” whereby one recognizes that, “preunderstanding does indeed influence every interpretive conclusion drawn with reference to the biblical text. Because the baggage brought by an exegete to the reading of Scripture can potentially hinder the hermeneutical process, one must always question every exegetical perspective.”[59]

The third thing Ricoeur is known for is calling particular attention to creative language such as metaphor, narrative and parable.[60] Through careful examination and refection on these language forms he has produced some important thoughts on some important issues within philosophy of religion such as the sort of relationship that exists between God and time.[61] He believed that these ways of expression point us to a fuller appreciation of ourselves and our significance. “The manifesto of hermeneutic philosophy is “existence via semantics”: self-understanding via textual interpretation.”[62]

Lastly, Ricoeur is noted for his focus on genre (the world of the text) and the impact of the text upon the reader’s world (the world in front of the text). The interplay of these “worlds” means abandoning what he calls “the first naivete”: the literal sense, in order to make way for “the second naivete”: finding oneself in and through the world of the text.[63] In other words, the reader must go through a sifting of his faith from a position of fear and emotion to a more level-headed critical understanding of the text (and so the world) in order to have a rational faith.[64] The literal sense cannot supply the truth of existence!

Of course, to comprehend signs truly one must move beyond the signs themselves and concentrate on discourse, hence his focus upon semantics as the key to self-understanding.[65]  Ricoeur also finds himself on the “conservative” side in his rejection of the Kantian idealism of liberalism, which forced churchmen into vainly trying either to prove Christianity to be inductively scientific[66], or to show that Christianity’s “inwardness” made the effort to make it scientific an exercise in missing the point.[67]  And he strikes a chord when he insists that the text must always take precedence over the interpreter.[68]

But he does not believe in the possibility of discovering authorial intention. There is and always will be a “distance” between reader and author. Moreover, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that he learned from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, always makes interpretation a risky business, with “truth,” in a sense far less than certainty but above doubt, being the final goal.[69] (more…)

CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (2)

Part One

Footnotes follow on from last time.

The Hermeneutical Landscape

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

In closing his article Clark writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or again,

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

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

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

Schleiermacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gadamer[42]

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Following Jesus’ Guidance in Two Important Subjects in Matthew 24

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

The Arrival of False Christ’s and False Prophets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. – Matt. 24:29-31.

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

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

CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (1)

This is a re-run of an old article.

In many respects there is much ground that is mutually shared by evangelical/fundamentalist theology per se. However, consistent hermeneutics is the environment in which dispensationalism thrives. Outside of that environment it fades into nothing.

In this little essay[1] I want to examine some of what is happening in the world of philosophical hermeneutics so that we can better understand the influences that are being seen in evangelical textbooks on the subject. Still more, we shall start to understand why evangelicals are jumping ship from grammatico-historical interpretation; a situation that threatens dispensationalism even more.

Definitions: Hermeneutics, Exegesis, Application

In any discussion, but especially in those involving foundational matters, it is crucial to define ones terms. Hermeneutics has been given a few different definitions. Many are covered by Robert Thomas in his book, Evangelical Hermeneutics.[2] For the moment it will suffice to borrow from a standard conservative manual.

As a theological discipline hermeneutics is the science of the correct interpretation of the Bible…It seeks to formulate those particular rules which pertain to the special factors connected with the Bible. It stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.[3]

The definition above draws a helpful comparison between a book of rules that acts as the control over what is admissible and what is precluded in playing a game. All ought to play by the same rules. If they don’t; if each player thinks they can make up their own rules, the game is spoiled. This has been a good assumption of Bible interpreters, which has yielded excellent sermons, commentaries and theologies in the past. It has also been the operating assumption of those modern scholars whose hermeneutics books advocate a more subjective, reader-response attitude to the text of Scripture. As E. D. Hirsch noted, “Most authors believe in the accessibility of their verbal meaning, for otherwise most of them would not write.”[4] It would seem to be safe policy to define hermeneutics in a reductionistic fashion so as to leave room for clear roles for exegesis and application. Thus, we may begin by agreeing with Thomas’s classification of hermeneutics as “a set of principles” for right interpretation.[5]

Once hermeneutics has been so narrowly (and properly) labeled, it is alright to proceed to define exegesis. Exegesis is the implementation of the rules of hermeneutics to the Biblical text. As such, it involves the use of sanctified reason, as well as a certain finesse wrought out of a familiarity with the contents of Scripture. It is the act of investigative interpretation, which comprises adherence to hermeneutical principles along with a certain artistry brought by the subject. One should not speak of art or imagination when one is defining hermeneutics.[6] Hermeneutics does not entail active engagement with a text. That is where exegesis takes over.[7]

To understand how the definition of hermeneutics has become confused, consider these definitions:

Hermeneutics: Theory and principles of interpretation; for writings, correctly understanding the thought of an author and communicating it to others.[8]

Hermeneutics: The “science” of understanding the significance for a new audience of a text originally intended for a different audience.[9]

The first definition proceeds from formulation to implementation without batting an eyelid. Indeed, it moves beyond that and incorporates application within the actual process of interpretation, so that whereas application should be associated with the end-product of exegetical-expositional communication, here it is being read into the text.

In the second definition authorial intention is displaced by a preoccupation with present-day significance. Application is king! But by what rules is application guided?

We see then that a precise and exclusive delineation of hermeneutics is mandatory for accurate guidance in scriptural comprehension.

Why Hermeneutics is Important

God has given us the Bible so that we can know about Him, about ourselves, and about our world. We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior, and we discover who the Savior is, what He has accomplished on our behalf, and what we must do to acquire salvation.

All of this presupposes that we can understand what God is saying in His Word. Indeed, without the Bible, it is not possible for fallen man to interpret his life correctly. As one recent book explains it, “the Bible provides us with the basic story that we need in order to understand our world and to live in it as God’s people.”[10]

Every time a child opens up a story-book and starts to read, he or she takes for granted certain rules of interpretation; rules about spelling, basic grammar, context, and so on. As grown ups we do the same. Whenever we read or write something we presuppose certain norms of communication. Without them we could neither read nor write intelligibly. In the biblical philosophy of life, God gave human language so that He could converse with His creature, man, and so that man could obey Him dutifully. Language was also given in order that man could converse with God and verbalize God’s praise back to Him. Thirdly, language was given so that man could communicate with his fellow man.[11] This view of language should be taken with us when we attempt to devise a set of principles for Biblical interpretation. The whole aim of Biblical hermeneutics is spelled out by Ramm when he says, “we need to know the correct method of interpretation so that we do not confuse the voice of God with the voice of man.”[12]


[1] This essay is an extract, slightly adapted, from the author’s dissertation

[2] Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 28.

[3] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1975), 11.

[4] E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 18.

[5] Thomas, 27.

[6] As e.g., William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1993, revised and expanded), 5. There is much fine material in this work.

[7] It is unfortunate that even some dispensationalists confound hermeneutics and exegesis. This is somewhat due to the employment of an inclusive designation of hermeneutics as including “observation, interpretation, and application.” Such a definition is, of course, far too broad for a dispensationalist.

[8] Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, Grant Lovejoy, eds., Biblical Hermeneutics, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 367.

[9] Richard J. Erickson, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament Exegesis, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 222.

[10] Craig G. Bartholomew & Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 21.

[11] A thought-provoking treatment of language from a Christian perspective is Quentin J. Schulze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000).

[12] Ramm, 2.

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt.4)

Part Three

Block’s Challenge

Recently the Old Testament scholar Daniel Block has vigorously challenged the whole Cosmic Temple thesis.[1]  Even if his counter-arguments are somewhat provisional[2], and he retains certain questionable positions on some matters (e.g. the presence of a covenant in Eden[3]; violence beyond Eden[4]; Jesus replacing the Jerusalem temple[5]), I think he has banged more than a couple of nails into the coffin.  Allow me to set out several of his major criticisms[6]:

  1. The depiction of Eden in Genesis 1 and 2 stresses, says Block, not a sacred space, but a “royal world, with the man being cast as a king.”[7] I may add that the concept of sacred space may be present, but it need not include a priesthood[8], and there are reasons to think it does not. The office of priest seems to make sense only whe,n others are excluded from the priesthood.  But that cannot be maintained out of what we read in Genesis.  There is no reason to believe that all Adam’s offspring would follow their father in a priestly function, but then who would they represent?  The existence of a priesthood presupposes not a congenial divine-human economy but a broken relationship.[9]  Hence it is simply out of place in Eden.[10]
  2. God’s “walking” (hithallek) in the garden in Genesis 3:8 relates much more to His relationship with man than to the garden as a “sanctuary.”[11]
  3. The presence of cherubim guarding the tree of life need not imply that Eden was sacred space. Block notes that strange composite creatures are found in other settings in ANE parallels like palaces and gates.[12] They are not confined to sanctuaries, so appeals to ANE parallels won’t work.  On top of this is the fact that no presence of these creatures is recorded until after the entrance of sin into the world.
  4. The clothing given to Adam by God was also given to Eve. If Adam wore priestly garments then so did Eve. But the Old Testament knows nothing of women priests.[13]  This incongruity has not been addressed by the promoters of the theory.  But neither has the change of wardrobe from glorious apparel before the Fall to animal skins afterwards.  An explanation is required if Ezekiel 28:13 is truly a description of Adam as Beale insists.
  5. Genesis 3 is silent on whether the entrance to the garden was located in the east.[14] It may have been, but we will never know for sure.
  6. Block notices that the tripartite nature of the primeval environment (garden, Eden, beyond) does not match that of the sanctuary, which had Holy of Holies, Great Room, Court, and beyond. Hence the analogy breaks down upon closer inspection.[15]
  7. Block asks if Genesis 1-3 ought to be read in light of later texts, as the espousers of the Eden/Temple-as-microcosmos approach assert. He replies that “By themselves…the accounts of Gn 1-3 offer no clues that a cosmic or Edenic temple might be involved.” He rather indicates that the sanctuaries of Israel recall what was lost in the garden through the Fall.[16]  He continues by observing that Genesis 1-3 is not based upon the concept of temple theology, but the other way round; temple theology is based in Creation theology.[17]  That is to say, the later temples memorialize the lost Paradise.
  8. Neither Eden nor the Cosmos are described in language which defines temples as places of worship.[18] He points out that the Old Testament calling Israel “the holy land” does not make it a temple, and even if we retain the terminology of calling Eden a “sacred space” it does not make it a temple also.[19] Furthermore, God does not require a dwelling place.[20]  I might add that in this scenario the cosmos is a defiled temple (as evidenced by the presence of evil) and hence the garden becomes a sacred temple within a defiled temple which it is meant to picture.

Even if Block is right about all this, and I think he is, this does not require us to back completely away from linking Eden and the Temple.  But it is best to view the tabernacle/temple as containing a remembrance of God’s paradise, and the ready access to God that was squandered.  I fully endorse the following sentiment of Block’s:

In its design as a miniature Eden the Israelite temple addressed both the alienation of humanity from the divine Suzerain and the alienation of creation in general.[21]

I think this is a crucial point.  The note of alienation is what pushes against the notion of an expanding and finally inclusive cosmic temple.  And alienation is central to the meaning of the physical temples of Israel.

We may expect more scholars to poke holes in the Cosmic Temple thesis in the coming years.

The Cosmic Temple and the Sufficiency of Scripture

As I have shown, several advocates of this Temple > Eden > Cosmos thesis inform us that it is nowhere spelled out in the Scriptures themselves.  We have also seen that interpreters old and new do not always agree with each other about what symbolizes what.  But this could be lived with if the Cosmic Temple imagery were kept as an interesting speculative feature of the Bible, say like the presence of certain chiasmic patterns, or even the view that the early chapters of Genesis comprise a microcosm of Bible history.[22]  Unfortunately this is far from the case.  Leading lights of Covenant and New Covenant theology have pressed this concept into doing major work in service of their eschatological preferences.  The logic is attractive: If the church is now the “true temple” which is to expand as God’s dwelling, and the garden of Eden and the physical Jewish temples were merely anticipations of this actual “end times temple”, then there appears to be no need for a millennium after Christ returns.  All that remains is the consummation of God’s temple in the New Heavens and New Earth.  Premillennialism loses.  But so, I would argue, does the sufficiency of Scripture.    (more…)

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt. 3)

Part Two

Objections to the Cosmic Temple Motif in Scripture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Did the Temple Stand For?

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

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

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

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

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt.2)

Part One

Firmer Ground

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

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

Cosmic Temple and Typology

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————————————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid, 647.

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

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

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

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt.1)

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

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

Explaining the Cosmic Temple Idea[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eden as a Cosmic Temple?

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

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

The passage in question reads:

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

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

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

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

A rerun of an older post

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

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

Let me give you an example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another quote:

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

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

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

Image: Tom Vanderwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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