How to Read the Book of Revelation: Against Modern Day Astrological Numerology and other Aberrations

Given that according to some prognosticators the world is facing certain apocalyptic and cataclysmic reorientation starting in September 23rd, 2017, I thought I would reshare something I wrote awhile ago that engages with how to interpret the book of Revelation. Since these prognosticators are tying their predictions and prognostications to their interpretation of Revelation 12, it only seems fitting to test such an approach against a critical baseline for how the book of Revelation was originally composed, and for whom. If we push into this “baseline,” I contend, that what we will find will show these modern day prognosticators for who they are; i.e. hucksters (maybe even with good intentions) who haven’t taken the proper time to understand basic hermeneutical rules when it comes to interpreting biblical literature. So in an attempt to help address this issue, I give you the following (realizing that this is only a blog post with major space limitations; so a fuller development cannot be provided here, but hopefully it will provide enough grist for the reader to have some critical hooks to hang their hats of discernment on in this evil age).

Richard Bauckham’s books The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy are resources that all Christians should avail themselves of. Let me provide an introduction, of sorts, into the basic argument of Bauckham’s book[s].  And of course, given the nature of my blogging pattern and style, I will also be reflecting upon the theological and exegetical issues that Bauckham’s writing is touching upon—as well as the more applied and correlative issues that Bauckham’s work only implicates, that is, the popular issues of dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, & postmillennialism. That said, let me wade us into what Bauckham thinks constitutes the basic trajectory and original purpose for writing the book of Revelation (which will implicate all kinds of things). Here is what Bauckham writes on the original audience and purpose of the ‘Epistle of Revelation’, and then a bit on how Bauckham thinks this reality cashes out in application (theologically and pastorally):

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realized that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.[1]

We leave off from Bauckham with a bit of a teaser; he goes on and provides some examples of what he describes in the quote paragraph of above. Suffice it to say, it can readily be observed that Bauckham, even in the small notation above (the quote), is getting at two popular, and I would say, erroneous, ways of reading the book of Revelation. Bauckham is getting at a naked idealism way of interpreting Revelation (as it has been in the history) which usually involves a presupposition of dualism; meaning that the book of Revelation is often construed as an ethereal book that depicts a cosmic struggle between good and evil. While there is an aspect where this is true for Bauckham, we can obviously see that he sees much more particularity, unity, and concreteness to the message and theology and history that make up this book than the classic idealism approach does. And then in the next breath, we also see Bauckham challenging what I will call the futurist, premillennial, dispensational reading of Revelation (the kind given popular expression in ‘The Left Behind’ series of books by Lahaye and Jenkins). He thinks it is in error to read Revelation as if its primary semantic and conceptual pool is predictive in nature; in other words, he sees it as highly problematic to read current events (like ours) into the book of Revelation, as if this was what John and the Holy Spirit had in mind when it was originally penned. Bauckham does not see the book of Revelation as a secret code book awaiting the decoder key (current events) to, in fact, decode it. No, he sees all of the events, people, and picturesque language of Revelation as grounded in a labyrinth of inter-related complexities that bubble up from the Old Testament apocalyptic genre (like that found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.); and then he sees this context being applied to the ‘current’ events of the Roman empire of which the seven churches addressed in the Revelation are located.

There is much more to Bauckham’s thesis about the book of Revelation; like he sees the point of the book of Revelation as most pertinent to the Christians in the Roman empire who were suffering great tribulation and suffering, to the point of martyrdom. He sees the point of the book as primarily something to provide comfort and perspective for those being killed by the Roman persecution of the Christians. He sees the vindication of the Christian martyrs as the crux for understanding the composition of Revelation; and all of the apocalyptic language in the book, as providing God’s perspective over against the secular, mundane Roman perspective which these Christians were inhabiting. Bauckham sees the book of Revelation as predictive, in the sense that God’s people (all of us) will be vindicated at his coming (the second time, based on the first), as he crushes the powers of the nations, but not as the world would think, but as ‘the lamb slain before the foundations of the world’. So we see Bauckham’s vision of Revelation as correlative with the trajectory already set throughout the canon of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature; something like Daniel 2 comes to my mind:

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands —a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

It is this kind of motif that Bauckham thinks shapes the book of Revelation, but not in light of its promise (like we leave it in the book of Daniel), but in light of its fulfillment, and thus reinterpretation ‘in Christ’. There is much more to say (and I will), but this should be enough for now.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 19-20.

 

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‘Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead’: Jesus as Israel

Much like you will find in the work of Thomas F. Torrance in his recently published New College, Edinburgh lectures (Incarnation & Atonement, edited by his nephew, Robert T. Walker), Karl Barth in his coverage on The jewishjesusApostles’ Creed in his small and accessible book Dogmatics In Outline highlights the dialectical relationship that the covenant nation of Israel has with Jesus Christ. What is very rich about Barth’s coverage is that he makes something quite explicit, and it is something that some Covenant theologians get wrong; and it is something that most Dispensational exegetes caricature. That is, that the ‘Church’ replaces Israel, and thus the point of the nation of Israel, with all of her promises included, was finally realized by the Church; some dispensational proponents disparagingly call this ‘replacement theology.’ In some cases, this label might fit for some ‘classical covenant theology’ advocates, but even for many of these it does not fully fit. In other words, not even all covenant theologians argue that Israel is replaced by the Church; although many of them do.

The above notwithstanding, it is my belief that Israel is not ‘replaced’ by the Church, but that Jesus Christ is actually the ‘new Israel’ (i.e. not the Church). That Jesus himself, as the inner ground of the Covenant is the point and purpose for which Israel was called by God as the prefiguration of Yahweh’s meeting with humanity, with man. Their history is funded by God’s history to be Immanuel, God with us, including Israel; and out of this history is a reflection of God’s life becoming particularized in a specific people, in a specific time out of his own freedom and choice (which started in his original act to create, Genesis 1:1).

So my thesis is that: Jesus is the new Israel, the new humanity in his resurrection for us. If this is the case, then when we read the Old Testament and its promises to the nation of Israel, we ought to re-read and interpret those promises for whom they were ultimately intended; in Christ for and with us. Karl Barth agrees with this thesis when he writes:

But now we must turn the page. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment, is the consummation of Israel. We look again into the Old Testament and find continual traces, that these obstinate and lost men—astoundingly enough!—in certain situations even confirm their election. When this occurs, when there is a kind of godly, upright continuity, this does not arise from the nature of Israel, but is rather God’s ever renewed grace. But where there is grace, men are bound contre cæur to lift up their voice in praise of God, and bear witness that where God’s light falls upon their life, a reflection of this light in them is bound to respond. There is a grace of God in the midst of judgment. And of this the Old Testament also speaks, not as of a continuity of Israelite man, but as of a ‘nevertheless’ of God. Nevertheless, there are in the history of this nation recurrent testimonies which begin with the words, ‘Thus saith the Lord …’ They sound out as the answer of such hearers, as the echo therefore of the ‘nevertheless’ of God’s faithfulness. The Old Testament is aware of a ‘remnant’. Here it is not the question of better or more moral men, but of those who are distinguished by having been called. Sinners gripped by God’s grace, peccatores justi, are those who constitute the remnant.

Revelation culminates in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes out of Israel, born of Mary the Virgin, and yet from above, and so in His glory the Revealer and Consummator of the covenant. Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead. By His appearing, over against the verdict that man pronounced on himself God’s verdict comes into view, to remove all human self-condemnation. God’s faithfulness triumphs in this sea of sin and misery. He has mercy on man. He shares with His inmost Being in this man. He has never ceased to lead by cords of love this people which to His face behaved like a whore. It remains true that this man of Israel belongs to God and again and again, not by nature but by the miracle of grace, may belong anew to God, be rescued from death, be exalted to God’s right hand.[1]

Rich! In this, not only do we see how God relates to Israel and humanity in general; but we also see glimmers of the ontological theory of the atonement etc. peeking their eyes out in the theology of Karl Barth (more on that later).

Can we make an exegetical case for the above dogmatic realities that Barth is developing for us? Indeed. But somewhere else, at another time. Be edified!


[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 80.

A Discussion with, Daniel, Cameron, and Chris: On Eschatology, Dispensationalism, and a Christ Concentrated Heremeneutic

The following is primarily intended to follow up on a discussion I had this last Wednesday with my pastor (Daniel), and other brothers from my church (Calvary Chapel, Vancouver/Downtown). We were talking, in general, gracejesusabout our views on “eschatology,” and attempting to articulate the lineaments of our various positions; or maybe, even, for some of us, trying to figure out where we are at (I know where I am at on this stuff, at this point). As most know, Calvary Chapels are as staunchly classical Dispensational, Premillennial, Pretribulational as they come; and usually (especially in Southern California) they hold to a rather idiosyncratic intensity in their application of classical Dispensationalism. My pastor, is dispensational (progressive, though … which is laudable), Pretrib and Premil. My other brother (at our meeting), Cameron, is pretty sure he is coming down as Historic Premillennial (good, Cameron! J ); and the other brother at our meeting (the Worship Pastor at our church), Chris, seems to be open and working towards his own view on these things. And, then there is me; I am currently an exegetical historical premil (which also means post-trib), and a theological amillennialist.

We covered a broad range of things in our discussion, and in our discussion, I attempted (in our short time we had together) to provide some historical background in regard to the setting in which the dispensational hermeneutic took shape (i.e. from Scottish Common Sense Realism, from positivism, from Enlightenment rationalism, etc.). And then attempted to explain how and why I reject the Literalistic, Grammatical, Historical approach on offer with classical Dispensationalism; and then briefly hint at why I jettison the ‘literalistic’ (which is rationalist) “L” in the literal for the classical Dispensational hermeneutic, and instead affirm an actual “Literal” understanding of Scripture in terms that are defined by the way the New Testament itself uses and interprets the Old Testament promises in light of Jesus Christ as their fulfillment. And so in this sense, I explained how I understand “Literal” interpretation (see Calvin’s sensus literalis, for example); and then along with this qualification,  how I attach this “kind” of literal to the grammatical-historical (I also like to see the “L” as literary).

Okay, so you have a better understanding now with what was going on in our conversation. With this understanding in mind, and with a kind of critique of my “L” approach, from my pastor (although, I would not say it was a critique, per se, just a concern that I was maybe moving too fast and ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ — meaning that I am probably adopting an allegorical approach or something), I want to share what would be informing the kind of thinking that might fear what I appear to be doing with my own (I would say, more historic) understanding of what being literal actually entails. Who better to provide this kind of insight, into this kind of apprehension (towards my direction), than Charles Ryrie (popularizer and stalwart of classical Dispensational hermeneutics)? The following is Ryrie critiquing Daniel Fuller, professor emeritus, from Fuller Theological Seminary; Fuller would maintain a more historical premil kind of view (which might as well be amillennial for Ryrie). Here is Ryrie on Fuller:

Thus, the nondispensationalist is not a consistent literalist by his own admission but has to introduce another hermeneutical principle (the “theological” method) in order to have a heremeneutical basis for the system he holds. One suspects that the conclusions determined the means used to arrive at them—which is a charge usually hurled at dispensationalists.

Fuller’s problem is that apparently his concept of progressive revelation includes the possibility that subsequent revelation may completely change the meaning of something previously revealed. It is true that progressive revelation brings additional light, but does it completely reverse to the point of contradiction what has been previously revealed? Fuller’s concept apparently allows for such, but the literal principle built upon a sound philosophy of the purpose of language does not. New revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation. Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different. It may add to it or even supersede it, but it does not contradict it. A word or concept cannot mean one thing in the Old Testament and take on opposite meaning in the New Testament. If this were so, the Bible would be filled with contradictions, and God would have to be conceived of as deceiving the Old Testament prophets when He revealed to them a nationalistic kingdom, since He would have known all the time that He would completely reverse the concept in later revelation. The true concept of progressive revelation is like a building—and certainly the superstructure does not replace the foundation.[1]

Ryrie’s fear is really an apologetic fear, and not a theological or even biblical one. The fear for Ryrie is that if we don’t follow a wooden-literal, and positivistic hermeneutic, that we will end up denying the inerrancy of Scripture, and indeed, in the end, undercut any space for a rational belief in God. So this is one thing (a category confusion, and illustrative of the Fundamentalist reactionary mode that so dominates Ryrie’s approach, and how that reaction stands in as a touchstone and shaper of his hermeneutic, in general).

Secondly, for Ryrie, he believes that a “theological” reading of Scripture means that we have carte blanch for interpreting Scripture “spiritualistically;” we see this in his critique of Fuller. But this is highly problematic, for Ryrie, and his view, because what he fails to appreciate is that his “literalist” approach comes just as loaded with “theological” freight as does any other purported “theological” method. It is just that classical Dispensationalism, in general, and Charles Ryrie, in particular, operate from a theory of language and reality that, again, takes shape from a naturalist, empiricist understanding of reality; such that, in the end, the linear march of history, and the usage of language by people that shapes that, becomes determinative for how reality “just is.” In other words, for Ryrie, it is as if a ‘normal, plain, and literal’ engagement with observable reality (inclusive of language itself) can simply be read in a way that theological presuppositions are mere abstractions of language itself; as if language is not innately theological in its giveness; as if language itself does not come from the sustainer of creation itself — which would or should make one think that language is thoroughly theologically charged, in general (especially when we are dealing with the language of the Bible). Ironically, Ryrie, just prior to the quote I shared above appeals to this same thing; i.e. that language is given by God. But then he uncritically presumes that if this is the case, that biblical language, then, ought to be as simple as reading Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which, again, is to actually abstract biblical language from its rich Christian and theological origination; and instead, to locate it in the realm of a pure nature that is abstract from God, in the end.

To be “literal” for me, when it comes to biblical hermeneutics, is to follow the way the New Testatment authors consistently engage with the Old Testament and its application and reinterpretation in and through Christ as its ultimate reality (just as Christ is the ultimate reality and purpose for all of creation cf. Col. 1:15ff.). This is not to change or contradict the original intent or meaning of the Old Testatment, instead, it is to fully appreciate that the New Testatment authors (under inspiration) used the various heremenutical approaches available to them in their second Temple context. It is to appreciate that they applied things that would “naturally” appear to be applicable to the nation of Israel, and expand those out to their actual and always referent in Jesus Christ. To be literal for me is to follow the demands expected by the various literary realties that govern the Bible as a piece of special literature: i.e. types, genres, and forms. To be literal for me is to assume that whenever we read the bible we are engaging in a theological exercise, par excellence. The Bible, itself, as read by Christians through the centuries, is governed by the theological concept that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and that God speaks (viva vox Dei, ‘the living voice of God’).

If we start out reading the Bible as Christians, and thus Christianly, we will not end up being a classical or even a progressive Dispensationalist. And this is because, again, we will read the Bible in a way that starts with Christ (cf. Gen. 1:1 with John 1:1, which is a very theological gloss on Gen. 1:1 by the evangelist, John), the son of David. If we start out reading the Bible with the nation of Israel, and then do so through a wooden-literalism (as I have describe it above), then we will end up reading the Bible as if it is primarily about the nation of Israel (with Christ included in the discussion, but not primary to it). So either way, it is a rather circular venture; the difference between what I would call the Christ[ian] approach versus the ‘Israel’ approach, is that the Christian approach has the space for someOne outside of the contours of natural history to break in on its understanding, and thus serve as history’s point and reality; whereas, the Israel approach takes its orientation from the closed and immanent orientation provided by natural history and its linear and progressive unfolding alone.

Obviously, Christians are on both sides of this equation (and it is certainly possible to frame this in less polarizing ways); but of course, I think the side I am on is the genuinely Christian one, and I am hopeful that you all might join me here (if you haven’t already). Good times!


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 84.

In the Grand Scheme of Things …

It really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but it does to me, because it is what I think.

Many of you have followed me for quite some time (others, just more recently); for those of you who have followed me for awhile, you know that I have publically (somewhat) been working through my millennial view (for years, much before blogging). And I continue to (I am not static on this). My genealogy: Classic Dispensational (Pre-Trib/Premil), Progressive Dispensational (Pre-Trib/Premil), Historic Premil (Post-Trib/Non-Dispensational), Amillennial (Post-Trib/Non-Dispensational), and now back to Historic Premil (Post-Trib/Non-Dispensational).

I have recently been reading more on the book of Revelation in particular, and listened to a debate between an amil, postmil, and historic premil (which I am one again). As I have continued to read, and reflect on this, I simply can’t look past the Greek grammar in that particular section of Revelation, as well as the language of resurrection (it is best understood as in reference to the bodily or final resurrection). So I have reverted back to historic premil/post-trib; but this only means that I see a yet future intermediate period between the now and the non-yet of the consummate form of the kingdom (Revelation 21–22). I still interpret much of the book of Revelation as a functional amillennialist (except for Revelation 20, which I don’t see as recapitulating chapter 19, nor the previous 18 chapters). Like an amillennialist I believe that the Great Tribulation finds primary referent historically in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70ad, and then this type of Tribulation moves out universally over the span of church history and once again intensifies (thus the progressive parallelism found in Revelation) just prior to the return of Christ (so I don’t use Daniel 70 weeks as a cipher by which I understand Tribulation language as Dispensationalists do).

I have more to say, but this should put me on record for now; again, not that it really matters that much ;-).

What is ‘Full Preterism’, and Why It is Unacceptable For Me and Most of the Christian Church

Here is a post I wrote when I first started blogging; my own views have changed quite dramatically from when I originally wrote this post (I was a Pre-Tribulational Progressive Dispensationalist when I wrote this). But I Second-Comingthought it apropos given my last post on this similar topic, and since one of my interlocutors appears to be a Full Preterist (unfortunately!). This post is short, as originally written, but is intended to briefly sketch the difference between a Full Preterist (which I still consider heretical because it denies the bodily resurrection), and Partial Preterism. Here is the reposting, and I think I will follow it up with a few more words:

__________________________________

Briefly, I will provide a quick survey of Preterism (latin=praeter, meaning beyond or past), and its inherent hermeneutical/theological problem. There are two camps within this particular belief system, either full preterist or partial preterist.

A “full preterist” believes, in relationship to the second coming of Christ that in fact it has already happened. They believe that Christ already came, when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. They see this judgment, as the fulfillment of the resurrection prophesied by Jesus. Note Kim Riddlebarger’s analysis here:

“. . . full preterists teach that the resurrection—which, they say, is not bodily but spiritual—has already occurred. To teach, as full preterists do, that Christ has already returned and that the resurrection occurred in A.D. 70 at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem is heresy, according to the apostle Paul.” (see Kim Riddlebarger, A Case For Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 239)

As noted above, the full preterist position is heretical because it undercuts the blatant scriptural teaching that the general resurrection will be bodily not spiritual (cf. II Tim. 2:17-18). But there is a variant teaching, that does not cross the threshold of heresy, it is an adaptation of “full preterism” known as “partial preterism.”

Partial preterism, contrarily, does not believe that the “resurrection” or second coming happened at 70 A.D.; although they do believe that Christ did “judge” Jerusalem at the 70 A.D. date. They believe that this judgment signified the end of the “Jewish Age”, and concurrently inaugurated the “age to come.” Note Riddlebarger:

“Partial preterists, however, do not believe that the second coming and the resurrection occurred in A.D. 70, although they do believe Jesus did come back in judgment on Israel (a parousia), to bring about the end of the Jewish age (this age) and to usher in the age to come. According to many partial preterists, this view resolves the tension found throughout the New Testament between those texts which teach that Jesus and his apostles expected our Lord to return within the lifetimes of the apostles then living and again at the end of time when Jesus will return to judge the world, raise the dead, and make all things new.” (see Kim Riddlebarger, A Case For Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 239-40)

The interpretive problem this poses is one of positing a position that presupposes two returns of Christ (one local and one universal). The scriptures nowhere teach a local/universal two time return of Christ—only one return (cf. Acts 1:10-11; Heb. 9:27-28). The preterist position (full or partial) is an untenable position to forward, at least in its relationship to the clearer teaching of scripture (analogia fidei).

__________________________________

As you can see at the end, I critique partial preterism as well, and I did so from my Dispy Premillennial perspective. I am willing to concede that there are some partial preterist elements going on especially as noted in the Olivet Discourse (cf. Mt. 24), and aspects of the book of Revelation (but I’d rather label what I hold as historist in a denotative way, and not in the connotative way that developed among the Calvinian Reformed and Lutherans who saw Roman Catholicism and the papacy as fulfilling the role of the Beast and the anti-Christ; I see the Roman Empire, in the context and historical situation of the book and theology of Revelation, as typifying the ‘kind’ of Beastly power that is characteristic of ages and peoples who are opposed to the purposes of God … I think even literarily this correlates well with a motif and theology of Babylon throughout scripture’s usage).

As far as Full Preterism, as I said, quite strongly, I see it as a full orbed heresy; why? Because it, by definition denies the bodily resurrection of all believers from all ages. According to scripture this transformation (Phil. 3.20-21) will happen when the last trumpet sounds, the dead in Christ will rise first, prior to those living at the time of Christ’s second coming (I Thess. 4 etc.); all of which will happen in a twinkling of an eye (I Cor. 15.) It contradicts the clear teaching of scripture and the angelical declaration that Christ will return in like manner; in like manner to his ascension, which was bodily. Acts 1.9-11 says,

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

This requires no argument, it is straightforward; Jesus will return just as he left, bodily, and visibly; not secretly or platonically spiritually. There are theological points associated with this, especially by the book of Revelation; but those points aren’t necessary to undercut the aberrant teaching that Jesus will not return bodily (of course how ‘bodily’ is understood for some varies; some hold to the ubiquity of Christ’s body, for example, but even this view must account for the particularity of Christ’s body as understood in context found in Acts 1) and a second time (as the epistle to the Hebrews also refers to more than once).

I will have to discuss some of the theological reasons I see associated with the second coming at a later date (like the relation between justification/sanctification and glorification). I will also, in the future, like to address the theology of ascension from a Reformed perspective in the near future; these are underdeveloped themes in Christian thought, and I think Reformed theology has some hefty resource to tap into in this regard.

Answering Questions on My Former Dispensationalism and Barth

A commenter here has been corresponding with me via email; he has a few concerns that he would like me to address in regards to my views on eschatology. He was wondering about Karl Barth, and what Barth meant in this quote taken from Barth’s Commentary on Romans (Der Romerbrief):

“Will there ever be an end to all our ceaseless talk about the delay of the Parousia?  How can the coming of that which does not enter in ever be delayed?  The End of which the New Testament speaks is no temporal event… What delays its coming is not the Parousia, but our awakening…” [Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 500-01.]

dispytimeFor anyone of you Barthians who read here, if you would like to take a stab at this and inform us exactly what Barth meant; then I would be obliged. André, would like to know if Barth actually believed in a bodily return of Jesus Christ. I have communicated with André that Barth definitely believed in the second coming of Jesus Christ, just as any orthodox Christian must. And that the context for the pretextual quote lifted from Barth above must be his apocalyptic conception of revelation as event; with the notion that when Barth refers to ‘no temporal event’ he is emphasizing the idea that God’s coming in Christ is something happens ever anew and afresh moment by moment through God’s being in becoming as we encounter him in Christ through the primary witness of threefold Word. I know that Barth wanted to get away from thinking in classical linear terms, and instead have us think apocalyptically in regard to God’s life interdicting ours on an ongoing basis in Christ. But I would also posit that for Barth, that this continual in-breaking on the world in Christ is portending of final and proleptic encounter that will be ultimately realized in consummate form. In other words, the fact that God is apocalyptic in his life, and that he does break in on the world presently; only reinforces the idea that God will make a final move of Christian hope wherein these shadowy break-ins of his life in Christ on the world find their orientation from the idea that we will finally participate in the glory that the Son has always shared with the Father in their shared life.

But this isn’t what I really wanted to deal with in this post; André asked me this:

Dear Mr. Grow

Do you expect a “second coming” or “return” of Jesus?
Kind Regards
And this:
I espessialy ask you because of your dispensationalist background.
Wondering how you got out of it and how much you got out of and what you used to fill the gap with.
I affirmed, of course, as an orthodox Christian, that my hope is a bodily return of Jesus Christ as the book of Acts asserts in its first chapter. I am thinking that some Preterists have been influencing André; I don’t know that for sure, but it sounds like a full preterist question.
In regards to responding to his question about my dispensationalism; and how I got out of it (like it was a cult); and how much I got out of it; and what I used to fill the gap with (not sure I understand that point … I’m still waiting for further clarification on that from André).
1) I never sought to “get out” of dispensationalism. I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor. I grew up being influenced by the commentaries of H. H. Ironside, and then later by Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, Lewis Sperry Chafer,  and all of my Multnomah professors (which many of them were graduates of Dallas Theological Seminary). I started out as a classic/revised dispensationalist which saw a hard discontinuity between Israel and the Church, and when I entered undergrad I moved to a progressive dispensationalism which didn’t see a ontological distinction between Israel and the Church; just a functional/economic one instead. I held onto my progressive dispensationalism until about 2010 … so 7 years after I graduated from seminary; and this was really a function of my commitment to a certain kind of hermeneutical theory (the LGH, Literal, Grammatical, Historical). The seeds of a shift started to happen for me in undergrad when I was taking a class called ‘Dispensationalism’; we read a book that had more to do with Covenant theology than amillennialism, but it was used as representative of the amillennialist hermeneutic (it was O. Palmer Robertson’s “Christ and the Covenants”). It was this book that got me thinking about amillennialism as a viable position. After seminary, in and around 2004, I read Kim Riddlebarger’s book ‘A Case for Amillennialism’; his book made me think twice, and even more. Then I read Stanley Grenz’s ‘Millennial Maze’ at a later date, along with Anthony Hoekma’s ‘Bible and the Future’ (or some such title); and I read others, like G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, and I listened to some lectures by amillennialists. None of this by itself converted me to amillennialism, because all of this was given hermeneutical shape by classic Covenant theology. In the mean time, during this time, I had been reading Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, and others; and they offered me a Christ conditioned hermeneutic. One that emphasized interpreting scripture, like the Old Testament, through a reinterpretation approach in light of Christ’s fulfillment of the promises. And so my hermeneutical rootage shifted from a Literal, Grammatical, Historical approach (which comes out of the Scottish Common Sense movement, and really a kind of rationalist approach that could find some heritage in the History of Religions approach of the German higher critics) to what I like to call a Christ conditioned ‘depth dimension’ (pace Thomas Torrance and Adam Nigh) approach to scripture that sees Christ as the principled and intensive cipher through which Scripture ought to be interpreted (this is given model through the New Testament author’s usage of the Old Testament, for example). Anyway, with all of this background; I had moved from a Progressive Dispensationalism a couple of years ago to a Post Tribulational Historic Premillennial position (which is a non-dispensational premillennial perspective). And then just over a year ago I read Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy. After I read these books I was pushed over the edge; I became an amillennialist. That said, I could still be a historic premillennialist, in principle; hermeneutically, there really isn’t much difference between the two, except for how they read Revelation 20 and the thousand years passage.
Anyway, that is a short sketch on my history and movement from dispensationalism. That went longer than I had hoped, and so I will have to pick up André’s other questions on this next time.

Reading the Book of Revelation Properly: Dispensationalists and Non-Dispensationalists

I just listened through the book of Revelation yesterday, performed by Max McLean (the NIV); and it was a great exercise. It is different to listen than it is to read, indeed, it is more true to how the original audience would have received it as an circuit epistle (letter) written to the ‘7 churches’. As I was listening to this (back dropped by my current bible reading which just happens to be in the book of Daniel) I began to reflect on the way I had Maranathagrown up understanding the book of Revelation, and how that has changed, somewhat relative to now.

I grew up understanding the book of Revelation through a Dispensational lens (I am an American Evangelical after all!). The Dispensational lens annexes the whole book of Revelation to a futurist reading (alone). In other words, Dispensationalist readers read Revelation as if all of the visions and apocalypses recorded in this book have to do with future events (even future to our present situation in the 21st century)—which many believe have started to unfold currently. As I said, this approach annexes the whole book of Revelation to the future; and its approach to interpreting the apocalyptic language of Revelation is to do so through a modern day pesher, or the contrivance of relating the language therein with contemporary modes of reality (like nuclear warheads, modern helicopters, etc.). This is in keeping, according to Charles Ryrie, with the sine qua non of what makes someone a Dispensationalist interpreter; that is if you interpret scripture woodenly Literal, the interpreter cannot help but pop out as an Dispensationalist, a Pre-Tribulationist, Premillennial one. But I think this approach is on sandy land.

I read Richard Bauckham’s two books: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy over a year ago now. He offers an alternative reading—a reading that is actually more historical and mainstream relative to the historic Christian faith than the Dispensational reading [which in itself is not an argument for the validity of the hermeneutic that Bauckham appeals to]. Bauckham emphasizes the genre of Epistle (or letter) as the frame through which we should primarily read Revelation (which is also made up of two other dominant genres: Prophetic and Apocalyptic literature). What this positioning does is to locate the primary audience of this book’s reference to be in the 7 churches mentioned in the first three chapters. If this is the primary audience then this letter or book is oriented in a way that gives shape to the kind of language and appeal that the Revelator would be using; the language would be used in a way that makes sense to this audience in particular, and it would be being ‘revealed’ in a way that is intended to provide the kind of perspective that these early Christian martyrs would need when faced with the ‘Beast’ of the Roman Empire. What this reading does, by way of framing it properly, is that it allows us to read it in a relevant and literal way; a way that understands the usage of the apocalyptic language to find referent in the historical (now) present of its first recipients. As Bauckham develops, all of the language like Beast, 666, the usage of the numbers, etc. all have historical Graceo-Roman explanation and referent to them. And what this usage of language does is to provide the real picture of what is going on for God’s people when up against the Beast (in that period the Roman Empire). What is really going on is that there is a great battle inhering between God and the forces of darkness, but God has overcome the world; and more to the point of these early readers, they should take heart because Jesus has overcome the world, and these martyrs in particular will be vindicated at the second coming of Christ and the establishment (in consummate form) of his Heavenly Zion, the New Jerusalem. This would represent the principled reading of Revelation, its applicational reading works in ‘Perfect tense’; that is, the same truth that was painted through the apocalyptic language of Revelation then, is the same truth and reality that is present now. There is a colossal and global struggle/battle taking place between the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of the Son of His love; but take heart, Jesus has overcome this world (Jn 16.33).

The book of Revelation, if read rightly has substantive discipleship properties associated with it. If it is read improperly, it has almost nothing to do with us; other than it gives us a sense of control and gnostic insight into what is purportedly and proleptically to come. Indeed we take heart in what is to come, but only because of what is to come has already come, and is presently breaking in on this world which appears in upheaval. We can have a sense of peace and control, but not because we have a mastery knowledge over the nitty gritty of future events (relative to an idiosyncratic reading of Revelation); but because we know that this world has already lost, and the battle that is supposedly coming is already being waged (in a realized way) right now. We aren’t waiting for all of this Great Tribulation to happen (the futurist reading), it is happening all around us (especially if you live as a Christian in many many parts of the world other than the US and the West); and so we need to take heed to the book of Revelation, and understand that the martyrs and those who have gone before us are indeed sitting in the heavenlies with Christ, ruling and reigning with him (during this realized thousand year period we currently inhabit—the space between the first and second coming of Christ); and that what Dispensationalists are waiting for is currently unfolding before our very eyes (and has been since Christ’s ascension and Pentecost). Maranatha!

Waiting For Armageddon: An American Evangelical Theology

I was thinking about not writing this post on this blog, but my other one that I barely use (Jesus Confession). But I figured since this blog has an actual readership, that I might as well stick it out and write the post I am about to write right here. I thought about not writing this post here, because the subject matter is a little different from what I usually broach on this blog. But the reality is, when it comes right down to it, where this post should end up is spot on with the usual tenor of what I write about at this blog. So with this ground cleared a bit, let me get into what I want to discuss.

In the last few days I have watched a couple of documentaries (one of them was more of an exposé of sorts), and the subject matter has revolved around a largely American Evangelical theme and tradition of interpretation. I have addressed this interpretive tradition more than once in my blogging over the years, because, frankly, it is the interpretive tradition that I grew up with and formally studied biblical studies and theology from for many many years. By now many of you know exactly what I am referring to; yep, Dispensationalism. Now, I have had some scholarly friends wonder why I care to address this issue in my blogging; for these friends this issue is so far out there, that it seems a waste of time to try and outline, or refute (or even make people aware of). I think the reason I am still fascinated with this is because, well, this tradition had such a large say in my life for so long. Beyond that, I am still processing (in some ways) how it was, and what it was that I was shaped by for so long in my own theological/exegetical and spiritual development.

The first video I watched in the last few days, on this, was an exposé that highlights the origins of dispensationalism (pre-trib rapture theology), its exegetical foundations, and its social implications. Here it is just below (it is 24 minutes long, and a really good introductory piece for those of you who are still pre-trib rapture dispensationalists (or who currently sit under this teaching):

Wow, right?! I’d say for the most part this little video is pretty accurate; even though it is dealing in some generalities. One of the points that I would say is mis-accurate is the reference to Ann Coulter. As far as I know, she is not a pre-trib, dispensationally formed Evangelical Christian; and so referencing her in the way the video does seems somewhat pre-textual and thus out of context and unnecessary.

The next thing I watched (and I just did before I began writing this) was an actual documentary called: Waiting For Armageddon which you can watch for free if you have Netflix). This documentary follows just regular (and intelligent) Christian Evangelical couples and families who sit under this teaching (like I did for so many years), and who fully endorse it. Beyond these folks, this film also interviews and follows some Evangelical Dispensational scholars, and gets their take on this whole interpretive tradition. Interspersed, there are also some antagonists to Dispensationalism provided by a female Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi who is part of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, and a Jewish author.

Basically this documentary (‘Waiting For Armageddon’) emphasizes the fact that Pre-trib Dispensational theology is an American phenomenon that offers an idiosyncratic reading of scripture that favors the American Evangelical church. Furthermore, this film shows how this kind of theology has shaped American foreign policy in regard to Israel, and how America engages with nations that are not friendly towards Israel. The basic sense that I came away with, as I finished this documentary was; “I can’t believe I used to believe this stuff!” This film shows how dispensational theology ultimately causes its adherents to get excited about blood shed, war, and carnage; particularly (and ironically) directed at the nation of Israel (during the Great Tribulation). The reason for the excitement is primarily because all of these things, according to dispensational theology, portend of Jesus’ coming; all of these kinds of things must happen before Jesus comes back.

Please understand, I am not making fun of people who hold to this kind of theology (I am intimately connected still to many folk who do hold to this kind of theology), but I am really just amazed that I held to this same kind of teaching for so long. These people love Jesus, but I think that their interpretive schema is totally misguided. I think this, now, because at a methodological level, dispensationalism places the nation of Israel at the center of prophetic history, and not Jesus Christ (which you will see if you are able to watch ‘Waiting For Armageddon’). I almost get an oppressed feeling when I hear this kind of stuff anymore; and in the film, it comes across in very ruthless tones (which might be a result of the editing too).

There are other implications that I could talk about in regard to American Dispensational theology; like in regard to its implications for a political theory, ethics, biblical exegesis and a whole host of other things (an ethic for voting). But I will hold off on that until a later post. I just wanted to highlight these two films, and underscore the fact, that for American Evangelicals, this system of interpretation still is very predominate.

Reinterpreting the Old Testament in light of the New Testament Fulfillment of Jesus Christ: Contra Dispensationalism

I am sorry if you have a hard time appreciating this, but I grew up as an American Evangelical (and still am, but I have morphed more into a historic Evangelical and Evangelical Calvinist); and as such, true to form, I grew up under a certain mode of hermeneutics and theological interpretation, namely: premillennial, pretribulational, classic dispensational theology. Indeed, my undergrad degree and grad degree both come from a school which is historically in this interpretive tradition, and still is. Nevertheless, as a result of repentant thinking, and through hours of study, study and thought, I have become a full blown amillennialist, and operate through a depth dimension Christ conditioned hermeneutic; one that hearkens back to a premodern, pre-critical time bequeathed to us through the New Testament authors, the early Church, and the Church Fathers (many of them) [of course it should be known that chialism or premillennialism was also on offer in the early Church, Irenaeus being one of the most prominent advocates for this interpretive move; he being motivated to this, mostly, because of his arguments with the Gnostics, and against their kind of dualism.] So for the remainder of this post I want to give insight to the kinds of interpretive realities in the New Testament that finally led me to “convert” to amillennialism. In the process of this I will highlight a few components of what defines the dispensationalism that I have ultimately rejected.

Dispensationalism believes that God’s primary purpose for salvation history revolves around the nation of Israel. Dispensationalists hold that the reestablishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 is a fulfillment of prophecy, and that this reality then is able to reinforce their interpretive commitments given shape by the dispensational system. As a result of this, it is the belief of many American dispensationalists that if a government (like the U.S.), or nation turns against the nation of Israel, then God will turn against the nation (they cite the Abrahamic Covenant for this, cf. Gen. 12:1-3). But this is, for me, what is the fundamental problem with dispensationalism. The New Testament authors didn’t see the nation of Israel as the fulfillment of the promises made in the Old Testament of the ‘Servant King’ or Messiah; no, instead the New Testament authors reinterpreted all of these Old Testament promises not in light of the nation of Israel (as the point and purpose of salvation history), but in light of their true fulfillment in Jesus Christ. It was this belief that became the rule and control that shaped the hermeneutics of the Apostolic understanding deposited for us in the New Testament writings. To illustrate this, and with this I will close the post, let me provide a scant sampling that should suffice to underscore what I have been asserting heretofore; i.e. that the NT authors reinterpreted the OT promises in light of their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (not in light of the nation of Israel, which is how dispensationalists so often interpret scripture). I will highlight two passages in the New Testament that I believe substantiate the general thrust of this post.

  1. Matthew 2:15 states: “He remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken of by the Lord, through the prophet: ‘OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.” This is quoting Hosea 11:1, which states in its context of the nation of Israel: “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I called my Son.”
  • We see in this instance, Matthew engaging in what has been called in Latin, sensus plenior, or ‘fuller meaning’. He reinterprets the passage in Hosea 11, which in context was originally referencing the nation of Israel, and now sees Jesus as the fulfillment of this passage (e.g. not the nation of Israel).
  1. Galatians 3:16 argues: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” This passage is referencing Genesis 12:1-3, 7 etc., which states: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; 2. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; 3. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. 7. The LORD appeared to Abram and said , ‘To your descendants [literally translated SEED] I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the LORD who had appeared to him.” And then also, following this motif of ‘SEED’, literarily and intertextually as well as intratextually, relative to the Torah (the first 5 books, or the Book of Moses, that make up the Hebrew Bible or our Old Testament), we also have Genesis 3:15, which states: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall be bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”
  • Here we see the Apostle Paul reinterpreting what might appear as the nation of Israel (it does for the dispensationalist) being referred to in the Abrahamic Covenant (i.e. Gen. 12:1-3, 7), as really in reference to Jesus Christ, not the nation of Israel. This does not seem to require much argument, it really is just the straightforward read on this one that is clearly referring to Jesus as the fulfillment and not the nation of Israel. And so to apply this understanding the Abrahamic covenant; it would be anyone who curses Jesus will be cursed, and not primarily the nation of Israel (which is in keeping with other messianic texts such as Psalms 2).

There are many many more examples like this of how the New Testament authors reinterpreted passages that seemingly, in their original context, were in reference to the nation of Israel only to have the Christian reinterpretation to be understood as ultimately in reference to Jesus Christ. If this is the case, this seems to be the paradigm and hermeneutic that we should biblically theologically read all of the Old Testament through; through this kind of Christ conditioned, depth dimension hermeneutic that the New Testament does.

This seems absolutely devastating to the dispensational hermeneutic, and I am fully aware of the dispensational responses and argument to this (since I used to argue them vociferously quite frequently); and I simply cannot see how they can stand up to these simple but profound New Testament reinterpretations of the Old Testament in light of their fulfillment in Jesus Christ! If I believed that the dispensational hermeneutic could respond to the weight of this, I would obviously still be a dispensationalist.

Let me also say, though, that Jesus could not, or would not be Jesus without the nation of Israel. Thomas Torrance in his book The Mediation of Christ makes a grand argument for the centrality of the nation of Israel relative to mediating, concretely, the person of Jesus Christ; and this reality will always be the reality. Jesus will always be the Jew from Nazareth, the Son of David who is King of kings and Lord of lords over all peoples and nations. But clearly, Yahweh, as Isaiah makes clear, will share his glory with no one; not even the nation of Israel (which cuts against the emphasis of an dispensational hermeneutic). Instead he has invited all of us, all nations, through Christ to participate in his glorious life for all eternity wherein righteousness dwells. This is the exciting hope, and Christ is the key to salvation history (not without Israel of course), not the nation of Israel. Scripture is clear on this, and I hope we are now too.

I still see the nation, providentially (and according to Romans 9–11), as very important to God; and I still believe that the Jewish people have a special heritage with God (simply given their vocation as the people group chosen to mediate the Savior of the World to the world). But, that said, the only way they can realize that special and rich heritage is through their reception of Jesus Christ as their Messiah just like the rest of us who make up the world in all of the various nations.

Not All Amillennialists Are ‘Replacement Theologians’ contra Dispensational Claims

Here is a brief summary of how Thomas F. Torrance understood the continuing place of the nation of Israel within the economy of God’s redemptive-history for the nations. This summary is provided by Torrance’s nephew, Robert Walker; and it is a brief summary of how Torrance read Romans 9–11:

Rom. 11.11-12, cf. vv. 15, 25-26 — the continuing centrality of the Jews for Torrance (the church does not replace Israel but is grafted into its root) is fundamental to his theology and in his lectures he used to point to Paul’s argument that if the sin of Israel means salvation and ‘riches for the Gentiles’ (11.11-12) and ‘if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?’ (11.15), or as Torrance used to paraphrase it, ‘if Israel’s rejection means the reconciliation of the world, their acceptance would be an event so momentous that it means the resurrection of the dead?’ [Robert T. Walker in Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 348 fn. 41]

Torrance, by the way, was amillennialist. I think, especially in my sub-culture, it is instructive for those dispensationalists who claim that all amillennialists follow what they call ‘replacement theology’; meaning that amillennialists believe that the nation of Israel, and all the promises made to her, were “replaced” by the Church. Obviously this is not the case for all amillennialists, TF Torrance being an exemplar of this, and thus it would serve popular dispensationalists well to take this correction.

If you are interested in understanding further about T. F. Torrance’s understanding of how the nation of Israel, in salvation history, continues to serve as the medium of the Messiah for the nations (for the Church); then read his book: The Mediation of Christ.