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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The Enlightenment, Biblical Studies, and the Development of the Dispensational Hermeneutic

I just found this buried in my saved documents in Word. It gets into some reasons why I have abandoned Dispensationalism as my hermeneutic (which I did approx. eleven years ago), as it tries to draw attention to the impact that the Enlightenment had upon the context within which Dispensationalism developed as a system of biblical interpretation. I don’t think I have ever shared this post before here at the blog, but maybe I have. Either way I think it is apropos to share this given the two videos I just did today on Dispensationalism on FaceBook Live.

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were of evangelicals from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort). Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.

Conclusion

John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historicist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

The Dispensational Hermeneutic, An Enlightenment Invention: Ryrie, Berkouwer, and Webster in Relief

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid

There is no doubt a retreat, or migration as it were, of evangelicals has taken place from engaging with doctrine, but insofar as doctrine is still present for many evangelicals of a certain era anyway, what informs them most, at least hermeneutically is the hermeneutic known as Dispensationalism. It was this hermeneutic that I was groomed in myself, not only as a kid, but in and through Bible College and Seminary (of the Progressive sort).

Dispensationalism, without getting into all of the nitty gritty, is a hermeneutic that prides itself on using the ‘literal’ way of reading Scripture in a ‘consistent’ form as they claim; it is a hermeneutic that maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church (in its classic and revised forms); and it is a hermeneutic that simply seeks to read its understanding straight off the pages of Scripture in the most straightforward ways possible (again ‘literally’ with appeal to Scottish Common Sense Realism[1]). One of its most ardent proponents says it like this:

Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech….[2]

The Dispensationalist’s hermeneutic springs then from a philosophy of language that holds to the idea that language corresponds to real and perceptible things in reality, and as such, based upon this assumption attempts to, in a slavish way (to this principled understanding of language and reality) reads Holy Scripture in such a way that comports with language’s and history’s most basic and simple and normal component parts (i.e. as it can be reconstructed through critical and rationalist means).

It is no surprise that Dispensationalism developed when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when what it meant to do Biblical Studies and exegesis of Scripture was to engage Scripture through developmental/evolutionary criterion for reconstructing Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) history (the periods that Biblical Scripture developed within), and using various other literary criteria for determining Scripture’s origination and the cultural-societal-rhetorical contexts that gave it rise. In other words Dispensationalism developed in a context wherein things are only true insofar as they comport with the canons of observable and empirical protocol. G.C. Berkouwer describes this development this way:

We now confront the noteworthy fact that, during the rise of historical criticism, concentrated attention to the text of Scripture was considered vital and necessary. Criticism protested against every form of Scripture exposition which went to work with a priori and external standards. It wanted to proceed from Scripture as it actually existed; it sought to understand Scripture in the way in which it came to us in order thus to honor the “interprets itself.” This is what it claimed in its historical exposition of Scripture: something supposedly free of all the a prioris of dogmatic systems or ecclesiastical symbolic. In that way justice could be done to Scripture itself.[3]

Maybe you noticed something in the Berkouwer quote, he is implicitly noting something that happened in the 18th century—again remembering that this is the context which the Dispensationalist hermeneutic developed within and from—there was a split (as a result of Enlightenment rationalism among other forces) between doing confessional/churchy biblical interpretation/study from the kind of biblical interpretation/study that came to dominate what it meant to do ‘critical’ biblical study. This split was given formalization in the mid-1700s first by publications from Anton Friedrich Büsching and then most notably by G. Ebling; Gerhard Hasel summarizes it this way:

Under the partial impetus of Pietism and with a strong dose of rationalism Anton Friedrich Büsching’s publications (1756-58) reveal for the first time that “Biblical theology” becomes the rival of dogmatics. Protestant dogmatics, also called “scholastic theology,” is criticized for its empty speculations and lifeless theories. G. Ebeling has aptly summarized that “from being merely a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics ‘biblical theology’ now became a rival of the prevailing dogmatics.”[4]

Dispensationalism developed within the new ‘critical’ approach to doing biblical studies, although it was attempting to still honor its pious commitment to Scripture as Holy and God’s. But it did so under the ‘Modern’ constraints provided for by Enlightenment rationalism; its philosophy of language (i.e. the literalism we have already broached), grounded in Scottish Common Sense Realism, was very so much so moving and breathing in and from a non-confessional, non-dogmatic mode of doing biblical study. Hasel once again describes the ethos which the Dispensational hermeneutic developed within:

In the age of Enlightenment (Aufklärung) a totally new approach for the study of the Bible was developed under several influences. First and foremost was rationalism’s reaction against any form of supernaturalism. Human reason was set up as the final criterion and chief source of knowledge, which meant that the authority of the Bible as the infallible record of divine revelation was rejected. The second major contribution of the period of the Enlightenment was the development of a new hermeneutic, the historical-critical method which holds sway to the present day in liberalism [dispensationalism] and beyond. Third, there is the application of radical literary criticism to the Bible …. Finally, rationalism by its very nature was led to abandon the orthodox view of the inspiration of the Bible so that ultimately the Bible became simply one of the ancient documents, to be studied as any other ancient document.[5]

It might appear that what was just described sounds nothing like who the practitioners of the dispensational hermeneutic are (i.e. evangelical Bible loving Christians). That would be correct, but the point is to note that dispensational hermeneutes don’t ever really abandon the Enlightenment principles nor the split from confessional hermeneutics that the Enlightenment produced between the disciplines. Instead dispensationalism attempts to work with and from the material and rationalist principles provided by the Enlightenment;  primarily meaning that the Dispensational hermeneutic hopes to be able to go immediately to the text of Scripture, through its grammatical and historical analysis under the supposition that biblical language simply functions like any other literary language does under its plain and normal meanings without any pretext or reliance upon its (potential) theological significance. Instead its theological significance can only be arrived at after abstracting that out from the plain meaning of the words of Scripture.

Conclusion

John Webster summarizes what happened during this period of development this way (and what he describes applies to the development of the Dispensational hermeneutic as well):

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[6]

Whenever you hear someone say they just interpret Scripture ‘literally’ dig deeper to see if what they mean is ‘literalistically’ under the constraints of what we described provided for by the Enlightenment.

To be clear, following the Enlightenment does not, of course, nor necessarily terminate in the Dispensational hermeneutic, in fact a case can be made that what the Enlightenment did to biblical studies, in some ways provided for some fruitful trajectory as well (insofar as it highlights the fact that the Bible and its phenomenon cannot be reduced to historist or naturalist premises themselves); but we will have to pursue that line later. Suffice it to say, Dispensationalism is not the pure way to Scripture that its adherents want us to think that it is. It does not spring from Christian confessional premises, and in fact ignores the fact that indeed Scripture study and exegesis is actually a theological endeavor at its heart. The only way to get a plain meaning of Scripture is to read it through the lens of God’s life revealed and exegeted in Jesus Christ.

[1] See Thomas Reid, “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them — these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid (2004), 85.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80.

[3] G.C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 130.

[4] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate. Revised and Expanded Third Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1989), 19.

[5] Ibid., 18-19 [Brackets mine].

[6] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

Interpreting the Bible ‘Literally’, in Christ: Considering Dispensationalism and Christian Hermeneutics

How should we read the Bible as Christians? And when we claim to read the Bible literally, what does this mean? These are two questions I want to broach (emphasis on broach) in this short post. In particular I want to engage with these questions from my own evangelical context, and even more pointedly to engage with a biblical interpretive framework I lived in, through, and under for many years (even including my formal training in both pantocrator7undergraduate and graduate studies); the framework I am referring to is known as Dispensationalism.

Charles Ryrie, famous dispensational scholar from Dallas Theological Seminary is known for his advocacy and articulation of the dispensational interpretation of Scripture. He writes of the literalist interpretation of the Bible:

If literal interpretation is the correct principle of interpretation, if follows that it would be proper to expect it to apply to all the Scriptures. This, as we have tried to show, is the reason the matter of consistency in the application of plain interpretation is so important. The nonliteralist is the nonpremillenialist and the progressive dispensationalist, and the consistent literalist is a dispensationalist.

Literal interpretation results in accepting the text of Scripture at its face value. Based on the philosophy that God originated language for the purpose of communicating His message to man and that He intended man to understand that message, literal interpretation seeks to interpret that message plainly. In the prophecies of the Old Testament, plain interpretation finds many promises that, if interpreted literally, have not yet been fulfilled….[1]

As the first clause at the beginning of the second paragraph underscores, for Ryrie & co. to interpret Scripture literally means that we need to be ‘accepting the text of Scripture at its face value.’ In other words, for Ryrie Scripture should be able to be read in the same way a newspaper in hand can be read; that somehow the context of Scripture has less value in helping us unlock the meaning of Scripture than does the straightforward sets of words themselves. So, for Ryrie, whether or not Jesus Christ has come and fulfilled certain and all Old Testament prophecies in a certain way, and understood through a certain Apostolic and New Testament lens should really have no bearing on how we currently attempt to interpret prophecies, like in reference to the nation of Israel; we (according to Ryrie) should be able to go to Old Testament prophecies and read them as they were given in their original context without recourse to the context we have now been given as Christians to read all of these prophecies in light of Christ’s fulfillment of them. But this is not how the New Testament authors themselves read the Old Testament, in fact, they read the Old Testament in light of Christ, and with Christ as key for providing the broader framework through which these Old Testament promises and prophecies ought to be read (inclusive of the role and place the nation of Israel has in the economy of God’s life in salvation history).

In contrast to Charles Ryrie and the Dispensationalist hermeneutic (interpretive framework) in general, the New Testament authors, along with the Patristic church fathers interpreted the Old Testament in light of Jesus Christ, as if he truly had come and provided substance to the shadows of the Old Testament. For the New Testament authors (and the Church fathers following in their wake and tradition) to interpret Scripture ‘literally’ is not to presume upon a ‘face value’ meaning of the Text, but instead, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and through the very teaching of Jesus Himself, they understood the Old Testament promises and prophecies in certain Christ-concentrated/centered way. They did not presume that Scripture was like any other book that followed mathematically precise linguistic rules governed by the conventions of normal literary principles; no, they realized that Holy Scripture was sacred, as such, while working within the web of literary reality, what provided the cohesion and structure, and the broad context of meaning for Scripture was not a nation, but a person, and that person, of course is the Jewish man, Jesus Christ. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard have written:

Continuity and discontinuity mark the transition from Jewish to early Christian interpretation. As devout Jews, the first Christian interpreters–the apostles–regarded Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah and the small religious community he left behind as the true fulfillment of Judaism’s ancient hopes. They appealed to the OT Scriptures to support their beliefs, interpreting them by many of the same principles as other Jewish religious groups. On the other hand, they revered Jesus as the new Moses and the authority of Jesus as superior even to that of the law of Moses–a decisive departure from their Jewish roots. Also, they interpreted the OT from a radically new perspective–in light of the Messiahship of Jesus and the new age inaugurated by his coming.

Indeed, Jesus’ literal fulfillment of OT prophecy was their fundamental hermeneutical principle. In this they followed the example of Jesus himself. Jesus launched his ministry by claiming in a Galilean synagogue that he personally fulfilled Isa 61:1-2 (Lk 4:18-21; cf. Mk 1:15). Later, when John doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus appealed to his healing of the blind, the lame, and the deaf just as Isa 35:5-6 had forecast (Lk 7:21-23). Along those same lines, the apostles found the prophetic fulfillment of the OT in Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom of God. In other words, they understood the OT christologically. According to Paul, to read the law of Moses without Christ is like reading it through a veil (2 Cor 3:14-16; cf. Exod 34:33-35). The reader simply cannot see what it really means![2]

If the above is the case as delineated by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard to follow Ryrie and the Dispensationalist’s literalism is more akin to reading the Bible Jewishly rather than Christianly. It is to read Scripture as literalistic instead of in the ‘sense of literalism’ (sensus literalis); to read Scripture in the sense and within the context that it is given, for Christians, means to intentionally and rigorously read Scripture as if Jesus Christ is the ‘literal’ meaning and sense of all of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. If we attempt to read Scripture other than this, and under the terms laid out by Ryrie and Dispensationalists in general, we will miss the real point of Scripture, and we will misunderstand Israel’s important role in mediating the messiah to the nations.

To finish off this now lengthy blog post, let me close with a quote from Donald Fairbairn on how the early Christians in the early Patristic church interpreted Scripture in close following with the way the New Testament itself interpreted Scripture (i.e. the so called Old Testament):

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.[3]

Fairbairn is really just pressing what we have already sketched above, and reinforcing the idea that the New Testament itself offers the interpretive categories through which we ought to engage the Old Testament promises and prophecies; we ought to engage the OT as if Jesus has come, and as if Jesus is coming again, as if He is the context, as if He is ‘literalist’ reality of the Old Testament context. Even if some so called ‘allegory’ or other interpretive methods are deployed by the New Testament authors, we must, as the early Church did, understand that what it means to read the Old Testament literally is to do so in Christ as the fulfillment and reality of the Text. True, Jesus is Jewish, indeed that is the point, as Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck has written, “… Israel belongs to the human race, remains in relation to all peoples, and is chosen not at the cost, but for the benefit of the whole human race….”[4]; even so, to understand Israel in isolation, and as if all of human and biblical history is shaped by its reality, would miss the bigger reality of which both Israel and all of creation is a part of in Jesus Christ.

Summary

In summary, I have introduced the way Dispensationalists, and in particular, Charles Ryrie understand what literal biblical interpretation looks like and results in. And then I have juxtaposed and countered the Dispensationalist understanding of what interpreting the Bible literally looks like for the New Testament and early Patristic church, and I have concluded that the best way forward is to follow the lead of the New Testament itself. I then finally concluded that the broad and narrow context for interpreting the Old Testament promises and prophecies is not through the nation of Israel in isolation (as if it is the sole barometer for biblical and prophetic history), but instead through the Jewish man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. I seminally suggested that if we follow Jesus as the key to interpreting Scripture that we will not follow a Dispensationalist understanding of interpreting Scripture literally, but instead that we will follow the way that the New Testament itself understands interpreting the OT literalistically; i.e. in Christ.

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Mood Press, 1995), 90.

[2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 28-9.

[3] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.

[4] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, Kindle loc. 2585.

Left Behind’s Theology?

October 3rd, 2014, the event everyone has been waiting for: Left Behind with Nicholas Cage will go live in a movie theater near you! What is all of the hype about in regard to the story line that funds the Left Behind movies and books (coauthored by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye)? Glad you asked. The story line behind Left Behind, in case you didn’t know, comes from a theological (and hermeneutical: biblical interpretive) approach called Classical Dispensationalism; which is always characterized by these component parts: Pretribulational view of the Rapture, and Premillennialism. Pretribulational rapture theory is what is most prominent, and indeed the very premise of the whole Left Behind empire; the theory is that Jesus will come secretly for his church and snatch her away (i.e. rapturo) to be with him during the 7 year tribulation period that various biblical exegetes believe will happen leading into the second coming of Jesus which will happen after all hell breaks loose on earth; when Jesus comes back, according to the Pretribulational view, it will be at this point that he sets up his millennial kingdom on earth (Revelation 20), where he will rule and reign for a literal 1,000 years with his glorified bride, the church, over the remnant of people who make it through the 7 year tribulation period. It will be during this period that the Davidic Covenant (II Sam. 7; etc.) will be literally fulfilled, and God’s first covenant people (his earthly people), the Jews will finally have what was promised to them: the Land.  These are the basic contours of thought behind the theology of Left Behind. Since the church, according to Pretribulational teaching, is not appointed to God’s wrath (cf. I Thess. 5.9), and the 7 year tribulation period represents God’s wrath (i.e. ‘the Day of the LORD’), and since the church is not Israel, all of this added together; the Pretribulational theory logically concluded, requires that the mechanism of a rapture be in place so that all of these other prophetically given events can unfold in the literal and orderly way in which the Pretribulational interpreter has come to expect.

Personally, I used to hold to Pretribulational/Premillennial Dispensational teaching; I no longer do. I see serious exegetical and theological problems with the whole approach, but I will have to save why I have problems with it for a later date. Here is the ‘Left Behind’ movie trailer. Enjoy.

Nuance in Dispensationalism[s]

In case you ever wondered about the variation represented in Dispensationalism; I thought I would post this brief synopsis of dispensationalism, and provide a brief sketch of the nuance available therein. Here we go.

A brief synopsis of the Dispensationalisms:

  • Classic Dispensationalism: This view was first articulated by John N. Darby, and popularized by C. I. Scofield through his “study bible.” The distinctives of this position (assuming that all dispensational thought is premil) is its emphasis upon two peoples of God — e.g. Yahweh’s earthly people the Jews, and His heavenly people the Church — its belief in “two ways of salvation,” one under the “Law,” and one under “Grace” (this is in its extreme forms, the original Scofield bible, as I recall, advocated this perspective until it was later revised); its emphasis upon heavy discontinuity between the Old Covenant and New Covenant; its belief in a literal earthly kingdom for the Jews (the 1000 year reign of Christ); and belief in more than one “New” Covenant. Its basic hermeneutic is so called “literalism.” This position also believes that the “Davidic kingdom” is only for ethnic Jews, and will not come to pass until the millennial dispensation.
  • Revised Dispensationalism: This school of “dispyism” is given its most ardent framing by Charles Ryrie; he basically adheres to much of “Classic” thought, but he begins to mitigate some of the extremisms represented by his forbears. He emphasizes “one way” of salvation, for Jews and Gentiles; he rejects the notion of God’s earthly people (the Jews) versus God’s heavenly people (the Church) — albeit he still sees a heavy distinction relative to promises made to national Israel; he basically moves Classic from extreme to a more moderate approach (underneath it though his approach still is akin to its classic roots — e.g. he still believes in more than one “New Covenant”). And the Davidic kingdom will not come to pass until the millennial period (so we are not experiencing the “kingdom” now).
  • Progressive Dispensationalism: Still relatively new movement within dispensationalism (the last twenty or so years), its most visible proponents and articulates are: Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, and Robert Saucy. This system of interpretation, contrary to the other two just mentioned, sees One People of God (not two — albeit there is still a functional difference between the two, relative to the promises made to the nation of Israel in various patriarchal covenants); believes that the “Davidic Kingdom” was inaugurated at the first coming of Christ, and will be fully realized at the second coming of Christ in the millennium; believes that the church is partaking in (now) the fulfillment of the New Covenant originally made with the nation of Israel; believes in one way of salvation for all. They hold to a “literalism” of interpretation, albeit nuanced differently from the other dispensationalisms.

Obviously, as evinced by my rough synopsis, there is movement and difference (even significant difference at points) among the various schools of dispensationalism. The primary thing that makes dispensationalism, dispensationalism is its distinction between Israel and the Church. Progressives mitigate this distinction the most, but they still do see a distinction relative to the particular promises made to the nation of Israel (that they would live in the “Land,” under the “Davidic king,” in the shalom of the “Messiah”). Progressives see the church coupled to the nation of Israel, thus partaking of the promises made to national Israel (the believing remnant).

Anyway this could definitely be developed further; hopefully this is at least helpful in drawing some distinctions, and illustrating the dynamic nature of the system known as Dispensationalism.

The Great Tribulation

*Here’s the first post of many on this topic. It is primarily in response to some questions my aunt has on these issues; I will be addressing other points in this same realm in the days to come. This is actually a repost from another blog.

Matthew 24:15-28 offers the pericope best known for describing ‘The Great Tribulation’ period. As jerusalem70ada kid, young adult, and even adult; I had believed this Great Tribulation was solely in reference to a future eschatological outcome. In reference to a future time wherein the nation of Israel would experience Jeremiah’s (chapter 30) ‘Jacob’s Trouble’ and be judged for rejecting Jesus as their promised Messiah; as a corollary, this time of ‘Great Tribulation’ would spill over to a universal extent, such that Jacob’s Trouble would become the whole World’s Trouble, which would finally eventuate in the battle of Armageddon at the time of Jesus’ second coming (cf. Rev. 19). My views have changed over the years, as some of you know; but I still hold that an aspect of Jesus’ Olivet prophecy is still yet future; but much of what he was referring to was in reference to a more near referent (relative to Jesus’ earthly time) in the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian in and around 70 A.D. Craig S. Keener in his exhaustive critical commentary on the Gospel of Matthew offers a very helpful index on the various views (as he personally understands the options) that have bubbled up over the years in regard to nuancing various interpretations of what in fact constitutes the enigmatic (for some) referent of ‘The Great Tribulation’; he writes:

In Matthew, the tribulation seems to begin with the sanctuary’s destruction in A.D. 66 and concludes with Jesus’ return (24:29). If, as I think most likely, Matthew writes some years after 70, this allows several interpretive options: in Matthew 24 Jesus (1) skips from this tribulation to the next eschatologically significant event, his return (Fuller 1966;  cf. Lk. 21:24; especially compare Mt 24:21, “nor ever shall,” with Dan 12:1; cf. Jos. War pref. 1); (2) regards the whole interim between the Temple’s demise and his return as an extended tribulation period (“immediately” — 24:29; e.g., Carson 1984b: 507); (3) prophetically blends the tribulation of 66-70 with the final one, which it prefigures (see Bock 1994: 332-33); (4) begins the tribulation in 66 but postpones the rest of it until the end time; (5) intends his “return” in 24:29-31 symbollically for the fall of Jerusalem. [pp. 577-78]

Keener continues in the next paragraph to identify his preferences, relative to the index he just provided, and then he provides a fuller interpretive justification for why he prefers what he does; he continues to write:

I currently favor (1) or (2) with elements of (3). (Against the view of a “spiritual” coming are the many emphatic statements  about a personal, visible coming in the context — 24:27; Gundry 1982: 491). The third option may in fact deserve more attention than my current inclination has given it: certainly the prophetic perspective naturally viewed nearer historical events as precursors of the final events. Early Jewish texts also telescope the generations of history with the final generation (Jub. 23:11-32). As in Mark, the tribulation of 66-70 remains somehow connected with the future parousia (Hare 1967: 179), if only as a final prerequisite. Further, the context may suggest that Jesus employs his description eschatologically, as in some Jewish end-time texts; in this case, the disasters of 66-73 could not have exhausted the point of his words (cf. Harrington 1982: 96). In any case, the view (circulated mainly in current popular circles) that Matthew 24 addresses only a tribulation that even readers after 70 assumed to be wholly future is not tenable; Matthew understands that “all these things” (probably referring to the question about the temple’s demise — 24:2; Mk 13:4) will happen within a generation (Mt 24:34), language throughout Jesus’ teachings in Matthew refers to the generation then living (e.g., 11:16; 12:39, 45; 16:4; 23:36; cf. 27:25). Further, Luke dispenses with much of the symbolism and lays the emphasis almost entirely on the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, in which Judean slaves were carried among the nations. For Luke, the “abomination” that brings about desolation becomes simply the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem, promising desolation (Lk 21:20; A. B. Bruce 1979: 292; Cole 1961: 202). [Craig S. Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew, 577-78.]

I am in line with Keener’s preferences as well; I hold to a combination of his (1), (2), and (3). This would mean, for me anyway, that I understand that much of the Tribulation referents are grounded in the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem; but this would also mean that I see this kind of Tribulation as characteristic of a yet future and final Tribulation which the world has been moving towards in birth pangs ever since this initial fulfillment and aspect of this prophecy provided by Jesus in 70 A.D. This also means that I do not necessarily believe that the Great Tribulation at the end (yet future) requires that it be physically located in Jerusalem (although it might be). I am still considering some of this, and so this is all I will communicate for now.

How might you parse your views on ‘The Great Tribulation’ if you were to use Keener’s index as a guide?

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.

A Christicrucicentric Understanding of The Great Tribulation and Current Suffering in the World: Contra Dispensationalism

Just a quick thought on an implication of a premillennial futurist understanding of eschatology; one that is most at home in a Dispensational framework.

crucifixion_phixr_phixr-1_phixrIt is interesting, just from a psychological and sociological vantage point how futurism functions for its adherents; i.e. its primary adherents as I just noted would be Dispensational-pre-millennial-pre-tribulational North American Evangelicals. There always seems to be this proleptic projection out into the future as if what God is going to do in world/prophetic history is in the ‘future’, and thus not now. It is as if this view of God functions deistically, as if God ‘will’ act, and as if ‘tribulation’ will happen, but it really isn’t happening now.

A consequence of this could be a minimizing—which I have heard this kind of minimizing by popular dispensational teachers over and again—of the crazy amount of tribulation (thlipsis) that is ongoing in the world today. How this gets minimized, is that these dispensational teachers will use this kind of tribulation that is happening now (globally) as a kind of refracted foil for what will happen in the ‘Great Tribulation’. And so the result (or mood) that this can have, is that it can cause the dispensational teacher and taught to lay back on their haunches, and presume that the suffering happening now, while indeed suffering, is not really the kind of suffering that will happen in this kind of ethereal world yet to come in the Great Tribulation. This can cause a disassociation between suffering and tribulation now, and the real suffering, of which present suffering is only a shadow, which will come during the Great Tribulation (or the Seventieth Week of Daniel, or Jacob’s Trouble of Jeremiah).

I am not trying to suggest that dispensationalists do not have compassion for human suffering, or that they don’t see Tribulation in the world now; but instead I am suggesting that dispensational teaching when taken to its logical conclusion can have this kind of disassociating minimizing effect on our perception of suffering, and thus the kind of urgency that this presents us with currently.

I think the cross of Jesus Christ ought to be understood as the orientation of the Great Tribulation that was to come upon the earth. And that Jesus’ Olivet teaching where he uses the language of the ‘Great Tribulation’ (where it is derived from), ought to be understood as what occurred historically in 70ad in the sacking of Jerusalem by Rome, and in fulfillment of Genesis 49:10. This is not to say that I do not see an intensification and progressive movement into greater and greater suffering and tribulation towards the “end” of this epoch of world history (the birth pang motif Jesus appeals to, and the dramatic movement inherent to the book of Revelation), but that we ought to have a Christicrucicentric view of the Great Tribulation, which will allow us to better maximize (V. minimize) our perception, and thus action, towards tribulation and suffering in the world today.

Let God Be True and Every Man a Liar: Dispensationalistm, Inerrancy and a Doctrine of God

I was just thinking about dispensationalism—I’m sure you ‘just’ do the same all the time ;-)—it is in my life blood, as I have shared multiple times before. It is interesting, maybe you haven’t made this connection before, Bible Pagedispensationalism is necessarily a product of a Christian Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture, and in particular, a staunch and idiosyncratic adherence to verbal plenary inspiration, and thus then, the inerrancy of Scripture. What’s at the bottom of what Charles Ryrie has called the sine qua non of Dispensationalism—i.e. adherence to a wooden literalistic form of interpreting Scripture—is that whatever God has said in the any part of Scripture, must occur with positivistic emperical fulfillment, or God has lied. And so when God promises in Jeremiah 31 that the nation of Israel will always be His covenant nation, then it is impossible to read this sensu plenior through a fuller meaning in light of its literal fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and in the way the New Testament authors interpret New Covenant language in that light. So Israel must be the focal point of prophetic history, and as most classic Dispensationalists maintain, there are multiple prophecies yet to be fulfilled; even though, it would appear that the New Testament believes the substance of those have already been fulfilled quite literally in Christ.

In short: What’s at stake for Dispensationalists is the belief in the integrity and Sovereignty of God. If one jot or tittle of an OT prophecy is not fulfilled wooden-literally in the nation of Israel; then God is a liar, the Bible is errant, and we are of most people most to be pitied. Maybe this will give you better insight into what’s at stake for the Dispensationalist hermeneutic; a doctrine of Scripture, and more importantly, a doctrine of God.