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Archive for May, 2009
What are you reading? This question has opened many doors for me to explore topics and issues that I may have never studied. Let us hear from you what you are reading outside of your regular preaching resources. Currently, I’m working through the following:
- God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger
- The Book of Torah: The Narrative Integrity of the Pentateuch by Thomas Mann
- The Art of Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry
- Baptism in the Early Church by Everett Ferguson
- Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon
- Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology by Arnold Fruchtenbaum
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible by Stephen Dempster
In the final chapter of his book A Case for Amillennialism, Kim Riddlebarger sets forth a number of problems he sees with the premillennial view. One of them concerns the deception of the nations in Revelation 20:7-9. According to Riddlebarger:
If premillenarians are correct about their reading of Revelation 20, Jesus rules upon the earth over people in resurrected and unresurrected bodies during the millennial age. Our Lord’s millennial rule will end with a massive satanic deception of the nations and a revolt against Christ and his church after they have reigned on the earth for a thousand years. If true, this millennial apostasy is tantamount to a second fall. Not even resurrected and glorified saints are safe from the future wrath of Satan and the unbelieving nations (p. 233).
Although it’s not exactly clear to me why Riddlebarger believes that a millennial apostasy would be tantamount some kind of “second fall,” the bigger question in my mind involves the threat of Satan’s wrath toward the saints. According to Riddlebarger, if the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 is true, then “not even resurrected and glorified saints are safe from the future wrath of Satan and the unbelieving nations.” This, I assume, is supposed to persuade people to reject the premillennial view because of how ridiculous it is to say that glorified believers could be in this kind of danger.
So what about this? Is Riddlebarger correct? Does the premillennial view of Revelation 20 require this idea that even resurrected and glorified saints will not be safe from the future wrath of Satan and the apostate nations? Frankly, it’s difficult for me to determine exactly how he even came up with this idea. As a premillennialist, I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Revelation 20, and it has never even crossed my mind that the saints could be in this kind of danger. After all, these glorified believers will not be subject to either physical death (1 Cor 15:42-57) or spiritual death (Rev 20:6), and Jesus Himself will be right there with them! Furthermore, Revelation 20:7-10 describes exactly what will happen when Satan gathers the nations for battle against the saints:
When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).
So where exactly is this idea that glorified believers will not be safe from the future wrath of Satan and the unbelieving nations? Where is the possibility of an actual threat even entertained? It seems to me that this is yet another example of an attempt to discredit premillennialism by misrepresenting it.
The source of escalating conflicts between believers can often be traced to the arrogance of heart which manifests itself in a simple failure to listen. Proverbs 18:13 says: “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” The next time you’re involved in some kind of tension-filled back-and-forth with another individual—and it gets to the point where it’s dishonoring to the Lord—ask yourself the following questions:
- Did you interrupt the other person?
- Did you listen to him carefully when he was speaking to you?
- Did you let your emotions drown out what he was trying to say to you?
- Did you often think about what you would say next while he was talking to you (in a way that adversely affected your ability to really hear and think about what he was saying)?
- Did you zero in on one aspect of what he said (perhaps something you took issue with) but then fail to listen carefully to the other things he was communicating?
- Did you neglect to ask for additional information that was needed before you could give an informed response to something he said?
If so, the folly and shame is yours, and the path of repentance is before you: “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”
“Our quest for objectivity in interpretation resembles our quest for Christian sanctification. Rather than expending all our energies explaining why we cannot attain absolute holiness, let us set our sights on the target of being holy as he is holy (1 Pet 1:16). The fact that we cannot attain unblemished holiness does not excuse us from continuing to pursue it without becoming preoccupied with reasons why we must fail. So it is in hermeneutics and exegesis. Our goal is the objective meaning of Scripture. Let us not become distracted from pursuing it. It is within the capability of the Spirit-illumined believer to arrive at objective meaning—that is, the meaning God intended to transmit through his human authors” (Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, p. 57).
Michael Vlach’s latest contribution to the issue of dispensational premillennialism comes in the form of a reading list—“40 Recommended Resources for Understanding Dispensationalism.” In his introduction to the list, Vlach explains:
Sometimes I am asked about which books and articles have influenced me the most in regard to my understanding of Dispensationalism. My first answer is the Bible, but after that I have decided to list those works that have helped me the most in regard to such topics as Hermeneutics, Law, Kingdom, People of God, and other issues. I list 40 such works…that have really helped my understanding of God’s Word on important theological issues. There are many more books, articles, and commentaries that have helped me but I consider these 40 below to be the best of the best.
In reading through the list, I was interested to find that most of the resources he listed were the very ones that have been most helpful in my own thinking on this issue. Regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity vs. discontinuity, these resources will prove to be extremely valuable if you are serious about understanding dispensationalism. And if a list of 40 resources feels a bit overwhelming, I would highly recommend that you start with Vlach’s own book, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths.
Two of my modern-day spiritual heroes are my good friends, Josh and Marda Mack. The Macks, who are preaching the Gospel and caring for orphans in South Africa, recently started 1Hope Ministries International, which is dedicated to helping orphans and refugees in that part of the world. Their website is here—check it out.
“So, do you take the Bible literally?” The guy sitting next to me in Music Appreciation class had just discovered I was a Christian, and he was eager to start a debate. His question took me a bit off guard, and so I paused, not knowing what to say. I had only been a believer for a little over a year, and I knew that I interpreted the Bible literally. Or at least I thought I did.
The dilemma in that brief moment was very real to me. If I say yes, he will point to a figure of speech in Scripture that will make me look ridiculous. But if I say no, he will think that I’m denying the reality of hell or the historicity of events like the resurrection of Christ.
The correct answer to the question, of course, is that we should interpret the Bible literally where it was intended to be taken literally, and figuratively where it was intended to be taken figuratively. This flows out of our overall goal to discern the authorial intent of a given passage of Scripture, and in this way, we approach Scripture like we would any other piece of literature. But this only raises another question: How do we know when the biblical author is using symbolic language and when he is not? How do we distinguish the one from the other?
Our starting point, of course, is to begin with the literal interpretation. As Bernard Ramm wrote in Protestant Biblical Interpretation:
Whenever we read a book, an essay, or a poem we presume the literal sense in the document until the nature of the literature may force us to another level. This is the only conceivable method of beginning or commencing to understand literature of all kinds (p. 123).
Not only is this the only conceivable approach, but it also reflects the reality that symbolic language is a departure from the literal, and not vice versa.
This is a good starting point, but we still need to wrestle with the question of what exactly should compel us to abandon the literal interpretation. If I am studying a passage of Scripture, and I think that something might be intended symbolically, what exactly should I be looking for to make that decision? I would like to suggest that in order to determine whether or not the language in question is symbolic, we must begin by asking the following three questions:
1. Does it possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally?
The literal meaning of symbolic language ought to cause the interpreter to scratch his head and ask, “But how can this be?” In other words, there is something inherent in symbolic language that compels the interpreter to seek something other than a literal meaning. That something is a degree of absurdity that is found in a literal understanding of the language.
For example, consider Isaiah 55:12, where the Lord says, “And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Does this verse possess some degree of absurdity when taken literally? Yes, of course, for how is it that literal trees could clap their hands? Simply put, literal trees do not have literal hands. (At this point, a word caution is in order, for many supernatural truths or acts of God may seem absurd to the unbelieving mind, which is not at all what I’m referring to here.)
2. Does it possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically?
Put simply, symbolic language effectively communicates what it symbolizes. In other words, when you conclude that the literal meaning of the language is absurd and ought to be abandoned, a symbolic interpretation should yield some degree of clarity to the meaning of the language of the text. With symbolic language, then, the meaning intended by the symbolism is essentially clear and understandable.
Consider again the example of Isaiah 55:12. Does this verse possess some degree of clarity when taken symbolically? Absolutely, for when understood symbolically, it clearly and effectively communicates that Israel’s return from exile will be a time of great rejoicing. In this way, we might say that Isaiah 55:12 possesses the first two characteristics needed to be considered a candidate for symbolic language: a degree of absurdity when taken literally, and a degree of clarity when taken symbolically.
3. Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language?
As Walt Kaiser notes, figures of speech are “legitimate departures from the normal use of words for special purposes. Thus, they are limited in number; they can be described, named, and defined in accordance with known examples” (Toward an Exegetical Theology, p. 122; emphasis original). Therefore, if you think that a biblical writer may be using symbolic language, determine whether the language in question falls into an established category of such language. Some of the more common figures of speech include the use of simile (Isaiah 53:6a; Psalm 42:1), metaphor (Psalm 84:11a; 2 Peter 2:17), hypocatastasis (Acts 20:29; Jeremiah 4:7), hyperbole (Psalm 6:6; 1 Samuel 1:23), personification (Isaiah 35:1; 1 Corinthians 15:55), and anthropomorphism (Psalm 8:3; 2 Chronicles 16:9a).
Returning again to Isaiah 55:12, we find that the language of this verse does indeed fall into an established category of symbolic language. More specifically, it contains an obvious example of personification in which the trees are pictured as people who are rejoicing by clapping their hands. Therefore, the verse is best understood as a symbolic statement which pictures Israel’s return from exile as a time of such rejoicing that even the trees will be filled with delight!
“O Lord, we praise Thee for keeping alive a testimony for the truth in the land. There have been dark and evil days, and some that professed to be Thy servants have turned traitors to the gospel; yet still Thou hast heard the cry of the faithful, and the candle is not put out, neither hath the sun gone down, but even unto this day the Lord, the God of Israel reigneth in the midst of His people and His saints exult in His name.”
from C. H. Spurgeon, The Pastor in Prayer (Banner of Truth, 2004), 66-67.
Ironically, last night before I went to sleep, I pulled Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works off my bedside stand and randomly opened to an address she gave at Georgetown University in 1963. Early in her speech, O’Connor told an interesting story:
I was recently at a college where a student asked me, in a voice loaded with cunning: “Miss O’Connor, what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat [in A Good Man is Hard to Find]?” Of course, I had no idea the Misfit’s hat was significant, but finally I managed to say, “Its significance is to cover his head.” Those students went away thinking that here was real innocence, a writer who didn’t know what she was doing!
At the risk of being labeled a premillennial simpleton who doesn’t know what he’s doing, sometimes a hat is just a hat, and land is simply land.