Archive for April, 2009

Literal Interpretation Revisited (Part 2)

In the end, quoting 50-year-old works by your theological opponents is not, in and of itself, the problem. If that alone is unfair—as Waldron seems to think in the case of MacArthur’s 2007 Shepherds’ Conference address—then he has clearly fallen short of his own standard (see part 1). The real problem comes when you select quotations which misrepresent your opponents’ position, like Waldron does in citing the old Scofield Reference Bible in favor of a separate way of salvation for OT Israel. This brings us to the actual quotations provided by MacArthur in his Shepherds’ Conference address:

  • O.T. Allis: “The Old Testament prophecies, if literally interpreted, cannot be regarded as having been yet fulfilled or being capable of fulfillment in the present age.”

  • Floyd Hamilton: “Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the Premillennialist pictures.”

  • Loraine Boettner: “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, that they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”

The real question here is not when these words were written but whether or not they accurately represent what covenant theologians believe today. I fully understand that Waldron disagrees with the inferences that MacArthur has drawn from these quotations—and I even understand why—but here’s my question: Does Waldron believe that the quotations themselves are untrue?


If he does, he never comes out and says so, at least not directly. Instead he simply protests how old they are. And then, on page 75 of MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto, Waldron actually comes to the defense of Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner and the ideas expressed by them in these quotations. So if Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner were not incorrect in what they said, why take MacArthur to task for quoting them? Why not stick with critiquing the inferences that MacArthur draws from their statements?


I assume that if you were to ask Waldron, he would say that the problem with these quotations is that they reflect an overly simplistic view of literal interpretation. He would probably also point out that the debate over literal interpretation has become much more finely nuanced in the past 50 years, something which has been addressed by interpreters on both sides of the issue, including dispensationalists John Feinberg, Robert Saucy, and Michael J. Vlach. But at the same time—if I can be overly simplistic myself for just a moment—isn’t it true that if you interpret the overall picture of the OT prophecies literally, then you do indeed end up with a premillennial eschatology? Isn’t that what Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner were getting at?


Take, for example, the promise of the New Covenant in Ezekiel 36:16-38. The main thrust of this entire passage is that Yahweh will transform the nation of Israel and restore her to the land from which she was dispersed in order to vindicate His reputation among the nations. It’s one thing to say that certain details in this prophecy are not to be taken literally—such as God sprinkling clean water on the nation of Israel (v. 25), which is symbolic of the spiritual cleansing of forgiveness. But it’s quite another to say that the overall picture of Israel being restored to her land in fulfillment of the New Covenant is not to be taken literally—that it actually refers to something else—especially in light of how only such a restoration to the land can vindicate the name of Yahweh according to Ezekiel 36 itself.


The greater question here involves the adequacy of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation for the genre of biblical prophecy. According to Waldron, the grammatical-historical method is the first and most basic principle of biblical interpretation. In End Times Made Simple, Waldron writes:


Simply stated, this fundamental principle says that the Bible must be interpreted in terms of the normal grammatical meaning of the language and in a way that makes sense in light of the historical context of the passage. The original sense of the words for the original author and readers is the true sense (ETMS, 85).


I couldn’t agree more. And I would go on to suggest that if one were to use this approach to interpret Ezekiel 36:16-38, the inevitable conclusion would be that some day God will indeed restore the nation of Israel to the land from which she was dispersed in fulfillment of the New Covenant. I would also suggest that this is precisely what Loraine Boettner meant when he wrote: “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, that they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”


In contrast, covenant theologians tend to view the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, at least as defined above, as insufficient for interpreting OT prophecy. Waldron himself denies that the grammatical-historical approach provides “a complete hermeneutic” because, according to Waldron, a “comprehensive hermeneutic” also takes into account the literary genre of the passage in question (MMM, 77).[i] In the case of biblical prophecy, Waldron believes that generally it “must be interpreted figuratively and symbolically in accordance with the apocalyptic genre” (MMM, 77). In other words, biblical prophecy should not be understood literally. Which is precisely why Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner said that if the OT prophecies were interpreted literally they would result in the eschatology of premillennialism. So once again, what exactly is the problem with MacArthur’s citation of these men?


[i] In contrast to Waldron’s claim, the grammatical-historical method actually does recognize that one must consider the literary genre of the passage under consideration in order to determine “the original sense of the words for the original author and readers.” Waldron seems to recognize this on page 78 of MMM, and yet he seems to deny it on page 77.

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Literal Interpretation Revisited (Part 1)

Back in March of 2007, John MacArthur stirred up a bit of controversy by offering a critique of amillennialism in the opening address of the annual Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church. In fact, one amillennialist went so far as to write an entire book in response to select portions of MacArthur’s message—MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response by Samuel Waldron (Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2008). I have more thoughts about Waldron’s book—which I may or may not have the time to address at some point—but for now I’d like to focus on one criticism in particular that Waldron makes about MacArthur’s message.

 

In MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto, Dr. Waldron faults MacArthur for quoting only three representatives of covenant theology in his address—O.T. Allis, Floyd Hamilton, and Loraine Boettner. And why is this a problem for Waldron? Because the quotes provided by MacArthur came from works published in 1945, 1942, and 1958, respectively, and they are not representative of amillennialism today. This, according to Waldron, is “a defect that cannot be overlooked” (MMM, p. 26). (Incidentally, I find it somewhat humorous that on one hand many amillennialists are quick to champion their view as the position of the historic Christian church throughout the centuries, and yet on the other hand they cry “foul” when you quote someone from more than 50 years ago—but that’s for another time.) To express his concern, Waldron writes:

 

I think it is legitimate to respond to the citation of such dated materials by asking this question. How would MacArthur like it if I cited the (old) Scofield Reference Bible or the Classic Dispensational authors and assumed that he held their position? He would think (and rightly so) that this is quite unfair (MMM, p. 26).

 

The irony here is that Dr. Waldron appears to be guilty of precisely that. In 2003, Waldron wrote a 250-page book on eschatology entitled End Times Made Simple: How Could Everyone Be So Wrong About Biblical Prophecy? As you might expect, part of this book is devoted to debunking what Waldron sees as the various errors of dispensationalism. In light of the concern articulated by Waldron in the quote above, one might assume that he made significant effort to interact with some of the more recent dispensational works in End Times Made Simple, especially in light of the developments within dispensationalism in the last 30 years. But such is decidedly not the case.

 

Instead, as representatives of dispensationalism, Waldron cites John Nelson Darby (1800s) once, the old Scofield Reference Bible (1909) four times, Charles Feinberg (1936) once, Charles Ryrie (1965 and 1969) three times, the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967) five times, and J. Dwight Pentecost (1974) twice. Elsewhere Waldron mentions classic dispensationalists John Nelson Darby, E.W. Bullinger, J.H. Brookes, C.I. Scofield, L.S. Chafer, John Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Ernest Pickering. But no other references to dispensational writers can be found in the entirety of his 250-page book.[i] In fact, the only “dispensational” work that Waldron cites which is more recent than 34 years ago is Edgar C. Whisenant’s 1988 booklet, 88 Reasons Why Christ Will Come in ’88! To use Waldron’s word, is this fair?

 

I suppose one could defend Waldron by saying that End Times Made Simple was designed to target classic dispensationalism rather than the modified forms which have characterized dispensational thought in the past 30 years. But the problem with this response is that even though Waldron acknowledges in MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto (p. 107) that there are different forms of dispensationalism—classic, modified, and progressive, as well as sub-divisions under each—he makes no such distinction in End Times Made Simple. In fact, in End Times Made Simple Waldron insists “that at the end of the day there are two and only two basic positions which one may hold on the matter”—covenant theology or classic dispensationalism (ETMS, p. 246; cf. pp. 136-37).

 

To make matters worse, Waldron claims that “the inevitable tendency” of dispensational theology is that “of teaching a different way of salvation for Israel” (ETMS, p. 139). In support of this claim, Waldron cites—you guessed it—the old Scofield Reference Bible published in 1909, the very work he said it would be unfair for him to cite. Waldron then continues by asserting that dispensationalists have “long-resisted” this tendency to see a different way of salvation for Israel and have “frequently denied” it, but still, he says, it remains “inevitable” (ETMS, p. 139). According to Waldron, then, at the end of the day we have only two options available to us—either (a) covenant theology or (b) the view that OT Israel was saved by keeping the Law. Is this really a helpful way to frame up the debate?

 

Look for part 2 tomorrow.


[i] Even though MacArthur would not distance himself equally from each of these dispensational writers—in fact, Charles Feinberg was a dear friend and influential mentor to him—this list of representatives is clearly in the line of what is known as classic dispensationalism, rather than MacArthur’s significantly revised form of dispensationalism.

For the Eschatological Reader:

If you’re not familiar with TheologicalStudies.Org, you really should be—lots of good stuff from Michael Vlach, assistant professor of theology at The Master’s Seminary. Some recent additions include book reviews by Vlach and some of his students:

 

 

On Wednesday and Thursday, I’m planning to post a two-part response to something that Sam Waldron addressed in his book, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto. But until then, you’ve got some reading to do!

Addicted to talking about yourself

From Piper and Carson’s discussion about The Pastor as Scholar:

The Internet world we live in today is awash in narcissism and vanity, with some people taking their clothes off literally, because exposure gives them a rush, and others doing it spiritually—because the addicting power of talking about yourself where anyone in the world can read it is overpowering.

See the transcript here.

Rare guide to exegesis

There are some resources that I believe make unique contributions to the practice of exegesis. One of my favorites is Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Exegetical Theology. It’s not perfect but it’s a great place for those who are looking for a “next level” guide. However, I’m often asked if there is a book or workbook that could be used in churches to move a student from text to sermon, one that doesn’t assume a grasp of the languages or even seminary training. That book is the little known Principles and Practice of Greek Exegesis: A Classroom Manual by John D. Grassmick. I don’t believe it has been updated since its original publishing in 1976 and it is still amazingly relevant. Even though it has “Greek” in the title, the process of exegesis is largely the same between the Testaments. I would love to know if others have used this resource.

UPDATED: That doesn’t mean what you think it means (and other myths)

The following posts provide a provocative and much needed discussion on the current trend of “sex” sermons. I am posting the links here in an effort to help those in my own ministry think through these issues. As you will see, the issue is a nexus of theology, hermeneutics, homiletics, and pastoral counseling.

From MacArthur:

From Tim Challies:

From Erik Raymond:

Chrysostom on preaching

For we ought to unlock the passage by first giving a clear interpretation of the words. What then does the saying mean? . . . we must not attend to the words merely, but turn our attention to the sense, and learn the aim of the speaker, and the cause and the occasion, and by putting all these things together turn out the hidden meaning.

from Against Marcionists and Manichaens, Sec. 1.

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