Archive for the ‘eschatology’ Category

A Footnote from Flannery O’Connor

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.

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.

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.

Understanding Dispensationalism

I want to recommend to you an excellent book that I just read on the subject of dispensationalism. But first a little personal history: Back in 1994 I was attending a Presbyterian church in Orlando, taking a Greek class at Reformed Theological Seminary, and beginning to appreciate all things reformed. At the time, I was also thinking seriously about going to seminary full time. I had narrowed it down to either Westminster Theological Seminary or The Master’s Seminary, and I was having a difficult time deciding between the two.

The main problem is that I had never studied the issue of covenant theology vs. dispensationalism. To get me started, one of my covenantal friends suggested two books, one to help me understand covenant theology and the other to help me understand dispensationalism. The first book was O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants, which is widely regarded as a classic presentation of covenant theology. A very good recommendation. The other book, unfortunately, was John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, a diatribe against dispensationalism by a covenant theologian. Not such a good recommendation. [For a helpful review of Gerstner’s book, see Dr. Richard Mayhue’s article in The Master’s Seminary Journal.]

As I began reading Gerstner, I realized pretty quickly that the dispensationalism he was critiquing was certainly not the kind of dispensationalism that TMS president John MacArthur advocated. Gerstner seemed to equate dispensationalism with Arminianism and easy-believism, and since MacArthur was the one who had grounded me in a biblical understanding of the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ, I was pretty sure this book wasn’t going to help me decide where to go to seminary. In fact, Gerstner’s book did more to confuse my understanding of dispensationalism than to clarify it. Eventually I found books and articles that were more helpful, but the process was a long and difficult one, and Gerstner was definitely an ill-advised place for me to start my theological journey.

Why am I telling you this? Because I just finished a book I wish I could have read 14 years ago when I was first studying this issue. That book is Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths by Dr. Michael J. Vlach (Theological Studies Press, 2008), and it is unsurpassed in terms of clearly setting forth the core elements of dispensational theology. In this book, Vlach, an Assistant Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary, brings a rare level of simplicity and clarity to a very difficult and complex subject. If you are seeking to understand dispensationalism, this is absolutely the place to begin.

The format of the book is simple enough. In the introduction, Vlach describes how common misrepresentations of dispensationalism have created the need to define clearly the essential beliefs of this theological system. As Vlach explains, his goal in writing was to meet this need:

This book is not an attempt to delve deeply into every issue related to dispensationalism. Nor is it written to iron out in detail all the points of difference between variations within dispensationalism…. Instead, I am looking to give the reader a basic introduction to the foundational beliefs of dispensational theology so a better understanding of this theology can occur (p. 4).

In the first chapter, Vlach provides a brief history of the theology of dispensationalism, focusing on three key periods: (1) Classical Dispensationalism (1800s to 1940s), (2) Revised or Modified Dispensationalism (1950-1985), and Progressive Dispensationalism (1986 to the present). This is a helpful overview of the development of dispensationalism over the past 150 years, and unfortunately one that is often missing from these kinds of discussions. As Vlach observes later in the book, “when reading some critiques of dispensationalism, one gets the impression that dspensational thought was frozen by 1950” (p. 53).

The nucleus of the book is found in chapter 2, where Vlach sets forth six essential beliefs that are at the heart of dispensationalism. As Vlach explains:

By “essential” I mean foundational beliefs of dispensationalism that are central and unique to the system, beliefs upon which the system stands or falls. These are also beliefs that if denied, would probably make one a nondispensationalist (p. 18).

The primary strength of this chapter is how Vlach is able to distinguish clearly between core essentials of dispensationalism and possible applications of the system. In contrast, most critiques of dispensational theology focus on the latter to the virtual exclusion of the former. To whet your appetite, the first essential belief concerns the nature and implications of progressive revelation: “Progressive revelation from the New Testament does not interpret or reinterpret Old Testament passages in a way that changes or cancels the original meaning of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics” (p. 18).

In chapter 3 Vlach exposes five common myths about dispensational theology which are often promoted by non-dispensationalists, a breath of fresh air for those of us who have grown weary from all the caricatures and straw men. As Vlach explains, many of these myths flow out of the erroneous assumption that dispensationalism is inherently linked to soteriology. Put simply, being dispensational doesn’t mean you believe in multiple ways of salvation; it doesn’t mean that you are Arminian, antinomian, or non-lordship in your theology; and it doesn’t require that you affirm the seven dispensations often associated with classical dispensationalism. According to Vlach, “Those studying dispensationalism should focus on the real issues and avoid such myths” (p. 49).

The final chapter contains a series of questions that Vlach is often asked about the issue and the debate surrounding it. My favorite part of this chapter was his response to the charge that dispensationalism should be rejected since it is a relatively new theological system which was not formalized until the 18th century. According to Vlach, several key elements of dispensational thought were held by the early church, and therefore the early church was closer to dispensationalism than it was to covenant theology. Furthermore, says Vlach, if someone rejects dispensationalism simply because it is new, then he should also reject covenant theology which did not start to take recognizable form until the 17th century (and therefore is not that much older than dispensationalism). As Vlach notes, the better approach is to “focus on whether any system of theology is biblical or not and no so much on when it started” (p. 55).

In the end, regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity vs. discontinuity—and regardless of whether you consider yourself a dispensationalist, a covenant theologian, or something in between—if you have a desire to understand the core essentials of what dispensationalism is all about, this book is a must-read. If only Dr. Vlach had written it 14 years ago!

This article first appeared at Pulpit on September 11, 2008.

Myths and Misnomers about the New Covenant

Jason Robertson left a comment under Matt’s post that raised more questions than it answered. You can read it in it’s entirety here. He continues to make the same tired point that is factually untrue which in sum is:

Regardless of how you try to parse my words or divert attention away from the theological issues the fact remains that at its core Dispensational Theology (DT) denies the fact that the Church is in the New Covenant.

In dealing with myths about Dispensationalism, Michael Vlach makes the point that “Most books [blogs?] critical of dispensationalism often emphasize the dispensationalism of the early twentieth century and do not adequately deal with more recent dispensational scholars” (Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, 53). A similar point is made by John Feinberg, that such are “reacting to what they think dispensationalists hold rather than to the logic of the system itself” (Salvation in the Old Testament, 48).

In addition to the resources Matt mentioned in his post, I would also recommend Robert Saucy’s The Church in God’s Program. Here Saucy writes:

The Scriptures, however, do not reveal a separate new covenant. The blessings for the church of the indwelling Spirit and the inward law (2 Cor 3:3-6) are the same as those promised to Israel (Jer 31:33-34). Moreover, as has been indicated, Jeremiah’s prophecy is directly applied to believers in the book of Hebrews. The fact of only one new covenant does not, however, necessitate that the church is fulfilling Israel’s prophecy in her place. Rather, both Israel and the church share in this covenant, as in the Abrahamic covenant, for the new covenant is the realization of the salvation of the Abrahamic promise” (78).

I think Saucy is making an excellent point that is often overlooked in many discussions about the New Covenant. The New Covenant is a progressive manifestation of the Abrahamic Covenant. Here is why dispensationalists of all types and stripes see a remaining ethical distinction between Israel and the Church (note: not a salvific distinction!). It is because “progressive revelation from the New Testament does not interpret or reinterpret Old Testament passages in a way that changes or cancels the original meaning of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics” (Vlach, 60). Therefore the fact that the Church is now saved by the New Covenant in no way cancels previous promises made to Israel such as those of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Resources on Dispensationalism and the New Covenant

In his excellent book, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, Michael J. Vlach laments the fact that many critics of dispensationalism seem to believe that dispensational thought was frozen in place by 1950. In reality, the past thirty years in particular have seen much development within this theological system. Unfortunately, many covenantalists are either unaware of these developments or simply choose to ignore them.


For example, over at Fide-o, blogger Jason Robertson recently wrote an extremely condescending article entitled “If Only Peter Knew as Much as Dispys.” About half-way through the article, Robertson makes the following claim:

Some of you may not be aware that Dispensationalists do not believe that the church today is in the New Covenant. Sadly, they don’t. For proof read this document recently published by The Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics.

Fortunately, one of the very first commenters, Aaron Blumer from SharperIron.org, corrected Robertson and told him that many dispensationalists actually do believe that the church is in the New Covenant. Unfortunately, Robertson simply ignored Blumer’s correction. At this point, I should have rolled my eyes and moved on, but instead I left the following comment to Robertson:

[Jason Robertson wrote:] “Some of you may not be aware that Dispensationalists do not believe that the church today is in the New Covenant. Sadly, they don’t. For proof read this document recently published by The Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics.”

I guess it all depends on what you mean by the phrase “in the New Covenant.” Ironically, in the very article you linked as proof that dispensationalists do not believe that the church is in the New Covenant, Rodney Decker refers to four different dispensational views on the church’s relationship to the New Covenant, and two of the four affirm that the church is indeed in the New Covenant. Admittedly, this is not as clear in the article you linked, primarily because that was not the purpose of the article, and, as Decker himself states on the first page, he is assuming that these various positions are generally understood by his readers (keep in mind that he presented this paper to a dispensational study group). But if you read the articles he refers to as setting forth these various views at length—his articles in The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology and BibSac—this is abundantly clear. In light of this, you may want to revise your statement to say that “some” (or even more accurately, “a few”) dispensationalists do not believe that the church today is in the New Covenant. Or, if you stand by your statement, you may want to clarify precisely what you mean by the phrase “in the New Covenant.” Otherwise, your statement may not be taken seriously by those who are well-read on this issue and may end up misleading those who are not.

The reality is that very few dispensationalists today fall into the category of the two positions which deny that the church is in the New Covenant. This was the view of Chafer and Darby, but you would be hard pressed to list very many today that hold this view. I can only think of two, and one of them is an old friend of mine who has never published a thing in his life. In contrast, there is tons of stuff out there by dispensationalists who are specifically writing on the New Covenant and who specifically affirm that the church is in the New Covenant (e.g., Decker, Compton, Kent, Saucy, Pettegrew, Ware, Alexander, not to mention progressives like Bock and Hoch).

At this point, I honestly thought Robertson would respond by either (a) clarifying the phrase “in the New Covenant” in such a way that would add some credibility to his original assertion (which I invited him to do, if that were indeed the case), or (b) simply conceding that he had indeed misrepresented dispensationalism. Instead, Robertson responded to me with this:

Matt, Thanks for your comments and the further insight to our readers that the linked article was only Lead Balloon Theology.

Then, in a later comment, Robertson continued to address me with this:

And don’t forget…for 15 years in the ministry I was Dispensational…. So anytime someone says that I am misrepresenting Dispensationalism it is because they are frustrated with the fact I know as much about it than any of them.

Amazing analysis: Any time someone says that Jason Robertson is misrepresenting dispensationalism it is because that person is frustrated with the fact that Robertson knows as much about dispensationalism as that person does? Wow. No wonder he is not open to correction. Frankly, the question of whether Robertson knows as much about dispensationalism as I do never even crossed my mind. Nor would it frustrate me if he does. I was just trying to help him represent dispensationalism more accurately, something I thought he would have been eager to do.

Anyway, the main purpose of this post is to follow up on that interaction and provide some resources for those who may want to study and think through this issue further. I invite you to make other suggestions in the comment section, but here are some of the resources that I found most helpful as I’ve wrestled with this question of the church’s relationship to the New Covenant:

  • Alexander, Ralph H. “A New Covenant—An Eternal People (Jeremiah 31).” In Israel, the Land and the People: An Evangelical Affirmation of God’s Promises, ed. H. Wayne House, 169–206. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998.
  • Compton, R. Bruce. “Dispensationalism, the Church, and the New Covenant.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (2003) 8:3-48.
  • Decker, Rodney J. “The New Covenant and the Church.” Bibliotheca Sacra (1995) 152:290-305, 431-56 (two-part series).
  • Kent, Homer A. Jr. “The New Covenant and the Church.” Grace Theological Journal (1985) 6:289–98.
  • Pettegrew, Larry D. “The New Covenant.” The Master’s Seminary Journal (1999) 10:251–70.
  • Saucy, Robert L. “The New Covenant and the Salvation of the Gentiles.” In The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, Robert L. Saucy, 111-39. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
  • Ware, Bruce A. “The New Covenant and the People(s) of God.” In Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, 68–97. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

I think my wife’s a calvinist

The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism

During my first year of seminary, I took a hermeneutics class which required me to read two books: Let the Reader Understand by Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton and Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy Zuck. Although I was largely ignorant of the various controversies in the field of hermeneutics at the time, I was quickly introduced to two distinctly different approaches to interpreting the Old Testament:

 

  • Approach #1: “To understand the OT properly, it must be read in the light of the NT” (McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand, 48).
  • Approach #2: “Recognizing the progress of revelation means that the interpreter will be careful not to read back into the Old Testament from the New” (Zuck, Basic Bible Intepretation, 73).

What struck me then (as it does now) is how the first approach insists that we do precisely what the second approach warns us not to do. Hardly a subtle contrast. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the first approach is generally taken by covenant theologians, whereas the second approach is characteristic of most dispensationalists.

 

The reason this came to mind is that I just stumbled across a blog article by a recent transfer to Westminster Theological Seminary who describes how the hermeneutics of covenant theology were misrepresented during his previous time at a dispensational seminary. Unfortunately this new convert to covenant theology inadvertently returns the favor by misrepresenting dispensationalism as a child of the Enlightenment. He writes:

 

The dispensational method of interpretation actually began in the Enlightenment when exegetes who denied the inspiration of the Scriptures, and therefore denied a complete canon, interpreted each individual text solely in light of its original context. No later revelation could be used to interpret a particular text because the Bible is not inspired and has no inherent unity. God cannot use later revelation to shed light on earlier revelation because God did not write the Bible, so says the Enlightenment. For some reason dispensationalists, some of the staunchest defenders of the inspiration of Scripture, have adopted this Enlightenment hermeneutic.

 

In reality, the dispensational approach to reading the Old Testament has nothing to do with the Enlightenment and everything to do with the perspicuity of Scripture. Put simply, if the OT cannot be understood apart from the light of the NT, the original readers of the OT were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises. This is an utter denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In my understanding of the nature of Scripture, God’s intention was to reveal truth in His Word, not conceal it. For this reason, I have a difficult time adopting a hermeneutical approach which says, in effect, that much of the Old Testament was intended to be an indecipherable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.

 

In the end, the main problem I have with the hermeneutics of covenant theology is that “shedding light on earlier revelation” often means reinterpreting the Old Testament in a way that completely alters the meaning of the passage in its original context. It’s one thing for a NT passage to bring a clearer understanding of an OT passage by providing more details or by fitting more pieces into the overall puzzle. But it’s quite another to use the NT to completely change the meaning of the OT as communicated to its original audience. The former is the necessary task of every theologian; the latter is a rejection of the perspicuity of the Old Testament.

Understanding Dispensationalism

If you want to understand clearly the core distinctives of dispensationalism, I have the perfect book for you—Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths by Michael J. Vlach (Theological Studies Press, 2008). Regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity vs. discontinuity—and regardless of whether you consider yourself a dispensationalist, a covenant theologian, or something in between—Vlach’s book will help you understand this theological system better than any other. For my review of Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths over at Pulpit Magazine, go here. To purchase this book, go here or here. To become really confused about what dispensationalism is all about, go here.

Revelation 20 Made Too Simple

One of the key disagreements between amillennialism and premillennialism is whether the thousand years of Revelation 20:1-6 is present or future. According to the amillennial interpretation, this thousand-year period is the present age which extends from the first coming of Christ to His second coming. In contrast, premillennialism teaches that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is future and will take place immediately after the second coming.

 

In his book End Times Made Simple, Samuel Waldron argues for the amillennial view. In doing so, he spends three chapters on Revelation 20, starting with a discussion of various hermeneutical issues which he believes “must take center stage and precede the detailed study of the passage” (p. 85). According to Waldron, understanding and applying these hermeneutical principles is crucial to an accurate interpretation of this controversial chapter.

 

The first hermeneutical principle cited by Waldron involves the historical context of Revelation 20. According to Waldron:

 

The first and most basic principle of biblical interpretation is known as grammatical-historical interpretation. 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 (p. 85).

 

At this point, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, this is the primary reason I am a premillennialist. [Incidentally, as an experiment, try applying Waldron’s grammatical-historical method to Ezekiel 36 and see where it leads you.]

 

But Waldron continues by insisting that a commitment to the grammatical-historical approach poses a significant problem for the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10. Why? Because the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation to local churches in the first-century province of Asia which were being persecuted for their faith. According to Waldron:

 

A credible interpretation [of Revelation 20:1-10] must exhibit a clear line of connection with this historical context. Since the premillennial interpretation of this passage asserts that this passage has to do with a drastically different and far distant period of time after the return of Christ, it faces up front a problem with the principle of historical interpretation (p. 86).

 

According to Waldron, then, Revelation 20:1-6 cannot be interpreted as referring to a time period after the second coming of Christ if it is to “exhibit a clear line of connection” with the historical context of the Apocalypse.

 

This, of course, raises an obvious question: What about a passage like Revelation 20:11-15? Waldron certainly agrees that the judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15 will take place in a “far distant period of time after the return of Christ.” But doesn’t that make him guilty of violating the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation in precisely the same way that he accuses the premillennialist of doing with Revelation 20:1-10? Doesn’t his interpretation of Revelation 20:11-15 fail to exhibit a clear line of connection with the historical context of the Apocalypse, at least according to his own logic?

 

To further illustrate the problem with Waldron’s logic, let’s apply this same argument to yet another vision in the Apocalypse—Revelation 21:1-8. In this passage, the apostle John describes his vision of the new heaven and the new earth, a vision which Waldron correctly interprets as a description of what will happen in the distant future, after the second coming of Christ. But couldn’t a hyper preterist argue that Revelation 21:1-8 has been fulfilled in the present age by using Waldron’s logic? In other words, couldn’t a hyper preterist say:

 

A credible interpretation of Revelation 21:1-8 must exhibit a clear line of connection with the historical context of the book of Revelation. Since the futuristic interpretation of Revelation 21:1-8 has to do with a drastically different and far distant period of time after the return of Christ, it faces up front a problem with the principle of historical interpretation.

 

Put simply, the historical background of the book of Revelation presents no more a problem for the futuristic interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6 than it does for the futuristic interpretation of Revelation 21:1-8. I fully realize that there are legitimate arguments that can be made against the premillennial view of Revelation 20, but this simply isn’t one of them.

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