Eschatology, Prophecy, and Foreshortening (Vos)

 When it comes to the OT prophets and eschatology, one area of discussion is the “literalness” of prophetic language.  Though not everyone agrees, in Reformed theology we see the prophets as speaking the truth in poetic and sometimes apocalyptic ways (similar to the Psalms, Revelation, and other parts of Scripture).  Therefore we don’t read the prophets with strict literalism, though we do read them with a view that they are part of the infallible Word of God.

There’s another thing about prophetism worth mentioning: it isn’t always chronological.  Sometimes prophecy is unchronological or non-chronological.  This matters in eschatology!  Here’s how Vos described it:

“Whenever the prophets speak in terms of judgment, immediately the vision of the state of glory obtrudes [imposes] itself upon their view, and they concatenate [join] the two in a way altogether regardless of chronological interludes.  Isaiah couples with the defeat of the Assyrians under Sennacherib the unequalled pictures of the glory of the end, and the impression might be created that the latter was just waiting for the former, to  make its immediate appearance.  The vision ‘hastens’ under their eye.  The philosophy of this foreshortening of the beyond-prospect is one of the most difficult things in the interpretation of prophecy in the Old Testament and New Testament alike.”

In other words, although it is a difficult aspect of interpretation, the words of judgment and glory in the prophets aren’t necessarily chronological.  For more helpful insight into OT prophetism, see Vos’ Biblical Theology, chapter six, part D (The Judgement and the Restoration: Prophetic Eschatology).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Should We Take the Bible Literally?

The historic Christian faith is a faith that takes the Bible very seriously.  For example, in Reformed theology, we say God’s Word is sufficient, necessary, clear, and authoritative (among other things).  But should we take the Bible literally?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, we take it literally in what it says and teaches; we shouldn’t argue with God’s Word or sit in judgment over it.  But we realize there is figurative language in Scripture.  For example, we don’t believe that God literally has wings (Ps. 91:4).  So we do and we don’t take the Bible literally.

But there’s a better way to say this.  D. Brent Sandy does a nice job in explaining “literalness” as he comments on Isaiah 2:4 (They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. NIV):

“These words could be understood to say that each person who has a sword or a spear will reshape it by pounding it into a plow or pruning hook (good luck!).  That would be a very strict literalness.  Or a reader may conclude that ‘beat’ refers to going to a blacksmith who will use fire to soften the iron before refashioning it.  Having a blacksmith do it would be a little less literal.  Another step away from strict literalness would be for those who have any instrument of aggression to transform it, by whatever means necessary, into an instrument of agriculture.  The statement is still literal, though the specific words of the text are pointing to a meaning beyond the surface meanings of the words.

Or if we take the author to be saying that political peace will be acheived between all nations – or even simply that God will restore order on the earth – the figurative meaning may be predominant, but all literalness has not been lost.  Only when we reach the point of denying that anything will happen as a result of these words have we moved completely away from literal meaning.  At that point to be nonliteral would mean to be nonhistorical (nonactual).  In other words, the literal or figurative interpretation of Scripture is not a simple black-or-white issue.

…Unfortunately, the uses of the word ‘literal’ become confusing, in the minds of both those who make pronouncements and those who hear pronouncements.”

These are helpful comments.  There are large sections of Scripture that contain figurative language: the poetry in the Psalter, the oracles of the prophets, and the visions in Revelation (to name a few).  We shouldn’t take all Scripture as strictly or woodenly literal since it’s not meant to be taken that way.  While we should submit to every part of Scripture, and view all Scripture as God-breathed, inspired, and infallible, we shouldn’t read it all in the same literal manner.  It would be quite a mess if we did!

The above quote is found on pages 3940 of Sandy’s book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Eschatology, Millennialism, End Times, etc.

 A friend of mine recently made the trek out of dispensationalism into Reformed theology.  A few members in the church I serve also came out of dispensational circles.  These things made me want to study dispensationalism from a dispensationalist’s point of view, so I purchased and read Ryrie’s Dispensationalism (Revised and Expanded)While I don’t want to give a book review of it here, I’m glad I read it.  After reading it, I’m not at all convinced that it is the most biblical method of interpretation.  In other words, I’m still convinced that the Reformed (covenantal and amillennial) view of Scripture is more biblical.  But that’s a whole different post and discussion!  What I want to do here is recommend a book for those of you interested in the historic Reformed view of biblical interpretation and eschatology.

The book I have in mind is Kim Riddlebarger’s A Case for Amillennialism.  Even though many of our readers may have heard of this one, I believe it is significant enough to keep on our reading lists and book recommendations. It’s not one of those trendy small hardcover books that will lose its appeal in 8 months; this is one you can keep going back to in your biblical studies.

Riddlebarger understands dispensationalism since he used to hold a dispensationalist view of the Bible and history.  After his own intense studies, he became convinced the Reformation got it right.  This means – and he explains these things in the book – OT prophecy and eschatology have everything to do with Christ, covenant, the church, and the already/not yet nature of Christ’s eternal kingdom.

Here are a some other things Riddlebarger discusses (and these discussions are steeped in Scripture): the rapture, the Day of the Lord, the two ages, the church as the Israel of God, Christ’s return (the Parousia), the Olivet Discourse, Daniel’s prophecies, and Revelation 20:1-10 (just to name a few).  Though it technically isn’t a systematic theology text, it is an oustanding supplement to ST topics (hermeneutics, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology, etc.).

A Case for Amillennialism is around 250 pages and well written – most Christians who are committed to studying this topic will be able to read it without much trouble.  I do wish there were footnotes instead of endnotes.  Also, there is no Scripture index, which is very disappointing (though I think the publisher is to blame for that one.  Dear publishers, please put Scripture indexes in books!!!).  In a word, this is a book on my shelves I refer to quite often because it is a clearly written biblical explanation of some important themes in hermeneutics and eschatology.  I believe it will be a great resource for years to come.  If you don’t have it, or have been thinking about getting it, don’t hesitate; you won’t be disappointed.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Goldingay’s Commentary on the Psalms: A Methodological Critique

I’ve been working with John Goldingay’s 3-volume commentary set on the Psalms for a while now.  I haven’t read every part (and I’m not overly familiar with Goldingay’s other writings, though I know he’s some stripe of an open theist, which is a whole other subject), but I have read and utilized it enough to register a concern about his hermeneutical methodology, that is, the way he interprets the psalms.

I’ll give some examples of this in a second.  The main point of my critique is that he purposely removes the messianic bent from the Psalter.  He does not read the psalms in a christological way; in fact, he tries hard not to see Jesus in the Psalms.  Goldingay’s interpretation of the Psalter is exactly opposite of what you find in Geerhardus Vos’ excellent essay, “The Eschatology of the Psalter.”  Here are some quote from Goldingay to show his methodology.

From the introduction: “…[I do not] make the NT the filter or lens through which we read the Psalms.  A modern aspect to the commentary is that I want the Psalms to speak their own message and to let them address Christian thinking, theology, and spirituality, rather than being silenced by a certain way of reading the NT that fits modern Christian preferences.”

From his “Theological Implications” section of Psalm 8:

“It is…important for us to reflect on its inherent meaning and not simply read it through NT spectacles.  It does not look forward to a new age…. It does not refer to the Messiah.”

From the same section of his comments on Psalm 18:

“Psalm 18 offers no indication that it refers to something God will do in the future; it is not eschatological…it is not messianic.  It offers no indication that it points to Jesus of Nazareth; it is not christological.”

From the same section of his comments on Psalm 22:

[The Messiah is not] “the primary referent of the text.  It is not a prophecy.  The NT use of psalm ‘wrenches out of its setting.'”

Concerning Psalm 89, Goldingay says,

“…In the psalm itself there is no indication that the understanding of Yhwh’s reign is coming to be understood eschatologically or that the understanding of the human king’s reign is coming to be understood messianically.”

Similarly, when discussing the implications of Psalm 110, he writes,

“The text’s theological implications…do not lie in its application to Jesus; that is to ignore its meaning.  Its application to Jesus is part of NT study.”

He ends this little section on the implications of Ps 110 in an odd way, almost contradicting his earlier words:

“Canonical interpretation must mean letting different parts of Scripture have their say, not silencing some by others that we prefer.”

You can even see his methodological approach when you look at the scripture index in the back of the volumes – there are just a few NT passages indexed (about half of a page – sometimes less than his Qumran references).

In my opinion, this is why Goldingay’s commentary on the Psalms is flat and uninspiring.  The commentary sections often seem like a textual discussion with some application tacked on the end.  And, as is consistent with his methodology, the application jumps over the cross to today’s context.  This leaves the reader with some mundane application and even odd points of meaning for today.  I’m not sure how one can, for example, comment on and apply the faithfulness of Yahweh without mentioning the work of Christ – the messianic work we already see glimmers of in the Psalter.

While this commentary set might be useful for some things (Hebrew notes, textual variants, ANE references, etc.), overall I don’t think they’re worth the seventy some dollars I put down for them.  I may sell them and use that cash to get something better.  For me, they do not cultivate that Christ centered apostolic hermeneutic for which I strive – in fact, this commentary set hinders it.  Along the same lines, one thing that has helped me here is Carson and Beale’s (editors) fine commentary on the NT’s use of the OT, along with Vos’ work I mentioned above.

shane lems