theology

ignoring context to sustain an existing interpretation

On two separate occasions now, I’ve heard and read persons appealing to 1 Cor 3.10-15 in ways that make me a bit unsettled–or at the very least, a little worried. In both cases, the ultimate focus of the discussion was the same: the (eternal) status of believers before God. However, the specific emphases of the two persons were distinct, and one’s appeal to the text was more explicit than the other.

In the first instance, I heard a pastor[1] use and teach through 1 Cor 3.10-15 to support 1) the conjoined ideas of “the judgment seat of Christ”–not to be confused with the “great white throne of judgment”, which is (supposedly) separate–and “the judgment of believers” on the basis of (good, faithful) works, and 2) the heavenly “rewards and responsibilities” that come as a result of that works-focused judgment.[2] In fact, this pastor confidently asserted that this text is one of roughly two dozen passages that speak directly to the judgment of believers before/at the (so-called) millennial reign of Christ. What is vitally important to note is that the pastor made it abundantly clear that the notion of rewards is separate from one’s salvation-status before God. Specifically, an eternally secured “saved” status is assumed for all believers and the kinds or levels of reward do not affect that status.

In the second instance, I read a scholar[1] who used 1 Cor 3.10-15–specifically 3.15–as support for reading Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life”. (This scholar appeals to the Corinthian text because he sees it speaking to the very idea of [loss of] rewards). Specifically, this scholar reads Heb 6.1-8 as addressing the issue of believers regressing to and being content with the elementary “doctrines of the faith” and their subsequent neglect of “the more complicated doctrines at hand”–i.e. those that presumably foster progress in the Christian life.

With regard to the first instance, the gist of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does appear to support 1) the idea of heavenly rewards on the basis of faithfulness post-belief in the gospel, and 2) the assurance that one’s status before God is secured regardless of the degree of faithfulness. Paul’s argument does seem to suggest that those who build (i.e. live their lives) on the foundation already laid (i.e. belief in Christ) in complete faithfulness and obedience (i.e. using the best materials) will receive a better reward at “the end” than those who build with weak or shoddy materials (i.e. live their lives with minimal faithfulness and reluctant obedience). And it does seem that Paul emphasizes the fact that the second builder is not the recipient of condemnation; only his crappy work is punished. Thus, the builder’s status before God remains intact while his efforts are less fortunate.

I could accept this type of reading and interpretation and the theological/doctrinal teaching that follows from it–i.e. the one advocated by the pastor–only if I read 1 Cor 3.10-15 as a stand-alone passage, divorced from its surrounding context. I know that might sound harsh but after spending nearly four years with 1 Corinthians,[3] specifically 1 Cor 1-4, I cannot read the metaphor of 1 Cor 3.10-15 as referring to rewards given to believers before/at the millennial reign of Christ on the basis of faithful works. Paul’s specific argument in 1 Cor 1-4 does not advocate or even deal with that idea. I would be willing to bet that if Paul were alive and someone said, “This is how I read your argument” he would say, “Excuse me?”

Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15, as read within the surrounding context of 1 Cor 1-4, is primarily (if not exclusively) about the way or manner in which the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed and subsequently judged–both by the Corinthians and by God. Specifically, Paul asserts (cf. 2.1-4) that his original proclamation of the gospel lacked rhetorical flare (and even without the need for such flare), a lack that the Corinthians–relying on worldly wisdom–now judge as evidence of a worthless and substantively foolish message. In their minds, Paul built a house with hay, wood, and straw. By contrast and implication, Apollos[4] continued the message of the cross but (presumably) did so with his usual rhetorical eloquence (cf. Acts 18.24)–a method that the Corinthians, again relying on worldly wisdom, now judge as evidence of a meaningful and substantively wise message. In their minds, Apollos built with gold, silver, and precious stones.

Paul’s (implied) counterargument that in terms of proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified–i.e. the foundation for one’s faith–the manner of delivery is ultimately of little to no consequence in the eyes and/or judgment of God. Part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15 is that if Apollos proclaimed the gospel with rhetorical giftedness, then bravo to him. Well done. And if Paul originally proclaimed the gospel without needing to rely on rhetorical skill or conventions, then so what? Christ was proclaimed! (cf. Phil 1.12-18). Judgments about the method or means are inconsequential and ultimately superficial in relation to judgments about the substance or content of what is proclaimed. The problem, and the other part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15, was that the Corinthians were casting judgments about the substance of the message on the basis of the method in which it was delivered. Thus, Paul’s message was deemed foolish only because it lacked eloquence. Paul’s point is that while it may be the case that he lacked eloquence, the foundation he laid remains (3.10) and he himself is unscathed in judgment (3.15; hence 1 Cor 4.3).

With regard to the second instance (i.e. the Heb 6.1-8 passage), I have to be somewhat brief–primarily because this post is getting away from me but also because it dips into a discussion that requires its own post. Suffice it to say that the scholar’s reading of Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life” is also based on overlooking (or dare I say, ignoring?) the surrounding context. Such a reading the text overlooks a key point about the argument: nowhere in Heb 6.1-8 is the discussion of rewards on the basis of faithful/good works mentioned. The focus of the argument in Heb 6.1-8 deals with the consequences of a believer’s rejection of the salvation they originally accepted (cf. 2.1-4; 3.7-4.13; 5.11-6.20; 10.19-39; 12.12-13.19).

However, in what appears to be an attempt to sustain a particular interpretation of Heb 6.1-8–an interpretation that sidesteps the obvious reading of the text so as to maintain a pre-existing theological position–1 Cor 3.10-15 is brought in as supporting the idea of a loss of rewards but the eternal security of the believer despite the loss. The problem with this should be obvious: that type of appeal only works if 1) the idea of eternal security of believers is accepted unequivocally, and 2) the argument of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does in fact refer to rewards as distinct from one’s salvation status. You already know my thoughts about the second point. I’ll withhold my thoughts on the first point for now.

My aim for this post was not to debate the idea of eschatological rewards for believers or even the question of one’s eternal secured vs. conditioned status before God, specifically in the Hebrews passage. Rather, my point was to say that I do not see 1 Cor 3.10-15 as directly (if at all) speaking to either rewards or status in the way the above pastor and scholar interpret it.[5] Specifically, to ignore the surrounding context (i.e. 1 Cor 1-4) and thus read Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as primarily about–or to assume that his argument advocates–one or both of these points is to misread or even misconstrue Paul and to impose on his argument a pre-existing set of theological/doctrinal presuppositions that are essentially foreign–or at least unrelated–to the substance of the text.

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[1] This individual will remain unnamed because of my respect for him.
[2] For the record, I do not think the NT is clear or definitive enough about the notion of “rewards” in heaven based on a believer’s faithful works while on earth to form a theological or doctrinal position. Specifically, I see the bulk of the passages brought to bear on this idea as being interpreted in such a way that they validate an existing conclusion rather than forming the basis for a conclusion.
[3] Cf. my PhD thesis, when it gets published.
[4] In contrast to some recent commentators (e.g. R. Collins), I see Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as relating primarily to his work and that of Apollos. Thus, while I do think the implications of Paul’s argument can be extended to Christians in general, I see it as only that–i.e. an extension.
[5] At best, we could say the ideas of rewards and/or status are tangential to the wider argument.

trying to see it from all sides, and not just from the stands

This is something I wrote for my brother early last year. It’s a brief(ish) exposition on John 3.16–the favorite verse placarded at football games. This exposition was mostly me thinking out loud. I’m completely open to further insights and/or criticisms.

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1. Historical Setting
The meeting with Nicodemus takes place early in Jesus’ public ministry.  To summarize: in Galilee, Jesus calls a small handful of disciples; with his disciples and mother, Jesus attends a wedding-feast in Cana (of Galilee), at which point he performs his first miracle—although the source or cause of the miracle is known only by the disciples; he then makes a short stay in Capernaum (15 miles east of Cana) before traveling roughly 80 miles south to Jerusalem, in order to attend the Passover.  However, instead of celebrating Jesus is enraged by what is being done in the Temple, and his actions bring him into immediate conflict with the religious elite.

It is on the heels of this conflict that the meeting with Nicodemus occurs.  Since 2.23 says Jesus remained in Jerusalem for the Passover, and since 3.22 says Jesus and his disciples traveled into the region of Judea, and since the encounter with Nicodemus falls between these passages; it is safe to assume that the conversation takes place while Jesus is still in Jerusalem.  Whether or not the conversation occurred specifically in the Temple proper, we cannot be absolutely sure; it seems reasonable enough to assume that it happened somewhere within the Temple complex.

With regard to the meeting itself, two points should be noted.  First, Nicodemus comes with an awareness of the “signs” (or miracles) that Jesus performed in the Temple (see 2.23).  We can assume either that news about the “signs” quickly spread to Nicodemus or that he himself witnessed the “signs.”  Second, Nicodemus meets with Jesus at night, most likely in an attempt to safeguard himself from the Jews, those angered by Jesus’ previous statements (see 2.18-20; cf. 19.38).  Although it is entirely possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because it would ensure an “uninterrupted conversation” (Beasley-Murray 1987: 47).  Both of these points (i.e. “signs” and night-visit) will be crucial when we come to the question of theological themes.

2. Literary Relationship
John 3.1-21 is both preceded and followed by a discussion of Jesus’ identity, a discussion that pervades the entire Gospel narrative and one that has a specific goal (see 20.30-31).  At the start of chapter 1, we read a theological summary of Jesus’ true identity, one that remains virtually unknown to many throughout the narrative.  (Only the readers of the Gospel have knowledge of Jesus’ true identity).  Following this we read various testimonies about Jesus, although they tend to be quite vague and even cryptic.  Moreover, it becomes apparent in these instances that those testifying about Jesus are unaware of the full implications of what they are saying.

In chapter 2, we find illustrations of Jesus’ identity revealing itself in what he is able to do—e.g. water into wine, prophesying, performing signs and wonders.  It is here that we find evidence of the disciples (and others witnessing the words and deeds of Jesus) as not fully aware of Jesus’ true identity; they simply marvel at what he does.  In one text, John provides a parenthetical statement about the disciples’ later understanding of the events they witness now—see e.g. 2.20-22 (cf. 12.16).  Then, following the dialogue with Nicodemus, we have John the Baptizer’s testimony about Jesus’ identity, although once again we are confronted with vague and cryptic remarks (see 3.22-36).  However, despite the vagueness, these testimonies function as clues for understanding Jesus’ identity as the Gospel unfolds.

Between the descriptions of what Jesus is able to do and who he is, there is a discussion of why Jesus came.  This specific discussion is the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, where the conversation begins with a question of identity but quickly moves to the topic of purpose.  To say this differently: we see how Jesus’ identity is necessarily connected with his role in God’s plan of salvation, a plan that remains hidden but is being revealed in and through Jesus.  Absolutely central to this conversation is the dilemma of how one is able to know Jesus’ true identity and purpose, and it is here we find a necessary distinction between ways of knowing.

3. Logical Structure
Based on the content and flow of the passage, John 3.1-21 divides fairly evenly.  In the first half (3.1-11) we have Nicodemus (and ostensibly a select group of Jews—many of the pronouns in this section are plural) expressing a particular view of who Jesus is.  It becomes obvious that this view is inadequate or even faulty, and the failure stems from an improper way of understanding or interpreting reality.  In the second half (3.12-21) we have Jesus (and ostensibly his disciples—cf. 3.11 and Jesus’ use of “we”) expressing an alternate view, one that is perfectly adequate or reasonable—and not simply because Jesus is the one giving it.  It is adequate or reasonable because it is consistent with the proper way of understanding or interpreting reality, and in this case that proper way is shaped by God’s revealed wisdom.

4. Theological Themes
In terms of order, the first theme to recognize is the tension between darkness and light.  As noted earlier, Nicodemus “came to him [Jesus] at night” (3.2).  While it might be historically the case, John’s interest in the time of the encounter is more theological.  John has already used “darkness” as a description for the state of the world at the time of Christ’s incarnation, which he further describes as “light” coming into the world (see 1.4-5, 9-10).  Moreover, the “darkness” is portrayed as unable to know (or comprehend) the “light,” and as a result the “darkness” rejects the “light.”  The sting of 3.11 is that while Nicodemus and some of the Jews are sympathetic to Jesus because of his deeds (cf. 2.23; 3.2b), they remain opposed to him because they reject his testimony concerning who he is (see Lincoln 2005: 152).  This introduces the second theme.

John 2 ends with Jesus not trusting those who only came to him because of the “signs” he performed (see Haenchen 1984: 1.192), a theme that reappears in the Gospel (e.g. 4.46-48; 6.14-15, 25-27).  In short: faith dependent upon “signs” (or miracles) is neither a stable nor adequate faith (see Bultmann 1971: 131).  Moreover, such faith operates according to a particular way of understanding or interpreting reality—especially the things of God—and this way is insufficient.  However, it is this faith (or belief) and this particular way of understanding that stand behind Nicodemus’ question and dialogue with Jesus.  Nicodemus understands only on a superficial (tangible?) level, which therefore hinders his ability to understand Jesus’ (hidden) meaning.  For Jesus, true belief (or true faith) is about seeing beyond the “signs” and coming into the presence of the one who has the power and authority to perform them (see 6.32-40, 51-58).

This (in)ability to see beyond the superficial represents the third theme: the tension between ignorance and knowledge.  Jesus’ refusal to trust those only seeking “signs” is said to be rooted in his knowledge of “what was in man” (2.25), which suggests a knowledge of identity and purpose, whereas Nicodemus’ failure to understand Jesus’ teaching is rooted in an improper way of knowing.  In other words: Nicodemus is ignorant of God’s revelation in Jesus whereas Jesus has full knowledge of God’s wisdom.  To put it yet another way: Nicodemus attempts to know God’s wisdom via human efforts or reasoning (bottom-up), while Jesus says such wisdom can only be known by God’s revelation (top-down).  Thus, only by a transformation of mind can one know God’s wisdom and thereby his salvation, which results in entering the kingdom (see 3.3, 5; cf. 3.13; Rom 12.1-2; 1 Cor 2.10-12).  Hence, one must be “born from above” (3.3).

Closely associated with this is the last theme: the tension between death and (eternal) life.  Throughout the conversation the emphasis falls on (eternal) life, with death being primarily an implication (cf. 3.16, which contains the only [direct] reference to death in the entire passage).  It is worth noting that the discussion on (eternal) life occurs in the context of God’s kingdom, God’s revelation, God’s salvation in Jesus, and the appropriate way for understanding all of these things.  Moreover, it is no mistake that only here in John’s Gospel is (eternal) life necessarily linked with Jesus’ identity and purpose (see Brown 1971: 1.147; Ridderbos 1997: 136-39) and true belief in Jesus’ identity and purpose as the only way to (eternal) life (cf. Acts 4.12).  We see this in 3.14b where Jesus affirms: “it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up”, with the reason for the necessity given in 3.15: “so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”  Thus, the possibility of (eternal) life is dependent upon Christ being “lifted up” (i.e. crucified) and participation in that (eternal) life is dependent upon belief in both the purpose and work of Christ.

a peculiar omission

In the introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), it announces the following:

The Bible is God’s revelation to man. It is the only book that gives us accurate information about God, man’s need, and God’s provision for that need. It provides us with the guidance for life and tells us how to receive eternal life. The Bible can do these things because it is God’s inspired Word, inerrant in the original manuscripts.

Fair enough. Standard apologetics on the nature of the Bible. This then is followed with:

The Bible describes God’s dealings with the ancient Jewish people and the early Christian church. It tells us about the great gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who fulfilled Jewish prophecies of the Messiah. It tells us about the salvation He accomplished through His death on the cross, His triumph over death in the resurrection, and His promised return to earth. It is the only book that gives us reliable information about the future, about what will happen to us when we die, and about where history is headed.

Once again, fair enough–although there are a couple implications that I would dispute. In general, though, it’s Bible basics 101. But it was because of this paragraph that I was a bit troubled. Not one mention of the Holy Spirit. I think I recall something about the Holy Spirit playing some sort of role in God’s overall plan… And I think there was a dude called, Paul who talked a bit about that role in some random letters… I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Sarcasm aside, it was the peculiar omission of the Spirit’s role as a part of what the Bible describes that bothered me. I thought: “Surely, the HCSB intro has something more substantial to say about the Spirit.” Fortunately (sort of), further down, in the “translation philosophy” portion of the intro, the HCSB does says this:

Often called ‘word-for-word’ (or ‘literal’) translation, the principle of formal equivalence seeks as nearly as possible to preserve the structure of the original language. It seeks to represent each word of the original text with an exact equivalent word in the translation so that the reader can see word for word what the original human author wrote. The merits of this this approach include its consistency with the conviction that the Holy Spirit did inspire the very words of Scripture in the original manuscripts.¹

But guess what? You know the next time the Spirit shows up in the HCSB intro? Nowhere! Seriously?! You’re going to reduce the role of the Spirit simply to inspiring the writers/original manuscripts? Poor form, guys. Poor form.

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¹ With a statement like that, one wonders why the driveling Driscoll didn’t blather on about this translation instead of the ESV.

 

feeling feisty

Ever since a well-meaning individual tried to convince me of the merits of Dispensationalism,[1] I have done my best (when I have the spare time) to become acquainted with its ideas/teachings/hermeneutic/etc. I do this because I want to be sure that I am either accepting or rejecting something for the right reasons. That study began just over 6 years ago, and I’m sure it will continue for many more–and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with are the repeated attempts by some Dispensationalist scholars to (try and) substantiate a position or interpretation that is otherwise passé or even unsustainable. In particular, I am thinking of the twin (and necessarily linked) ideas of: 1) a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, and 2) the pre-tribulation rapture of the Church. To put it mildly: both of these are crap (especially the second one) and there is no biblical support for either one–or both. The only way one reaches something remotely close to these ideas is if one presupposes the “truth” of both and then imposes them onto a small handful of text(s) that supposedly teach them.

However, throughout 6 years of studying Dispensationalism and reading through countless books and articles on the subject, I cannot begin to recall the number of times I’ve seen people still trying to uphold these two points and claiming them as taught/supported/proved in the Bible. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this sort of thing persists. The only guess I can fathom is that such scholars are seeking to preserve loyalty to Dispensational teaching rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. (That may be a tad extreme…). One fairly recent example should suffice, which comes from an article by the late Zane Hodges (1933-2008).  Please note the assumptions and presuppositions driving his entire line of argument:

A growing number of evangelicals question the doctrine of the Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church, claiming that the New Testament nowhere teaches it.  Even proponents of the Pre-tribulation Rapture often defend it as if it results from a series of inferences drawn from scattered biblical texts.  Or, they may cite a few isolated proof-texts (like Revelation 3:10).  Unfortunately, few pre-tribulational expositors attempt to justify this doctrine by appealing to a coherent exegesis of an extended passage of Scripture.  Yet, the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as a deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.

–Z. Hodges, “1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and the Rapture,” CTS Journal 6 (2000): 22

There are so many things I could say about this paragraph, but for the sake of my own sanity I will confine my remarks to Hodge’s final point: “the apostle Paul directly teaches the Rapture of the Church as deliverance before the Great Tribulation’s judgments in one such passage, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11.” Let me see how I can say this… Paul teaches no such thing–not in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 or anywhere!  (I think that works). In order to say that Paul does teach such a thing, one has to presuppose a clear and essential distinction between Israel and the Church, which further presupposes (and requires) separate divine agendas for each, and then read 1Thess 5.1-11 through that lens.  Moreover, one has to do all of this in spite of the fact that Paul would never endorse that twofold presupposition–in fact, his arguments (elsewhere) about “Israel” and the church obliterate the foundation for such a distinction. Thus, if Hodges is going to follow the principle of “interpreting Scripture with Scripture”, then he’s going to have a difficult[2] time squaring what Paul does say about “Israel” and the church with what Dispensationalism assumes the Bible/Paul says about them.

I’ll finish reading Hodges article, primarily because I already started it but also fairness dictates I consider the whole of his argument. However, I have terrible suspicion that it’s going to be nothing but a Dispensationally-driven eisegesis of a Pauline text that deserves more respect than that.

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[1] I should point out that, based on several conversations with the individual noted, the “Dispensationalism” in question is an amalgam of the Classical and Revised (or Modified) varieties.
[2] On this point, I’m being kind.

quote of the day (or why Santayana is still right)

Thus, eagerness on the part of the cities to receive marks of imperial favour, the desire of wealthy natives to attain the only form of public honour open to them, and the greed of the common people for sports and games, all combined to buttress the worship which the authorities had adopted as an instrument of government. But this was a way of expressing gratitude and admiration which the followers of Jesus could not take. The claim that was made on behalf of the emperor was irreconcilable with the sole right of Christ to the worship of men. Gradually it would come to the knowledge of the citizens that there was a sect in their midst that refused to join in the emperor-cultus. Astonishment would give place to anger. Every consideration that increased the enthusiasm of the citizens for the worship would make the attitude of the Christians more obnoxious in their eyes. The refusal would be construed into disloyalty; and both priests [of the emperor-cultus] and people would take every means in their power to overcome an obstinacy which would not only appear unreasonable and ungracious, but which might have the effect of making the city’s loyalty suspect in high quarters. The whole resources of the community would be employed to compel that conformity to the established usage which was not rendered voluntarily.

– J.T. Dean, The Book of Revelation (1915), 14

“old” vs. “new”

Early this morning, about half of the fence that divides our back garden from our neighbors’ collapsed. A couple of months ago, we thought this might eventually happen because of the poor state of the support posts–i.e. they were rotted out near the ground. Given that poor state and the 30+mph winds early this morning, the collapse was no real surprise. Unfortunate and slightly inconvenient, but not surprising. I immediately went round to the neighbors, but no one answered–presumably because it was just after 7am–so I came back to wait for a bit before trying again.

To pass the time, and waiting for the coffee to finish brewing (a slightly uneven blend of IKEA and Peruvian), I decided to read through a recent article by Bruce Baker, entitled, “Israel and the Church: The Transcendental Distinction Within the Dispensational Tradition” (Journal of Ministry and Theology 8.2 [2004]: 57-86). It didn’t take long to realize that Baker’s article is both a polemic against Progressive Dispensationalism (=PG) and an apologetic for Classical (or “Traditional”) Dispensationalism (=CD), with support from Revised (or Modified) Dispensationalism (=RD). Baker’s sparing partner throughout the article is none other than Craig Blaising, a notable advocate for PG and respectful critic of CD in particular and RD in general.

Baker chooses Blaising for what appears to be a singular purpose or reason: Blaising questions the legitimacy of Charles Ryrie’s sine qua non, specifically–as the article’s title indicates–the necessary distinction between Israel and the Church as a consistent presupposition throughout the history of Dispensationalism (which ain’t very long, by the way. The house we’re in at the moment is almost as old as Dispensationalism). In particular, Blaising sees Ryrie’s presuppositions as reflective of RD and not those held within either CD or PD. Thus, for Blaising, the problem is that Ryrie takes his (later) definition and applies to the whole of Dispensationalism as though it is universally valid and/or representative. Baker’s article, so far as I have read, essentially argues: “Nuh-uh.” I’ll have to wait to see how Baker justifies his argument in full, seeing that I have not yet finished reading it.

For now, I simply want to mention two small(ish) parts of Baker’s argument that seem a bit troublesome. First, while Baker might be able to make a case for key Dispensational presuppositions being consistently held (e.g. the Israel-Church distinction), he cannot escape the fact that such a case only works for the history of Dispensationalism. His case does not apply to and/or work for the 1800+ years that precede the emergence of Dispensationalism. At best he could appeal to Marcion (c.85–c.160 CE), who did advocate a clear separation between Christianity and Judaism, but much bigger problems arise by making such an appeal. Or Baker might follow the line of argument proffered by John Walvoord, who said: “the development of the most important doctrines took centuries” (The Rapture Question [1957], 52). However, and leaving to one side its inherent presumptions, that argument amounts to nothing more than special pleading.

And second, via Ryrie, Baker relies on Lewis Chafer–one of the early proponents of Classical Dispensationalism in the US–in order to prove the historical continuity within Dispensationalism about the Israel-Church distinction. What troubles me is that Baker emphasizes Chafer’s remark about “partial dispensationalists”–i.e. those who see God as carrying out a single plan–and says Chafer uses this “label” to describe those who adhere to Progressive Dispensationalism. Two problems here: 1) Chafer does not do that, because he can’t, because PD did not emerge until the early-1980s and Chafer died in 1952; and 2) by saying Chafer does do this, Baker becomes guilty of the very thing that Blaising criticizes Ryrie doing–i.e. applying a later definition to the whole of a system.

not a knockout punch; more of a glancing blow

In what little spare time I have at the moment, I’ve been slowly working through 2 Thessalonians, especially the eschatological section of 2Thess 2.1-12. This portion of the letter has been a veritable hotbed of debate, although for various reasons. On one extreme, since the work of Schmidt (1801), furthered by Kern (1839) and Baur (1845), most critical scholars see it as evidence that Paul did not compose the letter.¹ On another extreme, since (at least) the work of Scofield (1909), furthered by a number of Dispensational writers since then, many evangelical scholars see this passage as evidence of Paul’s knowledge of what will take place at the eschaton.

Both of these perspectives have their merits (and faults) and both should be examined carefully and honestly by all who engage with this letter. Since Paul Foster recently addressed the issues in the first extreme (see “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” JSNT 35.2 [2012]: 150-75), and since I agree with most of what he argues, there is no need for me to enter into that discussion. Instead, my concern here is with the second extreme, specifically the kind of knowledge that Paul had about the eschaton and the reasons why he says what he does.

I make this my focus partly because David Dean (tenuously) argues for Paul’s knowledge of these events as being chronological in nature, and it was this chronological knowledge that he imparted to the Thessalonians during his brief sojourn.² That seems to handle the “kind” question. With regard to the “reason” question, Dean sees this imparting of chronological knowledge as necessary for a right understanding of the eschaton–particularly the timing of the (so-called) “rapture.” Specifically, for Dean, the “rapture” takes place before all of the other events described and Christians can rest assured that the other events have not taken place because the “rapture” has not yet happened.

Dean makes this argument on the basis of what he sees Paul saying in 2Thess 2.1-12. By way of summary: after stating the concern (cf. 2.1-2)–i.e. a faulty teaching concerning the return of Christ–Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to remain true to what they know (cf. 2.3a). He then launches into what appear to be “signs” that will precede Christ’s return (cf. 2.3b-12)–e.g. the apostasy, the revelation of the man of lawlessness, the removal of the evil that prevails, the defeat of the man of lawlessness at Christ’s return, and judgment.³ In fact, the logical and syntactical construction of the Greek reveals a necessary causal relationship between the “signs” and Christ’s return. Paul’s remarks, therefore, could be seen as endorsing a chronology.

However, I am not so sure that Paul’s knowledge is necessarily chronological–in the strict detailed sense that Dean proposes. Specifically, I do not see Paul saying: “Before the return of Christ happens: first, there will be ‘the apostasy’; second, there will be the ‘unveiling of the “man of lawlessness” ‘; third, this ‘man’ will oppose God and exalt himself over all gods; fourth, he will take ‘his seat in the temple of God’ and claim to be God; fifth, that which prevails will be revealed and then taken out of the way; sixth, the ‘lawless one’ will be defeated by Christ; etc.” Paul’s language in this text does not come across as being that precise.

Moreover, contrary to what Scofield argued (cf. notes on 2.3) and Dean rehashes, I don’t think Paul sees all of the “events” in 2Thess 2.3b-12 as reserved exclusively for the distant future. In particular, and contrary to how the NIV, TNIV, NLT, NCV, and CEV translate it, the details pertaining to the “man of lawlessness” are not waiting to be climatically revealed (cf. 2.4); Paul’s language stresses that nearly all of the details are already taking place. In other words: the “man of lawlessness” is presently opposing (ἀντικείμενος) God; he is presently exalting (ὑπεραιρόμενος) himself over all other gods; and he does this because he has already taken his seat (καθίσαι) in the temple of God and is presently displaying (ἀποδεικνύντα) himself as God. The only detail waiting fulfillment in the future is this “man” unveiling (ἀποκαλύπτω; cf. 2.3b), which Paul goes on to describe as contemporaneous with the appearance (ἐπιφάνεια) of Christ’s return/coming/presence (παρουσία; cf. 2.8). And since the bulk of what Paul says up to 2.5 is about the man of lawlessness, the reminder in 2.5 would seem to refer to that previous teaching and not Dean’s proposed chronological eschatology.

At the very least, this creates problems for the rather absurd theories of Dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye (again) and Thomas Ice (et al), who both drone on about the birth, upbringing, ethnicity, political affiliations, and identity of this “man of lawlessness”, whom they inappropriately call the “Antichrist”. Such suggestions reveal a lack of understanding of Paul’s overall meaning and his use of apocalyptic language. The contemporaneity of the “man’s” unveiling (and subsequent defeat) and Christ’s appearing also create problems for the usual (Classic) Dispensationalist eschatological “timeline”. In particular, the contemporaneity raises serious doubts about the so-called pretribulation rapture of the saints, which is based on the more troubling notion of a two-stage return of Christ. Moreover, a “rapture of the saints” or even its (supposed) timing is not even close to being Paul’s concern–either here in 2Thess 2.1-12 or the only passage in the whole of the NT that indicates something like a “rapture”: 1Thess 4.17.

As he states at the beginning of his argument, Paul’s concern (for both the Thessalonians and anyone else who might read his letter) is about faithful patience, allegiance to truth about what God has done and will do in and through Christ, and not being swept away by speculative theories about Christ’s return. You know, theories like those (explicitly or implicitly) proposed by: Joseph Smith, William Miller, Charles T. Russell (twice), later Jehovah’s Witnesses (multiple attempts), Hal Lindsey (twice), Edgar Whisenaunt (twice), John Hinkle, Harold Camping (repeatedly), etc.

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¹ The letter is dislodged from Paul’s hands on account of its (apparently) different eschatology vis-a-vis that of 1 Thessalonians. Specifically, 2Thess seems to advocate a recognizable chronological sequence of events that precede Christ’s return (cf. 2Thess 2.3-12), whereas 1Thess appears to indicate that the return will be without warning (cf. 1Thess 4.13-5.11). Moreover, while 1Thess reads as though Paul sees himself as alive when Christ returns, 2Thess gives the impression that Paul is giving up on that hope. In other words: 1Thess anticipates an imminent return (i.e. in Paul’s lifetime) whereas 2Thess allows for considerable delays (i.e. well after Paul’s death). Thus, the “consensus” for how to explain these differences is that Paul wrote 1Thess and someone writing in his name penned 2Thess.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?” (Bibliotheca Sacra 168 [2011]: 196. I plan to deal with some of the finer points of Dean’s argument in a different post.
³ Props to those who recognize the variant I proposed. Don’t worry, I have reasons for doing so; I’m not just making stuff up for the Gehenna of it.

quote of the day

This comes from my morning reading:

the human spirit is unable to compel the divine Spirit to enter the human spirit.  The attempt to do so belongs directly to the ambiguities of religion and indirectly to the ambiguities of culture and morality.  If religious devotion, moral obedience, or scientific honesty could compel the divine Spirit to “descend” to us, the Spirit which “descended” would be the human spirit in a religious disguise.  It would be, and often is, simply man’s spirit ascending, the natural form of man’s self-transcendence.  The finite cannot force the infinite; man cannot compel God.  The human spirit as a dimension of life is ambiguous, as all life is, whereas the divine Spirit creates unambiguous life

–Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (1964), 3.119-20

be careful in polemics . . .

because (apparently) it might cause forgetfulness, misrepresentation or an uncontrollable urge to speak untruths. One example comes from the always feisty Thomas Ice, an ardent mouthpiece for (Classical) Dispensationalism.

The topic of discussion is the (rather untenable) notion of a secret pre-tribulation rapture of the saints as the first stage of Christ’s second coming–i.e. what Classical Dispensationalists (mis)label the parousia.[1] Ice’s beef is not necessarily with the teaching itself but with the qualifying term “secret” being attached to it.[2] Expressing his angst with those who (wrongly–in his view) describe the pre-tribulation as “secret”, Ice says the following:

Sorry, but this is another mistake, another myth. In all my reading of pretribulationism and discussion with pretribulationists, I have never, that I can recall, heard a pre-trib rapturist use the nomenclature of “secret” to describe our view. I have only heard the phrase “secret” rapture as a pejorative term used exclusively by anti-pretribulationists. Why. Apparently they enjoy fighting a straw man.

T. Ice, “Rapture Myths” (accessed, 25-Dec-12);
cf. also the same article, yet posted here.[3]

Ice then pins the blame for this “myth” on Dave MacPherson, a staunch critic of both Ice and (Classical) Dispensationalism, and asserts that MacPherson misrepresented the truth in order to fuel his criticisms. However, it is in voicing his animosity against using “secret” and his railing against MacPherson that Ice slides into trouble in a number of ways.

First, it is simply not the case that MacPherson (or anyone else) created the description for (Classical) Dispensationalism’s understanding of the (supposed) first-stage in order to mock it. Dispensationalists long before and after MacPherson’s book (The Rapture Plot [1994]) regularly employed the term. For example:

  • Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth (1918), 13-14
  • Michael Baxter, Forty Prophetic Wonders (1918), 153
  • Hal Lindsey, Late Great Planet Earth (1970), 142-43
  • Robert Gundry, Church and the Tribulation (1974), 104
  • Warren Wiersbe, Be Ready (1984), 19, 144
  • Tim LaHaye, Prophecy Study Bible (2004), note on 1Thess 4.13
  • Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (2005), 4:623
  • cf. also Charles Feinberg, Millennialism: Two Major Views (1985), 287

This raises the second problem: not one of the sources just listed uses the term “secret” in a negative way–contrary to what Ice boldly claims. In fact, not once in these works is “secret” used in any way other than an axiomatic description for the (so-called) pretribulation rapture. Thus, in this case, it would seem that it is Ice who has created the straw man argument, not the so-called anti-pretribulationists (e.g. MacPherson, Ken Gentry).

Third, Ice’s adamant assertion that in all his reading he has not encountered the term “secret” used for the pretribulation view of the rapture is untenable. (Admittedly, he supplies his own escape-hatch with the qualifier: “that I can recall”). With someone as entrenched in Dispensationalism as Ice is, one would think that he’s read the likes of Larkin, Lindsey, Feinberg; and with LaHaye being his colleague at the “Pre-Trib Research Center”, it would safe to assume that Ice has read LaHaye’s stuff.

Even if we can’t assume that, let’s go on what we can know. In his 1990 article, “Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulation Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret MacDonald,” Ice quotes directly from John Walvoord’s book, The Blessed Hope and Tribulation (1979). I mention this because Ice’s quotation ends on the same page where Walvoord mentions the secret rapture (i.e. p. 43). And since Ice later quotes from p. 44 of Walvoord’s book, we can be reasonably sure he noticed the reference to a “secret” rapture–that is unless Ice is reading selectively.

This is not just a one-off. In the same 1990 article, Ice refers to two other works that make explicit mention of a “secret rapture” (Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming  [1984], 21; Harold Rowdon, The Origins of the Brethren 1825-1850 [1967], 231-32), and in both cases the tone is no where close to being pejorative. I have not had the opportunity to check other Ice articles to see if a similar phenomenon occurs. But on the basis of this 1990 article alone, I’m having a hard time believing Ice when he says he’s never heard or read pre-trib rapturists use the term “secret” to describe the event in question.

Now, Ice might play his “I don’t recall” card on these occasions, and if we’re in a decent mood we might let it slide. Maybe. But there is one final problem for Ice when he blasts “anti-pretribulationists” for misrepresenting his view, and it is a problem that his trusty trump card cannot settle. In 2001, a book misleadingly called, Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Bible Prophecy & Its Fulfillment,[4] asserts the following (p.112):

When examining Scripture, the honest seeker after truth must face the fact that there are 15 differences between the two phases of Christ’s coming that cannot reconciled. This alone makes it impossible for them to be the same event. One is a secret coming, the other is public for all to see. One will cause participants to rejoice, and the other will cause people to mourn. [emphasis added]

Notice that the statement is not pejorative, misrepresenting or even anti-pretribulationist. It specifically refers to a “secret coming” [i.e. rapture] of Christ as nearly axiomatic of “biblical” prophecy, and something that is a positive find for “the honest seeker after truth.” The authors of this book? Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice.

It would seem that in his haste to ridicule those who disagree with him, Ice has wrongly accused his opponents of crimes they did not commit; he has not accurately represented what other Dispensationalists are saying; and he has apparently forgotten his own contribution to the problem he seeks to eradicate. But it is often the case that when anger sets in, the mouth opens and the eyes shut.

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[1] For now I will side-step the discussion on how Classical Dispensationalists argue for a two-stage return of Christ and how the term “parousia” (supposedly) refers to the first stage.
[2] In some ways, Ice’s argument resembles John Walvoord’s attempt to avoid the term “secret” and yet accept the idea (cf. Church in Prophecy [1964], 83, 136-37).
[3] I have taken screenshots of both sites, just in case Ice wants to erase alter retract his original statement.
[4] The sub-title should read, “A Visual Guide to Dispensational Prophecy & Its Fulfillment”.

asking for trouble

My day typically begins c. 6.45am; 7.00am if I’m feeling lazy. By 7.15am/7.30am the first round of coffee is about to be consumed, and I start my search for mental jolt. (For some reason, for me, coffee fails in the jolting business). This usually means finding a book or article that I know will bug me and put me on the defensive. The sooner I’m kicked into critical thinking mode the better. This morning, the chosen jolt was an article with the prickly title, “Who Is Wrong? A Review of John Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth” (R.L. Mayhue in The Master’s Seminary Journal 3.1 [1992]: 73-94).

To clarify the basic tension of the article (for those who are unaware): Gerstner’s book, as the tagline reveals, is a “Critique of Dispensationalism”, and his chosen adverbiage, “Wrongly” indicates where he comes down on that critique.¹ He ain’t in favor of it (at least its particular hermeneutic). The Master’s Seminary Journal is produced and disseminated by none other than The Master’s Seminary (California), and TMS, as their statement of faith indicates (briefly here and especially here), is an advocate of Dispensationalism. Since Mayhue is on staff at TMS, we can safely guess where his “review” of Gerstner’s critique is headed. (The implied either-or of his title and the choice to use TMS’s journal to offer the “review” are telling clues).

Here’s what bugged me about the article, and it’s something Mayhue said quite early in his discussion/monologue. Mayhue states (more or less; more on the less side) one of Gerstner’s key problems with Dispensationalism–i.e. it fails to do proper justice to biblical soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, and the necessary links between them. Mayhue accuses (albeit in subtle ways) Gerstner of allowing his Reformed tradition (i.e. Calvinism, specifically) to govern his interpretation of both the biblical doctrines in view and Dispensationalism. The implication is that Mayhue see such allowance as inappropriate. Then Mayhue asserts:

[Gerstner] seems to debate from the following basic syllogism, though he never states it so succinctly as this:

Premise 1: Calvinism is central to all true theology
Premise 2: Dispensationalism does not embrace Calvinism
Conclusion: Dispensationalism is a ‘spurious’ and ‘dubious’ expression of true theology (p. 2).

Thus, he strongly calls for dispensationalism’s quick surrender.

–Mayhue, “Who Is Wrong?,” 75.

The reason this bugged me has three parts. First, Mayhue (subtly) criticizes Gerstner for allowing his theological tradition (i.e. Calvinism) to dictate his interpretation. On this point, Mayhue (rightly) states: “Presuppositions and assumptions undergird all reasoned thought” (81). However, Mayhue does not acknowledge (or recognize) that Dispensationalism must necessarily be included in that truth. He overlooks the fact that Dispensationalism has its own presuppositions and assumptions and they necessarily govern the interpretative process. In fact, Classical and Modified (or Revised) Dispensationalism² essentially require loyalty to the interpretative system they establish in order to understand properly the theological conclusions they find.

Second, Mayhue’s “review” (=polemic) operates on the basis of the suggested syllogism, which Mayhue acknowledges as never clearly articulated as he gives it. This means Mayhue’s criticisms focus on Mayhue’s interpretation of Gerstner’s logic as though that interpretation is an accurate reflection of what Gerstner clearly argues. (Admittedly I have not read Gerstner’s book, so I do not know for sure how accurate Mayhue’s interpretation is).

Third, Mayhue’s own argument in particular and Dispensationalism in general are not exempt from the charges of the suggested syllogism. To say this differently: the same argument Mayhue uses against Gerstner can be turned around and used against Mayhue. In effect it would go something like this:

Premise 1: Dispensationalism is central to all true interpretation of Bible (i.e. “rightly dividing the word of truth”)³
Premise 2: Non-Dispensationalists do not embrace the hermeneutical system of Dispensationalism
Conclusion: Non-Dispensationalist readings do not represent true interpretations of the Bible; they are all ill-informed, dubious, spurious, liberal, and unorthodox.

The implication of this argument is that if one does not embrace Dispensationalism, then one does not embrace the true meaning of the Bible; and if one does not embrace that true meaning, then one cannot be faithful to its message; and if one is not faithful to its message, then how can that person truly claim to be evangelical? The trouble is that the Dispensational hermeneutic and its particular emphases are what need to be embraced, and they tend to be prioritized over core tenets of historic Christian orthodoxy. In the words of Levar Burton: “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here is a confession from a former Dispensationalist named, Clarence Bass (in the 1960s):

Even today some of my dearest friends are convinced that I have departed from the evangelical faith. No affirmation of my belief in the cardinal doctrines of faith–the virgin birth, the efficaciousness of Christ’s death, the historicity of the resurrection, the necessity of the new birth, even the fervent expectancy of the person, literal, actual bodily return of the Lord to earth–will convince them, because I have ceased to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’.

–quoted in S.J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze (1992), 92–emphasis original.

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¹ Also, for those who don’t know, Gerstner’s title takes a not-so-subtle jab at an earlier work called, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (1896) by C.I. Scofield–the champion of Dispensationalism in the US.
² While I am generally not a fan of Classical and Modified (or Revised) Dispensationalism (and its proponents), I am more appreciative of so-called Progressive Dispensationalism (and its advocates). However, please do not mistake appreciation for acceptance.
³ What Scofield meant by this phrase (taken from 2Tim 2.15) is not what Paul meant by that phrase. In fact, how Scofield uses that passage to construct and justify his Dispensational interpretation reveals his ignorance of Paul’s meaning.