Out With the Old, In With the New
The key factor separating the main eschatological systems is the hermeneutics employed to interpret scripture.
Hermeneutics is a fancy way to describe the principles or rules a person uses to study the Bible so as to determine and understand what it says.
Now, one would think every Christian would be in agreement as to the hermeneutics we use when studying the Bible. For the most part Christians are. Yet, when it comes to certain aspects of church polity and eschatology there is an obvious disagreement. What makes understanding those disagreements even more difficult is when the disagreeing groups all acknowledge the authority of God’s Word and sincerely seek to utilize similar hermeneutics to defend their conclusions.
For example, all groups pretty much affirm the need to approach Scripture with the historic-grammatical method of exegesis. That being, in order to properly understand a biblical text it must first be considered in the historic context in which the original author wrote it. Moreover, the student seeks to accurately handle the grammatical nuances of the original language in which the text was written so as to capture the meaning the author was attempting to convey to his readers. By using those two principles we draw the meaning out from the text, or what we call exegesis.
The disagreements regarding eschatology, then, is really not so much with how accurate or inaccurate one may be with his exegesis, but how he applies the exegetical data to the relevant eschatological passages. In this case, a person’s denominational traditions, as well as chosen theological presuppositions, often shape the application of those hermeneutics when applied to eschatological Scripture. The late theologian, Carl B. Hoch, notes, “The real culprit is theological systems that come into play and cause the exegesis of individual passages to differ” [Hoch, 267].
For instance, Sam Waldron is a Reformed Baptist who adheres to an amillennial view of eschatology. He complains bitterly against premillennialist John MacArthur’s definition of “literal” when applied to the prophetic portions of Scripture. Sam is insistent the word “literal” is “not so easy to define” and that John must “qualify the meaning of ‘literal interpretation'” to explain prophetic texts like Revelation [Waldron, 73, 74]. Both Waldron and MacArthur believe we need to understand the Bible “literally,” but both have a differing definition of “literal.” That difference is formed by theological presuppositions brought to the exegetical data.
I am endeavoring to interact with those disagreeing principles. I believe there are at least three major theological presuppositions fueling the areas of disagreement.
The priority of the NT over the OT
A typological approach to understanding prophecy and fulfillment
No distinction between Israel and the NT Church.
Let me begin with the first: The priority of the NT over the OT.
Those who hold to the Reformed view of eschatology believe there is a logical priority of the New Testament over the Old Testament [Wells & Zaspel, 13]. So much so that the OT can be, and in some cases, should be, re-read and re-interpreted through the lens of the NT. There is reason for this logical priority: The NT is considered the greatest revelation; the apex or final revelation superseding the OT [Lehrer, 176]. Thus, because the NT is the final revelation of Jesus Christ, and the entire OT anticipates the coming of Christ, the only proper way to understand the OT is with the Christ of the NT directing us.
That interpretive principle attempts to answer the question as to whether the OT should be interpreted literally or spiritually [Feinberg, 110]. That is important to consider because a literal or spiritual interpretation plays heavily upon how we understand the OT promises and prophecies and how they are fulfilled in the NT. For example, will the promises by God to restore Israel to the land be fulfilled literally in a future millennium where Christ reigns in Jerusalem, or are they understood “literally” in a spiritual sense as being fulfilled in Christ establishing His Church in the whole world?
Note how that illustrates the distinction between Waldron’s view of “literal” and MacArthur’s view of “literal.” MacArthur’s view of “literal” means those OT promises given to the nation of Israel will be fulfilled “literally” with Israel being established as an ethnic, geo-political kingdom in the city of Jerusalem with Christ reigning over all the world. Waldron’s view, however, also believes the promises to Israel are “literally” fulfilled, but “literally” fulfilled in the coming of Christ to establish the NT Church.
The amillennialist, like Waldron, believes what he does because the NT writers seem to take those OT promises given by God to Israel where He tells them they will be established as a physical kingdom which will reign over all the earth, and then re-interpret those promises so as to apply them to the gospel work of the Church. As the gospel goes throughout the world by the Church’s evangelistic efforts, new converts are brought into the “Kingdom of God.” But it is apparent that this “kingdom” isn’t a geo-political kingdom, but a spiritual one made up of people from all over the world.
Consider another example. Theologian, Gary Long, represents the Reformed perspective of how Hebrews 11:9-16 is a clear illustration of the fuller, NT revelation reinterpreting the promises of the OT. He lists 5 NT maxims needful for guiding the interpretation of biblical prophecy [Long, 5]. The second maxim he says is necessary for interpreting prophecy states, “The NT teaches that Abraham looked for a heavenly country, which God promised him, not a future interim earthly country,” and then he cites Hebrews 11:9-10 [Long, 8]. I will consider the Reformed perspective of Hebrews 11:9-16 in a later post, but suffice it to say, Long believes the passage is a clear NT reinterpretation of the OT land promises given to Abraham in Genesis. It is so clear, according to Long, that he makes it a key hermeneutical maxim for interpreting prophecy in general.
Thus, those who hold to Reformed eschatology believe the principle of the NT priority over the OT because they are convinced Jesus Christ and the apostles utilized that principle in their teaching and writing. It is called the Christological and apostolic hermeneutic. If Peter, for example, took OT titles once applied to the nation of Israel and transferred those titles so as to describe the new relationship the NT Church has with God on account of Christ’s work on the cross (1 Peter 2:9, 10), then it is only reasonable to conclude that principle should be used to interpret all the OT prophecies and promises to Israel. That is particularly true with regards to eschatological passages in the OT and how we understand their fulfillment in the NT.
This hermeneutical approach to understanding the OT does have a compelling appeal to it. However, I believe the Christological/apostolic hermeneutic that gives “logical” priority of the NT to re-interpret the OT is fraught with at least four significant problems.
1) Consistency. First of all, the NT writers are not always consistent with their interpretation of the OT. S. Lewis Johnson once did a study of how the NT uses the OT, and he demonstrated an inconsistent pattern of OT interpretation in the manner a Reformed eschatology requires. New Testament authors appeal to passages from the OT in a literal sense (the “MacArthur” understanding of “literal”), sometimes in a typological sense, and also in a direct fulfillment sense.
Certainly as God progressively revealed His divine purposes from one generation to the next through the ministries of the prophets, His revelation came into sharper focus with the coming of Christ. We see NT writers drawing out unique application from the OT on account of Christ’s coming, but they are not totally re-reading the OT with a new hermeneutic so as to strip it of all of what the original author’s intended to convey. Hence, the idea there is an over-arching, historic redemptive hermeneutic, or some Christological/apostolic hermeneutic which re-interprets OT passages, is really not found.
But, a lack of perspicuity leads to a couple of other problems,
4) Authorial Intent. Adding a bit more to the previous point about textual integrity, when we read passages like Jeremiah 31, the true intent of the author is clear in that he is stating God will do such and such a thing with the nation of Israel. Adding a foreign meaning to the passage by re-interpreting it from an outside source, not only jeopardizes the text’s original, authorial integrity, it changes the author’s original intent for writing what he did.
Now, does that mean the NT doesn’t provide us with any insight on how to understand the OT? Of course not. The NT does offer commentary on the OT, as well as add additional applications that may not have been completely revealed during the OT [Vlach, 18, 19]. We just don’t make the NT the starting point for understanding the OT passages. The OT is not dependent upon the NT to re-interpret it according to an apostolic hermeneutic. The foundational starting point for understanding the OT passages are the OT passages themselves. A faithful student of God’s Word will seek to determine the meaning of the OT passages in question first, then see how the NT may utilize those passages with fuller revelation. Thus, the progress of revelation from lesser to the greater does not “nullify or transfer the meaning of Old Testament passages in a way that goes against what the Old Testament writers intended” [Vlach, 19].
William Barrick, “New Covenant Theology and the Old Testament Covenants,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Fall 2007. Online here.
Paul Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Crossway Books: Westchester IL, 1988).
Carl B. Hoch, All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology (Baker Books, Grand Rapids MI, 1995).
S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testament in the New: An argument for Biblical Inspiration (Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 1980).
Steve Lehrer, New Covenant Theology: Questions Answered (self-published, 2006).
Gary Long, Context! Evangelical Views of the Millennium Examined (Great Unpublished, Charleston SC, 2001, 2nd ed. 2002)
Dennis Swanson, “Introduction to New Covenant Theology,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Fall 2007. Online here.
David L. Turner, “The Continuity of Scripture and Eschatology: Key Hermeneutical Issues,” Grace Theological Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1985).
Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology (New Covenant Media, Fredrick MD, 2002).
Michael J. Vlach, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths (Theological Studies Press, Los Angeles CA, 2008).