I have taken up the subject of eschatology and my endeavor has been to share what I have learned. My hope is to be fair with dissenting positions; I want to discuss them accurately without the employment of strawmen.
Before I jump into exploring various eschatology systems, it is necessary to spend some time going over a few foundational matters, particularly an examination of the hermeneutical principles brought to the relevant, eschatological texts by the variety of theological systems. I have observed three broad areas of hermeneutics where eschatological systems will disagree with each other: The relationship of the NT with the OT, How to interpret prophetic passages, and the Israel/Church distinction. Those areas will over lap with each other to be sure, but I have found there is enough of a pronounced difference between them that I can present a specific review of each one.
With this post I wish to draw attention to a second area of hermeneutics: The Interpretation of Prophetic Passages.
The word “eschatology” means “those things pertaining to the end-times.” The Bible explicitly tells us there will be an end to the whole of human history – the last day. Our world is being directed to a final day when God will bring our age to an end, Jesus Christ will return and humanity judged. The Bible records many passages of prophetic revelation spoken by a number of godly men who outline the details to those events. All systems of eschatology agree to the certainty of Christ’s return and humanity’s judgment and the end of all things. Where they disagree sharply with one another is with how we are to understand the unfolding of the details.
As I noted in my last post, a good part of how we apply our hermeneutics to the prophetic passages is dependent upon our theological presuppositions. I pointed out how those who hold to the convictions of Reformed covenant theology will utilize what is called an apostolic hermeneutic, in which the original “OT words are not always the ultimate meaning that the divine author had in mind” [Crenshaw and Gunn, 12]. This so-called apostolic hermeneutic, then, is also believed to provide the proper perspective for understanding the true meaning of the OT prophecies. Hence, what the OT prophet seems to mean by his prophetic oracle at first reading may have some greater meaning, or perhaps mean something all together different, in the NT.
Contrasted with how the apostolic hermeneutic handles the interpretation of prophecy, other non-covenant Reformed Christians believe a prophet’s prophecy must be initially understood according to the original meaning it was given. Now, that is not say when we come to the NT, the progress of revelation will reveal extended application of the prophecy to spiritual things pertaining to the coming NT ministry of Christ and the apostles. However, that does not mean the original message of the prophecy is annulled and the NT Church entirely absorbs its fulfillment.
Consider, for example, how James utilizes the prophecy of Amos 9:11, 12 during the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
In response to hearing how gentiles were coming to faith in Christ, James cites Amos 9:11, 12 as foretelling of the time when the gentiles would come to salvation. The typical Reformed covenant position of this passage says James was interpreting the prophecy of Amos, which was originally spoken to the house of Israel, to apply completely to the NT Church. The “raising of the ruins of the Tabernacle of David” and how “they will possess the gentiles,” is fulfilled in the new tabernacle, the Church, comprised of both Jews and gentiles [Robertson, 89-108].
But note that James does not cite the entire oracle, just the words spoken about how the raising of the tabernacle of David will cause the gentiles to be possessed. Nothing in the original prophecy of Amos, nor with the citation by James, suggests the remainder of the prophecy, Amos 9:13-15 has been completely fulfilled by the NT Church.
Those last 3 verses in Amos speak to the people of Israel, who are called “My people” by the Lord, as being “planted in their land” and “no longer shall they be pulled up.” Though Amos originally gave his prophecy to the people of Israel, an additional fulfillment of it is the gentiles coming to faith in Christ. However, that does not mean the rest of the prophecy has been canceled and will no longer be fulfilled as Amos predicted.
If one looks carefully, he will notice there are two contrasting hermeneutical approaches being employed. The covenant Reformed position tends towards a more spiritualized or typological application of OT prophecy (though adherence will insist they are being “literal” when interpreting the text), where as the non-covenant Reformed positions reads the same prophecies in a more literal sense. And herein lies the center of disagreement between eschatological systems.
The covenant Reformed Christian accuses the non-covenant Reformed Christian of “wooden literalism.” Their “literalism” is ridiculed as being absurd: “How can a spiritual being like the devil be bound with a chain?” and “Where’s that bottomless pit to be found?” However, non-covenant Reformed Christians will often ridicule his opponent by saying he is unwittingly employing a play-doh like reading of the Bible, shaping it in any fashion that may fit his preconceived theology. If we spiritualize the prophecies of the OT and turn them into metaphors, types, and analogies, what keeps a person from spiritualizing other portions of the Bible, like the creation week of Genesis or the Resurrection of Jesus?
There is some truth to those accusations. Regarding the wooden-literalist charge, I have in mind Hal Lindsey claiming the locust in Revelation 9 are chemical spraying Apache helicopters, and we can see the abuse of typology in the way certain groups of Reformed preterists mangle the flood narrative in Genesis 7-8. In the end, however, such exchanges are pointless. Both positions acknowledge the authority of God’s Word and are attempting to gain an understanding of the text by the use of exegesis. Yet it is the exegesis being interpreted according to theological presuppositions, especially when exegeting eschatological prophetic passages.
I will be bold enough to say all sides cannot be correct in the application of their hermeneutics on prophetic texts. Obviously, as I have wrestled through the issues and have finally settled on my eschatological convictions, I believe my position is the correct one. I have come to that conviction because I believe there is a consistence between my exegesis and hermeneutics when those principles are applied to eschatological theology. For me, that is the key: is my hermeneutics and exegesis consistent and are both being applied consistently to the biblical passages?
So how do I pursue consistency? Allow me to consider four important principles:
1) Prophecy can be defined as “the content of the special revelation which specifically called men received and by which they explained the past, elucidated the present, and disclosed the future” [Kaiser, 42]. The best rule of thumb when interpreting prophecy is to believe the language of the prophets in a natural way [Kaiser, 43], and view the referents of the prophecy in the manner in which the prophet originally intended. Again, see the example above with James citing Amos. Later revelation may clarify or add to the previous prophecy, but it should not be re-interpreted in an overreaching way that was never intended by the original prophet.
2) Prophets often spoke in symbolic and figurative language, but such symbolism should not automatically be spiritualized to mean something different than what the original prophet intended to convey, or be a license to interpret all prophecy with a spiritualized or typological hermeneutic. For example, the book of Revelation certainly contains symbolic images, but does the presence of such symbolism automatically discount chapter 20 from speaking of a real, earthly reign of Christ for 1,000 years – 365,000 days? (I will write about Revelation 20 in a later article).
When interpreting symbolic language, an important principle should be considered. That being, the absurdity of language when taken literally and the clarity when taken symbolically. Matt Waymeyer explains the principle this way,
With symbolic language there is something inherent itself that compels the interpreter to seek something other than the literal meaning … when the interpreter has concluded the literal meaning of the language is absurd and ought to be abandoned, the symbolic interpretation will yield some degree of clarity to the meaning of the language of the text [Waymeyer, 51].
For instance, when the prophet Isaiah says “The trees of the field will clap their hands,” he does not mean to say the trees will come alive like the Ents from The Lord of the Rings (the absurdity of language when taken literal), but the prophet does mean to say there will be great rejoicing with the return of Israel from exile (the clarity of the language when understood symbolically).
3) There is also an important need to recognize a three-fold classification of biblical prophecy: unconditionally fulfilled, conditionally fulfilled, and sequentially fulfilled [Kaiser, 35]. Recognizing these classifications will help with how to interpret the meaning of biblical prophecy.
Unconditionally fulfilled prophecy is when God obligates Himself to carry out the terms for the fulfillment. God has bound Himself to see to it that those prophecies are carried out [Kaiser, 35]. Some examples of unconditionally fulfillment are the promises, specifically the land promises, made to Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3, 15:9-21).
Conditionally fulfilled prophecy has an “unless” or “if” condition attached to it. The blessings and cursings outlined in Deuteronomy 28 are a good example of this. If Israel obeys, God will bless. If they do not, God will bring cursing.
Then sequentially fulfilled prophecy are prophecies fulfilled in stages. A good example is the destruction of Tyre as recorded in Ezekiel 26:7-14. When God judged Tyre, it was started by Nebuchadnezzar, but wasn’t finished until Alexander the Great. Elijah’s prophecy against Naboth’s murder is another example (1 Kings 21:19). The full prophecy impacted Ahab and then his later son, Joram [Kaiser, 38, 39].
4) Understanding the proper application of biblical typology is also relevant with interpreting prophecy correctly. “Typological interpretation is specifically the interpretation of the OT based on the fundamental theological unity of the two testaments whereby something in the OT shadows, prefigures, adumbrates something in the NT” [Ramm, 223]. What is interpreted in the Old is not foreign or peculiar or hidden, but rises naturally out of the text due to the relationship of the two testaments.
Benard Ramm lists six important types seen in Scripture:
Persons – For example Adam = Christ
Institutions – The Levitical sacrifices = the Cross of Christ
Events – The wilderness wanderings (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Slavery in Egypt picturing Israel’s enslavement in exile (Deut. 28:68)
Actions – Lifting up the brazen serpent = Christ being lifted up in crucifixion
Things – Tabernacle = The presence of God with His people [Ramm, 231, 232; Weir, 68]
The danger with types, however, is reading into them much more than what the original author intended to convey. Also, hunting down types when none really exist. As much as I love A.W. Pink as an author, his writings are filled with discussions on types and anti-types when none really existed in the text. Honestly, some of those boards in the tabernacle were only meant to hold up the curtains. Bishop Marsh, in his book Lectures on the Criticism and Interpretation of the Bible wisely stated, “A type is a type only if the NT specifically so designates it to be such” [Ramm, 219].
Now, we will see how those principles work out as I move along through my series, and I hope to demonstrate how they provide a consistent connection between prophetic passages and eschatological theology.
Curtis Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow, (Footstool Publications: Memphis TN, 1985)
Walter Kaiser, Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Biblical Prophecy, (Baker Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1989)
Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics (3rd rev. ed.), (Baker Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1970)
O. Palmer Robertson, “Hermenuetics of Continuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, (Crossway Books: Westchester IL, 1988)
Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennium Debate, (Kress Christian Publications: The Woodlands TX, 2004)
Jack Weir, “Analogus Fulfillment: The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 9 (Spring 1982)