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Horatius Bonar, the Blessings and Curses, and Hermeneutics and Application

May 7, 2020 12 comments

It’s been ten years since I read Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks, and it’s time to revisit it, a good refresher, now that my overall doctrinal views in other areas – from the last several years of study – more closely align with the 19th century covenantal premillennialists.  (For reference, here are posts from 2010 on Horatius Bonar:  On Interpreting the Prophets  and On the Millennial Question.)

While reading through the Westminster Confession and catechisms (a calendar year reading), along with the scripture references, I noticed WLC question 28

Q 28. What are the punishments of sin in this world?

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward,
as blindness of mind,
a reprobate sense,
strong delusions,
hardness of heart,
horror of conscience,
and vile affections;
or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes,
and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments;
together with death itself.

The highlighted phrase in the answer, includes as scripture reference, a large section from Deuteronomy 28, verses 15-68 — which describes the prophecy regarding the nation of Israel in its apostasy.

Now, as I understand, the Westminster Divines added the ‘scripture proofs’ only upon request from the Parliament, and their intent was for people to focus not so much on the actual scripture proofs, but as a guide to their commentaries on the scripture references.  That would be the next step in a study here, to find and read their commentaries on this passage.  I understand the general application purpose—from apostate Israel and the temporal evils that befell them, to the general precept of what can happen, temporally, to unbelievers.  That unbelievers, along with the godly, suffer affliction in this life is clear from many places; Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot (which I’m currently reading), an exposition of Ecclesiastes 1:15, explains well the type of suffering experienced by everyone, and the purpose of that suffering in unbelievers, as contrasted with its purpose in the lives of God’s people.

Deuteronomy 28, though, includes very specific prophecies, regarding what would happen to the Jews in the centuries and millennia after Moses’s speech – specific things that were later experienced, including drought, defeated before enemies, property being given to the nation’s enemies, cannibalism, followed by being scattered throughout the world and even to the point that they would offer themselves as slaves to their enemies, but “there will be no buyer.”  If Deuteronomy 28 could be used as an application and a scripture reference for the temporal suffering experienced by unbelievers generally, then Deuteronomy 7:12-14 and 28:3-14 should equally apply in a general application sense to believers.   As both sets of passages apply to the same people group (in this case Israel, the Jewish church), I see that a general application could be made:  the one part, curses, applies to the unbelieving part of Israel (the visible members of the covenant community, who do not have the true inward saving faith), while the other part, the blessings, to the invisible church, those who actually are saved.  Yet the specifics of these passages, the primary meaning, has reference to the specific nation of Israel and its history, with specific, detailed curse events as well as detailed blessing events.

Horatius Bonar was writing in response to 19th century spiritualizing amillennialists, and provided a great lesson on plain-language literal hermeneutics and the treatment of prophecy in scripture, such as this chapter on Israel.  Regarding the idea of literal curses upon Israel (which were fulfilled, the curses mentioned in Deuteronomy 28) versus “spiritual” blessings in Christ, Bonar observed:

Up to this hour, then, everything respecting Israel has been literally accomplished. Nothing in what has hitherto occurred in their strange history gives the slightest countenance to the figurative interpretations for which some so strenuously contend. Why is Israel still an exile, an outcast, a wanderer, if there be no literal curse? Why is Jerusalem laid in heaps, and Mount Zion ploughed as a field (Jer. 26:18)? Why is the crown of Samaria broken, its ruins rolled down into the valley, and its vines all withered from the mountain side (Jer. 31:5; Mic. 1:6)? Why is Lebanon hewn down, the oaks of Bashan withered, the roses of Sharon gone? Why do the fields of Heshbon languish? Why is the vine of Sibmah uprooted, the summer fruits of Elealeh faded, and why is Carmel bare? Why is baldness come upon Gaza, and why is Ashkelon cut off? Why is Ammon a couching-place for flocks, and the palaces of Bozrah swept away? Why is Moab fled, Idumea become a wilderness, and Mount Seir laid desolate? Why is all this, if there be no literal curse? And why, if there has been such a literal curse, is the literal blessing to be denied?

It is foolish to answer, as many do, “The spiritual blessing is far richer; why contend about blessings of meaner value?” Why? Because we believe that God has revealed them; because we believe that as God has been dishonored by Israel’s being an outcast from the land of promise, so He will be honored by their peaceful settlement again; because as we know He was glorified in leading up Israel, His firstborn, out of Egypt, from the tyranny of Pharaoh, through the wilderness into Canaan, so we believe He designs to glorify Himself by a second exodus, and a second establishment in the land given to Abraham and his seed; because as He magnified His name and power in the sight of the heathen by bringing His people out from Babylon after seventy years’ captivity, so we believe He will magnify that name again by leading them out of Babylon the Great, and planting them in their ancient possessions to inherit them forever; never to be disturbed by the enemy; never to hear the voice of war again.

Among the general principles that Bonar sets forth for the literal interpretation of prophecies regarding Israel, is this one:

When their scattering and their gathering are placed together, and when we are told, that as they have been scattered, so they shall be gathered. Very striking and explicit are the prophecies to this effect in Deuteronomy, where the plainness of the style precludes the idea of figures. How, for instance, could the most ingenious spiritualizer contrive to explain away such a passage as this,—“If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will he fetch thee; and the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers” (Deut. 30:4)

Horatius Bonar’s Prophetical Landmarks is still good reading, with Bonar’s rich prose style and use of scripture, and its explanation of solid hermeneutical principles.

Christian Theology and Classics: Augustine, William Perkins, and Millennial Views

February 13, 2018 3 comments

In the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, my recent reading has included writings from the 4th and the 16th centuries:  Augustine’s Confessions as a book about the early church, and Volume 1 of the Works of William Perkins, as a book by a Puritan.

Both of these were featured in Puritan Reformed Seminary’s 2017 conference:  Carl Trueman’s talk about Augustine’s Confessions  and Joel Beeke’s summary of William Perkins.  Augustine’s Confessions was an interesting read, my first such reading of early church writings, and I noted the parts mentioned by Trueman:  Augustine as a youth stealing figs from a fig tree; and a much later event that happened to one of Augustine’s friends (who resolved to never go to the gladiatorial games, was taken there by force by his friends; he kept his eyes closed, determined not to look; but the sounds aroused his curiosity so that he looked –and was then ensnared again in the games).  Trueman had noted here, the power of the visual image.  Other interesting parts included references to the other Christian leaders of the time including Ambrose of Milan and his role in Augustine’s later conversion, as well as descriptions about worship services including the singing of hymns.

As others who have read Augustine’s Confessions have noted, the last few chapters are strange, getting into Augustine’s Platonic philosophy, with a lot of repetitive thought as Augustine considered the meaning of time, memory and forgetfulness.  In this tedious reading, I also observed that the Librivox volunteer readers must have had similar difficulty; the majority of the recording, through Augustine’s conversion, was read by one or two authors. Then, for each ‘track’ section of the last few (weird) chapters, it was a different reader for each segment.

William Perkins

Volume one of Perkins is over 800 pages and three treatises. I read a little of the first treatise, all of the second one, and about a third of the last and very lengthy treatise (the Sermon on the Mount).  The first treatise was about biblical chronology and dating of early Bible events; after a while it was too detailed and tedious.  Here I first learned the idea that the Israelite stay in Egypt may have been only 215 years instead of 430 years—the 430 years starting from the time of Abraham instead of the actual time in Egypt.  I have always thought that the stay was 400 years in Egypt, from the narrative reading and my old NIV Study Bible dates.  From checking online articles, though, apparently this is an area of differing views, and some do take the 215 years view regarding the Egypt stay.  At this point, the 430 years in Egypt seems more reasonable to me, given the large population at the time of the Exodus and allowing for gaps in the genealogies, which occurs often even in later Old Testament genealogies.  For further reading and study on this, are these two articles:

The second treatise was of a manageable length and more interesting:  Perkins’ exposition of Matthew 4:1-11 and the parallel account in Luke, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Good points brought out here include Perkins’ look at the scientific understanding of the human ability to live without food and water, that the human body has a limit of about 14 days­.  This event was supernatural, and necessary for Christ to experience, in similar fashion to the previous 40 days and 40 nights fastings of both Moses and Elijah.  Perkins adds, to any who might reason that ‘why did Christ not do double the length of time, 80 days?’, that Christ also must be shown to be human, and a fast of 80 days would have us question His humanity.  Another of Perkins’ ideas, though, seemed rather strange (again, the first time to hear this idea, for me):  the temptation of Jesus standing on the top of the temple in Jerusalem, was accomplished by Satan’s moving Christ’s body, slowly through the air, from the desert to the actual temple location.  Here again Perkins considers the known natural laws, and reasons that a human body could not physically withstand such flight movement through the air at very high speeds, but that Satan certainly could physically carry Christ a short distance at a slow speed.  I haven’t read other commentaries on this matter, but have always thought of this temptation as done in a vision, not actually there; if Christ were actually there, surely there would have been other people around to notice a man standing up on the top of the temple structure.   But Perkins reasoned that a temptation by vision would not be a real temptation.

The third work in volume one is a detailed exposition, with many excurses, of the Sermon on the Mount.  The reading is straightforward enough to follow, and similar in style to the later Puritans (who held Perkins in great esteem and were greatly influenced by him), with the outline format of different observations and ‘uses’ for application – as noted by J.I. Packer in his summary lecture series on the Puritans .  Throughout the reading, though, at several points I was turned-off by one particular aspect of Perkins’ views: his anti-millennial interpretations.  This comes out in such places as his exposition of Matt. 5:5 (the meek shall inherit the earth), in which he cites four ways in which the meek are said to inherit the earth.  The last two of these, Perkins considered as the primary ones:  3) inheritance in Christ in which ‘all things are yours, whether it be Paul or Cephas, or the world, things present or things to come’ (1 Cor. 3:21-22) and 4) that the meek will be made kings and ‘rule and reign’ (Rev. 5).  Before that, however, he considers that “if it fall out that meek persons die in want or banishment, yet God gives them contentation, which is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth.”  As a premillennialist (and here I recall Spurgeon’s strong words about this text) such an idea misses the mark:  to say that a poor person being contented with what God gives him or her in this life “is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth” is to seriously underrate and misrepresent the wonderful future promise of really inheriting the earth.  Elsewhere in the exposition, Isaiah texts about the millennial era are applied to what we have spiritually here and now.  At a point about various views regarding our neighbors and revenge, Perkins writes:  “Now the devil perceiving this to be their [the Jews’] natural disposition, makes God’s doctrine of salvation seem to them a doctrine of earthly benefits, for he caused them to dream of an earthly king for their Messiah, and of an earthly flourishing kingdom under him.”  Such statements reveal the standard European anti-Semitism along with an apparent hatred of the premillennial doctrine itself, implied in the idea that an earthly kingdom is somehow evil, carnal and unspiritual.  Premillennialists recognize the both/and of a future literal, earthly kingdom that is also spiritual in character, and that both physical and spiritual can co-exist, as in us believers today; and that the Old Testament did promise a future literal, earthly kingdom. The Jews had the basic idea correct; their error was in failing to recognize the two-stage purpose of God, the cross and then the crown, what is described in 1 Peter 1:10-11: the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

The criticisms aside, both works — Augustine and William Perkins — are good for overall reading of classic and Reformation-era thought, as both provide interesting ideas and points for further thought.  They both serve the purpose of reading “the classics” of Christian theological works, and variety in reading, to go beyond the comparatively shallow and superficial nature of many modern-day books.

Israel and the Church (Book): The Covenantal View And Responses

March 26, 2015 3 comments

Following up on this previous post, my summary thoughts on the presentation of – and responses to – the first view, of (paedobaptist type) Covenant Theology.

I found this essay disappointing in several ways, most notably in its presentation of only one particular variation of CT (of which there are a few other variations) and its interaction with a non-standard version of dispensationalism.

As previously noted, this book omits the Baptist CT view. However, the CT view presented here is more specifically the paedobaptist, amillennial with no future for Israel (Romans 11 refers only to the salvation of Jews during this age) variety. This may be the most common view today (since most who hold to CT are paedo and amill), but more knowledgeable readers are aware of the variations within each of the systems, including the views held earlier in Reformed history. Yet this essay gives no indication of other variations, instead presenting just the one view and grouping together unrelated issues including even arguments against premillennialism itself (which is really a separate topic unrelated to the question of Israel and the Church).  Indeed, given that separate essays are provided for the three other views, all of which have a common starting point and certain things in common, I suggest that this book would have been better done as “Six Views,” with three “Covenant Theology” views: Paedobaptist CT, Baptist CT, and Covenantal Premill (its features unrelated to whether infant or believer’s baptism).

The CT essay further hinders its case – in terms of acceptance by those from a dispensational background – by addressing only a non-standard view of dispensationalism: the John Hagee view that current-day Israel is the fulfillment of OT biblical prophecy. Several paragraphs “refute” Hagee’s idea with the “answer” that those OT prophecies were fulfilled in the post-exilic period. The mention of Hagee, and no mention of or interaction with other notable dispensational teachers (as for instance John MacArthur), is a likely turn-off to the majority of dispensationalists, who do not agree with Hagee’s dispensationalism to begin with.

Responses to the CT essay

I find Robert Saucy’s response (Progressive Dispensational) the best written, both in its explanation of what PD believes and in addressing the CT essay misrepresentations. His scriptural references related to the future for ethnic Israel and basic premillennialism are explained well, and without reference to a “system” with “standard responses” – as contrasted with the Classic Disp response, which includes many such “standard response” statements, of “events” that “will transpire after the rapture of the church.”

Of interest, Saucy has no problem with the actual construction of the theological covenants of CT in and of themselves —  and further identifies the problem with the current-day paedo-construct of CT: the problem comes up when these theological covenants, which are essentially timeless—they apply to all human history—are made to level out all of the history of salvation. Though not dealt with in more detail, as I understand this is indeed the current-day paedo-CT approach, going beyond even what is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (which references only the Old, Mosaic covenant): that all of the biblical covenants of the Old Testament are administrations of the covenant of grace, thus flattening all of Old Testament history to put undue emphasis only on soteriology. I do not agree with all of Saucy’s views, including what is implied in his statements about what OT saints did or did not understand, but his response-essay is excellent in its explanations regarding several topics of what PD believes, including the future restoration of Israel, premillenialism itself, and the PD understanding of Israel and the Church with emphasis on their functions (instead of strict and exclusive reference to salvation of both groups) within God’s purposes.

The “Progressive Covenantal” (New Covenant Theology) response was the least helpful, as it mainly focused on the issue of infant baptism, providing scriptural reasons in support of believers’ baptism and rejecting CT for its “genealogical principle,” a topic that the CT essay only briefly mentioned.  This response does briefly state its position regarding the church as neither a replacement nor the continuation of Israel “but as something unique, which requires that we think of ethnic Israel as distinct from the church,” an idea undoubtedly developed more fully in their own essay later in the book.  Still, with the main focus on refuting infant baptism, this group continues a pattern I have observed (as have others): a persistent unwillingness to engage the Baptist Covenant Theology view, an incorrect idea that CT is synonymous with paedobaptism (and thus CT does not exist apart from infant baptism), refusing to acknowledge that CT also exists in the credo-baptist form yet with the same basic ideas regarding the one people of God and continuance of the moral law.

Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views (New Book Available)

March 19, 2015 6 comments

4viewsbookA new book on an interesting topic, which I recently purchased for my Kindle:  Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views

The four views dealt with in this book: traditional (paedobaptist) Covenant Theology, classic dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, and a type of “New Covenant Theology” variation, the “Progressive Covenantal” view. The book consists of four essays, one from the proponent of each of the views, along with three responses to each essay, one from each of the other three scholars. The scholars are not all that well-known, though Robert Saucy for the progressive dispensational view is a well-known name.

So far I have only read through the introduction and part of the first chapter; more posts to follow concerning any interesting points in the later reading.

It would have been nice to see the Baptist Covenant Theology view included: a traditional covenantal view that does not include the “genealogical principle” often mentioned in this book. As usual, the dispensational and NCT views here only interact with the paedo-baptist type of CT, with valid points in response to the covenant-child / infant baptism theology – yet ignoring the just as well-developed Baptist covenant theology. Other sources must supply the answer to that question (Israel and the Church) for CT baptists, such as the writings of Charles Spurgeon for one view, or Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology”  (which does briefly present an amillennial replacement idea, the Baptist CT “system” that rejects the literal fulfillment of the land promises).

Aside from the noted shortcoming, the book so far appears to be a good resource for general overview of this question: how do each of these “four views” think of Israel and the church and their relationship to each other?

Hermeneutics and Presuppositions: The 144,000 In Revelation

June 20, 2013 15 comments

A popular Reformed preacher has recently taught through Revelation (an amillennial view), and several of his fans have shared  excerpts from his teaching, agreeing with and saying how great his teaching is.  Looking at the specific “points” made by this preacher, though, I am reminded of S. Lewis Johnson’s observations nearly twenty years ago, that in our day so few people really know their Bibles and are thus more easily led astray.

Now for a look at one excerpt, what has been said with reference to the 144,000 in Revelation 7 (and Revelation 14):

If the 144,000 spoken of in Revelation is an actual number then, we have a problem, because the Bible says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, rather the 144,000 is a symbolic number of ALL the Elect (saved and sealed by Jesus Christ) of both Jews and Gentiles and are found spotless in the Lamb Jesus Christ His Perfect Bride….if we take the 144,000 literally then one must conclude that there are actually 144,000 who are virgins, and as the text says they are blameless, which is a serious problem because we have all sinned.

Right away several problems can be noted in these two statements.  First is the “root problem” presupposition, that the description of 144,00 in Revelation 7 must be about soteriology and specifically saying something concerning the doctrine of election.  But let the text speak for itself, and Revelation 7 reads as a (future) narrative event, describing the calling of a specific group of saved individuals, during a future event.  (Thus it belongs in the category of eschatology, the doctrine of last things — not soteriology.)  Nothing in the Revelation 7 and 14 texts says: a) that these 144,000 are the only people ever saved; b) that these 144,000 are the only Elect; or even c) that they are supposed to be representative of the elect.

The passage itself, in Revelation 7:13-14, explains the meaning of this scene (the 144,000 followed by the multitude):    Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.

Revelation 7 and 14 are describing narrative events that occur during the Great Tribulation, a particular time period (yet future to our day) often described by the prophets in the Old Testament by several terms: the time of Jacob’s Trouble (Jeremiah 30:7), the Day of the Lord, Daniel’s 70th week, the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24; also reference Deuteronomy 4:30).  Here we note also that Revelation is a book that relies heavily on Old Testament understanding, with many, many allusions to Old Testament texts.  So we look at all of scripture and what it has to say concerning a certain future time period (and there are many such texts especially in the Old Testament but also references to it in the New Testament), and see that Revelation is also describing this future time period.  Revelation is a narrative text that sometimes uses symbolic language, not a book explaining soteriology through the use of symbols.

Now to the second statement:  “if we take the 144,000 literally then one must conclude that there are actually 144,000 who are virgins, and as the text says they are blameless, which is a serious problem because we have all sinned.”  In the first place, what is so difficult to understand about the idea that 144,000 individuals are virgins?  Even in Jesus’ day there were eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), some of whom had made themselves so “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

But moving on to the next phrase:  the text says they are blameless, which is a serious problem because we have all sinned. Here again familiarity with the Bible and its usage of the term “blameless” must be considered.  A brief search through an online Bible reveals that the following individuals (all humans, who sinned) were described as “blameless”:

Clearly the Bible uses the term “blameless” in a different way than supposed by the teacher who thought of “blameless” as meaning sinless perfection.  Yet the Bible consistently uses the term blameless as meaning something else: our conduct and righteous living as redeemed sinners, the elect of God.  Other passages attest that God looks for and supports “those whose heart is blameless toward Him.” (2 Chron. 16:9).  Several of the Psalms speak of the righteous one, the saved sinner, as blameless, indicating that – even though indeed all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – God does look upon His saints as blameless; see, for instance, Psalm 15:2; Psalm 19:13; Psalm 37:18,37. Psalms 101 and 119 consider the “way that is blameless” and those whose way is blameless.”  This pattern continues in the New Testament, where again we are exhorted to righteous living and conduct, to be blameless.  The apostles were blameless in their conduct toward the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:10), and one of the tests for deacons in the church is that they be blameless (1 Timothy 3:10).

How appropriate S. Lewis Johnson’s statement (from his 1 Corinthians series) regarding the state of the church today, as seen in so many examples such as this one:

In evangelicalism, it’s much easier today for evangelicals to be led astray by false doctrine.  I personally believe that the reason is that evangelicals are not reading the Bible much these days.  They are not really studying the Bible much.  Sometimes they are reading books about the Bible, but a lot of times they are just attending evangelical services.  And therefore they are not themselves involved in the study of the Scriptures and pondering the words that are found in the Scriptures.

Hermeneutics: On Being “More Spiritual Than God”

January 21, 2013 9 comments

Recently in the comments at Fred Butler’s blog, an amillennialist expressed many thoughts including this one:

if the passages that speak of Israel in a kingdom in which they dwell in a land in which everyone “sits under a fig tree” for example is the real meaning of the Bible then I see that as a problem. If bearing fruit that glorifies Christ is reduced to having a fruit garden then I have missed the gist of the Bible. Far better for such passages to be illustrating the fruitful spiritual kingdom of the Spirit filled age in which through Christ we have been enabled to bear real fruit then to see the culmination of the ages as living over in Palestine.

The phrase referenced here is found in Micah 4:4, with a similar thought in Zechariah 3:10.  The first thing to note here, of course, is that we already have many scriptures that talk about our bearing spiritual fruit for God, as for instance Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 5, Colossians 1, and Philippians 1:10-11.

The Old Testament as well addresses this subject, especially in the book of Proverbs (in numerous places in that book alone), but even in places such as 2 Kings 19:30.  So the suggestion that a literal interpretation of Micah 4:4 and related Old Testament passages requires that “bearing fruit that glorifies Christ is reduced to having a fruit garden” is foolish.  Of course we recognize the truth revealed in the scripture, all of the scriptures including the importance and greatness of bearing spiritual fruit that glorifies Christ. A literal interpretation of “sits under a fig tree” in NO WAY takes away from that truth, but gives us additional revelation about another topic (since spiritual fruit-bearing has already been addressed in numerous other scriptures).  Our hermeneutics are not driven by an either/or but a Both/And — both the bearing fruit that glorifies Christ, and Israel having their kingdom and literal peace.  A further question to ask would be: what is the purpose of even having those Old Testament prophecies with descriptions about a wonderful time of peace, if all they have to tell us is the same thing we’ve already been told, in unmistakably clear language in many texts elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments?

Such a comment reminds me of Dan Phillips’ classic post (25 Stupid Reasons for Dissing Dispensationalism), reason #9: “It isn’t a spiritual hermeneutic.”  When God said Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), He knew it meant “house of bread” — but He meant the city anyway.  

Dan gives an example of what a spiritualizing hermeneutic would have done to the prophecies regarding Christ’s First Coming – and indeed we have the advantage of looking back, that we realize that all of the prophecies concerning Christ’s First Coming were fulfilled literally. (So why should anyone think that the prophecies of the Second Coming will NOT be fulfilled literally?) Christ really was born in Bethlehem, and He really did ride on a donkey, etc.  But to take the same symbolic hermeneutic applied to the Second Coming prophecies, to the First Coming prophecies, would come up with something like Dan well described: “What God is really saying would have been perfectly clear to the Jews. It was symbolic. Messiah would come from ‘the house for bread,’ from the storehouse of God’s spiritual nourishment, and He would give life, as bread does. Those wooden literalists who look for fulfillment in an actual city are perverting the Word to their carnal imaginations.’”

Why does God’s word include so many passages that seem to us very “unspiritual” (and even boring), such as the many sections in the Old Testament (and a few in the gospels) with nothing but genealogies and lists of names?  Could it be that God is actually interested in us human beings, even in our “carnal” lives, and He thinks these things are important and part of His revealed word to us?  Of course the Bible does not include only that which is strictly “spiritual” and non-physical, and we are not to twist the literal meaning of God’s word simply because we think a certain passage is too “carnal” and ordinary, insisting that that passage must have some greater, deeper, “spiritual” meaning instead.  Trying to be more spiritual than God is indeed a foolish thing to do.

Premillennialism Found Wherever Christianity Is First Introduced

January 17, 2013 14 comments

Non-premillennialists’ protests to the contrary, the historical record of Christianity is quite clear, that for the first 300+ years the Christian church was premillennial — and no other views were held during that time.  Yet even this week, in the comments at Sam Storms’ post at the Gospel Coalition, someone claimed that all three views (amillennial, postmill, and historic premill) were around in those years. In another online discussion a few weeks ago, people claimed that both the non-literal allegorizing hermeneutic and actual amillennialism were around before Augustine — that Augustine merely “systematized” amillennialism.

To set the record straight, a few quotes regarding the early Christian church:

John Walvoord, on a study through the early history of eschatology:

The importance of Augustine to the history of amillennialism is derived from two reasons. First, there are no acceptable exponents of amillennialism before Augustine, as has been previously discussed. Prior to Augustine, amillennialism was associated with the heresies produced by the allegorizing and spiritualizing school of theology at Alexandria which not only opposed premillennialism but subverted any literal exegesis of Scripture whatever. Few modern theologians even of liberal schools of thought would care to build upon the theology of such men as Clement of Alexandria, Origen or Dionysius. Augustine is, then, the first theologian of solid influence who adopted amillennialism.

From Mal Couch’s History of Allegory:

Origen’s allegorical interpretations, including his views on Bible prophecy, gained wide acceptance in the church of his day. His influence, followed by Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and Augustine’s teaching in the fourth century, are usually cited as the principal causes of premillennialism’s eventual replacement by amillennial eschatology.

The allegorical hermeneutic developed before Augustine, and amillennialism from allegorical hermeneutic? Yes.  Actual amillennialism before Augustine? No.

Augustine did not merely systematize something already in existence.  He continued the allegorical approach to scripture, started by questionable men, and applied that approach to eschatology, bringing about the amillennialism (in his “City of God”), making such an allegorical hermeneutic “acceptable” in the early stages of what became the Roman Catholic Church.

Even aside from the original church history in Rome, though, we can look at the pattern of early Christianity in any society where it is first introduced.  Here, we find that in parts of the world that were unreached by the later Roman Empire and Roman Catholicism, countries in which the Christian message was only recently received, the young believers in these countries — with no outside influence, only their Bibles to guide them in their understanding of biblical doctrine — are premillennial.

John MacArthur has mentioned this in reference to recent Russian believers. Jesse Johnson also recently noted this, in reference to the mission work being done in a closed country in the Himalayas:

Nevertheless, this nation’s believers have been protected from much of what has damaged evangelicalism in the West. There are no Catholics in the country (that we know of), and the charismatic movement is only beginning to creep in. All of the believers are baptistic, premillennial, and evangelical—and they arrived at those positions without any real influence other than the Scriptures.

If the other millennial views are really viable, and really valid interpretations of God’s word, then surely the young believers in these other countries — unaffected by our Judeo-Christian Western European heritage — would have reached those same conclusions. If the non-literal, allegorical understanding of amillennialism or postmillennialism were that obvious in the reading of the scriptures, why do believers in these other countries fail to see it?

Who is Sovereign in the Spread of the Gospel? The Amillennial Binding of Satan

October 19, 2012 4 comments

I’ve previously posted here and here concerning the Amillennial idea of Satan being bound now.  Michael Vlach’s article, Is Satan Bound?, is another great resource.  In this post, though, I’m looking at one particular feature of the Amillennial binding of Satan.   In answer to the very obvious fact that this world still abounds in evil, and the New Testament scriptures mention Satan as an active lion and someone to be on our guard against, a common amillennial claim is an altered meaning of Revelation 20:1-3:  that Satan is only bound now in one sense, that the gospel is not hindered and can be freely spread about throughout the world.  A friend’s amillennial pastor recently affirmed this amillennial explanation of the binding of Satan, adding that “If Satan’s power hadn’t been restricted (at the time of the cross), no one could have been saved after the cross.”

Aside from the fact that the binding described in Revelation 20 is quite forceful, nothing so limited as this idea, such an explanation poses some serious problems, including the very obvious fact that some parts of the world are very much still in Satanic bondage, places of rampant paganism, spiritual oppression, even Islamic dominance; the gospel has been hindered and not received in certain places and times throughout church history.

But going further to the heart of the matter:  the book of Acts directly tells us who it is that allows and prevents the spread of the gospel.  Acts 16:6-7 describes Paul’s attempts to go east into Bithynia and Asia.  First they went through Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia;” and then they went to Mysia and “attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  Does this really sound anything like a present-day binding of Satan such that Satan is really the sovereign one who determines where the gospel can and cannot go?  As hard as it may be for some to accept, it really is God who sovereignly determines —  just as He does with the election of individuals — which nations and peoples get to hear the gospel at any given point in time, in this the Church age.

Then too, if Satan was only bound at the cross, thus no longer preventing the spread of the gospel, and “if Satan’s power hadn’t been restricted, no one could have been saved after the cross” is true, then how indeed were people saved before that point in time?  As Jonah proclaimed over 700 years before the cross, Salvation is of the Lord.  Salvation has always been sovereignly determined by God, who hardens who He will (such as Pharaoh) and saves who He will, in His sovereign purposes. The biblical record shows this was always the case, along with the fact that many non-Israelites were saved before the first century AD.

The Old Testament has numerous accounts of Gentile individuals who were God’s people: to begin with, the people who lived before there even was a nation of Israel:  Adam and Eve; Abel; Enoch; Noah and the other seven people with him in the ark; Job; not to mention the patriarchs (from whom the nation later came).  During the Mosaic period, certainly the other nations were left to themselves while God focused His attention on the nation Israel, and yet even during those centuries we find several references to individuals saved (through coming into contact with Israel).

Then we consider the historical record, the beginning of the times of the Gentiles and the years between the Old and New Testament, still the pre-Cross time (before circa A.D. 30).  Daniel in particular, and other Jews no doubt to some extent as well, had great influence among their neighboring Gentiles, such that a few centuries later we find the maji from the East looking for the Messiah at His birth in Bethlehem – men who evidently had some knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and were actually more aware of the time and looking for Him, than did the Jews whom they questioned for further information.  Jewish synagogues had been established throughout the Greek/Roman empire, with many of them still living outside of Israel, and we also see historical indications of Jewish proselytization among those Gentiles: certainly not on the same scale as what took place later in the book of Acts, but there were at least some God fearers and converts to Judaism during this pre-Cross time.  John 12 describes the coming of some Greeks to see Jesus; this was still before the event of the crucifixion and resurrection and Satan’s supposed “binding.”

The gospel went forth with greater results (than previously seen) in the early years of the Church, as recorded in the book of Acts.  Yet even during Paul’s missionary journeys, Satan continued to obstruct and hinder, such that Paul even said that “Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18).  Even during that great early growth of the church, the same general pattern was observed as from ancient times: saving faith in a relative few within the overall population of each setting, while the majority did not respond.  The same God was sovereign over where He allowed the gospel to spread or not spread (again, as Acts 16:6-7 explicitly tells us), just as before the cross.  The spreading of the gospel message is not something that Satan has sovereignty over.

Premillenialism: Not A One-Text Revelation 20 Doctrine

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

A common claim of amillennialists is that the millennial kingdom is only mentioned in one passage, and a highly symbolic one at that—therefore we can disregard it.  In my early years in a Reformed church (when I knew nothing about any kind of millennialism) I specifically heard that claim from the teachers there.  At a friend’s church, the amillennial pastor apparently reasons thus in his rejection of premillennialism, even as he claimed that “many premillennial people” now admit that Revelation is not sequential—a claim neither I nor any of my premillennial friends is aware of; I don’t know where he got that idea—as though the idea of Revelation being non-sequential disproves premillennialism. George Ladd, mentioned in this recent post, was a one-text premillennialist.  His approach was similar to amillennialism, interpreting and spiritualizing the Old Testament prophecies as about the church; yet he felt compelled to acknowledge the literal meaning of Revelation 20.

But those who are honest (and more familiar with the word of God) recognize that the idea of a future kingdom of God upon the Earth is taught throughout the Old Testament.  Revelation 20 is the only passage to tell us the length of that kingdom, but many other passages convey the fact of that kingdom.  Even noted amillennialists and postmillennialists have admitted as much, as for instance in these quotes from Floyd Hamilton, O.T. Allis, and Loraine Boettner:

Hamilton:  “Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an early reign of the Messiah as the pre-millennists pictures. That was the kind of Messianic kingdom that the Jews of the time of Christ were looking for, on the basis of a literal interpretation of the Old Testament promises.”

Allis: the Old Testament prophecies if literally interpreted cannot be regarded as having been yet fulfilled or as being capable of fulfillment in this present age.

 Boettner:  “It’s generally agreed that if the prophesies are to be taken literally they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel with Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in the kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”

A quick perusal of the Old Testament brings to mind many passages (including, though not an exhaustive list, Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 60; Isaiah 65; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Ezekiel 37:21-27; Ezekiel 40-48; Daniel 2:44; Micah 4:1-8; Haggai 2:6-9; Zechariah 14; plus many of the Psalms) which describe the Lord God ruling over the people, reigning from Jerusalem, the nations coming to worship and bringing their treasures to Jerusalem, and Israel having a prominent position.  Old Testament passages describe conditions that do not exist in this age – a renewed Earth which is characterized by unusual life spans only previously found in the antediluvian age, animals at peace (the Edenic curse reversed), and yet people who still sin and thus are in need of government, including the rod of iron mentioned in Psalm 2; “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4).

The New Testament also references such a kingdom, as for example in Luke 1:31-33, Acts 3:19-21, and Matthew 25:31-46.  Matthew 19:28 and 2 Timothy 2:12 mention the apostles and the saints sharing in that reign with the Lord.

S. Lewis Johnson often summed up the truth of the matter, as for instance in this lesson:

the doctrine of the kingdom of God upon the earth does not depend upon one text of Scripture.  The length of the kingdom as one thousand years does depend upon that statement made in Revelation chapter 20.  But I also commented upon the fact that there were six references to the term “one thousand years” in that one chapter.  So it is not fair, not correct to say, that there is only one mention of the length of the time of the kingdom.  And it is gross ignorance to claim that the doctrine of the kingdom of God upon the earth depends upon one passage, Revelation chapter 20.  That passage has to do with the length of the kingdom, but it’s not the only passage that has to do with the fact of the kingdom.  There are many passages throughout the Old Testament that let us know that there is going to be a kingdom of God upon the earth… the idea of a kingdom of God upon the earth is taught from the book of Genesis all the way through the Old Testament, and then is picked up by our Lord in the New Testament.

And finally, from Charles Feinberg in his Millennialism:

“To claim that the ‘strongest’ objection to millennialism is that it is found in a single passage of Scripture is incredible. How many passages of Scripture are required before a doctrine can claim biblical ground? What Ladd, and all amillennialists, try to say is that the duration of the Millennium is stated in one passage. What of the crucial passage in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26, which demolishes completely their contention? Would they say Armageddon is found only in Revelation 16:12-16, because it is the only place where the war is named? Then what of Revelation 19:17-19?”

The Hermeneutical Connection Between Creation and Eschatology

January 18, 2012 3 comments

As I’ve shared before, my first understanding of millennialism, Israel and prophecy was at a Reformed church that promotes preterism, amillennialism and Church Replacement Theology. Before that I had only experienced mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian) that really didn’t say anything either way about these subjects, only teaching of the basic gospel message. The way I came to consider and learn about premillennialism and Calvinist-Dispensationalism was directly because of the local pastor’s anti-young-earth creation (Progressive Creation) view, a subject for which I understood the plain sense of language and the literal grammatical historical hermeneutic (even if I didn’t know that particular term at the time).

How ironic it is, then, to find a few modern-day professed believers who hold to dispensationalism and yet insist on an Old Earth view, specifically the Gap Theory.  Such is clearly a case of inconsistent hermeneutics, and demonstrates the same reasoning as those who hold to other ideas such as amillennialism, preterism, etc.:  abondoning the literal grammatical historical hermeneutic, along with the appeal to human authority, the otherwise respectable preachers who held to the Gap Theory.

Granted, the Gap Theory is less of a compromise than other ideas that came up later, such as Theistic Evolution and Progressive Creation.  As the first of the compromise ideas that developed in the 19th century, it makes more of an attempt to hold to true scripture, not directly saying that the six days of creation are really symbolic of indefinite, vast ages of time.  Instead it says a “gap” occurred between verses one and two, during which untold millions of years of events occurred.

Still it is a compromise, one of those ideas not thought of until relatively recent times when secular scientists said the earth was extremely old.  Spurgeon, too, at least in his earlier years, accepted what the scientists said and didn’t give the matter much thought.  When it comes to consistent application of hermeneutics, though, one might as well be trying to defend Covenant Theology, preterism, and amillennialism as defending the Gap Theory.

Some creationists at least understand the hermeneutical connection, as for instance the founders of ICR, the Institute for Creation Research.  Consider this excerpt from Ronald L. Numbers’ “The Creationists” (available through Google books):

[M]ost flood geologists (in America at least) came from churches awaiting Christ’s soon return to earth. And for Christians expecting the imminent end of the present age –whether premillenial Baptists and Adventists or amillenial Lutherans and Church of Christ members –Whitcomb and Morris offered a compelling view of earth history framed by symmetrical catastrophic events and connected by a common hermeneutic. “If you take Genesis literally,” reasoned Morris, “you’re more inclined to take Revelation literally.” Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists, p. 339

Ironically, Answers in Genesis does not see this hermeneutical link, in their emphasis on the physical evidence for creation, as in this audio clip (1 1/2 minutes) from Ken Ham in which he makes it clear that he sees eschatology as something different than the issue of creation: because, he says, we also have the scientific physical evidence for creation, and the creation compromises came about from people responding to external ideas about evolution and old-earth. Whereas, he claims, schatology is only dealing with the words of scripture themselves, apart from any external ideas.

How wrong he is on that point, actually, and it’s likely that he is unaware of the extrabiblical (Greek philosophical) influences that brought about the ideas of non-premillennial eschatology.  Both old-earthers and amillennialists approach scripture through their extra-biblical presuppositions and human authority. Old-earthers appeal to the secular scientists’ claim to vast amounts of time (an extra-biblical presupposition) as well as to the 19th and early 20th century preachers who held to old-earth ideas (human authority).  Non-premillennialists likewise appeal to the secular presupposition of Greek philosophy and allegory (see this paper for instance), the Greek view of physical material as evil and non-physical spiritual as good; and then they appeal to the human authority of Augustine who invented amillennialism in the early 5th century.

In closing, S. Lewis Johnson’s first message in his Genesis series contains his analysis of the Gap Theory and what verses are said to support it.  As one who originally held to the Gap Theory, because he was taught it by his mentor Donald Grey Barnhouse, he well explains the appeal of the Gap Theory.  He then goes on to point out the biblical problems with it, including Exodus 20:9-11.  A brief excerpt (read the transcript for his much longer commentary on the matter):

And so they tend to say well, you can put all of that between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 and you have no problem.  But really you do have a problem.  In the first place, because geologists don’t accept the guess or cataclysmic theory, they are generally evolutionary uniformitarians, and so therefore you cannot have any ultimate harmonization with them.  In addition you have theological problems because by accepting the geological aid system the Bible scholar is thereby accepting the Bible record, which identifies these ages.  Fossils are dead things.  They speak clearly of a world in which suffering and disease and death often violent and widespread death were universal realities.  They speak of a world much like our own, a world containing sharks and jellyfish, dragonflies, cockroaches, turtles, crocodiles, beavers as someone has put it — further dinosaurs and other animals that are now extinct.

But Peter says the world that then was, perished.  If that world existed prior to this pre-Adamic cataclysm, then it existed before the sin of Satan, which brought on the cataclysm.  That is, suffering and death existed for half a billion years before the sin of Satan and the subsequent sin of Adam.  How can you explain such deaths?  Do you not see that you have theological problems with that theory too?  So, I’m persuaded in spite of the fact that, I confess, I used to be persuaded by that theory — that we are rather to read Genesis as a straightforward account of the creation in six days.