Sunday, March 2, 2008

Reformed Chiliasm (Part 2)

Despite the fact that Christians of various sects and persuasions have allegorized the prophetic Scriptures, it has become apparent to many that we must, in order to understand the Bible, maintain the meaning of language, according to standard laws which will govern our exegesis.  This is nothing more nor less than the science of interpretation. If we learn one thing from a survey of ecclesiastical history, it is the facility with which false teachers have in all ages promulgated their heresies through an allegorical reading of Scripture.  While there is much talk nowadays concerning the uses or inconveniences of a "grammatico-historical" interpretive approach, it is seldom perceived that the true hermeneutic is in fact "grammatical, historical, contextual, and canonical." 

Understanding all too well the need to return to a plain, untainted reading of God's word, the Protestant Reformers rightly repudiated an allegorical hermeneutic.  Martin Luther once declared: "I have grounded my preaching upon the literal Word.  He that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay" (Luther's Table-Talk, pg. 6).  So also: "The literal sense of Scripture alone is the whole essence of faith and of Christian theology... allegories are empty speculations... an interpreter must as much as possible avoid allegory that he may not wander into idle dreams... to allegorize is to juggle with Scripture... If we wish to handle Scripture aright, our effort will be to attain unum, simplicem, germanum, et certum sensum literalem" (Encycopedia Americana, 1918 edition, Vol. 10, pg. 632).  Hence it is with the keenest pleasure that those who hold to the "one faith" of the "one body" (Eph. 4: 3-4) attest to the fact that an allegorical heremeneutic is rarely accepted among Christians professing sound orthodoxy. 

However, it is also apparent to many (myself included) that a revival of the allegorical hermeneutic is currently being wrought in liberal academic circles, even among those who claim, oddly enough, to be successors of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.   Whence cometh this strange disease?   We attribute the greater part of this ongoing hermenutical shift to the steady stream of post-enlightenment rationalism which has, from the close of the eighteenth century, bombarded orthodox churches through institutions of higher learning.  Only Fundamentalism could hold back the onslaught waged by the foes of revealed truth, but alas, fundamentalism has too often capitulated to the program of the hour, selling its birthright for a mess of worldly pottage.

Notwithstanding the depradations wrought by academics, there are yet a few who hold to the faith in its original purity, and whose desire it is to defend Christian doctrine from anything that would mar its clarity, or sap its power to save the souls of men.  They stand like the seven thousand who would not bend the knee to Baal.  And the great majority, if not all, of such Christians are they who hold to a literal, that is a "normative," hermeneutic. 

What is a normative heremeneutic?  In the broadest terms, it is a method of exegesis whereby the text itself provides the basis for interpretation. Those who endorse a normative hermeneutic accept as a foundational tenet, that the Bible is revelatory literature, and is therefore to be understood according to the customary laws of grammar and rhetoric.  Such a method never excludes the uses of figures of speech, for figures of speech are legitimate to all human language.  However, adherents of the normative hermeneutic hold that when a figure of speech is employed, it may and can be clearly identified.  Symbolism is another matter altogether, and is prevalent largely in the prophetic Scriptures.  But the purpose of a symbol is to set forth some truth which may be understood.  When a symbol appears, its meaning is generally explained by the context, or elsewhere in Scripture.  No forced meanings or "hidden senses" should be read into the text. 

When the Scriptures speak of something occurring "on earth," then the student has no right to give it a celestial meaning. There are dozens of prophetical passages which are expressly declared to have their fulfillment on earth, and in connection with earthly things.  Our Savior makes this distinction between earthly and heavenly in His discourse to Nicodemus.  But while it might be declared that the earthly is sometimes justly used as a type of the heavenly, this is not the whole, or even the half, of the truth. 

Paul's statement that "that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual" (1 Cor. 15: 46) has too often, we feel, been made to serve as a fundamental law of prophetic interpretation; when its meaning, as shown by the context, only sets forth the relation between the first and second Adams.  On the contrary, a study of the Scriptures will reveal that oftentimes the spiritual precedes the natural.  Moses was taken into the Mount and shown the pattern of the earthly tabernacle which he should make.  That the heavenly archetype existed prior to the earthly "copy," must be a matter of frank concession.  Then, too, Abraham's circumcision in heart preceded the fleshly circumcision which was a token of his and a seal of the everlasting covenant (Romans 4: 11; Genesis 17: 7, 10-11).  Seen from this standpoint, it could be argued that the "spiritual Israel" preceded the earthly Israel.  The truth is, the spiritual does not always follow the natural; and to lay this proposition down as a fixed law of interpretation is to lose sight of the facts.

This, however, is exactly what the allegorists have done; and because of their methods they have befogged and confused the very meaning of the texts. By a process of spiritual alchemy, earthly promises are transmuted into fulfillments so hypothetical, that the student falters, and is left at last to wonder whether God is not mocking his children.  Then the enemies of God take advantage of this confusion; and so raises its head another heresy, which must be combated with the sword of the spirit, by those who champion the literal interpretation of the inspired Word. 

   After perusing the annals of church history, and especially those which chronicle the "dark ages," I cannot speak too harshly against the allegorical method, which savors either of priestcraft or unbelief. For what reason can there be to depart from the natural meaning of words, unless one is not willing (or not able) to believe them? The priests who kept the Bible, for so many centuries, under lock and key, lest any should discover their true meaning, had a purpose no less sinsister than those modern interpreters who "take away the key of knowledge" by draping their philosophical ideals over the sacred text.  Both fail to accept (Gr. dekomai) Scripural teachings as fully inspired and authoritative. 

   This is to say nothing of the diversity of interpretations which attends an allegorical approach. When the normative interpretation of the text is disregarded, too often the meaning is spiritualized in different directions by different men, each of whom feigns to see some "deep" truth never before seen by mortal man.  Speaking of this prevalent trend, E.W. Bullinger writes: "Unless God means exactly what He says according to the laws of all language, then all positive lines of demarcation between truth and error on all the vital verities of religion are obliterated.  It is not merfely the prophecies of the second advent that suffer, but all doctrines and all the articles of the faith are involved in one common chaos" (Ten Sermons On The Second Advent, Kregel, pg. 22).  It is to be expected, therefore, that when allegorists get hold of the prophetic Scriptures, the end of their labors is to leave the child of God more mystified than he was before. This is not according to wisdom.

Aside from any initial difficulties which the student of Scripture may have, I am convinced that the truth must at last shine plainly to him who humbles himself to learn what God hath written for the edification of his saints. The words of the ancient confession read: "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them" (1689 Baptist Confession, I. vii).

To interpret the Scriptures is therefore not to pry into the mysteries of God's providence or the inscrutable springs of His counsel.  For "the secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29: 29).  Before one can obey, one must comprehend.  And this goes without saying.  In His parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Christ charged it as folly upon the rich man's brethren that they believed not Moses and the prophets.  "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16: 31).  If one accepts not the testimony of God's written word, then little suasion will signs and miracles yield.  Prophecy serveth for them who believe not, but for them which believe (1 Cor. 14: 22).

Although there be some things in Scripture designated as "mysteries," or otherwise set forth in symbolic language, a true exegesis will clear up the true sense. It will not render them more enigmatic. In Scriptural language, a mystery is not something comprehensible only to an elite few.  Larkin writes: "A 'mystery' in the New Testament sense is not something that cannot be understood, but is some plan or purpose of God that has been known to Him from the beginning, but which He has withheld from the knowledge of men until the time came for Him to reveal it" (Dispensational Truth, 1920 edition, pg. 151).  Obviously, there are limitations to our understanding, which exist by nature, and which sometimes render the finer mechanics of certain prophecies obscure until their ultimate fulfillment, when the veil of ignorance is removed (cf. Isaiah 29: 18, 24). But these natural limitations do not prevent us from perceiving the general tenor of even the most abstruse prophecies.   Else, to what purpose was the prophetic word given? Wherefore it becomes manifest that the Bible is revelatory literature, and is to be received as such.  If any man seek to bewilder us with allegories and fables, we must dissent to even listen to him. For we are hearkening to God, and they to their own dreams and delusions.  Yea, what is the chaff to the wheat? (Jeremiah 23: 28).

The Bible states more or less plainly that there will be a reign of Jesus Christ on the earth. In the Lord's prayer we recite the petition: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6: 10). What are we praying for? Certainly nothing other than the reign of Christ on earth. And no allegorical reign, neither: but a real and literal one.  We are praying for Christ to establish His kingdom among us. And the vision which John beheld on Patmos, which awaits its future fulfillment, strengthens and confirms our hope. "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God" (Rev. 21: 3). This is the focal point of all prophecy, even the restoration of that which fell through Adam's transgression.  It is the apokatastasis which the saints are awaiting.  And what was lost on earth but God's personal presence?  It was certainly not immortality, as Adam never partook of the tree of life.  He cannot therefore be said to have lost eternal life. But this will be gained in the presence of Jehovah, when Paradise is restored.

John's inspired prophecy foretells a time when Christ will come to dwell among men, just as He did at the first; only the second advent will be in glory; the end result producing, in the words of Knoch, "a precious burden of fruit for all the toil and travail attending the offense." 

But there is an anaology between the two advents of Christ which we must not overlook.  Both are literal, and take place in connection with the earth.  John says of Christ's first advent: "And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us" (John 1: 14). But in vision he says: "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men." Thus he speaks of a personal reign of Jesus Christ on earth.  When the curse is removed, (i.e., the curse which was brought upon all mankind, as well as the material creation, through Adam's single act of transgression), the prophecy will be fulfilled.

It is not likely, however, that this restoration will commence sooner than the close of the Great Tribulation, at which time the seventh trumpet will sound.  For prior to the "regeneration" (Matthew 19: 28), there must, of necessity, be a period of intense birth-pains, followed by a glorious economy in which death shall be dethroned, and life reign. 

(Rev. 11: 15) "And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever."

It is at the sounding of the seventh trumpet that the dead shall be judged and the rewards given to the servants (Revelation 11: 18).  At this time the resurrection of the just will take place; which Paul elsewhere designates the "manifestation of the sons of God" (Romans 8: 19).  And to this the Old Testament prophets concur, presenting the mosaic of a yet-future age when Christ will come to establish His throne on earth to govern the nations.

(Psalm 2: 9) "Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession."

(Psalm 67: 4) "O, let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth."

(Psalm 96: 10) "Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: He shall judge the people righteously."

(Psalm 72: 8) "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."

(Isaiah 42: 4) "He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for His law."

(Jeremiah 23: 5-6) "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth."

(Daniel 7: 27) "And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him."

(Zechariah 9: 10) "And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow shall be cut off: and He shall speak peace unto the heathen: and His dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even unto the ends of the earth."

These are but a few of the many passages which we may select from the arsenal of revealed truth.  And the reader will certainly agree that these passages demand a literal fulfillment. But those who choose to allegorize present innumerable difficulties. For Christ Himself instructs His disciples to pray for the time when God's will shall be done in earth, even as it is in heaven.  One may well ask: How is Christ's will done in heaven?  To which the inspired apostle responds: "Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him" (1 Peter 3: 22, emphasis mine).  Christ's authority in heavenly places is confessed by all Christians as being absolutely literal in nature.  Very well.  When Christ's kingdom is established on earth, "the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, Whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him" (Daniel 7: 27).  What text can be more plainer than this?

If it be alleged that the above texts denote simply the spread of the Gospel during this present age, the student must adjust the language of prophecy to accord with the standards of an imperfect economy, rather than believe the passages in their plain and natural sense. Such an hermeneutic would demand upon the student a far greater credulity than one which accepts the text as a basis of interpretation.  Not for this reason alone do we discard such a method as worthless.  Christ Himself instructs us to pray for a literal kingdom on earth.

 At the present time, it must be obvious to anyone that Christ is not reigning in any real sense over the earth. And to prove this beyond any shadow of cavil, I draw the reader's attention to the fact that the kingdom (i.e., all earthly dominion) was given to the first Adam only AFTER his bride had been presented to him (see Gen. 1: 27-28).  But Eve was formed out of the rib taken from his side while he slept (Gen. 2: 21-23).  The bride of the second Adam, "the church which is Christ's body, the fulness (or complement) which filleth all in all" (Eph. 1: 23), is Eve's antitype.  This spiritual "bride" and "body" began to be formed with the ratification of the New Covenant on the cross; as witness the blood and water which flowed from our Lord's pierced side (John 19: 34).  According to an old evangelical divine, the blood stands for justification (the altar), the water for sanctification (the laver); and both, when applied to the regnerate believer, grant spiritual access into the holy place, where fellowship with Christ is enjoyed (see Heb. 10: 19; 1 John 1: 7).  But the "body" is still being formed, the "holy temple" (see Ephesians 2: 21-22) still being built; the "bride" will not be formally presented to the second Adam until He returns "the second time, without sin unto salvation" (Heb. 9: 28); wherefore we reason, and justly, too, that Christ's dominion over the earth will not be consummated until His second advent. 

But when, in relation to the "1000 years," does this universal reign begin? Once more, let us go back to Rev. 20: 1-3, where John predicts the binding of Satan. The effect of Satan's binding is that the nations should no longer be deceived. His prophecy is not about "individuals from among the nations," which language would best fit conditions appertaining to the present administration.  But he says, "that the nations," qua nations, should no longer be deceived.  And we must grant that there is a great difference between "the church" and "the nations."

Now, from Christ's ascension to the present day, the nations have continued to walk after their own delusions. They have even, at divers periods following the original publication of the Gospel throughout the entire habitable world (cf. Colossians 1: 23), persecuted the church. But Christ promises to give those who overcome "power over the nations" (Rev. 2: 26-27; cf. Ps. 2: 9). And Paul implies that they who suffer --  and only they  --  shall be accounted worthy of reigning with Him (Romans 8: 17; 2 Tim. 2: 12).  No servant is greater than his Master; and there is but one "strait gate" that leads to glory.  Hence, there can be no period prior to the Lord's second advent and the resurrection of the church corporately, during which His people shall be immune from persecution.  The nations, as the larger mass out of which the elect of God are taken,  must therefore abide in unregeneracy until the second advent.  Christian theology leaves no space for a Millennium of any kind prior to the resurrection of the just. 

Some, however, insist that the Scriptures which detail, in the plainest possible language, the Messianic blessings of Christ's future kingdom, must be understood in a qualified sense. Either they are taken as partially fulfilled in the past, or as spiritually fulfilled during the present time.  But we have not so learned Christ. As the prophecies respecting His first advent were fulfilled to the very letter, so must all the remaining prophecies be which speak of His second advent.  Our Lord did not fulfill the first-advent prophecies by fractions and half-measures. The prophecies regarding His sufferings were "filled full."  The same manner of "plenary fulfillment" will apply to His advent in glory.  Every jot and tittle will be accomplished before heaven and earth passes away (Matt. 5: 18). When our Lord promises to give His saints power to rule the nations, we must not allegorize and water down His promises, as if He were unable to bring about a literal fulfillment, and by so doing belittle His authority. For His bounty exceeds all our expectations. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him" (1 Cor. 2: 9). When Christ makes a promise, be assured that He shall keep it; and though we wait long for its fulfillment, those who maintain patience to the end shall inherit the kingdom.

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