Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The future's not what it used to be

Dr. Henebury initiated a friendly debate with me over covenant theological hermeneutics. I’ve already responded a couple of a times, but I think it would clarify the issues if we broaden the debate to take in certain operating assumptions that Henebury is using. I’m going to quote and comment on some of his statements from this post:

22. It forces one to adopt a “promise – fulfillment” scheme between the Testaments, ignoring the fact that the OT possesses no such promise scheme, but rather a more relational “covenant – blessing” scheme.

I believe he picked this up from Sailhamer’s recent book (The Meaning of the Pentateuch). However, I find this objection counterintuitive on the lips of a dispensationalist. After all, dispensationalists, including Henebury, criticize covenant theology for its alleged failure to do justice to the OT land-promises. If, however, Henebury deems it a mistake to cast the issue in promissory terms, if he doesn’t even think God made a promise to Abraham (and through him to Abraham’s posterity) to set aside a territorial inheritance, then I don’t see how he can’t fault covenant theology on that score. If he’s going to ditch the promise/fulfillment scheme and reconstruct dispensationalism according to a covenant/blessing scheme, then he needs to explain the status of the land non-promises under the new schema.

23. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired intertextual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants cited in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26).  God is always taken at face value (e.g. 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 9:2, 13). 

I myself have been using intertextual OT exegesis to lay the groundwork for covenant theology.

28. The character of any being, be it man or angel, but especially God, is bound to the words agreed to in a covenant (cf. Jer. 33:14, 24-26; 34:18).  This being so, it would mean that God could not make such covenants and then not perform them in a way totally foreign to the plain wording of the oaths He took.

i) One problem with Henebury’s appeal to the “plain sense,” “plain wording,” or “face value” of OT passages is that Scripture sometimes depicts the future in present terms. For instance, Revelation describes combat in terms of ancient warfare. Yet dispensationalists don’t think that when the battle of Armageddon takes place, that will be a throwback to antique military technology.

Likewise, OT prophecy depicts battles between Israel and her traditional pagan adversaries. Yet dispensationalists don’t think that in the future, God will literally restore these ancient kingdoms. Rather, to my knowledge, dispensationalists update these prophecies and reassign them to modern counterparts.

ii) And that raises another issue. If the Bible sometimes portrays the future in present terms, then even if Scripture portrays an endtime battle in terms of Israel and Babylon (or whatever), that may simply be a literary convention. The use of stock imagery.

This doesn’t rule out a future battle, but it also doesn’t entail a battle between ethnic Israel and Russia or the Arabs.

23. This sets up an expectation that covenant commitments will find “fulfillment” in expected ways, certainly not in completely unforeseeable ones.
24. It forces clear descriptive language into an unnecessary semantic mold (e.g. Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14).  A classic example being Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezek. 40ff.  According to this view it is not a physical temple even though a physical temple is clearly described.

i) This overlooks fatal ambiguities in Henebury’s appeal to the “plain sense” meaning of the text. Plain to whom? Future to whom?

Here he indicates it would be plain to the audience. Well, what would be plain to the audience? And which audience?

ii) Apropos (i), Ezk 40-48 is addressed to the Babylonian exiles. To the Jewish community in exile.

In what sense would it be plain to 6C BC Jewish exiles in Babylon that Ezekiel’s temple will be built at the tail-end of the church age? Is that their historical horizon?

iii) Henebury’s interpretation is quite anachronistic. That’s because dispensationalists subconsciously have a different view of the future than the original audience. What was future to Babylonian exiles is past to dispensationalists. We live in a different time. A later time. Much later.

Henebury’s knows that Ezekiel’s temple wasn’t built after the Babylonian captives returned to Israel. Knows it wasn’t built during the Intertestamental period. Knows it wasn’t built during the first advent of Christ. Knows it wasn’t built during the middle ages or the Renaissance. And so on and so forth.

Therefore, with the benefit of hindsight, given the past nonfulfillment of this ancient prophecy, he projects it far into the church age. Yet that’s a retrospective view of what, from the perspective of Ezekiel and his immediate audience, was prospective.

If we confine ourselves to the “plain wording” of the text and the expectations of the original audience, then assuming that this is an oracle about rebuilding the temple, wouldn’t they anticipate the fulfillment of that prophecy after they were repatriated? Henebury is transferring this passage to a completely different timeframe than the original audience would envision. And that makes sense to him given his own historical position. But what is past and future to him is hardly interchangeable with what was past and future to them. His now and then isn’t equivalent to their now and then.

Wouldn’t the Babylonian exiles expect Ezekiel’s temple to replace the ruins of Solomon’s temple–which was destroyed in the sack of Jerusalem? Wouldn’t they expect that to be fulfilled in the near term, once they reoccupied Jerusalem?

iv) Mind you, I don’t think that a “physical temple is clearly described.” What’s described is a vision of a temple. And, by definition, anything you see in a vision has to be picturable. That doesn’t make it ipso facto physical or prophetic.

But I’m granting Henebury’s characterization for the sake of argument. 

1 comment:

  1. I think that was a very fair and well thought out critique