Sunday, June 19, 2011

Historical Commentary on Matthew 24:37—41

Recently, I have been responding to Jamin Hubner's interpretation on Matthew 24:37—41. He think that those who are taken are the wicked to judgment, and those who are left are the righteous. I have completely disagreed with him arguing that it is a tortured reading of the text. I believe that the natural reading is that those who are taken at the parousia are the righteous, and those who are left are the wicked for judgment.

Here is my argumentation.

Here was his response to my article.

Here is my response to his response.

In this article, I would like to reply to two issues.

First, Hubner (and Dickerson) suggest that Darby holds the terminus a quo interpretation (taken=righteous and left=wicked):
"Anyway, the essay by Matthew Dickerson seems to have a fair point: "Many Christians have been interpreting the end times backwards for decades. Hasn't our common picture of the Rapture imagined the followers of God - those who are saved - getting taken away while the wicked are 'left behind'?" (p. 41) I wish that would have been clear to Darby a century and a half ago, but, I guess bad exposition happens...

[And in another article Hubner stated]: "In both cases those “left behind,” as we have often heard in the last century, are actually the righteous" (emphasis mine).
Hubner is mistaken on two fronts.

1. This text is not a "dispensational" text. In fact, in general, standard dispensational scholarship agrees with Hubner by interpreting those who are taken as the wicked and those left, the righteous. In the dispy-pretrib schema those who are taken, are taken to judgment at Armageddon, and those who are left, are the righteous to enter the Millennium. So Hubner and Dickerson are creating a strawman. Dispy exceptions are not the rule.

2. There have been interpreters for centuries who have never heard of "dispensationalism" yet interpret those who are taken as the righteous and those left the wicked. Heck, we can go back over 1,500 years ago, for example, Hilary of Poitiers who commented on this text as saying:
Christ shows that a judgment is coming, since between two people in a field, one is taken up and one left behind. Between two grinding at the mill, one is chosen and one rejected. Between two lying in bed, one departs and one remain, This teaching means that the separation of the faithful from the unfaithful will consist in one being accepted and the other abandoned...One group will be taken up through the faith that produces good works, and the other group will be abandoned in the fruitless works of the law, grinding in vain at a mill that will never produce heavenly of the two lying in bed will be taken up but the other wll be left behind. For by accepting one and rejection the other, God's judgment will prove their merit of each confession. SC 258:198-200
It is interesting to note that Hilary does not show any polemic in a debate of who is taken and who is left. It is just understood, which suggests that this was probably the accepted interpretation.

More could be cited but one more should suffice from Chrysostom:
All these things are demonstrations that he knew what was to come. It would be like the days of Noah:"Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left," so unexpected will it be. It is without thought that they will be taken. PG 58:704; NPNF1 10:464.
The second issue I want to address is that Hubner cites a couple of scholars and pastors who agree with his interpretation suggesting that my interpretation is in the minority (as well as the above false notion that my interpretation is relatively new in church history again suggesting that my view is in the minority in the grand scheme of church history). I don't believe in stacking commentaries that agree with one's interpretation, as if consensus = correctness. But when someone implies that their interpretation represents the consensus when in fact it does not, then I'll respond. Hubner lists:
“In the context of 24:37-39, “taken” presumably means “taken to judgment” (cf. Jer. 6:11 NASB, NRSV).” – Keener, IVPBBCNT, 115

“Who was taken away in the judgment of the flood? Not Noah and his family. They were left behind to carry on God’s work.” – DeMar, Last Days Madness, 196

“the one shall be taken, and the other left; as before, one shall be taken by the Romans, and either put to death, or carried captive.” – John Gill, Exposition of Matthew

“[Wright] contends that “being ‘taken’ in this context means being taken in judgment. There is no hint, here of a ‘rapture’, a sudden ‘supernatural’ event which would remove individuals from terra firma. Such an idea,” says Wright, “would look as odd, in these synoptic passages, as a Cadillac in a camel-train. It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can. If the disciples were to escape, if they were to be ‘left’, it would be by the skin of their teeth” (Victory, 366).]” – Sam Storms, quoting NT Wright
The individuals he cites are unusual.

First he cites Keener's Bible Background commentary, which Keener does not even take a position. He says "presumably" without any argumentation except for tagging a reference from Jeremiah, informing us with nothing. I checked out what Keener actually said in his more fuller commentary on Matthew and he has all but one sentence on this issue! (the rest devoted to background and textual issues). Moreover he is uncertain because he says, "If Jesus means "taken in judgment...the taking parallels the different expression in 24:39, where the flood "took" the wicked away" (592). So Keener is not even sure, and if he were he does not provide argumentation.

Next he cites DeMar, a fluffy postmil popularizer (and someone who apes France's commentary). Hubner just cites DeMar's assertion providing zero argumentation.

Then he cites John Gill's saying something about the Romans taking or something. I can't make heads or tails out of that.

Finally he cites Sam Storms quoting NT Wright. First, as many know Wright possesses an unbiblical over-realized eschatology so his interpretation is not dependable. Further, Hubner provides none of Wright's exegesis, only his anti-rapture crusade (which probably for him is an "American invention" as every other doctrine that Wright loathes).

So there you have it, an odd collection of non-argument quotations.

Let's go to some serious exegesis on Matthew.

The most scholarly English commentary on Matthew in print is the three volume work by Davies and Allison. I was checking to see where they came down on this interpretation, and sure enough they agree with me. In fact, they provided me some more nuggets to support my interpretation. But what caught my eye was when they claimed that my interpretation is the consensus. They write:
But are the righteous taken to meet the Lord in the air? [n68: So most.] Or are the wicked removed by angels and cast into fire? The former is more likely. [Then he goes on to provide argumentation] p.383]
In my reading on the Olivet Discourse I have found that my interpretation is the most common by scholars. And those that agree with me are mostly non-dispensationalists. And with Davies-Allison's authoritative research my conclusions are confirmed that my interpretation is in the consensus. Does it make it right? Of course not, but it shows that anyone who claims otherwise must provide the data to overturn the history of interpretation of this text and thus prove Davies-Allison's claim false.

In summary, (1) my interpretation goes back to the early church fathers, and is suggested to be the consensus back then. (2) My interpretation is the consensus in modern research attested by a range of non-dispensational scholars and traditions.

1 comment:

  1. Have enjoyed the series.

    Put me in mind of a study I did several years ago amongst a heavily dispensationalist inclined crowd. I have had the privilege of being their Pastor for 15 years and am moving now in a few weeks to a city ministry.

    When we came to the I Thess. 4:13-18 passage and I commented on how the trumpet might be ably defendeed as referencing the Day of the Lord .... Boy did the Questions Fly!