Sunday, April 06, 2014

Inspired foresight

I'm going to integrate in one post some of my reflections on the nature of prophecy:
Critics of Bible prophecy raise several objections: (i) they claim that Scripture contains failed prophecies. (ii) Conversely, they claim that Scripture contains retrodictions. Prophecies after the fact (vaticinia ex eventu). (iii) Finally, they sometimes complain that if Scripture were truly inspired, it would contain anticipations of futuristic technology. Something that couldn't be known by an ancient writer, apart from revelation.
By way of response:
1) The challenge of long-range prophecy is that it risks generating temporal paradoxes. In classic time-travel scenarios, when someone from the future travels back into the past, he carries his advanced knowledge and know-how with him into the past. If he shares that, he will kick-start a primitive culture. That, in turn, will retroactively erase the future he came from, and replace it with an alternate future. But in that event, he couldn't travel back into the past in the first place. 
Suppose you have a Wall Street banker with a legendary reputation for accurately predicting the stock market. If he puts his predictions in an envelop, mails it to himself, and opens it afterwards, that is feasible. If, however, he publicizes his predictions ahead of time, he prediction will, itself, affect the stock market. It may cause a bull market or bear market, depending on the prediction. The very act of publicly forecasting the outcome may sabotage the prediction. 
If the Bible were to predict scientific breakthroughs or advanced technology, the very prediction would generate an alternate timeline, mooting the prediction by making the outcome happen sooner than predicted.  
2) There's a further complication. In principle, God could show a prophet the distant future. Say, give him a preview of the 9/11 attack. Problem is, an ancient seer wouldn't know what he's seeing. Planes flying into skyscrapers would be incomprehensible to him. 
Moreover, he wouldn't have the vocabulary to describe what he saw. There are no Classical Hebrew words for "car," "subway," "airplane," "skyscraper," &c. Technical vocabulary develops in tandem with technological developments.
Furthermore, even if God dictated the vocabulary to him, these foreign words would be meaningless to him and his audience. It would be difficult for scribes to accurately copy them. 
3) Apropos (2), long-range prophecies are analogical. They take two forms:
i) They depict the future in archaic terms. 
ii) They depict the future in symbolic terms.  
In both cases, that makes it harder to identify the referent in advance. Take the case of allegorical premonitions:
After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and behold, there came up out of the Nile seven cows attractive and plump, and they fed in the reed grass. 3 And behold, seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 And the ugly, thin cows ate up the seven attractive, plump cows. And Pharaoh awoke (Gen 41:1-4).
How could you tell ahead of time (apart from inspired interpretation) what this refers to? In principle, it could denote so many different events.
Yet, seen in hindsight, this was obviously predictive. The emaciated cows represent famine and drought, in contrast to the well-fed cows. The numbers represent years. The sequence represents years. The fact that the dream is situated on the Nile represents an Egyptian setting for the famine. As does the fact that the dreamer is an Egyptian. 
Take another example:
9 Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Gen 37:9).
Once again, this is pretty opaque from a prospective viewpoint, but obvious from a retrospective viewpoint. 
By "archaic," I mean a Biblical prophet will depict the distant future in terms of the present. What the world looked like to the prophet and his contemporaries. 
4) Apropos (3), a lot of Bible prophecy has its origin in visionary revelation. Most Bible prophets were seers. It's a two-step process:
i) Visionary revelation
God discloses the future in images
ii) Verbal inspiration
The seer either translates the imagery into verbal descriptions of what he saw or else he prosaically states the outcome. More Bible prophecy may have its origin in visionary revelation that we're aware of if the prophet merely summaries the results of his vision rather than describing the experience. Yet that's the process which generates the oracle.   
Of course, the reader can't directly experience what the prophet saw. At most, we read his verbal description of his visionary experience. 
In theory, someone in the future might recognize what he saw, even if it was unrecognizable to the seer himself, viz. if someone in 2000 AD saw airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers. 
But in Scripture we don't have that. What we have are either symbolic depictions of the distant future or archaic depictions of the distant future. The challenge is matching the imagery to their future analogues. That can be difficult or impossible to figure out in advance, yet it may be obvious after the fact, viz. Joseph's dream and Pharaoh's dream.
Some OT prophecies were clearly fulfilled in NT times. But other OT and NT prophecies remain outstanding. 

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