Saturday, October 21, 2017

Prophecy and hermeneutic

Background information is often useful or sometimes crucial when we interpret Scripture. Ideally, it puts us in the situation of the original audience. It helps to interpret historical narratives and ancient law codes. It helps us to understand the type of situation that NT epistles were responding to. Writers presume a body of common knowledge which the implied reader shares with the author. That fills in the gaps. Writers expect readers to grasp more than what is actually said. 

Mind you, there are pitfalls to using background information. The Bible is often countercultural, so sometimes the Bible is saying something in spite of or contrary to the social milieu. 

In addition, we can only use the evidence that's survived. But that runs the risk of stretching the surviving evidence to make it germane to something in Scripture, even if it's unrepresentative. 

But I'd like to make a different point. When it comes to Bible prophecy, especially long-range prophecy, appeal to background information poses a conundrum. There's circularity to the appeal because a scholar must have a preconception of what the oracle has reference to for him to match that against relevant background information. Conversely, he cites background information to interpret the oracle. So he uses presumptive background information to identify the prophetic referent while he uses the presumptive referent to identify suitable background material. 

Yet it only gets worse. If an oracle refers to the distant future, then the salient background information lies in the future. And the reader only knows after the fact what would constitute the salient background information. That's something we're only in a position to recognize in retrospect.

For instance, what's the relevant background information to interpret Ezk 40-48? Dan 11:40-45? Daniel's 70-week prophecy? The Olivet Discourse? The Apocalypse? The man of sin (2 Thes 2:3-10)? Depends on whether we view that as past or future. If future, we must wait for the background information. Invoking background information to interpret Bible prophecy may be prejudge the referent. We only know the historical context if we know when the event takes place or was meant to take place. 

We only know if certain background information correlates with the prophecy if we know what the prophecy means. But what if we only know what the prophecy means in light of whatever background information we use as our interpretive frame of reference? There's a mutual dependence. 

Assuming the inerrancy of Scripture, if it's fairly clear that the oracle hasn't been fulfilled in the past, then the best we can do is to imagine futuristic scenarios. 

This conundrum makes it difficult even in principle to falsify Bible prophecy. A "skeptic" might complain that this is special pleading. A face-saving out that immunizes Bible prophecy from disproof. 

By way of response:

i) Simply as a matter of hypothetical logic, the relevant background knowledge for a true prophecy must be synchronized with the timeframe of the prophetic fulfillment. If the oracle is both future and true, then it's necessarily the case that we can only identify the relevant background information with the benefit of hindsight. For that's the situation which the oracle actually pointed to. Although that may indeed be convenient for a Christian apologist, it's not an ad hoc consideration. In the nature of the case, the background information for a true prediction must peg the same timeframe. The setting, in time and place, is the same for the specific event as well as the general environment which lends interpretive clues to the outcome of the oracle. 

ii) Moreover, this isn't just hypothetical. For instance, there are credible examples of precognition in modern times.  Premonitions. Prophetic dreams. It isn't confined to Bible prophecy. And the same principle applies. A prophetic dream may be indistinguishable from an ordinary dream ahead of time. It's only if it comes true that the dreamer can look back on a chain of events leading up to its realization to perceive the context in which it occurs. That's where it fits. 

iii) In addition, consider an oracle by Ezekiel which, from the standpoint of his contemporaries, appeared to fail–yet was ultimately realized in an unexpected and humanly unforeseeable way:

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