The Nature of the Surprise

There is no doubt that the disciples were surprised to learn that Jesus’ death and resurrection was the point of the Old Testament. In Matthew 26:54-56, it was immediately after Jesus says THIS (His arrest and death) was to fulfill Scriptures that the disciples left Him. Let no one therefore think the interpretation of the Old Testament to be a matter of indifference.

It is commonly debated today, however, why the disciples were surprised. If one compares this passage in Matthew with Luke 24, for example, we come across a bit of a puzzle. How can Jesus reproach the two disciples for being slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken? And in 1 Peter, why did the Old Testament writers search so eagerly in their own writings? It must be because they knew that there was something more in what they wrote than what they themselves had thought. They understood that they had written the Word of God and that God had further things to say than they, the authors, had intended.

How then, can we account for these two clear things: 1. the disciples were surprised; and 2. Jesus says they shouldn’t have been surprised? It has been a commonplace in scholarship to deny that the Old Testament has anything intrinsic to say about Jesus Christ. It is only the rabbinic, Midrashic exegesis of the New Testament that reads into the Old Testament something that wasn’t originally there. One has to achieve this on a supposed second reading.

I propose a different solution to this problem. The surprise is due to sin and a corresponding veil over the eyes of readers, not to a supposed intrinsic absence of Jesus from the Old Testament. Paul talks about this veil in 2 Corinthians 3:14. The problem is in the reader, not the text. In John 5, Jesus very clearly claims Moses wrote about Him. This suggests that even in the intention of Moses, there is something there about the promised one. There is more in the text than the intention of the human author, contrary to what many scholars think today.

So why were the disciples surprised? They were surprised because they had a veil over their eyes that was suddenly and unpleasantly ripped away. Matthew 26 is not telling us that the Old Testament is inherently Christless. It is telling us that the disciples did not understand. They didn’t really understand until Pentecost. That is when God took away their veil entirely. We need to pray that God takes away our veils so that we can understand the Old Testament and God fulfills all His promises in the New Testament.

On Interpretive Grids

I have addressed this question before, but I have some further thoughts on the matter I would like to share. In particular, I would like to address this question: what kind of grid do people have who claim to have no grid at all?

My own grid should be evident to long-time readers of the blog: I hold that the Westminster Standards are a wonderful summary of Scripture’s teaching. The church I serve believes that these standards function as the limits of biblical orthodoxy on the central issues. Within this field, there are variations of interpretation, just as there are many issues the Bible talks about that the Westminster Standards don’t address. The grid is not set in stone for eternity, either. It can be changed if sufficient evidence accrues for it to be incorrect on a particular point. It does not possess infallibility. It is correct insofar as it correctly summarizes Scripture. In this regard, it has the same character as preaching. There should therefore be reciprocity between the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. Most people who hate the Westminster Standards seek to impose a barrier between Scripture and the Westminster Standards, as if it were the case that believing the Westminster Standards are a true summary of the Bible is a certain proof that such a person does not believe the Bible, or that such a person’s views of interpretation are naively limited.

This attitude (which is so widespread among biblical scholars as to be the clear majority position) helps us get at the point I am trying to make. Those who reject churchly summaries of the Bible’s teaching have a grid of their own. That grid, at the very least, involves putting up a wall between Scripture and churchly confessions of Scripture. The implicit assumption is that the church has completely misread the Bible. Therefore, any interpretation of Scripture that even overlaps with a churchly confession must be automatically wrong. This is a grid! Let me repeat that: this idea is itself a grid! To put it more accurately and precisely, it is an anti-grid which functions in the exact same way as a churchly grid does, only as its opposite. The biggest problem with this grid is its nearly complete invisibility. Those who hold to this grid believe that they have no grid at all.

So here is the truth: everyone has a grid by which they judge which interpretations of Scripture have more plausibility than other interpretations. Those who say they don’t are actually the most naive and least self-aware interpreters who are blind to their own assumptions and prejudices. The church, in general, recognizes all of this, which is why churches make confessions of faith. They want to have an agreed upon interpretation of the central issues so that the church can have a recognizable identity. The challenge for biblical scholars is this: why do so many of you despise the church for which Christ died? Why do so many of you assume that the church always has it wrong? Is it because you idolize being able to say something new and different so that people will stroke your ego and remark how brilliant you are? Is it because of the Enlightenment’s rejection of churchly authority? Is it because you have been hurt in the past by overly authoritarian churches? Is it a combination of factors? There is healing for all of these problems in Jesus Christ. But it requires a hefty dose of humility and self-abasement to come to this realization.

What Is Practical?

2 Timothy 3:16 says this: “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” Most people focus on the meaning of the first part of the verse, and expound in very helpful and true ways the Warfieldian sense of “breathe out.” However, what I want to focus on in this post is the whole last part of the verse, which gives us various categories (not necessarily exhaustive!) for answering the question of what is practical.

The reason I want to address this issue is that most people’s views on what is practical are much too narrow. They want to know only what is going to help them right that moment, or the next day at the latest. They want to know what is going to help them at Monday morning at 9 AM. What is practical in Scripture is so much broader than this narrow view. The problem is that those with overly narrow views will tend to “practically” cut out of Scripture any passage that doesn’t meet their definition of what is practical. That is, they won’t read that text, meditate upon it, or talk about it. As a result, they cut themselves off from well over half the Bible’s message. Furthermore, it shows that such people are, in fact, rejecting 2 Timothy 3:16. They don’t believe that all Scripture is profitable. They only believe that some Scripture is profitable. We have to expand our categories of practicality if we are going to appreciate all of Scripture and what the entirety of Scripture can do. If we do not do this, then we are omitting Scripture from our walk with God. This is very dangerous territory!

“Profitable” is another way of saying “useful.” The four words that follow (teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training) are four sub-categories of “profitable.” Teaching is profitable. Let that sink in for a moment. Simply teaching the truth is in itself profitable, even if its immediate practical value is not immediately apparent. Let’s contemplate an example of this: teaching the truth about the Trinity may not seem immediately practical in dealing with real-life crises. However, teaching the truth about the Trinity leads to worship, when done and received properly. Since worship is what we were made to do, that should surely count as practical, should it not? Rebuking is more easily seen as practical, though in individual cases, people often reject it, since they do not like to be told they are wrong about anything they do (rebuke is about incorrect behavior, and correcting is about incorrect doctrine). We need to be rebuked when we are straying off the path. Here, simple arrogance is often what gets in the way. We can’t possibly be wrong in anything we do, can we? Well, maybe we’re wrong about that. And maybe one of the reasons we’re wrong about that is that we have cut off over half of Scripture from actually applying itself to us. Training is a word that has as its analogy the world of sports. One doesn’t just try to run a marathon after being a desk jockey for years. That’s a recipe for heart failure and other serious medical problems. One trains. One gradually increases one’s endurance to the point where a marathon is possible. This is similar to the way we are supposed to ingest Scripture. We train. We are patient. We recognize that Scripture is for the long haul, not just for isolated helps here and there.

In addition to the four categories Paul mentions here, there are other ways in which Scripture can be practical. Here is a list: 1. changing our overall perspective on life and the world (this causes us to react better to life’s circumstances instead of being overwhelmed by them). This may not seem like something practical, at first, since it is not usually immediately applicable to immediate circumstances. However, our overall worldview determines how we react to anything, and our reactions most definitely are within the realm of the practical; 2. a delayed reaction application. Again, this can seem like something impractical, since it doesn’t refer to something happening right then and there. However, haven’t almost all Christians found that something they learned many years ago comes back at exactly the right time to help them? Hiding God’s Word in one’s heart does this kind of thing all the time. This is very practical, though it may not seem like it at the time when that Scripture is learned or memorized. 3. an intermittent application. This is a sort of “on again, off again” idea, wherein something may recur with irregularity (and sometimes with regularity!) and the Scriptures may address this recurring-but-not-always-active type of situation. 4. reference to others. This kind of situation occurs often with the marriage texts in Scripture seen by those who are single. The temptation is for the single person to think that such a text does not apply to them. On the contrary! Ephesians 5 tells us that the church’s relationship with Christ is intimately (!) bound up with the marriage relationship of a man to a woman. All the marriage texts have applications for the church and Christ, and hence, also for the single person. In addition, how are single people supposed to know what to pray for, in terms of their married friends, if they don’t know what the Scripture says about marriage? Another example is of believers and unbelievers. If a text of Scripture addresses unbelievers, the believer can be tempted to think it doesn’t apply to them. Usually, however, there is an altered version of the same idea that does apply to the believer. In the parable of the four soils, for example, three of them are of unbelievers. However, a modified version of those soils can be true of the believer’s heart, too.

So, let’s take the hardest kind of literature in the Bible imaginable, in terms of its practicality, the genealogy. How in the world does one read 1 Chronicles 1-9, for example? It is chock full of names, many of which we don’t see in Scripture in other places. Genealogies do several things. Firstly, they provide continuity in the narrative of Scripture. The same God is at work, and He is doing the same types of things. Genealogies point to the faithfulness of God. Secondly, the people of God in the Old Testament are the people of God, our own spiritual ancestors. This is a list of names connected to our story, not detached from us. Thirdly, any time you see a name you recognize, you’re supposed to remember that person’s story. It is a way of reminding us of many, many stories all at once. Given that genealogies are reminders, that fact in itself shows us the practicality of bringing things to our mind that we already know. We are prone to forget, and genealogies help us remember, when read properly. Fourthly, they point us, through that genealogical continuity, to the line of the seed of the woman, which is Christ Jesus, our Lord. That is where the narrative heads. Fifthly, genealogies remind us that there are no unimportant people in God’s eyes. Everyone is important, even the person who is only mentioned once in the Bible. Surely that means for us that we are not so small that God will not listen to us when we pray. Is that not a great encouragement to prayer?

So we must greatly broaden our view of what is practical. It must fit the entire content of the Bible, or it is too narrow. It must fit the entire content of the Bible, or else we are living in denial of 2 Timothy 3:16. It is amazing to me, frankly, how often I have heard, even from ministers who ought to know better, that such and such passage from the Bible just isn’t practical to preach. What nonsense! Every passage from the Scriptures is practical, as long as that practicality is 1. grounded in the meaning of the text first (if it is not, then we are probably mis-applying Scripture); 2. flows out of our understanding of Jesus Christ being the ultimate content of Scripture, via Luke 24 and John 5; and 3. sees the church as the bride of Christ such that application flows from the meaning of the text to the meta meaning of the text (Jesus Christ) to His bride, the church, and to us as members of that church.

A Response to Tom Hicks on the Question of the Proper Subjects of Baptism, Part 3

Part 1, Part 2.

In part 3, I will address the section of Tom Hick’s piece entitled “Hermeneutics.” In this section, Hick’s main point is that he believes paedobaptists are inconsistent in their application of hermeneutics. If the New Testament is the key to understanding the Old Testament, then Reformed Baptists apply the principle consistently, whereas paedobaptists do not. I am not sure he understands the Reformed paedo hermeneutic on this, however. It is not the case that we say “The NT is the key to understanding the OT” with that being understood as basically everything we would want to say about it. The entire biblical revelation is an organic, unfolding whole, which means that each part of the Bible mutually informs every other part, directly or indirectly. The key to understanding the symbolism of Revelation, for instance, consists in tracking down the given symbol in the Old Testament. While it is true that the New Testament gives us the ultimate key in Jesus Christ (via Luke 24 and John 5), there is a lot more to it than that.

Additionally, I am not sure that positing huge disagreement among paedos by citing the theonomy debate is a very fair charge. Theonomy was a thing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but there are very few of them left. Generally speaking, the majority of the Reformed world has rejected theonomic views.

Hicks’s third point in this section is that he holds paedos to have rejected “NT priority” when it comes to Galatians 3. Hicks is misleading in describing the paedo position at this point. He says, “Paedobaptists, like Dispensationalists, believe that the promise of a physical seed in the OT ought to govern our exegesis of the NT, rather than the other way around.” This over-simplifies the paedo position. One does not have to be a child of Abraham to be in Christ. Nor do we believe in two peoples of God, contra dispensationalists. It is most unhelpful to lump paedos with dispies at this point, since this is precisely where the greatest area of disagreement between paedos and dispies lies. A dispy will say that God’s people is Israel, and the church is a parenthesis. The paedos believe there is only one family of God. The problem with Hicks’s statement is that it implies paedos believe that Abrahamic descent is the key to understanding the way that covenant applies to believers today. The principle is covenantal continuity, which works in families, not in Abrahamic descent. Now, Hicks did not say “Abrahamic descent” in painting the paedo position. However, by lumping paedos with dispies, he creates a highly misleading situation. He seemingly implies that the hermeneutic of paedos and dispies are similar on this point.

On the point of circumcision, Hicks again caricatures the paedo position. He says, “Paedobaptists, on the other hand, hold that the meaning of the sign of circumcision is determinative of the meaning of the sign of baptism, rather than allowing the NT to determine the meaning of baptism and the fulfillment of circumcision.” Not only is this not how paedos argue, he also creates a false dichotomy that assumes the discontinuity between OT and NT. Why is it “either” circumcision “or” the NT that determines the meaning of baptism? Does not Romans 4 join the two together? In addition, the actual paedo position is that circumcision points to salvation in Christ. Baptism points to salvation in Christ. They point to the same thing: Christ’s work on the cross. Paedos believe that the whole Bible, understood in an organic, unfolding way determines what both mean. Hicks is going to have a really hard time with 1 Corinthians 10, isn’t he, that posits baptism in the OT, a baptism that included infants, incidentally.

The governing basis for the Reformed hermeneutic is Christ in all of the Scriptures. Christ is portrayed from vague shadowy forms to a clearer and clearer light. But Hicks’s hermeneutic is that the OT has absolutely nothing to say about how we understand the NT. There is no reciprocity whatsoever between OT and NT hermeneutically. This is “hermeneutical dispensationalism.”

Covington High School Situation, a Few Thoughts

The most ridiculous news story I have seen in a while took place over last weekend. It was ridiculous because it really shouldn’t have even been a story. No one got hurt, only words were exchanged. That didn’t stop the main-stream media (hereinafter MSM) from blowing the story so out of proportion that Salvator Dali would have to bow in defeat.

I have some thoughts. Firstly, MSM is completely and utterly incapable of telling unbiased news. Conservatives have known this for a long time. MSM allowed prejudice to blind them to the fundamental fact of interpretation: context is king. Context makes things more complex than first glances can fathom. MSM reporters are obviously either not being trained in elementary interpretation, or they are forgetting what they were taught. It doesn’t matter at this point whether the boys were perfect in their behavior. They almost certainly were not. Why, however, are the MSM and all those spewing out hate speech against these boys forgetting that these are teenage boys? Considering the fact that a hate group was spewing out filth against them, I thought they behaved with rather admirable restraint. When I was a teenager I had all the emotional empathy of a wooden block. While these boys may not have done the most admirable thing (but what would that have been, do pray tell?), they certainly did nothing worthy of the hate speech that has been spewed against them by intolerant, prejudiced MSM and others. If we were in the position of the boys, what would we have done? The boys couldn’t flee, since they were waiting for a bus. They didn’t want to hear the hate speech, so they started chanting their school song. They made no moves of physical aggression against anyone. All in all, pretty good discipline for teenage boys! Maybe one or two of them committed a micro-aggression. Why is that worse than what some of the people in the video were doing to them?

The MSM have forgotten (for a long time now) that there is always more than one side to a story. Since conservatives are no longer human, no longer to be given the benefit of human treatment, the conservative side of any story is ignored in the MSM. I don’t care about the MSM. I haven’t watched it in years. But I do care about the boys at Covington. And I do care about civil discourse in the nation. And the MSM still have the power to ruin people’s lives because they simply don’t care. More than that, they are guilty of far more hatred than Covington High School boys are.

I pity the MSM, actually. As the saying goes, there is no one so blind but the blind person who thinks he sees. And if there is any group of people who thinks it sees today, that group is MSM. If there is any group that simply does not see how much it is contributing to the hate in America, it is the MSM.

Well, That’s Your Interpretation…

Used to crush any attempt at the utmost hubris of audacity that someone might actually understand a text from the Bible, the real intent of this excuse is usually to evade the plain meaning of the text. I am reminded of a story that my father used to tell of Francis Schaeffer. He was having tea with a young man who kept on saying, “I do not think we are communicating.” Finally, Schaeffer, in some irritation, blasted out, “POUR ME SOME TEA!!” The young man, somewhat shell-shocked, said, “Okay, okay.” Thereupon Schaeffer said, “I think we are communicating.”

There is another, deeper problem with this excuse, however. In implying that the text of Scripture never has only one interpretation, the postmodern is actually imposing his own monolithic multi-valency on the text. To put it another way, is not the postmodern imposing just as much of a uniformity of interpretation on the text (by saying that every text is a wax nose) as the person who claims that there is only one correct interpretation? Furthermore, is not the postmodern claiming that there is only one correct interpretation of any biblical text (“the only correct interpretation of the biblical text is that there are always an almost infinite number of equally valid interpretations”) just as much as the person who does not claim multi-valency?

Fortunately, even most postmoderns have a bit more common sense than this, and do not try to argue for an infinite range of possible interpretations for every text. Even the postmodern does not usually try to interpret “You shall not murder” to mean “You shall murder.”

I have no wish to deny that there are difficult texts in Scripture that admit of more than one possible interpretation that fits the analogy of faith. The “spirits in prison” passage in 1 Peter 3 comes to mind. However, that is still a far cry from saying that all interpretations of the biblical text are equally valid. While there may be more than one possibility for interpreting 1 Peter 3, there is still only one correct interpretation, even if we may not be as certain as we would like which interpretation is the correct one.

Lessing’s Ugly Ditch

G.E. Lessing (1729-1781) is famous for his “ugly ditch” that he drew between the events of the past and the present. We supposedly cannot have any certainty about whether events of the past occurred, because of the chronological distance between us and those events. The main implication of this for theology and philosophy is that, “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason” (see Lessing’s Theological Writings, ed. H. Chadwick; London: Adam and Charles Black, 1956), 51-56, quoted in Murray Rae’s article, “Creation and Promise: Towards a Theology of History” in ‘Behind the Text’: History and Biblical Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, 267-299, esp. p. 274). This would, of course, also rule out any kind of historical foundation for faith. If not even reason can be historically founded, then how much less faith and theology! There are several answers to this ugly ditch.

The first answer is that, on this argument, Lessing could never be sure that he had himself said these words, because the ugly ditch exists between the time of his writing those words and the time when he seeks to implement that position. Total skepticism about the past must inevitably result in skepticism of the skepticism.

Secondly, as Murray Rae points out, “May it not be that the contingent truths of history are reliably mediated to us through the faithful testimony of tradition?” (ibid.). In other words, can’t something fill in the ditch? Why does the ditch have to be complete discontinuity from the past to us? Isn’t there a trail of people and writings that connects us to the past?

Thirdly, again from Rae, having knowledge about a thing does not mean that we have to be absolutely certain about that thing. To require such a rigid absoluteness of certainty forgets that we are very limited creatures, and depend a great deal on other things and other people. We depend on testimony all the time.

Fourthly, Lessing’s formulation rules out revelation by definition. If, however, God did in fact reveal to us things that He has done in history, then God himself bridges the gap between the past and our own time with all the certitude that the Holy Spirit can give us.

On the “And’s”

For most translations that lie within the genealogy of the KJV (which would include the KJV, the RV/ASV, RSV, NKJV, NRSV, and ESV), the normal translation practice is to translate the Hebrew vav and Greek de and kai with the English word “and.” It was thought that the English “and” was the closest equivalent to those connectives. This has resulted in less than felicitous translation choices, the absolute worst being the ESV’s use of “and” at the beginning of the second table of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. It reads:

You shall not murder. And you shall not commit adultery. And you shall not steal. And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s (emphasis added).

This is quite simply hideous English. Any English teacher will state unequivocally that starting consecutive sentences with conjunctions (especially the same one!) is not good English style. For some reason, however, the ESV translators and English style specialists believed that the practice was fine when it came to translation.

The problem is this: Hebrew vav and Greek de and kai have a far more flexible range of meaning and application than English “and.” We usually reserve the English conjunction for joining together two specific thoughts. However, the Hebrew and Greek conjunctions often say no more than, “I’m continuing the narrative.” Printing in paragraph form is often quite adequate for Hebrew narrative vav’s. What I could wish for earnestly is a new revision of the ESV that takes this difference between English and Hebrew/Greek into account.

Synchronic Versus Diachronic

One of the biggest debates in biblical scholarship today is the debate between synchronic and diachronic methodologies. Synchronic approaches read the text in its final, completed form. That is the only form that really matters, because it is the canonical form. It is called “synchronic” because it reads all parts of a given book of Scripture simultaneously, or synchronously. Diachronic approaches are determined to search out possible development of the text from earlier to later versions, hoping that this will cast light on the meaning of the text. The Documentary Hypothesis of JEDP (popularized by Julius Wellhausen) is a good (and famous) example of diachronic analysis.

Most Christians will not care very much about this distinction. However, what they don’t know could hurt them. It is important at this point to stress that not all diachronic approaches undermine the canonicity of a book. Consider, for instance, Kings and Chronicles, both of which are anonymous to us. We do not know who wrote them. It is theoretically conceivable that God could (through the Holy Spirit) have inspired a process of a developing book. Not every book of the canon need have been written all at one sitting. However, there is a great danger to the diachronic methods: atomization of the text. Context must be defined synchronically, since this is how God has providentially preserved His text. Diachronic methods often wind up destroying that context in favor of a completely different context. Furthermore, these methods are highly speculative and subjective. They rely on supposed stylistic differences to find “seams.” The problem with all stylistic arguments is that we do not have a large enough sample size, either in OT or NT, to determine different styles to such a nicety that we can base entire theories on them. Some stylistic differences are visible in the Bible. One can tell the difference between Paul and John, for instance. However, this has limited usefulness, because all the writers of the Bible could have written in a different style than the one they are known for, unless we want to posit the “stupid original writer hypothesis” (SOWH), whereby biblical writers are artificially limited to one and only one style.

In the Pentateuch, it seems important, biblically, to be able to say that Moses wrote it. That being said, we can ask the question of the last chapter of Deuteronomy. Is it possible that Moses wrote the account of his own death? Certainly it is possible. God could have revealed to Moses what would happen after his death. This is hardly difficult. However, isn’t it more likely that Joshua, also writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, added a final chapter to Deuteronomy? It is like Frodo and the red book, telling Sam that there is room for a little more, and leaving it to Sam to finish. It is also possible that there are minor editorial additions (in order to address a new context of living in the promised land) in the Pentateuch that Joshua could have added by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This would not preclude us saying that Moses is still the author of the Pentateuch. But it is possible that it is slightly edited. This should not cause concern among us. There is a difference between saying something like this versus something like the JEDP hypothesis, which essentially denies to Moses any hand in creating the Pentateuch. They will often answer that it is not necessary to affirm Mosaic authorship, since Moses is the main character of the Pentateuch, then we can say it is the book about Moses. This would not, however, seem to square with Jesus’ confident assertion in John 5 that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus). Surely a straightforward reading of John 5 would come up with Jesus making a claim that Moses did the writing. There is no evidence that Jesus is speaking metaphorically or symbolically. He is speaking of typology, but that is something else entirely.

A growing number of scholars believe that there need be no opposition between synchronic and diachronic approaches. In fact, some believe that the diachronic approach can help us appreciate the final synchronic reading better. Perhaps. I have read several authors who claim this, but are unconvincing so far. Separating out layers of a text is still going to run counter to seeing the final form as the ultimate context in which we read any given part.

Where I think we need to be as Christians on this matter is two-fold. On the one hand, we need not have as rigid a view as is sometimes held. Some people think that saying any word of the Pentateuch was written by someone other than Moses is heretical liberalism. Editing has been going on for thousands of years. Are we seriously going to suggest that God could not use it or inspire it? We can say that if there is any editing in Scripture, that editing happened by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to address a new state of affairs. On the other hand, I think we need to reject the more radical, subjective, hypothetical forms of diachronic analysis. The final form of the text is what we interpret in the church. Period. That is the form God has decreed should be the norm and guide for the church. Diachronic analyses should not be confused with exegesis, for these analyses do not interpret the text. Rather, they dissect it.

Conditional Prophecy or Unconditional Prophecy?

A very thorny question arises as to whether prophecies in the Old Testament are conditional or unconditional. Some of them appear to be one, and some appear to be the other. Problems arise whenever scholars seek to make one category that describes all prophecies. Hengstenberg, for instance, argues that all prophecies are unconditional. One wonders, then, how Hengstenberg deals with Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh. Or, how does he deal with Jeremiah 18:7-10? I just finished reading Fairbairn’s chapter on this topic in his Interpretation of Prophecy. He has a taxonomy of prophecies that is well worth consideration.

Fairbairn has three categories of prophecies. Of these, one is completely unconditional, one completely conditional, and one that has aspects of both.

The first category he describes is one that has aspects of both. The prophecies of salvation that “disclose God’s purposes of grace to men” are unconditional with regard to their ultimate fulfillment. The only conditional elements have to do with “relations of place and time” (p. 63). The protoevangelion (Genesis 3:15) is an example of this type of prophecy. He writes, “[E]ven in this class of prophecies, as they do not proceed to their accomplishment in a lofty isolation from human interests and responsibilities, so the things belonging to them must be presented to men’s view as capable of being expedited or retarded by the line of behaviour they pursue; and while with God himself the end was seen from the beginning, and absolutely determined, yet particular issues might fitly enough appear to be suspended on the particular condition of the church or the world” (p. 64).

The second class of prophecies he mentions has to do with “kingdoms that stood in a rival or antagonistic position to the kingdom of God.” These prophecies “were mainly intended to assure the hearts of God’s people, that whatever earthly resources and glory might for the time belong to those kingdoms, all was destined to pass away; that their dominion, however arrogant and powerful, should come to an end” (p. 68). These prophecies were about the foreign kingdoms, but they were usually directed towards God’s people. These prophecies do not, as a general rule, address moral issues (see p. 69). Many, if not most, of the oracles against the nations, fall into this category (for examples, see Ezekiel 25-32).

The third class of prophecies is completely conditional. They are the prophecies about which Jeremiah 18:7-10 speaks. This class bears directly “upon men’s responsibilities” (p. 70). These are often directed towards the foreign nation. Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh is a good example of this kind of prophecy. Jonah prophecies destruction, but Jonah obviously knows that this prophecy is conditional, because he did not want to give it to Nineveh, lest they repent, and then God would not bring upon them the destruction promised. Fairbairn comments on its seemingly unconditional form: “[T]he very absoluteness and precision of the form was the best adapted, it may be the only one actually fitted, to arouse slumbering consciences, and lead to serious repentance” (p. 73, emphasis original).

This taxonomy helps us to avoid three particular problems with Old Testament prophecy. One is that of open theism. God doesn’t change his mind. With the prophecies that have conditional elements, God immutably carries out His complex purposes, such that if the people change (of which outcome God already and immutably knows), then the outcome changes, humanly speaking. Secondly, this helps us to make sense of prophecies like that of Jonah that seemingly do not come to pass. As we know, one of the criteria for true prophets is that their prophecies must come to pass. Of course, liberals tend to use a very literalistic heremeneutic in order to “prove” that Old Testament prophecies are not fulfilled. This is another subject that Fairbairn addresses in this same chapter, incidentally. Thirdly, it also helps us to avoid the problems associated with extreme positions, like that of Hengstenberg, on the one hand, who argues that no prophecies are conditional; and other opposite positions, that argue that all prophecies are conditional. The problem with the latter position is that the criteria for prophecies coming true would be meaningless if the prophecies were always conditional. The prophet whose prophecy doesn’t come to pass could then conceivably always use the excuse, “Well, it was conditional.” I commend Fairbairn’s careful taxonomy. There might be tweaks that would be necessary to his categories (although I can’t think of any right off). But this is a helpful way of making sense of enormous swaths of Old Testament prophecy.

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