Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Hermeneutics and the Possibilities (and limits) of Language

Well I don't know if it ironic that the first actual posting about something I've read is from something not on one of my lists. I'm going to comment on one of the sections of a book published in 1957 by Lorraine Boettner entitled The Millennium, which discusses the three major viewpoints on the thousand year reign of Christ discussed in the book of Revelation in the New Testament.

I spent a few hours the other day reading the section on Postmillennialism which has been reproduced online: http://www.mbrem.com/eschatology/post13.htm

Boettner, aside from having a unique first name, is a proponent of Postmillennialism, but I think he fairly represents the alternative viewpoints (insofar as he treats them in the articles I read via the website link). The three views are: Postmillennialism, Amillennialism, and Premillennialism.

The first view believes that the thousand year reign of Christ began at the ascension of Christ to His heavenly throne at the right hand of God where He presently reigns and is working through the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit and the spread of the Gospel to redeem the world from its sinfulness. The view is often wrongly conflated with Progressivism and Modernism, which hold that the world is getting better and better because of the natural process of human enlightenment and the growth of knowledge. Postmillennialism does believe that the world is getting "better" in the sense that the Gospel has spread to a wider audience than it has even spread, that the principles and values of Christianity are accepted around the world in more places and to a greater degree than ever in history, and that this trend will continue (but not without ebbs and flows) as history progresses. The accomplishment of this is due not to natural processes or human willing, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the saints of Christ's Body, the Church in their faithful efforts to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations.

The thousand years is interpreted as a figurative number rather than a literal one in this view, and the accomplishment of the "golden age" where Christianity will be widely accepted and followed (but not universally or without sinfulness) will be ushered in gradually over a course of time that no human can determine.

The second view is only briefly discussed by Boettner in the sections I read. Like Postmillennialism it does not take the number of a thousand to mean exactly one thousand years. Indeed, Amillennialism does not think that an actual reign of a thousand years refers to a specified or unspecified period of Christ's reign. They believe that Christ's reign has already been inaugurated, but unlike the Postmillennial proponents, they do not hold to a "golden age" where Christianity will be widely accepted and faithfully followed. The Church will experience periods of growth and decline, but the proportion of believers to unbelievers will remain balanced toward unbelief (typically) because of the promises of suffering spoken of in the New Testament and a couple of passages in particular (Matt. 7:14; the parables of Matt. 13; Matt. 22:14; Luke 13:24).

The third view is split into two: Historic Premillennialsim and Dispensational Premillennialism. The former is the older viewpoint, while the latter is loosely related (Boettner refers to it as "radical" premillennialism). Both hold that the thousand years is preceded by the second coming of Christ. Dispensationalism generally holds that the period of tribulation that is referred to in Revelation occurs after the Church has been raptured, but before the second coming of Christ in full. Boettner critique Dispensationalism moreso than Amillennialism, primarily because the hermeneutic employed by Dispensationalism is different from the one employed by Post and Amils. In regard to the thousand year reign, Dispensationalists hold that it is a literal 1000 year period. This is not remarkable in itself, but the consistent application of their hermeneutic is that all of the prophecies regarding the Day of the Lord (Apocalypse) and the Second Coming are to be understood in a "literal" way, that is, upon a "plain" reading that does not "spiritualize" or "allegorize" the words of Scripture.

This last point is what brings me to the title of this post. Hermeneutics is the method by which one interprets Scripture. Everyone who reads has a hermeneutic, even the child reading Dr. Seuss is employing principles of interpretation. Does the child understand the story to have actually happened? If so, the principle of historical validity is in effect. Does the child believe that the story is completely imaginary? If so, the principle of fictionalization is in effect. Hermeneutics becomes difficult when figurative language is used in a work that does not indicate whether or not it is intended to be read as actual history (or prophecy) or whether the words are referring to actual events or ideas but in analogous ways ("my love for you is deeper than the ocean") or allegorical ways (Aslan's sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is allegorical of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross) or whether the events or ideas are simply imaginary (like Spiderman).

Evangelical Christians, of course, believe that the Bible is not imaginary, and they believe that few, if any, portions of the Bible are allegorical (some believe Job and Jonah are parables, and of course, all believe that Jesus's parables are allegorical). However, the big difference in the focus of this post is whether the prophecies of Scripture ought to be understood as fulfilled in history "by the letter" or "by the spirit" of the words they are spoken/written with. For example, is the beast of Revelation really to have the body parts of animals and multiple heads? Will there be a real dragon? Or, are these descriptions merely symbolic of other material things (like a person, place, or nation for example)?

I have met very few Dispensationalists that believe that all of the language of prophecy is meant to be understood "by the letter." They understand that figurative language can be analogous. Indeed, a great many doctrines are expressed in figurative language. When the Bible speaks of believing with your "heart" it certainly does not mean that the organ that pumps blood to your body is what a person uses to believe in Jesus. Nor do Dispensationalists understand that the Bible's anthropomorphisms for God are literal. For example, God, as a spirit, cannot have hands or a mouth, though the Bible uses these descriptions to express qualities of God's nature and relationship to humanity and the created world.

Thus, both sides recognize that not every word of prophecy requires the reader to take a "woodenly literal" approach to it. I think Boettner fails to make this concession in some of his critiques of Dispensationalism, but equally so, Dispensationalists often accuse Post and Amils of using "spiritualizing" methods of interpretation, which is really another way of saying that they are reading figures of speech as analogous that Dispensationalists are reading as literal. The question then is not, automatically, whether the prophecies are "literal" or "figurative" for these terms are misleading. All viewpoints, if they are Evangelical, believe that the prophecies will be fulfilled in history as they are intended to be fulfilled. The italicized phrase is where the hang-ups begin.

There is a more fundamental issue of hermeneutics that under girds the entire discussion of prophecy, but I will refrain from going into too much detail. Every theologian develops an overall understand of what the Bible is saying and this has been broken down into two complementary categories: Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology. The former seeks to understand the Bible as it has developed over the course of history, that is, from Genesis to Revelation. The latter seeks to understand the logical relationship of all the propositions of Scripture on various topics, the most important of which being "Who God is" and "What are God's purposes." Systematic theology is secondary to Biblical theology, but for both of these efforts there is an assumption that the Bible is one Word, one message of God.

Biblical theology under the Post and Amil (and most historic Premils I think) view God's primary revelatory relationship to humanity coming through the Covenants of Scripture. Dispensationalists also give weight to God's Covenants with humanity, but they put precedence upon God's choice of Israel as benefactors of the Covenants of what has come to be known as the Old Testament. The New Testament is understood to be primarily for the Church, which is distinct from Israel. The first view (Covenantal) sees no fundamental distinction between the "Old" Testament and the "New" Testament in terms of its audience. The "Church" of the New Testament are the people of God in the same way (His eternal Covenant) and by the same means (God's electing grace by the gift of faith) as "Israel" of the Old Testament.

Systematic theologies built upon either of these viewpoints will differ in their understandings of certain things, but certainly not all things.

I leave it to my readers to investigate these topics more thoroughly upon their own desire and opportunities. For myself, I am fascinated on many levels by theological positions and the systems of understanding that support their conclusions. I have changed in my views over the years, but I will always enjoy striving to understand what the message of God to His people is as it is revealed in the words of Scripture.

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