Esoteric Theology or Biblical Hermeneutics? Which should we use when interpreting Old Testament prophecy? Obviously the latter, right?
Let’s put it in more popular way. Should we use a literal or biblical hermeneutics for Old Testament prophecy? This is something of a trick question sometimes raised by those who are prone to allegorize prophecy in both the Old and New Testaments. It is often suggested that the popular (literal) dispensational approach to prophetic interpretation isn’t necessarily biblical.
Following my article Cosmic Battle for Jerusalem, I was advised by a reader that I should forgo my “preconceived ideas of end-time events.” She objected to the idea of future literal stone temples in Jerusalem. I responded that it’s when we impose our interpretation over the plain sense of texts that we indulge in end-times preconception. Zech 14:4 is a classic example. On what basis does one need to spiritualize this verse? And where can this lead eventually us when we consistently do this for prophetic passages?
A little later I stumbled across a piece on hermeneutics on the Reformedish blog. Taking his cue from G. K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission, Derek Rishmawy wrote:
…the reference to the Temple in 2 Thessalonians is a reference to the church. On this basis and many other exegetical insights he [Beale] claims that the prophecies of Daniel being alluded to in the text about the man of lawlessness setting up his rule in the Temple are ultimately taking place in the Church, not in some reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem as is commonly thought in popular Dispensationalism.
Rishmawy cites Beale:
“Second, the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfillment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant.” (pg. 289) ~ (Emphases mine)
I underlined the words “expanded meanings” because the expanded argument is sometimes employed by proponents of Replacement Theology regarding prophecy and Israel. As the argument goes, it’s not Replacement Theology it’s “Fulfillment Theology.” For example, Beale uses the anecdote of a father who promises his son a horse and buggy when he grows up. At the appropriate time, the father gives his son a Ford instead. So he “expanded on the promise.”
The “expansion” concept is applied to Israel. Instead of a piece of land in the Middle East, saved Jews become true Israel (along with saved Gentiles) and inherit the entire earth. However, this is simple Replacement Theology dressed up in a different. Imagine if the father told his son that he wasn’t going to own the Ford exclusively – it had to be shared with the rest of the country, as well as the family name. This doesn’t expand on Israel’s promises as a future separate elect nation in land it was exclusively promised – it abrogates them. See Isaiah 60:12-16; Zech 14:16-19 etc.
Dr Paul Henebury has also written about Beale. In part 4 of a series of critiques, he notes:
The author’s thesis, drawn as it is from his interpretation of allusions and types, is, I firmly believe, quite beyond the ken of the vast majority of Bible students past or present. This is esoteric theology funded by esoteric reading of the Bible. Scripture’s constant “transformations” of seemingly clear teachings via the sorts of subtleties Beale appeals to make it the preserve of scholars. The Bible is not for Everyman, since the key to its interpretation is an enigma to most of us (saved or lost). Instead of just using language to tell us straight, it seems, if Beale is to be followed, that God hides the reality within the symbolically concealed. A man who can write, “Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism” (431 my emphasis), without contemplating the gravity, philosophically speaking, of what he is saying, is not, in our estimation, a safe guide. What use then are the tests of a prophet (Deut. 18:22) if fulfillments can be transformed into something the original hearers wouldn’t have understood? Those who take their queue from Paul, who told others, “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:25), have, it would seem, gotten hold of the wrong end of the interpretative stick.
Note again what Dr Henebury says: “This is esoteric theology funded by esoteric reading of the Bible.” He’s right! How can the average layman understand his Bible if it is esoterically layered? He would need a Gregory Beale-John Walton approved special decoder-ring to understand Genesis, temples and prophetic promises to Israel.
This is the same methodology New Age mystics such as Yogananda employed when citing Scripture. Notably, Yogananda made no less than 300 allusions to biblical texts in his two-volume The Second Coming of Christ. Yet his conclusions weren’t Christian at all. Yogananda began with a premise and then worked his interpretation onto passages he cited. His devotees trusted him to expound Scripture in much the same way Roman Catholics trust the Magisterium.
Beale’s apologists would respond that they take a Christocentric view of the Old Testament. However, imposing Christological presuppositions onto prophetic verses alters their plain-sense meaning. Spiritualize Zech 14:4 and you must do the same for the rest of the verses in the chapter. Instead of making more sense, this generates a confusion that didn’t exist. It also puts understanding much of the Bible out of reach of the average reader. Moreover, in Beale’s case, his re-interpretations are forced by his amillennial eschatology.
This isn’t how we should approach prophetic texts.