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Can We Trust Prophecy?
In Defense of the Faith
Friday, July 22, 2016
Alf Cengia

Can we trust prophecy? Some people caution against it.

Over the years there have been various attacks mounted on the study of prophecy. Many of these have focused on recent infamous (and failed) predictions of Christ's Second Coming made by certain individuals. During the course of time there have been spectacular failures - beginning with some church fathers, Adventist Ellen G. White in the mid 1800s, and right up to now.

I remember reading a persistent preterist's long rants in one forum. He loved recalling these failures and often remarked that prophecy enthusiasts would die in vain waiting for Christ's return. Of course, the preterist insisted that Christ had already returned in 70AD.

I reminded him that if Christ returned in 70 AD, then it was a "secret coming" because no one ever noticed. Hippolytus and Irenaeus mustn't have got the memo, as they were still looking for Christ's coming in their day. How could they miss such a grand event?

At first, it was fun jousting with him. Well, sort of. I presumed that citing Scripture might get him to rethink his eschatology. I was naive. He was as slippery as a well-oiled fish, determined to escape the obvious meaning of the texts I submitted. In the end, the debates achieved nothing. The rants always called 2 Peter 3:3-4 to mind.

Covenant Theology (CT) is inevitably linked to criticisms of prophecy in general. Unfortunately, our non-pretribulational premil friends often join the amillennial and postmillennial chorus of disapproval of dispensationalism and prophecy.

A protestant posttribber once sided with a Catholic against me as I defended pretribulationism. One reason he did so was because he saw dispensationalism as a larger threat. He shared the Catholic amillennial view that the church was true Israel. Hence he defaulted to the CT idea that the New Testament re-interprets Old Testament prophecy.

The CT position is that prophetic promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church. This approach is what unites CT historic premillennialists like Craig Blomberg with amillennialists such as Sam Storms and Gary Burge. They are joined by prophecy skeptics such as apologist William Lane Craig, who I wrote about previously.

Another popular argument is that prophecy is too ambiguous to be certain of its meaning. Or that it must be understood within its metaphoric and contemporary filters.

In Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, D Brent Sandy argued for a paradigm shift to de-emphasize the search for futuristic details in prophetic literature. He claimed that the dispensational emphasis on a literal hermeneutic often missed points which prophets intended for their contemporary audiences.

Interestingly, even though amillennialist Sam Storms recommended the book (for obvious reasons), he still had some reservations. Those interested can find an in-depth critical review (video, audio and notes) of Brent Sandy's book by Charlie Clough at Dean Bible Ministries.

G. K. Beale's name often comes up as an authoritative voice in discussions on hermeneutics and prophecy. Notably, he's also an amillennialist and supersessionist. However, his conclusions are influenced by his presumption that OT covenant promises to Israel were fulfilled by Christ at His first advent. This isn't always taken into consideration.

Dr. Michael Heiser recently wrote:

Many scholars and Bible students have proposed all sorts of things for interpreting what the Bible says about end times, but anything approximating precision is not possible. ~ The Unseen Realm (page 349)

Dr. Heiser also contends that OT Messianic prophecy was deliberately cryptic; that "the biblical text is riddled with ambiguities" which undermine the certainty of modern eschatological systems. He claims NT writers didn't always interpret OT prophecy literally. Moreover, he believes that much is communicated via the framework of the ancient Near East (ANE) view.

Michael Heiser is well thought of in academic circles. While his book focuses on the Divine Council theory, statements like the above will influence readers. I think that's very unfortunate. I might also note that "ambiguities" haven't prevented Heiser from formulating his own biblical conclusions.

Scholars such as Dr. Michael Vlach "Has the Church Replaced Israel?" and Dr. Michael Rydelnik "The Messianic Hope" challenge assertions that Messianic prophecies are overly cryptic - and that NT writers modified the OT understanding, thus undermining certainty (e.g., Acts 15:15-18 & Amos 9:11-12).

Walter Kaiser, John Sailhamer and E. W. Hengstenberg had no difficulty identifying messianic prophecies. See also David Limbaugh's "The Emmaus Code." Far from cryptic, Jesus expected the disciples to have understood what was prophesied of Him in the OT (Luke 24:25).

Those who depart from the literalness of Genesis 1-3 are bound to also question the prophetic books. Genesis views held by the likes of Heiser, Peter Enns, Tim Keller and John Walton have been challenged linguistically, hermeneutically, theologically and scientifically etc. See Jonathan Sarfati's "The Genesis Account" and "What happened in the Garden" edited by Abner Chou.

A Heiser fan once told me that the dispensational understanding of prophecy was insufficient and that there were deeper meanings to be mined. He used the buzzword "humility." However, insofar as prophetic promises to Israel were concerned his "deeper meaning" simply meant an abrogation and transference to the church.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, many who drop the "humble" line are often adamant they're right about their particular interpretations. We mentioned Emmaus earlier - the same OT which predicted the Messiah first advent also anticipates a glorious future for redeemed Israel.

Perhaps this is the area where the problem lies.

We agree that there's plenty of room for humility, and some areas of uncertainty when discussing prophecy. For example, there's honest debate regarding the Antichrist's ethnicity, the timing of Gog-Magog, the timing of the rapture and more. We cannot always be precise and we can't always assume current events contain prophetic portents.

However, when we remove national Israel from the prophetic canvass we create enormous gaps in the Big Picture.

The Book of Revelation is filled with OT allusions inexorably linked to God's redemptive plan for national Israel. The OT is saturated with millennial kingdom promises which relate to covenants given to Israel. Moreover, the prophetic books, the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation discuss events and conditions just before the return of Messiah.

These prophecies weren't given to be ignored. They are revelatory promises of hope and they are warnings. And, like it or not, a central piece is Israel.

Is this the generation which misses out on the clues to Christ's premillennial return because they've capitulated to eschatological agnosticism by excising Israel from prophecy?

Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near. Rev 1:3

Are we paying attention?

Further reading:

Dr. Paul Henebury has written a four part series analyzing G. K. Beale's A New Testament Biblical Theology.  Begin at Part One.

He has also given us forty reasons why we shouldn't re-interpret the OT using the NT:

The First Twenty

The Last Twenty

About Alf Cengia

Last week: Jerusalem and Islam

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