Eschatology: Prophecy and Apocalyptic

I’ll be working from Chapter 4 of Dr. Edward Vick’s book Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide and looking at the nature of prophecy and the literary nature of the texts. I’ll also be looking at ways in which we interpret prophetic literature. I apologize for posting this very late. I will try to comment in writing and add some links tomorrow and Saturday.

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Seven Marks: Apostolic Teaching

nt church booksIn the video, Dave calls this simply “The Word of God.” I’m embedding it at the end of this post.

9781631990465mOne of my observations in talking to people about their churches and church programs is that they find the first moment when a book or program differs from their situation and take one of two approaches. First, they might discard the entire thing. This is fairly common. That won’t work for us. It doesn’t matter that what we’re doing isn’t working either. Second, they try to follow the program precisely, despite any differences, because if it worked for the expert who wrote the book, it has to work for them.

Neither of these is a strategy that is likely to succeed. Each person, community, church congregation, denomination (or jurisdiction within a denomination) is different. Each one will have different opportunities and perhaps a different call from God. I am passionately convinced that sharing the good news about Jesus with the world is our general calling. Whether that is going to involve a food pantry, classes, involvement in broader community outreach, collecting money for projects across the globe, or any one of a myriad of other possibilities, is wide open.

Especially in protestantism we tend to downplay tradition, but our church tradition has a role. The way you will carry out certain missions is going to depend on the history of the church congregation. We don’t all get her in the same way, and we’re not going to move forward in the same way. Dr. Ruth Fletcher, in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations devotes an entire chapter to choosing, to the necessity of discerning the right path and making and carrying out decisions.

The reason I wanted to emphasize this right now is that quite frequently we think we cannot benefit from something like “apostolic teaching” or “the Word of God” unless we absolutely agree on what it is and how we’re going to deal with it. But just amongst the books that I publish, we have Dr. David Alan Black, a Southern Baptist Greek teacher (and full-time missionary, he’d insist!) and Dr. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor, seminary professor, and a process theologian who are both going back to the same place: Acts of the Apostles. Now I’ll tell you that if you read both of their books, something I urge you to do for reasons beyond the fact that I publish both, you’ll find quite a number of things they disagree on and quite a number of points of different emphasis. But in a church that is often drifting and dying while repeating the same behaviors that led it to its current malaise, that one similarity is enormous. Let’s look back at the early church. Let’s ask what made Christianity what it is. Perhaps there is something there that would help us.

Now one interpreter might be looking for a definitive, apostolic pattern to apply and follow. Another might be looking for a series of commands that one can carry out. Another might be reading the story and asking how are stories might relate. Yet certain things come out of such a study, and certain things result from going to the source.

I’m very protestant in ethos. I’m not at all interested in things like apostolic succession, in the sense of a series of people who had hands laid on them by a person who had hands laid on them leading back to the apostles. But I’m very interested in seeing what those early apostles did. I’m very interested in connecting my story to theirs. There is nothing about that process that is mechanical or that allows me to depend totally on someone else’s work.

Dave makes this point in the interview as he talks about us teaching one another. Why am I comparing what Dave has said with what two other authors have said? Is it so that I can sell more books? Of course I want to sell more books. I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I don’t care about selling books. But that’s not the key reason. I started publishing to do this. I wanted us to teach one another, to do on a broad scale what Dave is talking about in the local church (where I also want to see it done). I want is to help one another learn. I hope we find ourselves challenged.

There is nowhere that I want to see this more than in our use of the Bible. How is it that we can begin to see more of this individual Bible study in the church? And let me specify here by “individual” I mean “individual in community.” Let’s avoid two serious errors: 1) That Bible study is individual without any community control or involvement, and 2) That Bible study is a communal affair that can be handled by an expert passing out information. The reason I named a series I publish “participatory” in spite of the number of people who thought that word was too long, is that it is individuals participating in community who have the best possibility to find the message for themselves, their churches, and their communities.

Ruth Fletcher comments on this. Note how she doesn’t propose the same type of study for all types of churches.

Even though this is an age when people care more about what the church does than what it believes, transforming congregations know they must lessen the gap between people’s experience of God and the church’s teaching about God if the church is once again to become a reliable source of wisdom. Beliefs matter. Transforming congregations that are creedal churches help individuals discover a deeper truth in the words they recite; those that are non-creedal churches create safe space where individuals can work out their own guiding beliefs. They create space within their own tradition where people have the freedom to honestly express doubts, to say what they do not believe, to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers, and to wonder about the mysteries of the universe. (Thrive, p. 91)

Bruce Epperly has a similar idea:

The first followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were a church whose spirituality was truly holistic. They prayed and they studied, and discovered study was a form of prayer. We need thinking Christians, who take theological reflection seriously, who ask serious questions, and challenge unhealthy and superficial images of God and human experience. (Transforming Acts, p. 48)

If you think the various visions are distant from one another consider this: What would happen to the church in America if we were to focus on studying the early church looking for insight into how to be a church following Jesus in the world today? I think that a number of wonderful things might happen despite how we decided to approach the question and the hermeneutical principles we took to the effort. Do I want us to debate such hermeneutical principles? Absolutely! The do make a difference. I think one of the greatest things we can do is to consider and discuss that issue seriously. But if we started at that point, we’d already be devoting ourselves, in our own limited ways, to the apostles’ teaching. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

The section on this mark in the video begins about 15:30. I’m not setting the video to the starting point, as I suspect most who are willing to invest time in the video will watch it as a whole once.

A Reason to Talk Sensibly about Eschatology

… so it is not left to this sort of discussion. I did some study of and discussion of the so-called Bible codes some years back, and I’m not spending more time. The problem is that using the methodology in question (and its variants) one can come up with so many things and such vague things that it becomes self-defeating to try to respond.

In my view, by doing this sort of thing (trying to know things that are not present in the text), we go well beyond what the Bible was intended to do. The Bible is there to help you come into communication with God. That it conveys some information is not the main issue. We get stuck arguing about informational details while ignoring the broad sweep of the text.

When we turn to the Bible codes, we begin not just concentrating on informational details, we’re creating new content. It may be nice to feel that we know these things, but in fact we do not. Nobody knows. That’s the way God intended it.

Bill Tuck on Eschatology

The Journey to the Undiscovered CountryEnergion author William Powell Tuck, author of The Journey to the Undiscovered Country and many other books, is taking on the topic of eschatology at a personal level on the Energion Discussion Network. Since I’m currently talking about this topic on this blog and on my YouTube channel, I wanted to call attention to it. I’ll be using Bill Tuck’s material as I proceed.

One of the interesting questions that the New Testament raises is the relationship between personal eschatology and universal. When the Bible talks about the end being “soon,” which has resulted in numerous disappointments for Christians, is there an element of the personal in the statement. After all, the end has been “soon” for a few billion of us over the years. I think that idea tends to raise more questions than it answers, but it raises worthwhile questsions.

Inerrancy according to the Chicago Statement

Tim Bulkeley is asking a question about the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. When I say that I reject biblical inerrancy, a frequent (and valid) follow-up is to ask what kind of inerrancy I reject. The answer, for me, is the inerrancy of the Chicago Statement.

If you’re wondering what about that statement I reject, I could point to plenty of items, but the short answer would be Article XII, which Tim Bulkeley quotes, especially this: “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

I’ve written on all this before. For now I just want to provide the link and open the discussion.

Note the recent series of articles on the Energion Discussion Network:  Creationism: A Denial of the Authority of the Whole Bible, A Literal Reading of Genesis 1-3Which Creation is the Greater Witness?

Link: Local Church Pastors

Since I’ve been talking about churches and leadership, I thought it would be useful to point to this article on Local church pastors on the rise. As usual, I think we’re behind. My personal belief is that the whole system of education we’re using, including degrees is well past its prime. If we made use of all the resources available, there would be no reason we couldn’t make better opportunities available for local church pastors to improve their skills.

But my experience with local church pastors suggests two things: 1) For every local church pastor who has a weakness, there’s very likely an elder who also has a problem, and 2) Local church pastors also have skills in ministry that many of your full elders do not.

I’m just not that enamored of the wonders of seminary education. But it’s not the education we need to get rid of. What we need to do is restructure the means and time when education is delivered, received and applied.

Thinking Things Will Make You Stupid Will Make You Stupid

Power PointRecently I’ve encountered a seeming avalanche of comments, articles, and posts that claim that some new technological tool will make you stupid. Or possibly lazy. Or immoral. Or something.

Doubtless the first stone knife was similarly received — as the end of manly dependence upon unformed sticks and stones, and the birth of a generation too lazy to rip the skins off their prey with their bare hands.

Amongst the things I’ve been told will make people stupid are cell phones, tablets, laptop computers, PowerPoint presentations, television, and YouTube. These things will make you lazy, destroy your memory, rip out your analytical capabilities, and probably precipitate immoral behavior. Or something.

Thus contrary to the upright nature of previous generations, the current generation is going to hell in a handbasket. And doubtless using cliches and incomplete sentences too.

Besides the myth of the golden age, which seems to infect people around my age, this is simply nonsense. Tools are tools. We will use them according to our character. Any tool can be misused. Television can convey information and be educational. It can also convey abominable trash. A PowerPoint presentation can be boring beyond belief (I’ve made one or two), or it can contain helpful illustrations that aid understanding and memory.

I believe it is intellectual laziness that causes us to blame the tools for the result. The sort of moaning that some folks in my generation indulge in regarding modern technology is enabled by our own intellectual laziness, lack of critical thinking, and unwillingness to examine the facts.

So quit moaning about progress. Learn new things. Make effective use of new tools. Get involved in educating the next generation. Or go ahead and vegetate.

Oh, and about that seeming avalanche I mentioned in the first paragraph. That’s laziness too. There’s no recent avalanche. People have always complained about these things and always will. The only thing that happened today is that I got annoyed enough to write a blog post.

Seven Marks: Baptism

nt church books(This continues a series that started here, and continues with part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

The second mark of a New Testament church according to Dr. David Alan Black is Christian baptism. He explains why he explicitly uses the term “Christian” with baptism. There’s a distinction there that’s important and Dave discusses it. Here’s the video. The discussion of Christian baptism begins at about 08:45.

There are several things that Dave says about baptism that I fully agree with. He believes in baptism by immersion of believers, i.e., people who make the choice to be baptized. He also believes baptism should immediately (or very closely) follow the decision. I also, however, believe that this is an area on which there should be a great deal of tolerance for differences.

For example, I attend a United Methodist congregation. The norm is to baptize infants and then confirm them as youth. I grew up in a church (Seventh-day Adventist) where one dedicated children as infants and then baptized them when they made their own decision. I made my decision to be baptized at age 9.

While I strongly prefer one option, and many of my reasons are the same as Dave’s, I am quite able to be a member of a church where the practice is different. I would note that the United Methodist Discipline does allow for baptism by immersion, so a United Methodist pastor can practice believer’s baptism by immersion. He or she could not, however, refuse to perform infant baptisms, at least as I understand it. I know that some Methodist pastors are quite dogmatic on the point. My preference would be to see a quite open choice. For example, if a family prefers some kind of baby dedication, where is the problem? Again, I also know a number of Methodist pastors who would go along with that.

I’m going to refrain from arguing the biblical material on this. I think Dave has gone over that quite well, and in this case I am substantially in agreement.

Let me bring in short quotes from our other two authors.

Ruth Fletcher brings in a completely different issue that may cause some concern to United Methodist readers, or those from any other church that has a fairly high view of sacraments. I’m quoting from Thrive, page 141:

As the church finds its way into the future, the role of clergy will shift even more than it already has. Although some ministers will preach and lead worship, many will give their time to training lay people as worship leaders and small group facilitators. Although some will offer pastoral care, that care will extend beyond the members of the church into the neighborhood. Although some will teach, that teaching will focus on equipping individuals to serve in various roles both inside and outside the church. The sacramental tasks of baptizing, leading in communion, presiding at weddings and funerals increasingly will be shared with people beyond those who are ordained.

Here I would have to say two things. First, I personally don’t see that baptism should require an ordained person. Second, as a member of a community that requires that an ordained person carry out any baptism, I will not put my first belief into practice. That is a matter of submission to the community. While I would forcefully argue for and even insist on using the community’s permission with regards to the method and time of baptism, I would also argue that where my community has a firm position, I should, as a member, live in accordance with that rule. Nevertheless I do believe that every member should be in ministry, and that ordination should not be reserved for one gift or set of gifts but should be for all. We should lay hands on and commission every member to minister using their gifts.

Let me continue with a slightly longer quote from Bruce Epperly in Transforming Acts (p. 85):

Such dramatic experiences – whether evangelical or mystical in nature – are not normative for all Christians. Some of us are born Christian. As cradle Christians, we are dedicated or baptized as infants, and then grow in grace not by drama but through a gentle, day to day walk with God. Nevertheless, most of us eventually face moments in which we have to say “no” to one way of life – or certain behaviors or lifestyles – to say “yes” to another.

Providence is both gentle and dramatic. We can experience God, while we are playing with our children and looking across the table at a beloved spouse or friend; we may also discover God in the storms of life, helpless yet saved by a power beyond ourselves.

Third, Paul’s Damascus road experience invites us to connect our spiritual experiences, whether at worship, at camp, or on the road, with discovering our vocation and mission in life. Paul is clear that his mystical experience was not an end in itself, but an invitation to a new self-understanding and vocation as God’s messenger to the Gentile world.

Bruce is talking about the dramatic conversion experience of Paul, which relates in some ways to baptism. Numerous times I’ve encountered people who do not remember a time when they did not know Jesus. They don’t recall a particular decision moment, because they were believers from as early as they can remember. In some ways, my own view of baptism as a thing to be chosen by believers relates to my own experience. I grew up in a Christian home, but I distinctly remember the time when that belief became mine rather than someone else’s. It was no longer my parents’ faith. It was mine. That was at my baptism.

Eschatology: What Is Prophecy

Tonight I’ll be continuing my study on Eschatology, using my Google+ page and YouTube channel. I’ll embed a YouTube viewer below.

In preparation for this study I think it would be useful to read my post from earlier this morning titled Link and Notes on Textual Criticism. That may sound irrelevant, but in it I try to say something about why I study details even though I don’t think we can attain certainty that we have the details right.

In talking about eschatology I’ve found that there’s great complexity in explaining all of the various views of the end times. For many, eschatology (if they know the word) is supposed to be about outlining how future history will go and how we will know that Jesus will appear. I’m not going to sneak anything up on you. I reject that viewpoint. Neither prophecy nor any other form of predictive statement, including the extended visions of apocalyptic, provides or is intended to provide an outline of the end of the world. What it is intended to accomplish is to let you understand how to live through the difficult times and come through to the end. The end of the particular trouble—and much of this material comes at a particular time of trouble—may not end with the end of the world. Much of apocalyptic literature reads that way, assuring suffering people that God will win in the end, but the times of trouble pass, and “the end is not yet.”

Here’s my simple eschatology (click to expand):

simple eschatologyYou may find that particularly unsatisfactory. If so, you will perhaps want to listen to the way someone else interprets prophecy and eschatological language. But I think you are likely to be disappointed. The field of prophecy, whether we’re talking about ancient Israel or modern prophets in the church, is filled with cute explanations for why various interpretations of predictions haven’t worked out. I think there’s a reason for this.

Two options for that reason: 1) God didn’t want us to know or 2) We’re too stupid to figure out what God was saying. We’ve simply been wrong too many times.

I could say that the literature itself has failed either because we couldn’t get what God had in mind into print or because God has failed. Always assuming, of course, that I’m not willing to go with the traditional approach which is to forget about each failed prophetic interpretation and go on making more and more unsubstantiated predictions. Instead, I’ve looked back at these texts and I don’t think we’re supposed to get that sort of detail out of them. What we’re supposed to be doing is looking at how God has worked with people, the manner in which God is with us in the interim. I think we can learn a great deal.

So reading Revelation is not just a matter of looking for the literal meanings of various symbols. It is, instead a process of understanding how this text spoke to people in trouble and how it can speak to others who are similarly in trouble. I will be developing that point of view in this series.

The critical think to note from last week’s presentation is learning to make a break from the puzzle pieces approach. Much of the writing and preaching on Daniel and Revelation, or on eschatology in general is based on this approach. If I can find the right place in the text in Daniel 7, connect it with the right place in Daniel 8 and then 9, connect all of those to Isaiah 65 & 66 at just the right points, pull in a verse from 1 Thessalonians, then tie all of that to selected anchor points in Daniel 12 & 13, I ‘ll know what’s coming next. I can make a chart. I can be safe.

I would suggest that such charts are about as safe as the Tower of Babel. They come from our desire to eliminate uncertainty from our lives. We want to make our lives safe, to know what we will face, and most especially to be able to point to specific things we will avoid, while others suffer. In my view the pre-tribulation rapture partakes of wish fulfilment. We’ve read about times of trouble, and we want to find a way to say that we won’t be here for the greatest time of trouble. So we have found out when it will occur and we have found out that we can avoid it. Well, we think we can.

You know what I think? If the pre-tribulation rapture is true, as a follower of Jesus I should want to be here after the rapture to help take the gospel to those left behind. Yes, I know, there are various explanations of why this wouldn’t be the case. I just don’t believe them.

I will certainly be looking in this series at the wide variety of interpretations. How do we paste scriptures together to make doctrines such as the rapture? But I will be more interested in looking at the question of how we will live in the “God with us” period that stands between God’s creation in the beginning and God’s renewal at the end.

One might try to discard apocalyptic because of what it looks forward to. If the period of trouble will (or may) end without the end of the world, so clearly expected by the writer of apocalyptic, of what good can the material be? Well, in each case the time of trouble did end, and there was something in that message that helped through the time. We’re going to look for that.

Read Daniel 2 and 7. Now consider this: Is the key message in Daniel 3:18 or Daniel 7:13? (Leaving open the possibility that the answer is neither!) Which one do we quote or consult more?

Tonight I’ll be talking about the purpose of prophecy. I don’t believe biblical prophecy is intended for the same purpose as consulting psychics. (Note: I’m not maintaining that psychics can provide accurate information about the future. In fact, I believe they truly cannot. But people consult them in that hope.) Biblical prophecy is intended to help us live in God’s world with the knowledge that whatever happens God is with us.

Here’s the viewer for tonight:


Links and Notes on Textual Criticism


Grid Search Pattern by Scout,

Jeremy Myers at Redeeming God has an interesting post on textual criticism (HT: Thomas Hudgins). Myers is comparing the textual commentaries written by Bruce Metzger (with input of the UBS committee) and Philip W. Comfort. It’s fun to watch the critical scholars disagree!

If anyone believes I consider that a negative comment on critical scholars, let me disabuse you of that notion. It is, instead, a comment on the texts and sources we have to work with. The reason we have disagreements is not that scholars are somehow stupid or unnecessary, but rather that the evidence is, in fact, complex and requires serious study. Often there isn’t enough evidence to come up with any real conclusion. Where I would criticize critics, and in fact any biblical scholar, is in making conclusions that imply evidence that is better than they have or are likely to acquire.

When attempting to make the evidence solidly in favor of one conclusion, Christian apologists like to spend their time talking about the New Testament. Why? Because the New Testament evidence is much clearer. Not necessarily clear, but clearly than that for the Hebrew scriptures (or Old Testament). You have an abundance of New Testament manuscripts that tends to put most issues into pretty strong consensus territory. Such is not the case for the Old. We have, in many cases, just enough evidence to suggest that there is a great deal we’d like to know but lack the evidence to study. Looking at the differences between the Septuagint and the Massoretic Text, for example, suggests many possibilities, but leaves us without a detailed trail of evidence to study.

There are a number of responses to this complexity. We can give up on knowing what scripture teaches. We can decide that the inspiration of scripture operates in very different ways. Or perhaps we can think that the Holy Spirit guides people in the church (and out of the church, for that matter) as they study, and that God doesn’t mind that we come to different conclusions.

I choose the latter, and apply this to various higher critical methodologies as well as textual criticism. The details are fun to study, but we don’t have to settle all the details in order to be followers of Jesus. We don’t have to settle all the doctrinal issues in order to be followers of Jesus. Yes, it’s fun, and I think even useful to study all those things, but settling them is not necessary. God can guide you when you study your English (or other native language) Bible as well as he can study me when I read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Maybe even better, for all I know.

Because I believe that inspiration resides in God’s actions in history and that one of those actions was the production of scripture (yes, scripture in its various debated forms), I think it’s still useful to study everything about the text, from its prehistory to it’s canonical state, to it’s dissemination and variety of translation. I don’t believe God resides at just one point. I may hear from God as I apply source criticism to Genesis, for example, seeing two different creation stories and looking at them independently. I can also hear from God when I see those as combined into the larger volume of the book of Genesis and the Pentateuch as a whole. I can still see God when I look back at that creation story from the perspective of the New Creation which is in Christ Jesus.

When I read scripture in this fashion, debates about inerrancy and historicity tend to fade into the background as I hope to listen to every echo of God’s voice in the texts I have using whatever means I have to dig out that echo.

I’m an Amateur Radio operator (KT4B for those who care). I remember when I was in my teens how I would try to contact different parts of the world. It was nice to do so using a reasonably high powered (200 watt at the time) transceiver and a directional antenna on a tower 50 ft high. I could hold conversations with people on the other side of the world if I did the work right. Sometimes, however, things didn’t work so well. Careful listening and careful sorting through the interference could still get a message through.

I remember once operating from Georgetown, Guyana (WB4BUQ/8R1 at the time) and trying to contact a station in Iceland that was using just 200 mW of power. To qualify for the award he was seeking we had to be able to exchange a certain amount of information and then verify the contact via mail. In normal conversation it would take less than 30 seconds. Using Morse Code and his low power station it took close to a half an hour.

The information was of no value to me or to him, other than to confirm the effort and its success. But there was great growth in my skills (I don’t know about his) to be gained simply from the effort.

That is my view of digging into the shadowy, difficult details of scripture. It’s a learning process. It doesn’t really matter whether I come to the same conclusion as you do. I’ve spent time searching for and looking at the echoes of God’s work, and that is enough to justify the effort.