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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Your View of Prophecy Matters

Does is really make much difference how you view Bible prophecy?

Most Christians would affirm that all scripture is God-breathed and profitable; that’s fairly fundamental. It follows that the study of prophecy is also profitable, though whether its details are easily deciphered or have immediate application to the lives of all readers is another question altogether.

For the new Christian, deciding between a premillennial, amillennial or some other view of Bible prophecy often depends on how you have been raised and what sort of church you first attended. It’s easy to uncritically accept a default position enthused over by godly friends or relatives. After all, there’s so much else to learn for the new believer — so much that is not only relevant but critical to Christian growth — that prophecy may be relegated to the backburner as one of those potentially divisive issues upon which not too much of significance turns.

But let me suggest that there is often more at stake in our choice of prophetic method of interpretation than we might think.

What are the Options?

Some clarification might be in order for readers unfamiliar with the premillennial/ amillennial interpretive divide. Short version:

Premillennialism takes literally the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years.

Amillennialism, on the other hand, holds that the number 1,000 is figurative, that the millennium is already in progress and synonymous with the Church Age in which we live, and that Christ’s reign during this period is spiritual rather than literal.

There are other prophetic views and variants of these two major positions, but they have a comparatively small number of adherents among modern evangelicals.

The most obvious consequence of the amillennial system of belief is that it is necessary to view God’s unconditional promises to David (which include a son whose “house”, “kingdom” and “throne” will be “established forever” and an end of oppression for Israel) as being realized figuratively in the Church today rather than awaiting a literal fulfillment in national Israel in some future day, which in turn means there can be no return of national Israel to earthly glory under the Son of David.

Amillennialism makes the Church “spiritual Israel” and leaves national Israel without a future.

For the amillennialist, this makes the study of much of the Major and Minor Prophets an exercise in trying to find ways of explaining how their prophecies relate to us rather than to those to whom they were originally written — prophecies that on their face sound awfully literal and Jewish in many instances. For the premillennial interpreter, the questions raised in the prophetic books revolve around not whether these things are literal, but how and when they will come to pass.

That cover it? Good.

Why It Matters

A short and admittedly incomplete list of the consequences of preferring one view over another:

1.   Confusing Israel with the Church. Amillennialists believe that the promises made to Israel by God have been forever forfeited, and that the Church has inherited Israel’s promised blessings. Thus the Old Testament passages that appear to speak of Israel’s restoration are really telling us things about the Church today. If they are right, at least 17 books and approximately 1,845 verses of the Old Testament change their primary meaning and emphasis entirely. This is a significant difference for those who care what the Bible teaches.

Premillennialists see a clear distinction between the Church and Israel in prophecy and in the plan of God. We see the destiny, blessings and judgment of national Israel as earthly in nature while those of the Church are heavenly. Bernard Osborne puts it this way:
“When God’s government of the world, which is the subject of prophecy, is considered, there are three classes — Jews, Gentiles and the Church of God. In the present He is taking out a people for His Name and forming His Church. After the accomplishment of this, Christ will return to rebuild the tabernacle of David, and fulfil the promises relative to the nation Israel.”
2.  Consistency of Interpretation. In the amillennial view of scripture, whatever was said to Israel now applies to the Church — all the blessings and all the curses — except that, understandably, the Church doesn’t want Israel’s curses. I don’t blame us. I don’t want them either, but as a premillennialist, I don’t have to worry about them. The amillennialist, however, must become inconsistent in interpreting the Old Testament, selectively co-opting the blessings of Israel while ignoring the more extensive list of curses that exactly correspond to them in the Law.

3.  Literalism and Allegorizing. It would oversimplify the difference to simply say premillennialists are literalists and amillennialists are allegorizers, but as long we understand it as a generalization, the statement is not entirely without merit. However, any given prophetic scripture may find premillennialists spiritualizing or amillennialists reading literally. Both groups use both methods of interpretation where it seems most appropriate to them.

In general though, premillennialists take a much more consistently literal view of prophetic scripture. Why does this matter? In the relatively small number of instances where the New Testament explicitly interprets or applies the Old (a little over 300 times, I believe), it may not matter much. We may have, for instance, complete confidence about the way in which Paul or Peter use the words of the prophets in their teaching.

I have less confidence in our modern teachers attempting similar feats with the Old Testament prophecies that the Lord and the apostles never referred to. Without solid reasons from language or context, interpreting Old Testament passages with reference to the Church often becomes speculative and fanciful.

Speculation and fancy are not solid foundations upon which to build faith. They make good fodder for intellectual interest but not for spiritual conviction.

4.  Discarding Israel. What you believe about prophecy has implications for your politics. John Piper, a major proponent of the amillennial viewpoint, teaches that “Israel … should seek a peaceful settlement not based on present divine rights, but on international principles of justice, mercy, and practical feasibility.”

That’s extremely political, and extremely current.

How the Church gets involved in Middle Eastern politics I am not entirely sure. Why a Christian presumes to dictate policy to a foreign, secular government is even more mystifying. What I DO know is that amillennialism is the fuel for this particular fire. If Israel has indeed been disinherited and if all God’s promises to David are to be fulfilled in the here-and-now in the Church of God, there is no prophetic basis for Christians to reject anti-Semitism. Some professing believers, convinced of the rightness of the Palestinian cause, adopt amillennialism as scriptural justification for their politics.

The premillennialist recognizes Israel’s right to exist, not just because the alternative is morally intolerable but because it’s clear to us from scripture that God has plans for her. That does not mean everything their present government does is right, moral or best, or that they should not try to broker peace with other nations if possible. It does mean that some of those Israelis that much of the mideast would like to see dead or gone will be fathers, mothers, grandparents or distant ancestors to those who the Lord will call back to himself in the coming Tribulation. That’s reason to pray for the peace of Israel.

5.  We Could Be Living in the Millennium Right Now. This, to me, is one of the biggest issues with amillennialism: it makes the here-and-now out to be the consummation and realization of the Old Testament millennial prophecies.

So please, enlighten me: in what sense does the wolf currently “dwell with the lamb”? In what sense are the calf, the lion and the fattened calf presently led by a “little child”? I believe this will actually happen during the millennial reign of Christ as part of the restoration of the natural order forfeited in Eden through sin.

But how does the amillennialist, who believes the millennium is currently underway, explain such things? In what possible sense does the Lord currently “with righteousness … judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”?

I’m thinking the meek of the earth are still looking for their advocate to arrive, but then I’m a premillennialist. Maybe others are seeing something in the daily news that I don’t. If we are living today in the “reign of Christ on earth”, it’s a sad and feeble reign; a reign of which most of Christ’s subjects remain blissfully unaware.

If the stories of children murdered by ISIS for declaring “We love Yeshua” are accurate, would their families be much comforted by the thought that their loved ones lived and died during the millennial reign of Christ?

6.  The Character of God. In the amillennial view of prophecy, God never quite delivers exactly what he promises. His promises to national Israel may only be said to have been kept through the Church in a most diluted sense, a sense in which neither David nor his nation would have anticipated.

Sure, it works out well for us, but why is it that so many of God’s promises in the Old Testament have had literal fulfillments if his covenant with David does not?

If a man fails to deliver on his vows of fidelity, we can well understand why any woman he later pursues might have reason to question the promises he makes to her. So too with God: the hope of the Church rests on the character of God. If he has permanently disinherited Israel for unfaithfulness, how confident can we be about our position?

The Value of a Correct View of Prophecy

It matters a great deal. If your view of prophecy has implications for how you look at Israel, the Church, the days in which we live, the nature of scripture and the character of God himself, then it is well worth investing some time in.

2 comments :

  1. Here are definitions taken from the link below. Note that there is also Postmillennialism.

    Postmillennialism
    According to Loraine Boettner in his book The Millennium (he also wrote the seriously defective anti-Catholic book Roman Catholicism), postmillennialism is "that view of last things which holds that the kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit, that the world eventually is to be Christianized, and that the return of Christ will occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace, commonly called the millennium."
     
    This view was popular with nineteenth-century Protestants, when progress was expected even in religion and before twentieth-century horrors were tasted. Today few hold to it, except such groups as Christian Reconstructionists, an outgrowth of the conservative Presbyterian movement. 

     
    Amillennialism
    The amillennial view interprets Revelation 20 symbolically and sees the millennium not as an earthly golden age in which the world will be totally Christianized, but as the present period of Christ’s rule in heaven and on the earth through his Church. This was the view of the Protestant Reformers and is still the most common view among traditional Protestants, though not among most of the newer Evangelical and Fundamentalist groups. 

    Amillennialists also believe in the coexistence of good and evil on earth until the end. The tension that exists on earth between the righteous and the wicked will be resolved only by Christ’s return at the end of time. The golden age of the millennium is instead the heavenly reign of Christ with the saints, in which the Church on earth participates to some degree, though not in the glorious way it will at the Second Coming. 


    Premillennialism
    Third on the list is premillennialism, currently the most popular among Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (though a century ago amillennialism was). Most of the books written about the End Times, such as Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, are written from a premillennial perspective. 

    Like postmillennialists, premillennialists believe that the thousand years is an earthly golden age during which the world will be thoroughly Christianized. Unlike postmillennialists, they believe that it will occur after the Second Coming rather than before, so that Christ reigns physically on earth during the millennium. They believe that the Final Judgment will occur only after the millennium is over (which many interpret to be an exactly one thousand year period). 

    From

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    1. Thanks for the definitions, Qman. I lumped postmillennialism into "Other views" since its number of adherents is now so small as to just about make it a non-view. I think people wore out on this one simply from a practical standpoint: we just don't see the world trending that way.

      As for the other two, the definition of amillennialism seems to reasonably represent the view. As for the premillennialism definition, I agree with almost everything except the word "Christianized". The world will definitely adopt an attitude of outward obedience to Christ during the 1000 year reign while Satan is bound in the bottomless pit (Revelation 20), but it is clear from verses 7-10 of that chapter that their hearts are not changed, because Satan is able to deceive them and raise an army to storm Jerusalem, after which fire will come down from heaven and consume them.

      No one could reasonably argue that this is not the literal meaning of Revelation 20, though amillennialists (and postmillennials, presumably) would find some way to make that into a neat allegory rather than what it, well ... is.

      Anyway, all I'm saying is that the definition falls a tad short where it employs the word "Christianized". Any "Christianization" during the millennium will be superficial.

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