Saturday, September 16, 2017

Misappropriating Scripture: The Practical Consequences

Reams have been written on the subject of Bible prophecy and how it is to be interpreted. Even within Protestantism, the number of distinct views of what scripture teaches concerning the end times is mind-boggling and often daunting to the new Christian, so much so that many are inclined to throw up their hands and declare that the answers cannot possibly really matter.

But they do. And they matter practically as well as intellectually.

Supersessionism Today

Disagreements exist over all sorts of prophetic details, but I think it fair to say that the bone of contention is almost always something to do with the nation of Israel. Most prophetic views come down hard on one side or another about the status and destiny of the Old Testament people of God. People who believe the Christian Church has succeeded the Israelites as the definitive people of God, and that the New Covenant has replaced (or superseded) the Mosaic covenant, are referred to as supersessionists.

Within Protestant churches today, Christians who bring some species of supersessionist assumption to their Bibles every time they open them almost surely outnumber the rest of us. They believe, to one degree or another, that God’s solemn covenant promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Church. As a result, they misappropriate verses intended literally for the nation of Israel and attempt to apply them figuratively to their own Christian experience, to that of their churches and to that of the Body of Christ as a whole.

Live and Let Live

I have generally been content to live and let live where prophecy is concerned. After all, few Christians are able to discuss the relevant scriptures coherently or in any real depth, the ones that do usually got their views out of a book, and most of us have more important things to do in the service of Christ in this life than getting bogged down in controversies about things that haven’t happened yet. The worst that could happen to an adamant supersessionist, I figured, was a little confusion, a tendency to minimize the importance of Daniel, Ezekiel and some of the other prophets, a penchant for reading too many of the Psalms purely metaphorically, and perhaps a little hint of anti-Semitism that would probably be mitigated by and ultimately suffused in ordinary Christian charity.

Nothing drastic, in other words. Now I wonder about that.

Reading Other People’s Mail

William Kelly points out another consequence of reading other people’s mail as if it were our own: uncertainty about our own status before God. He starts by using the example of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks:
“Before we enter upon the prophecy of the seventy weeks more fully, as the Lord may enable us, I would first call your attention to this: — ‘Whiles I was speaking, and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel.’ Observe, all his thoughts are about Israel and about Jerusalem. The prophecy is not about Christianity, but about Israel. There is no understanding it, unless we hold this fast.”
Right. That’s the usual intellectual problem.

A City and People Here Below

Kelly continues:
“Then, in verse 24, the prophecy begins. It has to do with Daniel’s people — ‘upon thy people.’ It speaks of a special period that was defined in connection with Israel’s full deliverance. ‘Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people, and upon thy holy city.’ Any one must see that the Jews and Jerusalem are meant. It is ‘to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy [or Holy of holies].’ From first to last this was a period that was marked out in the mind of God, and revealed to Daniel, touching the future destiny of the city and the people of God here below.” [emphasis mine]
He’s right. It is a pretty massive stretch to apply this passage to the Church unless you are determined to do so and immensely creative about it ... or unless you’ve had it drilled into you that’s the only possible way it can be read.

The Drowning Man

But now we get to the practical consequences:
“When a person is converted, but not yet in peace, if he sees something about ‘an end of sins,’ he at once applies that to himself. Feeling his need, he grasps, like a drowning man, at what cannot bear his weight, or at least is not said about him. If directed to the declarations of the grace of God to us poor sinners of the Gentiles, instead of loss, great would be his gain; he would have far more definite Scripture to meet his need, and, if assailed by Satan, he would feel no weakness, nor fear, nor uncertainty. Whereas, if he were taking passages that applied to the Jews, Satan might touch him as to the ground of his confidence, and he would be obliged to say, ‘This is not literally and certainly about me at all. The seventy weeks are determined “upon thy people, and upon thy holy city.” But I do not belong to them.’ There is the importance of understanding Scripture, and seeing what God is speaking about.”
I like the bit about grasping at scriptures that cannot bear our weight. But then they were never intended to. They were written with an entirely different audience in mind.

Kelly doesn’t mention it here, but an even more likely source of distress to the confused believer are the curses found in the Law of Moses. On what basis does a supersessionist appropriate the promised blessings to Israel and apply them to the Church today, while leaving the curses to Israel? Yet the curses are part and parcel of God’s dealings with his Old Testament people, and anyone who approaches the Old Testament honestly can hardly fail to notice that. Who wants to be under those in order to nick a few blessings that are either redundant and merely earthly, or have been marvelously eclipsed in the Christian’s relationship to Christ?

My Title to Blessing

Kelly concludes:
“Thus, if we take the Bible as it is, without being too anxious to find ourselves here or there, instead of losing, we shall always be gainers, in extent, depth, and, above all, in clear firm hold of the blessing; and we shall not feel that we have been taking other people’s property, and claiming goods upon a tenure that can be disputed, but that what we have is what God has freely and assuredly given us. This will never be the case, if I take up prophecies about Israel, and found my title to blessing upon them; for they are neither the gospel for the sinner, nor the revelation of the truth about the Church.”
This is sound advice. Drowning is no fun. Anxiety and lack of confidence before God are not small things in the Christian experience. The Christian’s understanding of his “title to blessing” needs to be built on the foundation of the plain teaching of the New Testament epistles, not on some ephemeral figurative application of Israel’s blessings to Christendom.

There is good news, I guess: the anxiety and lack of confidence before God that Kelly sought to prevent others from going through unnecessarily might well have been a serious problem for earnest Christians in the late 1800s when he wrote. But today, when we encounter believers desperate to be reassured they have a part in the blessings of God, the chances they became distraught while misapplying the prophecies of the book of Daniel to their own lives are microscopic.

On second thought, that might not be such a good thing …


  1. On that note, one can hardly fail to notice today how serious a problem this is with the New Calvinists. In particular, their doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, and their rejection of Eternal Security, hinges entirely upon this misguided hermeneutical strategy — they are confused and deprived of their certainty of salvation by their insistence on making Israel the Church. Since Israel’s national blessing was made conditional and could be forfeited for the curses if they left God, so too the Calvinists think that unless a Christian proves his own salvation by a lifetime pattern of confirmatory deeds, he will be lost at the end; certainty cannot be had before death, they think. They are not able to take the promises of God of complete security as final, nor the sacrifice of Christ as comprehensive expiation of their sins. They are compelled by their hermeneutics to add their own ability to “persevere” into the equation in order to interpret the warnings of faithlessness made to Israel into the Church context.

    So the stakes here are not at all small, and the issue is far from being behind us. Ultimately, the issue is no less than whether or not Christ is sufficient to secure our salvation.

  2. Looks like there might be an answer Sept. 23 this year?

    Doomsday approaching fast U_U.