Recently, I have been immersing myself (not for the first time) in the works of writers who would disagree very strongly with the views espoused at Telos and by traditional dispensationalists in general. Trawling through these big books, paying attention to each argument and their use of Scripture, and repeatedly coming across assertions that seem to make God guilty of double-talk is, to be brutally honest, a sort of self-imposed torture. So why do I do it? I read these works because I want to be informed about the latest arguments against my position. I want to keep abreast of how many evangelical scholars think. I don’t want to be a Bible teacher and theologian who is ignorant of what’s going on around him.
Another reason I read books by those with whom I disagree is because if a good argument arises which demonstrates I am wrong, I want to see it. So far, I have to report that I have not found any argument which impresses me that way. In fact, the more I read of these men, the more convinced I become that they are, hermeneutically speaking, barking up the wrong tree.
Let me give you an example:
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. (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431)
You might need to read that statement more than once. What Beale says is quite startling. Here we have a respected evangelical NT scholar asserting that OT prophecies about the kingdom had fulfillments which differed from what the prophets themselves predicted! Since the Author of Scripture is God, we have God giving His prophets a misleading prophecy. God puts confusing words in the prophets’ mouths! Naturally, Beale would cry foul. But think about it. In Deuteronomy 18:22 we have God telling His people to how they are to test a true prophet sent from Him:
when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
In this passage God plainly tells His people that they can spot a true prophet from a false prophet by whether what they say will happen actually transpires. But doesn’t Beale’s view of prophecy render God’s tests of a true prophet utterly futile?
If, as Beale says, an OT prediction can be “transformed” in “unexpected ways” (both terms he uses), we must ask, “How then is one to know if what a prophet has spoken is true or false?” It seems the only way to really know the answer is if God Himself tells us it occurred, but the fulfillment came about in an unexpected way.
But if that is the case, how could we recognize a false prophet? If what a true prophet predicted need not come to fulfillment in the way his words would cause one to expect, couldn’t a false prophet declare that what he had predicted came to pass, but also in an unexpected fashion? Wouldn’t we need God to tell us that what such and such a prophet said was false? If someone answers, “No, we would know someone was false if what he said didn’t come to pass.” But that brings us back to Deut. 18:22, and the problem of testing prophets if their prophecies can be unexpectedly “transformed” and, therefore, the fulfillment “not be the kind of [thing] prophesied by the OT,” as Beale puts it. This reduces God’s Word to absurdity.
I believe that a lot of Reformed theology, when faced with hard questions, reduces down to nominalism. Nominalism is basically the view that the essence of a thing is summed up in the name (nomina) one appends to it. Thus, for example, God is good, not because He is essentially good in His character, but because He calls Himself good (which actually reduces to the fact that we call Him good). This is a subject I need to write about in another post, but I hope you see how this example applies to my subject here: if some scholar says that what God prophesies in the OT can be “fulfilled” in unexpected ways in line with the Beale quotation above, then any declaration of fulfillment can only be on the basis of God saying, “that is transformed and fulfilled in this!” Until the original (misleading) words were deciphered no one could identify the their fulfillment. The “fulfillment” would be just that only because God said it was a fulfillment, not because it corresponded to the original words of the prediction.
Imagine someone telling you they were going to do something specific — say, meet you at a certain coffee shop at 9 am next Thursday morning. You duly arrive there at 9am on the designated day and he never shows. Then you call him later and he asks you what’s wrong. He did what he told you he was going to do. He met another friend at a restaurant at noon. What he told you earlier was a type of what he actually did. Hence, he did fulfill his promise, just in an unexpected way! Who would accept such a lame excuse? Yet Beale seems to think that is how God operates!
Here’s another quote:
When we see that Israel is, according to the Old Testament, the last Adam, and as later Jewish tradition understood it [they cite a c. 3rd to 5th century AD text], the one undoing the sin of Adam, we see the background for Paul’s understanding of Christ as the last Adam, because as history unfolds, Jesus accomplishes in his person and work what God intended for Israel as a people. (Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 228)
Gentry thinks Israel is “the last Adam,” not because the Bible calls the nation by that name, but because he spies a motif or pattern which he thinks implies such a teaching. Then he refers the reader to a Jewish midrashic text to substantiate his point. The Jewish text cited by Gentry (Genesis Rabbah 14) also tells us that Adam was formed with a tail like the other animals (actually, the part he cites [14:6] is equally wacky!). Moreover, this text was written at least three centuries after the Ascension of Christ.
Next, Gentry somehow equates his “findings” with Paul’s identifying Christ as “the last Adam” in 1 Cor. 15, because supposedly Jesus accomplished what God had wanted Israel to accomplish! No matter that the Law was never intended to justify Israel or anybody else (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:11). No matter that this makes God’s covenants to the nation of Israel both unnecessary and meaningless. What is important to scholars like Gentry is not what God says (the words He uses), but the structural patterns He employs while saying it.
Let me bring some sanity back to this by asking a simple question: “Is the Bible primarily aimed at scholars who can find types and transformations and structural patterns in the different books?” Is it possible for the common man or woman to study the Bible and understand what it is saying? If you opt to follow the Beale’s and Gentry’s of this world you would have to answer that question negatively. You would also be left with a god who says one thing and means something else. In short, a god who cannot be trusted to do what he says he will do.
I do not and will not believe such a thing about God. To quote the apostle,
I believe God that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. (Acts 27:25)
I believe that about the gospel. I believe that about the creation week. I believe that about the global flood, and I believe it about the unconditional covenants that God has obligated Himself to fulfill. I believe it all because I believe in a God who means what He says and who will not fulfill a prophecy in a totally unexpected way. He won’t operate like that because, like the friend in the coffee shop story, if He did His words would mislead me. No idle talk about “typological fulfillment” could alter that plain fact.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.