The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn, Part 3

Read the series.

Going Far Beyond the Bible

All of the major advocates of apocalyptic gather data, albeit not exclusively, from outside of the Bible. Brent Sandy demonstrates his procedure of going beyond Scripture when he says, “In order to understand the language of apocalyptic, we must review the period of world history relevant to Daniel 8 and then examine Daniel’s language.”1 He is not alone. Notice what is entailed in this statement about the genre:

Apocalypse was a literary genre that flourished in the period between the OT and NT(though apocalyptic visions of the future can be found in the OT as well as the NT).2

Here is another statement from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:

Apocalyptic forms of expression were very common outside the Bible, and contemporary readers need to become familiar with that mindset to understand biblical apocalyptic literature and symbolism.3

What the author of this article is saying is that one cannot comprehend large parts of Daniel and Revelation, not to mention certain parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew, and some Pauline letters4, unless one goes beyond the Bible for clues of how the ancients used this sort of imagery.

Holding to this understanding of apocalyptic involves an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. Whenever we go foraging into profane history, for example, to try to determine genre5, ideas which are foreign to the Bible are inevitably brought to bear on the text of the Bible, thus essentially undermining the Bible’s own ability to explain itself.

We encounter this again in a recent evangelical work:

Old Testament apocalyptic literature belongs to a genre of Jewish writing that includes both canonical and non-canonical texts. For a proper understanding of this genre within the context of its historical development, neither of these groups of texts should be examined in isolation from the other.6

Notice the position that inspired Scripture is being forced to take. It must remain content to be analyzed alongside of non-inspired writings and until the accidental artifacts of ancient history have been sifted through. But letting the Bible be its own interpreter clears away a lot of confusion. For one thing, one sees the likelihood that later Jewish apocalypses (e.g. The Book of the Watchers; The Testament of Levi) are attempts to copy the biblical writings and put them to use in circumstances of hardship and hopelessness.7

Again, if we are going to insist that it is wrong to think of apocalyptic as serving up specific prophetic content, but rather leaving us with an image or impression of something, it seems natural that we ask just how God will wrap up history, since basically all the passages that speak of it are lumped together as “apocalyptic” texts. Will He do it by “rolling up the heavens as a scroll” (Isa. 34:4)? Will Jesus really come “in the clouds with great power” (Mk. 13:26)? Will the armies of heaven really follow Him (Rev. 19:14)? Will there be a great earthquake (Rev. 16:18)? Will the moon become blood red (Rev. 6:12)? The answer coming from the apocalyptic corner is “No; these are symbols meant to create impressions.” For the record, my answer is Yes!

Reminding Ourselves of the Bible’s “Wild” Worldview

Let us assemble some of the things that people actually saw and experienced in Old Testament times. It would be a salutary exercise to ponder these events before considering apocalyptic as a genre.

Adam saw cherubim8 and a flashing sword barring the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). Enoch was snatched out of the world without seeing death (Gen. 5:24). Men lived to staggeringly great ages before the global flood (Gen. 5). The bene ha elohim of Genesis 6 were probably demonic fallen angels.9 There were giants on the earth before and after the flood (Gen. 6:4; Num. 13:33). Two of every creature came to Noah, seemingly of their own volition (Gen. 7:15). Jacob fought with an angel (Gen. 32:24-32). Moses beheld the burning bush which was not consumed? (Exod. 3:3-6); Exodus 13 refers to the pillar of fire and cloud which protected Israel. The staff of Aaron and the staffs of the viziers became serpents (Exod. 7:9-12); Recall the twelve plagues of Egypt (Exod. 7 – 11); the sons of Korah went down into sheol alive when the ground opened up underneath them (Num. 16:30-33). Balaam saw an angel with a drawn sword (Num. 22:21-35); and his donkey spoke to him (Num. 22:30). Joshua was confronted by the angel of Yaheh (Josh. 5:13-15). He too saw giants (Josh. 17:15 – notice the matter-of-fact reporting). The Book of Judges is filled with supernatural events, like the angel of Yahweh rebuking the people at Bochim (Judg. 2:1-4); the same appearing to Gideon (Judg. 6), and Manoah and his wife (Judg. 13); the unearthly strength of Manoah’s son Samson (Judg. 14 – 16).10 In the time of the Divided Monarchy Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Ki. 18:36-38; 2 Ki. 1:10-14), and he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Ki. 2:11-12); Elisha saw horses and chariots of fire (2 Ki. 6:17). In Hezekiah’s time an angel came down and slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night (2 Ki. 19:35).

From this sampling of weird supernatural occurrences a question emerges: How many of these incidents would have been interpreted as symbolic and apocalyptic images due to “ecstatic visions” and stylized perspectives if they had not already actually taken place? And how many of the characteristics of apocalyptic also characterize the historical narratives of the Bible? We must look into this question further.

Notes

1 D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 103

2 Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Gen. eds., Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 35. Emphasis mine

3 Ibid, 36

4 Collins writes that the scholars who tried to formulate a consensus view of apocalyptic in the journal Semeia (No 14) rejected Isaiah’s apocalypse and Mark 13 as apocalypses – John J. Collins, Apocalypse, Prophecy and Pseudepigraphy, 3 n.7

5 There is no space here to speak to the matter of the present popular trend of “Genre Criticism,” which I firmly believe is both unbiblical and will suffer the same fate as the “source criticism” that was all the rage for most of the Twentieth Century. It is sufficient to say that the genre does not and cannot determine meaning. Readers who wish to know why must simply reflect on the fact that prior to being categorized a text must be read in its normal plain sense. See the excellent treatment of this by Richard A. Howe, “Does Genre Determine Meaning?” in The Jesus Quest: The Danger From Within, edited by Norman L. Geisler and F. David Farnell (Xulon Press, 2014).

6 Richard A. Taylor, Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature, 41

7 They also appear to betray the apparent fetish of non-inspired religionists to mimic inspired writings. Another example of this is the many false Gospels and Acts which arose in the second to fourth centuries A.D.

8 Scholars promoting the concept of a “Cosmic Temple” motif in Scripture often identify Adam as the cherub of Ezekiel 28:14-16. But then surely the cherubim who guarded the way back into Eden would have to be human also? For more comment see the exposition of “The Mysterious King of Tyre” in the chapter on Ezekiel.

9 See, e.g., Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Biblical Theology, Vol. 1, 164-168

10 Who would believe the fact that Samson’s great strength was really connected to the length of his hair if he only read about it in a third century B.C. apocalyptic book?

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There are 12 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Notice the position that inspired Scripture is being forced to take. It must remain content to be analyzed alongside of non-inspired writings and until the accidental artifacts of ancient history have been sifted through. But letting the Bible be its own interpreter clears away a lot of confusion.

Paul, with you, I'm against throwing out the specific content of large swaths of Scripture on the grounds that "it's apocalyptic." I'm also happy to endorse the principle of the Bible being its own best interpreter.

Where I struggle is where to draw the line between "external information necessary to rightly interpret Scripture" vs. "external information that is not necessary."

It's clear to me that both boundaries exist. Even to read "in the beginning God created," we have to refer to experience outside Scripture to understand the concept of "beginnings" and "creating." When we read of evenings, mornings, and days, we have to look to our experience of these things to know what these words refer to. And that's just Genesis 1.

On the other hand, if we reason that external information is required to interpret Scripture, and we're always digging up more external information, it would seem to follow that we can't interpret the Bible with any confidence now because we certainly don't yet have all the information we're someday going to have.

So for the Bible to communicate to us at all, we have to say the truth is somewhere between... that we need outside info, but a limited quantity/quality of it... and certainly a limited amount of the latest scholarship. Maybe a principle is that the more vital the truth is for us to know, the less outside reference data we need to understand it in Scripture.

But if that's the right way to understand the problem, how does it argue against overweighting genre considerations? How do we evaluate how much genre characteristics should guide us and when we should set them aside?

It's obvious to me that there is a point where we set them aside, because, as I mentioned above, we're always learning (and unlearning, and relearning) more... and we can't shelf the OT and say "Well, I'll pick it up in a decade when we understand ANE context better than we do today."

ScottS's picture

I was going to write a similar response as Aaron, for the same thoughts occurred as I was reading. Then I read Aaron's reply and realized I did not need to spend a lot of time saying the same thing he did.

So the real question is, to me, whether genre is really something significant enough to learn "outside" the text (like grammar, syntax, and language itself; or even like figurative vs. literal language, etc.), such that genre becomes "prescriptive" to interpretation, or if genre is rather relegated more to "descriptive" of how one takes the text.

I lean toward the latter. I read a piece of poetic language and I recognize it as poetry, but I make that recognition off of the "outside" understanding of language and reality (i.e. that trees don't have hands to clap, therefore Isa 55:12 is being poetic in its phrasing). And yet there is a level of "prescriptive" ideas on how poetry might be structured, and having the outside recognition of that can help one analyze a poem. But that is different than determining meaning (i.e. a parallelism in poetry does not drive the poem's meaning because it is in the from of a parallelism, but the language is classified as parallel because it has a specific, recognizable form the language was written in that made the words and/or ideas parallel based on the sound or meaning [whether literal or figurative] of those words).

But I think language can communicate a lot without a grasp of genre, and I am definitely in agreement with Paul here "the present popular trend of 'Genre Criticism,' which I firmly believe is ... unbiblical ... It is sufficient to say that the genre does not and cannot determine meaning" (n.5 above). Genre categories come about by recognizing what the language behind it is doing, not what the genre itself is imposing or prescribing.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Paul Henebury's picture

Aaron and Scott,

Thank you both for posting such articulate comments.  I think both of you have said some things much better than I did in the article.  I agree 100% with you both. 

I think the problem here is that the piece is split into installments so that the wider frame of reference is lost.  I ought to have seen this and qualified matters in each post. For the record, though, by "outside" sources I was thinking in particular of second temple intertestamental texts, Persian writings and such.  I did not have day-to-day experience or basic semantics and literary discrimination (e.g. this is proverbial; this is poetic) in mind.  Since I failed to make this clear you rightly corrected me.

Hopefully I have allayed your fears a bit.       

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for clarifying, Paul.

We're drawing lines in pretty much the same places, but why we draw them there/how we determine where to draw them are questions I've wrestled with for some time and still feel like I don't have a handle on it. ... why "type a outside info" or "quantity x outside info" is necessary but type b or quantity y isn't.

I suppose it might be too much to expect there to be a clear, concrete dividing line between essential and non-essential outside information . . . 

It's clear that at least one major factor has to be the reliability of the outside information. When we're talking about the latest scholarship fad, it's obviously unwise to attach a whole lot of weight to that. When we're talking about the discoveries and expert opinions of scholars who don't even believe the Bible is true (or quite possibly that there is even any such thing as truth!), I can't find it in me to view their work as all that important to know for interpretive purposes.

But much of the body of scholarship out there is not clearly that extreme.

Part of the answer is doctrinal: perspicuity doesn't claim everything (or even anything) in the Bible is easily understood or that every bit of it may be understood, but it does claim that what's most important is most accessible. The implication is that the truths of life and death are knowable with no outside information beyond basic literacy.

I'm musing out loud here, and rambling, but maybe what I'm wending my way to is that perspicuity might be a stronger argument than sufficiency.

Paul Henebury's picture

More good thoughts Aaron, I will only add that perspicuity is (to my mind) essential if one is to hold any meaningful doctrine of sufficiency

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

RajeshG's picture

There is no space here to speak to the matter of the present popular trend of “Genre Criticism,” which I firmly believe is both unbiblical and will suffer the same fate as the “source criticism” that was all the rage for most of the Twentieth Century. It is sufficient to say that the genre does not and cannot determine meaning. Readers who wish to know why must simply reflect on the fact that prior to being categorized a text must be read in its normal plain sense.

 

I agree strongly with what you have said here. It is lamentable when divine revelation is minimized or even dismissed because of claims about genre and how it supposedly determines what the meaning and value of explicit biblical statements are.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Does Scripture claim to be sufficient for understanding itself or only to be sufficient for relationship with God after it is understood?

About genre criticism ... I don't see it as rendered invalid on the grounds that we have to read the text before determining the genre. First, do we normally have to read poetry (for example) as though it were prose before we can determine that it's poetry? (Wouldn't it be be more accurate to say that we observe certain characteristics and discover it to be poetry at the same time as we're reading it?) Second, even if we did read it completely once as prose, then afterwards discover it to be poetry, wouldn't we then read it again as poetry?

I think the trouble with genre crit (as with the other crit methods) has more to do with things like giving the genre too much weight, too much certainty, too much rigidity, etc.... That and having a theology of unbelief as their starting point. So, many of the critics do their work in a dark cave. It can't end well and gives their discipline a bad name.

Edit to add: I just reread that earlier statement about genre crit...  that it can't "determine meaning"... I think we agree on that. That is, it can't determine all the meaning or the basic meaning. So the question of whether it has any use as a discipline wasn't the point there, really, probably?

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Does Scripture claim to be sufficient for understanding itself or only to be sufficient for relationship with God after it is understood?

One of our Mount Calvary Baptist Church catechism cards addresses this matter by citing the following texts:

Acts 15:15 And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written.

1 Corinthians 2:13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

Acts 15:15 exemplifies the comparing of Scripture with Scripture that 1 Corinthians 2:13 teaches is the way to speak with the wisdom that the Spirit teaches.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Agree that Scripture is the primary tool for interpreting Scripture. I'm only pushing a little on the sufficiency concept because I've seen sufficiency arguments in a variety of contexts where no clear concept of "sufficient for what?" is included in the argument. We're on our strongest ground when we let the Scriptures tell us what they are sufficient for.

Paul Henebury's picture

Please "push", although my quick reply is that Scripture is sufficient to interpret its own language.  That, in my book, is the cornerstone of sufficiency.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

RajeshG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Agree that Scripture is the primary tool for interpreting Scripture. I'm only pushing a little on the sufficiency concept because I've seen sufficiency arguments in a variety of contexts where no clear concept of "sufficient for what?" is included in the argument. We're on our strongest ground when we let the Scriptures tell us what they are sufficient for.

As with many other truths, it seems that the Bible's teaching us its sufficiency for interpreting itself is not necessarily conveyed through any 1 or 2 direct statements to that effect but through the combined weight of many statements about how it is the Word of God that illumines us. Because it is God's Word that illumines us about the mind of God in all things, it would follow that it is the Bible itself that illumines us about what is most important--the words that reveal to us the mind of God.

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