Challenging Traditional Dispensationalism's "Code of Silence"
|© Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., 1998||November 1998|
FALSELY DECLARING "THE TIME"
The Great Tribulation in Progressive Dispensationalism (Part 5)
I am continuing a critique of progressive dispensationalist Darrell L. Bock's exposition of Luke 21. (Please note: parenthetical page references without further notation point to volume 2 of his two volume commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament ). The question of Luke's handling of the Olivet Discourse arises frequently in discussions of preterism v. futurism. Matthew 24, it seems, has been given fuller treatment in the debate. Consequently the study of Luke's version is significant in the wider debate between the two schools of hermeneutics, in addition to being important for critiquing and refuting progressive dispensationalism.
In last month's newsletter I considered Bock's argument that Luke records Jesus's words regarding BOTH A.D. 70 and the Second Advent. I believe once such arguments are weighed in the balance, they will be found wanting especially when compared to the strong and numerous textual indicators found in Matthew 24.
As I demonstrated in last month's newsletter, no clear shift of focus occurs in Luke's record of Christ's Discourse as found in Luke 21. And this lack is significant in our debate in that Bock's very FIRST point introducing the matter reads: "So what points does Luke make in his presentation? His major concerns include the following: 1. a clear separation between Jerusalem's fall and the end-time. . . ." (1659). As I showed, there is NO "clear separation" in Luke's record. There is, however, a THEOLOGICAL necessity that arises out of the dispensational system. But here is NO exegetical evidence whatsoever.
But our work is not done. Our on-going challenge to the hegemony of dispensationalism requires not only that we dispose of its exegetical principles (such as those employed to prove Luke 21 speaks of two eschatological phenomena). It also demands that we set over against its ENTIRE EXPOSITION a more coherent and plausible alternative. And this I will attempt from this point forward in my response to Bock's exposition of Luke 21.
Thus, now I will begin a seriatim interaction with Bock's exposition. This will highlight not only some similarities between dispensationalists and reformed expositors (we are both evangelical Christians, after all!), but also (and more importantly) some profound differences. These differences are interesting in themselves for anyone desiring to understand contemporary theological systems. My special interest in this interaction and response, however, is for two other remarkable reasons:
First, while interacting with Bock's analysis, we will note that: (1) In the BEST light, the dispensational exposition is somewhat shaky and unappealing. In fact, it appears at some points to be totally unnecessary and anti-contextual. And (2) in the final analysis we will discover that it eventually strains under its own system weight and exegetical contortions so much that it eventually collapses in upon itself in self-contradiction.
Second, our inquiry will expose some of the vast differences existing between the progressive dispensationalism of the Bock-Blaising-Saucy axis on the one hand and the revised dispensational axis of the Ryrie-Walvoord-Pentecost axis on the other. Once these remarkable differences are securely in mind, one begins to wonder about the historical connection between progressive dispensationalism and revised dispensationalism.
By way of analogy, consider Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's 1972 theory attempting to explain the (rather miraculous!) explosion of complex life forms in the rock strata. He suggested (with a straight face and secure tenure) that "punctuated equilibrium" accounted for the sudden changes from lower to higher forms of life in ongoing evolution (I like Goldschmidt's term better: "hopeful monster"; this keeps evolution in the realm of cultural myth, where it belongs). Progressive dispensational seems if anything to be a punctuated equilibrium explosion from one form to another. Or put in other terms still, progressive dispensationalism is light years ahead of all forms of dispensationalism. Apparently progressive dispensationalism's Millennium Falcon accelerated to warp speed so quickly that it becomes difficult to trace the vapor trail between it and the newspapier-mache Lindseymobile. But I digress.
THE SETTING OF THE DISCOURSE IN LUKE'S GOSPEL
Bock begins with an excellent analysis of the historical setting of Jesus' discourse, as established in Luke 21:5-6 (1660-1663). As a good evangelical scholar, he notes carefully the cultural and historical setting of Jesus' instruction. Unlike so many older dispensationalists, the progressive dispensationalists (and Bock is one of the finer ones) do not employ all the populist cliches, such as "prophetic road maps," "revived Roman empire," and such. (Mark Twain was once asked how he enjoyed seeing Shakespeare's "Hamlet" for the first time. He said he didn't enjoy it because it was filled with too many cliches!)
To read the revised dispensationalist publishers of pulp fiction populism and soap opera novelists, one would think the biblical record was composed by a bunch of cartographers and bumper sticker producers. In their interpretations we find detailed analysis of late twentieth century events, the United Nations, and the European Common Market along with computer-generated chronological charts (e.g., Walvoord, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, 382, 383, 385). That is, they write as if the prophecies of Scripture were written in OUR time to sate our morbid curiosity rather than in BIBLICAL days to fill out the history of redemption. Bock differs greatly from such a naive approach to prophecy. He apparently lacks a computer cartography software program.
In his exposition of Luke 21:5-6 Bock provides a helpful list of ancient references to the Temple's beauty and magnificence. This helps us sense both the awe and the confusion of the disciples when Jesus utters his fateful words regarding their beloved temple. It helps us to think, therefore, HISTORICALLY rather than hysterically. Bock notes that "this building was rightly a great source of Jewish national pride, and it commanded general international respect" (1663). And, I believe, this historically-atuned expository notation helps US sense the overwhelming gravity of Christ's judgment prophecy. It helps us realize that A.D. 70, after all, CAN account for the dramatic imagery contained in Jesus' prophecy when viewed historically in the context of redemptive history. Thank you, Dr. Bock!
Ironically, the revised dispensationalist prone to give money for the rebuilding of the (anti-Christian) Jewish temple and to write books on that temple will not allow Jesus' catastrophic prophecy to dramatically portray the collapse of the temple system in such bold language as found in the Olivet Discourse. Revised dispensationalists
Love to tell the story;
'twill be their theme in bookstorey,
to tell the old, old story,
of the temple and its loveliness.
(Sorry, I was never good at iambic pentameter.) Nevertheless, they somehow miss the obvious symbolic imagery employed in revealing the devastation to befall that glorious temple in A.D. 70.
WARNING ABOUT FALSE CLAIMS
Last month I dealt with Bock's exposition of Luke 21:7 (which see). So let us now consider some of the following texts.
Before I present Bock's view, let us reflect for a moment on the revised dispensational exposition of the Olivet Discourse as found in Matthew 24. This will provide evidence for two remarkable differences between progressive and revised dispensationalism. J. Dwight Pentecost's Thy Kingdom Come (Victor, 1990) will serve as our sample (hereinafter: TKC).
First, according to Pentecost the future "Tribulation" is dealt with in the ENTIRE section of "Matthew 24:4-26" (TKC, 249). Pentecost comments: "Matthew in his record of Christ's discourse directed attention to the disciples' second question, 'What will be the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?' (Matt. 24:3)" which refers to the end of the "present age" (TKC, 250). In fact, according to Pentecost's analysis of Matthew 24, "in verses 4-8, Jesus described events that will fall within the seven years of what Jeremiah called 'a time of trouble for Jacob' (Jer. 30:7). Jesus referred to the rigors that Israel will undergo in this period as 'birth pains' (Matt. 24:8). They will be the sufferings that precede the birth of the new age to come" (TKC, 250).
Clearly then, according to revised dispensationalists Matthew 24 as a whole and verses 4-8 in particular prophesy events in the FUTURE great tribulation period the period so loved and relished in best-selling novels ("Left Behind") and proto-novels ("Late Great Planet Earth"). But what does Bock tell us?
As he deals with Luke 21:8 ("many will come in my name"), Bock notes that "Luke starts with events that precede the end-time," that is, with "events that lead to the city's fall" in A.D. 70 (1664). Then Bock compares Luke's account with Matthew 24:4-5: "The PARALLELS are similar except for how they introduce Jesus' response. Matthew 24:4-5 begins. . . ." Thus, Bock applies Matthew 24:4-5 (which parallels Luke 21:8) to A.D. 70. This is directly contradictory to Pentecost, et al. And this is a giant step in the right direction.
Second, not only does Bock contradict his predecessors in allowing that Matthew 24:4-5 speaks of A.D. 70, but he makes another observation that will shock, dismay, alarm, consternate, unsettle, surprise, startle, jolt, frighten, jar, scare, appall, annoy, displease, traumatize, paralyze, horrify, outrage, disturb, chafe, infuriate, dumbfound, astonish, flabbergast, offend, and upset revised dispensationalists: He actually allows now hold onto your hat that "Jesus assumed an interval between his departure and his return. In fact, the interval is long enough that some could be deceived" (1664-65)! Thus, in effect he does not allow the "imminency" of the return of Christ (i.e., the rapture).
According to the old line dispensational view, we must not allow ANY prophetic events to stand between Christ's ascension and the rapture. It must ALWAYS be possible for Christ to return at "any moment." Yet if Jesus' inspired, inerrant, authoritative, infallible, prophetic word assumes "an interval between his departure and his return," one of the most sacred of dispensational cows is sacrificed on the altar of reason. "Get thee behind me, Bock!"
Generally the revised dispensationalist has fun with this doctrine in our day and from our perspective. They publicly flog and harangue postmillennialists who suggest the NECESSITY of a long interval between the first and second advents. "You DENY the imminent return of Christ! God forbid!" In alarm they cry out that "You must NOT suggest ANY prophecy remain to be fulfilled that can forestall the 'imminent' return of Christ." In an historically naive sense, such a charge is "easy" to declare today, some 2000 years after Jesus ascended into heaven (it also has the decided advantage of fitting nicely on a bumper sticker: "In case of Rapture this car will self destruct").
Unfortunately, though, the DOCTRINAL PRINCIPLE of imminency must hold that FROM THE TIME OF THE ASCENSION ITSELF there can be NO intervening prophetic event delaying the "imminent" return of Christ. Otherwise by definition, Christ's return is not "imminent." The significance of the fact that 2000 years have transpired since Christ returned to glory (which fits perfectly within a postmillennial schema) is lost on the revised dispensationalist. The Lord's return for ALL of these years MUST have been imminent and impending. "Give me imminency of give me death" is the rally cry. Imminency doctrine is necessarily all-or-nothing-at-all; it either exists since the ascension or it has no warrant at all.
The progressive dispensationalist exegesis, though, allows the passage of time. It may be ever so slight, to be sure. It may last only forty years. But it did exist for awhile after the ascension. Such teaching should cause Pentecost to roll over into his grave. "Banish the thought!" But there it is in black and white. Bock has sold his imminency for a mess of historical exegesis. Bravo!
THE TIME IS AT HAND
Despite Bock's welcome admissions, he (and progressive dispensationalism) fails when interpreting the phrase "the time is at hand" (Gk: ho kairos eggiken). He follows a common (and evasive and unnecessary) line of thought regarding the approaching "time": "The approaching kairos here refers to the 'not yet' of the consummation. Jesus can speak of the 'time' coming now (12:56) and at the same time look forward to the end (21:25-28)" (1665).
Obviously I have no trouble with the close proximity juxta positioning of consummational eschatology (the Second Advent era) with redemptive historical eschatology (the A.D. 70 era) remember my discussion of Matthew 24 (and consider my treatment of 2 Thess. 2: Tape #30:2 "The Man of Sin" $4 + $1 s/h). They are related as type to anti-type, with A.D. 70 serving as a distant harbinger of the Second Advent.
However, here I do have a problem with Bock's assumptions regarding "the time." His (common among evangelicals) maneuver is anti-contextual, contra-lexical, and absolutely unnecessary. Let me demonstrate how this is so.
First, Bock himself states that ho kairos ("the time") is "an allusion to the eschatological [i.e., consummational] end" (1664). While at the same time he admits that this term often applies to events such as A.D. 70: "Jesus can speak of 'the time' coming now" (1665) This is the common "already/not yet" eschatological tension promoted in many evangelical discussions of eschatology (see: Dispensationalism in Transition, May, 1998). So: According to Bock (and others) the eschatological "time" (kairos) DOES appear in some sense in A.D. 70.
My question at this point is WHY? Why should we then postulate that the reference to "the time" in Luke 21:8 must be a false prophetic reference to the CONSUMMATIONAL "time", as per Bock? He lumps Rev. 1:3 and 22:10 together as evidence of the distantly FUTURE consummational time (1664), which does not help, but rather hinders his case.
Certainly Jesus warns that false prophets will attempt to "mislead" his disciples and that they will be dangerously mistaken (the point of 21:8). But why must we assume their mistake is one of miscalculation by over 2000 years? And one which calls for the consummational end? Why couldn't their mistake be in other directions altogether: (1) They are mistaken in their identity: they claim to be (false Christs: "I am he," 21:8). (2) They are mistaken in their timing: they falsely call for the final catastrophe by 10 or 20 years previous to the actual "time" of A.D. 70? (3) And they are mistaken in their goal: they want to generate an armed Jewish response on the order of Judas Maccabeus (165 B.C.) and the later disaster under Bar Kochba (A.D. 135). Why must we assume the phrase "the time" on the lips of these false christs assumes consummational events, therefore serving as evidence the phrase speaks of the end of the world?
I just finished reading an excellent and helpful (though over reaching and occasionally unsound) book on Jesus' ministry and purpose by (relatively conservative) critical scholar N. T. Wright: Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996). In his fascinating study (written in response to the absurd anti-historical Jesus Seminar) Wright frequently touches on the nature of apocalyptic discourse: He shows repeatedly and conclusively that apocalyptic language appearing outside of the biblical canon never meant the end of the world as such, but rather the collapse of the reigning social order. This is what I believe it relates to in the Old and New Testaments, for instance in both Isaiah (chs. 13 and 34) and in Luke 21 and Revelation.
Consequently, I would argue that the eschatological phrase "the time" in its New Testament setting appears predominantly (if not always) to refer to the fast approaching A.D. 70 catastrophe, rather than to the consummational end time. Jesus' warning in Luke 21:8 does not imply that the false christs will erroneously call for the consummation of history. Rather their error would be that they are attempting to capture the zeal of the oppressed Jew seeking to HASTEN the inevitable crisis, which finally occurs in A.D. 70; they are seeking to generate an armed political response from among Israel. (N. T. Wright points out that any first century Jew would have seen foreboding signs on the political scene suggesting a looming cultural crisis for Israel in his The New Testament and the People of God [1992, pp. 170-180] the first volume of which Jesus and the Victory of God is volume 2.)
I would argue against Bock's understanding of "the time" for several other reasons in addition to the above evidence. I believe "the time" in Luke 21:8 refers to the A.D. 70 crisis for these two additional reasons:
First, the immediate context of the Olivet Discourse in each of the synoptic gospels is Jesus' denunciation of and prophecy against the first century temple (Matt. 23:36-24:3; Mark 13:1-4; Luke 21:5-7). Since apocalyptic language in the Old Testament refers to non-consummational historical events, and since Jesus is expressly warning of the first century temple's future, and since we know as a matter of historical fact that that temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 amidst armed conflict, why should we assume that "the time" refers to a distantly future scenario? Even if on the lips of false christs? Such language was common in first century Israel.
Second, in fact several of the New Testament references to "the time" occur in contexts very much like Luke 21:8. That is, in contexts that tie the events to soon approaching judgments:
(1) Remember my proof last month that Luke 21 deals SOLELY with A.D. 70 I wrote: In the final analysis, Luke's record DEMANDS a first century fulfillment of these things which Jesus prophesies, as recorded in Luke's version (which is shorter than Matthew's). We must note that AFTER Jesus details all the prophetic information in Luke 21:5-27 he EXPRESSLY and REPEATEDLY asserts the NEARNESS of "these things." Notice the relentless and rather repetitious string of temporal indicators that conclude the discourse as found in Luke's Gospel:
Luke 21:28: "When these things begin to take place, stand up
and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing NEAR."
Luke 21:29-30: "He told them this parable: 'Look at the fig
tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is NEAR.'"
Luke 21:31: "Even so, when you see these things happening,
you know that the kingdom of God is NEAR."
Luke 21:32: "I tell you the truth, THIS GENERATION will
certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
How can anyone read these concluding statements in Luke 21 and surmise Christ means anything other than that "all" these events are "near" in "this generation"? Jesus appears to go out of his way to nail down the temporal relevance of this prophecy.
That being the case (that Luke 21 refers to A.D. 70) why must we assume that "the time" references generally refer to the consummation?
Furthermore, the evidentiary references Bock employs to illustrate the future consummation are drawn from Revelation 1:3 and 22:10. But these ALSO are tied into the near time frame and first century context:
Rev. 1:1: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must SHORTLY take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John."
Rev. 1:3: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is NEAR."
Rev. 22:6: "And he said to me, 'These words are faithful and true'; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must SHORTLY take place."
Rev. 22:10: "And he said to me, 'Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is NEAR.'"
Consequently, the progressive dispensational understanding of important eschatological terminology is mistaken. The linguistic setting of "the time" is often in the midst of near-time indicators.
UPCOMING SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS
I will be speaking at the following conferences. If you are in the area, come join us!
November 14, 1998: "Bahnsen Symposium" at the DoubleTree Hotel in
Irvine, California (sponsored by SCCCS). Phone: (714) 572-8358
January 18-21, 1999: "Eschatology Conference" at Westminster
Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, WA. Phone: (360) 892-4407
February 18-20, 1999: "Ligonier Conference on Eschatology" at First Baptist Church, Orlando, FL. Phone: (407) 333-4244.
February 22-26, 1999: "Eschatology and History Course" at Christ College, Lynchburg, VA. Phone: 804-528-9034
February 26-28, 1999: "Introducing Reformed Eschatology" at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, VA Phone: (840) 846-3441
April 16-17, 1999: "Introduction to Revelation Conference" in
Phoenix, AZ Contact: Rev. Jeff Neill: (602) 516-1648.
For conference inquiries, contact me at
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