In Eschatology Part 2 we noted that the Church, from the beginning, naturally disassociated itself from its Jewish roots. The Jews, who comprised the bulk of the Church during the days of the apostles, saw themselves as the true Israel. But the Gentiles, who soon became the majority, were taught by Paul and his disciples that it wasn’t necessary to follow the Old Testament law.
Paul was so bold as to suggest that the temporary casting away of Israel was to the Gentile advantage. Why didn’t Paul argue that the Gentiles could have equally profited by the inclusion of the Jews; a win-win situation? To understand Paul’s argument, we need to look at Israel’s beginning.
With the Exodus, God took a group of former slaves, void of their own culture, and brought them to Mt. Sinai where he gave them the Law. Culture is the incarnation of a religion, and with the Law Israel received a culture. Israel’s culture is inextricably tied to the Law; it is a reflection of the Law. If Gentiles had to come to Christ via the Law, as was the argument of the Apostles prior to Paul’s position to the contrary in Acts 15, then they would have to change cultures to become Christians. That would indeed be a burdensome yoke! When Paul divorced following Christ from the Law, the Gospel became transcultural; nations could accept Christ without having to renounce their culture.
From this can we conclude that the New Testament saw no future for the nation of Israel? Differing answers to this question divide the Church on eschatology. A-millennialism and Historic Pre-millennialism answer in the positive; the New Testament teaches that there is no future for Israel as a nation, although some Jews will be saved. Dispensationalism answers in the negative; Israel and the Church are separate meta-physical entities and both are the product of God’s grace.
It is interesting that Paul, the one man who argued for the inclusion of Gentiles into the family of God apart from the Law, is also the one who argued that God’s plan calls for a future for the nation of Israel. Because of his radical views and the controversy they generated, Paul, before going to Rome, set forth his doctrine in what is universally agreed to be the most important epistle in the New Testament, Romans.
One concern, generated by Paul’s teaching on the inclusion of the Gentiles was, what does this do to the inviolable promises of God to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament? Romans 9-11 addresses this question. In Romans 9 Paul begins by distinguishing between individual and corporate commitment; “not all Israel is of Israel.” God has a corporate commitment to the nation based on grace, but this does not mean that every member of the nation is automatically rightly related to God. Just as God elected the nation of Israel, so also He elects those who comprise the true Israel, the “seed.”
Out of all who call themselves Jews, only a remnant comprise the elect. “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.” As we saw in my series on grace, grace and election go together; you cannot have grace without election. And so it is with the nation of Israel. As a corporate entity, it is an expression of the grace of God. Thus, irrespective of how few true believers or how small the remnant, God is still faithful to His commitment of grace.
As applied to the nation of Israel, Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree. Israel is the natural branch, broken off and replaced by the Gentiles who are the “wild” branch. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says, “For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree? For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:…As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.”
Exegetes have disagreed on whether this promise applies to Israel nationally; i.e., a restored nation sometime in the future, or to Israel as a people who will someday in the future be included in the family of God under the auspices of the Church. To answer this, we must look briefly at the Old Testament prophets.
OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETS
Regarding the future of Israel, the theme of the Old Testament prophets remains consistent; God will judge the nation Israel because of her sin and unbelief. At any given period in her history, Israel has only a remnant that believe. “Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.”
No matter how great her sin, however, God will return Israel to her land and bless her. Israel is the object of God’s affection and grace. In these passages, predicting a return coupled with a promise that she will never again be judged and sent into captivity, it is always void of any reference to reciprocity. God does not say, “If Israel forsakes her sin and remains faithful, then I will be her God and she shall be My people.” There is no reference to a condition.
LITERAL VS. FIGURATIVE INTERPRETATION
If you take these passages literally, reading them like you would the morning newspaper, then you have to conclude that God will establish the nation of Israel in Palestine sometime in the future, and will personally sit on the throne of David and rule the nations.
I remember several years ago my good friend Bill Garrison, an attorney in Fort Worth, and I were in Chicago with J.I. Packer at a conference. One morning at breakfast Bill asked him about the prophecy given Mary by the angel regarding the birth of Christ. “Would it have been legitimate for Mary to have concluded that her Son would someday literally sit on the throne of David?” Dr. Packer answered in the negative, arguing that the nation of Israel had forfeited the promises given her by God in the Old Testament, and that they were figuratively fulfilled in the Church where He is now sitting on David’s throne ruling the nations through the Church.
If the clear, unconditional promises of the Old Testament prophets given to Israel cannot be interpreted literally, then who decides which passages of the Scriptures are to be understood literally and which figuratively? If a literal hermeneutic is inadequate, for the passage doesn’t really mean what it says, then who gets to determine its meaning? If Peter is correct when he says that no Scripture is of private interpretation, then those who follow Packer’s logic answer that it ultimately is the Church that gives the correct interpretation.
Few Christians, historically, have relied solely on Scripture. Roman Catholics look to tradition and the authority of the Church when it speaks ex cathedra. The Reformers, upon adopting a figurative hermeneutic, especially in eschatology, relied on the creeds and confessional statements of the Church; e.g., Westminster Confession, Heidelberg Catechism Augsburg Confession. Charismatics and other similar traditions augment the Scriptures with “words of knowledge.”
Still, all confess a special allegiance to the authority of Scripture. The Roman Church recognizes that the Bible stands in a class alone. Even Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and other cults acknowledge the special status of Scripture, even though they add their own inspired books.
A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY
If I am correct in asserting that “few Christians, historically, have relied solely on Scripture,” then on what basis do I argue that it is Scripture alone, with a literal hermeneutic? A literal hermeneutic is essential if the Bible is to be our authority!
Your theological presuppositions shape your hermeneutic rather than vice versa. Not only so, but pragmatism drives your theological presuppositions. We see this in the Patristics; they were literal in their interpretation of Revelation 20 and figurative in their interpretation of the Old Testament promises directed to Israel. This inconsistency was not the product of a well-reasoned hermeneutic, but rather the conviction that the Jews were no longer the object of God’s grace. Even in a book full of symbolism such as Revelation, they adhered to a literal hermeneutic, because it served their purpose of providing hope in the midst of persecution.
A figurative interpretation has always been perceived as serving the best interests of the Church. But the absence of authority cannot tolerate a vacuum. If the Bible is figurative, then it is not authoritative. If it is not authoritative, then what is my authority? As already noted, for the Roman Church, it is in the offices of her Pope and bishops. In the churches of the Reformation it is in the creeds. In independent churches, it is in the doctrinal statement of the Church.
If this is true then I don’t have to take Revelation and Old Testament prophecy literally, and I am free to believe that Mary had no legitimate ground for believing her Son would sit on the throne of David. But I dare not question the authority of the man-made creeds of the Church! It is a bit like the parent who wants to consider the traffic laws negotiable, but will not allow his children to consider his rules negotiable.
If I don’t read the Bible with the same rules of interpretation that I do the newspaper, then I can make the Bible say anything I want it to say and it ceases to be my authority. One of the reasons non-theologians, such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, seem so fresh in their biblical insights is they bring to Scripture a lack of theological bias and are willing to approach it like any other piece of literature.
Only when we are willing to approach the Bible with this same openness will it, in reality, become our authority. We cannot allow ourselves to manipulate Scripture in such a way that it conforms with our theological presuppositions. Of course none of us are able to adhere to this principle with total purity. As we saw in the last issue, we all are influenced by culture far more than we want to admit. We will see this again and again in the Patristics. It is easy to see it in others; hard to see it in ourselves. Still, we must be committed to this principle if Scripture is to be our authority.
Striving to be His obedient servant,
E.g., cf. Joel 3:17-21, Amos 9:11-15, Zechariah 14.
Luke 1:32 “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Read commentaries on Romans 11:24-28 to see how Paul’s promise to a restored Israel is handled. For example, Charles Hodge, the famous a-millennial exegete who was one of the old orthodox “Princetonians,” says the “all Israel shall be saved” refers to a future turning of Israel to Christ with Israel’s inclusion in the Church prior to Christ’s return. If Hodge is correct, it must be admitted that Israel and the Church are distinctly separate entities, which in turn means that the Church is not Israel. But Packer, Hodge, and all a-millennialists argue that Israel and the Church are the same meta-physical entity.
II Peter 1:20-21.