Covenant

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Book Review: “Understanding End Times Prophecy” by Paul Benware

uep-benwareUnderstanding End Times Prophecy by Paul Benware certainly deserves its subtitle: “A Comprehensive Approach.” Benware presents a lengthy tome defending his position, dispensational premillenialism (more on that soon), while also outlining and critiquing many other views on various eschatological concepts.

Wait, What?

Yes, I just used the words dispensational premillenialism together in a sentence as though it made sense. It does. That is one of the many views Benware surveys in the book. Before reading Understanding End Times Prophecy (hereafter UEP), I admit I could not have distinguished a dispensational premillenialist from an amillenialist. Nor could I have identified a pre-wrath view in contrast with a post-wrath view. Benware’s book touches all of these and more, explaining the various positions out there on the various eschatological themes while also providing a thorough critique of those with which he disagrees.

Outline of Contents

Benware starts by outlining some principles for interpreting Biblical prophecy. Primary among these is the notion that prophetic passages must be interpreted literally. Benware explains: “Literal interpretation assumes that… [God] based His revelatory communication on the normal rules of human communication. Literal interpretation understands that in normal communication and in the Scriptures figures of speech are valuable as communication devices…” and it is therefore “not… a rigid ‘letterism’ or ‘mechanical understanding of the language’ that ignores symbols and figures” (23-24).

UEP then outlines a broad understanding of Biblical covenants, noting that the covenant God made with Abraham was unconditional, and so must be fulfilled.Next, Benware turns to a number of passages which outline the Palestinian, Davidic, and New Covenants. These he discusses in the context of promises God makes to Israel which must be fulfilled.

The next major section outlines the major views on the millennium. Benware favors the dispensational premillenial view and so spends some time outlining it.The dispensational view focuses on the covenants found throughout the Bible. It holds that there are different “economies” of God’s working. These dispensations are not time periods, nor are they different ways of salvation. Instead, they are specific truths about how God chooses to work with His people (86ff). This view also holds that God will fulfill promises through Israel as a literal nation in the place that God promised them (88ff).

The premillenial view holds that Christ returns before the millennial kingdom. It holds that the millennium is a literal thousand-year reign of Jesus on earth. Thus, there are two resurrections: first, before the millennial kingdom; second, after the millennial kingdom. Israel factors prominently into this view; Israel will be part of the thousand year reign and will occupy the land that God promised unconditionally to Abraham (94ff). Benware argues against the notion that Israel has become displaced or fulfilled in the church (103-120).

Then Benware turns to the view of amillenialism. Essentially, this view holds that the “millennium” is non-literal and is being fulfilled now during the church age. There is one resurrection, and the judgment comes immediately upon Christ’s return. Thus, the current period is the millennial kingdom (121-137).

Postmillenialism is the subject next discussed in UEP. This view tends to be tied into the notion that we are now living in the kingdom of God and so will usher in a golden age through social justice or action. After this undefined point, Christ will return to judge (139ff). Benware is highly critical of this view, noting that it relies upon the notion that we will continue improving the world (yet the world seems to be falling farther rather than progressing); as well as its rejection of the notion of a literal reign of Israel (150ff).

Finally, Benware evaluates preterism. Essentially, this view holds that the events prophesied in Revelation and elsewhere have either all or mostly been fulfilled already. There is much diversity within this perspective, but largely it is tied in with the notion that the destruction of the temple ushered in the end times (154ff).

The next major area of evaluation in UEP is that of the rapture. Benware analyzes pre-tribulation; post-tribulation; and other rapture views. Pre-tribulation is the view that the rapture will happen before the tribulation period. Post-tribulation is the view that the rapture happens after the tribulation. These directly tie into how one views the coming of Christ and the millennial kingdom (207ff).

Finally, UEP ends with outlines of the seventieth week of the book of Daniel, the Kingdom of God, death and the intermediate state, and the final eternal state. An enormous amount of exposition and discussion is tucked into these final chapters. For example, Benware includes a critique of annihilationism.

I have here only touched on the surface of UEP. Benware is exceedingly thorough and has managed to write an amazing resource on the issues related to End Times Prophecy.

Analysis

As has been noted, UEP is a simply fantastic resource for those who want to look at the various views which are discussed in contemporary evangelicalism. Benware has also provided an extremely detailed exposition of the dispensational premillenialist position. If someone wants to critique that view, UEP will be a book which they must reference. It is that good and that comprehensive.

Furthermore, Benware provides a number of excellent insights through the use of charts. Throughout UEP, there are charts scattered which summarize the content of what Benware argues, show pictorially what various views teach, and more. These charts will become handy for readers to reference later when they want to discuss the issues Benware raises. They also help interested readers learn what various views and positions teach.

Benware rightly shatters false notions that Biblical prophecy is some kind of indiscernible mystery language which humans weren’t meant to think on. His care for making clear what the Bible teaches on a number of issues is noteworthy.

Unfortunately, there are several areas in the book which are cause for caution. Benware’s use of proof texts is sometimes questionable. There is great merit to utilizing a series of related texts after an assertion in order to support one’s argument, but upon looking up several texts that Benware cites to make his points, it seems that he often stretched texts far out of their context or even cited texts which had nothing to do with the argument he made in the context in which he cited them. For just one example, Benware writes “The second phase of his [the Antichrist’s] careerwill take place during the first half of the tribulation… During his rise to power he will make enemies who will assassinate him near the midpoint of the tribulation (cf. Rev. 13:3, 12, 14). But much to the astonishment of the world, he is restored to life and becomes the object of worship (along with Satan)” (300). Note that Benware specifically says that the Antichrist will be assassinated and resurrected. Now, turn to the passages that Benware cites. Revelation 13:3, 12, and 14 state:

3: One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast… 12: It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed… 14: Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. (NIV)

Now, where in this section does it say the Antichrist will be assassinated? Where in this section does it talk about the Antichrist dying and being raised to life? Strangely, Benware seems to reject the literal hermeneutic he advocates, and begins to interpret texts in ways that bend them  to the breaking point.

The issue of these proof texts opens a broader critique of UEP. Benware constantly insists upon a literal reading of Revelation and other prophetic texts, while also criticizing those who hold other views of using an inconsistent hermeneutic. Yet, as I believe I demonstrated above, Benware often goes well beyond the literal meaning of the texts and comes to conclusions which stretch them past literal readings. In fact, it seems that Benware balances an often literalistic reading of the text with a non-literal reading. Thus, Benware seems to fall victim to the very error he accuses all other positions of falling into.

An overall critique of the position Benware holds would take far too much space and time for this reader to dedicate in this review, but I would note that the conclusions Benware comes to are often the result of the combination of literalistic readings and/or taking texts beyond what they say that I noted above. Some of the worrisome issues include the notion that the sacrificial system will be reinstated (334ff); a view in which the notion that the church seems in no way fulfill the Biblical prophecies about Israel (103ff); hyper-anthropomorphism of spiritual beings (i.e. demons, which are spiritual beings, being physically restricted [130]); and the insistence on literalizing all numbers in the Bible (168), among issues. It’s not that Benware doesn’t argue for these points; instead, it was that it seems his method to get his conclusions was sometimes faulty, and the case not infrequently was overstated.

One minor issue is Benware’s use of citations. It’s not that he fails to cite sources; rather, the difficulty is that he inconsistently tells the reader where the source is from. Very often Benware block quotes another text (with proper end note citation) without letting the reader know who or what he is quoting. Although this may be better for readers only interested in the argument, it can be very frustrating for those interested in knowing where Benware is getting his information to have to flip to the back of the book all the time to trace down sources. The problem is compounded by the fact that sometimes he does tell the reader where the quote is from (for example, he’ll write “so-and-so argues [quote]”) while at other times he just dives directly into the quote. The inconsistent application here may be a minor problem, but it did cause major frustration through my reading of the text.

Conclusion

Understanding End Times Prophecy is worthy reading. It provides an extremely in-depth look at the dispensational premillenial position. More importantly, Benware gives readers an overview of every major position on the millenium, the rapture, and the tribulation. The book therefore provides both an excellent starting point for readers interested in exploring eschatological views while also giving readers interested in the specific position of dispensational premillenialism a comprehensive look at that view. It comes recommended, with the caveat of the noted difficulties above. It would be hard to have a better introduction to the issues of Biblical prophecy from a premillennialist perspective than this one. The question remains, however, whether that view is correct. So far as this reader is concerned, that question remains unsettled.

Source

Paul Beware Understanding End Times Prophecy (Chicago: Moody, 2006).

Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of this book by the publisher My thanks to Moody Books for the opportunity to review the book.. 

SDG.

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The Historicity of Jesus: The Tools for the Task

This is part of a series I’ve entitled “Jesus: the Living God,” which explores Jesus from Biblical, theological, and apologetic levels. View other posts in the series here.

For now, let us focus on the “tools for the task” (Wright, 29 and following). What kind of historical, textual means are used to talk about Jesus? I’ll be outlining views made by N.T. Wright in his The New Testament and the People of God, (hereafter NTPG) and Blomberg in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. First, I should outline my presuppositions. I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, whose salvation is freely available to all who believe by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no other name by which we are saved (Acts 4:12). I believe that the Bible is the Holy, Inerrant Word of God. It is infallible in its teachings.

Wright argues for a “critical realist” view of history. This view describes a “process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower… while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known” (Wright, 35 emphasis his). This acknowledges that observers have their own point of views, that they have their own interpretations, and that metaphysical beliefs will influence interpretation of data (36). This is vitally important throughout not just Wright’s body of works, but any historical (or other field) study–one’s presuppositions will influence how one interprets the same data.

Wright argues that one primary function of worldviews is to tell “stories” (38). This doesn’t mean these stories are fiction, rather, Wright is arguing that these stories form the basis of a worldview as well as the ways the worldview will interact with other views (38-40). In the context of the New Testament, “They [first-century Jews] never expressed a worldview in which the god in question was uninterested in, or uninvolved with, the created world in general, or the historical fortunes of his people in particular” (41). It is this worldview that, upon reading more of Wright, I think Wright not only acknowledges but agrees with. God is not uninterested or uninvolved, rather, the opposite is true–God is intimately involved and interested in His creation and creatures.

Wright emphasizes the “impossibility of ‘Mere History'” that is wholly divorced from any worldview (82). This doesn’t mean there are no facts… rather, it means there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact (88). These interpretations are generally used in conjunction with historical hypotheses. Thus, it is important to note what composes a good historical hypothesis:

1) The historical hypothesis must include the data. One cannot, for example, simply drop the eschatology which was clearly part of Jesus’ teachings as well as the rest of the New Testament, in order to make one’s hypothesis easier to produce. The data must all be included (99).

2) “It must construct a basically simple and coherent overall picture” (100).

3) The hypothesis must show that it is useful in related areas, it must explain other problems (100).

It is important to realize that a simply enormous amount of material has been produced on Jesus and the Gospels, not to mention the rest of the New Testament. Thus, I will turn to Craig Blomberg’s work, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (hereafter HRG) to analyze some of the ways this study has been done. The tools for our task (to borrow Wright’s terminology) should utilize the best available evidence from New Testament scholarship, while discerning everything in light of the truth of Scripture.

Craig Blomberg wonderfully summarizes the various methods of historical criticism and analyzes them for usefulness  in HRG. Note that I’m not endorsing historical criticism, rather, I’m endorsing taking what is useful from historical criticism and use it as part of the toolbox. In my summing up, I’m leaving out much of Blomberg’s task of pointing out flaws in these criticisms (which is not only in-depth, but also illuminating), but rather emphasizing his ways to use them in the presuppositions that I’ve outlined above.

1) Form Criticism- Form criticism emphasizes the genre of the work being viewed (Blomberg, 50). It also discusses how a text was transmitted or brought into being. Christians can find this useful as it can be readily implemented in the “historical grammatical” type of reading of Scriptures. The background of the text is indeed important, as well as realizing the genre involved (i.e. the historical telling of what Jesus did, as opposed to His parables, which are not literal history).

2) Redaction Criticism- Redaction criticism views the writers of the Gospels as “editors” of the New Testament, “selecting, arranging, and rewording their sources to highlight particular theological and stylistic emphases” (Blomberg, 67). Christians can utilize this not to break down the reality of the Gospels, but rather they can use it as they realize there are indeed differences in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels (i.e. Mark’s suffering servant and Matthew’s son of David), not as contradictions, but as parts to a whole picture of Christ as suffering servant, son of David, compassionate teacher, and Word Incarnate (74).

3) Midrash- Midrash criticism of the Gospels focus on the “relationship of the Gospels to various [Hebrew Scripture] passages to which they may refer” (75). Clearly, this has uses for the Christian. How did the writers of the Gospels utilize Hebrew Scriptures to make their arguments or draw their conclusions about who Jesus was and what He did? This is vitally important to Christological study–who did Jesus say He was, based on the passages He cites, and who did others say He was?

4) Literary Criticism- this discipline is broken down into three types, though the most useful type for the Christian is the “narrative criticism” which analyzes characters, symbolism, figures of speech, etc. within the Gospels (87).

I’ve left out much of Blomberg’s analysis in order to simply sift off what we can use from these various methods, in light of the presuppositions I’ve outlined above. There is much more that could be said about either of these fantastic works (NTPG or HRG), and there is much more that could be said about the “tools for the task”, but for now, these are our tools, and I shall soon move into some of the historicity of Jesus.

Sources:

Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. InterVarsity Press. 2007.

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress. 1992.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

The Covenant and Christ

This post is part of a series on Jesus: The Living God. View other posts here.

Recently I wrote a guest post for a fellow Christian blogger (an excellent site, check it out), Chris Reese, on N.T. Wright’s Climax of the Covenant. I wanted to re-blog it for my site and add a bit to it.

A subject that is often ignored within discussions of who Christ is involves Covenant theology, specifically, the theology of the Torah. How exactly does Christ relate to the Covenant that God made with the people of Israel? N.T. Wright discusses this very issue in his book, The Climax of the Covenant.

First, what is the Torah? The Torah, in Wright’s usage, is not just the Mosaic books of the Bible or the Law, but the promise of God to His people, Israel. He states that “…the law… was regarded not merely as a general code of ethics, but as the charter of Israel’s national life” (24). The problem was, of course, that God demanded perfect obedience to the Torah, to the Law. As His covenant people, Israel was to keep the Torah and to cherish it. But Israel constantly strayed. Thus, the power of the Torah became death, the consequence of sin (209).

So how could Israel fulfill the Torah? The short answer is that Israel simply could not. It demanded perfection, and the people of Israel could not be perfect. God had to intervene directly in history in order to accomplish His covenant with His people, and to open this covenant up to all people.

And how did this happen? First, note the relationship between Christ, Adam, and humanity. Wright notes that “Adam has [for the rabbis of Israel] become embodied already in Israel, the people of the Torah, and in her future hope” (25). This, in turn, must be viewed in light that “Israel, the family of Abraham, is God’s true humanity. Her land is God’s land. Her enemies are God’s enemies” (23). This reflects back on the Torah, as discussed above. It is the “charter of Israel’s national life” (24). So there is a relationship between Adam and Israel–Adam, Wright argues, is to be understood as Israel. Jesus Christ, then, became a New Adam for a New Israel. By acting as the New Adam and redeeming Israel, He fulfilled the Torah and seal the charter of Israel. Not only that, but He opened this charter, this Covenant, to all people.

“Jesus, as last Adam, had revealed what God’s saving plan for the world had really been… by enacting it, becoming obedient to death, even the death of the cross” (40). The resurrection confirmed Jesus as Christ–Messiah.

Finally, how could God keep this promise in light of the failure of Israel (and mankind at large) to keep the Torah? Christ, argues Wright, is the “Climax” of the covenant. “The Messiah is the fulfillment of the long purposes of Israel’s God” (241). How does this happen? Wright argues that the “…answer must be that sin, by causing death, stood in the way of the divine intention of giving life; when, on the cross, God condemns sin… then sin is powerless to prevent the gift of life” (209). God’s plan of salvation “always involved a dramatic break, a cross and a resurrection written into the very fabric of history” (241, emphasis his). Thus, Torah and Covenant Theology can be summed up by saying that “Christ on the cross is thus the goal of the Torah” (243, emphasis his). It is in Christ that we become the people of God.

Source:

Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant. Fortress Press. 1991.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from cited material which is the property of its respective owner[s]) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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