Friday, September 05, 2003

The Troublesome "reasonableness" of symbolic interpretation

In studying eschatology, we are often confronted with difficult apocalyptic writings, for example in Daniel, Revelation, and the synoptic gospels. While they cannot be avoided, they will never serve as satisfactory "proof texts" for a position, for they can be twisted to support any view.

The apocalyptic and symbolic passages become more "plausibility arguments" than direct support. My favorite example is from Daniel:
And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate. (Dan. 9:27)
Premillennialists interpret the "he (who) will put a stop to sacrifice" as the antichrist. Other views interpret as Christ. The antichrist in some views, Christ in others, and in all cases "reasonable" given their presuppositions.

Another example is in Revelation. In chapter 19 we read of the rider of the white horse:
11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war.
12 His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself.
13 He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.
14 And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses.
15 From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.
16 And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
(Rev 19: 11-16)

This is followed in Revelation 20, by the (only) description of a 1000 year millennium.

In one of the stronger arguments in favor of premillennialism, its proponents view the rider of the white horse in Rev. 19 as Christ, and the event symbolized in Rev. 19 as the second coming. Then the two chapters, reasonably assumed to be chronological, place the second coming before the millennium. Bad da bing, you proved premillenniealism.

Not so fast. The postmillennialists also acknowledge the rider as Christ. They also agree that the two chapters are chronological. However, they differ on what Rev. 19 is describing. Their view is that it is not symbolic of the second coming. Rather it is symbolic of the triumph of the gospel throughout the church age and the means by which the nations are Christianized. They view the sword and the Word being used to "strike down the nations" as another promise of the success of the Great Commission. They also point out the similarity with this verse in Hebrews:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12)

This is the parallel evangelical version, with the same elements, the word and the sword. Striking down the nations refers, in this view, to invading and liberating them through evangelism. Also sounds reasonable.

And then there are the preterists and amillennialists, who have different (reasonable) interpretations.

Therein lies the problem, for obviously at most only one view can be correct. That is why we should turn first, when possible, to non apocalyptic writings.

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