07 May 2010

You Will Read This (unless, of course, you don't)

So, can an attempt even be made to apply the hermeneutic laid out in the previous posts (parts 1, 2, and 3) to certain predictions found in the New Testament? This may be where the discussion gets heated for some, given our millennial madness in the church. It's one thing to suggest that one of Amos' prophecies didn't come about the way he described it because of some intervening historical contingency; it's another thing (some may say) to apply that principle to the words Jesus and the apostles spoke concerning the "end times."

Unsurprisingly, Richard Pratt, in
When Shall These Things Be? A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism, does just that. But not much. He spends about seven pages on "historical contingencies and New Testament Eschatology," while the previous twenty-six pages are basically a distillation of the work I linked to in the first part of this series. No doubt, Pratt had to lay the groundwork for what he eventually wanted to say about New Testament (NT) prophecy, given the context in a book that seeks to challenge hyper-preterist arguments about eschatology.

According to Pratt, the claims so central to hyper-preterist thought—that the second coming of Christ was imminent (within a generation) and that "all biblical predictions must be fulfilled just as they are stated"—can be challenged and thus significantly weaken the hyper-preterist position (p. 121). He leaves the first claim for others and moves on to discuss the second.

Since hyper-preterists argue that the NT posits an imminent return of Christ, they revise their understanding of the nature of this return (cataclysmic, physical, and renewal of the cosmos) in order to maintain the integrity of the NT writings (i.e., if Christ didn't return within a generation of his ascension, then the NT is fallible, etc.). Here's where Pratt's hermeneutic (outlined in the previous thre
e posts of this series) comes in: "Even if the New Testament does predict an imminent return of Christ, intervening historical contingencies make it unnecessary that an imminent return take place" (p. 149). Indeed, a first-century expectant Israelite would know that such an imminent return was not "set in stone." Why? 
  1. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of an imminent eschaton upon the assumption of repentance (and this was only partially realized); 
  2. Daniel came to realize that the fullness of the eschaton was delayed due to lack of repentance; 
  3. and Haggai and Zechariah called for repentance during the delay period, to hasten the coming of the fullness of the eschaton
So goes the perspective of the NT authors, according to Pratt:
  1. The blessings of the eschaton were underway, and the imminent return of Christ was offered as a benefit of repentance;
  2. the lack of repentance among the Christic community delayed the return indefinitely;
  3. "Nevertheless, the hope and prayer of every true believer is that through their repentance and faithful living the return of Christ may be hastened" (p. 149).
Three examples of this come from Saint Peter's mouth: (1) Acts 2:15–17; (2) Acts 3:19–21; and (3) 2 Peter 3:4–7, 9.

The first example has the apostle declaring the arrival of the eschaton (as spelled out by the prophet Joel). In the second example, we see Peter including an imminent return of Christ on the condition of repentance ("Repent…turn…so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come…and that [the Lord] may send the Christ…."). There's no doubt the parousia—the return of the king, the second advent of Christ—was in view here: "He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything…" (Acts 3:21). The fullness of the return is on offer here, even if its blessings have already begun.

The third example is a little trickier. According to Peter, the final return will be cataclysmic, whatever it actually looks like in space and time. How, then, did he understand the fact that it had not yet occurred by the time he was nearing his own demise? Was Christ shown to be a liar, a false prophet? Enter 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent." Ah, the Lord God was showing great patience to the church in not sending the Messiah back to judge. He did not want "anyone to be destroyed," but wanted "everyone to repent." Just like Daniel came to see, "the lack of repentance was the reason for the delay of eschatological blessings" (p. 152).

Kind of a convenient hermeneutic, isn't it? The interlocutor might say that we're just moving the goalposts (because of intervening historical contingencies) whenever we're faced with a prediction in Scripture that doesn't come to pass in the way that it is stated. But this isn't intended to be m
uch of an apologetic anyway. That's not what Saint Peter brought it up for. He said what he said for the same reason the latter prophets said what they said—to motivate the people, in the face of the delay of the eschaton, toward faithful Christian living, in order to hasten the coming of the Christ. Yes, hasten. "Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames (2 Peter 3:11–12, emphasis mine).

Thus Pratt concludes: 
Peter contended that the knowledge that Christ will return one day in cosmic judgment and blessing should lead to a godly way of life for believers. …Peter also made an astounding offer. When God's people repent and live in holiness, they "speed" (speudontas) the coming of the day of God. (p. 153)
And just to make sure everybody knows about his Reformed creds, Pratt goes on to add the caveat: "Peter had understood that the time of Christ's return had been immutably fixed by God's eternal decree, but in terms of God's providential involvement in history, he also knew that it could be delayed or hastened" (ibid.).

I'm not exactly sure how an event can be both immutably fixed and contingent, but whatever.

The thing is, I think this exegesis comports with the biblical data; it provides an "a-ha" moment. However, it remains to be seen how it comports with typical Reformed orthodoxy and its understanding of God's decrees. It doesn't seem to me that the doctrine of secondary causes (cf.
WCF 3.1) can be stretched to cover it.

Beyond this, the hermeneutic opens up a few other interesting questions regarding other New Testament predictions: Could it have been otherwise that Jerusalem or the temple was destroyed (Olivet Discourse)? What about Peter's denial? Judgment upon Capernaum, Korizan, and Bethsaida? Jesus' betrayal by Judas Iscariot? And what about his death on the cross? These are just a few of Jesus' predictions found in the Gospels. Many more can be found throughout the apostolic writings. What do we gain by embracing this hermeneutic? What do we lose?


Acolyte4236 said...

Hey Chris,

Interesting, but they are still I think going to scream Arminianism or Open Theism.

You might try looking at discussions in Thomism and Scotism on divine responsiveness to prayer and the contingencies associated there. The ideas there might help here with fixity and contingency.

Chris Donato said...

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Perry.

I think you're right. It'll be seen, if it hasn't already, as nudging up too closely to Open Theism. Also, I had felt the presence of Scotus lurking around here (having sifted through the pertinent Thomas material already); thanks for the pointer.

By the way, how would this approach to the prophetic literature be taken in your neck of the woods?

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