Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Who are the Descendents of Abraham (Gen 12-17)?

Throughout Genesis 12-17, God makes promises to Abraham’s descendents. A question that divides theologians is this: Who are the descendents of Abraham, that is, who will inherit the promises to Abraham?

Dispensationalists argue that the descendents of Abraham are his physical offspring, those who are related to Abraham by blood. Thus, the promises are made to Abraham’s physical children.

Covenant Theologians argue that the descendents of Abraham are his spiritual offspring, those who are related to Abraham by faith. Thus, the promises are made to Abraham’s spiritual children.

In examining this issue, we must recognize that not all of Abraham’s physical descendents will inherit the promises. Even though God uses universal language, such as “To your descendents I will give this land” (Gen 12:7), God never intended this to mean every single one of Abraham’s children.

Abraham asked God to include Ishmael, but God replied, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him … but my covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Gen 17:20-21). So, the descendents of Abraham through Ishmael are not included in the promises; only the descendents of Abraham through Isaac are included in the promises.

Also, Abraham had six sons with his second wife, Keturah, yet none of these are included in the promises. Thus, out of Abraham’s eight sons, only Isaac is included in the promises. In fact, Isaac is Abraham’s “only son” according to God (Gen 22:2).

Additionally, God again narrowed the promise to the line of Jacob. Esau and his descendents (Edomites) are not included in the promises. Though the Edomites are ethnic descendents of Abraham, they are not considered “descendents” with respect to the promises.

God allowed for the further contraction of Abraham’s “descendents.” “The uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Gen 17:14). An ethnic descendent of Abraham who was not circumcised was not considered a descendent of the promises. Thus, physical descent alone does not make someone a “descendent” of Abraham.

Furthermore, God allowed for the expansion of Abraham’s “descendents” to include those not related to Abraham by blood. When God instituted circumcision, Abraham was to circumcise not only his physical children, but also male children who are “bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendent” (Gen 17:12). That is, a foreigner who was circumcised became a descendent of Abraham.

Thus, the picture that we get from the OT is that the descendents of Abraham, those who would inherit the promises, were initially comprised of Jacob’s physical descendents, minus those who were not circumcised, plus those foreigners who were circumcised.

We later learn that although physical circumcision was important and was required for entrance into the covenant, what God really wanted was spiritual circumcision (Jer 4:4). In fact, those who were physically circumcised but not spiritually circumcised were cut off. Thus, God’s promises were not necessarily to those who shared Abraham’s bloodline, but to those who shared Abraham’s faith. God’s promises were to the spiritual descendents of Abraham.

As Israel departs from Egypt, a “mixed multitude” went with them (Ex 12:38), which included Egyptians and other nationalities. These foreigners became Israelites.

We also have several examples of foreigners becoming Jews. Prominently, two foreign women not only become Jews but married into the line of David. Rahab was a Canaanite harlot, who became the mother of Boaz. Ruth was a Moabite, who married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of David. So, David was one-eighth Moabite and one-sixteenth Canaanite.

So, according to the OT, the heirs of the promises to Abraham are his spiritual descendents. This is spelled out even more clearly in the NT, which we will look at next.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Does Inspiration Destroy Hermeneutics?

The NT writers' use of the OT can be a complicated issue. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. However, the Dispensational approach to this is quite extraordinary.

Matt Waymeyer has written an essay called “Don’t Try this at Home: Today’s Interpreter and the ‘Apostles’ Hermeneutic.” The title gives away his conclusion, namely, that we should not even attempt to find interpretive principles in how the NT writers used the OT. I’m amazed at how brazenly this is stated.

Waymeyer gives three reasons for rejecting the NT writers’ hermeneutic. Each of these is problematic, but the third reason is the most objectionable:

“The difference between human interpretation and divine inspiration separates the modern-day exegete from the NT writer in such a way that the former is not able to employ the methods of the latter.”

Waymeyer is assigning the NT writers’ hermeneutic to inspiration and not to correct exegesis. That is, the NT writers were not interpreting the OT, they were redefining it through inspiration. Since we aren’t inspired, we cannot copy their methods.

Here’s Waymeyer again: “In other words, when the apostle Paul quoted or alluded to the OT in his epistles, he wasn’t applying God-given hermeneutical principles to various passages in the Old Testament.”

This magical view of inspiration forces Dispensationalists into a false dilemma: either the NT writers were inspired or they were good exegetes.

Isn’t it possible that the NT writers were inspired and good exegetes. Or, to be more precise, the NT writers were inspired by God to get the OT right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Trouble with "Literalism"

One of the chief reasons that many are drawn to Dispensationalism is because of their commitment to the Scriptures. Dispensationalists claim that their system can be deduced from the plain interpretation of Scripture.

Specifically, Dispensationalists contend that a “literal” hermeneutic is required to properly understand the Scriptures. The application of “literalism” is a notorious problem, and it has been rightly criticized as “so-called literalism,” “wooden literalism,” and “inconsistent literalism.” However, there is a far more serious crisis with regard to the foundation of Dispensational “literalism.”

The problem is that the Dispensational hermeneutic is not based upon the exegesis of Scripture. “Literalism” is a presupposition, a philosophical pre-commitment. In fact, Dispensationalists routinely teach that one should not look to the Bible to obtain sound interpretive principles.

Matt Waymeyer recently wrote an article called “Don’t Try this at Home: Today’s Interpreter and the ‘Apostles’ Hermeneutic.’” While the NT use of the OT can be a thorny issue, and Waymeyer does raise some valid concerns, his conclusion is that we should not even attempt to find interpretive principles in how the NT writers used the OT. Hence, the warning in the title is “Don’t try this at Home.” Other Dispensationalists have argued the same thing.

This is shocking. Dispensationalists routinely argue that Scripture ought to be our standard for everything, except for interpretive principles. The Dispensational hermeneutic is not derived from Scripture itself.

“Literalism” is a philosophical presupposition. Thus, the ultimate foundation of Dispensationalism is not the Scriptures themselves, but philosophy. This philosophical principle of “literalism” is then used to interpret the Scriptures, which produces many of the distinctively Dispensational doctrines (e.g., a future Jewish millennium). These doctrines appear to be Scriptural, but they are arrived at using interpretive principles that are foreign to Scripture.

While the application of “literalism” is a notorious problem, the foundation of “literalism” is even more deeply flawed.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

With regard to the OT and the NT, no one argues for strict continuity or strict discontinuity. That is, everyone believes in some continuity (e.g., we believe in one God) and some discontinuity (e.g., we no longer offer animal sacrifices). The crux of the problem is determining how much stays the same (continuity) and how much is different (discontinuity).

Dispensationalists interpret the Scriptures through the grid of presumed discontinuity. This is their main hermeneutical presupposition. The NT is radically different from the OT. Unless something is explicitly repeated in the NT, then it must not be valid for today. Such an assumption results in conclusions that affect virtually every area of theology.

One of the most painful memories for Dispensationalists is this unfortunate statement in the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible:

"As a dispensation grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 3:24-26; 4:24, 25). The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as the fruit of salvation."

This statement has been rightly rejected by later Dispensationalists, but one has to ask, how could Scofield have even thought that?

The blame should be placed on the hermeneutical grid of presumed discontinuity. Early Dispensationalists were committed to radical discontinuity. They saw discontinuity everywhere. The task of the interpreter was to learn how to "rightly divide the word of God," that is, to separate old from new.

As Dispensationalism developed, there has been a conscious move away from radical discontinuity. Only a Classical Dispensationalist could have argued for radical discontinuity in soteriology. Revised Dispensationalism rejected all such notions.

Yet, Revised Dispensationalists continued to hold to radical discontinuity in other areas, such as different eternal destinies for Israel and for the Church (Israel on earth and the church in heaven). Progressive Dispensationalists have rejected some of these most notorious peculiarities, but they are still operating under the assumption of presumed discontinuity.

As long is there is presumed discontinuity, there will be Dispensationalism. It is likely that there will be another stage of development after Progressive Dispensationalism, which will be another movement towards continuity while stubbornly attempting to hold to presumed discontinuity.

At some point, Dispensationalists should question their commitment to presumed discontinuity. Try the alternative and see if it doesn’t fit the Scriptures better.