Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Wed Oct 08 2008 - 16:19:42 EDT

Hi Bernie,

Ed's posts haven't been making it to my inbox (probably due to black listing Yahoo because of spam!), so your post was the first I saw of it (and, yes, I have since removed Yahoo from my black list).

You ask how I deal with the obvious statements that Christ's return would be first century AD? Well, in a nutshell it boils down to how much emphasis I think we should put upon our reading of individual passages of scripture vs the emphasis to be put on formulating a "big picture" whole. Personally, I'd want to emphasize the "big picture" teaching of SCRIPTURE over against the "little picture" of specific books, chapters or verses.

This isn't to suggest that the "little picture" of books, chapters or verses might conflict with the "big picture" of scripture - this would be a silly suggestion given that the various "bits" taken together are what constitute scripture. Rather, it's to emphasize the "taking together" and that Scripture is, in a sense, greater than the sum of its individual parts.

To show what I'm getting at, let me point to Proverbs 26:4 & 5 as an example;

   4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
       Lest you also be like him.

   5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
       Lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Now this, as a matter of simple logic, is as clear a contradiction as you could find anywhere. BUT nobody - not even the most rank biblical literalist (and certainly not me!) - will concede that it demonstrates a contradiction in the Biblical witness. If anything it proves that you simply can't do anything with a fool (heads he wins, tails you loose). BUT it also shows the soundness of the principle of comparing scripture with scripture and seeking an overarching principle that holds the detailed pronouncements together.

Note that this ISN'T about seeking logical coherence between passages, but about "making sense" of them taken together. There is NO way to make Prov 16:4 & 5 logically consistent. BUT it is possible to "make sense" of the two verses and so develop a biblical theology of dealing with fools (even if that theology is merely that there's no logically coherent response to idiocy!).

Applying this sort of approach to the question of Christ's return, I'll only say that I can happily acknowledge that SPECIFIC passages such as "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51) suggest the early Christians believed in a return of Christ within their lifetime. But when "taken together" with all the other statements on the theme, Scripture's "big picture" is pretty clear; (1) the time of Christ's return is unspecified, and (2) that it could occur at anytime whatsoever.

And, to me, this "big picture" view "makes sense" of the passages where the early believers are expecting Christ to return within their lifetimes. I mean what else would you expect them to say if they really accepted the "big picture" as just described.

So just as I can "make sense" of the logically incoherent Prov 26:4 & 5 - so to I can "make sense" of the biblical idea of eschatology even though I might see a degree of logical incoherence between the pronouncements of specific books, chapters, and verses on that subject.

There's a few other issues lurking in here which I don't wish to go into in depth, but might just be worth mentioning briefly;

1) I'm aware that I'm working here with incomplete knowledge (even in regards to my understanding of Scripture) so I need to keep in mind that it might be unrealistic to attempt the construction of a comprehensive theological system.

2) As I don't know what elements of my knowledge are correct, nor to what degree, then I don't know what elements to privilege in formulating a theological position and so I need to keep in mind that constructing a logically consistent theological position might also be an unrealistic expectation.

[somewhat tongue in cheek 1) and 2) taken together mean that logical consistent theology is a luxury only the omniscient can afford!]

3) I'm not (as my earlier remarks on "methodological atheism" in biblical studies indicate) primarily interested in developing a logically consistent biblical/theological position in any case. Frankly, I view scripture primarily in functional terms - as a channel of divine disclosure and personal/corporate growth (2 Tim 3:16-17) which is primarily about mind transformation (Rom 15:2) aimed at deepening our love rather than our knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1-3). It is a "tool" by which God the Holy Spirit can bring us into (and sustain us in) saving relationship with God the Son such that we come to the knowledge of God the Father. I can be comfortable with a HUGE degree of ambiguity because, to me, eliminating ambiguity is not the point.

4) The idea of Sensus Plenior (the Holy Spirit inspiring a "greater meaning" than even the authors of scripture knew) is well established in Biblical exegesis. It is the principle that allows us to argue that the authors of scripture were (unknowingly) speaking to us 2000 years distant and NOT merely to their immediate audience. This being the case, we should not assume that the identity of the "we" of a passage like Paul's "we shall not all sleep..." is obviously restricted to his immediate audience. The principle of Sensus Plenior suggests that this "we" could (indeed, must) refer not just to the Corinthians, but to all Christians including those remaining at Christ's return regardless of how far in the future this return might be.

5) Finally (phew!) quite a large portion of scripture (probably the majority) is in such a form that it is not at all clear what propositional claims are being made (e.g. the OT historical books, Psalms, Prophets, much of the Gospels, Revelation). So if our primary mode of Scriptural exegesis is extracting propositions to construct logically coherent theological positions then we will tend (as many protestants do) to disregard much of scripture in favor of the few predominantly "propositional" offerings (Romans is particularly popular here). This won't mean that taking the literal sense of (say) 1 Cor 15:51 is wrong - only that this sort of approach isn't even remotely likely to give us the entire picture nor, again, is it likely to be the most important aim of biblical studies.

I'll get to the "sell all and give to the church" question in another post.

Murray Hogg
Pastor, East Camberwell Baptist Church, Victoria, Australia
Post-Grad Student (MTh), Australian College of Theology

P.S. no need to refer to me as "Pastor" - but thanks anyway!

Dehler, Bernie wrote:
> Hi Edward- I agree with all your proofs below, 100%! I think you nailed the case that the disciples all expected the return of Christ real soon in their lifetime, and it didn't happen. They were wrong. But how do YOU deal with it? Do you just tuck it away in the back of your mind as an unresolved mystery? Was Jesus wrong in what He taught them?
> You also wrote:
> " Oddly enough, the plain straightforward fundamental meaning of such verses continues to be denied by "fundamentalist" "inerrantist" Christians who have used every means possible to try and deny what appears quite obvious."
> I agree quite strongly.
> Pastor Murray, for example, I read your posts. I recognize it as standard teaching, but it doesn't make sense to me, for all the reasons Edward wrote below. Somehow you are not seeing what Edward is pointing out, or else you have a way to deal with it that I don't know about. I'd like to see your comments on his post.
> Pastor Murray, in Acts, the rich sold what they had for the good of the group. That was way out of the norm. I think the text makes that clear. It was extreme. Why would they do such an extreme thing? You make it sound like you are downplaying how extreme and rare it was. My opinion is that I think if those disciples would have known that we were still waiting for Christ's return today, almost 2,000 years later, they would not have done it (sold everything and shared everything).
> ...Bernie--

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Received on Wed Oct 8 16:20:47 2008

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