In the first three parts of this mini-series, we saw the two schools of theology and their approaches to Biblical interpretation; next, we looked at Augustine and his alignment with the Alexandrian school, as a reaction to the literalistic theologians that surrounded him. In part III, we examined both Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy, and discovered that Platonism focuses on the “other” world known only by the intellect, while Aristotelian philosophy focuses on this world, since we can know nothing about the invisible world.
In this post, I’d like to spend time talking about how the philosophical perspectives of Plato and Aristotle impact theological views. We’ve already seen that Augustine’s Neo-Platonism was responsible for his allegorical approach to the biblical text on issues like the Millennial Kingdom of Revelation 20, for example. But did you know that we, like Augustine, are guilty of approaching the Bible with our own philosophical presuppositions?
You might say to me, “Hey---wait a minute! I approach the text objectively, simply reading what the Bible says.” But do you really? Truth be told, we all approach the text with our own philosophical and theological presuppositions. For example, when we read about God saving Israel with “His arm” or how God “bore them [Israel] on eagles wings” throughout the Scriptures, do we really assume God has an arm or wings? No we don’t. Instead, we chalk such language up to human writing with the purpose of revealing something about God through the use of anthropomorphic (“human form”) language. God is given the characteristics of humans (or animals, in the case of wings) within Scripture to communicate a truth about God. And why do we not take these descriptions literally? Because we all assume a philosophy of God, whereby “God is spirit” (John 4:24). If God is spirit, He cannot be physical, or human, and thus, find a way to reconcile such passages with the nature of God.
Now, what about the debate regarding dispensationalism and covenantal theology? Underlying the biblical passages is not only a theology, but a philosophy. In the same way that Plato viewed “real reality” as the “wholly other,” so do covenantalists view biblical passages as pointing to the “spiritual.” The words themselves have no inherent meaning; instead, they “point to” the real meaning (which is some spiritual interpretation that requires much creativity). Therefore, when they read “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) in the NT or “Israel” in the OT, they assume that the words refer to the Church.
Yesterday, I talked with a brother of mine at the local coffeeshop about his hermeneutic (he is covenantal in his theology). I asked him what about the progressive dispensationalist view did he intensely dislike...and he told me that his problem with the progressive view is that it is “not Christocentric.” And then, he proceeded to tell me that he doesn’t believe that the temple in Jerusalem is actually gonna rebuilt, he doesn’t believe in a world war against Israel, etc. I told him that those reasons are no reasons to discredit the biblical text about prophecies concerning national Israel: after all (for example), because an atheist doesn’t like the idea of Hell or believe in it does not nullify the fact that the Bible argues Hell as a real place. His last line of defense was that the progressive hermeneutic did not point to Christ.
It was at this point in the conversation that I asked him, “So where in Scripture are we ever told that the land of the OT refers to Christ in the NT?” This question is only one of many questions I could ask him. His response was a rehearsed covenantal response: “If you assume a Christocentric hermeneutic, then you can see that everything, all the promises, are summed up in Christ.” What this brother doesn’t seem to realize is that after Christ’s resurrection, according to Luke’s work in Acts, Christ spent forty days with the disciples, teaching them of the kingdom of God. At the end of the time, the disciples ask Jesus a legitimate question about the OT: “Lord, will You AT THIS TIME RESTORE THE KINGDOM TO ISRAEL?” (Acts 1:6, NKJV)
What is Jesus’ response? Does He tell them that this isn’t going to happen? No. Instead, He tells them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons...” (Acts 1:7) Christ’s response did not nullify the OT promise of the kingdom; rather, Christ simply told them that they were not to know the time or season in which the kingdom would be restored. This is the most logical assessment when we see that the disciples believed Christ would restore the kingdom to Israel “at this time.” They believed that by the end of His time with them, He would hand the kingdom over to Israel. But it was the timing Jesus rebuked them about, not the restoration of the kingdom to Israel.
As a result, my brother simply cannot handle the fact that the Scriptures only shroud the timing of the restoration and not the restoration itself. Why? because the restoration of Israel is an Old Testament promise! And if it is an OT promise, and the Lord Jesus (God incarnate) continues to uphold the promise, then this means that Revelation 20 (which mentions the millennial reign of Christ) will be literally fulfilled in Israel; the Israelites will return to their land, dwell in safety, and the Lord Himself will rule from the land of Israel. If you’re a covenantal theologian, this is not something to smile about.
So, do progressive dispensationalists REALLY rid themselves of the Christocentric hermeneutic? No. Rather, we uphold it---every promise of God will be fulfilled. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child named Isaac, from whom the Messiah would come. If this literal fulfillment leads to Christ, then why can’t the promise of the land make sense in the context of Christ’s one-thousand-year reign over earth? After all, the land will only provide security if Christ is there...and “there” He will be.
What about if one assumes Aristotelian philosophy? The text of Acts 1 is one that you rejoice over! When you understand that the disciples themselves read the OT promises of a future kingdom in Israel, it is clear that they adhered to a literal hermeneutic of some sort, that when God promised to restore the kingdom, He really meant what He said. And all this is clearly laid before you because, unlike Plato and covenantal theologians, you assume that what you can see and read with your sight is actual reality, that the words on the page tell you about life in this world. The words themselves have real inherent meaning, and are not only pointing to something beyond themselves. “Israel” refers to the nation of Israel itself, not the Church. If Israel is the nation itself, and God made her promises, then He will fulfill those promises. With the land, for example, progressive dispensationalists look to the future and anxiously await the fulfillment of promises for Israel that are yet to be fulfilled.
Both progressive dispensationalism and covenantal theology believe in a Christocentric hermeneutic; the difference in the two approaches has to do with philosophy: one focuses on the literal meaning of the text, while the other focuses on spiritual interpretation. The question is, “Can a person have both literal interpretation and still maintain a Christocentric hermeneutic? To this question I answer, “Yes; yes you can.”