Friday, February 29, 2008

This is for the best "nurse" I know

So this week I came down with one of the "dreaded diseases" going around. Everyone kept saying that it puts you on your back for a long time, but I had a hard time believing it. I always figure that by shear will-power I can overcome sickness and get back to my normal schedule. Well - I'll be the first to say that it doesn't work with this one. Anyways, I just have to give props to Rob as he is in probably the busiest part of the semester, writing papers, preparing projects, reading books, and has somehow also found time to clean the house, feed me, do laundry, run to the pharmacy, grocery store and also keep up with his work schedule. Thanks Rob for taking care of me!
Ps. I know this picture is not of me, but this girl looks much better than I do right now! :)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review of Plowshares and Pruning Hooks

Brent Sandy’s Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic, does just that. It helps one to rethink many aspects of theology that they often carry to the text. Often these aspects become baggage that just weighs one down and helps to cloud understanding rather than facilitate it. In summation, Sandy answers questions about these genres by raising more questions. Here will be a summary of the chapters of the book, with the goal being to accurately represent his arguments.

Sandy starts his book with a chapter entitled “What Makes Prophecy Powerful?” This chapter has two goals. First, Sandy’s goal here is to get the reader to understand that in contrast to the popular view that prophecy is intended to show the audience the future, it is designed to bring four subjects into focus: deity, humanity, calamity, and prosperity.

The second goal of this chapter is found in Sandy’s identification of the dilemma found inherent in all biblical literature, not just prophecy. God is perfect and operates in a realm outside of anything a human being can understand because of lack of experience. Yet He desires to reveal Himself to humans; thus God is required to limit Himself in a sense to that which a human being can mentally grasp. God has to use the language of human experience and imagination in order to open the door for one to experience His spiritual realities. For this reason, prophecy is heavily metaphorical and figurative. God knows what He is talking about, and He is providing a knot-hole glimpse into that reality for the audience of the prophets. Thus it is important for the reader to discern the panoramic picture that the details provide and not to get bogged down in one-to-one correspondence between the detail and its referent. The question to ask is, “what does the collective view of the details communicate about God and His purposes?” it would be wise to see the value of this truth in interpreting all of Scripture, resulting in seeking Authorial intent.

The second chapter is given to the explanation of seven problems that make prophecy difficult to interpret. In reality, it seems that Sandy poses these problems in questions to identify how prophecy has been incorrectly interpreted. First, he asks whether the prophecy is predictive or poetic. The issue at the heart of the question is that most prophecy is highly poetic in nature, thus one is forced to ask whether the function of the text is to predict something, or to vividly describe in a way that will speak to the heart. Second, Sandy asks whether the prophecy is literal or figurative. This problem lies at the heart of the matter of interpreting prophecy, for Sandy points out that there are degrees of literalness, and often when taken at face value, the figurative statements of prophecy will be totally misunderstood. Thus, this aspect of prophecy is problematic because the interpreter has the daunting task of attempting to discern what is to be read figuratively. The third problem lies in the question of the emotional worth of the prophecy. Was the author trying to give an exact representation, or was he using hyperbolic statements to emphasize the emotion being communicated? A fourth question comes in the conditionality of prophetic statements. Jeremiah 18 really communicates the dilemma, for here God clearly states that He has the right to retract a promise of blessing because of disobedience or to retract a promise of cursing because of repentance. Sandy’s fifth problem deals with the visions of the prophets. How does the interpreter know when the things in the vision are symbolic or when they are real? A sixth point Sandy brings up is the fact that many of the prophecies started out as something merely spoken by the prophet and not written down. Writings take a different form than orations, and this is important to the context. Finally, Sandy points out that some prophecies have been fulfilled, and some have not. Thus the reader is left with an incomplete view as to what fulfillment of prophecy looks like and how closely the prophecy corresponds with its fulfillment. All of these issues are summarized in one main question: when can the words of prophecy be taken at face value? This question spells out hard work for the would be interpreter, and when the interpreter fails to enter the world of Scripture with thought taken for the cultural context and understandings of both the prophet and his audience, he is more likely than not, liable to misinterpret the prophecy and miss the main point.

Sandy sees prophecy as problematic for one main reason: the language is not straightforward as it would be in propositional form; rather it is full of creative metaphors and figures. Chapter three is designed to help facilitate a paradigm shift from seeing language as inherently concrete to seeing language as inherently metaphorical. Language functions to use the abstract compilation of sounds and syllables to represent concrete realities. A word is a representation of a concept; thus a word is a metaphor. In the language of prophecy, metaphor is the vehicle to communicate concrete truth. The ambiguity present, rather than muddying the water, functions to keep the main point the main point in a language that punctuates the truth being communicated. It speaks to the heart and does so by making a connection to human experience. Many interpretational difficulties are overcome when the interpreter tries as much as possible to enter the world of the original audience.

Chapter four attempts to provide a lay-out for the function of prophetical literature. Of importance to Sandy’s argument is the idea of speech-act and illocution. Illocution is basically searching for the function of the combination of words given by a prophet. Part of this has to do with discerning what level of literalness is found in the metaphorical and poetic language of the prophet. For instance, if the prophet says that God will send wild animals against the people, does that literally mean that untamed beasts will come into the cities and wreak the havoc of God’s judgment, or is it meant to communicate that God will judge the people, and God’s judgment is terrible? Far beyond dictionary definitions, the words function together to assemble a mosaic description of God and His ways that, when examined in part may not make sense, but, when examined in whole piece together a picture of God’s character. If one fails to understand the illocution of the statements of prophecy, he may get bogged down in details that will get him off track of the central message. Rather than merely looking for the referents to individual pieces, one must look for the referent to the whole metaphor.

If chapter four was meant to help us with the function of prophetic literature, chapter five is meant to help us with the function of apocalyptic literature. Using much of the same rational in relation to the illocution of parts of the message, Sandy points out that where prophecy enforces the judgments of God, apocalypse provides hope for the future for those who are faithful. Sandy uses examples from Daniel and Revelation to demonstrate that the author uses fantastic imagery as brush strokes on a canvas that paints a much larger picture. The larger picture is the point of the message. Sandy demonstrates the danger of trying to make one-to-one correspondents and referents to the pieces of the apocalyptic vision when he points out that the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision, while have a general and overall correspondence, did not look exactly as one may have imagined it had they tried to assign a referent to each piece. Thus the overall message of the apocalypse with its general references should be sought.

The look at the fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel becomes much of the basis for the tenor of chapter six. While prediction is one aspect of prophecy, it seems that it is not the main aspect. Sandy points out that prophets were people who saw God in heavenly realms, and then came back to earth to carry the message of God’s character and ways with their feet barely touching the ground. He finds their role to be one primarily of prosecution or confrontation and persuasion, not prediction, although they used the language of future events to accomplish the job. He finds this to be the case because when one looks at the fulfillment of certain prophecies, many times it was not what was anticipated, although it does correspond. Thus, prediction, or mere future-telling was not the goal. In a prophecy about God’s judgment, the fact that God will judge is undoubted, but the exact way in which He will judge may remain elusive. An important point to remember is the prophecy is always accurate in what it intends to reveal.

The question of how prophecy has already been fulfilled moves one onto more stable ground as to how prophecies and apocalyptic literature will be fulfilled. At the same time, the presupposition Sandy has constructed is that the details are not the point. Thus, in looking forward, Chapter Seven exhorts the reader to leave behind preconceived notions about eschatological events that are so commonly imposed on the text, holding them only very loosely, to look to the purpose of the prophecy. Sandy gives six observations from the text that help to encapsulate the purpose of prophecy: Divine disclosure—it is designed to reveal God; Otherworldly perspective—it is designed to shake people loose from an earthly perspective; Virtual reality—it is designed to move people into a spiritual perspective; Worship—it is designed to create a group of worshippers who acknowledge God now, because all will ultimately do so; Devotion—related to the former, it is designed to deepen the understanding of God so that people will follow him; and Correction—it is designed to call people to repentance.

Sandy concludes with a bullet pointed outline of a proper hermeneutic of prophecy and apocalypse. Much of this chapter is recapitulation of points made in the book. However, he specifically highlights the point that one must listen with their heart, not merely their head. What Sandy means by this is that, far from being just a set of propositions, the metaphorical and poetic language of these genres speak to the emotional side of a person, eliciting a response the arises out of renewed or changed passion for God.

Sandy’s book is a breath of fresh air. While I can see how some who would hold rigidly to a more “traditional” hermeneutic may recoil against some of his language (translucence of prophecy for instance) because they feel that it removes some of the authority of the text, they may be in danger of flattening the text and thereby engaging in what they would aspire to denounce. I reiterate that I have long felt that merely trying to predict the facts of what the future holds through the exegesis of apocalypse and prophecy is incorrect and misses the point. Biblical literature is designed to communicate our God through His redemptive mission, not to give us a timeline.

Understanding these aspects of prophecy and apocalypse will help interpreters to grasp, not just the message of prophecy, but the message of the whole of Scriptures, for as Sandy pointed out, God is other-worldly. Only the person who has experienced Him will know Him and respond to Him. Often this experience can only be conceptualized in the language of poetry and metaphor. We must beware that we do not miss the point and that we drink in the beauty of the message of God revealed in Scripture. True, Sandy has raised more questions than he has given answers. The task now falls on the readers to understand the panorama of these types of Scripture, appreciating the parts, not for the details they give about what the future hold, but for how they fit into a picture the gives the reader hope and encourages him to worship.