Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Ben Witherington on Dispensationalism, "Prophet," and "Prophecy"

(My back yard)

This afternoon I'm reading Ben Witherington's The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism.

His chapter on Romans 7 is paradigm-shifting for me, since he argues that Paul is not here being autobiographical, and the chapter is not about the struggle of living one's life as a Christian. I'll be re-reading it... slowly.

On Dispensationalism (a few quotes):

"Of the three theological systems we are examining in this book , Dispensationalism is in fact the new kid on the block , only dating back to the nineteenth century , and it is clearly the most exegetically problematic as well." - Page 93.

"Unlike the case with Calvinism , the Dispensational approach to the Bible did not arise after profound study of the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures or detailed scholarly exegesis of the text . It was a system that apparently arose in response to a vision and as a result of a pastoral concern about unfulfilled biblical prophecy , and was promulgated by various ministers and evangelists and entrepreneurs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." - Page 93.

"Many if not most Messianic Jews are Dispensationalists." - Page 94.

Re. the Dispensationalist "Left Behind" series, Witherington writes: "American Christians are looking for the theological equivalent of comfort food and escapist entertainment , and Dispensational theol- ogy is readily meeting these needs." Page 96.

And much, much more... I'm still reading.

I really like Witherington's views on "prophets" and "prophecy." He writes:

"I have found it important to distinguish between the prophetic experience , the prophetic expression , the prophetic tradition , and the prophetic corpus , all of which are part of the social phenomenon that falls under the heading of prophecy... To share a few of the conclusions of my earlier study , a prophet was an oracle , a mouthpiece for some divine being , and as such he or she did not speak for himself but for another . A prophet might also be many other things ( teacher , priest , sage ), but the role of prophet could be distinguished from these other roles and functions . Prophecy , whether from Mari or Jerusalem or Delphi or Rome , was spoken in known languages , usually in poetic form , and so was an intel- ligible , even if often puzzling , kind of discourse . It might involve spon- taneous utterances or a reading of omens or signs of various sorts , but in either case it was not a matter of deciphering ancient texts , which was the task of scribes and sages and exegetes of various sorts . Furthermore , consulting a prophet was an attempt to obtain a late word from one or another deity about some pressing or impending matter . In sociological terms the prophet must be seen as a mediatory figure , which therefore makes him very important but also subjects him to being pushed to the margins of society if the divine words involve curse rather than blessing , judgment rather than redemption. At least in the setting of Israel and early Christianity the prophet also is one who deliberately stands at the boundary of the community - the boundary between God and the community , but also the boundary between the community and those outside it . It is the task of the prophet to call God's people to account and to reinforce the prescribed boundaries of the community while reestablishing or reinforcing the divine-human relationship." - Pp. 98-99

"One of the main ways that Dispensationalism repeatedly has violated the character of biblical prophecy is by taking poetry as prose , figurative as literal . There is in addition the problem of mistaking material that was fulfilled long ago in Israel or in general in biblical times as material awaiting a literal fulfillment as the Christian era nears an end." - Page 100.

Witherington goes on in more detail about prophets and prophecy. I think what he says just about this is worth the price of the book.