Monday, September 14, 2015

Book Write-Up: Understanding Prophecy



Alan S. Bandy and Benjamin L. Merkle.  Understanding Prophecy: A Biblical-Theological Approach.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.  

Understanding Prophecy is about prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  It looks at prophecies that were fulfilled historically, as well as Messianic prophecies: prophecies in the Hebrew Bible that Alan Bandy and Benjamin Merkle believe predicted or foreshadowed Jesus Christ, and prophecies in the New Testament about Jesus Christ’s return.  Bandy and Merkle also present their contrasting perspectives on the millennium (i.e., whether it will be a literal future reign of Christ on earth or is a present spiritual reality) and the salvation of the Jews in Romans 11 (whether a large number of ethnic Jews will convert to Christ, or only a remnant).

Overall, Bandy and Merkle were judicious in their discussions, as they discussed the positives and negatives of a variety of views and interpretations.  The topics in which they explored and critiqued different views included whether Jesus was predicting that his second coming would occur within the generation of his contemporaries (Mark 13, Matthew 24), and whether Jesus in Matthew 24:40 was suggesting a pretribulational rapture (Bandy and Merkle somewhat beat a dead horse in arguing “no,” but they are convincing).

I have some critiques, though.  

First of all, Bandy and Merkle contend that many prophecies in the Hebrew Bible predict or foreshadow Christ, and they note examples in which the New Testament interprets those prophecies in a non-literal fashion.  They contend that the focus of prophecies in the Hebrew Bible on Israel’s restoration from exile and revival as a nation are not always literal but are often about Christ’s work or heaven.  As an assessment of how New Testament authors interpreted prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, that is probably accurate, though I would note possible exceptions that Bandy and Merkle should have addressed.  I think of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:28 that the disciples would judge the twelve tribes of Israel, which seems (to me) to be faithful to a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies that focus on ethnic Israel.  In terms of what the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible were originally intended to communicate, I doubt that their authors meant them to be symbolic of Christian themes.  If they were, then that raises some questions.  Was God being misleading by making predictions that seemed to be about ethnic Israel’s restoration, when actually they were not about that?  And why would God in the Hebrew Bible start talking about Christ or Christian themes when addressing ethnic Israel’s trials and dilemmas?  What was the relevance of that to Israel’s historical situation, in short?  Bandy and Merkle should have tackled these issues more than they did.

Second, in discussing Isaiah 7:14, Bandy and Merkle in one place maintain that it is a type of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth, rather than a direct prediction of it.  Bandy and Merkle realize that Isaiah 7:14, in its original context, appears to relate to the time of Isaiah rather than the distant future, the time of the historical Jesus.  What they should have done, however, was discuss how Isaiah 7:14 in its original context could have foreshadowed Jesus Christ.  How did the story in Isaiah 7 foreshadow the story of Jesus’ birth?  Are there similar themes in the two stories?  Bandy and Merkle maintain that a typological interpretation does not do violence to a literal interpretation of a text but is consistent with it, on some level.  They should have shown how that was the case in terms of the Gospel of Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.  Their discussion of Isaiah 7:14, as it stands, makes it look like they were superficially trying to take the easy way out, appealing to typology to solve a challenge to a Christian claim rather than fleshing that alleged typology out.

Third, Bandy and Merkle say that the New Testament maintains that Jesus inaugurated the end times, and they point to examples of New Testament authors presuming that they themselves were living in the end times.  For Bandy and Merkle, the end times have been with us since the time of Christ’s first advent, meaning that we have been in the end times for about two thousand years.  In some places, however, Bandy and Merkle seem to use “end times” to refer to the time that is right before the end of the world.  Bandy and Merkle may want to save Jesus and early Christians from the possibility that they envisioned an imminent eschatology, which did not historically materialize, at least not literally.  My question would be whether Bandy and Merkle, in effect, make the term “end times” a meaningless term, if it can encompass two thousand years.

Fourth, Bandy and Merkle did not really interact with prophecies in the Hebrew Bible that many scholars would claim went unfulfilled (as in the prophets predicting one thing, and something different happened).  I think of Ezekiel’s prophecies about Tyre and Egypt.  Bandy and Merkle should have wrestled with that in their discussion of the historical fulfillment of prophecies.   

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Kregel Academic, in exchange for an honest review. 

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