Herman Bavinck on a Hermeneutic of New Testament Fulfillment (Contra. Chiliasm)

In the following quotations, taken from the final section of his chapter on “Visions of the End,” Bavinck offers an extended critique of what is sometimes referred to as chiliasm, i.e., the belief in a future millennial messianic reign prior to the very end of all things (eschaton). And although he does not use this particular label for what he’s describing, Bavinck’s critique would quite fittingly apply to what is often referred to as dispensationalism.


“Now it is true that that future is depicted in images derived from the historical circumstances that then prevailed, so that Zion and Jerusalem, temple and altar, sacrifice and priesthood, continue to occupy a large place in it. But we must remember that we ourselves do the same thing and can only speak of God and divine things in sensuous, earthly forms. One reason God instituted Old Testament worship as he did was that we would be able to speak of heavenly things, not in self-made images but in the correct images given us by God himself. The New Testament, accordingly, takes over this language and in speaking about the future kingdom of God refers to Zion and Jerusalem, to temple and altar, to prophets and priests. …

Nor must we forget that all prophecy is poetry that must be interpreted in terms of its own character. The error of the older exegesis was not spiritualization as such but the fact that it sought to assign a spiritual meaning to all the illustrative details, in the process … often losing sight of the main thought. … 

[E]veryone senses that in these lines one has to do with poetic descriptions that cannot and may not be taken literally. The realistic interpretation here becomes self-contradictory and misjudges the nature of prophecy.

It is also incorrect to say that the prophets themselves were totally unconscious of the distinction between the thing [they asserted] and the image [in which they clothed it]. …

[I]n Old Testament exegesis the question is not whether the prophets were totally or partially conscious of the symbolic nature of their predictions, for even in the words of classic authors there is more than they themselves thought or intended. It is a question, rather, what the Spirit of Christ who was in them wished to declare and reveal by them. And that is decided by the New Testament, which is the completion, fulfillment, and therefore interpretation of the Old. The nature of a tree is revealed by its fruit. … [N]ot Judaism but Christianity is the full realization of the religion of the prophets.

The New Testament views itself—and there can certainly be no doubt about this—as the spiritual and therefore complete and authentic fulfillment of the Old Testament. … 

The peculiar nature of the old dispensation consisted precisely in the fact that the covenant of grace was presented in graphic images and clothed in national and sensuous forms. Sin was symbolized by levitical impurity. Atonement was effected by the sacrifice of a slain animal. Purification was adumbrated by physical washings. Communion with God was connected with the journey to Jerusalem. The desire for God’s favor and closeness was expressed in the longing for his courts. Eternal life was conceived as a long life on earth, and so forth. In keeping with Israel’s level of understanding, placed as Israel was under the tutelage of the law, all that is spiritual, heavenly, and eternal was veiled in earthly shadows. … 

The shadow, while not itself the body, does point to the body but vanishes when the body itself appears. The New Testament is the truth, the essence, the core, and the actual content of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is revealed in the New, while the New Testament is concealed in the Old (Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet, Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet). … The benefits of salvation promised and foreshadowed under the Old Testament have become manifest in Christ as eternal and authentic reality. All the promises of God are “yes” and “amen” in him (2 Cor. 1:20). The Old Testament was not abolished but fulfilled in the new dispensation, is still consistently being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled, until the parousia of Christ. …

[T]he New Testament itself has given to the particularistic ideas of the Old Testament a universal and cosmic meaning.

Totally wrong, therefore, is the chiliastic view according to which the New Testament, along with the church composed of Gentiles, is an intermezzo, a detour taken by God because Israel rejected its Messiah, so that the actual continuation and fulfillment of the Old Testament can begin only with Christ’s second coming. The opposite, rather, is true. Not the New Testament but the Old is an intermezzo. The covenant with Israel is temporary; the law has been inserted in between the promise to Abraham and its fulfillment in Christ….

In the days of the Old Testament the people of Israel were chosen for a time that salvation might later, in the fullness of time, be a blessing for the whole world. Israel was chosen, not to the detriment of but for the benefit of the nations. From its earliest beginning the promise to Adam and Noah had a universal thrust….

Therefore the New Testament is not an intermezzo or interlude, neither a detour nor a departure from the line of the old covenant, but the long-aimed-for goal, the direct continuation and the genuine fulfillment of the Old Testament. Chiliasm, judging otherwise, comes in conflict with Christianity itself. In principle it is one with Judaism and must get to where it attributes a temporary, passing value to Christianity, the historical person of Christ, and his suffering and death, and it only first expects real salvation from Christ’s second coming, his appearance in glory. … 

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, ch. 15 (pp. 659-662).

What’s going on in Acts 21:4? Is the Spirit giving conflicting revelation?

The Issue

There seems to be a contradiction between what these individuals are telling Paul “through the Spirit” and what Paul felt constrained to do by the Spirit (20:22-23).

4 Views

1. Paul is disobedient to the Spirit.

The Spirit is telling Paul not to go, and he is simply being stubborn, disobedient, and determined to go to Jerusalem regardless.

  • However, the language in ch.20 is that the Spirit is constraining him to go (vv.22-23).
  • Paul’s attitude is not one of rebellion, but utter submission (v.24).
  • Furthermore, the rest of the book (chs. 21-28) outlines Paul’s path from Jerusalem to Rome as something positive and fitting the very programmatic design of 1:8.

2. “Soft prophecy.”

We have a case here of what might be called “soft prophecy,” i.e., it comes from the Spirit’s influence generally speaking, but is open to error and misconstrual. Therefore, what the disciples here are telling Paul to do in 21:4, as well as 21:10ff, is generally but not perfectly accurate (Wayne Grudem’s view, popular among many continuationists and charismatics).

  • It is troubling to surmise that prophetic revelation is not reliable or entirely accurate, or that God would fail to convey this information without it being intercepted by human fallibility. If it is true that prophecy can error, what does this mean for our ability to trust other prophecy / the Bible as a whole?
  • It is odd to expect a qualitative difference between OT prophecy (proper) and NT “soft” prophecy, especially in terms of it moving from infallible (better) to fallible (worse), especially when everything else about the New Covenant is better. Unless given really good reason, we should assume both forms of prophecy to be the same. And if there is a reasonable way to understand this passage along those lines (i.e., prophecy remains the same) that is to be preferred.
  • Many appeal to Agabus’ prophecy in 2:10ff as an example of such “soft” potentially somewhat erroneous prophecy, since Agabus predicts that the Jews will bind Paul when in fact it ends of being the Romans. However, this is surely to press the details too far. This is not how prophecy works elsewhere (consider Acts 2:36 where Peter accuses his Jewish hearers of killing Jesus, although it was in fact the Romans who in fact carried out the execution).  So here, although the Romans in fact arrest Paul, the Jewish crowds certainly play a role in his arrest (ch. 21).

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Duane Garrett on the Nature of Biblical Prophecy

The following is from an excursus entitled “The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15” by Duane Garrett. He makes some helpful observations that are too often overlooked in much contemporary discussion regarding Biblical prophecy.

To put it more pointedly, did Hosea suppose that this verse looked ahead to the Messiah? It is, of course, difficult if not impossible to show that Hosea intended readers to discern from this passage that the Messiah would come out of Egypt. This question, however, is the wrong question to ask of Hos 11:1. The real issue is not, Did Hosea intend this verse to be read messianically? but What did Hosea understand to be the nature of prophecy? In answer to this question, we must assert that Hosea, like all biblical prophets, saw prophecy not so much as the making of specific, individual predictions (which are actually quite rare among the writing prophets), but as the application of the Word of God to historical situations. In doing this the prophets brought to light certain patterns that occur repeatedly in the relationship between God and his people [typologies]. These patterns or themes have repeated fulfillments or manifestations until the arrival of the final, absolute fulfillment. Thus, for example, the conquest of the land “fulfilled” the promises to the patriarchs but did not fulfill those promises finally or in their ultimate form. The inheritance of the “new earth” is the ultimate conclusion of this prophetic theme. All of the prophets were, to some degree, “like Moses” (Deut 18:5), but the ultimate prophet like Moses can only be the Messiah. Each of the kings of the line of David was a fulfillment of the promise that God would build him a “house” (2 Sam 7), but the Messiah is again the final fulfillment of this theme. Thus prophecy gives us not so much specific predictions but types or patterns by which God works in the world. We need look no further than Hosea 11 to understand that Hosea, too, believed that God followed patterns in working with his people. Here the slavery in Egypt is the pattern for a second period of enslavement in an alien land (v. 5), and the exodus from Egypt is the type for a new exodus (vv. 10–11).

Duane A. Garrett. Hosea, Joel. The New American Commentary. Vol. 19A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997, 221-22.

We often think of Biblical prophecy as essentially predictions of the future. But is that accurate? It would be better to understand most of Biblical prophecy as actually the application of the past to the present and future. We might think of it like this–God’s past acts serve as models, paradigms, or types for His future dealings.