Nondispensationalists and the Old Testament

Here is a section from a two-part article published in the Conservative Theological Journal several years back.  The article is a book review of R. C. Sproul’s book The Last Days According to Jesus.  In this part, I am lamenting the lack of interest in the Old Testament he seems to have.  I am asking here if this is characteristic of nondispensationalists in general. — Mike Stallard

Limited and Selective Use of the Old Testament

One of the most noticeable problems with Sproul’s presentation is the limited and selective use he makes of Old Testament texts.  This fact is seen in the very definitions he chooses for the various forms of preterism that were discussed earlier.  Preterism is defined in terms of New Testament prophecies being fulfilled or unfulfilled.[1]  Even at this basic definitional level the Old Testament seems to be an afterthought.

In addition, if one assumes that the index to Last Days is comprehensive, there are 276 entries for New Testament passages while there are only 29 for Old Testament passages.  This kind of discrepancy fuels the often-voiced complaint of dispensational premillennialists that covenant theology (which most preterists would hold as the general framework for their theology) has forsaken the significance of the progress of revelation for Bible interpretation.[2]  This is especially crucial for the issue of preterism since there are a rather large number of passages about the tribulation period in the Old Testament.[3]  Most of Sproul’s comparisons of tribulation or day of the Lord passages are among New Testament passages, especially in the Gospels.  Such comparisons are certainly necessary.  However, resolving tensions in prophetic New Testament passages requires an understanding of any similar Old Testament prophecies that came before.  Yet, Sproul does not spend much time in the Old Testament.

Such a lack of focus on the Old Testament by Sproul is also surprising on another score.  He quotes John Calvin favorably concerning the expectations of the disciples about the all-important prediction by Christ in the Olivet Discourse concerning the destruction of the Temple:  “But it must be observed that, having believed from their infancy that the temple would stand till the end of time, and having this opinion deeply rooted in their minds, they did not suppose that, while the building of the world stood, the temple could fall to ruins.”[4]  Sproul uses this to combine the timing of the answer to all of the questions the disciples asked at the beginning of Matthew 24 and parallel passages.  He wants the timing of the destruction of the Temple to match the timing of “your coming” as the disciples worded it to Christ.  Yet, is Calvin’s statement correct on the face of it?  How does one know what the expectations of the disciples were unless the text tells us what they were?  If the New Testament text itself does not tell us (and here it does not), where would we go to find out?  It would seem that Old Testament backgrounds play a more pivotal role than Sproul allows in this particular discussion.  Premillennial futurists have long suggested, consistent with their belief in the significance of the progress of revelation for Bible interpretation, that the premillennial faith is based largely upon Old Testament teaching and not just upon verses in the book of Revelation or Olivet Discourse.[5]  For this reason, futurists would fault Sproul for his apparent disinterest in the Old Testament text.

One example of the selective use of the Old Testament by Sproul may be instructive.  He appeals to Amos 5:18-20 and its reference to the coming day of the Lord.[6]

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you?  It will be darkness, and not light.  It will be as though a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or as though he went into the house, leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.  Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light?  Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it? (NKJV)

The context of Sproul’s discussion here leaves no question that he wants to associate this negative and pessimistic prophecy with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  He does point to other “elements of hope” found in Hosea, Isaiah, and Zephaniah, but his application appears to be individualistic and has little bearing upon the nation of Israel.[7]  The futurist wonders why Sproul did not appeal to elements of hope found in the text of Amos itself.  In Amos 9:11-15 there are several predictions that have not yet been fulfilled which speak of Israel’s national future restoration.  The breach in the Davidic kingdom will be healed (9:11) and ultimately it will be done so in a way that restores the nation to its land never to be removed again (9:15).  In other words, the prophet who predicts the awful tribulation to come (note 8:1-9:10 as well as 5:18-20) also shows that there is a national restoration to come as well.  This is the rule among the Old Testament prophets and not the exception.  Consistently in the context of day of the Lord passages, both the judgment aspect of God’s dealing with Israel and the restoration aspect of the nation are discussed together.  Randall Price, in a study of the “day of the Lord,” remarks:

“Three elements are usually associated with this model “Day of the Lord”: 1) the judgment of national Israel; 2) the judgment of the Gentile nations; and 3) the restoration of national Israel.  For this study, the first element is of primary importance, since this event is a time of punishment for Israel, although its positive purpose is ultimately Israel’s repentance and restoration.  This negative focus may be seen in relation to the Day of the Lord in Amos 5:18-20 . . . However, in order to identify the scope of this eschatological event, all its elements must be considered [emphasis supplied].”[8]

In light of this inclusion of the positive national promise in the context of the pessimistic judgment passages, why does Sproul not make the connection between the two?  Is he so focused on the negative aspect because of his desire to see the judgment side fulfilled in 70 A.D. and not in some future tribulation period?  Certainly, if this negative day of the Lord is followed by a national restoration, then the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. cannot be in view in such Old Testament passages.  It is much more likely that a future tribulation followed by a national restoration is in view.  Such positive elements also raise the question of how day of the Lord descriptions are brought over into the New Testament. The burden of proof is on the preterist who wants to divorce the negative predictions from the positive ones to avoid the obvious problem that there was no national restoration of Israel in 70 A.D.  Sproul’s overly selective use of Old Testament passages in this particular area causes the futurist to wonder if such selective use of the New Testament is also part of his theological method.

[1] Recall the definitions:  (1) radical preterism – all future prophecies in the New Testament have already been fulfilled, (2) moderate preterism – many future prophecies in the New Testament have already been fulfilled.

[2] For a more complete discussion of these issues, see Mike Stallard, “Literal Interpretation, Theological Method, and the Essence of Dispensationalism,” The Journal of Ministry and Theology 1 (Spring 1997): 5-36.

[3] See J. Randall Price, “Old Testament Tribulation Terms” in When the Trumpet Sounds, edited by Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy (Eugene, OR:  Harvest House, 1995).

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Mathew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 3 (reprint ed., Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1984), 117;  Cited in Sproul, Last Days, 32.

[5] For example, in the standard premillennial eschatology handbooks, the starting point is always the Old Testament.  See J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Dunham Publishing Company, 1958; reprint ed., Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1974); Charles Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ:  Loizeaux Brothers, 1953); Alva McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1968; reprint ed., Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1992), Donald Campbell and Jeffrey Townsend, eds., A Case for Premillennialism:  A New Consensus (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1992).

[6] Sproul, Last Days, 77.

[7] Ibid., 78-79.

[8] Price, “OT Trib Terms,” 62.

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