I have just come across an old and decidedly skimpy review by Kyle McDanell of The Coming of the Son of Man. Judging by the list of his favourite blogs I wouldn’t have expected Kyle to agree with the thesis of the book, but he is decent enough to recognize the thoroughness and integrity of the argument while disagreeing somewhat vaguely with the conclusions. There was not the level of ‘speculation, conversation, or ambiguity’ that he had expected to find in a book purporting to offer a ‘New Testament eschatology for an emerging church’. Much appreciated, Kyle.
The skimpiness of the review is a little frustrating because the issue is too a large extent in the details of interpretation (there is also a broad hermeneutical issue of perspective), even if the ‘argument has been repeatedly made for two thousand years’. Otherwise, the broad structure of my reading of New Testament eschatology and Kyle’s appear remarkably similar, differing probably only in degree: a good part of the prophecies are fulfilled in the early period, but some texts refer to as yet future ‘events’ (if you can call the end of this creation an ‘event’).
What I do want to challenge, however, is the statement: ‘There is oftentimes an immediate fulfillment and a future fulfillment.’ This is a common exegetical tactic by which modern theologians endeavour to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they want to acknowledge the historical-critical reading of the text that interprets Daniel 7-12, say, in relation to Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault on Judaism in the second century BC. On the other, they want to affirm Jesus’ use of the imagery of a human figure coming on the clouds of heaven to speak about events or circumstances somewhere in his own future – and preferably still in our future.
This is, of course, a good – though rather complex – case in point. My argument is that Jesus would have understood perfectly well the original historical frame of reference but intentionally re-uses the symbolism to interpret an analogous state of affairs – one having to do, essentially, with the eventual vindication of his followers against apostate Judaism and potentially against hostile pagan Rome. Jesus, therefore, does what prophets often do: they retell biblical stories and arguments in a new context in order to give faithful but troubled Israel understanding and hope.
The important point to get hold of here is that Jesus as a prophet took responsibility for the re-application of the symbolism. He saw the historical relevance of the analogy and creatively retold Israel’s story, centred on himself, in light of it. That cannot be understood to mean that Daniel 7-12 intrinsically has two fulfilments. Nor does it mean that we can take any prophecy willy-nilly and claim that whatever relevance it may have had under the particular historical conditions of the first three centuries, it still has relevance for the church today. That cannot be ruled out, but it must be done with prophetic and scriptural discrimination.
Otherwise, it seems to me that there is no good hermeneutical or exegetical warrant for the face-saving assumption that biblical prophecy must have a secondary reference beyond its obvious historical context. There is no reason why a parable about judgment on Israel, for example, should also be a parable about judgment on the whole world at the end of time. Jesus doesn’t make that claim; it is not theologically necessary. It has been one of the means by which the church has expressed its continuing participation in the biblical narrative, and I understand the need to do that. But I think that there are much better – much more honest – ways of doing it.