“Conditional” Prophecy? A Response to Dr. Heiser

417i-jxItJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_As readers of this blog know, I’m a great fan of Dr. Michael Heiser and recommend his books, particularly The Unseen Realmto my readers. That’s by no means to say that I always agree with him; in fact, when he’s out of his specialty and talking about, say, prophecy, there is a lot of room to disagree with him.

For a long time, Dr. Heiser presented his view of prophecy as being basically dissatisfied with all of the common prophetic viewpoints and questioning everything. That’s all well and good, and I’ve enjoyed working my way through his questions and challenges for the popular pre-millennial viewpoint. However, over time he’s come down more solidly on the side of supersessionism. Whether that’s simply because he gets a lot of questions and arguments from the pre-mill side that he’s answering, whether because his views are solidifying in that direction, or whether he was always in the replacement theology camp and is simply becoming more open about it, I don’t know.

Traditionally, supersessionists have simply attacked the dispensational, pro-Israel viewpoint as being a “woodenly literal” reading of the Scriptures. John MacArthur, while still critical of a lot of what goes around in the dispensational camp, posted an excellent sermon in 2007 in which he castigated the amillennial camp for the sin of special pleading  (hat-tip to the Rosh Pina Project for finding it):

Floyd Hamilton in his book, The Basis of Millennial Faithsays, and I quote, “Now we must frankly admit the literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the pre-millennialist pictures.” Now that’s a fate worse than death. What he is saying is, a literal interpretation of the Old Testament is going to lead you to a pre-millennial view. And since we don’t want to get there, we can’t use a literal approach. Anything to avoid premillennialism, even if you change the rules of interpretation. . . Why do we want to run from that? Why do we want to change the rules in interpretation to avoid that?

The preconception is that we can’t allow this to happen. We can’t have those prophecies come to pass with regard to Israel with an earthly, literal Kingdom the way the Old Testament seems to be saying it. So, set aside normal, natural, literal interpretation. But let me tell you something. Normal, natural, literal interpretation is the only way to stop abuse of Scripture. As soon as you abandon that, then it’s fair game for anybody’s craziness

More recently, however, Dr. Heiser and a few others have argued a different approach:

Even this snippet reveals some things any real, academic, textually-informed articulation of eschatology will reveal. Prophecy is often conditional and, as the last two episodes of the Naked Bible podcast overviewed, it is certainly tied to the Christian mission.

When I interacted with him on the subject, he directed me to an article he had previously reposted on his blogRobert B. Chisholm, Jr.’s, “Making Sense of Prophecy: Recognizing the Presence of Contingency” (ETS Far West Regional Meeting, April 2007). I had scanned over it then, and hadn’t been that impressed. Since I was being directed to it again as a defense of Dr. Heiser’s view that prophecy is “often” conditional, I decided to have a go at it, point-by-point.

The more patient and nerdy can read my full response as a Google Doc, “The Importance of the Yods and Tittles: A Response to Chisholm’s View of Prophetic Contingency.” But here’s the short version:

I’m really not impressed. Actually, I’m downright disappointed that a noted scholar who is having such an influence in the prophetically-minded Christian community is hanging his eschatology on an article that is so poor in exegesis and so self-contradictory. That sounds like a dig at Chisholm, but the article itself strikes me as more exploratory than anything else, offering up an alternative explanation for some Scriptural difficulties. In that sense, it’s an interesting article, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny well enough for anyone to use as the foundation for their eschatology the way Heiser does.

The basic thesis of the article is that there are prophecies in the Scripture which we have to regard as having “failed” on one or more points. Chisholm puts forth the thesis, based on Jeremiah 18, that all prophecies have a built-in contingency by which a judgment may be annulled by repentance or a blessing annulled by disobedience:

If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jer. 18:7-10)

That’s fair as far as it goes. So why do I say that the exegesis is poor? Simply put, every single one of the examples that Chisholm gives of a failed prophecy was either fulfilled in terms of the actual words of the prophet (requiring that he read into the text to declare it “failed”) or else looks forward to a more distant future (i.e., Messiah’s first or second coming).

The one exception is Ezekiel 29-30, the oracle against Egypt, which is admittedly difficult to pin down an exact fulfillment on. That is, we know Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt, but there’s no evidence that he was able to hold it in the fashion that the prophecy seems to suggest. This might make a good example for Chisholm’s thesis. However, he does not provide any evidence at all that the Egyptians repented due to the prophetic utterance against them–or that they repented at all. This means that he is begging the question of whether this might be a conditional (if-then) prophecy.

So why do I say that it’s self-contradictory? Simply put, Chisholm recognizes that having many or most prophecies with a built-in but unspoken condition would negate the test of a prophet described in Deuteronomy 18:20-21, which says that if a prophet’s word does not come to pass, then Hashem did not send him. He argues that this test must only apply to prophecies meant to be fulfilled in the near-term, since there would be no way for an immediate audience to test a prophet on a prophecy that would only be fulfilled centuries later.

But here’s where the self-contradiction kicks on: Almost every single one of the examples Chisholm gives he interprets to be a near-term prophecy. This means that by his own interpretation of Deuteronomy 18, Micah, Elisha, Haggai, et.al. would be false prophets.

This is what Dr. Heiser considers a “real, academic, textually-informed articulation of eschatology”?

There’s a further problem with the “prophetic contingency” view that’s far worse:

replacement-theology-no-thanks1If this view is true, then in what sense can we trust the prophetic promises in the NT? Are they equally contingent on the Church’s obedience? Heiser himself has stated (albeit through an author-avatar in a work of fiction) that “if Jesus were to apply for a divorce from the Church on the grounds of adultery and desertion, he’d get one.” (The Portent, (Lexham Press, 2014), p. 144) If prophetic contingency can be used to annul promises in the Hebrew Scriptures, then what about in the New Testament? Is not the sauce for the goose sauce for the gander as well?

The preterist argument (which Dr. Heiser recently echoed) has always been that the NT authors spoke in terms of prophetic imminence of the parousia of Messiah, and therefore we should not believe that God would let millennia pass before those prophecies were fulfilled. Well then, if we apply prophetic contingency as Heiser would have us do so, perhaps the Church simply failed in its task due to a lack of obedience (and we see the Apostles speaking often of the lack of obedience and faith in the early Christian community) and we can no longer expect any parousia at all. Perhaps God decided to start over with yet another body, one which would be willing to spread his dominion over the whole earth, by the sword if necessary . . .

The implications of prophetic contingency, especially if applied to covenant promises, are horrifying for the Church, to say the least. Yet, if we say that the promises to Israel were contingent on obedience, we commit the sin of special pleading to exempt the Church from that same level of obedience to receive its promises. This is especially true since the Church has had the additional advantage of the Spirit poured out on “all flesh” to complete its task.

My own view is that God is very careful with the wording of the prophecies of the Bible. For example, Micah’s prophecy was certainly understood by the prophet’s contemporaries to have prophesied that the Assyrians would destroy Jerusalem (Jer. 26:16-19). However, the remarkable thing is that the prophecy itself doesn’t actually say that! Instead, it talks about Judah being carried away to Babylon (Mic. 4:10). Hashem knew that Hezekiah would repent but that later kings would not, and so carefully worded the response to avoid the problem of Micah being falsified!

The problem is that there is a strong current of unbelief in the academic community. While Heiser and Crisholm themselves are strong believers, they’ve still (IMHO) been influenced by those who do not take the Bible seriously as prophetic literature, those who prefer to read into the Biblical prophecies what they suppose the historical circumstances of the prophecy to be. It’s very easy to call Micah’s prophecy “falsified” if you assume that it must be speaking of the Assyrian invasion, and equally easy to call Yeshua’s prophecies in the Olivet Discourse falsified if you assume that he thought his second coming would be in conjunction with the destruction of the temple.

There’s a saying about what happens when you assume . . .

I posted a short version of the above with a link to the Google Doc (so that I could not be accused of trying to use his forum to promote my own blog) to Dr. Heiser’s comments, but the post has since been removed, giving the impression that I simply dropped the argument after he directed me to Chisholm’s argument. Obviously, either he thought my response too sarcastic, or else the good doctor does not want any serious dissent on his forum. Fair enough, it belongs to him.

Update 6/26: It appears that I spoke too soon in the previous paragraph. Dr. Heiser has reinstated my comments and the link to the Google Doc of my response and has actually encouraged me to engage with Dr. Chisholm directly on the subject. I’ll be taking him up on that suggestion.

Again, I like Dr. Michael Heiser, and I appreciate his work on the Divine Council paradigm. But when it comes to Biblical prophecy, his vision is not as clear. I think he’s the first to admit that, and I do hope that Hashem opens his eyes to the miracle that is the resurrection of Israel.

Shalom

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2 Replies to ““Conditional” Prophecy? A Response to Dr. Heiser”

  1. I have also been listening to Dr MSH for awhile but it became interesting that his concerns on prophecy are becoming more clear. The issue of contingency that he raised intrigued me and I also raise the question of partial fulfillment and that prophecy may not well be one time event. If this concept is buried in your larger doc then forgive me.

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  2. I think it’s perfectly fair game to ask, “Which, if any, promises to Israel were conditional on their obedience?” A second question would then be, “In these cases, has Israel’s disobedience annulled the promise, or has the fulfillment of that promise simply been put off until the time of Israel’s reconciliation?” However, I think those questions need to be answered by careful exegesis of each prophecy / promise in question. Dr. Heiser’s approach seems to be to simply state (without providing adequate exegetical proof) that “many” prophecies are contingent on the actions of the recipients even if no such contingency is given in the prophecy / promise itself. Therefore, he argues, Israel will not see the fulfillment of the promises made to her . . . but for some reason, the Church will.

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