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Declaring Doom 5

I’ve got a big question today, but first let me sketch two items quickly. First, think about it, we’ve seen the following as prophets of doom: the puritans with their weekly jeremiads, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Add someone else to this list: Abraham Lincoln, about whom Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh says: “For better or worse, there has been no more messianic a figure in American history than Abraham Lincoln” (Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization, 75).

Big question: Is apocalyptic rhetoric, the kind of rhetoric that declares that if we don’t change society and culture will collapse, simply a rhetorical package that is designed to get people to wake up and change? (If folks change, mission accomplished.) Or is it a rhetorical package that also predicts what will happen? You may know where I’m going: are biblical apocalyptic warnings more the first than the second? In other words, is it a way to get folks to change? Or is it a way to get folks to change because of what will surely happen? Is it prediction or it is simply religiously-charged rhetoric?

And a point about blogging about this book: we’re not getting quite as much discussion as I had hoped, but I’d like you to consider just how significant this jeremiad of predicting godlessness is in America and what its impacts are.

Nothing brings out the jeremiad and apocalyptic rhetoric like war, so this chp’s focus on the Civil War and the beliefs of Lincoln and Sherman are excellent examples, but their examples resonate with anyone who pays attention to how our nation has talked about war in the last decade.

Back to Lincoln and what the author of this chp calls his “ironic absorption into his age’s American religious culture” (because Lincoln was hardly an evangelical but his obsession with discerning God’s will was noteworthy). In contrast, William Tecumseh Sherman repudiated republican, evangelical and Enlightenment Christianity. Mark Noll observed that despite all the jeremiads tossed into the public by both the North and the South, the beliefs of both sides largely continued on after the Civil War.

The jeremiads unleashed permitted the South to see their defeat as a temporal, providential chastisement and the North to see God purging the nation from sin. Belief in God’s working in history held out hope for redemption, and this powerful jeremiad form was more potent than the rational notion of progress that many adhered to … including Lincoln.

Lincoln was a skeptic as a young man and lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. His own view of the “doctrine of necessity” was not the same as the evangelical belief in Providence. That is, he held to a “gradual, orderly, rational, and … secular conception of progress” (79). Hsieh explains how Lincoln’s view of Providence became more personal and it led him to make a covenant with God, a kind of Gideon’s fleece, that if the North won a particular battle he would take it as a sign and he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Second Inaugural, however, reveals Lincoln’s conviction of the inscrutable providence of God. Lincoln illustrates how difficult it is for many to discern the plan of God. If the jeremiad is found in Lincoln, there is a humility about it that demonstrates his belief that God’s plans are inscrutable.

But Sherman, who is not emphasized in this chp, came at the issues from a different angle. We find in him a warrior-ized vision: God is nearly equated with Union and the Confederacy becomes a rebellion against God.

Where are we today? Do we opt for the inscrutability of God’s providence? to warrior-izing the plan of God? to a confidence that God is on our side?

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posted October 29, 2008 at 3:40 am

“Is it [apocalyptic rhetoric] a way to get folks to change? Or is it a way to get folks to change because of what will surely happen? Is it prediction or it is simply religiously-charged rhetoric?”
Or is apocalyptic rhetoric sometimes a sincere response to (seemingly) cataclysmic events? Is it functioning not so much as persuasive (trying to change people) as descriptive (trying to get a handle on what’s happening)?
In Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural address, eg, is he not trying to find a context for what’s happening? LIncoln seems to be both declaring “the inscrutable providence of God” (ie, that he doesn’t know how much longer the war will last) and placing it within a context of possible judgment for the sins of slavery.
In any case, my sense (at least one strain) of apocalyptic writing is that it is attempting to be simply descriptive. It is trying to place contemporary catastrophic events within the arc of Bibilical narrative. This is what Lincoln is doing, and also, in the context of another Civil War, what the early Quakers were doing. It’s trying to find the bigger picture within which discrete events have a meaning.

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Jeremiah Daniels

posted October 29, 2008 at 4:05 am

:) Good question as always.
When I read the prophets I see a mix of both prediction and ‘kick-in-the-pants’ sort of preaching. I find that a lot of the predictions in the prophets did not require divine inspiration as they did humble perception — which for humans is nearly on the level of a miracle.
(Taking my namesake for example — it did not take a foreteller to know that Judah was going to get beaten. It just took a honest, godly man to be lovingly, stubborn enough to tell people they were beaten and should give up and face the consequences of their misbehavior.)
Me personally I opt for inscrutability of God’s providence.
Among the Christians I talk frequently, I see sometimes they perceive themselves as warriors for God.
Finally, among a vast majority, I honestly perceive despair. They are waiting for the perousia where God will clean up society.
Sorry Scot, I’m probably over my head here, I’d appreciate you telling me if I have totally missed your point.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 6:15 am

“Nothing brings out the jeremiad and apocalyptic rhetoric like war…”
Or politics.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 6:46 am

are biblical apocalyptic warnings more the first than the second?
There is a reality and an urgency to the warnings. Jeremiah named actual people and nations as he accused his people of covenant unfaithfulness. He repeated “This is what the Lord says…” claiming that this word is from the Lord.
In Jeremiah 28, Jeremiah accuses Hananiah of being a false prophet and claims he will die within the year – a claim which comes true.
Jeremiah’s case is against God’s people for being unfaithful to their covenant with God. The covenant and violations are real, and the threat is real. When Jeremiah was born, the people were free; when he died, they were captive. He himself was born in Judah and might have died in Egypt or other place of exile.
The people, nations and violations named against the backdrop of God’s covenant (which includes the promises of blessing and cursing on Gerizim and Ebal), and the timeline of Jeremiah and other prophets which begin prosecuting their case pre-exilic and keep it up post-exilic – these are all evidence of option two: rhetoric that also predicts actual disaster if change is not made.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 6:56 am

#2 Jeremiah – I think I would have to disagree with your following comments: “I find that a lot of the predictions in the prophets did not require divine inspiration..” In order for prophecy to be taken serious it usually was preceded with an “Thus says the Lord” to indicate that the message was in fact from God (divinely inspired) and not simply the utterance of man. The very definition of a prophet seems to suggest that of a mouthpiece for someone else which eliminates the message as originating from the mind of the messenger (which is how God defines false prophets). As far as Scot’s questions: I would say that apocalyptic rhetoric is both.. the kind of rhetoric that declares that if we don?t change society and culture will collapse designed to get people to wake up and change and a rhetorical package that also predicts what will happen. hmmm..I wonder how we would define the sound bite ranting of Jeremiah Wright that has been denounced as hate-filled without listening to the context of his message. Is that apocalyptic in essence?

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posted October 29, 2008 at 6:57 am

Good questions –

are biblical apocalyptic warnings more the first than the second? … Is it prediction or it is simply religiously-charged rhetoric?

Why do we consider biblical apocalyptic warnings as God inspired prediction (and warning of course) — but many current preachers as spouters of religous rhetoric? What is the difference?

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Jeremiah Daniels

posted October 29, 2008 at 7:05 am

I have no doubt that God was in the picture.
The question becomes at what level God entered the picture and to what degree.
The observations against other nations could be deduced simply based on Jeremiah’s understanding of the curses of disobedience. God is still involved due to Jeremiah being knowledgeable in the Word. You could even say, it was intuitive understanding based on immersion in the Law.
He could honestly say “Thus Saith the Lord” even though God didn’t really give him any special knowledge.
Hananiah on the other hand is a different story. A precise prediction would seem to involve something more than deduction or intuition.
Either case, both would involve God ultimately.
Jeremiah Wright? Well, I just won’t comment on that. It would seem to lead nowhere productive.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 7:07 am

I’m confused about what we’re talking about. Since the post appears to talk about apocalyptic rhetoric in the American tradition, are we talking about rhetoric that references biblical prophecy or about Biblical prophecy itself? I thought the former.

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Scot McKnight

posted October 29, 2008 at 7:16 am

Sorry Diane. Bible apocalyptic language itself.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 7:49 am

Jeremiah #7,
Jeremiah’s claim, starting in chapter 1, is that in some unique way God did give him a message to give to his people. I can partially agree with you that in fact much of the prosecuting of the covenant that the prophets did could have come from a straight reading of the Law and of history. However, in my reading, Jeremiah claims more than this. He claims that God told him to go to his people, and that he protested that he was too young and inexperienced, and that God insisted and put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth.
To say that Jeremiah’s message comes from an intuitive understanding based on immersion in the Law would invalidate Jeremiah’s claim – so it seems to me.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 7:59 am

I liked this line re: Lincoln–“If the jeremiad is found in Lincoln, there is a humility about it that demonstrates his belief that God?s plans are inscrutable.” That’s actually what I’d like to see more of in the church. Most folks here know I embrace charismatic gifts like prophecy, but Paul’s description holds–even prophecy reveals little, especially on these “macro” matters. I get skeptical to the degree the predictions are too bold, too large in scope, or generally lacking some appreciation for the darkness of the glass.
And, in the scriptures, I think it’s both (not either/or). We could say it began all the way back with God’s warning to Adam, or Moses to Israel, or–my favorite because involves Assyria instead of Israel–Jonah. The warnings are not just empty warnings, but God also reserves the right, as Jonah knew beforehand God is prone to doing, to ‘call off the dogs’ so to speak if genuine repentance follows. It seems like parenting. I almost always give a warning to my daughter before disciplining her. I really don’t want to, but I will. And it’s because I do follow through (and she knows I will), that 9/10 warnings result in change of behavior, and the promised discipline doesn’t come because of repentance.
Also, doesn’t Jesus create this apocolyptic tension himself by talking about judgment with his return, but also saying no one will know the day or hour? Doesn’t he say he’s coming “quickly” and yet, here we are, 2,000 years later, still on the edge of our seat? I think he wants us perpetually “ready” for his appearing, or he certainly made that impression on Peter & Paul.

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Jeremiah Daniels

posted October 29, 2008 at 8:00 am

Can you draw a line where assignment to teach and rebuke his nation begins and overriding the knowledge he most likely obtained by his God-given human brain and senses?
I honestly would not dare take God out of the picture. But I do leave room for the prophet himself having some share in the message.

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Scott W

posted October 29, 2008 at 8:32 am

A lot of ink is being spilled here dealing with the prophet as seer vs. the prophet as transformative political figure. These are another one of the dualities that come from the wrong-headed theology of usually arising from or related to the Evangelical doctrine of Scripture.
The prophet is not simply the mouthpiece of YHWH,like the oracle at Delphi but YHWH calls the prophet as a human being in a particular context sharing the life of people (note: Ezekiel called as “Son of Man”).The prophet embodies the message in his life and person;he (she)is YHWH’s sign. There seems to be confluence of all the pwers of the prophet at work in carrying out his mission. And we see Jeremiah actually involved with the pro-Babylonian “party” in Judah at the time.

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Michael W. Kruse

posted October 29, 2008 at 11:36 am

As I read this post, I kept reflecting on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the prophetic ministry of the spirits. The first spirit gives prophetic witness to the past and unveils the truth of what happened in Scrooge’s past. He establishes a narrative. The second unveils the truth of the present and places it in appropriate context. The third Spirit reveals the trajectory of the narrative and its apocalyptic conclusion. All this prompts Scrooge to ask if these are visions of things that must be or things that will be unless he repents. He concludes it must be the latter. Otherwise, why were the spirits sent in the first place?
I think apocalyptic prophecies work in two ways. One, they call us to repent when our repentance will change the future. Second, for future events that cannot be avoided, they demonstrate that the apocalypse is not out of God’s sovereignty and that God is with us all the way to the other side of the apocalyptic events.
Once prophets have an understanding of the basic narrative of future consequences they are able to use a variety tools to dramatize the narrative. Hyperbolic imagery can be used to emotionally connect an audience with the magnitude of coming events without necessarily being literal predictions of precise events. The prophets can riff on the narrative theme to affect either repentance or hope. I don’t think that, by and large, biblical prophecy gives a reporter-like videotaped account of the facts of coming events.
Apocalyptic rhetoric today can either by a means of calling people away from a path the prophet genuinely believes is destructive or in can be used to falsely characterize the truth in order draw people toward the prophet’s own agenda. Either way it is intended to alter behavior.

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Travis Greene

posted October 29, 2008 at 11:43 am

I had a professor in class one time say you could tell a true prophet because their predictions don’t come true. The whole point of the prophetic warning is to call for repentance. Otherwise it would just be fatalism.

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posted October 29, 2008 at 3:11 pm

I’m stepping in here more to gather insight than anything. I’ve long puzzled over the role of the biblical prophets and even more, the relationship of prophets to what I call non-prophetic fiigures. Non-prophetics are figures who cross over into action: Joseph provided prophetic interpretation of the Pharoah’s dream and as result, became non-prophetic or perhaps better put, plus-prophetic: He was able to become an actor and change events for the good of Israel. Moses and Aaron too, and David. These were people who were actually able to lead Israel. I don’t think of them as prophets. People like Ezekiel and Jeremiah (and I don’t know much about them; I may be completely wrong) weren’t in a position to do much more than describe what future events would be, as I see it. They were hoping to have an effect through words BECAUSE they lacked other power to change history. So while Lincoln may have spoken at times with a prophetic voice, I wouldn’t call him a prophet, because he had the power to change events. So my question: am I wrong to somehow equate a prophet with someone lacking worldly power? Someone using words to fill a power gap? And am I wrong to set up a hierarchy where I see prophets as lesser somehow than people like Moses, David … Jesus, who were able to more fully break into history? Can I see prophets as people who discern God’s will but can’t implement it? Or am I too harsh? And –of course this is a book in of itself–where does Elijah fit in all this?

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Jeremiah Daniels

posted October 29, 2008 at 6:32 pm

I think that’s what I am saying (?), albeit with a less flourish.
I cannot think of a better example than Hosea.
How could God _ask_ Hosea to marry a cultic prostitute?
Works out better if God picked Hosea because his life exemplified the prophetic message his people needed.
I’m suited up in kevlar today folks. Fire away.

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posted October 31, 2008 at 8:20 am

Apocalyptic literature served different purposes. The primary purpose was to encourage the followers of YHWH that He still plans on redeeming the earth. The warnings are geared to unbelievers, because redemption requires judgment. Although apocalyptic is thought of as being “the last days”, it is rather, a beginning of days in which heaven and earth will be in harmony. It is prophtic in terms of calling for repentence, but only as a sidebar. It’s primary focus is encouragment to believers. It is a promise, not a threat. Can the description of events change in historical occurance? Yes. This is especially seen in apocalyptic literature that is more illustrative mythic than historically possible.

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