Is the Argument from Prophecy an Argument for Christians only?

Theology
(Vincent Torley) #1

In an interview with Progressive Spirit titled, “Christian Argument from Prophecy Debunked,” religious scholar, Robert J. Miller, who is Rosenberger Professor of Religious Studies and Christian Thought at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, says that it is time for Christians to retire the argument from prophecy. Professor Miller is also the author of a recent book titled Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy .

The interview starts at the 6-minute mark, after a long musical introduction. Professor Miller makes a number of telling points during the interview, but I’d like to focus on two quotes which sum up the gist of his thinking. In the first quote, which begins at 49:00, he distinguishes between the belief that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies from the argument that Jesus fulfills these prophecies. The former, he regards as entirely legitimate; the latter, in the Professor’s view, is simply bunk:

[I]t really is a quite different thing for me to say, “I believe that Jesus fulfills prophecy,” versus “Jesus fulfills prophecy, and here’s the evidence and proof for how that happened.” If I say, “I believe it,” what I’m doing is: I’m giving a testimony to my commitment to a certain way of understanding Jesus and his relationship to Scripture. If I give an argument, what I’m in fact saying is that anybody who’s smart enough to know all the evidence and has a functioning, logical system in their head, will draw the same conclusion that I do… I think that the problems, and the poison, comes in the argument from prophecy, not the belief. I think it’s totally legitimate for a follower of Jesus, at any time in history, or today, to say something like this: "Because of my belief in Jesus, I’m able to read certain parts of the Old Testament and to see in them a hidden and deeper dimension of truth than is otherwise apparent in those stories.That’s a declaration of one’s faith, and I think has to be met with respect. But if someone says, “Jesus really is the one prophesied by Scripture, and here’s the evidence for it,” then one expects the person you’re talking to to agree with you, and if you don’t, your conclusion is simply that they are wrong… Given the horrific result of this kind of thinking throughout history for Jewish people, I think it really is time for Christians to just give up the Argument from Prophecy. And I think we’re still entitled to our belief, but the argument is the one, I think, that causes all the trouble, and that’s really the basis on which I have written this book, to analyze how the Argument from Prophecy falls short, time and time and time again, when judged against simple things like looking these things up in context, or just comparing what the Old Testament actually says to the sometimes different ways in which the Old Testament prophecy is quoted, or misquoted, in the New Testament.

So, exactly how does the Argument from Prophecy fall short? Well, you’ll have to listen to the rest of Professor Miller’s talk to find out. I would invite readers to listen with an open mind, and draw their own conclusions.

My second quote from Professor Miller’s talk starts at 53:13. Here, Professor Miller accuses proponents of the Argument from Prophecy of arguing in a circle:

…[I]f you say, "The Old Testament says this, and Jesus fulfills it, and we know he fulfills it because the New Testament said he did, you’re already presupposing that the New Testament is telling you the truth about what Jesus said and did, as a fulfillment of prophecy. So if you already believe [in] what the New Testament says, why the need to prove it? [But] if you don’t believe what the New Testament says, then the Argument from Prophecy is going to land like a big thud, [it’s] not going to go anywhere. So it’s an example of what critical thinkers call circular reasoning, in which you assume the truth of that which you want to prove as part of the argument that the thing you want to prove is true. All you’ve done really is simply state your initial belief in a different way.

Is Professor Miller right here? What do you think?

I’d like to close by examining what is perhaps the most impressive-sounding prophecy of Jesus in the Old Testament: the Suffering Servant prophecy in Isaiah 52 and 53. I think it’s fair to say that if the Argument from Prophecy doesn’t work for these verses, it probably won’t work for any others in the Bible. What I’d like to do is quote a few excerpts from the ESV translation, and highlight the difficulties which a non-believer might raise:

As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
so shall he sprinkle [or startle] many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.

At this point, a non-believer might well ask: does this sound like Jesus? Where does the New Testament declare that Jesus was “marred, beyond human semblance”? Indeed, Luke 4:22 seems to indicate the opposite: it says that “all spoke well of him” when he read from the scroll in the synagogue, suggesting that he must have created a favorable impression, and been reasonably handsome. (Had Jesus been deformed, he would never have been invited to read from the scroll in the first place.) A Christian might reply that the passage in Isaiah actually refers to Jesus’ brutal scourging at the hands of the Romans, which would surely have marred his appearance, but the non-believer would point out that people propounding this interpretation are guilty of reading into the passage something which it does not say. And (the non-believer would continue) when did Jesus appear before kings (note the plural)? Certainly, Luke tells us that Jesus appeared before Herod Antipas on Good Friday, but Herod did not “stand speechless before him,” and in fact, he never held the title of king. And finally, what on earth does “that which they have not heard they understand” mean?

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

Jesus was pierced, assuming that the account in John 19:34 is historical, but when was he crushed? And is there anything in this passage which unambiguously refers to crucifixion? To a non-believer, this would sound like a very vague prophecy.

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

A non-believer might grant that the rich man in the prophecy could be Joseph of Arimathea - although it’s worth noting that Mark and Luke don’t actually say he was rich. However, Jesus, according to the New Testament, did not share a grave with the wicked: rather, he was buried in a tomb wherein no man had been laid before.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief [or he has made him sick]
when his soul makes an offering for guilt [or when you make his soul an offering for guilt],
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

The alternative readings highlighted in the ESV point to the inherent ambiguity of this passage. And what about the passage, “he shall see his offspring”? Jesus had none - unless one wants to construe the passage as referring to spiritual offspring (i.e. Christian believers). But to a non-believer, that would sound like special pleading.

Certainly for a Christian, it is difficult to Isaiah 52 and 53 and not be reminded of Jesus. But it is another thing entirely to expect even an open-minded non-believer to read the passage through the same lens. In short: the Argument from Prophecy doesn’t fare well, in the 21st century. It convinces no-one. I believe Professor Miller is right: it deserves to be retired.

But don’t take my word for it: listen to the man yourself. And now, over to you.

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(S. Joshua Swamidass) #2

I’m looking forward to engaging this eventually, so I am moving it to office hours. Others should feel free to comment. Curious to hear @dga471 and @rcohlers and @Philosurfer and @jongarvey and @Freakazoid’s thoughts too.

This reminds me of CS Lewis: Till We Have Faces, the star of Bethlehem, and the myth that became true.

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(Jon Garvey) #3

Can’t help feeling that the very concept of “persuasion” in the frame is at fault here, as it was in the resurrection thread. Apologetics is the practice of demonstrating that Christianity is reasonable, but it’s a secondary pursuit as far as the business of bringing people to faith goes… which is why the Bible speaks of proclamation of good news a lot more than apologetics for solid arguments.

Nearly everybody comes to believe nearly everything on inadequate grounds. We believe the world is round on trust, and it’s actually quite tough, though possible, to consolidate the belief with proof afterwards.

Some important beliefs remain impossible to prove, like which political party is best for a nation - and heaven knows how people come to opt for one or another party in the first place, from being born into the right household to conforming to peer pressure. Occasionally, someone might even be convinced on principle.

In the case of Christianity, faith comes through the grace of God, and the adequacy (not cast iron proof) of its propositions is part of that. I’m not sure that many people try to prove Christianity from fulfilled prophecy, since not only is prophecy not couched in mathematical terms, and so is ambiguous, but its interpretation depends on being part of the faith community for which it was intended.

The only source I can remember that used it in apologetics was Josh McDowell, in Evidence that Demands a Verdict. The very title of the book is legal, suggesting “balance of probabilities”, or “beyond reasonable doubt,” not “irrefutable proof.” I have no doubt that somewhere in McDowell’s correspondence will be letters from people who came to faith because of a chapter on prophecy, because that’s what the Holy Spirit used in their particular state of mind to get them dig deeper and find Christ. That alone would make it worth having written the chapter.

The quest for irrefutable arguments is the problem, not the quality of the evidence. The Christian’s job is to demonstrate faith by living it out. That faith is not groundless, but it is the faith, not so much the grounds for it, that bring hearts to the living Christ for salvation.

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(Curtis Henderson) #4

@vjtorley thanks for this new look at one of the standard apologetic pillars. I plan to check out the video later, but I appreciate you bringing it to our attention.

@jongarvey thank you for the very important reminder that our lives should be our primary witness. The Holy Spirit can certainly use a wide variety of different points to reach an individual, but the Bible consistently instructs us that our own life examples are of primary importance.

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(Clinton Ohlers) #5

@vjtorley Thank you for the post. Just a few things to note. The problem I see with Miller’s points as you have presented them is that they really apply too broadly to pretty much all categories of knowledge and scientific fact, not simply prophecy, and would require a sort of pyrrhonistic skepticism about facts and evidence if we were to apply it equally. Take the statement:

He likens this to a “poison.” The problem is that this can be said of virtually all argumentation from evidence, whether in scientific theory, law, medicine, with the exception of cases with irrefutable proof (which are few).

He says a better approach is:

Why should someone have a prior belief in Jesus in the first place? What if there question happens to be one of whether they should believe in Jesus as the Messiah on the basis of prophecy? It seem pretty narrow minded to simply rule that out a priori by professorial fiat. Rather, the question of evidence is a reasonable one.

Further, given people’s ability to read into to texts evidence where none exists, what prevents all sorts of others being read into Scripture on the basis of prior belief? Muslims do this. Christian Scientists, among whom I grew up, do this also, and with the exact same passage that Muslims do. (A passage which, by the way, is not a prophecy about Jesus, even if one wanted to believe that it is. The reason: Jesus himself is talking about sending the Holy Spirit.) If merely preexisting belief is the standard what can be refuted? The real question is whether such a claim is justified by the text or if it isn’t.

Or:

So, if something has been misused against its original purposes then its factualness is also refuted? How many irrefutable scientific discoveries can that be said of? Or, the idea is that if something has been misused, pointing out its factual nature somehow promotes further misuse? This isn’t how knowledge works. Miller is appealing to emotion here and virtue signaling.

As for Isaiah 53 in the ESV, there is a great deal left out from the excerpts included above. I recommend tackling the whole chapter to evaluate whether it is a prophecy of Christ.

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#6

I have not read the comments but I will comment briefly on the question in the topic section.

I think for about 90% of people, the argument from prophecy will do nothing. Also, Josh McDowell’s old argument from prophecy is a very poor understanding of how old AND new testament exegesis actually works.

All that being said, my professor of OT in seminary has written a book endorsed by none other than Walter Brueggeman! Jesus the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible by Eugen Pentiuc.

He makes sort of a new sophisticated argument from prophecy, engages with a lot of Jewish exegesis (in a very positive non-polemic fashion), arguing that even taking into account historical criticism (and he believes in a version of the documentary hypothesis, etc.), there is still an argument to be made from prophecy. Though not perfect, the book does break new ground in this area and should be the go-to for any OT exegete who wants to make a modern argument from prophecy that doesn’t come across as terribly implausible.

@deuteroKJ, and others, I’m curious what you might think of the book if you read it.

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(Herculean Skeptic) #7

If anyone is interested, here’s a link to the book on Amazon:

1 Like