Hal Lindsey and Biblical Prophecy

Written by Cornelius Vanderwaal Reviewed By Richard Bauckham

This is a critique of Hal Lindsey’s dispensationalist interpretations of biblical prophecy, written from the standpoint of Reformed covenant theology. It is written in a lively style, which, while not perhaps exactly equivalent to Lindsey’s own racy journalese, will no doubt help the book to meet a real need. Lindsey’s works have had a vast appeal. All too often alternative approaches to prophecy and eschatology have lacked exponents at the same level of general Christian readership.

Many of Vanderwaal’s points are well made: against the arbitrary and speculative nature of many of Lindsey’s interpretations, against his treatment of prophecy as mere prediction, ‘prewritten history’, against his neglect of the context, textual and historical, of particular prophecies. Vanderwaal’s central objection to the whole dispensationalist scheme, on which Lindsey’s view of the future wholly depends, is that it contravenes the unity of the one covenant of grace by which God deals with his people in all periods of salvation history. I doubt whether this objection is made with sufficient exegetical detail even to begin to convince the whole-hearted dispensationalist. But Vanderwaal seems to be aiming rather to demonstrate to those within the Reformed tradition who find Lindsey’s writings attractive that Lindsey does depend on a dispensationalist approach quite incompatible with Reformed covenant theology.

As a heuristic tool with which to approach biblical theology, the covenant principle is certainly more adequate than the dispensationalist scheme. But the covenant principle can be used too rigidly to force the text into interpretations not derived from the text. I find this happening at two points, at least, in Vanderwaal’s argument: (a) In order to deny (despite Acts 3:25; Rom. 9:4f.; 11:28) that the Jews after Christ have any kind of special place in salvation history, he maintains that those texts apply only to an interim situation before Israel lost her covenant status in AD 70; (b) In order to maintain that the book of Revelation talks entirely covenant language, threatening judgment on God’s covenant people, not on the world, he identifies the Babylon of Revelation as Jerusalem, whose downfall the prophecy (written before 70) threatens. I do not find this argument convincing, nor do I see why Vanderwaal regards it as so very important, as the clinching argument against Lindsey. Of course judgment begins with the covenant people, but does covenant theology require that it never extends to the world? Of course Revelation is addressed to the Christians of the seven churches, who by compromising with Babylon are in danger of sharing Babylon’s judgment. Of course the problem of relationships with the synagogue is an important theme in Revelation. All this can be held (as in John Sweet’s new commentary, also reviewed in this issue) without evading the clear evidence that Babylon is Rome. (To be fair, it must be said that Vanderwaal has published, in Dutch, a fullscale defence of his view of Revelation, which I have not read.)

A minor blemish, which will nevertheless irritate many Themelios readers, is the frequent pejorative references to ‘Pietism’, ‘Methodism’, ‘charismatic’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘sectarian’: all these terms referring to deplorable trends which turn out to be hand in glove with dispensationalism! Cf. the extraordinary assertion: ‘exegetical literature written in English or German rarely reckons with the covenant, for the covenant does not play a major role in Methodist or Pietist thinking’ (p. 102)!

Richard Bauckham

Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews