Beale: Does Paul Spiritualize Daniel’s Temple Prophecy? A ‘literal’ vs. a ‘redemptive-historical’ approach

“Many affirm the that the prophet Daniel surely had in mind a physical temple that would exist in latter-day Israel. Accordingly, to say that this prophecy is fulfilled in Christ and the church is to violate a ‘literal hermeneutical’ principle by which all Scripture is to be interpreted.

A number of responses are in order…

First, a ‘literal hermeneutic’ is not the best way to describe a biblical hermeneutic. Perhaps a ‘literal hermeneutic’ that aspires to the broad literary meaning in the canonical context is a better way to put it (see Vanhoozer 2001, 312-314). We should want to follow an interpretative method that aims to unravel the original, intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any of the layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities.

Second, the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ contact and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfillment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant.

Third, [my interpretation of] 2 Thessalonians 2:1-7 indicates that Paul understood the Daniel 11 prophecy about the end-time opponent desecrating the temple as beginning fulfilment in his own time. Possibly, my interpretation is wrong. To say it is wrong, however, primarily on the basis that it does not literally ‘interpret’ the book of Daniel is not enough to overturn my analysis. Or, one could say Paul illegitimately ‘spiritualizes’, though this is not an attractive option for those with a high view of Scripture. Such a conclusion could also reveal an overconfidence in the standards of modern interpretative methods as the ultimate arbiter of the correctness of ancient interpretative methods. If my analysis of 2 Thessalonians is on the right track, then Paul developing the interpretation of Daniel 11-12 in the light of progressive revelation: the beginning fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy in Christ and the church.

…Christ is the true end-time temple, and all who identify with him by faith become part of that temple. There are pseudo-believers who claim to be part of the true temple. It is into the midst of that temple of a mixed multitude of loyal and disloyal covenant-keepers that the incarnate Antichrist steps during the very last days of history.

God promised to dwell in a temple among his eschatological people. The main purpose of the temple in the Old Testament and the purpose of the expected end-time temple was to house God’s glory before which his people were to worship. Many Israelites may well have understood the prophecy in Daniel 11 to refer to a physical temple in which the Antichrist would appear, and, following his demise, God’s glory would be manifested in such a temple to a greater extent than ever before.

We have discovered in preceding chapters, however, that some of the Old Testament’s explicit end-time prophecies of the temple foresee a non-structural, non-human-made reality (e.g., Is. 4:5–6; 57:15; 66:1–2; Dan. 2; Zech. 1–2). In addition, similar observations have been made about the Garden of Eden (Gen.2; Ezek. 28:18), the small-scale sanctuaries of the Patriarchs, Mount Sinai and God’s dwelling with Israelite exiles (Ezek. 11:16; cf. also Is. 8:14.) How does one put together the passages like Daniel 11:30-39 that appear to predict a structural eschatological temple and those prophesying a non-structural one? Do the former serve as the interpretative key for the latter or vice versa? Or, are these two sets of prophecies contradictory or impossible to harmonize from the human interpreter’s perspective?

We believe the non-structual prophecies should interpret the apparent structural ones because this best fits the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies about the temple. We have endeavoured, not only in this chapter, but in preceding chapters, to show that the New Testament explains that the temple prophecies have begun fulfilment through Christ’s glory in the land of Israel, and views the consummated fulfilment to be God and Christ’s glory manifested throughout the entire cosmos.

The precise physical form in which the temple promise may have been conceived has been surpassed in the fulfilment of a greater literal reality of God’s expansive presence. It should certainly not be a surprise that the New Testament could conceive of the new temple as non-structural in the light of the numerous Old Testament precedents of such a phenomenon!

This is to say that progressive revelation has clarified those prophecies that appeared to be predicting a structural temple. The prophecy and the fulfilment of Daniel are comparable to a father’s promise to his young son in 1900 that he will give his son a horse and buggy when he grows up and gets married. When the son marries thirty years later, the father gives him a car, which has since been invented and mass-produced. Does the father not literally fulfil his promise to the son? It is true that the precise form in which the promise of a mode of transportation was given has changed, but the essence of the promise has not changed: a convenient mode of personal transportation. Indeed, the progress of technology has made the fulfilment of the promise even greater than initially conceived.

The substantial essence of the new temple is still the glory of God, however that glory is no longer confined within a material building but revealed openly to the world in Christ and his subsequent dwelling through the Spirit in the worldwide church as the temple. The progress of God’s revelation has made the fulfilment of apparent prophecies of an architectural temple even greater than originally conceived by finite minds. This is what Haggai 2:9 appears to express: The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former.

The practical relevance of this discussion for the contemporary church, the temple, is that the spirit of the Antichrist may already be found hovering in its midst when its leaders change God’s word and contradict its meaning. For example, many church leaders today say that we need to be accepting of other faiths, contending that sincerity in any kind of faith may be a legitimate path to God. Who are we to say that we have the only truth? To many, the exclusive claim of Christianity sounds narrow and harsh. Yet Jesus himself said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.’ His follower Peter said, ‘there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Such teachings represent ‘the lawlessness’ of the Antichrist prophesied by Daniel to pollute the end-time temple. True believers need to be on the alert not to be deceived by such eschatological corruption, in order to keep ‘the temple of God’ doctrinally and ethically pure.

Indeed, it should not be assumed that the ‘spirit of the Antichrist’ (1 John 4:1–3) influences only unbelieving false teachers. Leaders who are true Christians and those under their guidance are susceptible to this influence and can be caught up in worldly ways of thinking. All in the church to one degree or another are confronted and tempted by this worldly influence. This is why we need continually to be alert to resisting it.”

–G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 2004, 288-292.

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