Nov 13, 2011

Were the Events of Joel 2 Fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost?

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. Covenant Theologians like myself believe that many OT passages were fulfilled in the NT while Dispensational Theologians like those on your website believe that many of the OT passages are going to be fulfilled at a later date. A very popular passage which would demonstrate this is Joel 2 and it’s relationship to Acts 2. Though Peter (and the language of the text) explain the events of Pentecost being a fulfillment of Joel’s prophetic vision – the response of Dispensational Theologians to site a partial fulfillment or a future fulfillment is problematic at best.

Moreover, as a follower of CT, I do not use nor care for your continual use of the phrase “replacement theology” to describe our approach to the Bible because that is not what we believe or teach. A much more accurate phrase would be “fulfilled theology.”

A. The reason I am not a follower of the teachings of Covenant Theology (CT) is, in part, due to the interpretive techniques of replacement theology which rely upon extreme elasticity - which your Joel-Acts example illustrates perfectly.

First, let’s look at what Peter actually says concerning the relationship of Joel’s passage to the events on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:14-16:

But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel . . .” [1]
In explaining the events of Pentecost by referring to the passage in Joel, Peter links the two by the phrase, ἀλλα τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ εἰρημένον [alla touto estin to eirēmenon] - but this, it is, the [thing] having been spoken through the prophet Joel. CTs assert this necessitates fulfillment. Yet numerous passages within the NT reference the OT by way of illustration or allusion to a principle which is common to both. Here, a plain sense comparison of the two passages quickly shows that fulfillment is not what Peter has in mind. The portions of the passage from Joel explicitly cited by Peter in Acts 2 predict:
  1. Holy Spirit poured out
  2. sons and daughters prophesy
  3. young men see visions
  4. old men dream dreams
  5. wonders in heaven shown
  6. signs in the earth (specifically: blood, fire, vapor of smoke)
  7. sun turned into darkness
The events actually recorded in Acts 2 include:
  1. Holy Spirit poured out
  2. sons prophesy (granted for the sake of discussion which assumes their statements concerning the “wonderful works of God” are taken as prophecy in the sense of encouragement)
Paying attention to the details, we have 1, or possibly 2 out of 7 predictions from Joel 2 which actually occur in some form in Acts 2. The hermeneutical approach of CT which asserts 14-28% correlation as 'fulfillment' is simply too sloppy to be convincing to many of us. Such an approach to interpretation reduces God's prophetic fore-view into “Swiss cheese.” Instead, we are far better served by recognizing that Peter is referring to the Joel passage in order to explain the unusual activities of those who were speaking in unlearned languages through the work of the Holy Spirit. Peter is essentially saying, “Joel predicted that God would pour out His spirit upon all flesh” with the result that people would prophesy - so this event is consistent with OT revelation.

We see a similar approach taken by James at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:14-17) where he refers back to an OT passage (Amos 9:11-12) to explain that the issues before the council concerning Gentile salvation were consistent with the predictions of the Holy Spirit through the prophet Amos that there would be Gentiles who seek God and “who are called by My name.” In other words, Gentile salvation should not be a surprising situation unexpected by the early Church since the OT predicted it. As with Peter’s citation of Joel, James is not citing Amos to teach that the predicted restoration of the tabernacle of David is being fulfilled by way of Gentile salvation. He is simply appealing to the OT to underscore that the events taking place at that time were entirely consistent with OT teaching. Nothing more.

This business of prophetic precision has a lot to do with why those who embrace Dispensational Theology (DT) like myself continue to find CT assertions of “fulfillment” unconvincing. Many CTs so want to find premature fulfillment that they are willing to gloss over the details which indicate it ain't so. Other illustrations which fit here, from among many which could be given, include God’s promises at the end of Amos in regard to permanent occupation of the Promised Land by Israel (Amos 9:14-15) and Jesus’ promise to the 12 disciples that they will judge over the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19:28; Lu 22:30).

As for whether the phrase “replacement theology” is a fair representation of the interpretive practices of CT, I maintain that it is because replacement takes place. Not only the replacement of Israel with the Church, but the replacement of specific predictions made by God with vague, shadowy imitations. The main problem with replacement theology is that it practices a hermeneutic of denial in an attempt to unseat that which God has said and substitute a cheap imitation which denies the plain language of the passages involved. Moreover, as Paul Henebury has pointed out, many CTs are not shy in using the term replacement:
“The community of believers has in all respects replaced carnal, national Israel. The Old Testament is fulfilled in the New.” [2]

[1] NKJV, Act 2:14–16
[2] H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.4, 667