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Hermeneutics: The More Literal Your Understanding, the More Spiritual Your Condition

January 23, 2015 2 comments

Lately I have been reading through past issues of the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony’s “Watching and Waiting” quarterly newsletter (back to 2012), and find the following quote very insightful, a concise expression of many truths regarding hermeneutics and our Christian walk:

The antithesis of ‘spiritual’ is ‘natural.’ The antithesis of ‘literal’ is ‘figurative.’ We believe that these are important distinctions which God’s people should understand clearly. We would contend that the more literal you are in your understanding of God’s precious Word, the more spiritual is your state. We have always understood that God means what He says and says what He means. When a person puts a figurative interpretation on the words of Scripture (and calls it a spiritual interpretation) it is possible to make the Bible say anything. That is exactly what the modernist and liberal theologians love. — James Payne; quote in Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony “Watching & Waiting,” (Jul-Sept. 2012)

So well said, a very good point applicable to all biblical teaching – prophecy and many other areas. Certainly in discussion of doctrine with other believers, we can see a scale of relative degrees of literal understanding; many believers are inconsistent in their hermeneutics. Here is a list of several non-salvific doctrines, which some people interpret literally while others spiritualize/allegorize (“a figurative interpretation … and calls it a spiritual interpretation”). This is not an exhaustive list, and certainly it could be expanded to minor doctrines, such as whether one believes Jesus used literal wine – or spiritualized (figurative) to mean a non-alcoholic variation.

  • Creation (the beginning)
  • Eschatology (millennial views)
  • Israel in the purpose of God (including future)
  • The “Sabbath principle” of one day of seven set aside (Lord’s Day Observance)
  • Existence and purpose of Old Testament Israel (spiritualized by NCT that they never were a believing people but only a “type” of New Testament believers)

The quote from Payne notes the scale with a range — “the more literal….” — as well as the logical consequence of non-literal hermeneutics: that it is possible to make the Bible say anything. Here we also see the reason why the literal person is more spiritual: the root of trusting God in His promises, that God really “means what He says and says what He means.”

From my own admittedly small sample, of fellow believers in my daily life, I have observed the outcome of what Payne so well describes, including extreme cases of believers who spiritualize all five doctrines above. Many believers are inconsistent, taking a literal understanding of some doctrines but not of others; the common ground provides a basis for fellowship in that we at least agree upon some teachings. Calvinist dispensationalists typically will affirm four out of five of the above list (excepting the Sabbath principle), though even there some groups, such as the “Institute for Creation Research” also teaches that idea. Though many of today’s confessional Reformed Baptists reject premillennialism and a future purpose for Israel, yet — in keeping with overall Reformed Protestant teaching (only they have forgotten the premillennialism of the original Reformed including many of the Westminster Divines) and in contrast with today’s NCT Calvinist Baptists, affirm three of the five (creation, the Sabbath principle and the basic unity of God’s people: that the Mosaic economy really did include actual believers and that Israel really did receive the covenant promises).

But what about the person who takes a “spiritual” interpretation of all five of the above doctrines? Payne’s analysis seems especially “spot-on,” as it is this person who comes across as being very natural-minded in general life and attitude toward the scriptures. From the sample of people I know in this category: the plagues described in Revelation are the result of man’s technology (nuclear and/or chemical war instead of God’s wrath similar to His mighty acts in the book of Exodus); great reliance on man’s medical science to provide miracle drug cures (a correlation to their equal emphasis on man’s knowledge for old-earth creation ideas)– here reflecting the mindset of a person who does not really understand “God means what He says and says what He means.” What does it say about someone (in this category) who quips a reversal on a common saying: “most of us are too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good” (an assertion I would dispute; one may speak for himself, but should not assume that others really think in the same terms and thus conclude that most others are really “too earthly minded”)? Again this correlates to Payne’s observation: those who (in many doctrinal areas, not just one or two) put a figurative interpretation (the opposite of literal) and call it spiritual, are really making the Bible say anything — and showing tendencies toward modernist, liberal theology.

 

Highlights From Recent Online Articles: Creation Science

February 2, 2013 4 comments

Just a quick look here at an interesting recent online article:

From ICR.org’s January edition of “Acts & Facts”:  a clear and simple article (and written by a Ph.D. scientist), “The Two-Book Fallacy”.  A few months ago I heard the term “two books” (several times) from an Old Earth Creationist, one who often appealed to scientist authority (see this conversation).  ICR’s article points out what should be obvious, the difference between a book and the world around us:

It is not something that is comprised of statements in human language. It is not something that a person can literally read or interpret in the same way that we interpret a sentence. … The advantage of a book is that it is comprised of clear statements in human language that are designed to be understood by the reader. The meaning of a book is the intention of the author. But that’s not the case with nature. What does a rock mean? What does a fossil mean? They don’t literally mean anything because they are not statements made by an author who is intending to convey an idea. …. a record is an account in writing that preserves the knowledge of facts or events. Rocks and fossils are not in the written form and are, therefore, not a record. … the primary purpose of nature is not to teach, but to function. Consequently, the world is not comprised of statements that are easy to understand. Moreover, nature is cursed due to sin. Therefore, God gave us a clear, inerrant account of the major events of history in writing so that we can begin to properly understand nature.

Revisiting Preterism: Careless Biblical Interpretation

March 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I continually observe that some people are more focused on the ideas of man rather than on God’s word.  They love to spend so much time “proving” that God’s word doesn’t really mean what it says.  So they follow human arguments and reasoning, based on a superficial and inconsistent treatment of scripture, rather than looking to the scripture itself.

Recently at the local church, it was the preterist idea that Hebrews 12:26 (“At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”) is only symbolic, figurative apocalyptic language and is actually talking about what happened in the 1st century, the change of administration at the cross followed by the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  Such a view doesn’t even make sense with the next three verses in Hebrews 12, or with the original quotation from Haggai.  But instead of letting scripture speak for itself, looking at these other verses (as a starting point, then on to other OT references in the Hebrews text), they go with their own predetermined ideas and twist scripture to support that view.

I’ve previously blogged on several of these specifics, so here it is in summary form.

The preterist preacher’s reasoning basically includes this approach to the word of God:

    1. Faulty interpretation of Haggai 2:7, based on the King James wording “the desire of all nations shall come.”

      See this blog post:  Haggai’s Prophecy: First or Second Coming
    2. Incorrect interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, by ignoring the extra verses in Luke 21 not found in the parallel texts:  when Luke 21 speaks of Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, that equals the “abomination of Desolation” in Matthew 24.

      See this blog post:  Luke 21, the Olivet Discourse, and the Literal-Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic
    3. Assumption that all biblical language describing the world being destroyed, the heavens being shaken, the sky falling, etc., is symbolic language, which is really just a description of the new order, the new administration that began at the Cross followed by final judgment on Israel in 70 A.D.  Needless to say, this is an extra-biblical presupposition not grounded in any actual scripture.
    4. Therefore, the shaking described in Hebrews 12:26 is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.

Ezekiel’s Temple: The Animal Sacrifices

October 31, 2011 4 comments

I recently learned of another approach to understanding Ezekiel 40-48.  Well known is the idea of amillennialists and postmillennialists, that those chapters do not have any specific meaning other than great spiritual ideas of what the Jewish worship might have been.  By contrast, dispensational premillennialists view the temple and the sacrifices as literal, a package deal.

However, a few within this group actually take an inconsistent approach:  the temple itself is a literal structure that will exist during the Millennial Kingdom.  But what is described about the sacrifices and priestly system is symbolic of the worship that the Israelites in that age will experience.  The Jews of Ezekiel’s day could not have understood our church age, and so Ezekiel described it in a way they would understand.  Dan Duncan at Believers Chapel (where the late S. Lewis Johnson taught), for instance, expresses this view in his Ezekiel series, again because of the supposed conflict with New Testament revelation, that Christ finished the OT priestly system.  This view is listed as the second (not primary) explanation in the Scofield Bible, and dispensationalist H.A. Ironside also took this view.

I found this explanation rather unsatisfying, for obvious hermeneutical reasons.  Why would Ezekiel 43 contain such very detailed, precise descriptions for something that is only symbolic of something else?  How can we say that the physical description of the temple itself is the Millennial temple, but that the description of the services held there (animal sacrifices) is not literal and really means something else?  At this point I also refer back to Matt Weymeyer’s list of rules for determining if a passage is literal or not.

1.  Does it possess a degree of absurdity when taken literally?  Example: Isaiah 55:12 “the trees of the fields will clap their hands.”

2.  Does it possess a degree of clarity when taken symbolically?  Symbolic language effectively communicates what it symbolizes.
Isaiah 55:12 does possess a degree of clarity when taken symbolically.

3.  Does it fall into an established category of symbolic language?  — figures of speech, etc.  You have to be able to identify what kind of symbol you’re dealing with.  Isaiah 55:12 is a  Personification type of symbol.

Matt Weymeyer applied this test to Revelation 20, but the same can be done for the Ezekiel passage about animal sacrifices.  We can easily understand that Ezekiel 43 does not appear “absurd” when taken literally.  Yes, it may be a difficult question to answer, but the passage itself is not absurd such as the idea of trees clapping their hands.  If Ezekiel 43 is symbolic, is that symbolic view clear?  Just as theologians have come up with many different “interpretations” of Revelation 20, same here, many different “interpretations” have been suggested:  that it’s symbolic for the future worship during the Mill. Kingdom, or that it’s describing the actual sacrifices of the post-exilic period; or that the whole temple structure itself isn’t real since there is no future Millennial Kingdom.  So again, Ezekiel 43 fails the second test; we do not see a clear meaning if Ezekiel 43 is symbolic.  Then the third test:  what category of symbolic language is Ezekiel 43?  Is it a figure of speech, a metaphor, a personification? Of course the Ezekiel passages about animal sacrifices are not a type of symbolic language.

Once we establish, on hermeneutical grounds, that there will be sacrifices during the Kingdom, we move on and address the issue more honestly, looking at the meaning of those sacrifices.

Here are a few links for further information concerning Ezekiel’s Temple sacrifices:

WHY LITERAL SACRIFICES IN THE MILLENNIUM  (Thomas Ice)

Animal Sacrifices in Israel — Past & Future  (John Whitcomb)

Ezekiel’s Temple: Premillennial Achilles’ Heel?  (Paul Henebury)

Finding the Road to Christ: A Sermon Example

June 6, 2011 Leave a comment

As a follow-up to my last post, The Proper Way to “Find Christ in the Text,” consider the following instance where a preacher demonstrates a sermon technique he had previously mentioned.

I noticed this in S. Lewis Johnson’s message on Micah 4:1-5.  As we’re reading along in Micah, chapter 3 ends on a very rough note:  wickedness from Israel’s rulers, and then pronouncement of judgment at the very end:  Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Then Micah 4 starts on a very positive note, with great blessings to come upon Zion, and the Lord ruling from Jerusalem.  Herein is the “road to Christ”:  Johnson asks how it can be, that judgment comes in Micah 3 but that blessings will come upon them in the latter days?  The answer is found in the redemptive work of the cross, Christ’s crucifixion still hundreds of years future from Micah’s day.  We could also refer to it as God’s working out of the New Covenant, that third great covenant (after the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants) which provided the means for forgiveness and atonement.  The road to Christ is there, not explicitly but as the answer to that very real question of how God can forgive sinners who deserve judgment, and put guilty sinners in heaven.  The next few verses of Micah go on to describe what Christ will do at His Second Coming, when He rules from Jerusalem as the true judge — again in contrast with the wicked men who judged Israel in Micah’s day.

How much more satisfying, and true to the word of God, is this “road to Christ” than the amillennialist’s spiritualizing attempt at “finding Christ” in Micah 4.  The typical approach there is to ignore the context of Micah 3 and Micah 4, then jump into the great words in Micah 4 and simply say that it refers to the wonderful church age we live in, a picture of the gospel going forth triumphantly and bringing people into the kingdom.  Sure that’s a way to “find Christ” — but by deceitful twisting of God’s word, not dealing with the details of the text — in both Micah 3 and 4 — and the meanings of words.

Studying the Minor Prophets

April 21, 2011 2 comments

Among people I’ve talked to, who read or have read using the Horner Bible Reading plan, often I hear a common frustration:  that it’s hard to just read through some of the books (for instance, the minor prophets) when I really don’t understand them.  How should we follow the Horner reading plan and yet do specific-verse study?  The answer, of course, is not an “either-or” but “both – and.”  The Horner Bible reading plan is the groundwork layer, overall reading to become increasingly familiar with the Bible as a whole, but not intended as its own end with nothing else.  In addition to the genre-style reading, add additional study of different scripture texts — and the overall Horner reading will suggest many ideas for such further, in-depth study.

As with anything we have questions about in Bible reading, it’s best to pick a particular Bible book, find a good commentary or sermon series, and start listening/reading it through sequentially, through all the chapters of the study along with the actual Bible book chapters.  For commentaries and other resources, the “Precept Austin” site compiles good listings, on a Bible book basis.  At this point I prefer audio sermon series, and S. Lewis Johnson taught through most of the minor prophets.

From my general reading and sermon listening (through Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and some of Jonah), here are some of my observations concerning the prophets.

Not everything in the Bible was written to us (in the church age) as the primary audience.  We can certainly make application from the reading, while still recognizing the original intent.

Expanding further on this point, consider the wise words of J.C. Ryle (from Practical Religion, chapter 5)

Determine to take everything in its plain, obvious meaning, and regard all forced interpretations with great suspicion. As a general rule, whatever a verse of the Bible seems to mean, it does mean. Cecil’s rule is a very valuable one, “The right way of interpreting Scripture is to take it as we find it, without any attempt to force it into any particular system.” Well said Hooker, “I hold it for a most infallible rule in the exposition of Scripture, that when the literal construction will stand, the furthest from the literal is commonly the worst.”

Anyone who confuses the church with Israel, who does not understand Israel’s unique situation and the covenants established between God and Israel (the Abrahamic /Davidic as well as the Mosaic law), will likely become confused.  Likewise, anyone who comes to the text with the general idea, taught at too many churches, that all prophecy was fulfilled at Christ’s First Coming, will be confused over many specific things said in the prophets.  Instead, let the text speak for itself and do not try to “fit” what is said to any preconceived idea of how the prophecy is about something accomplished in the distant past (i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.).

We can make many applications from the overall minor prophet themes.  For instance, in Hosea and Amos — both written at about the same time period, to the northern kingdom of Judah — we can relate to people living in a very prosperous, and very secular and worldly society, a time of formalism in worship.  How often that indeed relates to our day, of worldly entertainment-oriented churches, with many people only observing the outward forms of Christianity but lacking the true heart substance.  In Jonah we see the attitude of the self-righteous who think God should only bless “us” and not our enemies.

As a general rule, the first books in the minor prophets section are thought to be “earlier” in time than the later books:  Hosea and Amos were contemporaries in the 8th century B.C.  The last few books in the set — Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi — are the post-exilic prophets, and the book just before those (Zephaniah) was just before the exile, contemporary with Jeremiah and King Josiah.  Sometimes, as with the smallest book of Obadiah, we know very little about the book’s time setting (other than the general idea that it probably was written earlier during the prophets), and yet we can take comfort in the fact that it’s not necessary to know such details in order to understand the message of the book.  In Obadiah the prophecy is Edom’s doom, and we know about Edom from earlier in the Bible, especially in the Genesis section dealing with Jacob and Esau.

Also generally, the prophets first speak of judgment — and spend a great deal more time there — followed by briefer yet certain promises that God will not forever abandon His people.  Amos contains 8 1/2 chapters of judgment, followed by the wonderful future promise in the last part of Amos 9.  Hosea too is mostly focused on the judgment.  We find the prominence of judgment rather discouraging, but here I remember also that Jesus spent far more time talking about hell than He did about heaven.  Before we come to the great news of salvation and our glorious future, we must recognize our tremendous sin guilt, to be confronted and warned to flee from the wrath to come.  Yet we can also hold on to these treasures, the promise of redemption and that God will not forsake His people forever (with meaning specific first to the Jews, but also to all the people of God, including us who have been grafted into the Romans 11 olive tree), of the wonderful things yet to come.

J.C. Ryle: The Lord Jesus During this Present Dispensation — Like David in 1 Samuel

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

From “Coming Events and Present Duties,” chapter 2 “Occupy Till I Come”:

The Lord Jesus during the present dispensation is like David between the time of His anointing and Saul’s death. He has the promise of the kingdom, but He has not yet received the crown and throne (1 Sam. 22:1, 2).

He is followed by a few, and those often neither great nor wise, but they are a faithful people. He is persecuted by His enemies, and oft times driven into the wilderness, and yet His party is never quite destroyed. But He has none of the visible signs of the kingdom at present: no earthly glory, majesty, greatness, obedience. The vast majority of mankind see no beauty in Him: they will not have this man to reign over them. His people are not honored for their Master’s sake: they walk the earth like princes in disguise. His kingdom is not yet come: His will is not yet done on earth excepting by a little flock. It is not the day of His power. The Lord Jesus is biding His time.

Reader, I entreat you to grasp firmly this truth, for truth I believe it to be. Great delusion abounds on the subject of Christ’s kingdom. Take heed lest any man deceive you by purely traditional teachings about prophetical truth. Hymns are composed and sung which darken God’s counsel on this subject by words without knowledge. Texts are wrested from their true meaning, and accommodated to the present order of things, which are not justly applicable to any but the period of the second advent. Beware of the mischievous infection of this habit of text-wresting. Beware of the sapping effect of beautiful poetry, in which unfulfilled promises of glory are twisted and adapted to the present dispensation. Settle it down in your mind that Christ’s kingdom is yet to come. His arrows are not yet sharp in the hearts of His enemies. The day of His power has not yet begun. He is gathering out a people to carry the cross and walk in His steps; but the time of His coronation has not yet arrived. But just as the Lord Jesus, like the nobleman, “went to receive a kingdom,” so, like the nobleman, the Lord Jesus intends one day “to return.”

J.C. Ryle: How to Read the Bible (Practical Religion)

June 25, 2010 Leave a comment

“read the Bible with an earnest desire to understand it.”

Do not think for a moment that the great object is to turn over a certain quantity of printed paper, and that it matters nothing whether you understand it or not. Some ignorant people seem to fancy that all is done if they read so many chapters every day, though they may not have an idea what they are all about, and only know that they have pushed on their bookmark so many pages. This is turning Bible-reading into a mere form. It is almost as bad as the Roman catholic habit of buying indulgences, by saying an almost incredible number of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Fathers.” Settle it in your mind as a general principle, that a Bible not understood is a Bible that does no good. Say to yourself often as you read, “What is all this about?” Dig for the meaning like an man digging for gold. Work hard, and do not give up the work in a hurry.

“read the Bible with childlike faith and humility.”

Open your heart as you open your book, and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Resolve to believe implicitly whatever you find there, however much it may run counter to your own prejudices. Resolve to receive heartily every statement of truth, whether you like it or not.

Beware of that miserable habit of mind into which some readers of the Bible fall. They receive some doctrines because they like them: they reject others because they are condemning to themselves, or to some lover, or relation, or friend. At this rate the Bible is useless. Are we to be judges of what ought to be in the Word? Do we know better than God? Settle it in your mind that you will receive everything and believe everything, and that what you cannot understand you will take on trust. Remember, when you pray, you are speaking to God and God hears you. But, remember, when you read, God is speaking to you, and you are not to “talk back” but to listen.

“read the Bible every day.”

Make it a part of every day’s business to read and meditate on some portion of God’s Word. Private means of grace are just as needful every day for our souls as food and clothing are for our bodies. Yesterday’s meal will not feed the worker today, and today’s meal will not feed the worker tomorrow.  Do as the Israelites did in the wilderness. Gather your manna fresh every morning. Choose your own periods and hours. Do not hurry your reading. Give your Bible the best and not the worst part of your time. But whatever plan you pursue, let it be a rule of your life to visit the throne of grace and the Bible every day.

“read the Bible fairly and honestly.”

Determine to take everything in its plain, obvious meaning, and regard all forced interpretations with great suspicion. As a general rule, whatever a verse of the Bible seems to mean, it does mean. Cecil’s rule is a very valuable one, “The right way of interpreting Scripture is to take it as we find it, without any attempt to force it into any particular system.” Well said Hooker, “I hold it for a most infallible rule in the exposition of Scripture, that when the literal construction will stand, the furthest from the literal is commonly the worst.”

Horatius Bonar on Interpreting the Prophets

April 15, 2010 1 comment

Another great excerpt from Horatius Bonar, concerning those who would obscure the prophetic texts rather than simply understand them in the normal, plain language sense:

A great deal of obscurity has been ascribed to the prophets which does not really belong to them, and much that is both unmeaning and untrue has been spoken about the “necessary obscurity of figurative language.” . . .

What liberties do some interpreters take with the prophetic word! They find in every page almost what they call figurative language, and, under this idea, they explain away whole chapters without scruple or remorse. They complain much of the obscurity of the prophetic language. It is an obscurity, however, of their own creating. If they will force figures upon the prophets when they are manifestly speaking with all plainness and literality, no wonder that darkness and mystery seem to brood over the prophetic page. . . . Proceeding, then, upon this principle, that we must take all as literal till we are forced from it by something inconsistent or absurd, we shall find a far smoother and straighter way through the fields of prophecy than most men will believe. If we take the waters as we find them, we shall enjoy them clear and fresh; but if we will always be searching for some fancied figure at the bottom, or casting in one when we do not readily discover it, we need not be astonished nor complain that the stream is turbid and impure.

Isaiah 9:6 Lion and LambHow plain, for instance, is that description in Isaiah 11:6-9, of the blessed condition of the renovated earth, and the share which even the lower creation is to have in this glad event! How can any one reading it not call to mind the peace of Eden, with all its rejoicing creatures, brought back to the harmony and happiness of their primeval being, or fail to contrast with that condition, thus foretold, the miserable state in which the apostle paints them, when he tells us that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now?” [Rom. 8:22]. Who, in reading this plain prophecy, can fail to realize the time when Eden and its scenes shall revisit the earth; and when, as once, beneath its overshadowing verdure, the newborn crea-tures took their pastime, and tasted their sinless enjoyment; so again, beneath the shadow of that “Branch which is to grow out of the root of Jesse,” “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them?” [Isa. 11:1, 6]. Yet even this plain passage has been subjected to an allegorizing process, in order to compel it to yield another meaning. It is said to signify the harmony which will one day subsist between men of the most turbulent passions and discordant dispositions! When we ask, with astonishment, if words so definite and simple can have such a meaning, we are told that it is a far more noble and sublime idea that men of evil passions should be softened, than that the beasts of the field should become harmonious in their natures! It may be so. It may be a sublime meaning, but it will be difficult to prove it to be the meaning of the passage. Attempts of this kind to bring out a “spiritual and sublime meaning” from language so plainly literal, destroy the simplicity of Scripture. Instead of elevating, they degrade it, and, moreover, cast over it an air of puerility and feebleness which are ill redeemed by the fancied “sublimity” of the idea extorted from its imaginary figures.
.  . .
We freely consent that prophecy should be spiritualized, that is, should be made to give forth a spiritual utterance; and not prophecy only, but the whole Bible. Only we would first interpret it. Now here is the point at which so many stumble. They confound spiritualizing with interpreting Scripture. They think that when they have contrived to wedge in a spiritual observation (often by main force) between every verse or clause, they have succeeded in explaining it. It will generally be found that those who so spiritualize Scripture do little else than graft their own ideas upon it, instead of gathering the meaning of the Spirit from it; they force a sense into it, instead of drawing one out of it. Every verse, from Genesis to Revelation, may be spiritualized, and yet not one be interpreted.