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Puritan Catechism Question of the Week
Q 16. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A. The fall brought mankind into a state of sin and misery.

Name: Mike
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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Eschatology Part 2 (Literal Interpretation)

One of the claims that you often hear from Dispensational Premillennialists is that they read the bible "literally" where all those other people have to read it figuratively. Now, when a person uses the word "literally" they can mean it in several different ways. In a broad sense the word could just mean that you read the bible literally, that is, as literature. You read the Bible in the same way you would read a novel. In this sense, you could read the Bible (or any book) literally and have pleanty of metaphors, similes, symbolism, hyperbole, etc. However, the sense that the word is used more often is that something "actually" happened. That is, if I say, "I am so hungry I could eat a bear" then I actually mean that I could eat an entire bear. Take a biblical example, if the Bible says that there is some millennium, then that period of time is actually 1000 years.

Now, where this issue becomes important (for this discussion) is when it comes to texts that are somewhat eschatological. The Dispensationalists claim to read the text literally, and they claim that everyone else does not.

Point 1: Must we read every verse literally?

Consider some examples from Jesus and is slow followers:

Example 1: Matthew 16
5When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6Jesus said to them, "Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." 7And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, "We brought no bread."
... 11How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." 12Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Example 2: John 11
11After saying these things, he said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him." 12The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." 13Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus has died

Reading these examples can be humorous. How is it so that these disciples did not understand what Jesus meant? But then again, Jesus did speak about the leaven of the Pharisees and he did say that Lazarus had fallen asleep. Assuming that we have to take every verse literally, the Disciples understood Jesus teh correct way. However, Jesus dispells the idea that everything must be taken in a hyper literal sense.

So then, if we aren't supposed to take every single word "literally," when are we supposed to? The clear answer is that we are supposed to read the Bible as we do any other book. When the context suggests that we take something as metaphor, symbol, hyperbole, we do so. When the context suggests that we take the text as fact, then we do so.

Despite some of the claims of being literal by the Dispensationalists, they understand this concept as well. As
Brian Schwertley says, "Are there any premillennial authors or commentators who believe that the beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns (Rev. 13) is a literal creature?" Even in extreme fiction like the Left Behind series you do not see people taking this passage literally. Why? Because context does not point towards a literal understanding of the text. Revelation is apocalyptic and often uses images like this for a point.

If this is the case, is it too much to suggest that 1000 years might be figurative? It should not be considering that numbers are used symbolically throughout apocalyptic literature and the fact that the Bible uses the number 1000 figuratively several times. Consider just one example:
Psalm 50 says "I have no need of bull from your stall, or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills."

Now, is God (through Asaph) saying that he only owns the cattle on 1000 hills. That is to say, once we get to the 1001 (and beyond) hills, God no longer possess them? Of course not. 1000 is the same as 1o^3 (10x10x10) and is often used to mean "a lot," "large number," "large period of time," etc.

However, most Dispensational Premillennialists don't have a terrible problem accepting the possibility that the millennium is not exactly 1000 years. There are two places where the issue becomes of extreme importance. First, do we need a literal fulfillment of the OT Promises to Israel (A side question is "What is 'literally' meant by the term Israel)? Second, how should we understand (literally?) the resurrections of Revelation 20. If those two questions could be answered, virtually all eschatology debate would cease.

These questions will be addressed in a future post. All that we are establishing at this point is the claim of being literal. If the Dispensationalists think that all verses/words should be interpreted in a hyper literal fashion, then they have made the same mistake as the Disciples. If the Dispensationalists think that they understand the text literally at all times, they are incorrect (as we asked, what Dispensationalists expects a literal 7-headed, 10-horned beast to emerge from the sea?) And lastly, if the Dispensationalists thinks that you can correct read the bible without allowing for metaphors, similes, symbolism, and hyperbole, then their hermeneutics are off.

At this point we have not yet addressed WHEN or WHAT ought to be taken as symbolism/metaphor/etc. This is a matter of hermeneutics and proper exegesis that will be examined later. All we have said so far is that it is Possible and at times Necessary to understand the text outside of a hyper-literal framework.

Peter Schwertley says, "Many premillennialists are told that fundamentalists are premillennial and theological liberals are postmillennial." Why is this the case? Remember what we discussed in part 1. Dispensational premillennialism emerged and gained popularlity around the time of the Fundamentalist/Liberal debate. One of the core tenets of fundamentalism was a desire to read the text literally.

If we can wrap our heads around this idea from the beginning, namely that it is not necessary to view every text in a hyper-literal fashion, then we will allow for proper exegesis to take place. We should not and really must not fall prey to the notion that anyone who understands some of theses texts symbolically must (of necessity) be a liberal (and therefore wrong). With this in place, we now have a foundation to begin to examine the doctrine of eschatology.

In Christ alone,


Blogger voiceofthesheep said...


I'm a pre-tribulational, pre-millenial, dispensationalist (NOT! to all three) trying to maintain a consistent approach to reading the Bible 'literally' (and in reading your post), and I have a problem taking what you wrote at the bottom of your post as it is written.

How do we actually wrap our heads around an idea? I mean, our heads are physical, and an idea is, well, just an idea. Won't that hurt as well?

Also, how do I keep from falling 'prey' to a notion? I didn't even know that notions were out there trying to kill me anyway. I'll be sure to be more careful around them in the future.

(All of this said toungue-in-cheek using some of your own remarks to make your point)

Those who claim to take the Bible 'literally' - and by saying that they mean in its woooden, literal sense - do so only so far as it supports their position. As you clearly mentioned, reading the Bible literally is NOT taking what it says in a wooden, literal sense, but instead reading it as it was intended to be read...with varying literary styles.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Garner said...

reading the Bible literally is NOT taking what it says in a wooden, literal sense, but instead reading it as it was intended to be read...with varying literary styles.

Very good summary :)

9:31 AM  

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