Section I (continued)
The Interpretation of Scripture and Prophecy
Interpretation of Scripture ("hermeneutics")
The Word of God is the ultimate authority.
Hermeneutics is a very important subject to understand when wrestling with the issue of eschatology. The rules that a person uses to interpret Biblical prophecy play a very large role in which of the four views he will conclude is the view that the Bible teaches. Dispensationalists accuse the amillennialists and postmillennialists of "spiritualizing" Scripture rather than interpreting it literally. Amillennialists denounce the postmillennialists and Dispensationalists for not spiritualizing Scripture. The amillennialists say that to interpret Old Testament prophecy literally and materially is to ignore the New Testament teaching that all prophecy is fulfilled spiritually in Jesus Christ, His gospel, and His church.
The postmillennialist believes that both of the above views are simplistic. When Scripture is allowed to interpret Scripture, we find that prophecy is to be interpreted literally in some cases and spiritually in others. To interpret all Old Testament prophecy literally, in terms of the earthly success of the nation of Israel, is to ignore the fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus Christ, His gospel, and His church. But, contrary to what the amillennialist's claim, that does not mean that material blessings and earthly victory are excluded from the New Covenant church. If amillennialists were consistent in denying material, earthly fulfillment of prophecy to the New Covenant (and thankfully they are not consistent), then they would have to deny the physical resurrection of believers and unbelievers. They would have to deny that Jesus physically died, was physically resurrected and physically ascended to heaven. That is exactly the gnostic heresy that John denounces when he says in 1 John 4:2-3, "Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God." The gnostic hermeneutic of amillennialism is also denied by many of other New Testament promises of material blessings for the New Covenant church (see Sect. II, "Material Blessing are for the Church!"). And despite their apparent opposition to one another, Dispensationalism shares in the error of amillennialism by assigning all prophesies of material blessing to Old Testament Israel, and leaving only prophesies of spiritual blessing for the church.
In contradiction to their view that material, earthly prophecies are not to be applied to the church, both amillennialists and Dispensationalists are more than willing to do just that when those prophecies refer to earthly cursing and defeat of the church. They view the New Covenant church as "under the cross." But is Jesus still on the cross? Did He not rise victoriously and ascend to the right hand of Power over all authority on heaven and on earth? Yes! (Eph. 1; Matt. 28:18). I deal with the victory theme extensively in Section II.
Focus on the Dispensational Hermeneutic
Dispensationalists accuse the other positions of "spiritualizing" Scripture rather than interpreting it literally. Most particularly, they understand all of the Old Testament prophecies of the future kingdom to refer to the Old Testament form of Israel rather than the Church. Actually, I believe that their preconceived Dispensational framework of Israel and Law versus Church and Grace is their most basic principle of interpretation, not literalism. As Charles Ryrie says, "The understanding of God's differing economies is essential to a proper understanding of His revelation within those various economies." Above all, the Dispensationalist makes sure that Israel and the Church are kept totally separate in the interpretation of prophecy, and that earthly (literal) promises are applied only to Israel and heavenly (spiritual) promises are for the Church.
All Bible-believing Christians, including Dispensationalists, acknowledge the use of symbols in Scripture to some extent:
Obvious non-literal statements in Scripture:
Luke 3:4-5 ___________________________________________________________________________
John 10:7 ____________________________________________________________________________
Rev. 17:7-10 _________________________________________________________________________
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Dispensationalists attempt to take all Old Testament prophesy literally, rather than let N.T. interpret the Old (see Num. 12:6-8 with Col. 1:26). Scripture itself provides the key to the interpretation of prophecy. For example, is Acts 15:14-19 predicting a future rebuilding of temple? No! Not according to a literal reading of Acts 15:14-19. James cites this O.T. passage as being fulfilled then, in terms of Gentiles being added to the Church, God's new temple (Eph. 2:11-22). The event was future for the prophet Amos, not James. The Dispensational interpretation also ignores fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. A physical temple is obsolete under the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13), is a barrier to Gentiles being included as God's chosen people (Eph. 2:11-22), and would deny the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice (Heb. 10). These are the very teachings that the Jerusalem Council was opposing (Acts 15:9,11). (See Sect. 4, "Cheap Grace"). And by the way, David's tabernacle was a tent, not a stone temple like Dispensationalists expect to be built in the future. (See Sect. IV, "Jesus is the True Temple,")
Hal Lindsey's newspaper exegesis (eisegesis)
Dispensationalists like Lindsey interpret much prophecy symbolically, but they use current and possible future events as the key to interpretation, rather than Scripture. Consequently, the meaning of Biblical prophecy can change with every new newspaper headline. For example, using various systems of computation, just about anyone's name can be found to have a value of 666. The Pope, Martin Luther, King Louis XIV, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among many others, have been proposed as the Beast of Revelation (or Antichrist). The failure of these interpretations, brought about by historical self-centeredness (It's always going to happen in my generation) and a cavalier treatment of the context of Scripture, bring disrepute upon the Word of God, which never fails. You would think Dispensationalists would get a clue after over 160 years of telling people that Jesus is coming soon! (See Appendix 3, "A Short History of the End of the World")
Those who have predicted the end of the world could have saved themselves much embarrassment if the very clear, literal time restrictions and other historical indicators had guided their interpretation of judgment symbolism. Milton Terry correctly observes, "not any possible solution of the name, but rather a relevant solution, is required. Having already shown that the Roman Empire is the Beast described in verses 1-8 of this chapter, we naturally look for some name that gives specific designation of that power.
As we will see, the prophecies refer to first-century events, things that will occur within a generation from Jesus' earthly ministry (Matt. 24:34; Luke 21:32), things "which must shortly take place" (Rev. 1:1), "for the time is near" (Rev. 22:10). Taking account of such historical indicators and circumstances, along with the grammar of words and sentences, is the basis for the orthodox method of grammitico-historical interpretation.
Dispensational interpretation, although it claims to take the most literal view, ignores very literal historical indicators and New Testament interpretations of the Old Testament. "Literal as far as possible" is an acceptable rule of interpretation as long as 'possible' is determined by Scripture itself, rather than the latest newspaper.
This is not to say that it is wrong to use historical records from outside the Bible to help understand the Bible. Such records are especially useful in understanding the ancient cultures which are so different from our modern one. But such records should not be used to override Scripture; they should be used within the bounds set by Scripture. Scripture is the ultimate authority and the ultimate conceptual framework for understanding history. Scripture itself should tell us what is literal and what is figurative in Scripture, not the latest newspaper. (See "Historical Witness of God's Vengeance Against Israel")
Some basic rules for interpreting Scripture
Scripture itself indicates whether something should be understood literally (materially) or figuratively/spiritually. This approach is not as simple (or simplistic) as the amillennialist's gnostic hermeneutic or the Dispensationalist's hyper-literalism, but it is what Scripture requires. We must immerse ourselves in Scripture to see how Scripture uses language. Here are some basic rules for interpreting Scripture:
1. We must not assume a priori (before we look at it) that a passage does not have a literal, material meaning. That would be a gnostic denial of God's sovereignty over the material world He created (1 John 4:2).
2. Prophecies often provide historical limits on when their predictions will be fulfilled. Jesus says that the things he prophecies in Matthew 24 will occur within a generation from the time He was speaking (Matt. 24:34). Such historical limits in Revelation prevent us from having to search all of history for the identification of the Beast (Rev. 1:1,3; 17:10).
3. Look at the genre of the literature (historical narrative, poetry and wisdom, or prophetic). Symbolism is much more likely to be found in prophetic literature than in historical narrative. For example, if "the stars fell to earth" were mentioned matter-of-factly in the Book of Chronicles, there would be a much greater burden to interpret the statement literally than if it were found in Rev. 6:12-14.
4. When interpreting a statement literally leads to obvious absurdities: Rev. 6:12-14 - One star is bigger than the earth; history would end here if this were literal. Eze. 40ff - The tremendous size of the temple and city are too big to be actually built (see Sect. IV, "Jesus is the True Temple,"). Of course, God can perform tremendous miracles, so other factors must be included in such a determination (genre for example).
5. The clear passages of Scripture should interpret the unclear. The interpretation of prophetic symbolism should not contradict a clear statement of doctrine (e.g. the sacrifices in Ezekiel, again see Sect. IV, "Jesus is the True Temple,").
6. Sometimes Scripture makes it somewhat easy by directly giving us the interpretation of a prophecy, as in John 19:36-37 and Rev. 17:7-10. Dispensationalists are notorious for interpreting prophecies in a "literal" way that ignores the interpretation that the Bible itself provides, as in Acts 15 (again see Sect. IV, "Jesus is the True Temple,") and Acts 2 (see Sect. II, "Jesus is King NOW").
7. Rules can be derived from prophecies whose interpretation or fulfillment Scripture explicitly provides, and then these rules can be used to interpret other prophecies. For example, in Isaiah 19, Micah 1, and Nahum 1 we can see how a certain kind of prophetic language is used to describe a certain kind of event. Nahum says that God comes in the clouds and makes the hills melt when he executes judgment (1:3,5). But how exactly will the judgment take place in this case? By God actually descending in a cloud and melting Nineveh's hills? No, by sending a foreign army to destroy the nation (2:1). When language such as "God coming on the clouds to judge the earth" is used in other places, we must consider whether that will occur literally, or if it means that God is going to send armies to execute judgment (cf. Matt. 24:29-30; Luke 21:20-25).
However, we also need to guard against using a particular word as a "code," so that, for example, if the word "cloud" is used to refer to God's judgment by sending an earthly army in one place, "cloud" must have that same meaning everywhere we find it in Scripture.* The context needs to be examined closely to see if the correspondence fits with other statements in the passage.
* Hyper-preterists believe that all of Biblical prophecy was fulfilled by A.D. 70. They argue this by making the mistake of treating words as codes. If a word is used once to refer to the A.D. 70 judgement, that word must always refer to that event. They also make the mistake of using a gnostic hermeneutic like amillennialism does. The hyper-preterists even claim that the final resurrection (rapture) and the final coming of Christ occurred in A.D. 70. Since, they claim, the New Testament must be interpreted spiritually rather than materially, these events occurred spiritually and not materially. I did not mention hyper-preterism as one of the main views of eschatology at the beginning of the study because it's denials of a physical return of Christ and of a physical resurrection contradict historic standards of Christian orthodoxy.
The Pharisees misunderstood much about Christ's mission and teaching because they understood Messianic prophecy and the Messiah's teachings purely in terms of an earthly, material, hyper-literalism. Dispensationalists make the same mistake about the method of interpretation and, therefore, about the nature of Christ's mission. We should take note how Christ interprets Scripture, since He is our Lord and the author of Scripture.
Carnal, Literalistic Interpretations
The temple: John 2:19-21________________________________________________________________
The new birth: John 3:3-5_______________________________________________________________
Water: John 4:10-14____________________________________________________________________
Food: John 4:31-34_____________________________________________________________________
Eating flesh: John 6:51-58_______________________________________________________________
The Jews were looking for an earthly military Messiah. They could not reconcile the theme of a suffering servant (Isa. 53) with the theme of a conquering king (dominion comes through servanthood - Phil. 2:3-8; Matt. 21:4-5). Quite the opposite of rejecting the 'Kingdom Offer,' the Jews tried to force Jesus to be a purely earthly king (John 6:15). Not until Pentecost (Acts 2) did even the disciples fully understand the nature of the Messiah's reign (John 12:16, 16:12-13).
John 6:15 ____________________________________________________________________________
John 13:7 ____________________________________________________________________________
John 16:12-13 ________________________________________________________________________
John 18:34 ___________________________________________________________________________
Matt. 16:13-23 (with Dan.2:31-45; 7:13,14) _________________________________________________
Matt. 20:22 ___________________________________________________________________________
John 12:12-16 ________________________________________________________________________
Luke 17:20-21 ________________________________________________________________________
Luke 19:11 ___________________________________________________________________________
Luke 24:21,25-27 ______________________________________________________________________
Acts 1:6-8 ___________________________________________________________________________
Acts 2:14-35 __________________________________________________________________________
(In Acts, Christ referred to as "Lord" at least 66 times, "Savior" only twice).
Acts 13:32-37 ________________________________________________________________________
Acts 15:13-19 ________________________________________________________________________ _________________________________________________________________________________
(O.T. Temple foreshadowed Gentiles coming to Jesus and the N.T. Church: cf. 1 Kings 4; Isa. 60:10; Matt. 2:11; Rev. 21:24-26)