Literal Interpretation

Why is a literal interpretation of the Bible, especially in the area of prophecy, often rejected in Reformed circles? The creation of the Israeli state in 1948 and the victory in the six-day war of 1967, both against all the odds, were not "accidents of history" without prophetic or spiritual significance. And how can this be the millennium? Satan is supposed to be bound, but he obviously isn't. Why are exact measurements given for the new temple in Ezekiel if it isn't supposed to be a real temple? Why name specific places and gates in Jerusalem when their names aren't material to the meaning of the prophecies? Isn't this simply rejecting the more likely interpretation in favor of a theological system?

Please don't answer with theology. The last time I asked a scholar for specifics, he told me that I was going straight to the 51st floor and we had to start on the ground floor. But I refuse to accept that takes a degree in theology to understand a basic exegesis of prophecy, especially when 70% of the Bible is prophecy.
Preliminary Issues

First, I'm afraid I will have to mix my answers with theology in order that my responses to specific examples will make sense. You clearly approach the Bible from a particular set of theological beliefs, including the theological idea that the Bible speaks clearly and literally. Since your interpretations depend on that theology, I can't really respond to your interpretations without also responding to your theology.

I should also point out that amillennialism is not a doctrine that results from the implications of systematic theology. It is, rather, a doctrine that depends primarily upon exegesis. The differences between Dispensational premillenialism and Reformed amillennialism result largely from differences in our philosophies of interpretation. The truth is that Reformed theologians believe that the Bible purposefully and explicitly teaches amillennialism.

Perhaps one of the greatest interpretive differences between Dispensationalists and Reformed theologians is that Reformed theologians believe that the true meaning of any Scripture is the meaning intended by its human author. We also affirm that the human author's intended meaning and the Holy Spirit's intended meaning are one and the same. We call this the "original meaning." Passages of Scripture may have applications in every age, and the applications may be unforeseen by the human author (but not by the Holy Spirit). Nevertheless, all valid applications of Scripture are derived from the original meaning of Scripture. Correspondingly, all applications that are not derived from the original meaning are invalid.

This philosophy of interpretation is based on our philosophy of inspiration. Reformed theology affirms "organic inspiration." We believe that God motivated, informed and superintended the writings of the human authors of Scripture, but that the writings are still truly from the human authors as much as from God. God did not dictate their writings to them, nor did he inspire them to write anything that they did not understand.

In contrast, many theologians who believe in strong literalism tend to say that the true meaning of Scripture is the one intended by the Holy Spirit without regard to the human author's intentions. Often, this philosophy of interpretation is based on a doctrine of mechanical inspiration, whereby God dictated words to the authors, or otherwise controlled them in their writings, so that the authors did not necessarily understand what they had written.

It is also worth noting that many who affirm strong literalism also believe that all prophecy is unconditional. This is not the standard position of Reformed theologians. I'll deal more with this point later.

As a final preliminary point, it is important to recognize that both strong literalists and Reformed interpreters believe that the Bible itself affirms their approaches to interpretation. I believe that strong literalism is not supportable from Scripture, and that it is inconsistent in its use of Scripture. I also believe that Reformed interpretation is assumed and taught by the Bible.

Strong Literalism

The commitment to strong literalism (we often call it "wooden literalism" around here) is often described by Dispensationalists as being a commitment to reading all passages according to the most common denotations of the words in the text, unless such a meaning is untenable. All else being equal, it has a preference for reading biblical language as non-figurative and straightforward, seemingly on the assumption that God's communications must not become considerably less clear over time. So, it de-emphasizes matters related to the author's person, literary conventions, genre considerations, etc.

In the words of Professor Robert L. Thomas of The Master's Seminary (a Dispensational seminary), the traditional approach of strong literalism is "grammatical-historical" and not "historical-grammatical-literary-theological" ( The strong literalism approach is "grammatical" in the sense that it appeals to common denotations and syntax, and "historical" in the sense that it appeals to the meanings of such definitions and syntax as they were understood during the time in question, and in relation to the historical events surrounding them. But it is decidedly not "literary" in that it downplays the significance of things like rhetorical structure and genre, and decidedly not "theological" in that it denies that theology ought to influence interpretation. In these regards, it asserts that biblical literature is significantly different from its contemporary literature in both communicative style and convention.

The most important objection to strong literalism is that the Bible neither states nor demonstrates that this is a good way to read Scripture. On the contrary, it actually teaches and demonstrates that the author's intentions and situations are important, and that seemingly straightforward texts are not always so straightforward.

Original Meaning

Original meaning, on the other hand, relies on the idea that all the data is valuable. For instance, the fact that God preserved his revelation for us in literature ought to incline us to think that literary analysis might be useful in understanding it. Strong literalism admits this to some degree, such as when dealing with obvious metaphors. The difference is that original meaning insists that everything that the human author intended to be understood as a metaphor ought to be understood as a metaphor, whereas strong literalism resorts to metaphor without regard to the author's intention.

Let's consider an example to illustrate my point: In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul literally says that he "beats" or "punishes" his body in order to make it his slave. It is entirely possible to read this to mean that Paul regularly and purposefully inflicted injuries on himself as part of his practice of holiness. This is the interpretation first suggested by a strong literalism hermeneutic. Strong literalism cannot say that it means anything else unless there is a compelling reason. As we have seen, that reason can't be theological or literary. To say that it is a metaphor because the preceding illustrations are metaphors (running, etc.) is to make a literary argument. To say that Paul wouldn't do that because elsewhere he condemns the practice (Col. 2:23) is to make a theological argument. So what is left? A consistent strong literalist should say that Paul practiced here what he preached against in Colossians. If that interpretation is not satisfactory, and if the literary context is important, and if the theological implications are important, then the strong literalism approach is a bad one and original meaning is a better goal.

But does original meaning have biblical support? Yes it does and for the sake of strong literalists, we can prove it from plainly spoken texts. Consider Mark 12:26-27, where Jesus said:
David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: "The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.'" David himself calls him "Lord." How then can he be his son?
Two important details should be noted: First, Jesus indicated that the voice of Psalm 110 (the passage Jesus quoted) was that of the human being David, not just of the Holy Spirit. This means that Psalm 110 was not written by simple dictation or other mechanical inspiration. David was inspired ("speaking by the Holy Spirit"), but he spoke with his own voice. Second, Jesus indicated that in order to understand Psalm 110 properly, one had to consider David's perspective and intention. But these are not valid considerations in strong literalism because they are literary concerns. They are, however, important elements in discovering original meaning. I'm not saying that strong literalists never consider such things. I'm merely saying that when they do, they demonstrate that their own fundamental assumptions are insufficient.

Another good example is Jesus' teaching on divorce in Mark 10:1ff. There Jesus said that the law regarding certificates of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4) was given by Moses because he recognized the hardness of his audience's hearts. That is, knowing Moses' intention in writing this law was critical to understanding the meaning of the law. If we assume that Moses was simply expressing God's pure standard, then we might think that God approves of divorce so long as it is properly handled. But he does not. Only by taking into account Moses' knowledge of the hardness of the Israelites hearts can we come to the right interpretation. But that is neither a grammatical nor a historical concern. It is a literary concern. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is only understandable when we know the circumstances that gave rise to its writing; it is not understandable through its words alone.

Next, Jesus did a bit of comparative analysis of literature, intermixed with theology, to argue from the creation account that God does not permit divorce in most cases. There are no grammatical-historical statements in the creation account that indicate that divorce is bad. Only by understanding ancient literary conventions could Jesus make the argument that the creation account taught against divorce. In ancient times, creation accounts were assumed to be normative; the way things were created was the way things were supposed to be (cf. Exod. 20:8-11; 1 Tim. 2:11-14). But if we think that biblical creation accounts also work this way, we violate strong literalism because we appeal to literary analysis.

Now, at this point I should interject that some Dispensational interpreters will distinguish between "meaning" and "application" here, saying that the creation account does not "mean" that we should not divorce, but affirming that prohibiting divorce is a legitimate "application" of it. My response is simply that if the text does not mean it, then the application is illegitimate. And if the text intends to teach us that we should remain married, and if the story communicates this idea to its readers, then this is part of what the text "means."

For strong literalism to distinguish so sharply between meaning and application, however, is for it to dodge the issue and to create more problems for itself. Consider how that argument might backfire: a Reformed theologian could agree that the meaning of "1,000 years" in Revelation 20 is a literal 1,000 years, yet argue that the proper application of that passage is for us to believe in a period of time of unspecific length. The strong literalist would have no comeback because he had already distinguished too sharply between meaning and application.

Still another good example of non-literalism can be found in Galatians 4. In verse 24, Paul argued that it was legitimate to understand the stories of Hagar and Sarah as allegories because the women represent two covenants. He did not use this as a simple illustration; he argued that in the stories in Genesis, the women actually represented two covenants. He did not deny the historicity of the accounts, but pointed out that Moses intended the stories in Genesis to convey a bigger meaning than a simple historical record. This was part of the original meaning of Genesis, but it is not revealed through simple grammatical-historical methods. Rather, it depends on literary analysis and theology both of which are off-limits according to strong literalism.

Or consider Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. According to Matthew, plainly read, Jesus' birth fulfilled the prophecy. But according to Isaiah 7:16-17, the child who fulfilled this prophecy had to be born in Ahab's time. Moreover, Isaiah himself indicated that his own son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz fulfilled the prophecy (Isa. 8:1-4). Also, according to Matthew and Isaiah, plainly read, the child who fulfilled this prophecy was supposed to be called "Immanuel," not "Jesus" or "Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz." Only by understanding literary conventions can we show that Isaiah was not saying that the child would be named "Immanuel," and only by understanding the particulars of the prophetic genre can we rightly understand the nature of the fulfillment of the prophecy by Jesus. (See also these Q&A treating Isaiah 7: Virgin Mary and Isaiah 7 and Double Reference and Fulfillment.)

Arguments like those made by Jesus and the New Testament writers present problems for strong literalism. The typical answer to this problem is that Jesus and the New Testament writers were inspired, and that they knew these things about the Old Testament only through divine inspiration. The Reformed response is that they knew these things because they were responsible interpreters of Scripture, and because the Scriptures communicate these ideas. If we use the hermeneutic of Jesus and his disciples, we can actually confirm that these meanings were in the Old Testament texts themselves. Moreover, by using the same hermeneutic we can figure out what they would have said about other Old Testament texts as well.

Please hear me clearly: I'm not saying that we are free to interpret any and all texts figuratively. Rather, I am saying that: (1) we should interpret texts according to the author's intentions; (2) sometimes the author's intention was that his text be understood figuratively; (3) some texts were intended to be understood both figuratively and literally (as Paul points out in Galatians 4); and (4) some texts were intended to be understood figuratively but not literally even though the texts might make sense literally. In the case of (4), the literal interpretation is wrong even though it might make sense if it were right. Whether or not a figurative and/or literal meaning is intended must be determined on a case-by-cases basis. A bias in favor of literalism is not biblically warranted.

Specific Examples

"The creation of the Israeli state in 1948 and the victory in the six-day war of 1967, both against all the odds, were not "accidents of history" without prophetic or spiritual significance."

There is no plainly stated prophecy suggesting either of these events. Perhaps a figurative prophecy might be interpreted that way, but such would not support a strongly literal method of interpretation. I suspect that you mean that these events prove that the Bible prophesies a reconstituted Israel prior to Jesus' return.

First, I know of no Reformed theologians who would say that anything was an "accident of history." In Reformed theology, there are no accidents. If it happens, it was foreordained, and it comes to pass only through God's sovereign providence. Further, all events have theological significance especially national politics (cf. Dan. 10). It is also worth noting that many Reformed theologians over the years have expected a reconstitution of Israel in the last days in fulfillment of Paul's words in Romans 11 (I'm not one of them). Some of them are even premillennialists, though they generally affirm historic premillennialism rather than Dispensational premillennialism.

Second, details of history can almost always be interpreted as signaling the return of Christ. In every generation there have been those who thought Jesus was about to return because they believed that the events of their day fulfilled prophecy. That the reconstitution of Israel and the Six-Day War took place are simply two more in a two-thousand-year-long list of supposed prophecy-fulfilling events. Moreover, the occurrence of such events does not prove the Dispensational approach anymore than it proves the Reformed approach. After all, everything that happens between the first and second advent of Christ counts as "last days" from a Reformed perspective. One strength of the Reformed system is that it can account for such events also happening in prior centuries and in future centuries.

Third, in these two specific cases you mention, the events were hardly against all odds. The reconstitution of Israel in 1948 was not so much a reconstitution as the end of a long, hard-fought struggle for independence. Nothing miraculous about that it happens all the time on many continents. In the Six-Day War, much of the territory in dispute was either relatively unoccupied or already significantly under Israeli control. Also, the Israeli armed forces made some smart moves in threatening the capital cities of their enemies rather than fighting only in the disputed lands, in taking out the only real opposition early by bombing the unprotected Egyptian air fleet while it was grounded, and in a few other choice moves. Again, it was impressive, but it was not against all odds.

"Satan is supposed to be bound, but he obviously isn't."

Paul managed to accomplish an awful lot for the good guys while he was bound. He wrote Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon from prison. Those who are bound are not necessarily totally impotent. In the context of Revelation 20, being bound specifically restricts Satan from deceiving the nations. It does not protect the nations from being deceived by others, nor does it necessarily restrict Satan from causing other sorts of trouble. Revelation 20 also says nothing about all the demons being bound; only Satan is bound. There are still plenty of demons left to cause all sorts of havoc in the world.

Moreover, Revelation 20 is a highly figurative text even by strongly literal standards. For example, it says Satan is a dragon (v. 2). It says that the vision that John witnessed 1,000 years of history during this vision (v. 4). God and Magog are used figuratively: Gog was a man who died thousands of years ago who was from the land of Magog (v. 8; cf. Ezek. 38:2). There cannot possibly be as many warriors on the field as there are grains of sand on the seashore: the earth would not hold that many people (v. 8). Earth and sky are personified figuratively (v. 11).

"Why are exact measurements given for the new temple in Ezekiel if it isn't supposed to be a real temple?"

Reformed theology is not threatened if it not figurative, nor is Dispensationalism established. Reformed theology is also not unified on the interpretation of this passage. Personally, I think it was probably literal. It was probably a real offer of a new temple that would be built during the restoration period. However, the conditions were not met and the temple was not built, ending the original meaning of the prophecy as it pertained to an actual building.

Here's a Q&A on the conditionality of prophecy. For a much fuller treatment, see Richard Pratt's article on Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions. Few people properly understand this, including Reformed teachers.

But there would be nothing unusual about God presenting a prophetic message to his people in a figurative fashion. Even strong literalists must admit that prophecy is often very figurative (e.g., Isa. 28:16 with 1 Pet. 2:4-7). Moreover, details such as measurements need not be included for purposes of creating blueprints, nor must dimensions be given in order that we recognize the fulfillment of prophecy. After all, we don't expect to have to build the New Jerusalem ourselves, and by the time it arrives there will be no use for predictions, yet we are still given its dimensions (Rev. 21:16).

In any event, Old Testament structures (such as the tabernacle, Solomon's temple and Ezekiel's temple plans) were structures whose physical composition was commonly intended to teach truths about God through figurative representation. The same was true of the temple furnishings and the priestly garments (Ex. 28:21; 39:14). Sometimes the text makes this explicit (cf. Exod. 24:4) As a result, we can still learn and apply those truths even though the structures no longer exist, and even though Ezekiel's temple was never even built.

In part, this is true because all such structures are merely symbols of the heavenly temple (Heb. 8:5). That these significantly different structures are all patterned after the same heavenly reality ought to suggest to us that precise duplication is not the point. If it were, then all earthly structures would have to have been exactly the same. And of course, since Jesus is the only one who ever serves as high priest in the heavenly temple (Heb. 8:1-2), it should not surprise us that the symbolism in the earthly temple pertains to Jesus and his ministry.

"Why name specific places and gates in Jerusalem when their names aren't material to the meaning of the prophecies?"

Well, I'll have to generalize here rather than address every instance, but the basic idea is that these places were known to the original audiences of Scripture. They were actual places and the prophecies largely related to these actual places. But this does not mean that there may be other ideas that are also conveyed by actual place names. Perhaps the best way to respond is to emphasize that all prophecy is fundamentally conditional, and to say that all of God's communications and actions tell us something about God that is relevant in a spiritual way.

When Reformed teachers come to passages about unfulfilled prophecies, it is perfectly legitimate for them to speak about applications and meanings other than those explicit in the text. That is, we believe it is legitimate to derive meaning and application by "good and necessary inference" (WCF 1.6). Since many Reformed teachers don't recognize the conditionality of prophecy, and since they know prophecy is true, and since they rightly recognize that the prophecies don't relate directly to modern times, they do the only thing they know to do: talk about good and necessary inferences.

"Please don't answer with theology. The last time I asked a scholar for specifics, he told me that I was going straight to the 51st floor and we had to start on the ground floor. But I refuse to accept that takes a degree in theology to understand a basic exegesis of prophecy, especially when 70% of the Bible is prophecy.

Actually, there is wisdom in what you were told before. The Scripture itself teaches us that many things in the Bible are hard to understand, and that diligent study is required to learn them (Ezra 7:10; Matt. 22:29; Luke 24:45; John 20:9; Acts 17:11; 18:24-28; 2 Tim. 2:15; 2 Pet. 3:16). I think the Westminster Confession of Faith makes this point well when it says that not everything in the Bible is equally clear (WCF 1.7). The things central to salvation are clear, but many other things require diligent study to understand, and some things will always remain beyond our grasp. Those who have studied long and hard often have a more informed perspective, and that perspective is at least worth a hearing. It is also true that some people have difficulty explaining things in a simple way. That they have this difficulty, however, does not imply that their ideas are false.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.