By Andy Woods
The word genre is a French term, which simply means kind or species. When applied to biblical studies, genre refers to the fact that the Bible contains different types of literature, such as prophecy, epistle, poetry, etc. Such a categorization is made to alert Bible interpreters to the fact that particular genres are to be understood in light of the common traits that define a given genre. For example, poetry is not to be interpreted in the same way epistolary literature is to be interpreted. Poetry contains its own unique characteristics such as parallelism. This parallelism must be taken into account in order to grasp what a poetic text is saying. However, this characteristic of parallelism need not be taken into account when interpreting an epistle. Such genre sensitivity in no way conflicts with literal interpretation. Charles Ryrie specifically notes that literalism “does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.” The literal interpreter simply recognizes that words take on their ordinary meaning within a particular genre.
Despite the fact that genre can be a helpful device in interpreting Scripture, today’s evangelicals have pushed the concept too far. Today, genre is often used as an excuse for suspending the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. An example from the legal arena may be helpful as a way of explaining how genre classification can be used as a justification for suspending the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. Conservatives often complain that liberals have read into the Constitution ideas that are not found in a literal reading of the document, such as the right to procure an abortion and a strict wall of separation between church and state. Liberals respond by arguing that the founders purposely created an ambiguous document that was not intended be read literally. Rather it was intentionally created to be a “living document.” In other words, its ambiguous language was intentionally chosen so that a judge could alter it one direction or another depending upon where society was heading. Such a design was necessary because the founders could not foresee the technological advances that society would experience. Thus, by classifying the Constitution according to the genre “living document,” the judge is no longer required to follow the literal, grammatical, historical method in interpreting its contents.
The phrase that Robert Thomas uses to expose this abuse in biblical studies is “genre override.” Nowhere is this abuse clearer than in the area of so-called “apocalyptic literature.” This categorization is often used as an excuse for the utilization of a dual hermeneutic that treats prophecy non-literally and the rest of Scripture literally. Walvoord spoke frankly about this problem. In 1994, he was asked, “What do you predict will be the most significant theological issues over the next ten years?” He responded, “The hermeneutical problem of not interpreting the Bible literally, especially the prophetic areas. The church today is engulfed in the idea that one cannot interpret prophecy literally.” The purpose of this paper is to expose how apocalypticism is often used as an excuse for dispensing with the literal, grammatical, historical method in the realm of biblical eschatology. The methodological flaws in this approach will be exposed as well.
Revelation is Apocalyptic?
Dispensational interpreters often categorize various prophetic books of the Bible, such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, as “apocalyptic literature.” By using this category, these interpreters simply mean that these books unveil or disclose God’s future prophetic program. Defining apocalyptic literature as biblical material that unveils is in harmony with the meaning of the Greek word from which “apocalyptic” is derived. This word is apokalypsis and it simply means to unveil or disclose.
However, recent evangelical interpreters have begun to vest this term with a new meaning. When they use the term “apocalyptic literature” they are equating the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation with a host of non-canonical, extra biblical writings that flourished from the intertestamental period and into the second century A.D. Examples include Enoch, Apocalypse of Baruch, Jubilees, Assumption of Moses, Psalms of Solomon, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, and Sibylline Oracles. These writings possess a common cluster of attributes. Such attributes include the following: extensive use of symbolism, vision as the major means of revelation, angelic guides, activity of angels and demons, focus on the end of the current age and the inauguration of the age to come, urgent expectation of the end of earthly conditions in the immediate future, the end as a cosmic catastrophe, new salvation that is paradisal in character, manifestation of the kingdom of God, a mediator with royal functions, dualism with God and Satan as the leaders, spiritual order determining the flow of history, pessimism about mans’ ability to change the course of events, periodization and determinism of human history, other worldly journeys, the catchword glory, and a final showdown between good and evil.
It is argued that Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation share many of these characteristics. On this basis, these canonical books are also categorized as apocalyptic literature. The Book of Revelation in particular is categorized with the apocalyptic writings. Not only does the Revelation share many features with these extra biblical books, but it also was composed during the same general time period when the apocalyptic writings were composed. There is no doubt that Revelation is similar to the apocalyptic writings in several respects.
Hermeneutical Changes Resulting From
Viewing Revelation’s Character as Apocalyptic
However, categorizing Revelation with the apocalyptic writings significantly challenges the traditional, dispensational interpretation of Revelation. The decision to classify Revelation with the apocalyptic genre alters the hermeneutical principles that one uses in interpreting the book. Consequently, four hermeneutical doors seem to open to the extent that Revelation’s character is viewed as apocalyptic. First, it becomes difficult to approach the text with a straightforward literalism. Kenneth Gentry observes:
Before beginning my survey, I must note what most Christians suspect and what virtually all evangelical scholars (excluding classic dispensationalists) recognize regarding the book: Revelation is a highly figurative book that we cannot approach with a simple straightforward literalism.
Elsewhere Gentry observes that consistent literalism “is an impossible ideal.” Gregg contends that many interpreters fail to take into account Revelation’s apocalyptic character. According to Steve Gregg:
A failure to take into account this feature has led some to the most outlandish teachings on this book by some whose rule of interpretation is ‘literal unless absurd.’ Though this is good rule when dealing with literature written in a literal genre, it is the exact opposite in the case of apocalyptic literature, where symbolism is the rule and literalism is the exception.
What Gregg has done here is argue that the ordinary hermeneutical standard that is used in interpreting other sections of Scripture is no longer applicable to biblical eschatology. In ordinary hermeneutics, the assumption is the author wanted to be understood in literal terms unless something compelling from the text informs the interpreter otherwise. Gregg is arguing that this rule no longer holds true in interpreting Revelation and that the inverse is true. The assumption of literalism unless a textual clue informs the interpreter otherwise becomes substituted for an assumption of symbolism unless the interpreter is alerted otherwise. Gregg has used the apocalyptic genre categorization to stand ordinary hermeneutical principles on their head. Hamstra does the same thing when he begins with the presupposition that because Revelation is apocalyptic, he views all of Revelation’s episodes and visions as symbolic until proven otherwise.
The reason for this presupposition that apocalyptic literature cannot be approached literally is because such writings can be described as crisis literature. In other words, the writing was produced as a result of some impending crisis. In order to highlight the severity of the crisis, the apocalyptist spoke in exaggerated terms. Take by way of analogy the statement, “my world has come to an end because I lost my job.” This statement obviously does not communicate a literal end of the world. Rather, it is using heightened language in order to communicate the significance of a personal event.
Similarly, an apocalyptic understanding of Revelation views John as vesting earthly events with heightened eschatological language in order to communicate the gravity of the immediate crisis. Understanding Revelation in such hyperbolic terms opens the possibility that the global language of Revelation may in actuality be descriptive of a localized phenomenon that John has invested with global language. Caird best summarizes the matter when he says, “What seems to have escaped notice at the time is that Eschatology is a metaphor, the application of end of the world language to that which is not literally the end of the world.” Thus, when John speaks of a great city reigning over the kings of the earth (17:18), he is speaking in heightened language of an immediate oppressive force in his own day, such as Jerusalem or Rome. If John used the same hyperbolic methodology common in apocalyptic writings in Revelation, then statements such as half of the world’s population being destroyed (Rev 6:8; 9:15) and the greatest earthquake in human history (Rev 16:18) cannot be construed literally. Rather, they similarly represent heightened language communicating a past event that the people of God experienced, such as oppression by Jerusalem or Rome. Understanding Revelation in such hyperbolic terms opens the possibility that the global language may in actuality be descriptive of a localized historical phenomenon that John has invested with global language.
This mindset represents a marked departure from literal, grammatical, historical methodology and opens the door to historicism and preterism. For example, whenever the global nature of Revelation’s prophecies do not line up with the local scenario of an A.D. 70 fulfillment, preterist Kenneth Gentry dismisses the global nature of the text as mere hyperbole. He notes, “the preterist view does understand Revelation’s prophecies as strongly reflecting actual historical events in John’s near future, though they are set in apocalyptic drama and clothed in poetic hyperbole.” Preterist Don Preston also relies upon Revelation to belonging to the apocalyptic category in order to find support for his view that Revelation’s global language was fulfilled in the local events of A.D. 70. He observes that apocalyptic literature hyperbolizes the destruction of Jerusalem. According to Sibylline Oracle 5:153, “the whole creation was shaken” when war began on Jerusalem. If Revelation is also apocalyptic literature, then Revelation must be similarly using hyperbolic language.
A similar approach is seen in Old Testament studies. Many view Isaiah 13–14 and Jeremiah 50–51 as describing Babylon’s past fall in 539 B.C. rather than her future fall. The interpretation is held in spite of the fact that the details of these texts go far beyond the historic fall of Babylon. This interpretation is justified on the grounds that Ancient Near Eastern extra biblical writings often describe the destruction of foes in hyperbolic terms. Because Isaiah and Jeremiah incorporated a similar “destruction genre” in their description of Babylon’s fall, the language of Babylon’s destruction in Isaiah 13–14 and Jeremiah 50–51 can be applied to her historic fall rather than her future fall.
Second, apocalyptic multivalence is another hermeneutical door that opens when Revelation is classified as belonging to the apocalyptic category. Collins offers the following explanation of apocalyptic multivalence:
In other Jewish apocalypses the Babylonian crisis of the sixth century often provides the filter through which later crises are viewed. The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of the historical events but on recurring patterns, which assimilate the particular crisis to some event of the past whether historical or mythical.
If John also employs apocalyptic multivalence, it is possible that the events of Revelation cannot be anchored to one event but rather can recur repeatedly throughout history. This perspective allows Pate to employ a multi layered hermeneutic in identifying Babylon of Revelation 17–18. Pate concludes that Babylon in these chapters not only refers to a future Babylon but to ancient Jerusalem as well.Elsewhere, he argues that the beast of Revelation 13 refers simultaneously to both Nero as well as a future antichrist. However, nowhere in the context is it even implied that these texts have more than one meaning. Pate brings an a priori presupposition of multiple meanings to the text solely on the basis of Revelation’s alleged apocalyptic content. Such a layered hermeneutic again represents a significant departure from the literal, grammatical, historical method where texts were presumed to have a single meaning. Milton Terry explains: “A fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that the words and sentences can have but one significance in one and the same connection. The moment we neglect this principle we drift upon a sea of uncertainty and conjecture.”
Third, the notion that John used secret codes to disguise the enemies of God’s people mentioned in the book also becomes viable if Revelation is apocalyptic. At times, the apocalyptists disguised through symbolic language the entity that was oppressing them. The apocalyptic writer sought to give hope to the oppressed people of God by predicting the cataclysmic destruction of the enemy that was persecuting them. However, because of fear of retaliation, the apocalyptist was not free to identify the oppressor. Thus, the message had to be disguised in symbolic dress. For example, apocalyptic writings sometimes used Babylon as a code for Rome (Sibylline Oracles 5: 143, 159-60, 434). If John was following this pattern, he also does not mean Babylon when he says Babylon. Instead, he is using the word Babylon as a symbolic disguise to identify an oppressor. Thus, when John mentioned Babylon, he might have had in mind Jerusalem or Rome. Thomas notes that such code theories are a far cry from literal, grammatical, historical interpretation when he says, “Another clear distinctive of literal interpretation is its avoidance of assumptions not justified in the text. Theories that ‘Babylon’ in Revelation chapters 14 and 16-18 is a code for Rome have been widespread.”
Fourth, categorizing Revelation as apocalyptic also influences how one interprets Revelation’s numbers. According to Gregg, other apocalypses typically use numbers to convey concepts rather than count units. Thus, categorizing Revelation as apocalyptic literature moves the interpreter away from a literal understanding of Revelation’s numbers and more toward a symbolic interpretation. Some seem to rely upon such an apocalyptic framework by remaining open to the possibility that the number 1000 mentioned six times in Revelation 20refers to an extended period of time rather than a literal 1000-year time period. Others show a similar reluctance of taking the number 144,000 (Rev 7) literally. Still others have questioned a literal interpretation of the numerical measurements of the eternal city described in Rev 21–22.
However, to argue that the number 1000 in Revelation 20 represents just an extended period of time rather than a literal number is to suspend ordinary hermeneutical rules. Deere points out that when “year” is used with a number, the reference is always to a literal calendar year. Moreover, Hoehner observes when John writes that Satan will be released from the abyss for “a short time” (Rev 20:3), an indefinite period of time is already indicated. How easy it would have been for John to write that the kingdom would last “a long time” had this been his intention. Interestingly, the phrase “a long time” occurs in Matthew 25:19 to depict the duration of the Lord’s absence prior to His Second Advent. Yet John does not employ such a phrase and instead furnishes a specific number. Zuck notes that if 1000 is not meant to be interpreted literally, then the door suddenly opens for every other number in the Book of Revelation to be construed non-literally as well, such as 2 witnesses (Rev 11:3), 7000 people (Rev 11:13), 4 angels (Rev 7:1), 7 angels (Rev 8:6), and 144,000 Jews (Rev 7:4).Thomas observes that, “no number in Revelation is verifiably a symbolic number.” In sum, if Revelation is no different than intertestamental apocalyptic writings then various hermeneutical doors open that would otherwise remain closed. These include an aversion to literal interpretation, a layered hermeneutic, code theories, and a symbolic use of numbers.
Revelation is Prophecy
However, opening these hermeneutical doors on the basis of categorizing Revelation with the apocalyptic books is unjustified. A closer scrutiny demonstrates that the differences between Revelation and the apocalyptic works outweigh any similarities between the two. For example, although apocalyptic literature was typically pseudonymous, Revelation bears the name of its author (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). Moreover, Revelation fails to share the pessimism of the apocalyptists who despaired of all human history. Rather, Revelation reflects the optimism of God working redemptively through the lamb presently as well as in the future. Furthermore, apocalyptic literature contains no epistolary material. By contrast, seven ecclesiastical epistles are found in Revelation 2–3.
In addition, non-canonical apocalyptic literature did not emphasize moral imperatives. Although there are occasional exceptions to this rule (1 Enoch 91:19), the apocalyptists are not generally motivated by a strong sense of moral urgency. The reason for this is the apocalyptists’ conviction that they were part of the righteous remnant. They saw their role as one of encouraging the remnant to endure, remain faithful, and have hope rather than persuade people to turn from known sin. By contrast, Revelation utilizes moral imperatives. Humanity’s need for repentance is not only found in Christ’s exhortations to the seven churches (Rev 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19), but the exhortation to repent is found throughout the book as a whole (Rev 9:20-21; 16:9, 11). Moreover, the coming of messiah in apocalyptic literature is something that takes place exclusively in the future. By contrast Revelation portrays Christ as having already come and laid the groundwork for His future coming through His redemptive death (Rev 5:6). Finally, Revelation makes numerous self-claims to be prophecy (Rev 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). In fact, Revelation employs the term prophētēs or its cognates eighteen times. These differences between Revelation and apocalyptic literature are summarized in the following chart.
|Pessimistic about the present||Not pessimistic about the present|
|No epistolary framework||Epistolary frame work|
|Limited admonitions for moral compliance||Repeated admonitions for moral compliance|
|Messiah’s coming exclusively future||Basis for Messiah’s future coming is past|
|Does not call itself a prophecy||Calls itself a prophecy|
Additional dissimilarities can be observed. For example, apocalyptic literature has a different view of suffering than that portrayed in Revelation. In apocalyptic writings, suffering is something that emanates from God opposing forces rather than from God Himself. The apocalyptists did not see suffering as something good that is to be submitted to. By contrast, in Revelation, suffering comes from the hand of God (Rev 5:5). Therefore, at times, suffering is something good and must be submitted to. Moreover, apocalyptic literature is pseudo-prophecy or vaticinia ex eventu, which means “prophecies after the fact.” In other words, apocalyptists typically portray a historical event as future prophecy. However, this is not so in Revelation where John looks from his own day into the future. In addition, Revelation is dominated by an already not yet tension as John looked to the needs of his own day as well as the distant future. Yet, this same tension is not evident in other apocalypses.
Furthermore, other apocalypses typically use numbers to convey concepts rather than count units. By contrast, Revelation appears to use many numbers to indicate specific count units. For example, many futurist scholars believe that various numbers found in Revelation, such as 1260 days (Rev 12:6) or 42 months (Rev 11:2; 13:5), are direct references to the unfulfilled aspects of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27). Hoehner’s calculations indicate that the fulfilled aspects of this prophecy had the potential of being accurate to the exact day. Therefore, it stands to reason that the prophecy’s unfulfilled aspects will also be fulfilled to the minutest detail. Thus, the numbers 1260 days and 42 months should not be taken as merely communicating concepts but rather should be interpreted as specific count units. According to Thomas, Revelation contains no verifiably symbolic numbers. Rather, non-symbolic utilization of numbers is the norm.
Moreover, Revelation’s heavy dependence upon on Ezekiel and Daniel also raises questions as to whether the book should be categorized as apocalyptic. Ezekiel and Daniel prophesied 400 years before apocalyptic literature became dominant in the intertestamental period. Also, Revelation 12:1 borrows imagery from Genesis 37:9-10, which took place in the patriarchal era nearly 1800 years before apocalypticism began to flourish. Finally, some apocalyptic writings fail to present a precise eschatological scheme. Yet, many have argued that Revelation 6–19, with its telescoping and fixed seven-year duration, does communicate a fixed eschatological scheme. A chronology of events also seems to be employed in Revelation 20–22.
In sum, although Revelation has many affinities with apocalyptic literature, it is difficult to classify the book as apocalyptic because these similarities seem outweighed by the differences between the two. A better classification for the book is prophecy rather than apocalyptic. This classification best takes into account Revelation’s numerous self claims to be prophecy. It also takes into account Revelation’s similarity to the pattern exhibited by the Old Testament prophets who not only called God’s people to repentance but also comforted them through visions of victory to take place in the distant future (Isa 40–66; Ezek 36–48; Amos 9:11-15). Revelation fits this identical pattern by not only repeatedly calling the seven churches to repentance but also providing these oppressed churches with a prophecy to be fulfilled in the distant future regarding the believer’s ultimate triumph (Rev 4–22). Categorizing Revelation as prophetic is also substantiated upon observing that Revelation alludes to the Book of Daniel more than any other Old Testament book. Moreover, Jesus specifically referred to Daniel as a prophet (Matt 24:15). Because Revelation’s content relies so heavily upon Daniel, it stands to reason that the material found in Revelation should also be categorized as prophetic. The existence of the Greek word apokalypsis that appears in the opening verse of the book does not disqualify Revelation from being categorized as prophecy. This word simply means unveiling and does not have the meaning that modern scholars attach to the term “apocalyptic.”
Literalism and Revelation
The decision to categorize Revelation as of the prophetic genre rather than the apocalyptic genre significantly changes the hermeneutical landscape. If Revelation is prophecy, then one interprets Revelation just as he would interpret any other section of prophetic material. The same literal, grammatical, historical method that is used to understand other sections of prophetic material is also what is needed in order to understand Revelation. Therefore, a new set of hermeneutical principles is not needed to properly interpret Revelation. The previously described hermeneutical doors associated with apocalypticism close to the extent that the genre of the book is prophetic rather than apocalyptic. Instead, the interpreter is confined to literalism, which can be defined as attaching to every word the same meaning that it would have in normal usage.
A consistent application of a literal approach to Revelation logically leads the interpreter away from viewing the book’s contents as being fulfilled in the past and instead leads to the futurist interpretation. A relationship exists between literalism and futurism because the ordinary import of Revelation’s words and phrases makes it impossible to argue that Revelation’s contents have already been fulfilled. The destruction of half of the world’s population (Rev 6:8; 9:15), and the greatest earthquake in human history (Rev 16:18) obviously has never taken place.
By using the literal approach, the interpreter takes Revelation’s content in its ordinary sense until he encounters some obvious clue in the text alerting him to the fact that figurative or symbolic language is being employed. How does the interpreter recognize when figurative or symbolic language is being used? One clue involves looking for overt textual indicators alerting the interpreter to the use of figurative language. One such situation is found in Rev 11:8, which notes that Jerusalem “is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt.” Here, the use of the adverb “spiritually” is designed to alert the reader to the fact that an allegorical or spiritually application is being made.
Another clue involves the use of the word sign (sēmeion). When John uses this word, it alerts the interpreter to the fact that he is speaking figuratively or symbolically rather than literally. For example, because John uses sēmeion to describe the woman in Revelation12:1, it is obvious that the woman is symbolic or representative of something. Another clue involves the words “like” (homoios) or “as” (hōs). When John employs such language, he is indicating a correspondence between what he saw in the vision and what he was trying to describe. For example, Revelation 8:8 says, “And something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea” The word “like” alerts the interpreter to the fact that John is simply using comparative language to describe what he saw and the mountain is not to be interpreted literally.
Another clue involves an identical correspondence in the Old Testament. Because the leopard, lion, and bear in Revelation 13:2 are also used in Daniel 7 to depict nations, the interpreter is alerted to the fact that John is employing symbolic language. Thus, the leopard, lion, and bear also represent nations in Revelation 13 just as they did in Daniel 7. Yet another clue involves an interpretation in the immediate context. If something is interpreted for the reader, then the thing interpreted is obviously a symbol. The woman in Revelation 17is obviously a symbol because the immediate context interprets her to be a city (17:18). A final clue involves looking for absurdity. For example, if the woman in Revelation 12:1 were literally clothed with the sun the heat would destroy her. Because a literal interpretation yields an absurd result, symbolic language must be in use.
After identifying figurative or symbolic language, how is such language to be understood? Sometimes the immediate context interprets the symbol. For example, the dragon of Revelation 12:3 is interpreted as Satan in 12:9. Walvoord identifies twenty-six instances in which a symbol is interpreted in the immediate context. Another method is to see if the same symbol is employed elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, the same symbol of the woman used in Revelation 12:1 is also used in Genesis 37:9-11 to depict Israel. Thus, the woman of Revelation 12 is symbolic of Israel. This strategy is useful because 278 of Revelation’s 404 verses allude to the Old Testament. Fruchtenbaum’s work is helpful to the interpreter in this regard because it contains a lengthy appendix listing all of the Old Testament allusions found in Revelation. A final method for understanding Revelation’s symbolic language is to note that John through his use of “like” or “as” is attempting to describe futuristic events that are beyond his linguistic ability. Thus, he communicates through language of correspondence. In other words, in order to communicate the contents of his vision, he uses similes or language of comparison by equating things from his own world to the futuristic events that he sees in his vision.
In conclusion, probably the most significant decision that the interpreter can make regarding what hermeneutic he will use in interpreting the Book of Revelation is determining if Revelation’s character has more in common with the prophetic or apocalyptic genre. Viewing Revelation as apocalyptic opens numerous hermeneutical doors such as viewing Revelation’s global language as local language, multivalence, code theories, and symbolic numbers. Conversely, those who see Revelation as belonging to the prophetic genre are bound by the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation, which takes Revelation’s words or phrases in their ordinary sense unless a convincing textual clue informs the reader to do other wise. While Revelation has some affinities with apocalypticism, these similarities are overshadowed by vast differences between the two. The book has far more in common with prophecy. Thus, the similarities between Revelation and apocalypticism are not sufficient to cause the interpreter to dispense with a consistent application of literalism when deciphering the book.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 86.
 Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 271-341.
 One often finds a similar approach regarding how interpreters approach Gen 1-11. Because many see the genre of this section of Scripture as a polemic against pagan cosmology, they use this genre categorization as an excuse for suspending the ordinary rules of hermeneutics. They claim that the literal, grammatical, historical method was never intended to be used in a polemical genre. Thus, they see no problem reading into the text ideas that are not naturally found within the text such as the old earth view, theistic evolution, the day age theory, and the local flood theory.
 “An Interview: Dr. John Walvoord Looks at Dallas Seminary,” Dallas Connection (Winter 1994, Vol. 1, No. 3), p. 4.
 John J. Collins, ed., Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre, Semia; 14 (Missoula: MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 9.; George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 76-101; Frederick J. Murphy, Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 130-33; Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 10-12.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, “A Preterist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 38.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, 2d and rev. ed. (Tyler: TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), 151.
 Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary, 11.
 Sam Hamstra, “An Idealist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 129.
 Mitchell G. Reddish, ed., Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 24.
 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 38.
 G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980), 253.
 Don Preston, Who Is This Babylon? (Don K. Preston, 1999), 56.
 Homer Heater, “Do the Prophets Teach That Babylonia Will Rebuilt in the Eschaton?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (March 1998): 31-36.
 Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 51.
 C. Marvin Pate, “A Progressive Dispensationalist View of Revelation,” in Four Views on the Book of Revelation, ed. C. Marvin Pate (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 160.
 C. Marvin Pate and Calvin Haines, Doomsday Delusions (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill, 1995), 42-44.
 Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1947), 205.
 James Kallas, “The Apocalypse-an Apocalyptic Book?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 70.
 Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 336.
 Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, a Parallel Commentary, 11-12.
 Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), 347.
 Jack Deere, “Premillennialism in Revelation 20:4-6,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (January-March 1978): 70.
 Harold W. Hoehner, “Evidence from Revelation 20,” in The Coming Millennial Kingdom, ed. Donald K. Campbell and Jeffrey L. Townsend (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 249.
 Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs: CO: Chariot Victor, 1991), 244-45.
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8 to 22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 408.
 Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 323-38.
 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2d ed. (New York: OUP, 2000), 227.
 Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old, 338.
 Kallas, “The Apocalypse-an Apocalyptic Book?”: 69-80.
 Leon Morris, Apocalyptic, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 94.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 115-39.
 Thomas, Revelation 8 to 22: An Exegetical Commentary, 408.
 Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 56.
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1 to 7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 38.
 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), 89-92.
 Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 139, 42.
 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), 29-30.
 Thomas, Revelation 1 to 7: An Exegetical Commentary, 40.
 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Footsteps of the Messiah (Tustin: Ariel Ministries, 1983), 454-59.
Andy Woods is a contributor to the resources at SpiritandTruth.org
Andy is the senior pastor of Sugar Land Bible Church and a full professor at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston and teaches Bible and theology. In addition, Andy has contributed to many theological journals and Christian books and has spoken on a variety of topics at Christian conferences.
|Video presentations of Andy’s teaching can be found at SermonAudio.com.|
“Neglect of context is a common cause of erroneous interpretation.”
–A Berkeley Mickelsen
I. What is Context? Here are some definitions:
A. “That which surrounds and gives meaning to something else.”
B. “The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (www.dictionary.com)
C. “Context refers to that which goes before and that which follows after.” (Howard Hendricks, Living By The Book, 225).
D. “When we speak of the context, we are talking about the connection of thought that runs through a passage, those links that weave it into one piece (Walter C. Kaiser,Toward An Exegetical Theology, 71.)
II. Importance of Context
A. It is foundational for proper interpretation Paying proper heed to the issue of context may be the single most important principle for correctly interpreting the Bible or understanding any form of communication, including the Bible.
“The first responsibility of every interpreter is to note carefully what precedes and what follows any verse or passage which he is interpreting.” (Mickelsen, 102).
“Good exegetical procedure dictates that the details be viewed in light of the total context. Unless the exegete knows where the thought of the text begins and how that pattern develops, all the intricate details may be of little or no worth. This ability—the ability to state what each section of a book is about and how the paragraphs in each section contribute to that argument—is one of the most critical steps. If the exegete falters here, much of what follows will be wasted time and effort” (Kaiser, 69).
B. Ignoring it leads to wrongs interpretations Whenever a faulty interpretation of the Bible occurs, it is usually because a passage was taken out of its context. “Every major cult is built on a violation of the principle of context.” (Hendricks, 226).
1. Ex. Ezekiel 37:16-17 Mormonism teaches that the joining of two sticks in this passage refers to the joining of the Bible with the Book of Mormon. But the context of the Book of Ezekiel clearly indicates that what will be joined some day are the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Verse 22 states, “And I will make them one nation in the land.” The true meaning is that Judah and Israel will once again be reunited into one nation when God brings His people into their land.
2. Ex. John 14:14 The Prosperity Gospel movement likes to quote John 14:14: “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” Those who teach this claims that we can ask for anything we desire such as money, cars, houses, etc. as long as we tack “in Jesus’ name” at the end of our prayers. They do not stress, though, that to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray according to what Jesus desires not what we selfishly crave. Plus, other texts reveal that answered prayer is based upon praying according to God’s will (see 1 John 5:14–15), praying with an obedient heart (see 1 John 3:22) and praying with right reasons and motives (see James 4:1–3).
III. Tips for Determining a Book’s Context (note: we will get into more detail concerning studying context in regard to literary and cultural matters in later sections. But here are some basic principles for determining the context of a book.)
A. Read the book of the Bible you are going to study multiple times. The only way to correctly understand the parts of a book is to have an understanding of its purpose and major themes.
B. When reading a book of the Bible try to find out the historical situations facing the author and his readers.
1. Does the book indicate who the author is?
2. Does this book identify who the intended audience is?
3. Does the author of a Bible book state his purpose for writing his book?
a. Ex. John 20:31 “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
b. Ex. 1 John The apostle John gives four purpose statements in 1 John. He wrote this letter so that his readers may have joy (1:4), may not sin (2:1), may not be deceived (2:26), and may know that they have eternal life (5:13).
c. Ex. Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:1 Luke’s purpose in writing was to present an orderly account of the life of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian church.
4. Who are the main characters in the book?
NOTE: A good commentary or Bible Survey book can help with understanding the historical situation of Bible books. Recommended sources for this include Encountering the Old Testament by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer and Encountering the New Testament by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough.
IV. Tips for Determining the Context of a Word or Phrase
A. Keep in mind that words do not have inherent meanings. The meaning of a word is determined by its context. The same word can take on different meanings in different contexts.
1. Ex. World The term “world” (kosmos) can mean: (1) the world of people (John 3:16); (2) the physical planet (John 17:5); or (3) the organized system of evil in opposition to God.
2. Ex. Saved and Salvation Depending on their contexts, these words can refer to (1) Israel’s deliverance from her enemies (Luke 1:71); (2) deliverance from physical danger (Acts 27:20; Matt. 24:13?); deliverance from physical sickness (James 5:15); and deliverance from sin (John 3:17).
3. Ex. Spirit The word “spirit” (pneuma) is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. It refers to wind (John 3:8), the life breath (Rev. 11:11), the immortal nature of a man (John 6:63), the perfected spirit of a saint in heaven (Hebrews12:23), demons (Matt. 10:1; Luke 4:36) and the Holy Spirit of God (John 4:24; Matt. 28:19). In John 3:8 the word pneuma is used twice in the same context to refer to natural wind and the Holy Spirit.
B. Examine the paragraph or chapter context “The context of the paragraph or chapter is sometimes helpful in clarifying a word, phrase, or sentence that is not made clear in the sentence in which it is used.” (Zuck, 109).
1. Ex. Temple Jesus, in John 2:19, spoke of destroying “this temple.” What is this temple Jesus was speaking of? Verse 21 explains that the temple was Jesus’ own body.
2. Ex. Fire In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist states, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Is this a fire of judgment or a fire of zealous commitment to God? Since verses 10 and 12 are speaking of judgment, the reference to “fire” in verse 11 is probably referring to the fires of judgment.
3. Ex. Seeing the Kingdom What did Jesus mean when He said to His disciples, “There are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). The fulfillment of this promise came in the following chapter with the Transfiguration. Jesus gave Peter, James and John a preview of the kingdom that would be established at Jesus’ second coming.
C. Examine the book context
1. Ex. Sin 1 John 3:6 states, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” Does this passage teach that no Christian will ever commit a sin? No. Verses 8–10 reveal that John is talking about “practicing sin.” Plus, other passages like 1:8, 1:10, and 2:1 clearly state that Christians do sin.
2. Ex. Prophets Ephesians 2:20 mentions that the foundation of the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. But are the “prophets” here Old Testament prophets or New Testament prophets? Since the term “prophets” is used of New Testament prophets in Ephesians 3:5 and 4:11, Paul is probably referring to New Testament prophets in Ephesians 2:20.
D. Examine parallel passages “Parallel passages also serve as helpful contexts for ascertaining the meaning of certain words or sentences. Parallel passages may be verbal parallels, in which the same or similar words, phrases, or sentences occur, or idea parallels, in which the same or similar ideas are expressed but in different words” (Zuck, 110).
1. Ex. Matthew, Mark, and Luke
2. Ex. 1 and 2 Kings—1 and 2 Chronicles
3. Ex. Romans and Galatians
4. Ex. Ephesians and Colossians
5. Daniel and Revelation
6. 2 Peter and Jude
E. Examine the entire Bible’s context Since the Bible is written by a divine author and is unified there can be no passages that contradict other passages. So be careful in adopting an interpretation that is contrary to the meaning of other clear passages. Some, for example, have taken Hebrews 6:4-6 to mean that a true believer can lose his or her salvation. Other passages, though, clearly teach that a Christian cannot lose his or her salvation (see Rom. 8:31-39; Rom. 5:9-10; John 10:28-29; Phil. 1:6; and Heb. 7:25).
By Andy Woods
What makes someone a dispensationalist? While many view Dispensationalism as a mere theological system, this assessment is inaccurate. In actuality, Dispensationalism has more to do with commitment to a particular hermeneutic then it does to adherence to a theological model. The Dispensational theological system arises out of a hermeneutic rather than from a theology imposed upon Scripture. The purpose of this paper is to describe this hermeneutic and explain how Dispensationalism is its natural by-product.
First, the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic will be defined. In addition to its basic elements, its philosophical goals will be explained. Second, it will be shown that the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic is the same approach used in ordinary communication. In fact, American jurisprudence rests upon this interpretive approach. Third, it will be established that Dispensationalism is simply the outworking of an application of this interpretive approach to the totality of biblical revelation. The historical forces giving rise to the consistent literal approach will be briefly examined.
Literal, Grammatical, Historical Methodology
Post-reformation biblical interpretation employs what is called the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation. Let us break this phrase down into its component parts. The dictionary defines literal interpretation as that type of interpretation that is “based on the actual words in their ordinary meaning…not going beyond the facts.”1 Two concepts seem to be in view. First, according to Ram, literal interpretation encompasses the idea of assigning to every word the same meaning it would have in its normal usage, whether employed in speaking, writing, or thinking.2 Cooper’s “Golden Rule of Interpretation” incorporates such an understanding of literalism:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.3
Second, literalism resists going beyond what is written. Because literalism resists “going beyond the facts,” when interpreting a given text, literal interpreters resist the temptation to import foreign ideas from outside the text. A classic example of going beyond what the text says is the ancient interpretation that the four rivers in Genesis 2, the Pishon, Havilah, Tigris, and Euphrates, represent the body, soul, spirit, and mind.4 Such an idea is not readily apparent from studying the text in Genesis 2. One must go outside the text of Genesis 2 and bring into it foreign concepts in order to arrive at this conclusion.
It should be noted in passing that literal interpretation has been unfairly criticized on the basis that it adheres to a wooden, inflexible literalism that fails to allow for types, symbols, figures of speech, and genre distinctions.5 Such a straw man argumentation is easily recognizable by simply reading how those advocating a literal hermeneutic define the term literal. Charles Ryrie specifically notes that literalism “…does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.”6 Ryrie further explains that literal interpretation “…might also be called plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech.”7 Ryrie buttresses this point by appealing to the following quote from E.R. Craven:
The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols are used in prophecy, nor does he deny the great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted-that which is manifestly figurative so regarded.8
The absurdity of the notion that a literal hermeneutic fails to encompass basic figures of speech is also illustrated by the fact that the most extensive scholarly treatment of figures of speech available today9 was completed not just by a dispensational literalist, but by a hyper dispensationalist! E.W. Bullinger, the creator of this work, was not only a literalist and a dispensationalist, but a hyper dispensationalist who believed that the age of the church began after Acts 28:28. Thomas Ice observes, “Bullinger’s work demonstrates that literalists have at least thought about the use of figures of speech in a detailed and sophisticated way and do not consider such usage in conflict with literalism.”10
Grammatical interpretation observes the impact that grammar plays in any given text. Thus, bible interpreters must correctly analyze the relationship that words, phrases, or sentences have toward one another. Such an analysis entails the study of lexicology (meaning of words), morphology (form of words), parts of speech (function of words), and syntax (relationship of words).11 Historical interpretation takes into account historical context, setting, and circumstances in which the words of Scripture were written. Milton S. Terry explains:
The interpreter should, therefore, endeavour to take himself from the present, and to transport himself into the historical position of his author, look through his eyes, note his surroundings, feel with his heart, and catch his emotion. Herein we note the import of the term grammatico–historical interpretation.12
In essence, the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation is designed to arrive at authorial intent by allowing the ideas plainly found within the text to speak for themselves.
Why should biblical interpreters employ the literal, grammatical, historical method of interpretation? J. Dwight Pentecost cites four dangers when such an approach is not used.13First and foremost, the authority transfers from the text to the interpreter. In other words, the basic authority in interpretation ceases to be the Scriptures, but rather the mind of the interpreter. Early church father Jerome warns, “that the faultiest style of teaching is to corrupt the meaning of Scripture, and to drag its reluctant utterance to our own will, making Scriptural mysteries out of our own imagination.”14 F.W. Farrar adds, “…once we start with the rule that whole passages and books of scripture say one thing when they mean another, the reader is delivered bound hand and foot to the caprice of the interpreter.”15 Bernard Ramm observes, “The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hands of the exegete.”16 Walvoord observes:
It’s not too difficult to account for the widespread approval of the spiritualizing method adopted by many conservative theologians as well as liberal and Roman Catholic expositors. Fundamentally its charm lies in its flexibility. The interpreter can change the literal and grammatical sense of Scripture to make it coincide with his own system of interpretation.17
Thus, scripture becomes held hostage to whatever seems reasonable to the interpreter when the literal, grammatical, historical interpretive method is dispensed with. The text becomes swallowed up in the personal theology of the interpreter rather than allowing the one’s theology to be built from the text.
Second, the Scripture itself is not being interpreted. The issue becomes not what God has spoken but what the interpreter thinks. In other words, the text becomes servant to the interpreter rather than the interpreter being subservient to the text. Terry explains:
…it will be noticed at once that its habit is to disregard the common signification of words and give wing to all manner of fanciful speculation. It does not draw out the legitimate meaning of an author’s language, but foists into it whatever the whim or fancy of an interpreter may desire.”18
Third, one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested. When the objective standard of language’s common meaning is dispensed with, one man’s personal interpretation becomes just as valid as anyone else’s. In such an environment, there is no way to determine whose interpretation is correct because there is no longer an objective standard that personal interpretations can be compared to. Fourth, there is no mechanism to control the imagination of the interpreter. Ramm notes:
…to state that the principal meaning of the Bible is a second-sense meaning, and that the principle method of interpretation is “spiritualizing,” is to open the door to almost uncontrolled speculation and imagination. For this reason we have insisted that the control in interpretation is the literal method.19
Thus, literal interpretation properly constrains the dictates of the carnal imagination by allowing it to roam only so far. Otherwise, interpreters (to borrow the language of the great New York jurist, Chancellor James Kent) would be able to “roam at large in the trackless fields of their own imaginations.” In sum, traditional maxims of biblical interpretation have as their underlying goal the pursuit of authorial intent by first and foremost observing the ideas plainly presented in the text. A related goal is to shift the authority in the interpretive process away from the subjectivity of the interpreter’s ever-vacillating imagination and back toward the objectivity of the static text. In essence, the goals of the literal, grammatical, historical method is to dethrone the interpreter in the interpretive process.
Similarities to Legal Interpretation
The above-described hermeneutical philosophy should come as no great surprise. It is the same hermeneutical philosophy that is used in the everyday communication. If the above-described hermeneutic were not adhered to then everyday communication could not take place. Stopping at a stop sign, ordering from a menu, and paying taxes on time could not be accomplished if the literal, grammatical, historical method is dispensed with. The literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic is the same method that is used to decipher any sane piece of literature.
Contracts and Other Devices
This same rationale also exists in the domain of legal interpretation. For the same reasons described above, when interpreting a contract, courts first of all observe the plain meaning of the contract language. Because courts understand that parties have a right to enter into contractual terms of their own choosing, courts understand that they are not in the business of rewriting contracts in a way that is contrary to the expressed wishes of the parties. Therefore, courts allow the authority in the interpretive process to reside in the contract language rather than in their own opinions regarding what the contract should or should not say. Justice Flaherty succinctly summarized the philosophy behind literal interpretation in contract law:
…the rationale for interpreting contractual terms in accord with the plain meaning of language expressed is multifarious, resting in part upon what is viewed as the appropriate role of the courts in the interpretive process: This court long ago emphasized that the parties have the right to make their own contract, and it is not the function of the court to re-write it, or to give it a construction in conflict with…the accepted and plain meaning of the language used…In addition to the justifications focusing upon the appropriate role of the courts in the interpretive process, the plain meaning approach to construction has been supported as generally best serving the ascertainment of the contracting parties mutual intent…In determining what the parties determined by their contract, the law must look to what they clearly expressed. Courts in interpreting a contract do not assume that its language was chosen carelessly. Neither can it be assumed that the parties were ignorant of the meaning of the language that they employed…20
Similarly, because courts desire to honor the wishes of the testator, they also allow authority to rest in the testamentary document itself by utilizing a literal approach when interpreting such documents. Moreover, because the judiciary traditionally has not desired to transform itself into a super legislature, it has attempted to follow the plain language of statutes whenever possible when interpreting legislation.
Because jurists have traditionally not desired to amend the Constitution from the bench, they have typically followed the plain language of the Constitution’s drafters thus allowing authority to abide in the constitutional text rather in their own ideological predilections. Traditional principles of constitutional interpretation recognize that the maxim of following the plain language of the text is indeed the best insulation against an overly ideological judiciary. If jurists approached these documents any other way, they would not be interpreting. Rather, they would be amending and rewriting them.
Joseph Story, who was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and the leading constitutional scholar of the nineteenth century, echoed these sentiments. In his influential Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), he called for interpreting the constitution according to the intent of its authors as revealed in the plain meaning of their language. He noted, “The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments, is to construe them according to the sense of the terms, and the intention of the parties.”21 Upon informing the readers of the preface of his commentary of his own approach to constitutional analysis, he indicated:
The reader must not expect to find in these pages any novel views and novel constructions of the Constitution. I have not the ambition to be the author of any new plan of interpreting the theory of the Constitution, or of enlarging or narrowing its powers, by ingenious subtleties and learned doubts…Upon subjects of government, it has always appeared to me that metaphysical refinements are out of place. A constitution of government is addressed to the common sense of the people, and never was designed for trials of logical skill, or visionary speculation.22
Story also noted:
In construing the Constitution of the United States, we are in the first instance to consider, what are its nature and objects, its scope and design, as apparent from the structure of the instrument, viewed as a whole and also viewed in its component parts. Where its words are plain, clear and determinate, they require no interpretation…Where the words admit of two senses, each of which is conformable to general usage, that sense is to be adopted, which without departing from the literal import of the words, best harmonizes with the nature and objects, the scope and design of the instrument.23
Similarly, John Marshall, our nation’s third Supreme Court justice, noted:
To say that the intention of the instrument must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its words; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended; that its provisions are neither to be restricted into insignificance nor extended to objects not comprehended in them nor contemplated by its framers, is to repeat what has been already said more at large, and is all that can be necessary.24
Thomas Jefferson similarly observed, “The Constitution on which our Union rests, shall be administered by me according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people of the United States, at the time of its adoption.”25 Moreover, Milton Terry’s above-described definition of historical interpretation bears much resemblance to Thomas Jefferson’s admonition to return to the Constitution’s original intent. Jefferson said that we must:
Carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.26
Although there are similarities in approach when comparing maxims of legal and biblical interpretation, the similarities do not end there. The philosophy of interpretation is also shared between the two disciplines. The underlying goal of both legal and biblical interpretation is to transfer the authority away from the subjective impulses of the interpreter and instead toward the objective standard of the author’s meaning. Although many in today’s theological climate demean the literal, grammatical, historical, method, it is this very method that our judicial system and political institutions are founded upon. When dispensationalists insist upon the literal, grammatical, historical method, all they are doing is asking that the same interpretive approach routinely used in ordinary communication and in the legal system be applied to Scripture.
The Relationship of the Literal, Grammatical, Historical Method to Dispensationalism
What makes Dispensationalism unique as a theological system is not merely its emphasis upon a literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. Many theological systems selectively incorporate this hermeneutic. Rather, Dispensationalism remains unique in its insistence in consistently applying this literal hermeneutic to the totality of biblical revelation. Thus, Ryrie includes consistent literal interpretation in his sine qua non of dispensational theology when he says, “the distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation.”27 Notice that Dispensationalism does not have as its starting point the Israel/Church distinction that is then read back into the Bible. Rather it has as its starting point a consistent literal approach to Scripture. This approach causes the interpreter to recognize that Israel and the church are unique. Ryrie is clear that the system known as Dispensationalism did not originate from forcing a theological grid upon the biblical text. Rather it arose when interpreters became committed to a consistent use of the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic. For example, if the same literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic that is used to interpret other sections of Scripture is applied to Biblical prophecy, then the interpreter will naturally see a distinction between Israel and the church.
Historical Rise of the Consistent Literal Approach
Let us briefly examine the historical forces giving rise to this consistent, literal approach to Scripture. This brief historical analysis will emphasize the legal background of the leading advocates of literalism. This background is important in grasping that these interpreters simply took the hermeneutical approach necessary to interpret legal documents and applied them to Scripture. Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, both students of the law in their formative educational years,28 played integral roles in rescuing the church from the Alexandrian allegorical method of interpretation that was introduced in the second century and grew to dominate the church throughout the middle ages. Luther denounced the allegorical approach to Scripture in strong words. He said: “Allegories are empty speculations and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.” “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.” “To allegorize is to juggle the Scripture.” “Allegorizing may degenerate into a mere monkey game.” “Allegories are awkward, absurd, inventive, obsolete, loose rags.”29 Luther also wrote that the Scriptures “are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids” (Luther’s Works, 6:509).30
Calvin similarly rejected allegorical interpretations. He called them “frivolous games” and accused Origen and other allegorists of “torturing scripture, in every possible sense, from the true sense.”31 Calvin wrote in the preface of his commentary on Romans “it is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”32
Both reformers rejected the use of church tradition as a guide for spiritual truth and instead advocated returning to scripture alone or “sola scriptura” as the source of Christian belief and practice. To put this into legal terms, Luther and Calvin rejected the case law approach as a guide to Scripture.33 The case law method places more emphasis on studying what legal authorities have said about a given legal source than on studying the legal source itself. In addition, both reformers recognized the value of knowledge of biblical Hebrew and Greek due to the fact that a return to scripture inevitably required knowledge of the original languages of Scripture.
However, despite their emphasis upon literally interpreting some aspects of Scripture, Luther and Calvin did not go far enough in applying a literal hermeneutic to all areas of divine truth. Regarding Luther, Roy B. Zuck observes:
Though Luther vehemently opposed the allegorizing of scripture, he too occasionally allegorized. For instance he stated that Noah’s Ark is an allegory of the church. For Luther, Bible interpretation is to be centered in Christ. Rather than allegorizing the Old Testament, he saw Christ frequently in the Old Testament, often beyond what is legitimately provided for in proper interpretation.34
Because the reformers were primarily concerned with soteriological issues, they failed to apply the same literal interpretation that they used to interpret soteriology to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology.
Such a selective and inconsistent application of a literal hermeneutic was not rectified until the budding of the dispensational movement centuries later. Dispensationalists took the literal hermeneutic applied by the reformers in the area of soteriology and applied it to all areas of theology, including eschatology and ecclesiology. By insisting on the application of a literal hermeneutic to all of Scripture, Dispensationalism, in essence, completed the hermeneutical revolution begun by the reformers.
Emphasizing the legal background of the early dispensationalists is important for two reasons. First, it shows that the early dispensationalists did what the reformers did in applying the same hermeneutic used to interpret legal documents to biblical truth. The only difference between the reformers and the early dispensationalists is that they applied this method more consistently. They applied it not only to soteriological issues but also to ecclesiology and eschatology. Second, according to Charles Clough, the legal backgrounds of the early dispensationalists allowed them to see more clearly than earlier interpreters the nature of a contract or covenant as expressed in Scripture. A major ingredient of Dispensationalism is a proper understanding of the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. If this covenant is unconditional and unfulfilled, then a future for national Israel remains and the church cannot be said to have replaced Israel. Someone trained in the realties of contract law and with an understanding of contract language and the force of a contract would be more sensitive to seeing similar concepts when they occur in Scripture. Clough explains:
Both Nelson Darby and C.I. Scofield studied law in their early years, so they certainly recognized the hermeneutics of contract law. Thus, after uncovering the contractual structure in the Bible through which God governs His relationships with His creatures, these dispensational theologians insisted upon a strict literal and conservative interpretation of contractual (covenantal) terminology.35
Thus, just as Calvin and Luther, the two men most credited for introducing a literal hermeneutic to soteriological issues in the reformation era, were trained in the law, many of the leaders of the dispensational movement were heavily influenced by their legal training and thinking. For example, John Nelson Darby, the man mostly credited with rediscovering the scriptural doctrine of the pretribulation rapture, planned to enter the field of law after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin. He was called to the Irish Chancery Bar in 1822. However, after a spiritual struggle that led to his conversion he opted to give up the law in order to become a priest in the Church of England.36
Another key dispensational thinker was Sir Robert Anderson. Though more recent work may shed new light on Anderson’s prophetic calculations,37 his work The Coming Prince is considered a classic in the area of biblical chronology because of its detailed explanation of the literal fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks. Anderson, like Darby, was also heavily influenced by the legal profession. After receiving his law degree from Trinity College, Dublin in 1863, he became a member of the Irish bar and worked drawing up legal briefs on a traveling circuit. He served as chief of the criminal investigative department of the Scotland Yard. After retiring with distinction, he used his investigative training and ability to think logically to study the Scriptures.38
Cyrus Ingerson Scofield was yet another influential dispensationalist who also happened to be a lawyer. Following the Civil War he studied law and received his law degree. He then entered politics in Kansas. President Grant later appointed him to the office of District Attorney. Scofield’s best-remembered contributions include his influence as a Bible teacher as well asThe Scofield Reference Bible, which advocated a pretribulation rapture, a literal return of the Jews to the homeland, premillennialism, and Dispensationalism.39 In sum, great hermeneuticalstrides have been made in church history when the same literal, grammatical, historical method that is used in ordinary communication is applied to Scripture. Application of such an interpretive approach to soteriological issues ignited the reformation. Dispensationalists finished the hermeneutical revolution begun by the reformers by the applying this hermeneutic to the totality of biblical truth, including ecclesiology and eschatology.
This paper has sought to explain the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. First, the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic was defined. In addition to its basic elements, its philosophical outlook was explained. This outlook includes allowing meaning to be determined from the text and transferring authority from the interpreter to the text in the interpretive process. Second, it was shown that the literal, grammatical historical hermeneutic is the same approach used in ordinary communication. In fact, American jurisprudence rests upon this interpretive approach. Third, it was established that Dispensationalism is simply the outworking of an application of this interpretive approach to the totality of biblical revelation. The historical forces giving rise to the consistent literal approach were briefly examined. Far from being the product of reading the Bible through an a priori theological grid, Dispensationalism is the product of a consistent, literal approach to Scripture.
1 Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, unabridged, 2d ed., s.v. “literal.”
2 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d ed. (Boston: W.A. Wilde, 1956; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 89-92.
3 David L. Cooper, The World’s Greatest Library Graphically Illustrated (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1970), 11.
4 One need only examine the works of Philo to find numerous examples of such a hermeneutical methodology. Philo, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge, New updated ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993).
5 For an example of a work that levels this charge, see D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity, 2002).
6 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 86.
8 E.R. Craven and J.P. Lange, ed., Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (NY: Scribner, 1872), 98 (cited in Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 87).
9 Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible: Explained and Illustrated (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
10 Thomas D. Ice, “Dispensational Hermeneutics,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, gen. eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 42.
11 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991), 100.
12 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 231.
13 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 5-6. It is instructive to note that Pentecost begins his mammoth work on eschatology with a discussion of literal hermeneutics. Pentecost’s methodology is clear. If the interpreter applies a consistent literal approach to eschatological truths, then the other prophetic concepts found in his book will become readily apparent to the interpreter.
14 Jerome; Quoted by F.W. Farrar, History of interpretation (NY: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1886), 232.
15 Ibid., 238-39.
16 Ramm, 30.
17 John Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), 60.
18 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (NY: Philips and Hunt, 1883), 224.
19 Ramm, 65.
20 Justice Flaherty; Quoted by E. Allan Farnsworth and William F. Young, Cases and Materials on Contracts, 5th ed. (Westbury, NY: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1995), 603-4.
21 Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United Sates, 3rd ed. (Boston, 1858), 1:283, 400.
22 Ibid., viii.
23 Joseph Story; quoted in Edwin Meese, III, Address to American Bar Association, 1985; adapted in “Toward a Jurisprudence of Original Intention,” Benchmark Vol. II, no. 1, (January-February 1986): 10.
24 Chief Justice John Marshall in Ogden v. Saunders, 6 L. Ed. 606, 647 (1827).
25 Thomas Jefferson; quoted in John Eidesmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 392.
26 Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Bergh, ed. (Washington D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, p. 449, in a letter from Jefferson to Justice William Johnson on June 12, 1823.
27 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 40.
28 Alan W. Gomes, Reformation & Modern Theology and Historical Theology Survey Course Syllabus (La Mirada: Biola Bookstore, 1999), 23; Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985), vol. 2: 62.
29 Martin Luther; Quoted in Farrar, 328.
30 Martin Luther; Quoted by Zuck, 45.
31 John Calvin; Quoted in Zuck, 47.
33 John Eidesmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 402.
34 Zuck, 45.
35 Charles Clough, “A Meta Hermeneutical Comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 7 (April-June 2001): 76-77.
36 Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 112; Floyd Elmore, “Darby, John Nelson,” in Dictionary ofPremillennial Theology, ed. Mal Couch (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 82.
37 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 115-39.
38 Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 119.
39 Ibid., 119-120.
by Tim Chaffey
God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. It is crucial that we interpret properly to determine the intended meaning rather than forcing ideas into the text.
A popular seminary professor recently wrote the following about the creation of Adam and Eve:
Any evils humans experience outside the Garden before God breathes into them the breath of life would be experienced as natural evils in the same way that other animals experience them. The pain would be real, but it would not be experienced as divine justice in response to willful rebellion. Moreover, once God breathes the breath of life into them, we may assume that the first humans experienced an amnesia of their former animal life: Operating on a higher plane of consciousness once infused with the breath of life, they would transcend the lower plane of animal consciousness on which they had previously operated—though, after the Fall, they might be tempted to resort to that lower consciousness.1
So according to this professor, Adam and Eve were animals before God breathed the breath of life into them. At that point, they experienced “amnesia of their former animal life” so that they would no longer remember their animal past.
How does this line up with the Word of God, which states that God made Adam from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) and Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:22)? Has the professor made a plausible interpretation of God’s Word? Is his interpretive work what Paul had in mind when he advised Timothy to be diligent in his efforts to accurately interpret the Word of Truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?
The example above highlights the importance of being able to properly interpret the Bible. In this postmodern age, bizarre interpretations are accepted because people believe they have the right to decide for themselves what a passage means. In other words, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so you can decide truth for yourself.
This ideology flies in the face of Christ’s example. He routinely rebuked those who twisted the words of Scripture or misapplied them. The Bible is God’s message to man. We can have perfect confidence that God is capable of accurately relaying His Word to us in a way that we can understand. As such, it is crucial that we learn how to interpret properly so that we can determine the Author’s Intended Meaning (AIM) rather than forcing our own ideas into the text. A given document means what the author intended it to mean. The alternative would make communication futile. There would be no point in writing anything if the readers are simply going to take what they want from the passage, rather than what the writer intends. All communication is predicated on the presupposition that language conveys the author’s or speaker’s intention (unless, of course, the person is trying to deceive us, which is something God does not do since He wants us to understand His Word).
Hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermeneuo, which means to explain or interpret) is the branch of theology that focuses on identifying and applying sound principles of biblical interpretation. While the Bible is generally plain in its meaning, proper interpretation requires careful study and is not always an easy task. Consider that the Bible was written over a period of roughly 2,000 years by 40 or more authors using three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). The authors wrote in different genres and had different vocabularies, personalities, cultural backgrounds, and social standings. The Holy Spirit moved each of these men to produce His inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), but He allowed their various writing styles and personalities to be expressed in its pages. It was written in a culture very different from our modern world and has been translated from its original languages. These are just some of the factors that must be taken into account as we interpret.
In fact, Bible colleges and seminaries often require their students to complete a course in hermeneutics. Numerous books have been written to explain these principles, and while Bible-believing Christians may disagree over particulars, there is general agreement about the major rules required to rightly divide the Word of Truth.
This is not to claim that only the scholarly elite can correctly interpret the Bible. Various groups have wrongly held this position. William Tyndale lived in the early sixteenth century when only certain people were allowed to interpret the Bible, which was only available in Latin, not the language of the common man. He sought to bring God’s Word to the average person by translating it into English. Tyndale is credited with telling a priest that he could make a boy who drove a plough to know more of the Scripture than the priest himself.2 The Bible was penned so that in its pages all people, even children, can learn about God and what He has done so that we can have a personal relationship with Him.
We must also battle against our pride, which tempts us to think that our own views are always right or that the beliefs of a particular teacher are necessarily right. We must strive to be like the Bereans who were commended by Luke for searching the Old Testament Scriptures daily to make sure that what Paul taught was true (Acts 17:11).
God desires for His people to know and understand His Word—that’s why He gave it to us and instructed fathers to teach it to their children in the home (Deuteronomy 6:4–9). However, we must keep in mind several important points.
WE NEED THE HOLY SPIRIT TO HELP US TO THINK CORRECTLY, LEST WE DISTORT THE SCRIPTURES.
First, Christians must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit while studying the Bible. It’s not that the Bible requires any “extra-logical” or mystical insight to understand it. But we are limited in our understanding and often hindered by pride. We need the Holy Spirit to help us to think correctly, lest we distort the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).
Second, a person can spend his or her entire life and still never come close to mining the depths of Scripture. The Bible is written in such a marvelous way that a child can understand the basic message, and yet the most educated theologians continue to learn new things from the Bible as they study it. There is always so much more to learn, so we must humbly approach the Word of God.
Third, God has given the church learned men and gifted teachers who have devoted their lives to studying God’s Word. While these people are certainly not infallible, we shouldn’t automatically reject the work of those who have gone before us.
Finally, since the Bible consists of written data, then in order to understand it, we must follow standard rules of grammar and interpretation. We will examine these rules or principles throughout this chapter and the next, especially as they relate to Genesis.
Because people often confuse the two concepts, it must be pointed out that interpretation is different than application, although they are related. Interpretation answers the questions, “What does the text say?” and “What does the text mean?” Application follows interpretation and answers the question, “How can I apply this truth in my life today?” After all, the goal of studying the Bible is not to simply fill one’s head with information but to learn what God wants for us to know so that we can live how He wants us to live.
Which Method Do We Use?
Bible-believing Christians generally follow a method of interpretation known as the historical-grammatical approach. That is, we try to find the plain (literal) meaning of the words based on an understanding of the historical and cultural settings in which the book was written. We then follow standard rules of grammar, according to the book’s particular genre, to arrive at an interpretation. We seek to perform careful interpretation or exegesis—that is, to “read out of” the text what the author intended it to mean. This is in contrast to eisegesis, which occurs when someone “reads into” the text his own ideas—what the reader wants the text to mean. In other words, exegesis is finding the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning) of the passage because its true meaning is determined by the sender of the message, not the recipient.
This hermeneutical approach has several strengths. It can be demonstrated that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in this manner. Also, it is the only approach that offers an internal system of “checks and balances” to make sure one is on the right track. As will be shown, other views allow for personal opinion to sneak into one’s interpretation, which does not truly reflect what the text means.
Finally, this approach is consistent with how we utilize language on a daily basis while interacting with others. For example, if your best friend says, “I am going to drive to work tomorrow morning,” you can instantly understand what he means. You know that he has a vehicle that he can drive to his place of employment, and that’s exactly what he plans on doing early the next day.
If the postmodern approach is accurate and meaning is determined by the recipient of the message, then perhaps your friend is really just telling you that he likes pancakes. Communication becomes impossible in such a world, and it gets even worse if your friend was talking to you and several other buddies. One friend might think he was talking about his favorite color, another interpreted his words to mean that he doesn’t believe in air, and another thought he meant that he was going to walk to work ten years later.
Words have a particular meaning in a particular context. When they are placed together in sentences and paragraphs, then a person must follow common-sense rules in order to derive the appropriate meaning. The sender of the message had a reason for choosing the words he did and putting those words together in a particular order and context. The same is true with the Bible. God had a reason for moving the writers of the Bible to use the words they did in the order they did. Our goal must be to ascertain the AIM.
Principles of Interpretation
Since the goal of interpreting the Bible is to determine the Author’s Intended Meaning, we must follow principles derived from God’s Word. The following principles do not comprise an exhaustive list but are some of the major concepts found in the majority of books on interpretation. In the next chapter, the quote from the introduction of this chapter will be examined to see if it properly applies these standard principles.
Carefully Observe the Text
It may seem rather obvious, but this principle is often overlooked. We must carefully observe what the text actually states. Many mistakes have been made by people who jump into interpretation based on what they think the text states rather than what it really does state.
As you read a particular verse or passage, pay close attention to different types of words that make up a sentence. Is the subject singular or plural? Is the verb tense past, present, or future? Is the sentence a command, statement of fact, or question? Is the statement part of a dialogue? If so, who is the speaker, and why did he make that comment? Can you note any repetition of words, which perhaps shows emphasis? What ideas are compared or contrasted? Can you identify any cause and effect statements or questions and answers? What is the tone of the passage; are emotional words used?
Failure to carefully observe the text has resulted in numerous misconceptions about the Bible. For example, many Christians have taught that Adam and Eve used to walk with God in the cool of the day. While it is possible that they did take walks with God in the garden, the Bible never claims this. Instead, God’s Word reveals that after they had sinned, Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” and they hid themselves from Him (Genesis 3:8).
Carefully observing the text can also protect you from making another common mistake. Just because the Bible contains a statement does not mean that it affirms the statement as godly. For example, much of the book of Job consists of an ongoing dialogue between Job and four of his friends (Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu). Some people have been careless by quoting certain verses from this book to support their own ideas, but we have to keep in mind that God told Eliphaz that what he, Bildad, and Zophar had spoken about Him was not right (Job 42:7). This ties in perfectly with our next principle.
Context Is Key
Perhaps no principle of interpretation is more universally agreed upon than the idea that understanding the context of the word, phrase, or passage is absolutely essential. Context is defined as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.”3
CRITICS OF SCRIPTURE OFTEN TAKE VERSES OUT OF CONTEXT WHEN THEY ATTACK THE BIBLE.
You may have heard someone say that a particular verse has been pulled out of context. Critics of Scripture often take verses out of context when they attack the Bible. The reason is that they can make the Bible “say” just about anything if they do not provide the context. For example, the critic might ask, “Did you know that the Bible says, ‘There is no God’?” Then he may go on to claim that this contradicts other passages, which certainly teach that God does exist.
How do we handle such a charge? We look at the context of the quoted words, which in this case comes from Psalm 14:1 (and is repeated in Psalm 53:1). It states, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So, it’s true that the Bible states, “There is no God,” but it attributes these words to a foolish person. So the Bible is not teaching both the existence and non-existence of God, as the skeptic asserts.
If I asked you what the word “set” means, would you be able to provide me with the correct answer? No, it would be impossible because the word has more than 70 definitions in the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and can be used as a verb, noun, and an adjective. Now, if I asked you what the word “set” meant in the following sentence, you could easily figure it out: “His mind was set on solving the problem.” In this sentence, the word means “intent” or “determined.” But without the context, you would not know this.
The same thing is true with the Bible or any other written communication. The context clarifies the meaning of the word, phrase, sentence, etc. With the Bible, it is important to know the context of the particular passage you are studying. It is also important to understand the context of the entire book in which the passage is found and how that book fits into the context of Scripture.
We also need to recognize where the passage fits into the flow of history. It makes a huge difference in determining the writer’s intent if we note whether the passage was pre-Fall, pre-Flood, pre-Mosaic Law, after the Babylonian Exile, during Christ’s earthly ministry, after His Resurrection, or after Pentecost. This is especially important when we reach the point of application. For example, just because God commanded Israel to sacrifice lambs at Passover doesn’t mean we should do the same today. Jesus died on the Cross as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) and was the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice. Since the Bible was revealed progressively, there are instances where later revelation supersedes earlier revelation.
Ron Rhodes summarized these truths by stating, “No verse of Scripture can be divorced from the verses around it. Interpreting a verse apart from its context is like trying to analyze a Rembrandt painting by looking at only a single square inch of the painting, or like trying to analyze Handel’s ‘Messiah’ by listening to a few short notes.”4
Clarity of Scripture
Since the Bible is God’s Word to man, He must expect us to understand it. As such, it makes sense that He would communicate His message to us in such a way so that we can indeed comprehend it if we are serious about wanting to know the truth. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians:
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 2 Corinthians 4:2 (emphasis added).
Proverbs 8:9 states that God’s words “are all plain to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge.”
This principle was one of the key differences between the Reformers and Roman Catholics. The Reformers believed in the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture, especially in relation to its central message of the gospel, and they believed each believer had the right to interpret God’s Word. Roman Catholic doctrine held (and still holds) that Scripture can only be interpreted by the Magisterium (teaching office of the church).
Consider the words of Psalm 119, which is by far the longest chapter in the entire Bible, and every one of its 176 verses extols the superiority of God’s Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). God’s Word should be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, giving understanding to the simple. How could it be or do any of these things if it is not clear?
The principle of the clarity of Scripture does not mean that every passage is easily understood or that one does not need to diligently study the Word of God, but it does teach that the overall message of the Word of God can be understood by all believers who carefully and prayerfully study it. The principle also means that we should not assume or look for hidden meanings but rather assess the most straightforward meaning. Two of Christ’s favorite sayings were “It is written” and “Have you not read?” Then He would quote a verse from the Old Testament. By these sayings, He indicated that the Scriptures are generally clear.
Compare Scripture with Scripture
Another key principle of hermeneutics is that we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Known by theologians as the “analogy of faith” or “analogy of Scripture,” this principle is solidly based on the Bible’s own teachings. Since the Bible is the Word of God and God cannot lie or contradict Himself (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18), then one passage will never contradict another passage. This principle is useful for several reasons.
First, not all Bible passages are equally clear. So, a clear passage can be used to shed light on a difficult, not-so-clear passage. There are a number of obscure verses in Scripture, where you might wish the writer would have provided more details. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a classic example. Right in the middle of the chapter on the Resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers, Paul asked, “Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead?” Several ideas have been suggested to explain what Paul meant about baptism for the dead, but because this is the only verse in all of Scripture that mentions this concept, we may not be able to reach a firm conclusion about its meaning.
However, by comparing this verse with other Scripture, we can reach definite conclusions about what it does notteach. We know that Paul did not instruct the Corinthians to baptize people for the dead,5 because Paul and other biblical writers unequivocally taught that salvation is only by God’s grace and can only be received through faith alone in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). We can also be sure that those who practice such a thing are not accomplishing what they hope to accomplish—the salvation of an unbeliever who has already died. Hebrews 9:27 states, “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”
Second, by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we have a system of checks and balances to help us stay on the right track. There will likely be times when, for whatever reason, we incorrectly interpret a given passage. By studying other passages that shed light on the same issue, we can recognize our error. Many people are unwilling to change their original interpretation and hold on to contradictory beliefs. Some will even claim that the Bible contradicts itself when, in reality, they have misinterpreted one or both of the passages. It is crucial for us to humbly approach Scripture and realize that if we believe we have found a contradiction, then it is our interpretation that is flawed, not God’s Word.
Since this principle provides a system of checks and balances, it can provide us with great certainty concerning a given interpretation. If we interpret a passage and then discover that every other passage on the topic seems to teach the same truth, we can be confident in the accuracy of our interpretation.
Classification of Text
While interpreting the Bible, we must never forget to understand the genre (literary style) of the passage we are studying. The Bible contains numerous types of literature, and each one needs to be interpreted according to principles befitting its particular style. Below is a chart identifying the basic literary style of each book of the Bible. Note that some books contain more than one style. For example, Exodus is written as history, but chapter 15 includes a song written in poetic language. Also, the books are sometimes divided into more categories, but for our purposes “History” includes the books of the Law, the historical books, and the four gospels; “Poetry” includes the Psalms and wisdom literature; “Prophecy” includes the prophetic books; and “Epistles” are letters written by an apostle.
Song of Solomon
These distinctions are important to keep in mind while interpreting the Bible. Each classification uses language in a particular way. Historical books are primarily narratives of past events and should be interpreted in a straightforward manner. This does not mean that they never utilize figurative language. For example, after Cain killed his brother Abel, God said to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (Genesis 4:10–11). There are two obvious instances of figurative language in this passage: the ground “opened its mouth” and Abel’s “blood cries out” from it. Nevertheless, these figures of speech are perfectly legitimate in historical writing, and it is easy to understand what they mean.
Poetry, prophecy, and the New Testament epistles all have their own particular nuances and guidelines for proper interpretation. Space does not permit a full treatment here, so just remember to recognize the book’s (or passage’s) genre and interpret accordingly.
Church’s Historical View
Finally, it is important to know how those who have gone before us have interpreted a passage in question. Although our doctrine must be based squarely on the Word of God and not on tradition or what some great leader believed, we should allow ourselves to be informed by the work of others who have spent long hours studying God’s Word. Most doctrines have been discussed, debated, and formulated throughout church history, so we should take advantage of that resource.
Imagine studying a passage and reaching a conclusion only to discover that no one else in history has ever interpreted those verses in the same way. You would not necessarily be wrong, but you would certainly want to re-examine the passage to see if you had overlooked something. After all, you need to be very careful and confident in your interpretation before proposing an idea that none of the millions of interpreters have ever noticed before.
While Bible scholars and pastors often have access to resources that permit them to search out the teachings of our spiritual forefathers, this information can also be obtained by the average Christian. Consider borrowing a commentary from a pastor or taking advantage of some of the Bible software on the market, which allows you to quickly search for this information.
Conclusion to Part 1
This first chapter has explained why it is important to accurately interpret God’s Word and how to do it. Our goal is to find the AIM (Author’s Intended Meaning). The six principles above will guide you as you study and interpret God’s Word.6
Remember, the goal of interpreting God’s Word is not to simply accumulate knowledge so that you can be the best at Bible trivia. The reason it is important to study and accurately interpret the Bible is so that we can know God better, know what He expects from us, and know how we can live in a way that pleases Him.
The next chapter will examine the statement from Dr. Dembski, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, to see if he followed these major principles of interpretation. It will also show why Genesis 1–11 should be understood as historical narrative.
- William A. Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing Group, 2009), 155.
- http://www.tyndalesploughboy.org. Accessed January 7, 2011.
- Frederick C. Mish, Editor in Chief, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2008), s.v. “Context.”
- Ron Rhodes, “Rightly Interpreting the Bible,” from http://home.earthlink.net/~ronrhodes/Interpretation.html. Accessed January 12, 2011.
- The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) have developed an entire doctrine called baptism by proxy in which current members of the group are baptized in place of the dead. They use this verse to support this practice.
- Other helpful guidelines and principles with examples can be found in books on hermeneutics. A good lay level resource is John MacArthur’s book, How to Study the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009).
(To read more in this series, you may visit “Answers in Genesis.”)