Literal v. Spiritual

Literal v. Spiritual

 
     
 
 
 

 

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"Literal v. Spiritual" Interpretations



One of the foundational issues in understanding eschatology is that of the literal vs. spiritual interpretation of texts. Some individuals of certain eschatological persuasions are often fond of claiming to interpret the Bible “literally.”

Dr. David Reagan describes Amillennialists and Postmillennialists as “those who spiritualize prophecy,” while Premillennialists (like Dr. Reagan) interpret it “more literally” (www.lamblion.com “Matthew 24: Is it history or prophecy?”). By painting the debate with these terms, one who claims to interpret the Bible “literally” immediately garners the emotional support of those who claim the Bible to be the literal Word of God. This is because many liberals who do not accept the Bible (either in part or as a whole) as divinely inspired do not accept the literal “face value” interpretation of many passages (e.g., much of the miraculous is viewed as embellishments supplied by later editors). The intimation is that those who interpret the Bible literally are those who truly believe the Bible, while others do not hold that same level of reverence, honor, and belief. Thus, since Amillennialists and Postmillennialists are touted as “those who spiritualize prophecy,” they become, to various degrees, lumped with liberals. Tim LaHaye applies the literal/spiritual debate directly to the Preterist/Futurist debate:



“Unfortunately, when it comes to the prophetic passages of Scripture, [Preterists] do not interpret them literally, as they do those passages pertaining to the gospel and our Lord’s deity. . . . Preterists, like the reformed theologians from whence they come, try to allegorize prophecy . . . .” (LaHaye and Ice, The End Times Controversy, 7-8)



Dr. Ed Hindson writes:



If one believes that the language of prophecy cannot be taken literally, how can he be sure what Scriptures can be taken literally? Preterists are following the dangerous path of Liberalism which began denying predictive prophecy and soon rejected the literal interpretation of creation, the flood, biblical history, the virgin birth of Christ, His vicarious death and bodily resurrection. (Pre-Trib Perspectives, vol. VIII, Number 30, January 2006, “Last Days’ Scoffers”)



Likewise, John MacArther writes:



“Taking a page from the liberals’ handbook, hyper-preterists allegorize the meaning of those [1 Thess 4:16-17; 1 Cor 15:22-24, 53-54; 1 Peter 3:10] and all other prophetic passages, claiming they describe spiritual, not literal, realities. In other words, for the sake of interpreting Matthew 23:36 with an unwarranted wooden literalism, they will sacrifice the plain sense meaning of every other prophecy about the return of Christ and end-times prophecy.” (MacArthur, The Second Coming, 11)



There are some strong allegations in MacArthur’s quote, to which we shall return. However, at this point we merely wish to establish the “guilty by association” position of lumping Preterists with liberals simply because Preterism allegorizes or spiritualizes certain texts that Futurism does not. While this is an effective device for swaying particular audiences, it unfortunately muddies the waters and inhibits open dialogue. The debate cannot be painted in such broad-brushed strokes. To begin with, what exactly is a “literal” interpretation? MacArthur writes,



“I believe the prophetic passages of Scripture should be handled like any other portion of God’s Word. The plain meaning of a text is the preferred interpretation. There’s no reason to spiritualize or devise allegorical interpretations of Scripture if the literal sense makes good sense.” (ibid., 22-23)



Dr. Thomas Ice writes,



“A literal fulfillment involves something that actually happened in history. . . . A nonliteral fulfillment would have been something that did not actually take place in time-space history.” (Pre-Trib Perspectives, vol. VIII, Number 24, June 2005, “The Literal Fulfillment of Bible Prophecy”)



Based upon Ice’s definition of a literal fulfillment, one wonders how the following can be fulfilled literally:



“For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us . . . .” (Heb 9:24)



Did this occur in “time-space history”? Notice earlier that Dr. Reagan did not claim that Premillennialists interpret the Bible literally (as many individuals claim to do), but that they interpret it “more literally.” Why not interpret the Bible completely literally? Because even Dr. Reagan realizes that there are texts which obviously cannot be interpreted literally. Still, he employs the literal vs. spiritual ploy. If we were to interpret the Bible completely literally, how would we interpret the following?



“Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.’” (John 10:7 NKJV)



If Jesus is a “door,” does He have hinges? Does He open inwardly or outwardly? Can only sheep enter through Him? After all, He is the door “of the sheep.” And why is Jesus concerned about sheep?

Obviously, those are absurd questions. Surely we all agree that Jesus is the only avenue (door) of salvation—He alone is the entrance, the access, to eternal life, and that “sheep” is a metaphor for those who believe in Him and enter into salvation. However, is that a “literal” interpretation of the passage? There are no hinges squeaking or sheep bleating! If we accept this interpretation, have we (gasp!) spiritualized the text? If one defines literal as the face-value meaning, then obviously this is not a literal interpretation. R. C. Sproul writes:

To interpret something literally is to pay attention to the litera or to the letters and words which are being used. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context. (Knowing Scripture, p. 48; emphasis in original)



Consider also the following quote from Philip Mauro:



. . . in Scripture the contrast is not between the spiritual and the literal, but between the spiritual and natural; for a passage of Scripture may refer, when taken “literally,” either to “that which is natural” or to “that which is spiritual.” In other words, the literal interpretation may call for a thing which exists in the realm of nature, or for the counterpart of that thing which exists in the realm of spiritual realities . . . . (The Hope of Israel: What Is It?, p. 14; emphasis in original)



Most students of the Word agree that there are different types of literature in the Bible: historic narrative; poetic; apocalyptic; metaphor; parable, etc. Therefore, one must determine the type of literature used in a particular passage in order to rightly interpret it. Obviously, our text above is not historic narrative, but of a more metaphoric nature. Thus, to interpret the text in the commonly understood definition of “literal” (Jesus is a literal door), would be to actually misinterpret the text. Even Thomas Ice recognizes this:



“Some opponents of the future, literal fulfillment of prophecy attempt to argue against future, literal fulfillment by noting that prophecy often employs symbols and figures of speech. This is true, but it does not mean that prophecy is not fulfilled literally in history. Literal interpreters have always taken into account symbols and figures of speech. . . . Early in Christ’s ministry, John the Baptist said of Jesus as He approached him: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). John used a symbol to designate Jesus—the Lamb of God. Yet, just because a symbol was used does not mean that Jesus did not literally die, as a sacrificial lamb, for man’s sin.” (Pre-Trib Perspectives, Volume VIII, Number 24, June 2005, “The Literal Fulfillment of Bible Prophecy”)



The truth, then, is that the debate is not literal vs. spiritual, or who believes the Bible vs. who doesn’t. The true debate is over the literary genre of the various passages we encounter—which passages are interpreted in a literal manner, and which are more figurative? Dispensationalists cannot claim to take the Bible literally while others do not; for if they do, we want to know how many hinges Jesus has! Rather, they can only claim that certain passages are to be understood literally as opposed to figuratively. As we have already seen, the Bible contains passages which were intended to be understood in a nonliteral manner (“I am the door”). Because of our Western Civilization, analytical mindsets, we are predisposed to interpret texts literally. But is that how the ancient civilizations—Hebrew in particular—used language? Students of the Word realize that it is not. Therefore, we must make every effort to lay aside our Western Civilization mindset and attempt to approach the text with an Ancient Near-East mindset.

This dovetails with the concept of audience relevance, which asks, “who wrote it, why was it written, to whom was it written, and how did the original audience understand it?” Consider the following passage:

“And Joshua spared Rahab the harlot, her father’s household, and all that she had. So she dwells in Israel to this day . . . .” (Josh 6:25 NKJV)



Do those who take the Bible literally believe that Rahab is still living in Israel today? It is highly doubtful. Yet how do they resolve that with the fact that they interpret the Bible literally? They must employ the hermeneutic of audience relevance, which tells us that Joshua was speaking these words to the Israelites of his day, and they would understand Joshua to mean that Rahab was still living among them at that time. Now, is that “spiritualizing” the text, or it is simply interpreting the text properly according to its genre and audience relevance?

So the question is not who interprets the Bible literally and who doesn’t. Rather, the question is which passages are literal and which are not. Dispensationalists claim that Bible prophecy should be interpreted literally, and accuse other interpretations of “allegorizing or spiritualizing” the texts. Note the focus upon prophecy in the quotes we examined earlier:

“Those who spiritualize prophecy (Amillennialists and Postmillennialists) . . . . Those who interpret prophecy more literally (Premillennialists) . . . .” (Dr. David Reagan, www.lamblion.com “Matthew 24: Is it history or prophecy?”)

“Unfortunately, when it comes to the prophetic passages of Scripture, [Preterists] do not interpret them literally, as they do those passages pertaining to the gospel and our Lord’s deity. . . . Preterists, like the reformed theologians from whence they come, try to allegorize prophecy . . . .” (LaHaye and Ice, The End Times Controversy, 7-8)

“Taking a page from the liberals’ handbook, hyper-preterists allegorize the meaning of those [1 Thess 4:16-17; 1 Cor 15:22-24, 53-54; 1 Peter 3:10] and all other prophetic passages, claiming they describe spiritual, not literal, realities. In other words, for the sake of interpreting Matthew 23:36 with an unwarranted wooden literalism, they will sacrifice the plain sense meaning of every other prophecy about the return of Christ and end-times prophecy.” (MacArthur, The Second Coming, 11)

Keeping in mind the example of Joshua and Rahab above (who said it, and to whom was it said), what would the “plain sense meaning” of this text be? Would it not be that the generation to whom Christ was speaking would see all the things of which He spoke? That is what Preterists believe. Yet now, when we interpret a text literally, MacArthur accuses us of “unwarranted wooden literalism.” Furthermore, MacArthur claims that Preterists allegorize “all other prophetic passages” and sacrifice the “plain sense meaning of every other prophecy about the return of Christ.” Really? Are we to take MacArthur’s words literally, and believe that Preterists allegorize every single prophecy regarding the return of Christ? Or would that be interpreting MacArthur’s words with unwarranted wooden literalism?

Do Dispensationalists actually interpret Bible prophecy “literally”? Consider this interpretation from Hal Lindsey:

Ezekiel sounded the fatal collapse of the Red Army centuries ago when inspired by the Spirit of the living God he said: “But on that day, when Gog shall come against the land of Israel, says the Lord GOD, my wrath will be roused. For in my jealousy and in my blazing wrath I declare, On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground. I will summon every kind of terror against Gog, says the Lord GOD; every man’s sword will be against his brother. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will rain upon him and his hordes and the many peoples that are with him, torrential rains and hailstones, fire and brimstone” (Ezekiel 38:18-22).

“. . . then I will strike your bow from your left hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand. You shall fall upon the mountains of Israel, you and all your hordes and the people that are with you; I will give you to birds of prey of every sort and to the wild beasts to be devoured. You shall fall in the open field; for I have spoken, says the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 39:3-5).

The description of the torrents of fire and brimstone raining down upon the Red Army, coupled with an unprecedented shaking of the land of Israel could well be describing the use of tactical nuclear weapons against them by the Romans. It explicitly says that this force would fall “in the open field,” so apparently this position enables the use of nuclear weapons. (The Late Great Planet Earth, 62nd printing, 149)

The first point to note is that nowhere in this passage (or in the entire Bible, for that matter) do we find the term “Red Army.” Lindsey has applied a nonliteral interpretation to “Gog.” More importantly, although the text deals literally with pestilence and bloodshed, swords, and bows and arrows, Lindsey somehow sees this as a description of nuclear war. Is this a literal interpretation of prophecy?

Consider these words from MacArthur:

Those who are not killed [during the Tribulation—BLM] will be given refuge in the mountains by God Himself. Revelation 12 likens Israel to a woman (“the woman who gave birth to the male Child [Christ],” v. 13). John recounts how in his vision, “the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent” (v. 14). The language is clearly symbolic; eagle’s wings may signify some kind of angelic assistance or custody for those who flee. (The Second Coming, 114-115)



Certainly Revelation 12 is a prophetic passage. Yet after accusing Preterists of allegorizing “all other prophetic passages,” MacArthur now claims that the woman of Revelation 12 is not a literal woman, but represents Israel. Furthermore, he claims the “language is clearly symbolic.” Who is allegorizing now?

Ed Hindson holds a similar view:

[The] Woman who suffers persecution during the Tribulation symbolizes Israel. This is a very important point. The woman who delivers the male child (Christ) represents the nation of Israel. Israel, not the Church, brought forth Christ, and He in turn, brought forth the Church. He is the founder of the Church, not its descendant. Therefore, the persecuted “saints” of the Tribulation are Jewish—the remnant of the woman’s seed. (http://www.pre-trib.org/articles/view/ rapture-and-glorious-appearing-of-jesus-christ)



Again, when we read terms such as “symbolizes” and “represents,” we must ask, who is interpreting the Bible literally?

The bottom line is this: the literal vs. spiritual accusation is a naïve representation of the issue at best, or, at worst, a smokescreen to avoid an honest study of the passages in question. When Preterists apply spiritual or figurative interpretations to passages that Futurists interpret “more literally,” the Preterists feel that scriptural precedent is on their side. It remains for each believer to be a Berean and search the Scriptures on these matters. Hiding behind the “literal/spiritual” pretense merely avoids the issue.