The “normal literal” method of Bible interpretation refers to the way human language is ordinarily interpreted. God has revealed His truth through the normal means of human language. Thus, the normal literal sense of Scripture must rule. Dr. David L. Cooper wisely observes: “When the plain sense of scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise.”
WHAT ABOUT ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATION?
The allegorical method of interpretation refers to spiritualizing the prophetic portions of Scripture instead of interpreting them literally. In this methodology, the Old Testament prophecies of a glorious earthly kingdom for the nation Israel are considered allegorical pictures of the existing church age. In other words, “Zion” is taken to mean the church instead of the city Jerusalem. The desert blossoming as a rose (Isaiah 35) is taken as a picture of the present fruitfulness of the gospel instead of a literal future condition on earth. The temple in Ezek. 40-48 is taken as a symbolic representation of the church rather than a literal future temple. By this manner of interpretation the events recorded in Revelation—the judgments upon the earth, the wars, the Two Witnesses, the sealing of the 144,000 Israelites, the binding of Satan, and the 1,000-year earthly rule—are viewed symbolically rather than as literal future events.
The Geneva Bible note at Revelation 9:11 identifies “the Angel of the bottomless pit” as “Antichrist the Pope, king of hypocrites and Satan’s ambassador.” There is no reason, though, to see the angel of the bottomless pit as anything other than a literal fallen angel in a literal bottomless pit.
The Lion Handbook of the Bible (1983) gives an allegorical interpretation of the book of Revelation. The two beasts of Revelation 13 are said to be “the Roman Empire and emperor-worship.”
The Illustrated Bible Handbook, edited by Lawrence Richards and published by Word Publishers in 1982 and by Thomas Nelson in 1997, takes a non-committal approach to Revelation, presenting both the literal-futurist and the allegorical-historical view, without exposing the error of the latter. The 144,000 in Rev. 7 is said to be “a perfect number (12 X 12 X 1000) representing the church of all ages.” The two witnesses in Rev. 11 are “not individuals but represent the whole church.” The death of the witnesses “symbolizes the church silenced by persecution.” The 1260 days (3.5 years) is “symbolic” and represents “periods of affliction.” The 42 months in Rev. 13:5 “represents the entire gospel age.” The binding of Satan in Rev. 20 “took place at the birth of Jesus.”
Harold Camping, founder of Family Christian Radio, recently came up with the following allegorical interpretation of Revelation 11:7. He says the two witnesses represent the church. The church has been in the great tribulation but has now been killed. Therefore, the church is dead; God is through with churches and pastors and they have no more Scriptural authority.
THE HISTORY OF ALLEGORICALISM
First century believers did not interpret the prophecies allegorically. In fact, it did not arise until some 200 years after the apostles.
1. A school was established at Alexandria, Egypt, which became the headquarters for the allegorical method of interpretation. The first head of the school was Pantaenus. Clement headed the school from 190 to 202. He intermingled the philosophy of Plato with Christianity. He helped develop the doctrine of purgatory and believed that most men would eventually be saved. He was mystical in his approach to Christianity. He taught that salvation was through knowledge rather than through the blood of Jesus Christ.
2. Origen (A.D. 185-254) was one of the chief fathers of allegoricalism. He led the school at Alexandria from 202 to 232. Though he endured persecution and torture for the cause of Christ under the emperor Decius in 250, Origen was loaded with false teachings. Following are some of the strange heresies of Origen: (a) He taught that celibacy was a holy state above marriage. (b) He lived an ascetic life contrary to the example of the apostles. (c) He taught a mixture of pagan philosophy and Christianity. (d) He taught baptismal regeneration. (e) He believed in purgatory. (f) He taught that all men and even Satan and demons would eventually be saved. (g) He taught the preexistence of the human soul. (h) He taught that the Holy Spirit was the first creature made by God. (i) He did not believe that the Scriptures are infallible. (i) He doubted that Jesus Christ is fully God. (k) Christ, in his atonement, made a ransom to Satan. Origen’s character is described by the Lutheran historian Mosheim as “a compound of contraries, wise and unwise, acute and stupid, judicious and injudicious; the enemy of superstition, and its patron; a strenuous defender of Christianity, and its corrupter; energetic and irresolute; one to whom the Bible owes much, and from whom it has suffered much.”
3. Another father of allegoricalism was Augustine (A.D. 354-430), also one of the fathers of the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine was also a heretic. (a) He was a persecutor and the father of the doctrine of persecution in the Catholic Church. The historian Neander observed that Augustine’s teaching “contains the germ of the whole system of spiritual despotism, intolerance, and persecution, even to the court of the Inquisition.” He instigated bitter persecutions against the Bible-believing Donatists who were striving to maintain pure churches after the apostolic faith. (b) He was the father of a-millennialism, teaching that the Catholic Church was the kingdom of God. (c) He taught that the sacraments were the means of saving grace. (d) He taught that Mary did not commit any sin. (e) He believed in purgatory. (f) He was one of the fathers of infant baptism, claiming that unbaptized infants were lost, and calling all who rejected infant baptism “infidels” and “cursed.” (e) He exalted the authority of the church over that of the Bible.
4. The Roman Catholic Church has continued to interpret the Bible allegorically throughout its history.
On the other hand, separatist Bible believers, such as the School of Antioch in the 2nd and 3rd century, some of the Waldensian groups, and various Anabaptists, have rejected allegoricalism and interpreted the Bible literally. We give two examples:
The School of Antioch was founded in the third century by Lucian (died A.D. 312) and trained preachers who rejected the allegorical method of interpretation. Some of these were Theodore, pastor of Mopsuestia (A.D. 350-428), Chrysostom (A.D. 354-407), Thodoret (A.D. 386-458), and Diodorus of Tarsus. “Diodorus of Tarsus’ books were devoted to an exposition of Scripture in its literal sense, and he wrote a treatise, now unhappily lost, ‘on the difference between allegory and spiritual insight’” (F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation, pp. 213-15).
William Tyndale was the translator of the first English Bible from the Greek and Hebrew in the early 1500s and was put to death by Rome for his noble work. He said: “Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way. Neverthelater, the Scripture useth proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverbs, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifieth, is over the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently…” (William Tyndale, cited by Charles Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, pp. 456-57).
WHY WE REJECT ALLEGORICALISM
1. GOD GAVE THE SCRIPTURES TO REVEAL TRUTH TO MAN, NOT TO HIDE IT.
It is given for light, not confusion. “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). Thus, in the Scriptures God uses the normal rules of human language.
2. GOD CREATED HUMAN LANGUAGE (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:19). Man is made in the image of God, and he thus has amazing communicative abilities. The first purpose of human language is that man might know and communicate with God. When Adam was first created, there were no other people to talk with. Adam talked only with God, and it is reasonable to assume that God gave man the linguistic ability to communicate with Him efficiently. God also created the different languages at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:9). When God has spoken to men from the creation until now, He has always done so through normal human language. According to 1 Cor. 2:10, the Scriptures in normal human language are capable of communicating the “deep things of God.”
3. BIBLE PROPHECIES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FULFILLED LITERALLY. Examples are the prophecies concerning the nations (such as Babylon and Tyre), the prophecies of Israel, and the prophecies of the first coming of Christ. All of these have been fulfilled literally in every detail, and it is reasonable to assume that unfulfilled prophecies will likewise be literally consummated.
Prophecies of Israel:
Verse 36 – Lam. 2:9; 2 Ki. 17:4-6; 2 Ch. 33:11
Verse 37 – Lam. 1:21; 2:15-16; 3:45-46
Verse 38 – Joel 1:4
Verse 41 – Lam. 1:5,16; 2 Ki. 24:10-16; Dan. 1
Verse 43 – Lam. 1:1, 5; 5:2-4
Verse 48 – Lam. 1:11, 14; 4:8-10; 5:5; Jer. 28:14; 4:13; Hab. 1:6-7
Verse 49 – Lam. 4:19; Ezek. 17:3, 12; Hab. 1:8; Jer. 5:15; 48:40; Hos. 8:1
Verse 50 – Lam. 4:16; Is. 47:6; 2 Ch. 36:17
Verse 51 – Is. 1:7
Verse 52 – Lam. 2:5; 7:9; 2 Ki. 25:1, 2, 4; 17:5-6; 18:13
Verse 53 – Lam. 2:20; 4:5, 10; 2 Ki. 6:28-29; Jer. 19:9
Verse 62 – Neh. 7:4; Is. 1:9; Jer. 4:2
Verse 64 – Jer. 16:13; Ezek. 11:16
Verse 65 – Lam. 1:3, 13; 3:4-7; 5:5, 9
Prophecies in 1 Kings
1 Kings 11:31 – fulfilled 1 Ki. 12:16-17
1 Kings 13:2 – fulfilled 2 Ki. 23:15-16
1 Kings 14:10 – fulfilled 1 Ki. 15:28-29
1 Kings 16:3 – fulfilled 1 Ki. 16:11-12
1 Kings 21:19 – fulfilled 1 Ki. 22:38; 2 Ki. 9:24-26
1 Kings 21:22 – fulfilled 2 Ki. 9-10
1 Kings 21:23 – fulfilled 2 Ki. 9:36
The Prophecies of the Nations:
SAMARIA: Micah 1:6 predicts utter ruin to Samaria, even down to its foundations. Tan reports, “During the time of Christ, Samaria was still a prominent city and was visited several times by Christ. But now, the old city stands no more.” “Vegetation grows on the hillsides of Old Samaria. The stones of the palaces have been thrown down and many of them have found their way to the valley below” (Martin Wyngaarden, The Future of the Kingdom in Prophecy and Fulfillment, p. 20).
TYRE: Ezekiel 26:3-16 predicts seven steps to the destruction of Tyre:
(1) Nebuchadnezzar shall besiege and sack Tyre (vv. 7-11).
(2) Many nations will participate in destroying Tyre (v. 3).
(3) The city will be made flat like the top of a rock and even the dust will be scrapped (v. 4).
(4) Its stones and timbers will be laid in the sea (v. 12).
(5) Other cities will fear greatly at Tyre’s fall.
(6) It is to become a place for the spreading of nets, referring to fishing (v. 5).
(7) The old city of Tyre will never be rebuilt (v. 14).
“This prophecy against Tyre was partly fulfilled in 586 B.C. when King Nebuchadnezzar took the mainland city of Tyre after a siege of thirteen years but was unable to take its nearby island to which most of the people had fled. In 322 B.C., Alexander the Great, by scraping up the stones and timber of the mainland city as building material, built a great causeway to the heavily-defended island, and so completed the conquest of Tyre. Today, the site of ancient Tyre has fresh water supply enough for a large modern city, but it has not been occupied for 2,300 years. However it is very popular with fishermen!” (Tan, p. 65).
The Prophecies of Christ’s First Coming: Psalm 22. In this Psalm alone, there are many specific prophecies about Christ’s death:
v. 1 – Matt. 27:46
vv. 6-8 – Matt. 27:39-44
v. 9-10 – Matt. 1:18-23
v. 11 – Mk. 14:50; Heb. 1:3
vv. 12-13 – Matt. 27:39
v. 14-16 – Matt. 27:35
v. 17 – Jn. 19:33
v. 17b – Mat. 27:36
v. 18 – Matt. 27:35; Jn. 19:24
Thus, we see that Bible prophecy has always been fulfilled literally, and there is no reason to believe that future prophecies will be fulfilled any differently.
4. EVERY MAJOR SECTION OF THE BIBLE FORETELLS IN DETAIL THE SAME EVENTS. In this way, God is emphasizing the literalness of these events. If a person studies Old Testament prophecies, Jesus’ prophecies, the Apostles’ prophecies, and the prophecies described in Revelation, he will see a repetition of the same events. All give details of the same major scenes—the worldwide tribulation, a wicked world ruler, Christ’s second coming in glory, destruction of rebels, restoration and national regeneration of Israel, the glorious earthly reign of Christ.
MAJOR PROPHETIC EVENTS FORETOLD IN ALL PARTS OF THE BIBLE
Event O.T. Jesus Apostles Revelation
Antichrist Dan. 9-12 Ma. 24:15 2 Th. 2:1-12 Rev. 13
Great Tribulation Is. 2;13;24;34 Ma. 24:21 1 Th. 5:1- 3 Rev. 6-18
Glorious Return Ze. 14:1-4 Ma. 24:29-30 2 Th. 1:6-10 Rev. 19:11-16
Conversion of Israel Jer. 31-33 Ma. 19:28 Rom. 11:25-27 Rev. 7
Destruction of Rebels Ze. 12-14 Lk. 19:27 Jude 14-15 Rev. 19:17-21
Glorious Kingdom Is. 35 Ma. 25:31 Rom. 11:25-27 Rev. 20
5. JESUS TAUGHT MEN TO UNDERSTAND THE SCRIPTURES THROUGH NORMAL MEANS (Lk. 10:25-26).
6. JESUS SAID THESE EVENTS ARE YET FUTURE. He pinpointed the general time of their fulfillment to be just before His coming in glory (Mt. 24:15-29).
7. THE EARLY CHRISTIANS INTERPRETED PROPHECY LITERALLY (ACTS 3:19-21; ROM. 11:25-27). THIS IS ADMITTED BY ALMOST ALL CHURCH HISTORIANS. “The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment” (Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1884, II, p. 614).
8. THE PROPHECIES ARE BEGINNING TO BE FULFILLED LITERALLY. The machinery for the one world government and religious organization described in Rev. 13 is being set up. Earthquakes, wars, famine, and false teachings are increasing just as Jesus said they would (Mt. 24:3-8). The nation Israel is back in its land in preparation for the literal fulfillment of all the prophecies pertaining to it. This supports the belief that God has not permanently rejected the nation Israel, but has only temporarily set them aside until He is ready to fulfill His promises to them (Rom. 11:25-29). There is no good reason to doubt that Bible prophecy will be wholly fulfilled in the future.
9. PRACTICAL NECESSITY ALSO DEMANDS THE LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY. To interpret Bible prophecy allegorically destroys the absolute sense of God’s Word. If prophecy does not mean exactly what it says, there is no way to discern exactly what it does mean.
For example, consider Revelation 20:1-3. If this passage does not mean that a literal angel binds a literal devil in a literal bottomless pit for a literal thousand years, we have no means of knowing what it does mean. If it does not mean what it says, it could mean anything that any interpreter says it means. Thus, the teaching of the Bible is thrown into complete and permanent confusion.
“The literal method is a true and honest method. It is based on the assumption that the words of Scripture can be trusted. It assumes that since God intends His revelation to be understood, divine revelation must be written based on regular rules of human communication. To interpret literally means to explain the original sense of the speaker or writer according to the normal, customary, and proper usages of words and language. In order to determine the normal and customary usages of Bible language, it is necessary to consider the accepted rules of grammar and rhetoric, as well as the factual historical and cultural data of Bible times. It is proper for a word to have various meanings and senses. However, when a word is used in a given situation, it should normally possess but one intended sense or meaning. This is the regular law of linguistic exchange among sensible people. Music lovers seek to understand music composers, not by out-thinking and out-sensing the composers, but by following the latter’s choice and use of precise musical notes. Students of Music Appreciation courses do not go about trying to listen for something which is not there, but attempt rather to know the intended meaning and mood of a given composer through his use of the notes. Otherwise what the composer is trying to say is ignored and what the interpreter wants to say becomes the important factor. Literal interpreters believe that Scriptural revelation is given to be understood by man. It believes the Bible to be revelation, not riddle” (Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, p. 29-30).
10. ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATION MAKES THE BIBLE STUDENT A SLAVE TO ENLIGHTENED TEACHERS WHO HAVE THE “KEY” OF UNDERSTANDING. This is how the Catholic Church has kept its people enslaved to its unscriptural traditions and dogmas. Rome taught the people that the Bible can only be understood properly by the priests.
“Whether it is the interpretation of prophecy or non-prophecy, once literality is sacrificed, it is like starting down an incline. Momentum speedily gathers as one succumbs to the temptation to spiritualize one passage after another. ... Moreover, under the method of spiritualization, there is no way for an interpreter to test the validity of his conclusions, except to compare his works with that of a colleague. Instead of ‘a more sure word of prophecy’ (2 Pet. 1:19), interpreters end up with an ‘unsure’ word and chaos in the ranks” (Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, pp. 73,74).
“If we preach the Bible literally, it is like telling the truth. You do not have to remember what you said. But if you spiritualize . . . what you said about a passage yesterday may be diametrically opposed to what you make it mean today. . . . A man will find himself contradicting himself over and over again as he preaches through the years” (W.A. Criswell, Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True, p. 145).
Beware of the “Keys” to Bible Interpretation
If there is such a thing as the “KEY” to Bible interpretation, it is to study the Bible through the literal normal method and to let the Bible speak for itself. Yet, there are many strange “keys” promised by various groups.
The Christadelphians have a Bible study course called “The Key to Bible Understanding.” According to this “key,” salvation is achieved by faith plus works, death is to cease from breathing and does not mean man’s spirit goes to heaven or hell, resurrection is not for the wicked, baptism is required for salvation, hell is not a place of eternal torment, etc.
Mary Baker Eddy of Christian Science wrote the “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” By this “key,” hell and death and sickness are not real but are merely illusions.
A new book that uses the hyper-dispensational approach, “One Book Rightly Divided,” has a cover illustration featuring a key lying on a Bible. By this “key,” Paul preached a different gospel than Peter, only Paul’s epistles are for the churches, Hebrews and James teaches you can lose your salvation, 1 John teaches that salvation is by faith plus works, and men will be saved by works during the Tribulation.
One web site features the “kitab-i-iqan: the key to unsealing the mysteries of the Holy Bible.” This describes the teachings of someone named Shoghi Effendi who has allegedly broken the seals of Bible prophecy. By this “key,” grave refers to error, heaven refers to divine revelation, tribulation is “not knowing where to go for the truth,” earthquake is “the hearts of believers being moved by the Holy Spirit,” being raised from the dead means having faith, clouds are “things contrary to the desires of man,” and angels are “people who have replaced faults with divine attributes.”
Another web site that features a “key to Bible prophecy” interprets the beast of Revelation as America and the destruction of life described in Revelation as the abortion of babies today.
Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s “key to the Bible” was “divine nuptials” or the struggle to form a faithful people. He taught that salvation is through the Catholic sacraments, that Mary is the Queen of Heaven, and that God exalts virginity and devalues marriage and the sexual relationship between a man and woman.
The “Key to Bible Understanding” by O.L. Dunaway of Truth Gleaner ministries, teaches that hell is not a place of eternal torment, that death is not a journey to heaven or hell, that baptism is necessary for salvation, etc.
The “Key to Understanding Bible Contradictions” by Gary Naler claims that contradictions in Scripture are “Yahweh’s intended riddles” and he proposes that men did not see this “key” for 2,000 years. One of the supposed riddles is Jesus teaching on the new birth in John 3! According to this “Remnant Bride” teaching, God is calling a remnant out of the organized churches, all of which are apostate, and this remnant is Elijah who will prepare the way for the return of Christ.
According to the “House of Israel Bible Studies” the “key” to the Bible is the covenant of David which supposedly has passed to the “lost tribes of Israel,” which are now found in England and the United States; Manasseh and Ephriam are now the United States and England; the British throne can be traced back to the kings of Judah; the pyramid on the U.S. dollar refers to its connection with Israel, etc.
Beware of the “keys” to the Bible that are offered by false teachers. Any claim that someone has discovered a “new key to” or has only recently learned the “real meaning of” Scripture is false. “If it is new it is not true, and if it is true it is not new”! The real key to understanding the Bible is simply to take God at His word, to approach the Bible through the rules of normal language, and to let the Bible interpret itself.
WHAT ABOUT THE ALLEGORY IN GALATIANS 4:21-31?
1. This is the only case of an Old Testament event seen by the New Testament as an allegory.
2. This method however is entirely different from the allegorical method of non-literal interpreters, because in Galatians 4, Paul assumes the literal existence of Hagar, Sarah, Mount Sinai, Jerusalem, etc. He cites them as allegories only for the purpose of illustration. The prophetic allegorists, though, say that Zion is not Zion and that the 144,000 in Rev. 7 is not 144,000 and that the 1,000 years in Rev. 20 is not 1,000 years. This is not what Paul was doing.
3. Paul never interpreted Bible prophecy allegorically, always literally – literal tribulation (1 Thess. 5:1-3), literal antichrist (2 Thess. 2:8-12), literal resurrection (1 Cor. 15), literal return of Christ with his saints (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:14), literal kingdom (2 Tim. 4:1), literal fulfillment of Israel’s promises (Rom. 11:25-27).
WHAT ABOUT APPLICATION AND THE DEVOTIONAL USE OF SCRIPTURE?
“The literal method of interpretation is concerned with interpretation, not with application. Applications are fair to the Bible when they are based on that which has been literally interpreted. To base interpretations of the Bible on applications is erroneous and will end in chaos. ... The literal interpreter, by insisting on the literal sense of Scripture, does not imply that the Bible has no depth or latent riches. God’s Word contains truths, principles, and applications which every interpreter must fathom. Some of these are latent, inward, and hidden; others are patent, outward, and obvious. ... The correlation of both the simple and the profound in God’s Word is wonderful to behold. But this licenses neither a mystical approach nor a forced search for some superadded ‘spiritual’ sense. There is nothing clandestine about Christianity. The proper approach to God’s Word is the reverent one of accepting what it says and then making applications to life” (Paul Tan, p. 31).
For example, we interpret the prophecies about return of Christ literally as belonging to the future and the prophecies of the Lord’s blessing upon Israel as literal events of the future, but we also get spiritual application from those prophecies for our Christian lives today. An example is Isaiah 59:18-21.
18 According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay, fury to his adversaries, recompence to his enemies; to the islands he will repay recompence.
19 So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him.
20 And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD.
21 As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.
This passage describes the coming of the Lord and the establishment of His kingdom. Verse 18 refers to His judgments during the Great Tribulation; verse 19 refers to the worldwide kingdom; verses 20-21 refer to the restoration of Israel and the New Covenant. This is the interpretation, but there are many applications for church age believers. Some of these are the following: God judges sin. The Lord is to be feared. God is the God of the whole earth. The Lord protects His people against the enemy’s most fierce attacks. The Lord is the Redeemer, the Savior. God demands turning or repentance. God offers a covenant of salvation today through Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God opens men’s hearts and minds to the truth. Salvation is eternal. Thus, we see that there is a literal interpretation and there is an application.
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