Key to Understanding Prophecy
from eParousia #2, March, 2003
I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another,
I will rather acknowledge that I do not understand what is written."
Justin Martyr - 2nd Century AD
all struggle at times to understand the Scriptures. The area of
prophecy is often especially difficult to understand due to its
apocalyptic nature, with dragons, beasts, imagery, etc. This difficulty
has resulted in scores of various views of what the Bible teaches
about the future. We have premillennialism, amillennialism, and
postmillennialism. And within each of these camps there are a many
different opinions on the details. Many of these disagreements are
a result of how we interpret the Bible.
we read the Scriptures, we all must be like the Bereans of Acts
17:11. The residents of Berea were commended for searching the Scriptures
to "see whether these things were so". Searching the Scriptures
involves not only reading the text, but interpreting what is written
there as well.
has been defined as the science and art of biblical interpretation.
There have been huge tomes written on hermeneutics, but we want
to boil it down to the essence of interpreting the Bible. What method
should we use? What are some principles that should guide our interpretation
of the Bible?
there have been 3 basic methods of biblical interpretation espoused
by scholars. These are the spiritual method, the allegorical method
and the literal (or face value) method. Let's look at each of these
briefly to determine the correct method of interpretation.
The practice of interpretation in which the interpreter finds a
broader, or figurative, or typical meaning given to the passage
by the Holy Spirit. This method of interpretation looks for multiple
meanings in the text, going beyond the literal meaning, to what
have been called the literal, allegorical, tropological (moral)
and anagogical senses of the passage. These are the deeper meanings
that the Holy Spirit has "hidden" beneath the literal
text, and it is the job of the interpreter to draw them out. The
problem inherent with this method of interpretation is that the
interpreter becomes the judge of the meaning of the text. There
is no objective standard by which to measure the accuracy of our
interpretation. Ten people can interpret the text in ten different
ways as they are led by the Holy Spirit, and we would be unable
to say that one is right and the other nine are incorrect. Who is
to say what God intended us to understand?
The method of interpreting a text that regards the literal sense
as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound
sense, hidden beneath the text. A common theme of allegorical interpretation
is to assign definitions to common terms. For example, water represents
the Holy Spirit, tree represents new life, rainbow represents promise,
valley represents sin, and so on. For allegorical interpreters,
every biblical story, no matter how seemingly mundane or boring,
is meant to convey spiritual, deeper truth. The literal understanding
is ignored and seen as merely a vehicle for the deeper spiritual
meaning. Once again, the problem with this understanding of Scripture
is that each person can define terms as they see fit and see whatever
deeper truths they want to see. There is no objective "dictionary
of allegories" that we consult to understand Scripture. Each
person can have their own interpretation and there is no way of
saying who is right and who is wrong.
Value (Literal): The method of interpreting a text that
interprets terms in their normal, customary designation. Each word
is given the basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary usage,
whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking. This method has
also been called the historical-grammatical method of interpretation.
In this method, the primary goal is to understand the original intent
of the author when he wrote. The underlying assumption of the face
value method is that God intended to communicate His word to man
so that we could understand it. God did not try and hide truths
in the Scriptures; His intent is not to make it as difficult as
possible to understand. Rather, He wants us to read and understand
His word. The apostle Paul says the same thing to the Corinthians
when he writes: "For we write nothing else to you than what
you read and understand, and I hope you will understand until the
end." (2 Cor. 1:13).
go over 5 important principles of a good face value hermeneutic:
Seek to understand the author/Author's intended meaning.
As stated above, the overriding principle of our Bible study must
be to understand what the human author (and divine Author) intended
to communicate. The only way to accurately do this is to take words
in their normal meaning. As the adage goes, "if the plain sense
makes sense you have the right sense."
All Scripture must be taken in its proper context. This
means that the interpretation of Scripture should be looked at in
the light of the verses and book in which the passage is found.
The argument of the author must be taken into account. The historical
and cultural context should be remembered as well. This is perhaps
the most violated of all the principles and is, in my opinion, the
number one violation of biblical interpretation which plagues the
church today. A text without context is a pretext!
Always compare Scripture with other Scripture. In other
words, Scripture is its own best commentary. All the passages touching
on a particular matter need to be studied and harmonized before
truth is found. If one is studying the return of Christ, then one
needs to compare passages from Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah,
Matthew, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, Jude, Revelation, etc.
Only once all relevant passages have been studied and compared,
can we be sure of our interpretation. Martin Luther said, "The
best interpreter of Scripture is other Scripture."
Determine the literal references of figures of speech that provide
comparison, substitution, and amplification. Scripture,
like any serious literature, uses figures of speech. These include
similes, metaphors, hyperbole, idioms, metonymies, parallelism,
etc. It is our job to recognize these figures of speech and discover
what the author intended in his usage. What is the literal reference
the author wishes us to understand?
Recognize the near/far implications and applications in prophetic
passages. It is common in prophetic literature for there
to be both a near application and a far application to a certain
prophecy. A few examples will illustrate this. A near future judgment
will be predicted on a nation followed by a prediction of far future
judgment on the whole world. The letters to the seven churches in
Revelation were relevant to their immediate audience and included
specific items of praise and condemnation by Christ. These letters
also mention the Coming of Christ and are thus relevant to the final
generation which will be on earth when He returns. And finally,
there are several OT passages which speak of the two Comings of
Christ back to back, as if they were one event. This is a phenomenon
called "telescoping". J. Barton Payne says, "Biblical
prophecy may leap from one prominent peak in predictive topography
to another, without notice of the valley between which may involve
no inconsiderable lapse in chronology" (J. Barton Payne, Encyclopedia
of Biblical Prophecy, p. 137).
we are to understand biblical prophecy (or any other part of Scripture)
we must approach the Bible with a humble heart, relying on the Holy
Spirit, with the conviction that God's Word is true and cannot contradict
itself. And the bottom line of our study must be obedience and submission
to God's Word. As A.W. Tozer said, "When you find the truth
of Scripture that truth always stands in judgment of you, you never
stand in judgment of it."
God bless us and guide us as we seek to understand His word and
obey His will.
article was originally published through eParousia,
Sola Scriptura's monthly end-times e-newsletter.