Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Literal interpretation and asking the wrong questions

I had a discussion with a couple of good friends the other day about millennialism. One friend held to a pre-millennial position, the other a-millennial.

An issue that often comes up in such discussions is, the question of "literal" versus "spiritual/metaphorical" interpretation.

I hold that this is a false question. It tends to skew the outcome from the beginning. It plays into a modern, false dichotomy. (Ironically, when faced with a false "physical/spiritual" choice, modern believers have tended to retreat from the physical realm into the spiritual one; but in the question of eschatology, have felt it is the "spiritual" choice to take the most "literal" possibly interpretation of prophecy. Perhaps this is a compensation - the devil largely gets the material world now, but Jesus claims it back in the millennium? One of the points I raised with my pre-millennial friend is that I dispute that pre-millennialism is the "literal" option. Revelation chapter 20 taken "literally" does not mention Jerusalem, or a bodily resurrection of all believers, but takes place in the heavenly realm, where John says that he saw "souls". But I digress).

This literal-versus-spiritual view of the question tends to view prophetic interpretation as a matter of a sliding scale. A line is drawn, from "purely spiritual" at the left end, and "completely literal" at the right end. Then we have to decide where to land on that line. Those of the pre-millennial school tend to say, we should go as far to the right as possible. This sometimes leads to unwarranted chest-thumping and drawing connections that don't exist - if you go further to the left, you are a secret liberal! Taking the Bible seriously involves "literally-as-possible", otherwise you don't really believe (my friend did not take this line)!

Where "possible" is involves a number of subtleties. My friends was dispensational pre-millennial, and in my view the particular subtleties of that school are indistinguishable from arbitrary special pleading. A time reference of one thousand years in Revelation must mean exactly one thousand years otherwise we have mangled the plain word of God; but to take a "generation" in Matthew 24 as a literal generation is "wooden literalism" which we must avoid - hmmm!

This whole idea of a sliding scale is wrong. We need to get past the idea that it is the right interpretative grid to bring to prophetic understanding. Much better is to let the Bible interpret itself. This is actually to take the Bible more seriously, not less.

There is plenty of examples of already-fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. There is a large cupboard of prophetic imagery - stock usages of the prophets, which we can see the meaning of. The LORD coming on the clouds. Multi-coloured horses travelling through the earth. Jehovah coming down from Mount Zion, etcetera. Prophetic imagery is interpreted for us in the Scriptures already. Our job is not to set up our own rules and a zero-to-one-hunderd spiritual-literal scale with its ensuing set of mistaken questions. Our job is to understand the Bible's own rules to interpreting the range of prophetic images, and apply those. We are not given Daniel and Revelation in a vacuum; they cycled and recycled imagery that was part of the prophet's stock-in-trade, rather than inventing something entirely new and leaving us to figure it out for ourselves.

At times this more Biblical approach will bring issues which intersect with the literal/spiritual question; for example, when Jeremiah said that the exile in Babylon would be 70 years long, he really did mean 70 years as in 840 months as in 70 trips around the calendar, and not something else. But a study of prophetic usage emphatically does not lead to the sliding scale as the basic tool of interpretation. If we start there, we will not end up with authentically Biblical answers.

1 comment:

Ned Kelly said...

I have to admit that the "a" vs "pre" vs "post" arguments have left me with no resolution at all. Each has strengths and weaknesses. After studying various works, including Dwight Pentecost's Things to Come, Don Manley's The End of Human History, Gerald Rowland's The Messiah Comes To Israel, numerous internet articles, and Christian studies on the Book of Revelation, I still have no clear idea other than something dramatic is going to happen some time in the future. It has been interesting to compare Jewish, Christian, and Islamic views on eschatology, as each uses some common sources and have many similarities, but for all that, I think I shall just watch and wait, knowing that God's Plan will unfold as He wills, but otherwise trying to assist people in getting their houses in order.