Literal Interpretation and Bible Prophecy :: By Alexander Major


The contention of almost all evangelical scholars and expositors is that a grammatical-historical interpretive methodology is fundamentally important if one is to properly understand the Bible. After all, this basic precept was the interpretive cornerstone of the Reformation. It safeguarded the church from the ecclesiastical errors of Rome and recovered the historic doctrines of the faith that had been lost to centuries of ecclesiastical tradition. John Calvin, in his letter to the Galatians, writes, “Let us know then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning, and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely.” [1]

The literal/allegorical debate goes back to the early days of the church, where the dichotomy was most clearly manifest in the premier schools of the day: the School of Antioch and the School of Alexandria. Antioch safeguarded the literal hermeneutical approach, while Alexandria granted man greater control over the Scriptures by employing an allegorical approach to many areas of Scripture. This went on to affect interpretations in many systems of theology, such as eschatology.

The ecclesiological and eschatological ramifications of the allegorical hermeneutic were severe, yet many well-meaning theologians utilize the allegorical approach selectively and inconsistently. In other words, they do not apply the natural and obvious meaning of Scripture consistently. Concerning this literal interpretive method, they are not “abiding by it resolutely,” as Calvin exhorted the church to do. This inconsistency has culminated in many interpretive errors, such as Replacement Theology: the teaching that the church has replaced Israel. It will be demonstrated that a consistent application of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic is vital for proper interpretation of the biblical text and that it, in turn, demands a literal fulfillment of unfulfilled prophecy.

The Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic Defined

To defend the consistent use of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, it must first be properly defined. The literal interpretation of Scripture is not novel but was a key feature of Old Testament interpretation. During the exilic and post-exilic periods, Jews expected a literal fulfillment of the words God had spoken to the prophets concerning the future of their nation. Daniel, for example, literally interpreted Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the seventy years of captivity (cf. Jer 25:11; Dan 9:2). Old Testament books written after the captivity brim with Messianic fervor, answering to the hope that many Jews had that their kingdom would be restored. J. Dwight Pentecost notes how the Jews in the Old Testament interpreted Scripture literally, and he distinguishes this from the extreme literalism that grew to characterize Rabbinism:

Rabbinism came to have such a hold on the Jewish nation from the union of the authority of priest and king in one line. The method employed in Rabbinism by the scribes was not an allegorical method but a literal method, which, in its literalism, circumvented all the spiritual requirements of the law. Although they arrived at false conclusions, it was not the fault of the literal method but the misapplication of the method by the exclusion of any more than the bare letter of what was written. [2]

In other words, the literal method of interpretation can and has been misapplied, resulting in wooden literalism. However, the proper utilization of the literal interpretive method alone does not necessitate this overemphasis. The literal interpretive method was also the norm in first-century Judaism, and while it had been tarnished by a “decadent literalism,” [3] it was still the normative approach.

Accurate exegesis of Scripture must start at the grammatical level. A thorough grammatical analysis must be the building block on which further exegesis stands. Of course, this warrants familiarity with the biblical languages. Exclusive dependence on translations of the biblical text is inadvisable for the sole reason that certain grammatical constructions can be lost in translation.

Milton S. Terry writes, “A new language was not made for the authors of Scripture; they conformed to the current language of the country and time.” [4]

A grasp of the original languages allows the exegete to interact with and better understand the grammar of the text, giving proper reverence to the Scriptures as they were originally inspired.

The historical component of this hermeneutic is necessitated by its grammatical foundation. Scripture must be interpreted in terms of, not apart from, its historical context. Fanciful allegories often occur when one’s interpretation of Scripture is divorced from the context in which it was written. For example, Daniel 8:14 has been used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to teach that Christ returned spiritually in October of 1914. Was this conclusion Daniel’s intent? The biblical expositor must interpret the text as it would have been interpreted by its original audience and according to the natural rules of grammar and the meaning of words. Consequently, he would interpret the 2,300 “evenings and mornings” literally, not symbolically. He would understand this passage to be a direct prophecy of the persecution of the Jewish people under Antiochus Epiphanes.

Charles Ryrie, in his classic book, Dispensationalism, writes, “The word literal is perhaps not as good as either the word normal or plain, but in any case, it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as non-dispensational interpretation often does. The spiritualizing may be practiced to a lesser or greater degree, but its presence in a system of interpretation is indicative of a non-dispensational approach.” [5]

The Scriptures, according to Ryrie (who represents Revised Dispensationalism), should be interpreted according to the normal meaning of words without any superficial attempt to augment or embellish the definitions of the words. It must be emphasized that a literal hermeneutic does not negate the existence of types and symbols, but it does strive to interpret these literary devices within the “framework of literal interpretation.” [6]

In Revelation, symbols are often employed as tools that convey literal truth. In many cases, the symbol more powerfully communicates the meaning than the literal word. Case: In Revelation 12, a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns appears. Later in the text, this dragon is identified as Satan (Rev 20:2). John could have used “Satan” in Revelation 12, but “dragon” more forcefully conveys Satan’s monstrous and diabolical character to the reader. This principle is accurately summarized in the words of Lockhart: “If the literal meaning of any word or expression makes good sense in its connections, it is literal; but if the literal meaning does not make good sense, it is figurative.” [7]

Considering these foundational points, the grammatical-historical hermeneutic can be defined as the interpretation of Scripture according to its plain and normal meaning in accordance with all grammatical rules and historical considerations. When this is accomplished, the text of Scripture is allowed to speak on its own. On the other hand, when this approach is undermined, the interpreter is made to be the standard by which Scripture is to be understood. The use of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic protects against this. Therefore, it is an exegetical imperative, and the reformers were united on this point.

Literal Hermeneutics and the Reformation

Some scholars present a strong case that Martin Luther’s 95 theses contain incipient, early tenets of dispensational theology. It is apparent that the basic tenets of this hermeneutic can be seen in the document. In Forged From Reformation: How Dispensational Thought Advances the Reformed Legacy, Luther’s 95 theses are evaluated considering Luther’s appreciation of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Special attention is given to how the document did, in fact, contain incipient elements of dispensational thought. The first four are quoted and evaluated here:

1. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” [8]

Notice how Luther appeals to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation in his defense of the biblical doctrine of repentance. Specifically, he criticizes Jerome’s translation of μετανοεῖτε (to change one’s mind) as pœnitentiam agite (do penance) in the Latin Vulgate. In many additional places, Luther appeals to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic in demonstrating the errors of the Roman Catholic Church.

In Forged From Reformation: How Dispensational Thought Advances the Reformed Legacy, Patrick Belvill evaluates all of them in light of dispensationalism. His conclusion? That dispensationalism, while certainly not systematized by Luther, is the inevitable result of the consistent application of his literal hermeneutic. [9]

Pentecost writes, “If one is to return to the Reformers for his theology, he must accept the method of interpretation on which their theology rests.” [10]

The application of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic had recovered the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and it led Europe out of the dark ages, which were characterized by biblical illiteracy due to Rome’s religious stronghold. The literal hermeneutic that Luther used in the Reformation was the same literal interpretive approach that is esteemed today in orthodox biblical scholarship. It was the biblical response to the allegorical hermeneutic of the Roman Catholic Church, which could be traced to Origen and Augustine. The resurgence of the literal interpretive method allowed the Reformation principle of sola scriptura to carry the full weight of its words and led the laity out of the darkness of ecclesiastical malpractice.

Augustine and the Reformation

Unfortunately, however, many expositors have failed to apply Luther’s grammatical-historical hermeneutic to the entirety of Scripture, resulting in woeful imbalances in the resulting interpretations. This error is most observable within the realm of prophecy. In other words, the same literal hermeneutic used in interpreting past-fulfilled prophecy is not used in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy. In many theological systems, and especially in Reformed Theology, an allegorical hermeneutic is applied to most unfulfilled prophecy. This inconsistency goes directly against a fundamental rule of interpretation: “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 the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” [11]

This unbiblical approach to prophecy was invented by Origen and popularized by Augustine, who systematized the allegorical interpretation of Revelation through his amillennialism. Amillennialism, the teaching that there is no millennium, became the official doctrinal position of the Roman Catholic Church largely due to the success of Augustine’s City of God, which was the first systematic treatise of Alexandrian Amillennialism in church history. In it, Augustine spiritualized many prophetic texts. For example, Augustine reinterpreted the first resurrection of Revelation 20:4-6 to simply refer to regeneration, not any literal, eschatological resurrection. [12]

Not surprisingly, many Protestants of today have adopted the same view. [13]

Why is this? The Reformation was primarily concerned with soteriological and ecclesiological questions, not eschatological matters. As a result, the reformers adopted Rome’s amillennialism, and it became the standard eschatological position in many Protestant churches. The reformers did not go far enough in applying the very hermeneutic that they earnestly contended for. Why is a literal hermeneutic in prophecy necessary, and what interpretations result from it?

The Biblical Text is Meant to be Understood

Interpreters must always read the Bible in light of its ultimate purpose; it was written by a supernatural and all-loving God to convey a message to humanity about Himself. [14]

God’s infinite and unsearchable character will never be fully comprehended by finite man, but the complexity of Scripture should never be artificially inflated by man in altering the normal sense of the language in which it was written. The literal method does not militate against the acceptance of all symbolic language in the text, but it interprets these symbols within a literal methodology where the symbols convey concrete truths. Leann Snow Flesher succinctly states this principle: “At the core is the conviction that Scripture is to be taken literally, which does not necessitate that all symbols are to be taken literally. The fundamental premise and guiding rule of dispensational interpretation, however, is that if the plain meaning makes sense, then look no further.” [15]

Fulfilled Prophecy Sets the Precedent for Unfulfilled Prophecy

This point is compelling; for if the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ first coming were fulfilled in a literal manner, one can expect that the remaining unfulfilled prophecies related to Jesus’ Second Coming should be fulfilled in like manner. For example, Zechariah 9:9 anticipates the arrival of Messiah to Jerusalem on a donkey. This was historically fulfilled at the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ on Palm Sunday five days before His crucifixion (Matt 21: 1-11). This event was also anticipated in Daniel’s Seventy Weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27). The presentation of the Messiah to Israel occurred exactly on schedule, 483 years into the prophecy given by Gabriel to Daniel.

In his masterpiece, The Coming Prince, Sir Robert Anderson gives a detailed calculation of the first 69 weeks of Daniel’s prophecy, accounting for the differences between the Hebrew Lunar calendar and our Solar Calendar, leap years, and the shift from B.C. to A.D. He was able to calculate from the decree of Artaxerxes to rebuild Jerusalem in 445 B.C. (Neh 2:1-8) all the way to the triumphal entry and discover the exactitude of Daniel’s prophecy, down to the very day. [16]

In the cases of both Zechariah and Daniel, the arrival of the Messiah was fulfilled literally, not symbolically. All Christian interpreters, regardless of eschatological position, agree on this point. Ryrie writes: “The prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ—His birth, His rearing, His ministry, His death, His resurrection—were all fulfilled literally. That argues strongly for the literal method.” [17]

Psalm 22: A Case of Literal Fulfillment

In Psalm 22, David writes a graphic description about an extraordinary execution; extraordinary because David was never executed. David was writing about someone else. One commentator writes: “The interesting feature of this psalm is that it does not include one word of confession of sin, and no imprecation against enemies. It is primarily the account of a righteous man who was being put to death by wicked men.” [18]

David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, goes far beyond a general reflection of his personal experiences and graphically forecasts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in words so detailed and specific to crucifixion that they could not possibly apply to any other method of execution. Psalm 22, however, was written hundreds of years before crucifixion was even invented.

In verse 14, the psalmist describes his bones being out of joint. This is followed up with a description of extreme dehydration and exhaustion. In verse 16, the text reads, “A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet.” These words were literally fulfilled at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ when His hands and feet were impaled by nails that affixed Him to His cross. Even the division of Christ’s garments is anticipated in verse 18. The crucifixion narratives in the four gospels bear witness to the literal fulfillment of these words. Jesus prayed the very words of Psalm 22:1 when He was forsaken by the Father (Matt 22:46).

How do non-dispensationalists – those who apply an allegorical hermeneutic to unfulfilled prophecy — interpret Psalm 22? Dr. W. Godfrey, teaching fellow and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, writes:

This psalm is not only the experience of every believer, but it is also a very remarkable and specific prophecy of the sufferings of Jesus. We see the scene of the crucifixion especially clearly in the words, “A company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (vv. 16–18). Here we see that, indeed, this psalm comes to its fullest realization in Jesus. [19]

Observe the rich theology that emanates from a literal interpretation of Psalm 22. The unjust suffering of Jesus for the sins of His people is understood in such an emotionally visceral and theologically indispensable realm. The natural meaning of the words points to a clear Christological fulfillment, one that the New Testament explicitly affirms.

The Law of Double Reference

The importance of a literal interpretation of prophecy gains even more weight when one considers the law of double reference. The law is to be understood as follows: “What has not been fulfilled in the first, we must apply to the second; and what has already been fulfilled may often be considered as typical of what remains to be accomplished.” [20]

Plainly put, one prophecy may feature a double application, with both a near and far fulfillment in view. The prophets used double reference for a couple of reasons:

1) The literal, near fulfillment of a prophecy guaranteed the accurate fulfillment of its final, eschatological reference.

2) The prophecy, in its near fulfillment, illustrated the way the prophecy would be finally realized.

This is particularly true in Daniel. Case: In Daniel 8, the history of the Gentile oppressors of Israel is detailed, with specific emphasis placed on the Persian and Greek kingdoms. The reader can follow the rise of the Medo-Persian Empire, symbolized by a ram with two horns with one horn longer than the other (Dan 8:3). The Medo-Persian Empire is prophesied to be militarily successful, conquering everything in its path, until a shaggy male goat appears. This was the Macedonian Empire with its successful military campaigns led by Alexander the Great, the large horn (v.5). This was literally fulfilled in 334 B.C. when Alexander the Great not only conquered Persia, but Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt as well.

The prophecy continues, forecasting the death of Alexander and the dissolution of his kingdom into four parts (v. 22). This was also literally fulfilled in history when Alexander died of Malaria in 323 B.C. and his kingdom was divided amongst his four generals twenty years later. Ptolemy was given Egypt and parts of Asia Minor. Cassander was given the territory of Macedonia and Greece. Lysimachus was given Thrace and parts of Asia Minor. Seleucus was given Syria, Israel, and Mesopotamia. [21]

However, the prophecy suddenly skips hundreds of years to describe the rise of the king with a fierce countenance, Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.). [22]

He is identified as a little horn that comes on the scene following the dissolution of Alexander’s kingdom into four prominent horns (v.8). Antiochus’s identification as a “little horn” is quite similar to another “little horn” who appears in Daniel 7. That little horn comes out of the dissolution of the Roman Empire into ten parts (Dan 7:24).

Most dispensational scholars, following a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, identify the little horn of Daniel 7 as the final Antichrist who will persecute Israel during the tribulation. The little horn in Daniel 8, however, is historical, at least in its near fulfillment. Antiochus Epiphanes invaded Jerusalem and brutally slaughtered 80,000 innocent Jews. He also proscribed observance of the sabbath, the reading of the Torah, and halted the temple sacrifices. Daniel 8:23-26 prophesied his reign of terror over 300 years before it began. [23]

Daniel 8:19, however, applies the entire vision to the end times: “He said, “Behold, I am going to let you know what will occur at the final period of the indignation, for it pertains to the appointed time of the end.”

For this reason, many scholars interpret Daniel 8:23-26 under the law of double reference. The prophecy applies to Antiochus Epiphanes in its immediate, near fulfillment. It also reaches down across the millennia to describe the rise and fall of the Antichrist, who Antiochus prefigures. [24]

Everything this prophecy says about Antiochus’s character and deeds can be applied to the Antichrist of the end times. [25]

Notice how the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, consistently applied, demands a futuristic interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy. No allegory need be irresponsibly forced into the text.


It is concluded that if a plain and normal method of interpretation is rejected, there will be no means by which one can verify the truth of Scripture. Consequently, any text can be made out to say anything with the perfect allegory from the most innovative imagination. The interpreter himself becomes the arbiter of truth, and his proclivity for allegory the ultimate sovereign in the exegetical process. If expositors are to be consistent in their interpretation of the Bible, they must be consistent in their hermeneutical methods. It has been shown that this yields a literal and futuristic understanding of prophecy, one that is consistent with Scripture’s record of fulfilled prophecy.

As many seminary professors say: “It all comes down to hermeneutics.” Even then, non-dispensationalists may accuse dispensationalists of extreme literalism, but this generalization has been proven to be inaccurate. The core issue here will always be the need for the consistent application of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic.

Ryrie writes that “If one does not use the plain, normal, or literal method of interpretation, all objectivity is lost.” [26]

Alexander Major
Southern California Seminary, El Cajon, CA

End Notes

[1] Hospers, Gerrit Hendrik. The Principle of Spiritualization in Hermeneutics (East Williamson, NY: G.H. Hospers, 1935), 11.

[2] J. Dwight Pentecost. Things To Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1964), 17.

[3] Ibid., 19

[4] Milton S Terry. Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964. 203-204.

[5] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Rev. and expanded (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 47.

[6] Ibid., 47

[7] Clinton Lockhart. Principles of Interpretation (Kansas City, MO: Central Seminary Press), 1952.

[8] Christopher Cone, James I. Fazio, and Michael J. Vlach. Forged from Reformation: How Dispensational Thought Advances the Reformed Legacy. (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary Press, 2017), 59.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Pentecost, Things to Come, 30.

[11] David L. Cooper. The God of Israel (Rev. and ENL). (Los Angeles, CA: Biblical Research Society, 1945), 3.

[12] Augustine, and Marcus Dods. “The City of God.” In City of God, 2:1–576, 1871.

[13] Postmillennialist Kenneth Gentry writes, “According to John the ‘first resurrection’ secures the participation of the saints (both dead and living) in the rule of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6). This refers to the spiritual resurrection of those born again by God’s grace.” Kenneth Gentry. “Postmillennialism.” Bock, Darrell (General Editor). Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 1999. 53.

[14] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 92.

[15] Flesher, LeAnn Snow. “Premillennial Dispensationalism: Its Origins.” Review & Expositor, vol. 106, no. 1, 2009, pp. 21–34., doi:10.1177/003463730910600104

[16] Sir Robert Anderson, The Coming Prince (London, 1894), 103.

[17] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 92.

[18] Allen P. Ross, “Psalms,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 809–810.

[19] Robert W. Godfrey. Learning to Love the Psalms: Study Guide: Psalm 22. Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2017.

[20] Thomas Hartwell Horne. Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (London: Cambridge University Press, 1846), 390.

[21] J. Dwight Pentecost, “Daniel,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1357–1358.

[22] Prior to the rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, control of Israel vacillated between the Northern power; Syria, and the Southern power; Egypt. Daniel 11 details the battles that took place between these two powers, culminating in the control of Syria over Israel in 198 B.C. by Antiochus III.

[23] Some dispensational scholars interpret the entire prophecy of the little horn in Daniel to refer exclusively to the antichrist. See: Mark A. Hassler. The Identity of the Little Horn in Daniel 8. The Master’s Seminary Journal 27, no.1 (Spring 2016): 33–44.

[24] C. I. Scofield, ed. 1917. The Scofield Reference Bible: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments. New York; London; Toronto; Melbourne; Bombay: Oxford University Press. Scofield identifies Antiochus as a type of the final Antichrist.

[25] John F. Walvoord. Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation. (Moody Press, 1989), 189.

[26] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 92.