Kept From The Hour – By Gerald Stanton

Chapter 7

The Golden Rule Of Bibilical Interpretation

There is not doubt about it.  The basic issue in settling problems pertaining to the Bible is to determine the method of interpretation to be used.  Without a clear and consistent guiding principle, the student of divine revelation will drift helplessly as a rudderless vessel upon a vast ocean, and will lose his way as an explorer who ventures too deep into an unknown labyrinth without a light or a compass.  He will seek to unlock the mysteries of God, but shall not enter therein if he has no key.

The fact that God has given an extensive revelation of Himself and of His dealings with men, has caused such revelation to be recorded accurately in a Book, and has emplanted within His own a thirst for God and a Holy Spirit to minister to that need, argues indisputedly that the Bible is meant to be understood by every Christian.

The idea that God’s children should find their spiritual sustenance by feeing upon the Word of God is not new.  This truth antedates the prophets.  It is older than Moses.  No doubt its earliest written expression is found in the testimony of Job, who said, “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12).  It is repeated in the command of Christ to search the Scriptures (John 5:39) and in the exhortation of Paul to Timothy:  “Study to show thyself approved unto God” (II Tim. 2:15).  Even so difficult a book as the Revelation gives the promise of special blessing to those who keep its sayings (Rev. 22:7), and leaves the reader with the distinct impression that all of the Word of God is to be read with benefit by all of the people of God.

Yet, in spite of the express injunction to study the Word and the natural craving of the human heart for fellowship with God, the Bible is a highly neglected Book.  Food there is in abundance, but the people do not eat.  Even those who are members of the household of God through faith in Christ are, for the most part, spiritually impoverished.  Why, then, these jaded appetites for the things of God?  Why this sweeping indifference toward the one Book which can purify hearts, sweeten testimonies, and bring one the unsurpassed joy of the knowledge of the Lord?

Is not much of the answer in the realm of understanding?  Inquire of the average church member, or press the man on the street for his answer, and he will invariably explain his ignorance of spiritual things on the basis that the Bible is so difficult he cannot understand it.  Or similarly, there are so very many different interpretations of the Bible that he is confused.  How is he to know which interpretation is true or what he is to believe?  Now these are not good excuses, to be sure.  They will in no wise satisfy God or explain a willful neglect of His precious Word, but do they not suggest the root difficulty of all Bible study?  The very basic problem in understanding the Word of God is the matter of interpretation.

Even the most casual observer must be aware of the fact that Catholics, liberal or orthodox Jews, and Protestants of every theological stripe and denomination claim equally to find the basis for their convictions within the Bible.  The following account of a conversation between a Christian minister and a Jew may serve to illustrate this situation, and point out that the key to the whole problem concerns the literal versus the figurative interpretation of that which has been written:

Taking a New Testament and opening it at Luke 1:32, the Jew asked:  “Do you believe that what is here written shall be literally accomplished, – The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father, David; and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever?”  “I do not,” answered the clergyman, “but rather take it to be figurative language, descriptive of Christ’s spiritual reign over the Church.”

“Then,” replied the Jew, “neither do I believe literally the words preceding, which say that this Son of David should be born of a virgin; but take them to be merely a figurative manner of describing the remarkable character for purity of him who is the subject of the prophecy.”  “But why,” continued the Jew, “do you refuse to believe literally verses 32 and 33, while you believe implicitly the far more incredible statement of verse 31?”  “I believe it,” replied the clergyman, “because it is a fact.”  “Ah!” exclaimed the Jew, with an inexpressible air of scorn and triumph.  “You believe the Scripture because it is a fact; I believe it because it is the Word of God.”[1]

I.          Literal Interpretation and Its Significance
The science and art of interpreting the Scriptures of God is called hermeneutics.  Its various laws have been designed to prevent the spread of false doctrine and to determine accurately the meaning of divine revelation.  Correct hermeneutical procedures are of prime importance, for it is “little good for us if God has spoken, and we do not know what He has said.”[2]  However, since God has spoken and has placed His Word within the hands of men, they are duty bound to interpret it properly.  This is for their own good, that they might be rightly related to God and know how to live acceptably before their fellow men.

It is not the purpose of this chapter to attempt a survey of the entire field of hermeneutics or to give even a brief digest of its laws.  The purpose, rather, is to examine the one central, most basic issue of that science, namely:  Is the Bible to interpreted literally?  Or, to state the problem from the opposing viewpoint:  “To what extent is the spiritualizing of Scripture permissible, and what is the relationship between the literal method and the interpretation of prophecy?”  With the Bible abounding in figures of speech and with prophecy full of symbolism, can the rule of literal interpretation be held consistently?  For the serious Bible student, the importance of questions such as these would be hard to exaggerate.  It will be demonstrated that the sine qua non, the one thing indispensable to the premillennial viewpoint – indeed, to orthodoxy itself – is that the Scriptures of God be understood in a normal, grammatical, literal fashion.  It will then be demonstrated that both midtribulationalists and posttribulationalists violate this principle whenever their systems demand it, thus throwing open the door to a spiritualizing or allegorizing method which has fostered modernism and which violates a consistent premillennial theology.  However, since even the most ardent literalist must recognize the presence of figures of speech in the Bible, and symbolic language in the prophetical sections, something of the application of the literal method to these areas will find a place in the discussion also.  As a whole, the chapter purposes to forward the argument for pretribulationalism in two ways:  by demonstrating the solid interpretive ground upon which it rests, and by illustrating the insecure footing of other schools of thought which would take the Church of Jesus Christ into or through the coming hour of trial.

A.          Definition of Terms
When one speaks of the literal interpretation of the Bible, it is not to be assumed that every word and every line is to be taken at its “dead level” meaning.  As indicated, some parts of the Bible are highly figurative; the Hebrew of the Old Testament in particular abounds with figures of speech and poetic descriptions of every kind.  But when advocates of the literal method freely recognize this element in the composition of the Bible, it must be remembered that “this is no concession to those who deny the inspiration of the Word, since a figure or parable may be just as much inspired as a rigid syllogism.”[3]  Now it is true that one’s understanding of the Bible is rendered more difficult because of the presence of figurative language, but this does not militate against the fact that the basic rule of Bible interpretation is literal interpretation.  Special rules governing the use of figures of speech enable these to be interpreted in full harmony with the basic rule without any violation being involved.

To interpret the Scriptures literally means to interpret them grammatically, that is, according to the normal use of the words and the accepted rules of grammar.  The terms literal and grammatical are essentially the same, and are generally used interchangeably.  The same is true, on the other hand, of figurative and tropical.  The first pair is derived from the Latin litera and from the Greek γράμμα, both denoting that the sense of the word is “according to the letter,” the meaning it bears in its ordinary, primary usage.

“But when a word, originally appropriated to one thing, comes to be applied in another, which bears some real or fancied resemblance to it, as there is then a τρόπος or turning of it to a new use, so the meaning is called tropical, or, if we prefer the Latin form of expression, figurative. …”[4]  When the figurative meaning of a passage of Scripture is taken in preference to the ordinary “literal” meaning, the passage is often said to be spiritualized, the implication being that a deeper, more spiritual understanding of the passage has been reached by the recognition of the hidden figurative interpretation.  While these terms, literal and spiritual, are not the best which could be used to designate the two methods of interpretation under investigation,[5] they have been utilized so widely that a change of terminology seems unwarranted at this point.

It is necessary to understand, however, that the advocate of literal interpretation does not exclude from his method the proper use of Biblical figures.  Nor are the results of his exegesis to be considered in ay respect less “spiritual” than those of men who are heavily inclined to follow a more figurative interpretation.  Excessive spiritualization of the Sacred Text is likewise often called allegorizing, and whereas some have denied that the two are the same, others (like Allis[6]) freely admit their identity.  The significance of this terminology will become more apparent in the discussion that follows.

B.      The Importance of the Literal Method
The extent to which a man spiritualizes the Scriptures will largely determine his doctrinal position.  The basic difference between a liberal and a conservative interpreter may be traced directly to the fact that the liberal spiritualizes away the obvious meaning of cardinal doctrines.  Liberal, or reformed, Jews spiritualize the Messianic portions of the Old Testament and so have ceased to look for any literal Messiah.  Indeed, some have held the absurd doctrine that the “nineteenth century is the Messiah.”[7]

By the same failure to accept the literal sense of the plain testimony of Scripture, some interpreters have stolen away the foundations of every cardinal Christian doctrine and left the Church to drift into liberalism and infidelity.  The difference, then, between the liberal and the conservative evangelical lies squarely in the system of hermeneutics employed.  Conservatives find that the literal interpretation of the Bible is a natural corollary to the truth of verbal inspiration, and the denial of the one constitutes a definite step toward the denial of the other.  Most liberals are emphatic about their denial of both.

Moreover, the basic difference between the amillennial and the premillennial viewpoints is essentially whether one is to interpret the kingdom prophecies figuratively or literally.  That this is the main issue has been clearly pointed out by Albertus Pieters:

The question whether the Old Testament prophecies concerning the people of God must be interpreted in their ordinary sense, as other Scriptures are interpreted, or can properly be applied to the Christian Church, is called the question of the spiritualization of prophecy.  This is one of the major problems in Biblical interpretation, and confronts everyone who makes a serious study of the Word of God.  It is one of the chief keys to the difference of opinion between Premillenarians and the mass of Christian scholars.  The former reject such spiritualization, the latter employ it; and as long as there is no agreement on this point the debate is interminable and fruitless.[8]

Amillennialist Rutgers also sees that this is the main issue, when he observes:  “I regard their interpretation of Scripture as the fundamental error.”[9]  Likewise, Adolf Harnack admits that the premillennial system is rooted in the literal method of interpretation, when he notes that in recent times a “mild type of ‘academic’ chiliasm has been developed from a belief in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.”[10]  From these citations, it is evident that one’s millennial position is determined directly by the interpretative method he employs.

In like manner, this issue is raised even within the ranks of premillennial men in the familiar controversy between covenant and dispensational theology.  That the dispensationalists are more consistent in adhering to those principles of interpretation which have sheltered them from liberalism’s errors and amillennial vagaries can be seen from the following terse analysis of the covenant position:

The major objections to the covenant view can only be stated.  Covenant theology is built upon a spiritualizing method of interpreting the Scriptures.  In order to make the various covenants of the Old Testament conform to the pattern of the covenant of grace it is necessary to interpret them in other than their literal sense. …

The covenant theory allows no place for literal fulfillment of Israel’s national and racial promises and either cancels them on the ground that Israel failed to meet the necessary conditions, or transfer them to the saints in general.  From the dispensational and literal standpoint, this is misappropriation of Scriptural promises. …

The dispensational view of Scripture taken as a whole is far more satisfactory as it allows for the literal and natural interpretation of the great covenants of Scripture, in particular those with Abraham, Moses, David, and with Israel as a whole, and explains them in the light of their own historical and prophetical context without attempting to confirm them to a theological concept to which they are mostly unsuited.[11]

Further comment is hardly necessary to underline the importance of determining which method shall be the basic rule for the interpretation of Scripture.  Nor is there any issue more pertinent to this analysis of the time of the rapture in relation to the Tribulation.  There are very few problems raised in connection with the study of prophetic subjects where one can avoid asking himself the question:  “Is this passage to be taken literally?”  It remains to be demonstrated that one of the fundamental weaknesses of both the midtribulational and posttribulational systems is their marked propensity to spiritualize the purpose and severity of the Tribulation period.

II.          Historical Background
It is hardly necessary here to trace the long history of Biblical interpretation from early Old Testament days until this present hour.  Such a study, although not without interest and value, would be lengthy and extraneous to the present purpose.  However, a brief historical survey of the backgrounds of the two hermeneutical methods being discussed may well clarify some of the issues involved in the modern conflict, and grant the necessary perspective for a wise treatment of the eschatological problem under consideration.

A.      The Allegorical School of Interpretation
The allegorizing method of interpretation had its origin with the Alexandrian Jews of about two centuries before Christ, although it is claimed that the Greeks applied the method to their own religious poets at a still earlier date.  At least, the Alexandrian Jews were the first to apply the principle to the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole.  Farrar notes that “by a singular concurrence of circumstances, the Homeric studies of Pagan philosophers suggested first to Jews and then, through them, to Christians, a method of Scriptural interpretation before unheard of which remained unshaken for more than fifteen hundred years.”[12]

It is generally conceded that Aristobulus (160 b.c.) was the first of the Alexandrian school.  It was his conviction that Greek philosophy was borrowed from the Old Testament, and that, by reading between the lines, all the tenets of the Greek philosophers (especially Aristotle) are to be found in Moses and prophets.

In answer to a question of Ptolemy, Aristobulus told him that Scripture was not to be literally understood.  The “hand” of God means His might; the “speech” of God means the organization and immovable stability of the world.  The “coming down” of God has nothing to do with time or space.  The “fire” and the “trumpet” of Sinai are pure metaphors corresponding to nothing external.  The six days’ creation merely implied continuous development.  The seventh day indicates the cycle of hebdomands which prevails among all living things – whatever that piece of Pythagorean mysticism may chance to mean.[13]

Philo, next contended that every passage of Scripture has two meanings:  a literal and an allegorical.  The literal was for the weakminded, while the allegorical was the advanced.[14]  “To him the Bible furnished not so much a text for criticism as a pretext for theory.  Instead of elucidating the literal sense he transforms it into a philosophical symbol.”[15]  In these early Jews is clearly indicated that heart of the allegorical method: the literal sense of the text of Scripture is regarded merely as the vehicle which carries, to those who look for it, the more spiritual and profound sense.  Philo held to the most rigid views of the inspiration of Scripture, but when he came to their explanation and application, he became vague and contradictory, much like allegorizers of this present day.

With conservative interpretation, an allegory is a legitimate figure of speech, found occasionally in the Bible as in the famous allegory of Paul recorded in Galatians 4:21-31.  But here, the literal is in no wise set aside, for Abraham and Sarah are real people, and Jerusalem and Sinai are literal geographical locations.  Far different is the method of the allegorizers, who give an entirely new and different meaning to accounts which were never intended to be allegorical.  Farrar comments:

St. Paul borrows an incidental illustration from the methods of the Rabbis, without for a moment disturbing the literal sense; Origen borrows from heathen Platonists and from Jewish philosophers a method which converts the whole of Scripture, alike the New and Old Testament, into a series of clumsy, varying, and incredible enigmas.  Allegory helped him to get rid of Chiliasm and superstitious literalism and the “antitheses” of the Gnostics, but it opened the door for deadlier evils.[16]

Among Christians, the allegorical method was unknown through the first century and well until the end of the second.  Pantaenus (180 a.d.) was the first to adopt the system, followed by Clement, who said that the literal sense of Scripture was milk, and the allegorical, meat.  It remained for Origen to fashion the teachings of the New Testament as a whole into the allegorical mold, and it is to him that this form of interpretation, among Christians, is generally traced.

Origen was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation, which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for industry and ingenuity, but meagre in solid results.  He considered the Bible a living organism, consisting of three elements which answer to the body, soul, and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology.  Accordingly, he attributed to the scriptures a threefold sense: (1) a somatic, literal, or historical sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words, but only serving as a veil for a higher idea; (2) a psychic or moral sense, animating the first, and serving for general edification; 93) a pneumatic or mystic and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical knowledge.  In the application of this theory he shows the same tendency as Philo, to spiritualize away the letter of scripture … ; and instead of simply bringing out the sense of the Bible, he puts into it all sorts of foreign ideas and irrelevant fancies.  But this allegorizing suited the taste of the age, and, with his fertile mind and imposing learning, Origen was the exegetical oracle of the early Church, till his orthodoxy fell into disrepute.[17]

In the hands of Origen the entire body of Christian doctrine suffered, and because of his method of interpretation the fundamentals of the faith were weakened to the point that Origen’s views were branded as heretical.  It hardly needs to be said, therefore, that most of the Reformers rejected the validity of the allegorical method.  Among these, and in no uncertain terms, spoke Luther.  Said he:

An interpreter … must as much as possible avoid allegory, that he may not wander in idle dreams….  Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt….  Allegories are empty speculations, and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture….  To allegorize is to juggle with Scripture….  Allegories are awkward, absurd, invented, obsolete, loose rags … mere spangles and pretty ornament, but nothing more.[18]

Certainly, the unsavory history of the allegorical method will cause thoughtful Bible students to look with suspicion upon all theological schemes that display allegorizing tendencies.  In the words of Farrar, “allegory by no means sprang from spontaneous piety, but was the child of Rationalism which owed its birth to the heathen theories of Plato.  It deserved its name, for it made Scripture say something else … than it really meant.”[19]  Ramm sums up the weakness of this school of interpretation when he says:

The true great curse of the allegorical method is that it obscures the true meaning of the Word of God.  There are no controls on the imagination of the interpreter, so the Bible becomes putty in the hands of each interpreter.  As a result different doctrinal systems could well arise within the sanction of the allegorical method, yet no way exists for breaking the deadlock within the allegorical system.  The only retreat is to the literal meaning of the Bible. … [20]

With the Reformation, all but the most liberal theologians rejected the allegorizing method for most areas of Christian doctrine.  It remained for Augustine to modify the spiritualizing principle by applying it to the interpretation of prophecy only, while hold that the historical and doctrinal sections should be interpreted by normal “historical-grammatical” literal methods.

This was a decided improvement as far as theology as a whole was concerned, even if it left the millennial issue unsolved and at the mercy of the allegorical school.  Because of the weight of Augustine in other major issues of theology where he was in the main correct, Augustine became the model for the Protestant Reformers who accepted his Amillennialism along with his other teachings.[21]

This should be sufficient, at this point, to introduce the fact that many modern interpreters, while basically conservative because of their adherence to the literal method, nevertheless cling to the allegorizing principle in the area of eschatology.  It is not difficult to demonstrate that such a concession to the interpretive methods of liberalism is entirely unwarranted.

B.      The School of Literal Interpretation
It was one of the distinct advantages of the Jewish people “that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2).  To them pertained the covenants and the promises, the giving of the law, and the service of God (Rom. 9:4), but for generations the law was slighted and broken, and for many years of captivity and exile the Scriptures which they possessed lay hidden and ignored in the dust of a broken temple.  But while yet in the land of exile, a young priest by the name of Ezra, a direct descendant of Aaron, “prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:10).  In person, he led a group of Jews from the land of their captivity back to Jerusalem and rejoiced that the Lord God had permitted a remnant to escape, giving “a little reviving in our bondage” (Ezra 9:8).  Later, after the rebuilding of the city walls, directed by Nehemiah and the register of the remnant returned from captivity, the people “spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses….  So they read in the book of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:1, 8).  Here, then, was Bible exposition, the purpose of which was to seek the reformation of Israel by calling the people to the obedience of the words and commandments of God.  “We may, accordingly, date the beginning of formal exposition of the Scriptures in the time of Ezra.”[22]

Ezra is generally considered the first of the Jewish interpreters, and the ultimate source of the Jewish-Palestinian-Hyperliteralist school.  The Jews, in the Babylonian Capitivity, soon replaced their native tongue with the Aramaic.  This created a gap between their minds and the language of the Scriptures.  It was the task of Ezra to give the meaning of the Scriptures from the Hebrew to the Aramaic, and this is generally considered the first case of Biblical hermeneutics in history.[23]

Under the scribes of the period following Ezra and Nehemiah, much of the value of this noble beginning was lost, for they set about to make a hedge around the Sacred Writings by setting a value to the very letters of the law, counting their letters and guarding the manuscripts with a zeal which bordered on fanaticism.

The net result of a good movement started by Ezra was a degenerative-literalistic interpretation that was current among the Jews in the days of Jesus and Paul.  The Jewish literalistic school is literalism at its worst.  It is the exaltation of the letter to the point that all true sense is lost.  It grossly exaggerates the incidental and accidental and ignores and misses the essential.[24]

Farrar gives a digest of Rabbinic tradition, and sums up the period by saying:  “The age of the Rabbis lost itself in worthless trivialities, and suffocated the warmth and light of Scripture under the white ashes of ceremonial discussion, yet in preserving the text of the Old Testament it rendered services of inestimable value.”[25]

Literal interpretation, although employed by devout students of the Scripture down through the intervening years (Matt. 2:4, 5; Luke 2:29-32, etc.), is next seen as a school in the Syrian School of Antioch.  It is said to be the first Protestant school of hermeneutics, and was founded by Lucian and established by Diodorus of Tarsus (393 a.d.).  It was “a school of literalists with little or no patience for allegorism, and it produced the most competent Bible expositors for a thousand years….  In many of their interpretations they anticipated modern expositors by more than a millennium.  It was tragic that such good sense was lost to the Church.”[26]

The literal interpretation of the Scriptures next came to the front with the Protestant Reformation, which was in a real sense a hermeneutical revolt before it was either theological or ecclesiastical.[27]  With this revolt, the mind of Germany and other European countries tore itself away from the bonds of ignorance and superstition imposed by the Roman church.  Priestly absolution of sin was exchanged for the Biblical doctrine of justification of faith, and carnal tradition was exposed by appealing to the Holy Scriptures as the only infallible revelation of God.  The great commanding voice which directed this remarkable revolution was that of Martin Luther, who, in October of the year 1517, nailed his famous theses to the door of the Schlosskirche of Wittenberg, and give years later performed one of the most valuable services of his life when he gave his translation of the New Testament to the German people “in the simple, idiomatic, and racy language of common life, and enabled them to read for themselves the teachings of Christ and the apostles.”[28]  Although Protestants may not fully agree with all that Luther said and did, it must be admitted that his teachings and his stand against carnal ecclesiasticism formed the charter of Christian liberty for all Protestant people and for all who exalt the Word of God above the word of man.  It is therefore highly significant to examine that system of interpretation which taught Luther his doctrines and fired him for his task.

Luther rejected allegorizing interpretations in no uncertain terms.  Farrar outlines four distinct stages to Luther’s spiritual advance, and indicates that only in the fourth stage did he gain a clear grasp of the principles which all Reformed and Lutheran churches have since steadily recognized in the proper interpretation of Scripture.  Among these principles are:

(1)             The supreme and final authority of Scripture, apart from all ecclesiastical authority or interference.

(2)             Not only the supreme authority, but also the sufficiency of Scripture.

I ask for Scripture, and Eck offers me the Fathers.  I ask for the sun, and he shows me his lanterns.  I ask, “Where is your Scripture proof?” and he adduces Ambrose and Cyril….  With all due respect to the Fathers, I prefer the authority of Scripture.[29]

(3)             The literal sense of the passage to be interpreted is the true sense.  “The literal sense of Scripture alone is the whole essence of faith and Christian theology….  Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own.  All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.”[30]  In taking this stand Luther was, like other Reformers, setting aside the dreary fiction of the “fourfold sense” of the former era, and was, in this respect, in advance of Erasmus, who thought that the Holy Spirit meant the words of Scripture to be taken in various senses.  Said Luther:

I have observed this, that all heresies and errors have originated, not from the simple words of Scripture, as is so universally asserted, but from neglecting the simple words of Scripture, and from the affectation of purely subjective tropes and inferences.  In the schools of theologians it is a well-known rule that Scripture is to be understood in four ways, literal, allegoric, moral, anagogic.  But if we wish to handle Scripture aright, our one effort will be to obtain unum, simplicem, germanum, et certum sensus literalem.[31]

Other principles outlined by Luther included the rejection of the allegorical method, faith in the perspicuity (the sufficient clarity) of Scripture, and the right of private judgment.

No doubt the greatest exegete and theologian of the Reformation was John Calvin.  Farrar says that in spite of his “hard expressions and injurious declamations,” he is one of the greatest interpreters of Scripture who every lived.[32]  His vigorous intellect, his logical mind, his classic training and wide knowledge, his deep religious feeling, his careful attention to the entire scope and context of every passage, and the fact that he has commented on almost the whole of the Bible, these and many other traits combine to make him tower above the great majority of men who have written on the Holy Scriptures.

Like Luther, Calvin rejected the fourfold sense and the whole scholasticism system of allegorical interpretation.  He was a literalist and a grammarian, and in the preface of his commentary on the book of Romans, he laid down his golden rule, that “it is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”[33]  Whether or not we agree with all of Calvin’s conclusions, we must at least recognize that he rejected the spiritualizing method of interpretation.  His authoritative voice speaks strongly in favor of the truth and historicity of the literal method.  “Let us know then,” said he, “that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely.”[34]  Schaff, an historian, writes his own conclusion in the matter:

Calvin is the founder of grammatico-historical exegesis.  He affirmed and carried out the sound hermeneutical principle the Biblical authors, like all sensible writers, wished to convey to their readers – one definite thought in words which they could understand.  A passage may have a literal or a figurative sense; but cannot have two senses at once.  The Word of God is inexhaustible and applicable to all times, but there is a difference between explanation and application, and application must be consistent with explanation.[35]

In defense and support of the literal principle as the basic rule of Biblical interpretation, many voices yet clamor to be heard.  Scholars, both ancient and modern, rise up to add their testimony.  Before passing this investigation of historical backgrounds, several more representative scholars should be allowed to speak, with as little added comment as possible.

Maresius declares:

A single sense of Scripture, viz., the grammatical is to be allowed, and then it may be expressed in any terms whether proper, or tropical and figurative.[36]

Speaking on the interpretation of the “first resurrection” of the Revelation, Dean Alford, Greek scholar, writes:

I cannot consent to distort words from their plain sense and chronological place in the prophecy, on account of any consideration of difficulty, or any risk of abuses which the doctrine of the millennium may bring with it.  Those who lived next to the apostles, and the whole Church for 300 years understood them in the plain literal sense; and it is a strange sight in these days to see expositors who are among the first in reverence of consensus which primitive antiquity presents….  If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain:  but if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.[37]

Probably the most factual and voluminous written defense of the premillennial system is the three volume Theocratic Kingdom, by George N. H. Peters.  One of the early and fundamental propositions of this work concerns the adherence to the literal, grammatical interpretation of Scripture:

We unhesitatingly plant ourselves upon the famous maxim of the able Hooker:  “I hold for a most infallible rule in expositions of the Sacred Scriptures, that where a literal construction will stand, the furthest from the letter is commonly the worst.  There is nothing more dangerous than this licentious and deluding art, which changes the meaning of words, as alchemy doth, or would do, the substance of metals, making of anything what it pleases, and bringing in the end all truth to nothing.”  The primitive Church occupied this position, and Irenaeus … gives the general sentiment when … “he says of the Holy Scriptures:  that what the understanding can daily make use of, what it can easily know, is that which lies before our eyes, unambiguously, literally, and clearly in the Holy Writ.” … Thus Luther remarks:  “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word; he that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay.”

When employing the word “literal,” we are to be comprehended as also fully acknowledging the figurative sense, the beautiful ornaments of language; we cordially accept all that is natural to language itself, its naked strength and its charming adornments, but object to additionally forcing on it a foreign element, and enclosing it in a garb that hides its just proportions.[38]

Silver remarks that there is safety in literal interpretation, in the faith of that childlike simplicity which takes the Scriptures to mean what they say.  He quotes the statement of Seiss:

Christ knew what He wished to say, and how to say what He meant, and I find myself bound to understand Him to mean just what He says.[39]

Feinberg mentions two more scholars who have a right to be heard before brining this section to a close:

Sir Isaac Newton with great insight and foresight foretold that about the time of the end certain men would arise who would devote their energies to prophetic studies and “insist upon their literal interpretation in the midst of much clamor and opposition.”  Probably as valuable a testimony as any that could be offered was given by Dr. Horatius Bonar.  When speaking of the results of fifty years of the study of prophecy, he concluded with the statement that first of all, he had gain assurance as to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures.  Secondly, he felt more certain than ever that the literal interpretation of the Word is the best.  Said he:  “Literal, if possible, is, I believe the only maxim that will carry you right through the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation.”[40]

In this study, the allegorical method of interpretation has been traced from its origin among pagan philosophers, through the vague interpretations of Philo and the Alexandrian Jews, to Origen, who first applied the principle to the entire body of Christian doctrine, and whose writings were publically condemned and burned because of the heresy into which he fell.

The school of literal interpretation has been traced from the interpretative methods of Ezra, through the excessive literalism of the Rabbinic period, through the school of Lucian, unto the clear commitment of leading Christian scholars since that day.  It is self evident which school of interpretation has best served God and honored the Word which He has committed unto men.

III.    The Right Use of the Literal Method
An old Scotch minister said that in visiting his congregation he found three great evils:  a misunderstanding of Scripture, a misapplication of Scripture, and a dislocation of Scripture.  It is hardly necessary to note that these three hermeneutical evils are still present, and if one is to judge by what he hears from modern pulpits and reads from the religious press, the clergy is even more sadly afflicted than those to whom they minister.  The idea is abroad that the Bible is no longer the final word in matters pertaining to redemption and Christian ethics.  Under constant attack is the principle of literal interpretation, and widespread is the philosophy that the Bible need not mean exactly what it appears to say.  The Gospel must be “released from literal bondage to old categories and set free to do its work in modern terms of thought.”  So says modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick.[41]  “Christian liberty,” says M. G. G. Sherer, “knows how to distinguish between Scripture and Scripture, between the chaff and the wheat.”[42]  “The hue and cry is:  ‘The enslaving legalism of the letter!’  We will not have this ‘fetter,’ this ‘handicap,’ these ‘clamps and chains.’ This ‘straight jacket’ of literalism put on us.”[43]

The fact is entirely ignored that Bible believing Christians do not hold themselves slaves to the letter of the law, nor do they require that every single passage be interpreted literally in the strictest sense of the term.  Most certainly do they recognize types and figures of many kinds in the structure of the Word of God.  That they do not allow their imagination and interpretation to run wild is not due to a literalistic “straight jacket,” but to a simple recognition and an obedience to certain basic hermeneutic principles.  They believe that correct processes alone bring correct results, and that loose and erroneous interpretations stem from wrong processes and dishonor the God who gave the Scriptures.

The proof that adherents to the literal method do not, as they are so often accused, slavishly follow the method to the point of disparaging the present of figurative language in the Bible is clearly seen in the way they have formulated orderly rules for the interpretation of Biblical figures and symbols.  The literalist rightfully contends that the presence of figurative language does not injure the literal method.  Figures are a normal ingredient of any language, and particularly do they abound in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, while prophetic portions are noted for their profusion of types and symbols.  The literalist contends, rather, that even a figure of speech must be framed out of basic literal elements such as persons, places, and events, and that within the figure is a literal concept the author intended to make more graphic by the use of that figure.  In this way, figurative language has a rightful place in the literal method of interpretation, and the presence of figures of speech in the Bible in no wise justifies a departure from that method.

The two outstanding arguments against the consistent use of the literal method are those of the liberals, who contend that the presence of Biblical types and figures make literal interpretation an impossible theory, and of the amillennialists, who argue that the literal method cannot apply to the prophetic areas of the Bible, even though the principle can be valid for the historical and didactic portions.  On the supposed strength of these objections, the amillenarian allegorizes those Scriptures which teach a glorious, visible reign of Christ upon the earth for one thousand years, while the liberal carries the allegorizing principle into the more cardinal areas of the Christian faith to such an extent that no doctrine is entirely safe from attack or outright denial.

This twofold assault upon the literal method demands a response and an answers.  It is, however, hardly within the scope of this present discussion to pursue these issues further, as vital as they are to the defense of the evangelical, premillennial heritage.  It is not the purpose of this chapter to give a complete argument for literal interpretation, but to introduce this vital principle to the reader with enough by way of historical backgrounds and contemporary significance to indicate the danger involved when men unwittingly turn to the spiritualizing method in order to sustain some favored theological theory.  We are about to see that both midtribulationalists and posttribulationalists are guilty of most flagrant departures from the literal method, particularly in respect to the severity of the coming Tribulation, and that only upon the demands of their systems.  If such a departure can be demonstrated, the very weakness of the opposing systems will strengthen the argument for pretribulationalism.  Those who believe the coming of Christ will precede the time of His wrath stand alone in their literal interpretation of the true nature of the Tribulation period.  In this respect, pretribulationalists alone are consistent premillennialists.

No doubt there will be readers sufficiently interested in this foundation stone of premillennial interpretation to want to probe more deeply into its methods and problems.  May such readers be referred to Section Two, “Literal Interpretation, Figurative Language and Prophecy,” which shows how our interpretive method applies to the whole range of Bible prophecy.  There are three major parts to that discussion:

(1)             The problem of interpreting figurative language.  In this section, the figures of speech of the Bible are classified and illustrated, with rules given for their interpretation in accord with the literal method.

(2)             Special rules for the interpretation of prophecy.  The spiritualizing principle, once admitted into the area of prophetic interpretation, may readily spread to other areas of doctrine and endanger the faith.  The peculiar problems raised in the interpretation of prophecy call for specialized rules within the literal method, but do not warrant a complete departure from that method after the fashion of the amillennialists.

(3)             The symbolism of the book of Revelation.  It is demonstrated that the symbols of the book do not hides its meaning but illustrate it, and even in this much disputed portion of the Word of God, symbolism, with its attendant problems, presents no adequate cause for any departure from the basic method of literal interpretation.  The study of prophecy offers few more interesting and significant issues than these.  It is believed that the discussion [in appendix] will bring to the attention of the reader sufficient evidence to vindicate the literal method at those very points where it is confronted with the harshest criticism.  Important literature bearing on the subject will be indicated, while some original material will be set forth with the hope that it may make some small contribution to premillennial doctrine.  This present chapter, however, must now return to deal more directly with the issue of the rapture and the Tribulation.

IV.          Literal Interpretation
and the Time of the Rapture
Having seen that the spiritualizing, allegorical method of interpretation stands historically and doctrinal condemned, it now is necessary to see that there is a very definite application of these issues to the problem of the time of the rapture.

The basic philosophy of Amillennialism is that there will be no literal earthly Millennium; all the Scriptures which promise such are spiritualized and made to apply to the program of God in the present age.  The Scriptures which pertain to the Tribulation suffer the same treatment.

Reformed theologians who follow the amillennial interpretation usually minimize and spiritualize the time of tribulation preceding the second advent, particularly in such passages as Revelation 6-19.  Amillennialists often find the tribulation being fulfilled in contemporary events, and interpret Revelation 6-19 as history.  While interpreting the second advent literally, they spiritualize the tribulation.[44]

Although posttribulationalists do not completely spiritualize the Tribulation, it is not difficult to detect a strong inclination in that direction, as the following citations will indicate.  They minimize its severity and try to tone down its judgments to the point that the Tribulation is no longer a unique period of unprecedented wrath, but merely another period of persecution upon the people of God and that no more severe than previous times of suffering.  McPherson writes:

Surely the Church has been permitted to pass through many other periods of suffering and anguish so acute that if those who went through them should have to go through the Tribulation, they would not feel they had missed anything during their first period of trial.[45]

Posttribulationalists labor to prove that a carnal church needs the purging and purifying fires of the great Tribulation, and then must labor to protect her from the worst of its wrath.  Reese avers:

It is possible to reject the pleasing delusion of a rapture some years before the Day of wrath, without accepting the error that the Church will partake of the wrath.  It never seems to occur to these writers that, immediately before the wrath of the Day of the Lord falls, God can call His saints to Himself, without the necessity of an additional advent a generation earlier.[46]

Likewise, it never seems to occur to posttribulationalists the inconsistency of having the Church both purged and protected at the same time, or that wrath starts at Revelation 6:16 and not at 19:15, or that if God did not want His Church to go through this time of wrath He would have taken them out of the way before its commencement.  In Fraser’s opinion:

Much of the scene in Revelation has to do only with God’s judgments against rebellious man and there is no Scriptural reason to believe that God’s people will be directly involved in that suffering.  The Great Tribulation is not judgment, but persecution.[47]

Without going into the fact that Fraser fails to say what the Church is doing in the midst of God’s judgments at all, let it be noticed that here is a clear example of posttribulational attempts to water down the severity of the Tribulation, if not to change its nature altogether.  “The great Tribulation is not judgment, but persecution”!  Let the reader give thoughtful attention to the Old Testament prophecy of the Day of the Lord in the light of that statement, then read slowly and thoughtfully Revelation 6-19, and he will be forced to conclude that either posttribulationalists are guilty of flagrant spiritualization in these sections, or else that they wrest the Scriptures and ignore large portions of it in the interest of their theory.

John Scruby goes so far as to say that the Tribulation may be a “punishment for the sinner,” but that it will be a “privilege for the saint”:

Yet when it comes to the Great Tribulation … to be found in it will be … an opportunity for greater achievements in “the good fight of faith,” and therefore for the attaining of still greater rewards … Yet I dare to say that if the belief that the Church will go into the Tribulation is an error, it is a beneficial error.[48]

To Scruby, there are various “small rivers of trial” that flow across the path of the Christian, and the Great Tribulation is merely “the swelling of the Jordan.”[49]  He says that “it is an honor to be in the great tribulation,”[50] although most Christians would be disposed to decline such an honor.  Again, it is affirmed that the Great Tribulation will have nothing to offer in excess of the sufferings of this present age:

If one may believe that one-half of the stories which have come out of Soviet Russia, then many of the saints there have already had to face as “great tribulation” as any saint will be called upon to face during the Great Tribulation itself.[51]

All of this is nothing more or less than the flagrant spiritualization of Scripture and is in direct contradiction to passages such as Matthew 24:21, 22:  “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.  And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved. …”

Posttribulationalists accept the literal interpretation of the Bible for the fundamentals of the faith, and the literal interpretation of prophecy for the necessary basis of their premillennial hope, which most commendable.  But when it comes to the Tribulation, all has gone to pieces, all has changed, spiritualization has become other order of the day, and this only in the interest of saving a theory which cannot be made to harmonize with the literal interpretation of Tribulation passages.

Nor can midtribulationalists escape the same indictment.  When they place the time of the rapture in the eleventh chapter of the book of Revelation, largely on the basis of a surface similarity between the trumpet of that chapter and another found in I Corinthians 15, and then coolly proceed to spiritualize five and one half chapters filled with the direct judgments of God, they are equally guilty.  A quick review will illustrate in graphic form the nature of the judgments which must precede the sounding of the seventh trump:  peace taken from the earth – famine – Death and Hell, with power to kill the fourth part of the earth – heavens darkened and earth quaking – men hiding in the caves of the earth and crying for the mountains to fall upon them to hide them from the awful wrath of God – a multitude of martyred saints – hail and fire mingled with blood – trees and grass burnt up – the third of the creatures in the sea destroyed – many dying because of the waters which are made bitter – sun, moon, and stars smitten – hellish locusts who torment men with their stings for five months – men seeking death, and not able to find it – a godless host which kills the third part of those who yet live – murders, fornication, and theft – seven thunders, with judgment too terrible to utter – two witnesses who devour their enemies with fire and who smite the earth with drought and plagues – waters turned into blood – seven thousand men slain in one earthquake.  Could any judgments be more devastating?  Could any torments be more fearful?  Could any fact be more obvious, that here is the awful heart of the Great Tribulation, so designated at Revelation 7:14?  Consider now the doctrine of midtribulationalism, as set forth by one of its leading advocates (italics are added):

We will find that the Trumpets, at least the last three, reach only to the Great Tribulation….  Moreover, at the sounding of the seventh the Church is caught away to escape that wrath.  Nothing, therefore, in these six trumpets can rightfully and Scripturally be considered “wrath” or “judgment,” however closely they may resemble it.[52]

If, as we have been constrained to believe for many years, in Matt. 24:7 our Lord Jesus envisioned the World War of 1914-18 with its accompaniments and the forces that lead on irresistibly into the Great Tribulation, then we are confirmed beyond question in our position, namely, that the Seals series does its work while the Church is still here; and the Seals are not part of the Tribulation, but that they lead on into it; that the seals are not judgments, but man’s folly brought to its fearful finality.[53]

These experiences, though so very severe, are not judgments.  Commentators invariably call them Trumpet Judgments.  God never does, and He ought to know.[54]

The first half of the week, or period of seven years, was a “sweet” anticipation to John, as it is to them; under treaty protection, they will be “sitting pretty,” as we say….  We know of no justification for thinking of the first half of Israel’s future “week” as being anything but “sweet” to them.[55]

This is most certainly spiritualization!  This business of making sweet what is bitter – ordinary what is unique – mere persecution what is judgment – a privilege what is a curse – beneficial, enjoyable, and desirable what is clearly the wrath of Almighty God –– this twisting and wrenching of Scripture in the vain attempt of making it say something other than what it does say – this a return to the methods of Plato and Origen and constitutes a dangerous departure from conservative Biblical interpretation, which is literal interpretation.  It is a departure  which endangers all for which fundamental, premillennial men stand.  Liberalism spiritualizes cardinal doctrines; amillennialism  spiritualizes the Millennium; midtribulationalism and posttribulationalism spiritualize the Tribulation – but the root error throughout is the same.  Nor is it impossible for a premillennial conservative, having once given up his basic defense of literal interpretation, to retreat to posttribulationalism, then to amillennialism, then on to liberalism in other areas.  There are men who have trodden this pathway, although fortunately, most are arrested in their course and do not reach the apostasy which is the natural outgrowth of the principle of interpretation they have adopted.

It is the most probable that some of the brethren who minimize the severity of the Tribulation judgments do so in the enthusiasm of their argument without being consciously aware of having fallen into the snare of the spiritualizing method.  Nevertheless, when a doctrinal point which involves the blessed hope of the Church is under consideration, and when men are forced to turn in defense of their theory to the interpretive methods of the enemies of the faith, it is time to call a halt and issue a word of warning.  When fail to see that the Church of Jesus Christ differs in its essential nature, as well as its eschatology, from ancient Israel – when they miss the obvious fact that the Tribulation is primarily a time of God’s wrath upon the enemies of His Son – and when they explain away every divine promise to save the Church from wrath to come – these are errors of important magnitude.

But, when they fail to let the Scriptures speak and reverse the meaning of what God has been pleased to reveal concerning the coming time of trouble – when, in a word, they resort to the process of spiritualizing the Bible whenever and wherever their systems demand it – then they are involved in a clear and dangerous departure from that very method of interpretation upon which their conservative, premillennial faith is founded.

Whether historically or in the laboratory of twentieth century exegesis, pretribulationalism alone is consistent fundamentalism and consistent Premillennialism, for it alone is based on a clear commitment to the vital keynote doctrine – the golden rule of Biblical interpretation – which is literal interpretation.

[1] W. E. Blackstone, Jesus is Coming, pp. 20, 21.
[2] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 1.
[3] Charles Ellicott and W. J. Harsha, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 142.
[4] Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, p. 137.
[5] Craven appends this helpful note to Lange’s commentary, The Revelation of John, p. 98:  “No terms could have been chosen more unfit to designate the two great schools of prophetical exegetes than literal and spiritual.  These terms are not antithetical, nor are they in any proper sense significant of the peculiarities of the respective systems they are employed to characterize.  They are positively misleading confusing.  Literal is opposed not to spiritual but to figurative; spiritual is in antithesis on the one hand to material, on the other to carnal (in a bad sense).  The Literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy, nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply, that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e. according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted – that which is manifestly literal being regarded as literal, that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded.  The position of the Spiritualists (so called) is not that which is properly indicated by the term.  He is one who holds that whilst certain portions of the prophecies are to be normally interpreted, other portions are to be regarded as having a mystical (i.e. involving some secret meaning) sense.  Thus, for instance, Spiritualists (so called) do not deny that when the Messiah is spoken of as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” the prophecy is to be normally interpreted; they affirm, however, that when He is spoke of as coming “in the clouds of heaven” the language is to be “spiritually” (mystically) interpreted….  The terms properly expressive of the schools are normal and mystical.
[6] Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 18:  “Whether the figurative or ‘spiritual’ interpretation of a given passage is justified or not depends solely upon whether it gives the true meaning.  If it is used to empty words of their plain and obvious meaning, to read out of them what is clearly intended by them, then allegorizing or spiritualizing is a term of reproach which is well merited.”  Italics added.
[7] Blackstone, op. cit., p. 22.
[8] Albertus Pieters, The Leader, September 5, 1934, as cited by Gerrit H. Hospers, The Principle of Spiritualizing in Hermeneutics, p. 5.
[9] William H. Rutgers, Premillennialism in America, p. 263.
[10] Adolf Harnack, “Millennium,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th edition, XV, 497.
[11] John F. Walvoord, “Amillennial Soteriology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, CVII (July-September, 1950), 287, 289.
[12] F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation, p. 135.
[13] Ibid., pp. 130, 131.
[14] Ramm, op. cit., p. 23.
[15] Farrar, op. cit., p. 139.
[16] Farrar, op. cit., p. 196.
[17] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, p. 521.
[18] Farrar, op. cit., p. 328.
[19] Ibid., pp. 193, 194.
[20] Ramm, op. cit., p. 24.
[21] Walvoord, “Amillennialism As a Method of Interpretation,” Bibliotheca Sacra, CVII (January-March, 1950), p. 43.
[22] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 32.
[23] Ramm, op. cit., p. 27.
[24] Ibid., p. 28.
[25] Farrar, op. cit., p. 15.
[26] Ramm, op. cit., p. 29.
[27] Ibid., p. 30.
[28] Terry, op. cit., p. 47.
[29] Farrar, op. cit., p. 327.
[30] Farrar, op. cit., p. 327.
[31] Loc. cit.
[32] Ibid., p. 343.
[33] Ibid., p. 347.
[34] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, p. 136, cited by Hospers, op. cit., p. 11.
[35] Cited by Hospers, op. cit., p. 12.
[36] Ibid., p. 11.
[37] Dean Alford, Greek Testament, IV, 732, 733.
[38] George N. H. Peters, Theocratic Kingdom, pp. 47, 48.
[39] Joseph A. Seiss, Last Times, p. 116, cited by Jesse Forest Silver, The Lord’s Return, pp. 212, 213.
[40] Charles L. Feinberg, Premillennialism or Amillennialism (first edition), p. 51.
[41] Cited by Th. Engelder, Scripture Cannot Be Broken, p. 372.
[42] Ibid., p. 373.
[43] Ibid., p. 375.
[44] Walvoord, “Amillennial Eschatology,” op. cit., p. 11.
[45] Norman S. McPherson, Triumph Through Tribulation, p. 22.
[46] Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ, p. 212.
[47] Alexander Fraser, Is There But One Return of Christ?, p. 63.  Italics added.
[48] John J. Scruby, The Great Tribulation:  The Church’s Supreme Test, pp. 132, 133.
[49] Ibid., p. 137.
[50] Ibid., p. 142.
[51] Ibid., p. 150.
[52] Norman B. Harrison, The End:  Re-thinking the Revelation, p. 105.
[53] Ibid., p. 94.
[54] Ibid., p. 104.
[55] Ibid., pp. 111, 112.  Harrison makes the eating of the “little book” (Rev 10:9, 10) symbolic of the two halves of the Tribulation period, the first part of which is “enjoyable and desirable” (p. 111)