The Covenantal Kingdom
Figurative vs. Literal Interpretation:
The Wrong Paradigm
Since dispensationalists understand the basic issue to be hermeneutics, they typically include long discussions of the interpretation of prophecy in their books on eschatology. Dispensational premillennialists argue that amillennialists and postmillennialists use a method of interpretation that forces a non-literal meaning on what is intended by the Bible to be literal. J. Dwight Pentecost goes so far as to say, "The reason a non-literal method of interpretation is adopted is, almost without exception, because of a desire to avoid the obvious interpretation of the passage. The desire to bring the teaching of Scripture into harmony with some predetermined system of doctrine instead of bringing doctrine into harmony with the Scriptures has kept the method alive."
Pentecost's statement reflects the dispensational prejudice that non-dispensationalists use a non-literal and, therefore, dishonest method of interpreting Scripture. But what about dispensationalists? Do they really interpret "literally"? When a well-known dispensational Bible teacher of a previous generation, Louis S. Bauman, named socialism, communism, and fascism as the "three unclean spirits like frogs" of Revelation 16:13, was he interpreting literally? How literal is it to say, as John F. Walvoord cautiously suggests, that the apostle John's description of an army of horsemen in Revelation 9:16-19 refers to modern warfare? A popular premillennial teacher in the early part of this century even announced the year for the beginning of the literal fulfillment of Revelation -- 1925! More recently a best-selling book by a dispensational author proved by no less than 88 literal reasons that the rapture must occur in 1988. When the rapture didn't occur, the same author then proved that the rapture would occur in 1989. (Don't hold your breath for his next best-selling book!) Dispensational commentary on prophecy abounds with examples of non-literal and, too often, non-sensical interpretation. The point is dispensationalists do not really practice "literal" interpretation.
In their better moments, dispensationalists recognize the problem. In a debate on eschatology Lorainne Boettner challenged the dispensational idea that prophecy must be interpreted "literally" by citing, among other references, Genesis 3:15. In this passage the prophecy that Christ would incur serious injury in the process of defeating Satan is couched in figurative language. Speaking to the serpent, God says: "He [the seed of the woman] shall bruise your head. And you shall bruise His heel." As Boettner pointed out, dispensationalists do not usually interpret this to be a principle of enmity between man and snakes. But what Boettner here called "figurative interpretation," the premillennialist Herman Hoyt called "literal interpretation," for, Hoyt explained, "literal interpretation" is just "normal interpretation" and does not exclude recognition of figurative language.
In other words, what the amillennialist and the postmillennialist would call "figurative interpretation" is often, if not always, included within the premillennialist's definition of "literal interpretation." The supposed difference in hermeneutical approaches is a matter of language rather than principles. In fact, most of the hermeneutical principles dispensationalists stress would be agreed upon by everyone. Evangelical amillennialists and postmillennialists agree that interpretation should be grammatical and historical, which is what premillennialists mean by "literal." Premillennialists imply, however, that amillennialists and postmillennialists use a method of interpretation that forces a figurative meaning on what is intended to be non-figurative language. This is a gross misrepresentation of the issue.
The real issue is not "figurative" and "literal" interpretation. No postmillennialist (or amillennialist) is attempting to impose his own ideas onto the Scriptures by changing literal language into figurative language. Premillennialists recognize that the Bible contains difficult symbolic language. They call their interpretation "literal," but they have not dealt systematically with the Bible's own use of symbolic language. What they really give us is an interpretation that seems "literal" because it conforms to our own cultural life and thought. They have neglected the real hermeneutical question: What is the place of figurative language and symbolism in the Bible? What all Christians should be searching for are Biblical guidelines for understanding the figurative language of the Bible.
3. See: J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958, 1972), pp. 1-64; Charles L. Feinberg, Millennialism: The Two Major Views (Chicago: Moody Press, revised edition, 1980), pp. 37-62; John F. Walvoord discusses amillennial and premillennial principles of interpretation separately in, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959, 1972), pp. 59-67, 128-138. Paul L. Tan devoted an entire book to the subject, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books, Inc., 1974).
4. Things To Come, p. 60.
5. Quoted in Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now!: The Premillennarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917 (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), p. 108.
6. The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), pp. 166-67. Herman Hoyt does not favor Walvoord's interpretation here, but he says, "Tanks, machine guns, flame throwers, and many other varieties of modern warfare so easily fit the imagery." An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Winona Lake, Indiana: Brethren Missionary Herald Company, 1966), p. 51.
7. Armageddon Now!, pp. 63-64.
8. See Gary North, Rapture Fever: Why Dispensationalism Is Paralyzed (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1993), 53-54, 189-190. Both Wilson's book, referred to above, and North's contain numerous examples of sensationalistic (and money-making!) interpretation in the name of literalism.
9. The Meaning of the Millennium, pp. 147-48. Cf. also Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1987), where he explains the extensive dispensational use of "figurative interpretation" in historical passages of Scripture and the use of special terms like "application" rather than interpretation to give them more breadth in treating the prophetic Scriptures.
10. There is a very important distinction between recognizing and interpreting figurative language in the Bible, and allegorizing the Scriptures. There was a problem in the early church, particularly in the Alexandrian tradition stemming from Origen, of forcing alien meanings onto Scriptural texts. But this "allegorical interpretation" was clearly opposed by theologians of the Antiochene school, led by Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret. The "typological" method employed by the Antiochenes, while sometimes tainted by "allegorical" interpretation, is "normal" interpretation of the Scriptures. See: J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A & C Black: 1958, 1989), pp. 69-78.