Literal Versus Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture

By on March 6, 2010

If you are concerned about rightly dividing the Word of God, then you are involved with a subject biblical scholars call hermeneutics. According to Dr. A. Berkely Mickelsen, hermeneutics “designates both the science and art of interpretation. The Greek verb hermeneuo means ‘to interpret or explain.’ The Greek noun hermeneia means ‘interpretation.’ In both the Greek counterpart and the contemporary technical term, interpretation has to do with meaning” (A. Berkely Mickelsen, INTERPRETING THE BIBLE, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963, p. 3).

Dr. Bernard Ramm, author of the book, Protestant Biblical Interpretation.

So then, hermeneutics is simply interpretation — hopefully, correct interpretation. But in the matter of hermeneutics, there is one important question: Whose hermeneutics are to be used? More specifically, is there a system of hermeneutics that will legitimately interpret the prophecies in the Bible? Guidelines must be found that will bring the confident assurance that Scripture is not being violated.

A few moments’ thought will bring to mind the paramount fact that everyone who enters into a system of ideas brings with him a body of assumptions. One’s thoughts and expectations are inevitably colored by a lifetime of experience, teaching and emotions.

An excellent example of this fact is the way some theologians of the early church age viewed the Old Testament. Dr. Bernard Ramm writes: “The early Christian Fathers had as their Bible the Old Testament in Greek translation. This had been the Bible of Christ and the Apostles, judging from their citations of the Old Testament in the New.  One of the most basic convictions of the early church was that the Old Testament was a Christian document” (Bernard Ramm, PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1970, pp. 28,29).

As the fathers of the early church looked into the ancient Jewish books, they claimed to be able to look beneath the plain sense of the Word, and see hidden meanings in it that referred to the church. They claimed that they could see the church in Jewish histories, personalities and commentaries. They disregarded the historical sense of the Old Testament, using what has come to be called the “allegorical method” of interpretation.

Dr. Ramm writes, “Two things may be said for the allegorizing of the Fathers: (i) They were seeking to make the Old Testament a Christian document … (ii) They did emphasize the truths of the Gospel in their fancies.”

Seeds of Replacement Theology

The allegorical method of interpreting Scripture became an attempt to replace Israel with the church. Those early church theologians adopted God’s promises made to Israel and claimed them for the church, saying that the Jews were no longer the Chosen People. Such rendering of the Old Testament fuels anti-Semitic feelings. Today, some people have been led to doubt that the Jews are Jews. They claim that people of white European descent are the true Jews, and that the rebirth of the state of Israel has nothing to do with the fulfillment of prophecy. Some even claim that Israel does not have a right to exist. But, I can tell you, that when Hitler looked for Jews to kill, he knew where they were!

In the eyes of modern conservative interpreters, the real effect of these early commentators was to forever discredit the allegorical method of interpretation. It became a violation of hermeneutics to look beneath the surface of the Word for secondary or hidden narratives that have spiritual or prophetic significance. Most theologians shy away from using the very term “allegory,” but instead, refer to certain allegorical passages as “types and symbols.”

The problem with the allegorical method used in the early centuries, is that the literal meaning of the passage was disregarded in favor of the allegory. This is dangerous. It leads to fanciful interpretations that have no basis in fact. All biblical passages must follow the guidelines set forth in the plain meaning of the Word. A type or symbol must ring true to the context of Scripture.

The Literal Method

The literal method of interpretation “gives to each word the same exact basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage, whether employed in writing, speaking or thinking” (Ramm, p. 53).

Ramm defends the literal approach:

(a) The literal meaning of sentences is the normal approach in all languages.

(b) All secondary meanings of documents, parables, types, allegories, and symbols, depend for their very existence on the previous literal meaning of the terms.

(c) The greater part of the Bible makes adequate sense when interpreted literally.

The literalistic approach does not blindly rule out figures of speech, symbols, allegories, and types; but if the nature of the sentence so demands, it readily yields to the literal sense.

The literal method is the only sane and safe check on the imaginations of man.

The literal method is the only one consonant with the nature of inspiration. The plenary inspiration of the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit guided men into truth and away from error. In this process the Spirit of God used language, and the units of language are words and thoughts. The thought is the thread that strings the words together. Therefore, our very exegesis must commence with a study of words and grammar, the two fundamentals of all meaningful speech” (Ramm, pp. 54 ff).

Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, in his book, THINGS TO COME, wrote: “No prophecy which has been completely fulfilled has been fulfilled any way but literally.”

The Advantages of the Literal Method

There are advantages to the literal method of interpretation:

(a) It grounds interpretation in fact. It seeks to establish itself in objective data — grammar, logic, etymology, history, geography, archeology, and theology.

(b) It exercises a kind of control over interpretation, similar to what experimentation does for the scientific method.

(c) It has had the greatest success in opening up the Word of God.

The literal method recognizes that types, symbols, metaphors and allegories are found throughout the Bible. However, these are used to expound upon and explain the literal message of Scripture.

John 1:6 says, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” That is literal. But John 1:29 shows John pointing to Jesus and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.” That is figurative or symbolic.

Pentecost writes: “The literalist does not deny the existence of figurative language. The literalist does, however deny that such figures must be interpreted so as to destroy the literal truth intended through the employment of the figures” (p. 13).

Type, Symbol or Allegory?

Do we find stories in the Old Testament writings that, in addition to being historical accounts, are also symbolic of the future? Quite obviously, we do. As told in Genesis, the life of Joseph is generally regarded as a “type” of the life of Christ. He was supremely loved by his father and hated by his brothers, who didn’t want him to reign over them. He was sold into slavery, and lived among Gentiles in Egypt (a type of the world) for 20 years. There, he came into rulership and took a Gentile bride. Finally, he revealed himself to his brothers, who acknowledged their wrong and pledged their faith to him. His life literally becomes a story from the past, about the future of the Messiah and His relationship with Israel. It is not considered faulty interpretation to suggest this possibility.

And what about other illustrious Old Testament characters? Does the life of Joshua say anything about the future? In the Hebrew, his name is basically the same as Jesus (Yeshua). And remarkably, we find the ministry of Jesus mirrored in the events of his life. What about the story of Ruth, the Gentile — and Boaz, the kinsman redeemer who took her as his bride? Again, we have a story that throws prophetic light on the future Messiah and His relationship to New Testament Christianity.

And then there is Samuel, whose miracle birth to the barren Hannah gave Israel one of its greatest prophets. His birth foreshadowed the virgin birth of Christ. In fact, the barren Sarah and the barren Rachel also alluded to the future miracle birth of Abraham’s promised Messiah. These stories are prophecies to the spiritual eye that can see it.

Then, there is Solomon. Without a doubt, he is a type of Christ. As the royal son of David, he was a prophetic type of the greater Son in the Davidic lineage.

The stories go on and on. The sagas of King David provide a wonderful overview of God’s plan for Israel. Many of the Psalms form a kind of autobiography of his life. To be sure, they are historical accounts. But they are stories with a familiar ring, as once again today, Israel transitions toward its millennial position as head of the nations.

The Prophetic View of the Psalms

Psalm 22 offers us a classic example of the prophetic nature of the Psalms. It is the familiar, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”

Even though the psalmist does not specifically say that the statement is a prophecy, which someday would be uttered by the Messiah, he nevertheless reflected the heart-cry of the one who would bear the sins of humanity. So it is throughout the Psalms. Each of those ancient songs reflects a similar prophetic view.

In each case, the psalmist pours forth the hopes and dreams, the desires and aspirations, the heartaches and frustrations of someone other than himself. Sometimes, as in the case of Psalm 22, it is the Messiah. But the psalmist also reflects the heartbeat of the Chosen People who would live in the last days — at the close of Israel’s long exile.

Jewish scholar Avrohom Chaim Feuer wrote that David “caught a glimpse of the ultimate triumph and redemption of his people. He had the ability and genius to be stimulated and inspired so profoundly by events that he could soar above the boundaries of time; and sing of past, present, and future in the same breath, with the same words” (Feuer, TEHILLIM, Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Pub., 1985, p. 65).

The Teachings of F. W. Grant

I found a remarkable study in a nineteenth century book by F. W. Grant entitled, THE NUMERICAL STRUCTURE OF SCRIPTURE, first published in October of 1887 (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers). He felt there was something special about the order of the Psalms. He believed that they were thoroughly prophetic. However, living before the onset of the 20th century, he could not understand how the prophecies implied in each psalm would eventually relate to events. He expressed his view of the prophetic Psalms by using the description of a coastline lying in a fog. He wrote:

“I have often compared the view I had to what one might have of a line of coast lying in a fog, points sticking out here and there, sunny and attractive, and you are sure there is connecting land between, only you do not see it. I longed for this fog to rise, and took up the book to seek out more the connection of psalm with psalm, and thus, as I believed, the place and power of each.”

This nineteenth-century theologian could see prophetic points of interest. His proverbial “fog” began to lift with the turn of the twentieth century — some 13 years after the publication of his book. I am convinced that the Psalms reflect the heartbeat of the Jew in his quest to return to the Promised Land. Furthermore, the events along that road seem to be depicted in the Psalms. Each psalm appears to contain prophetic implications to events that occurred in the years of the twentieth century — reflected even in the number of its corresponding psalm.

Grant felt that this numerical order in the Psalms had a special meaning, but he did not have the advantage of hindsight. He wrote:

“Here, then, is a new thought gained: the structure of the psalm has impressed upon it a number in harmony with its spiritual meaning. If this be a law of Scripture, how important to have reached this law!”

This numerical order in the Psalms had been observed by earlier theologians and caught the interest of F. W. Grant. He quoted Franz Delitzsch, a nineteenth-century German theologian who, in turn, quoted Gregory of Nyssa, an earlier scholar, who expressed a frustration at trying to break the numerical code in the Psalms:

“‘Among the fathers,’ writes Delitzsch, ‘Gregory of Nyssa (c. A.D. 372) has attempted to show that the Psalter, in its five books, leads upward, as by five steps, to moral perfection; and down to the most recent times, attempts have been made to trace in the five books a gradation of principal thoughts, which run through the whole collection. We fear that in this direction, investigation has set before itself an unattainable end.’”

Grant reported that this numerical order was referred to as a “gradation of principal thoughts.” I call it “chronological order.” For example, the liberation of Jerusalem by the British in 1917 is reflected in Psalm 17. The holocaust, which cost the lives of six million Jews from 1939 to 1945, is alluded to in Psalms 39-45. The successful quest for their homeland in 1946-47 may be observed in Psalms 46-47. The birth of Israel in 1948 can be readily seen in Psalm 48. In fact, at least each of the first 100 psalms shows the flow of events in each year of the twentieth century — in chronological order.

Dr. Grant expressed his frustration with Delitzsch not pursuing this observation about the Psalms:

“The resemblance is fuller than Delitzsch makes it; but seeing so much, is it not a wonder to find him stop and look no further into the matter? He is on a track which would open the Psalms to him from end to end: what hinders him from pursuing it?”

I think the answer to Grant’s question can simply be found in the fact that these men did not have the privilege of hindsight as we have today. Nineteenth-century scholarship could not see that the prophetic implication found in Psalm 48 would be fulfilled in 1948. But I am convinced that Grant was right on the edge of this concept, which we detected only after the prophecies in each of 83 psalms had come to pass. It is amazing to me that no one saw the prophetic design before our discovery in September of 1983. Grant wrote:

“I began to see that there was a methodical structure throughout, and that this had to do with the meaning of what was there.”

This “gradation of principle thoughts” is no mere twisting of Scripture. The evidence is overwhelming that God had prewritten the chronology of this modern exodus of world Jewry in order to document its year-by-year fulfillment. It is the ultimate documentation of Jeremiah’s prophecy:

“Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be said, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

“But, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers” (Jeremiah 16:14-15).

Jeremiah’s prophecy is more than just a return following the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. The prophet clearly describes Israel’s exile as worldwide. Furthermore, he especially takes note of the “land of the north.” This can only be a reference to Jewish immigration from Russia over the past century. Also, Jeremiah implies that the final exodus will be so great; the exodus out of Egypt will pale in comparison.

Israel — The Super Sign

The final return of Israel was so important; God laid out its chronology in the Psalms. Furthermore, the Lord saw to it that this book ended up as the 19th book of the Bible. Therefore, book 19, psalm 48, reveals an event that came to pass in 1948! The Psalter is juxtapositioned as both the 19th book counting from Genesis and the 48th book counting back from Revelation. Its theme, the birth of Israel, came to pass in 1948! Some theologians may be willing to call that a coincidence, but I prefer to believe that there is a God in heaven superintending the whole Bible.

Grant noted that the Psalms are not normally considered as prophetic. The Psalmist does not take the time to announce his psalm as a prophecy. Nevertheless, the prophetic implication is apparent. The prophetic nature in each psalm must be observed by “faith.” Grant wrote:

“Take for example the twenty-second psalm. It is not a direct prediction, but the Spirit of God leading the Psalmist, in the expression of personal feelings, to go beyond himself, so as to become, whether consciously or not, the representative of One greater than himself. The psalm is thus left as a divine secret, a mystery to be unraveled by faith…. But so also in many another psalm, in which not Messiah but a saint of the latter days is put before us in an exactly similar manner; so that the experiences, feelings, and exercises proper to the people of God then are found in the outpourings of the heart of an Asaph, a Heman, an Ethan, a son Korah, or even of David himself…. The people so taken up is Israel — seen in sorrows which will come upon them in the great time of Jacob’s trouble, out of which he will be delivered and brought into lasting blessing” (pp. 109,110).

It is important to note that just as Psalm 22 reflected the sorrow of the Messiah on the day of His suffering, these psalms also reflect the sorrow of Israel in the day of its suffering. Grant goes on to call the Psalms a view of Israel’s sorrow in the “great time of Jacob’s trouble.” His concept agrees with what we have found in the Psalms. The prophetic nature is clear enough for us to conclude that we live in that special generation which will experience the biblical Tribulation Period.

Though F. W. Grant did not have the privilege of hindsight, he nevertheless concluded that Psalms 42-72 were prophecies of the suffering of Israel in the “last days.” He wrote:

“The second book (Psalms 42-72) carries us on fully to the last days, and shows us their deliverance by Christ when in the sorrows of their final trial…” (p. 113).

Grant referred to the “final trial” of Israel. And it is important to note that the birth of the Jewish nation followed immediately on the heels of the suffering of the holocaust. Though he could not foresee the exact way in which the prophecy would be fulfilled, he was correct as to their prophetic implications.

Grant’s profound insight into the prophetic implications of Psalms 94-100 are also worthy of note. He saw them as a single group with a cohesive prophetic pattern. He wrote: “The following psalms — seven in number [94-100] — then give the coming of Jehovah to the earth, and how all things break into song before Him” (p. 115).

Grant’s observation of Psalms 101-106 is interesting. He wrote: “But the second division [101-106] has a deeper secret yet to tell: Jehovah and this Second Man are one!” (p. 115).

Grant refers to the Messiah when he speaks of this “Second Man.” He notes that this is no mere man. He is deity: “It is here that the amazing secret is discovered. This humbled Man is owned in His humiliation as Jehovah’s Fellow. ‘Of old hast Thou laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands: they shall perish, but Thou endurest!’ How wonderful is this! And how great are its consequences! Creator and Redeemer are one: the hands that receive the government of the earth are almighty ones: there is an indefectible Head of blessing: God and man are brought how unutterably near! Thus the hundred and third psalm begins now its tale of grace and blessing; the hundred and fourth celebrates Jehovah — the Redeemer — as the Creator; the hundred and fifth is His appeal to Israel, and the final psalm their confession and repentance.” (p. 116).

Psalms 101 and following seem to follow on with those events begun in the previous 100 psalms — a chronology which leads up to the final confrontation with the Antichrist and his proposed world government. Also, he wrote that the following psalms (107-150) alluded to Israel standing on the threshold of the Messiah’s kingdom. He wrote: “And now the fifth book begins — Israel just ready to take possession of the land after their long dispersion. Of Psalm 107, at the beginning of the fifth book, he [Delitzsch] also says, ‘Now, just as in the book of Deuteronomy Israel stands on the threshold of the land of promise … so at the beginning of this fifth book of the Psalter we see Israel restored to the soil of its fatherland. There, it is the Israel redeemed out of Egypt; here, it is the Israel redeemed out of the land of the exile. There, the lawgiver once more admonishes Israel to yield the obedience of love to the law of Jehovah; here, the Psalmist calls upon Israel to show gratitude toward Him who has redeemed it from exile, and distress, and death’” (p. 116).

If Rev. Grant were alive today, I think he would be delighted with the way the Psalter discloses a chronology of events in this century — year-by-year — as numbered by each succeeding psalm. That is not to say that the most significant prophetic fulfillment — the long awaited advent of the Messiah — must come to pass in the very year numbered by the psalm in which the prophetic passage appears. Why not? Because this divine dream of Israel is offered in almost every psalm.

For example, Psalm 2:6 alludes to Christ’s kingdom being established on Mt. Zion. But when one reads the entire psalm, it becomes obvious that the earlier events alluded to in the psalm — leading up to the coronation of the King will necessarily require several years to develop, beginning with, “Why do the heathen rage?” Indeed, such political upheavals herein described were in full force in 1902. That development is what the psalm foresees. What we see in the psalms are the various events that ultimately lead up to His eventual appearance.

Psalm 19:5 alludes to a “bridegroom coming out of his chamber,” but that does not mean Christ must come in 1919. Psalm 89:51 speaks of the “footsteps of thine anointed,” but does not mean that He should have appeared in 1989. These passages simply imply that His coming is in view as these psalms take their place in the grand scheme. There are prophetic views in psalms 19 and 89 that were fulfilled in 1919 and 1989. The development of the Jewish state in the twentieth century is the overwhelming theme that must be considered. There is no rapture date-setting intended, only the saga of Israel’s long exile ended, the return to their Promised Land, and the subsequent development toward the messianic kingdom. Such a prophetic view of the Psalms certainly conforms to the literal interpretation of Scripture.

One must be careful, however, not to become dogmatic when interpreting prophetic types and symbols. They may have more than one meaning. Furthermore, no implied prophetic passage should be used to set any specific dates for future events.

All prophetic interpretation must conform to the same prophetic scenario that can be derived from plain and literal Scriptures. If speculation is called for, it must be made clear that it is mere speculation and not something upon which one can depend. υ

Go to Lesson 2: Levels of Biblical Interpretation

Go to Lesson 4: The Millennial Day Concept