A Literal or Literalistic Interpretation

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  • A Literal or Literalistic Interpretation

    The differences between the two millennial viewpoints are, therefore, largely due to the hermeneutical presuppositions that their adherents bring to the study of the data. Because of their commitment to a literal interpretation of the Bible, dispensationalists see Old Testament prophecy as the determinative category through which New Testament prophetic data is interpreted. For example, the book of Revelation must be interpreted by the book of Daniel, according to the dispensationalist hermeneutic. [14] The amillenarians, on the other hand, see the New Testament data as the determinative category by which Old Testament and future eschatology are to be interpreted. Therefore, amillenarians see the book of Revelation as the God-given interpretation of Daniel.

    This leaves dispensationalists frequently stuck in the awkward position of insisting on an Old Testament interpretation of a prophetic theme that has been reinterpreted in the New Testament in the light of the messianic age, which dawned in Jesus Christ. Although dispensationalists claim to interpret Scripture literally, in actuality, they often read a passage literalistically, meaning they downplay or ignore how Old Testament passages are interpreted by the authors of the New. A specific example of what I mean might help to clarify the issue.

    In Acts 15, the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas to report to the Jerusalem council regarding the salvation of the Gentiles and to seek help in resolving the question that had been troubling the church as a result. Should Gentile converts be circumcised in order to be saved? Once in the city, Paul and Barnabas reported to the elders and apostles on all the things God was doing among the Gentiles (v. 4). When certain converted Pharisees declared that Gentiles must be circumcised and obey the law of Moses (v. 5), Peter refuted their arguments by pointing out that it was God who had given these Gentiles the Holy Spirit: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (v. 11).

    Then James, the leader of the church, spoke (vv. 13ff.): “God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written,” and James cited a passage from Amos 9: 11– 12: “‘ After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ that have been known for ages.” James saw the prophecy as fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and exaltation and in the reconstitution of his disciples as the new Israel. The presence of both Jew and Gentile in the church was proof that the prophecy of Amos had been fulfilled. [15] David’s fallen tent had been rebuilt by Christ.

    In Amos’s prophecy, “after this” indicated that the prophecy referred to what God would do for Israel after the exile. When James applied this prophecy to the church, was he spiritualizing an Old Testament text? Or was James reading the Old Testament through a Christ-centered lens typical of the greater light of the messianic age? This question lies at the heart of the debate between amillenarians and dispensationalists.

    The famous notes of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) say that from a dispensational perspective James’s speech is the most important in the New Testament. According to Scofield, James is describing what will happen after the church age concludes (“ after this”), i.e., in the millennium, when God will reestablish a Davidic rule over Israel. If this is true, when Paul and Barnabas sought guidance for a concern that was immediate to them (Should Gentile converts be circumcised?), James responded by pointing to a future millennium thousands of years distant. [16] Here is one instance in which dispensational presuppositions get in the way of the plain sense of the text. Scofield interprets the text literalistically, not literally. Dispensationalists are often forced to reinterpret any New Testament data that does not fit in their Old Testament– derived prophetic scheme. Dispensational presuppositions will not fit with much of the interpretation supplied to Old Testament data by New Testament authors. A thorough survey of both Old Testament and New Testament eschatological categories will demonstrate the dispensational hermeneutic to be untenable. More importantly, such a survey gives us the proper framework and external controls to interpret prophetic sections of Scripture correctly.

    The irony is that dispensationalists’ practice of interpreting all prophetic texts in a literalistic fashion amounts to a repudiation of the historic Protestant hermeneutic and the principle of the analogy of faith. If amillenarians adopt the New Testament writers’ interpretation of the Old Testament, are they not following the literal sense of Scripture, even if the New Testament writers universalize something that was limited to Israel in the Old Testament? The dispensationalists’ literalistic reading of prophetic passages must not be confused with a literal reading. A literal reading— a reading that gets at the plain sense of the text— will allow the New Testament to interpret the Old. It is amillenarians, not dispensationalists, who interpret prophecy literally in that they follow the literal sense of how the writers of the New Testament interpret Old Testament prophecy.

    Riddlebarger, Kim (2013-08-15). A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (pp. 53-56). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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