“Reading the Bible Literally”Categories: dispensationalism, grace, hermeneutics, law, study, truth
In yesterday’s sermon (April 30, 2023), we reviewed Dispensationalism. The dispensationalist claims and tries with all his might to read the Bible literally. Notice what dispensationalist Ken Blue wrote:
B. Dispensationalists hold to the literal principles of interpretation of Scripture. Someone has said that men spiritualize because they have no 'spiritual eyes.' The most dangerous method of Bible interpretation is that of spiritualizing a text or making everything a type.
Illustration: God promised Adam and Eve that the Seed of the woman would come. He did. Noah was warned of a flood. It came. Abraham's seed were promised a land. They received it. Moses was promised victory in leading Israel from Egypt; he did it. Rebellious Israel was warned of their coming dispersion; it came. The prophets promised Israel that God would return them to their home-land. He is doing it as we write. The virgin birth was foretold. It came to pass. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was prophesied. It took place. The destruction of the temple and of the nation was prophesied. It happened.
If these and hundreds of prophecies like them were literal and proved to be so, why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church? One opens himself to serious error when the literal approach to the Bible is rejected. A study of dispensations demands a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Have you ever heard of the logical fallacy of equivocation? It’s when someone uses a definition for something one way (usually a way in which most everyone agrees), and then he subtly switches the definition a bit later in his argument. Equivocation is “calling two different things by the same name.”
For example, “Dairy is good for me, so I eat a gallon of ice cream a day.” The argument equates dairy and ice cream. Ice cream has milk in it, but it also has a bunch of other stuff that, unfortunately, makes it unhealthy in great quantities.
Often, we omit important information to get our equivocation argument to go through. My child might say, “Can I go over to my friend’s house for a little while? He’s having a couple of friends over to play some games.” I might ask my child to further clarify because those statements are quite general. I’m picturing four or five guys sitting around a table playing Risk, when the real plan is for half the school to come over and have a pool party with illicit refreshments freely flowing. If I confronted him later about his deception, he would say, “We didn’t say how long and who can say how many ‘a couple’ of friends is?”
Dispensationalists often (though not necessarily on purpose) equivocate with this idea of reading the Bible literally. You see what Ken Blue wrote above. Read through all his illustrations of how the Bible literally says something and that thing literally happened. There is practically nothing you would argue with, right? He seals his argument up at the end with a question: “Why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church?”
Well, he didn’t give us any examples of some of the other prophecies he takes literally. Neither does he explain what “spiritualizing” means to him. If we take the land promise and nation promise of Genesis 12.1–3 and apply those now to the church age, is that spiritualizing, or is that seeing how God is literally carrying out His promise in the way He had determined before time began? The dispensationalist waits today for God to fulfill the land promise to the nation of Israel. We read Jesus in Matthew 5.5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and we realize this is connected directly back to Old Covenant language such as Psalm 25.13; 37.9, 11, 22, 29, 34. Jesus applies that language to citizens of His Kingdom under the New Covenant, so why should we not connect the land promise to ourselves who are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
There’s a reason why we interpret all those things Ken Blue listed as literally true. Almost all of them come from historical narratives in the Old Testament. When we read history, of course we interpret it literally. We believe it happened just as it is written.
However, other genres exist among the books of the Bible. Not everything is historical narrative. Prophecy in scripture is often proclaimed through poetry, and sometimes a certain type of prophetic language which we call “apocalyptic” is used.
For example, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in Daniel 2 about a statue which had different body parts composed of different metals: a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. A huge rock was cut out without man’s hands and was hurled at the feet of the statue, breaking it to pieces. Daniel interpreted the dream, and we understand each part of the statue stood for a kingdom in present or future history (future to Daniel). Was the statue literal? It was a literal dream of a statue, but Nebuchadnezzar would not be looking for a literal statue like that because he discovered that it was merely symbolic of historical realities to come.
We could also look at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great tree in Daniel 4. Again, the tree symbolized Nebuchadnezzar himself and what God had planned for him in his near future.
The last six chapters of Daniel are full of prophetic imagery. Daniel 7 reveals a dream Daniel had of four great beasts: one like a lion and had eagles’ wings which had the voice of a man given to it; one like a bear raised up on one side with three ribs in his mouth; one like a leopard with four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and one with ten horns and great iron teeth which it used to devour and break in pieces. Are we to take Daniel’s dream literally? In what sense do we take it literally? We believe he literally had a dream, but we also understand that those four beasts were not literal freaks of nature that God brought or will bring to earth. They stood, again, for four kingdoms which would come. We know that because Daniel received an interpretation at the end of the chapter (“As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth…” Dan. 7.23).
When Jesus spoke in parables, He interpreted a few of them (Matthew 13) but not all of them. His interpretations of the few instructs us on how to interpret the rest of them. He teaches us how to listen to parables, to find a deeper meaning behind the simple stories. Likewise, God gives us interpretations for some apocalyptic language (such as in Daniel 7), which helps us understand how to read other apocalyptic literature, even when God does not supply the interpretation. We understand how to read this kind of literature. We are not supposed to read it literally but as it is given in symbols and signs.
Take Revelation 14.1–5. The premillennial dispensationalist believes in a literal 144,000 who have the literal name of the Father written on their literal foreheads. I assume they also believe these 144,000 will be literal viren men who never lie.
In Revelation 20.1–6, John five times mentions a 1,000-year period. The dispensationalist believes in a literal 1,000 years, and they believe it has not yet begun. They believe Jesus will come to earth to reign for this 1,000 years. You will notice, as you read those verses, that they do not say that Christ will reign on earth during those 1,000 years. That is read into the passage by bringing in other passages and ideas.
Are we to understand those numbers as literal? If we take them as figurative or symbolic, are we guilty of “spiritualizing” the text? Or are we reading it the way God intended us to read that genre of literature?
Reading the Bible is not always cut-and-dry easy, and that’s one reason it is so thrilling! We have much to learn, many mysteries to investigate, and wonders to behold of which we probably have no clue. As the Jews under the Old Covenant completely failed to understand the exact nature of God’s plan, even though it was revealed throughout the prophecies, so I expect we completely fail to understand the exact nature of what God is planning for us. Two things should be true: (1) we should investigate what God has revealed, asking questions and digging deep; and (2) we should be comfortable with not knowing all the details and waiting for the reality to come upon us.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3.5). Walk in humility. Love those who think they have it figured out, and encourage them to walk with God in faithfulness whether or not history works out exactly like they think it will.
God has the plan, and He’s working it!