7.2. The Art and Science of Interpretation

The practice of interpretation is known as hermeneutics.

The word hermeneutics is ultimately derived from Hermes the Greek god who brought the messages of the gods to the mortals, and was the god of science, invention, eloquence, speech, writing, and art. As a theological discipline hermeneutics is the science of the correct interpretation of the Bible.1

Bible study consists of three primary steps: observation, interpretation, and application.2 . After observing the text, interpretation should yield the understanding of God’s Word which He intended resulting in its fruitful application in the life of the reader. If interpretation goes astray, then a proper understanding will not result and the application of God’s message to the life of the reader will not be what God intended.

Our position is that the book of Revelation is to be interpreted normally, like any other writing, and especially like the rest of the Scriptures. We part company here from those who seek to classify the book as being representative of the apocalyptic genre so they can apply a mystical or spiritual “spin” to the text and make it mean all manner of things.

D.L. Cooper gives a reasonable definition of normal interpretation in his Golden Rule of Interpretation:

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.—The Golden Rule of Interpretation, D.L. Cooper3

The rule includes the important phrase, studied in the light of related passages. This is the biblical equivalent of a “safety net.” In the same way that trapeze artists performing on the high-wire are protected by a net below which catches them in the event of a fall, comparing Scripture with Scripture provides a doctrinal “safety net” to keep the interpreter from “falling” into an inconsistent understanding or interpretation. This principle is also known as the Analogy of Scripture or Systematic Theology: the systematic study of the Scriptures across all the books of the Bible to arrive at a self-consistent understanding of any particular topic. This principle is founded upon the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. That the inspired books, being ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit (2Pe. 2Pe. 1:19-21), are without error and consistent in their teaching from Genesis Gen. 1:1 through Revelation Rev. 22:21+. When we encounter what seems to be an inconsistency (commonly referred to as a “Bible Difficulty”), we must assume that the problem is one of our own understanding and not God’s Word. The experienced student of the Word will recognize how frequently what appeared to be contradictory turned out, upon further insight, study, and illumination, to be by design.4

Notice that the Golden Rule holds that we adhere to the plain sense of Scripture and not seek any other sense unless there are good reasons for doing otherwise. These reasons must be found in the immediate context of the passage under study or related passages. It is not sufficient to simply classify the book of Revelation as an apocalypse and therefore turn the rules of interpretation upside-down as does this commentator:

A failure to take full account of [the apocalyptic] feature has led to some of the most outlandish teachings on this book by some whose rule of interpretation is “literal, unless absurd.” Though this is a good rule when dealing with literature written in a literal genre, it is the exact opposite in the case of apocalyptic literature, where symbolism is the rule, and literalism the exception. [emphasis added]5

Notice how this commentator appeals to the apocalyptic genre in order to dismiss normative interpretation and to assert that we should avoid normative interpretation in favor of pure symbolic conjecture! The easy answer to this proposal is to simply ask, “Whose symbolic interpretation?” No real answer can be given. This is because there in an infinite variety of interpretations possible when using symbolic conjecture. The result is that no two interpreters hold to the same meaning except in a handful of areas. This fact alone disqualifies a non-literal framework because it has factually demonstrated its bankruptcy at conveying a reliable message from God. In effect, it makes the book of Revelation unknowable by man.

The recommendation that normalcy be inverted reminds us of our high-school literature class where we read Melville’s Moby Dick and then spent weeks guessing at obscure, hidden, multiple meanings which the author “might” have intended. It was great fun and students were awarded an “A” for creativity, but I often thought of how Melville would likely turn in his grave if he heard the things he was supposed to have communicated! But interpreting God’s Holy Word is the antithesis of the high-school literature class, for here creativity is awarded a grade of “F!”

Why do we insist on normalcy in our interpretation of all of Scripture? Couch identifies a number of reasons:

Those who are committed to a normal reading of Scripture offer at least three reasons: First, the obvious purpose of language is to enable effective communication between intelligent beings. Words have meaning and in their normal usage are intended to be understood. . . . God is the originator of language. When He spoke audibly to man, He expected man to understand Him and respond accordingly. Likewise, when God speaks to man through the inspired writings of His apostles and prophets, He expects man to understand and respond accordingly. . . . A second reason for a normal reading of Scripture concerns the historical fulfillment of prophecy. All the prophecies of the Old and New Testament that have been fulfilled to date have been fulfilled literally. . . . Thus, . . . all prophecies which are yet to be fulfilled will be fulfilled literally. A third reason concerns logic. If an interpreter does not use the normal, customary, literal method of interpreting Scripture, interpretation is given over to the unconstrained imagination and presuppositions of the interpreter.6

Neglect of this last reason is most evident in the widely-varying imaginative interpretations of the non-literal interpreters. Once the “tether of normative interpretation” is cut, the helium balloon of the interpreter’s imagination floats ever further afield from the intended meaning of the text. This single factor accounts for the majority of nonsense which is offered as commentary on the book of Revelation.

As an example of how quickly those who forsake literal interpretation choose to ignore the pattern of previously-fulfilled literal prophecy, Couch’s second reason for normalcy, consider Beale’s statement which asserts that the plagues in Revelation are unlikely to be literal like those recorded elsewhere in Scripture:

The parallel with Exodus does not supply unambiguous demonstration in support of a literal fulfillment. All that it shows is that the two descriptions are homologous, that is, that they have an essential relation in some manner. But the nature of that relation needs to be determined. Are they homologous in their physical form and effects, or in theological significance, or both? The images depicted certainly refer to actual events on the referential level.. . . In Revelation the fire and hail are to be understood on the symbolic level as representing particular facets of divine judgment that can be drawn out further by thorough exegesis of the theological meaning of this particular Exodus plague. [These] speak of God depriving the ungodly of earthly security. [emphasis added]7

Beale denies literal fire and hail in the book of Revelation as found elsewhere in Scripture asserting that the reader is to seek for a theological meaning beyond the plain text. The fire and hail are themselves no longer important, but the theological meaning behind the text is now primary. But who determines the meaning behind the text and how is it determined? A perusal of the writings of expositors employing this approach readily reveals the enormous subjectivity which enters upon the process of answering these questions to arrive at an interpretation.

Another key advantage of normal interpretation is it is minimal, contributing the barest interpretive layer over the inspired text from God. “The best interpretation of a historical record is no interpretation but simply letting the divine Author of the record say what He says and assuming He says what He means.”8 The “thicker” the layer of interpretation required to make sense of the underlying text, the greater the danger that the commentator will wind up adding to or subtracting from the meaning intended by God (Rev. Rev. 22:18-19+).9 This minimalist interpretation is the way a reader would most likely understand the text when absent from the guidance of an allegorical interpreter.

If one were on a desert island and read Revelation for the first time, how would he normally interpret the book? The answer would be “actual and literal,” unless there was an amillennialist and allegorist around to say, “No, no, these events are not real! They have some hidden meaning that no one is sure of, but don’t let that bother you!”10

In opposition to the practice of literal interpretation, some interpreters grossly misrepresent what it means to interpret literally:

Would we understand the Twenty-third Psalm properly if we were to take it “literally”? Would it not, instead, look somewhat silly? In fact, if taken literally, it would not be true: for I daresay that the Lord doesn’t make every Christian to lie down in literal, green pastures.11

As Ramm explains, literal interpretation is not the ridiculous caricature that the previous commentator attempts to portray it as:

To interpret Scripture literally is not to be committed to a “wooden literalism,” nor to a “letterism,” nor to a neglect of the nuances that defy any “mechanical” understanding of language. Rather, it is to commit oneself to a starting point and that starting point is to understand a document the best one can in the context of the normal, usual, customary, tradition range of designation which includes “tacit” understanding.12

Literal interpretation recognizes variations in the style of the text and maintains a consistency of interpretation driven by the text itself, not the predilections of the interpreter:

It is not true that the premillennialists require every single passage to be interpreted literally without exception. They do hold, on the other hand, that if the language is symbolic, it is to be governed by the laws relating to symbols; if figurative, by the laws dealing with figures; if typical, by the laws connected with types; if literal, by the laws of non-figurative speech.13

All interpreters utilize this normal literal approach most of the time. For example, in interpreting John’s words:

I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. (Rev. Rev. 1:9+)

There is almost universal agreement that the “island that is called Patmos” is Patmos! And that John is located on that island, and that he is there due to his connection to the Word of God. Where the difference comes in, is that some interpreters change their interpretive process when they encounter passages employing symbols, prophecy, or especially controversial doctrine. In these passages, they jettison normal interpretation in favor of conjecture about symbols thereby reducing the text into an allegory concerning spiritual principles.

This “dual hermeneutic” is employed much like the gearshift in an automobile. On the major “freeway” of the gospel text, they generally stay in literal gear. But when a prophetic off-ramp or doctrinal mountain looms ahead, they shift into a non-literal gear. This inconsistency leads to all manner of confusion and allows for the most amazing conclusions which are often in complete contradiction to the plain meaning of the text! McClain recognizes this “gearshift” between two systems of interpretation:

It should be clear, however, that regardless of the terms chosen to designate the anti-millenarian scheme of prophetical interpretation, it is a combination of two different systems, shifting back and forth between the spiritualizing and literal methods. The hermeneutical plow is pulled by ‘an ox and an ass.’ For this reason, the scheme may be appropriately be called eclectical.14

Even those who use literal interpretation when viewing OT passages in the light of the NT often fall into this inconsistent approach when they come to the book of Revelation:

Two or three generations ago, students of prophecy received incalculable help from the simple discovery that when the Holy Spirit spoke of Judea and Jerusalem in the Old Testament Scriptures He meant Judea and Jerusalem, and not England and London; and that when He mentioned Zion He did not refer to the Church. But strange to say, few, if any of these brethren, have applied the same rule to the Apocalypse. Here they are guilty of doing the very thing for which they condemned their forebears in connection with the Old Testament - they have ‘spiritualised.’ . . . What then? If to regard ‘Jerusalem’ as meaning Jerusalem be a test of intelligence in Old Testament prophecy, shall we be counted a heretic if we understand ‘Babylon’ to mean Babylon, and not Rome or apostate Christendom?15

Couch describes the two main approaches to interpretation as they relate to prophecy:

Among evangelicals there are generally two major camps regarding how prophetic passages should be read. Amillennialists will generally allegorize large portions of the prophetic Word, especially passages that speak of the Second Advent of Christ and the establishment of the one thousand year literal Davidic kingdom. In contrast, premillennialists, following the teaching of the early church, treat the Second Coming with the same literal hermeneutic as they would the First Coming of Jesus. They hold that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, should be understood literally from a normal reading unless typology or poetry is used. And even then, premillennialists believe that “literalness” is implied behind the figure of speech or illustration used.16

The most serious charge that can be leveled against non-literal interpretation is that of perverting the promises of God. God’s promises, both in the OT and NT, were given to specific recipients using words which they understood in the context in which they lived and in which the promises were given. When a nonliteral view of these passages is adopted, this robs the original recipients of the promises as God gave them:

Adopting a nonliteral view of the Old Testament kingdom prophecies raises some disturbing questions: What did those prophecies mean to those to whom they were addressed? If prophecies seemingly addressed to Israel really apply to the church (which did not exist at that time), did God give revelation that failed to reveal? And if those prophecies were meant to apply symbolically to the church, why were they addressed to Israel? What meaning could such prophecies have in their historical settings? Ironically, many who spiritualize Old Testament prophecies reject the futurist interpretation of Revelation because it allegedly robs the book of its meaning for those to whom it was written. Yet they do the very same thing with the Old Testament kingdom prophecies.17

God’s promises involve both ends of the communication channel: the things God said and what those who received His promises understood them to mean in the original context. It is not permissible, after the fact, to make what God said mean something different which would have been entirely foreign to those who originally received His word. Allegorization and spiritualization do just that.

Notes

1 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1970), 11.

2 Kay Arthur, How To Study Your Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1994), 9-10.

3 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 44.

4 One of the best examples is the apparent contradiction between the genealogies of Christ given by Matthew Mat. 1:1 and Luke Luke 3:1. The solution to this dilemma reveals the masterful genius of God in His curse of Jeconiah (Jer. Jer. 22:30; Jer. 36:30). Indeed, “the Divine is in the details!”

5 Steve Gregg, Revelation Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 11.

6 Mal Couch, Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications), 36-37.

7 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 54.

8 Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983), 13.

9 This leads to a general rule of thumb. Although there are notable exceptions, the more weighty the commentary, the more likely it will mislead the reader in his understanding of the book of Revelation.

10 Mal Couch, “Interpreting the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 49.

11 David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 28.

12 Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 121.

13 Charles Feinberg, Premillennialism or Amillennialism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1936), 50.

14 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness Of The Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1959), 144.

15 Arthur Walkington Pink, The Antichrist (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1999, 1923), s.v. “Antichrist and Babylon.”

16 Couch, Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics, 11.

17 John MacArthur, Revelation 12-22 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2000), Rev. 20:1.