So, should we take scripture literally or not? The best way to answer this question is to look at unfulfilled Biblical prophecy. Biblical prophecy is different from worldly prophecy (for example Nostradamus) or false prophecy. How we interpret Biblical prophecy and scripture is foundational to what we believe and how we relate to Gods chosen nation; Israel.
There are different interpretations over the subject of prophecy. You will find many great men of God who have very different views on prophecy. Their views are not just different in the level of details; they are wildly different.
We need to understand that the differences in prophetic ideas are not just about details, they are about fundamental ways of interpreting scripture.
It is as basic as that.
Indeed, there are two main camps when it comes to interpreting scripture. The two camps are split into:
- The Allegorical View/Interpretation – seeing scripture as a metaphor for something else
- The Literal View/Interpretation – taking scripture at face value, it means what is says and does not require any further interpretation
Everybody takes either one of these views when interpreting prophetic scripture.
The Allegorical View
Therefore, let us deal with the Allegorical View first.
An allegory is from the Greek word αλλος, allos, “other”, and αγορευειν, agoreuein, “to speak in public”, literally “to speak other in public” and this is a figurative mode of representation conveying a meaning other than the literal. Therefore, when applied to scripture, this means that when you read certain passages in the bible they do not mean what they say, they mean something else. For example, when you come across an unfulfilled prophetic passage that mentions Israel, it does not mean the nation of Israel it means the church. It is simply picture language for the church. People who take this point of view would say that Israel has passed from the purposes of God and now we, the church, have come into the purposes of God. Likewise, in Genesis chapter one God refers to creating the universe in a day, the allegorical view takes this to mean a day lasting a thousand years or a day lasting millions of years, i.e. the day was more than 24 hours.
Origins of the Allegorical View
- Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 211/216)
Clement was born around the second century and fused Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine. He also was the one who termed Christians, Gnostic, as those that had attained a deeper teaching of the Word of God.
- Origen (Origen Adamantius, 185c. 185–254)
Origen succeeded Clement as head of Alexandria’s Catechetical School. He was considered one of the greatest Christian scholars of the day and he interpreted scripture in an allegorical way.
- Pamphilus (latter half of the 3rd century – February 16, 309)
Pamphilus became devoted to the works of Origen of Alexandria and was a friend and student of Origen. He continued in teaching scripture in the allegorical method.
- Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263 – c. 339)
He became an advisor to the Emperor Constantine who had embraced Christianity in the 4th century. Eusebius dogma agreed squarely with that of Origen and he expounded further the works of Origen.
These men are widely regarded as part of the long list of founding church fathers and their allegorical interpretation of scripture really stayed in place until the c.1600’s when the Puritans started taking the literal view.
The Literal View
So the literal view is that we interpret scripture by what it says, in other words, when you read a word in scripture there is no hidden meaning to the word, the word is exactly what it means. Therefore, whenever you read a reference to Israel it means the nation of Israel. It does not mean the Church, although there may be principles connected to the Church or ideas that we can apply to the Church, no it means Israel. Similarly, when we read about the days of creation in Genesis chapter 1:5,
“God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”
The Hebrew word for day in this context is yom, which is literally interpreted to mean a literal 24 hour period, not thousands of years or millions of years. This is different from Matthew 24:36,
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Here the scripture is referring to the Second Coming of Jesus and here the word for day in Greek is hemera, which means an indefinite period of time that is longer than 24 hours.
Therefore, how we interpret scripture is very important to how we view unfulfilled Biblical prophecy and our relationship with the Nation of Israel and the Jews today. You will find that those people that take the allegorical view of scripture do not pray for the peace of Jerusalem because Jerusalem in scripture, according to their view, is just picture language for the Church. They will pray for the Church body and the peace of the Church but not for Jerusalem. The allegorical view says that Israel is just a nation just like any other such as America or Germany. They will also say that God has finished with the Jews and His plan and purpose for them and now this is the Church Age. This idea is called ‘Replacement Theology’ or ‘Successionism’, the idea that the Jews are no longer Gods chosen people and now the Christian Church has placed or succeeded the Jews in the purposes of God.
Of course, the apostle Paul completely disagrees with this notion in Romans 11:16-29 he talks about the Gentile Church (you and I) being grafted into the commonwealth of Israel. Paul also makes it completely clear quite literally that there can be no confusion over this issue when he said in Romans 11:1,
“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.”
Jesus also said to the Samaritans in John 4:22,
“You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews”
Therefore, those that believe in the literal interpretation of scripture are the first to pray for the Nation of Israel and the Jews; and are the first to pray when Israel is attacked by her neighbours.
Therefore, you will have now determined if you have an allegorical view or a literal view of scripture.
These ways of interpreting prophetic scripture are most marked when you refer to the millennium as referred to in Revelation 20:4,
“I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
The allegorical view says that a thousand years does not mean a thousand years, as you might expect. The allegorical view says that 10 is the number of divine perfection or completeness because:
“There are 10 commandments (Ex. 20); 1/10 of your income is a tithe; there were 10 plagues on Egypt (Ex. 9:14ff); 10 x 10 silver sockets formed the foundation of the Tabernacle (Ex 38:27);
There are 10 “I AM’s” spoken by Jesus in John:
1) I am the Bread of Life (6:35)
2) I am the Bread of Life, which came down from heaven (6:41)
3) I am the Living Bread (6:51)
4) I am the Light of the world (8:12)
5) I am One that bears witness of Myself (8:18)
6) I am the Door of the sheep (10:7, 9)
7) I am the Good Shepherd (10:14)
8) I am the Resurrection and the Life (14:6)
9) I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (11:25)
10) I am the True Vine (15:1, 5).”
Therefore, you have 10 x 10 x 10, which is not a thousand years but a period of divine perfection. Therefore, from the allegorical view, this passage refers not to a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on the Earth but a period of divine perfection where the Church reigns with Christ.
The two allegorical views of this passage therefore, are divided up into Postmillennialism and Amillennialism.
The Postmillennialist believes that this reference to a 1,000 years as only symbolic of a golden age of righteous and spiritual prosperity that will be ushered in by the spread of the gospel during the present Church Age.
The Amillennialist believes the 1,000 years also to be symbolic of a long period of time and interprets Old Testament prophecies of a 1,000 year period as being fulfilled spiritually now in the church.
Therefore, this period of divine perfection does not last a thousand years but an indefinite period of time and until now it has lasted almost 2,000 years.
The literal view of course does not agree with this since this cannot be the church because the church has been on the Earth for more than 1,000 years, taking the passage literally. Taking this passage in context and looking at the previous chapter, chapter 19 of Revelation refers to the Second Advent of Christ, Jesus’ Second Coming, so this refers to a literal thousand-year reign on the Earth.
In addition, you will notice that from a literalist point of view it is easy to explain verse 2 where it says,
“He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”
The literalist viewpoint is that Satan will be bound for a thousand years in the future, whereas the allegorical view says that when the church age began when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples that was when Satan was bound. I do not think that many people will agree with this sentiment.
Let us look at an Old Testament passage from Isaiah.
“How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.”
The allegorical view would say that this passage refers to the Church. Zion is the Church, and so this passage would be saying that the feet are the messengers of God bring Good News and proclaiming that God reigns. In verse 8 the allegorical view would say that the watchmen are the people who watch in the Church and the message here is that the Church will be in unity. They would also say that this occurred when the Jesus came to the Earth from the verse that says,
“When the LORD returns to Zion,”
Again, the literal view interprets this to mean that this passage of scripture is actually referring to Israel and has nothing to do with the Church. Unity may well come into the Church but this passage refers to the day when Jesus will return to the land of Israel and just before Jesus establishes the Kingdom Jesus calls out to the Jews the message of salvation. Furthermore, when those that are looking for the return of the Lord, the watchmen, see Him returning in glory they will “lift up their voices” in unity.
Therefore, the allegorical view would say that this refers to the Church but the literal view, the Premillennialist, would say that this passage refers to Second Advent, the return of the Lord.
Therefore, the arguments for an allegorical interpretation or a literal interpretation of scripture vary widely. We therefore need to be clear on which view we take because it will change how we view the whole of the Bible. I take the Literal View from Genesis to Revelation and I believe this is the only way in which the Bible can be interpreted because of the following points that I am about to make.
Let us look at the justification for a Literal View and the problems associated with using an Allegorical View.
Justification for the Literal View
- Firstly, since God is the creator of all language, He intended language to indicate ideas clearly. The Bible is Gods love letter to us and is clearly designed to indicate Gods commands and character through to us. So why, when you take the Allegorical View, would the Bible (Gods Word) be purposely obscure? Why would God say one thing and yet mean another? For example when Paul said in Romans 11:25-27,
“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
The Allegorical View would say that Paul was not saying that Israel would be saved; no rather, all of the Church would be saved, “And so all Israel will be saved” and yet in this passage they would not deny that the reference to Zion in the quotation from Isaiah clearly refers to Jesus coming from the land of Israel. Therefore, I believe that God clearly indicates to us what he is communicating through His medium; the Bible.
It is interesting to note however that whatever view you take, all views agree that if you do take a literal view of the word then Jesus will come back (Second Advent) and rule on the Earth for one thousand years. In fact, at the time of Christ the Jews were looking for the return of the Messiah and His rule on the Earth from Jerusalem for a thousand years. Therefore, the Jews at that time took the Word absolutely literally.
2. Secondly, we take scripture as plain language and it says what it means. This does not mean to say that we do not allow for idioms and picture language because there are those in the Bible. We use idioms in modern day language as well, for example, when you read in the newspaper that Hamas have launched two more rockets into Israel, we do not scratch our heads wondering where they mean because they possibly cannot mean Israel. Maybe it means Iran! The Bible uses idioms to explain things as we also do in common day language. For example, sometimes when I come home from work I say to my wife, “What’s for tea tonight honey because I’m Hank Marvin”. Now she does not turn around and start saying what are you talking about, she understands the cockney rhyming slang that I am starving! Therefore, where the Bible uses idioms and figures of speech we understand their meaning, for example, let’s look at the Book of Genesis chapter 25:21-23,
“Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD.
The LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.””
No wonder she could not get any sleep! Did God mean that she literally had two nations in her womb – no! He meant that she was going to have twins and each was going to be the fathers of a nation. That is what God literally meant and this is what we literally interpret the scripture to mean.
Therefore, that is idioms but what about when the Bible uses picture language. The Bible uses picture language but when it does, it is obvious picture language and we let the Bible interpret itself. Let us see an example of this in Revelation 12:1,
“A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.”
Therefore, do we all now offer our own interpretation of what this verse means? No, we look in the Bible to where else it mentions this imagery and this will explain the meaning of this verse. Well we find the answer in Genesis 37:9,
“Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers.”Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
This is of course the story about Joseph dreaming about a picture of the nation of Israel. The sun and moon are his mother and father and the twelve brothers (the eleven brothers of Joseph and Joseph being the twelfth).
Therefore, the rule that we use to interpret the bible literally is that we interpret scripture in a straightforward manner, except where there is obvious picture language or idioms. Where there are idioms we understand what the idioms mean in context and where there is picture language we let the bible interpret itself.
Problems with the Allegorical View
- All scholars take most of the bible literally, for example, when the bible says that on the first day of the week (Sunday) Jesus rose from the dead, this is exactly what it means. However, when scholars come to unfulfilled bible prophecy they switch the rules around and start to interpret the bible in an allegorical way. What is their justification for changing the rules?
- All prophecy is interpreted in either one of two ways. There is fulfilled prophecy and unfulfilled prophecy. If fulfilled prophecy has been fulfilled allegorically then you would expect unfulfilled prophecy to be fulfilled allegorically as well. However, this is not the case. We find Old Testament prophecy fulfilled literally. For example, Micah 5:2,
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. “
This is a description of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem. How was this verse fulfilled? Totally literally in the Gospel of Mathew 2:6. Therefore, why do those that interpret these scriptures literally all of a sudden interpret unfulfilled prophecy allegorically?
(Other examples are Zechariah 9:9 (Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey) vs. Zechariah 14:4 (Second Advent)).
3. Prophecy is the way that God shows that He is God in the Bible. For example when Elijah was on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18 with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal because their “god” did not answer but His God did. God consumed the sacrifice and alter quite literally, with fire from heaven. This means that firstly, the prophecy has to be clear and secondly the prophecy has to be fulfilled clearly.
4. If we are to take the bible allegorically, then who decides what the interpretation is. For example, if the Mormons say that they are Israel then who is to argue with them. Who decides the ground rules of interpretation?
5. Finally, throughout the bible the prophets, the disciples and Jesus himself took scripture literally when referring to fulfilled prophecy. Peter says in 1 Peter 1:18-21,
“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
Peter was saying that he did not make up what he has written but he saw with his own eyes Jesus transfigured on the mountain. He saw how Jesus is going to return literally.
“For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Therefore, Peter was saying that scripture was not of somebody’s nice idea rather the Holy Spirit inspires prophecy and that prophecy is to be taken quite literally.
In conclusion, the rule that we use to interpret the bible literally is that we interpret scripture in a straightforward manner, except where there is obvious picture language or idioms. Where there are idioms we understand what the idioms mean in context and where there is picture language we let the bible interpret itself. We interpret prophecy and all of scripture literally, because this is the only way that is logical and makes sense.