Literal Interpretation Revisited (Part 2)

In the end, quoting 50-year-old works by your theological opponents is not, in and of itself, the problem. If that alone is unfair—as Waldron seems to think in the case of MacArthur’s 2007 Shepherds’ Conference address—then he has clearly fallen short of his own standard (see part 1). The real problem comes when you select quotations which misrepresent your opponents’ position, like Waldron does in citing the old Scofield Reference Bible in favor of a separate way of salvation for OT Israel. This brings us to the actual quotations provided by MacArthur in his Shepherds’ Conference address:

  • O.T. Allis: “The Old Testament prophecies, if literally interpreted, cannot be regarded as having been yet fulfilled or being capable of fulfillment in the present age.”

  • Floyd Hamilton: “Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the Premillennialist pictures.”

  • Loraine Boettner: “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, that they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”

The real question here is not when these words were written but whether or not they accurately represent what covenant theologians believe today. I fully understand that Waldron disagrees with the inferences that MacArthur has drawn from these quotations—and I even understand why—but here’s my question: Does Waldron believe that the quotations themselves are untrue?

If he does, he never comes out and says so, at least not directly. Instead he simply protests how old they are. And then, on page 75 of MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto, Waldron actually comes to the defense of Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner and the ideas expressed by them in these quotations. So if Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner were not incorrect in what they said, why take MacArthur to task for quoting them? Why not stick with critiquing the inferences that MacArthur draws from their statements?

I assume that if you were to ask Waldron, he would say that the problem with these quotations is that they reflect an overly simplistic view of literal interpretation. He would probably also point out that the debate over literal interpretation has become much more finely nuanced in the past 50 years, something which has been addressed by interpreters on both sides of the issue, including dispensationalists John Feinberg, Robert Saucy, and Michael J. Vlach. But at the same time—if I can be overly simplistic myself for just a moment—isn’t it true that if you interpret the overall picture of the OT prophecies literally, then you do indeed end up with a premillennial eschatology? Isn’t that what Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner were getting at?

Take, for example, the promise of the New Covenant in Ezekiel 36:16-38. The main thrust of this entire passage is that Yahweh will transform the nation of Israel and restore her to the land from which she was dispersed in order to vindicate His reputation among the nations. It’s one thing to say that certain details in this prophecy are not to be taken literally—such as God sprinkling clean water on the nation of Israel (v. 25), which is symbolic of the spiritual cleansing of forgiveness. But it’s quite another to say that the overall picture of Israel being restored to her land in fulfillment of the New Covenant is not to be taken literally—that it actually refers to something else—especially in light of how only such a restoration to the land can vindicate the name of Yahweh according to Ezekiel 36 itself.

The greater question here involves the adequacy of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation for the genre of biblical prophecy. According to Waldron, the grammatical-historical method is the first and most basic principle of biblical interpretation. In End Times Made Simple, Waldron writes:

Simply stated, this fundamental principle says that the Bible must be interpreted in terms of the normal grammatical meaning of the language and in a way that makes sense in light of the historical context of the passage. The original sense of the words for the original author and readers is the true sense (ETMS, 85).

I couldn’t agree more. And I would go on to suggest that if one were to use this approach to interpret Ezekiel 36:16-38, the inevitable conclusion would be that some day God will indeed restore the nation of Israel to the land from which she was dispersed in fulfillment of the New Covenant. I would also suggest that this is precisely what Loraine Boettner meant when he wrote: “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, that they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations.”

In contrast, covenant theologians tend to view the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, at least as defined above, as insufficient for interpreting OT prophecy. Waldron himself denies that the grammatical-historical approach provides “a complete hermeneutic” because, according to Waldron, a “comprehensive hermeneutic” also takes into account the literary genre of the passage in question (MMM, 77).[i] In the case of biblical prophecy, Waldron believes that generally it “must be interpreted figuratively and symbolically in accordance with the apocalyptic genre” (MMM, 77). In other words, biblical prophecy should not be understood literally. Which is precisely why Allis, Hamilton, and Boettner said that if the OT prophecies were interpreted literally they would result in the eschatology of premillennialism. So once again, what exactly is the problem with MacArthur’s citation of these men?

[i] In contrast to Waldron’s claim, the grammatical-historical method actually does recognize that one must consider the literary genre of the passage under consideration in order to determine “the original sense of the words for the original author and readers.” Waldron seems to recognize this on page 78 of MMM, and yet he seems to deny it on page 77.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Searching on John Feinberg and ended up here, again. Ya know, hermeneutics isn’t what it used to be :-) The frameworks that are current now didn’t even exist when this debate got started fifty or a hundred years ago depending on how you understand the history of the issue. I guess that is what you mean by “more nuanced” but that seems to me a somewhat understate expression.

    The current “dispensationalists” like D.Bock DTS, are simply a different species from Walvoord and Pentecost who were different from Chafer who was a lot different from Darby. Another thing to keep in mind is most of these men were theologians, Bock excepted. Theologians historically have typically done exegesis somewhat differently than NT and OT language and exegesis folks like D.Bock.

    I am somewhat amazed that we are still talking using what sounds like the old framework when are into the second decade after Vanhoozer’s Is there a meaning in this text? arrived on the scene. Some of us have been somewhat ahead of Vanhoozer, having been introduced to poststructuralism in late 70s whereas it took the evangelical establishment about fifteen more years to discover it. Some of us have moved into cognitive linguistics and related disciplines like Relevance Theory and cognitive frameworks. When all of this is taken into consideration, the 1950s debates style debates over literal vs. what-ever hermeneutics are an a useful way of approaching the issue anymore.

    This is not an attempt to shut down the discussion. Rather, a suggestion that what has happened is a lot more radical than the simply “more nuanced”.

  2. Mr. Bartholomew,

    I confess to being a simpleton. Heck one of the highlights of our church calendar is now softball. Nevertheless I believe you protest too much, overstating the importance of relevancewhatchamacallits and other tools of the trade. Actually, the issue(s) is what does the Bible teach in a given passage? I would agree with Greg Bahnsen on at least the parameters of our 1950’s style debate when he wrote:

    “The charge of subjective spiritualization or hyperliteralism against any of the three eschatological positions cannot be settled in general; rather, the opponents must get down to hand-to-hand exegetical combat on particular passages and phrases.”

    (from “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction 3 (1976) 57.


    • Thank Paul,

      You are right. I do protest a lot. Probably too much. Pastors are not required to be on the bleeding edge of theory unless you want to preach in NYC to WallStreet types. Even then, it isn’t required Tim Keller is as ols as I am and thinks like I do. We are both fossils :-)

      You mentioned Greg Bahnsen. Was he in the same theological ball park more or less with David Chilton? Wonder why these guys die so young when Dallas professors live into the 90s. I took some interest in theonomy twenty years or so ago back when the Westminster guys like Frame did a critical evaluation of the movement.

  3. My previous post wasn’t terribly helpful in moving the discussion forward on your topic. Not only that but there are a number of problems with they way the history was outlined. The problem is that we are looking at the histories of several different disciplines, biblical hermeneutics, literary criticism, linguistics, theology and perhaps others.

    When Vanhoozer’s “Is there a meaning in this text?” was published, most of what he was discussing had been developing for decades. Structuralism was both a school of linguistics and school of literary criticism. Chomsky buried linguistic structuralism, starting in 1959. I don’t know when post-structuralism in literary criticism got started but it well on its way in 1970 when a close friend of mine was doing her MA thesis on authorial intent. Somewhere along that time the French guys like Derrida started having a big influence. Meanwhile, linguistics, frame theory arrived on the scene sometime in the late 60s but it developed into its present from all at once. Tracing the history of linguistic frameworks is a task for someone else. The complexity is a nightmare.

    Biblical hermeneutics is always playing catch up. By the time the biblical studies people become aware of what is going on it has been happening for a decade or two or even three, in linguistics and perhaps somewhat less in literary criticism.

    What this means in terms of models for doing exegesis of biblical texts, you might save yourself some time by looking at the monographs being published by bible translation professionals. They tend to be a decade or two ahead of the seminaries on the language theory and hermeneutics. Even then most up to date things being published are often using frameworks that are already 20 years old, but not yet fully developed. A good example is Relevance Theory, the “standard” reference works were published in the 80s but we still see new monographs coming out using that framework.

    Again, not terribly helpful for your project. If you find this all iritating just delete it :-)

  4. So “Biblical hermeneutics is always playing catch up. By the time the biblical studies people become aware of what is going on it has been happening for a decade or two or even three, in linguistics and perhaps somewhat less in literary criticism.”

    I wonder if you’ve been on the campuses of pick-any-ivy-covered divinity school in recent years. You would see that rather than being behind they are right in lock-step with the direction of the wind across campus in the humanities department. That is not a complement.

    I also would question your apparent assumption that biblical hermeneutics actually needs to develop into what the typical grad school offers in linguistics. You’re going to hate me for this but biblical hermeneutics actually needs to recover its simplicity so that the Bible can be proclaimed in every church and to all nations. Sorry for lowering the discussion to such a homely level.


    P.S. Derrida was Algerian not French but what do I know.

  5. Posted by Jerry Wragg on April 30, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Oh my…I’ve been so buried in simple things like Greek, Hebrew, and syntax that I’ve run completely behind.

    Oh well, our congregation is still being sanctified in the truth, even if our conclusions have nothing to do with the real authorial intent.

    (Grammatico-historico-contextual…tsk tsk)

  6. Posted by Scott Christensen on May 1, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Mr. Bartholomew,
    I wonder if you have had opportunity to teach in a local church for any reasonable length of time. I doubt you will find many people, either farmers from Kansas, Wall Street types in NYC or even techies from MIT, that care too much about Derrida, structuralism, Relevance Theory or any other linguistic fad that comes along. If they are hungry for the Word, they don’t want to know how everyone tears the text down, they want to know what it says. Clarity is the watchword here.

  7. Bahnsen (PBUH) wrote,
    “The charge of subjective spiritualization or hyperliteralism against any of the three eschatological positions cannot be settled in general; rather, the opponents must get down to hand-to-hand exegetical combat on particular passages and phrases.”

    There certainly is some truth to that, but I would add there are also a lot of theological baggage influencing the weapons we use when we get down to the hand-to-hand exegetical combat. A preterist is certainly going to draw conclusions with the exegesis of Matthew 24 a lot differently than say a futurist will.


  8. Posted by Trey on May 1, 2009 at 6:14 pm


    Thanks for the Waldron discussion. Having graduated from Gordon-Conwell in 2007 has a covenental premellinialist, then moved back to Savannah, GA and became an intern at a Calvinist, Dispensational, Presuppositional church I have once again been saved. The first salvation was my redemption from sin through the Work of Jesus Christ. My second salvation was my being saved out of arminianism into calvinism, and my third salvation was moving from a covenantal framework to a dispensational. Thank the Lord for taking the scriptures for what they actually say.

    Anyway, a lengthy introduction to say, I am becoming more and more convinced that covenant theology is actually quite confusing and unhelpful. There is great clarity moving further and further away from my previous convictions regarding convenant theology.

    I would hope that if anyone would deal, on the covenant side, with an older work it would be the three volume George Peters The Theocratic Kingdom. WOW! I have called him a Dispensational Puritan. No one seems to be dealing with his arguments. Neither are they quoting Vlach, Feinberg (Cont. and Discon.) or anything Fruchtenbaum has written. Those four authors are the ones, as I was studying the scriptures, that left me scrambling for answers as a covenant theologian. I had no rebuttal for their exegesis. I sat their speechless.

    I just received my copy of the DVD The Late Great Planet Church to watch and review. I just hope I will not throw things at the TV as I did when Aaron Boone hit a home run to end the Red Sox hopes of making it to the world series in 2003 :).

    Why a simple historical, grammatical, literal hermeneutic is being viewed as too simplistic and unhelpful baffles me?

    Let us pursue knowing and studying the scriptures in a true progressive manner (Genesis to Revelation) rather than regressive (Creation to no history to hey Jesus is here to now we can understand the Old Testament).

    Enough rambling. Thanks Matt, Paul and others who post on this blog for your insights and helpful resources for understanding the scriptures

  9. Fred,

    I totally agree with you. I was quoting Bahnsen to simply point out a great point (everyone’s presuppositional baggage notwithstanding). The issue for me is not guarding the gate of a particular system but grappling with each passage in its own context. If at the end of the day that makes me look more dispensational to some (which I know it does) then I can live with that knowing that my theology is resting on my best efforts at applying good hermeneutics through sound exegesis.

    Thanks for your helpful insights here and at your blog.


  10. Posted by paulspassingthoughts on May 11, 2009 at 6:25 am

    You don’t know how much I appreciate your work on this. Not enough folks are speaking up on this. The whole issue has the eerie echo of: “Has God really said?”


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: