Gary Demar, for example, who has made hunting down popular dispensational, premillennialists his “white whale,” claims literal views of prophecy has misdirected modern Christianity to pursue a “last days madness” that attempts to interpret biblical prophecy with a modern day “newspaper exegesis” which reads current events onto the text of scripture. Of course, Demar falls into a similar hole by interpreting the book of Revelation according to Josephus’ writings, but he is not known as one who acknowledges such cognitive dissonance with his own position.
Authors, Crenshaw and Gunn, in their book blasting dispensationalism, paint any “literalist” as a dishonest exegete. That is because literalists will abandon their genuine “literalism” when reading the Bible literally produces inconsistencies with their method. Cornelis Venema, who is not nearly as vitriolic with his criticism of literalists, still accuse them of loading their interpretive method with a number of presuppositions, especially how we understand the genre of scripture. He writes,
The “literal sense” is a translation of the Latin sensus literalis which means “the sense of, according to the letter.” That is to say, texts are to be read as language and literature according to the rules that ordinarily and appropriately apply to their usage and forms. This means that if the text is poetry, it should be read, according to the letter, as poetry. If the text is historical narrative, recounting events that occurred in a particular time and place, it is to be read as historical narrative… to begin with a commitment to “the literal, plain or normal reading of a text” entirely begs the question as to what that sense is. To say that the literal meaning of biblical prophecy and promises must always be the most plain, concrete and obvious meaning, is to prejudge the meaning of these texts before actually reading them “according to the letter,” that is, according to the rules that obtain for the kind of language being used. [Venema, 281, 282]
In spite of his attempt to point out a perceived, fundamental flaw utilized by the literalist of loading the text with presuppositions, Venema, it seems, is also unaware of his own preconceptions he brings to the interpretation of the text. That being, biblical prophecy is automatically different because it is a genre that contains symbols and thus must be interpreted with a non-literal point of view.
Pondering these type of alarmist statements against literal hermeneutics make one wonder about their accuracy. Is the reaction against something real or imaginary? Or is an anti-literal mythos being created – a beast called “wooden literalism” that merely exists in the minds of dispensational detractors?
Also, just how terrible is it to interpret biblical prophecy literally? Does literalism when interpreting prophecy really lead to gross inconsistency with a person’s exegesis of the text as Crehshaw and Gunn contend? A wild and fanciful manhandling of the biblical text that splices together biblical prophecy and modern day current events to birth some horrific, theological chimera?
Historically, since the Reformation, Protestant evangelicals have advocated for a literal reading of Scripture. Literal is basically defined as “belonging to letters,” and interpreting texts “literally” would be to interpret actual words in their ordinary, plain meaning. Theologian Charles Hodge makes a literal reading of the text his primary principle of biblical interpretation. He writes,
The words of Scripture are to be taken in their plain historical sense. That is, they must be taken in the sense attached to them in the age and by the people to whom they were addressed. This only assumes that the sacred writers were honest, and meant to be understood [Hodge, Vol. 1, 187].
With his simple description, Hodge outlines for us what we call the grammatical, historical hermeneutic: The Bible is studied and interpreted according to the rules of grammar within the historical setting and context of the passage. Apologist James White expands upon the grammatical, historical hermeneutic by pointing out how when studying Scripture, the student takes into consideration: the author, audience, historical background of the passage, and the original languages with their grammar and syntax. These “rules of exegesis,” notes White, help us to know what was originally meant to be said by taking the text seriously and thus protecting it from misinterpretation [White, 80-94].
Now, pretty much every Protestant evangelical, Bible-believing Christian would affirm these points. However, the critics of the so-called “literalist” approach like Demar, Gentry, Venema, Crenshaw, Gunn, and even James White, argue that when we come to interpreting prophetic texts, we must “alter” our understanding of “literal” in order to exegete those passages correctly. They explain the reason for such an alteration is because prophetic texts are filled with much symbolism. Thus, when biblical passages contain a lot of symbolic language, images, numbers, etc., if we were to interpret those passages according to a “wooden literalism” we risk drawing out of those texts absurd conclusions.
For example, a literal, ordinary, plain reading of Revelation 9:1-12 would make the Apostle John to be teaching that monstrous insect creatures with human heads and enormous scorpion tails, like some bizarre beast from a science fiction movie, are unleashed upon the earth. A “literal” hermeneutic, then, applied to biblical literature high in symbolism, only creates a myriad of problematic interpretations that cloud the meaning, rather than bringing out the genuine meaning of the text.
At first glance, their argument appears sound. It would only seem obvious that if a book of the Bible contains many forms of symbolic language our approach to interpreting it should take that symbolism into consideration. Moreover, symbolism is certainly unique and we can’t read it in the same manner as we read for example the sports page of a newspaper. Plus there are notorious illustrations of teachers employing a literal hermeneutic with symbolic language that do result in some rather strange and weird interpretations of the Bible.
Yet in spite of the presence of symbolic language in a book and the fact there are examples of bad applications of literalism within the Christian community, the non-literalist Reformed folks are still begging questions: Why must I interpret prophetic genre differently just because it has lots of symbolism in its pages? Why must I abandon a consistent, ordinary and plain reading of the text just because of symbolism? I must confess that I have never received a solidly consistent answer to my “why” questions. Usually the rejoinder runs along the lines of, “it’s symbolism, you just have to interpret it differently.” But that response assumes the one using an ordinary, literal hermeneutic does not recognize the use of symbolism and symbols can never be interpreted literally.
I believe it is dishonest criticism to say a literal hermeneutic is the use of “wooden literalism” when it comes to interpreting symbolic prophecy. And I say so for a number of reasons I will out line in my next post.
Curtis Crenshaw and Grover Gunn, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow.
Gary Demar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church.
Kenneth Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation.
Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology.
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1.
Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, The End Times Controversy.
Cornelis Venema, The Promise of the Future.
James White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority, and Authenticity.