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Should The Bible Always Be Taken Literally? 

Since the Reformation the Bible has been put back into the hands of the people, and the question that has risen among many students of the Bible is whether or not the Scriptures should always be taken literally - especially when it comes to the prophetic passages. Romanism, and all forms of Protestant Amillennialism, and well as every cult, has to some degree argued against a consistent literal interpretation of God's Word. Primarily because a consistent, literal interpretation eventually conflicts with some (or many) of the accepted theological traditions of that particular religion or denomination. This is especially true in the area of eschatology.

Here is a written dialogue I had with a visitor to the Biblicist website. In it is highlighted the importance of retaining a literal interpretation, so that the sincere Bible student might resist conforming the Scriptures to any preconceived, theological conclusion; as well as ascertain what God Himself has desired to communicate to us in His written Word. An impossible goal apart from a consistent, literal interpretation of the Scriptures.

Are you literal in every sense? And if not, where and how do you decide not to be...

Yes, we are literal in every sense...but that doesn't mean symbols and figures of speech employed by the author are not recognized. The basic rule for a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and whether or not a figure of speech was intended by the author is: "When the plain sense of Scripture makes sense, seek no other sense." In other words, the literal interpretation recognizes that a word or phrase can be used either plainly (denotatively) or figuratively (connotatively). We do the same in our daily conversations. One might say of a person "He kicked the bucket yesterday" (connotative), or, "He died yesterday" (denotative). The former, using a figure of speech, is a more colorful expression but both literally communicate the same thing.

Either way the context determines the interpretation. In Daniel chapter two Nebuchadnezzar is given a dream in which he saw a symbolic statue of a man constructed of various metals. Obviously Nebuchadnezzar literally had a dream, and though the dream consisted of symbols (the statue and the various metals) those symbols did represent something literal.

In fact the context itself helps us with the literal interpretation of those symbols employed by God in the dream. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that God revealed to him what would take place "in the future" (2:29). And that the statue and its various metals represented literal, earthly political kingdoms yet to rise - starting with Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon (2:36-38). History and other Scriptures identify the other dominions: Medo-Persian (silver), Greece (bronze) and Rome (Iron) with its latter part mixed with clay (the ten toes, 2:42-43). The context itself reveals that the symbols reveal successive, literal, earthly, political kingdoms.

In verses 34-35 the prophecy goes on to reveal a stone (earthly) cut out without hands, i.e., not of human origin or endeavor, which strikes the statue on the feet of iron and clay (the final form of the fourth kingdom (Iron/Roman), and then continues to pulverize the others like chaff carried off with the wind and seen no more. The hewn stone in verse 44 then becomes a great "mountain" that fills the whole earth and is described as an enduring Kingdom which the God of Heaven will set up in the days of the kings (the ten toes) previously mentioned. A Kingdom that brings to end all the previous kingdoms, i.e., human, political sovereignty. This Godly Kingdom is understood to be literal, earthly, and political because in context all the previous kingdoms were literal, earthly and political. And when compared with the rest of prophetic Scripture it becomes obvious that this Kingdom is referring to the promised, Messianic Kingdom described and anticipated by all the Old Testament prophetic writers.

So you see, a literal interpretation of Scripture recognizes symbols and figures of speech when presented by the author. But we understand them to have literal meanings based on their context, that is, the author's intention.

A/Post-Millennialism presupposes that the nation of Israel has been forever cast off by God because of the rejection of her Messiah at His first advent; postulating that the Church is now the consummation of God's work on earth and therefore replaces national Israel. A totally unbiblical presupposition when compared to the clear teachings of God's Word in passages such as Jer. 30:11; 31:36-37; 33:19-26; 46:28, as well as the unconditional covenants God procured with that nation. Nevertheless, their theologians go back into the O.T. and spiritually apply to the Church those prophecies which speak of divine blessings and a future restoration for national Israel. Prophecies which, in context, are denotatively addressed to Israel, Jerusalem or Zion. This is called spiritualizing Scripture.

To achieve an accurate interpretation of Scripture (or any literature, for that matter) the reader must recognize the writer's use of symbolism and figures of speech and how the writer uses them in context. But it is error indeed for the reader to superimpose a nonliteral or spiritual interpretation upon Scripture when clearly the writer himself is not presenting a symbol or figure of speech. When the text does not warrant it, it is error indeed to force a passage to conform to one's own presupposed ideas. This method of hermeneutics is unjustifiable and bestows violence on the Word of God, distorting what God originally intended to communicate to men.

This Church age, and the believer's walk during this age, are strictly spiritual in nature. As a spiritual service of worship we believers are to present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1); spiritually speaking we have been co-crucified, co-buried and co-resurrected with Christ to new life in Him (Rom. 6:1-12); and we are now seen by God as positionally seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:1). We are baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) which is also the Church Christ is now building (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1 22-23); and our citizenship is not this earth but heaven itself from which we eagerly wait for our Savior who will transform the lowliness of our physical body into conformity with the body of His glory (Phil. 3:21-22; cf 1 Thess. 4:15-18).

The A/Post-Millennialist recognizes the spiritual nature of this Church age but refuses to acknowledge the eschatological truths God has literally revealed in His Word regarding national Israel and its future, earthly, Messianic Kingdom. Hence they go back into the Old Testament and spiritually apply to the Church those prophetic passages that literally describe the future, earthly, Kingdom blessings for national Israel. Completely distorting and usurping the authority of God's written Word.

I demonstrate this in my article on the Biblicist called, "The Fortunes of Israel," where I cite Matthew Henry's commentary on Isaiah 2:1-4. The prophecy denotatively addresses Judah and Jerusalem (i.e., national Israel) and the divine blessings that God will bestow upon that nation "in the last days." Matthew Henry completely ignores who the prophecy is literally addressing, and forces a spiritual interpretation on the passage by applying it to the Church today. But then starting with verse six, which speaks of sin and judgment, he conveniently changes back to a literal interpretation of the text and assigns those judgments to national Israel. Completely ignoring the context he arbitrarily assigns those passages which speak of divine blessings to the Church, and those which speak of divine judgment to national Israel, bending the Scriptures to conform to his own bias and preconceived eschatological notions and prejudices.

And can it not also be said that when the post or amillennialist interprets Jesus own words, "the kingdom of God is at hand" literally, that is to say, the millennial kingdom was established at the time of Jesus' first advent, that he is interpreting it in the literal sense while you are not?

No. A literal interpretation takes into account the historical context as well. Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews who knew , understood and inticipated the fulfillment of the O. T. prophecies regarding the future, promised, Davidic Kingdom. They knew nothing concerning this Church age. A comprehensive study of those magnificent restoration prophecies reveal that this Church age cannot possibly fulfill those literal promises to Israel. In fact, Christ's disciples asked Him, just prior to His ascension, if it was at this time that He was restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6-8). He essentially told them no, but moreover, He did not tell them that they were mistaken in their traditional understanding of a literal, earthly Kingdom for Israel yet to be established on earth.

An examination of Pauline theology reveals that this Church age was a "mystery" that was not revealed to the O.T. prophets, "but is now revealed to His holy Apostles and prophets in the Spirit" (see Eph. 2:20-3:1-13; cf. Rom. 16:25; Col. 1:26). In other words, the Church cannot be found in the O.T. writings. The O.T. prophets were given insight in respect to the first advent of Jesus Christ, but no insight into this Church age to follow in which both Jews and Gentiles would be integrated into one Body under the Law of Christ.

To the contrary, the Kingdom promises revealed to the O.T. prophets constantly retain a vision of a future Jewish economy under the theocratic Laws of the New Covenant. They describe the inclusion of Gentiles into the Kingdom to come, but not an integration of Jews and Gentiles into one Body, as it is being done by the Spirit during this age when Christ is building His Church. A totally different picture! Scripture, when allowed to be taken literally, clearly maintains a distinction between God's program for the Church during this age and that of national Israel in the age to come.

The first Church Council clearly understood this prophetic chronology:

"And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, "After these things (that is, the integration of Jews and Gentiles into the Body of Christ) I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it (in fulfillment of the O.T. prophecies), in order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, 'Says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.'"" (Acts 15:15-18, emphasis mine)
This Council, which included Apostles, very well understood that God was not at this time fulfilling the O.T. Messianic, Kingdom prophecies, but was instead integrating both believing Jews and Gentiles into a whole new entity called the Church (Col. 1:18, 24, 26; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; 5:23). But "after these things" (this Church age) He will return and rebuild the fallen "tabernacle of David" - a Jewish idiom for the Messianic Kingdom under the reign and rule of Messiah, Jesus Christ, the One born "King of the Jews" (Matt. 2:2), the promised descendent of David according to the unconditional covenant made with him (Matt. 2:2; Lk. 1:32-33; cf. Rev. 3:21; Matt. 25:31ff; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-16; Ps. 89:20-37).

Please read my article "The Fortunes of Israel" where I go into far more detail to the questions you ask.

Can not your own arguments be turned against you in these cases and more? As another example, the word "rapture" is not found in scripture. Can not the postmill. student say, "Ah, look there, you are adding to the very Scripture you claim to hold so close!"

No! To pursue that logic would also conclude that the term "Trinity" cannot be used to describe the Godhead since this term is not found in Scripture either. To employ a term not specifically found in Scripture, like "Trinity" or "Rapture," is perfectly legitimate as long as it accurately codifies what Scripture actually communicates. Both these terms do and therefore are "Biblical" in their own right.

Well, I have answered your questions to the best of my ability and I sincerely hope the time I have spent communicating to you serves you well. I have no idea as to the sincerity of your questions, whether they're forthright or simply argumentative. My effort was to press upon you the importance of maintaining a literal method of interpretation (hermeneutics) based on the grammatical, historical and contextual settings of God's written Word, that the man of God might be equipped to form and agree with theological conclusions based solely on what God has literally communicated to us in His written Word. Anything less than that does injustice and violence to the expressed will and written word of God.

I have suggested reading materials and a book if you truly desire to further investigate this subject on your own. I sincerely hope you'll follow through. I will be glad to answer any further questions but only if you take me up on the reading materials I have suggested. Otherwise I would have to lay the groundwork which is already thoroughly covered in those writings. To do so would not be prudent via this form of medium.

Man still struggles with that same question presented way back in the Garden by the evil one: "Indeed, has God said....?" Believers, those born of God, should finally learn to take Him at His Word!

Written by: Gary Nystrom

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