Literal or Figurative?

One of the biggest debates among Christians is how to interpret the Bible. Liberals accuse conservatives of taking the Bible too literally. Conservatives accuse liberals of not taking the Bible seriously enough, often by declaring controversial sections to be figurative. That seems to be a handy way to avoid passages that teach what you don’t want to believe.

But even conservative Christians divide over the issue of literal verses figurative. For example, Dispensationalists often accuse the Reformed of spiritualizing certain sections of Scripture, and the Reformed frequently fault Dispensationalists for their “wooden literalism” by awkwardly forcing literal interpretations upon passages that are intended to be figurative.

Dispensationalists charge the Reformed with “Replacement Theology,” which means interpreting Old Testament prophecies made to Israel as fulfilled in the New Testament Church, and the Reformed return the favor by charging Dispensationalists with interpretive myopia; focusing too narrowly upon the immediate context, and failing to see the forest for the trees.

Nobody takes it all literally.

The plain truth is, nobody takes the entire Bible literally. The liberal taunt, that fundamentalists take the whole Bible literally is just not true. Entire sections of Scripture are clearly written in figuratively language, and it is impossible for anyone to take it all literally. It cannot be done, and I don’t know anyone who tries. The big question is not are some parts of the Bible figurative, but rather which parts are figurative and which are literal, and how do we decide?

Hermeneutics

The big word for this issue is “hermeneutics,” which is shorthand for “rules of interpretation.” It would be nice if God had written a Forward to the Bible in which He issued rules of interpretation, but He didn’t. There is no heaven-sent list of interpretational guidelines, which means we have to work them out for ourselves, deriving them from our study of Scripture. Principles of interpretation can be inferred from Scripture, but the Bible nowhere spells them out. Dispensationalists, who favor a more literal approach, usually emphasize a rule that states in essence, “Literal whenever possible.” Accordingly, every passage should be understood in the most literal manner possible. Only when a literal interpretation appears impossible should a figurative interpretation be considered.

At first glance, that sounds reasonable, perhaps even unquestionable. But with additional consideration, it requires some thoughtful development. Who decides what is possible? Isn’t that largely subjective? What seems possible to one may seem impossible to another. The subjective element is why there are a wide variety of interpretations of books such as Revelation, even among Dispensationalists who are all attempting to faithfully apply this rule. Something that clearly looks symbolic to one is often deemed literal by another. There is also the question of how New Testament writers understand Old Testament passages. Sections from the OT that seem literal enough within their immediate context, appear to be understood figuratively by NT writers who do not seem to be employing the literal-whenever-possible rule.

A simple example

What did Paul mean by the word “rod” when he said, “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21) Was Paul literally threatening the Corinthians with corporal punishment? Most would say no, but why not? Applying the literal-whenever-possible rule, shouldn’t we conclude that’s what he meant? Is it impossible for him to intend a literal rod? If we read something like that in the Quran, would we assume that “rod” could not be understood literally? Or would we instead probably conclude that this constitutes a genuine threat to beat somebody black and blue?

Context shapes our interpretive conclusions. Most Bible students agree that Paul did not intend to use a literal rod, but again, why not? Is it not because that seems out of character with what we know about Paul? Taking the bigger picture we conclude that the statement is symbolic, that Paul uses “rod” to mean harsh demeanor and verbal chastisement. In many ways, this seems like common sense, but common sense can be quite subjective. In the “rod” text, what we have done is employ another rule of interpretation called “the analogy of Scripture,” which says that you interpret each individual passage in light of the whole. That’s easier said than done, but this is an important principle too. If the Bible is God’s Word, it cannot contradict itself, so every individual statement must harmonize with the entire Bible.

Because of everything we know about Paul, we conclude that he did not mean a literal rod. The text considered in isolation could be understood literally, but the life and words of Paul, taken as a whole, preclude our understanding “rod” literally as a wooden instrument of corporal punishment.

A unifying principle

It would be helpful if competing schools of interpretation would keep the “rod” example in mind. Instead of concluding that our brethren are compromisers who are bending Scripture to fit their theological pigeonholes, perhaps we should consider that their understanding of the analogy of Scripture forces them to take figuratively what others take literally. Yes, that particular statement, considered by itself, looks like it could be interpreted literally. But considered in light of the whole Bible, literal just doesn’t seem possible.

I think it would be accurate to say that nearly every conservative Bible student agrees with the rule, “literal whenever possible.” But another rule, the “analogy of Scripture” limits what is possible in some situations. Literal-whenever-possible is an important rule, and necessary to avoid the kind of allegorical nonsense that turns every Bible verse into an imaginative fancy that bears no resemblance to the intended meaning of the author.

But literal-whenever-possible does not always yield the same result in every situation. The analogy of Scripture means that equally serious and spiritually minded students may draw different conclusions about what is possible. What seems possible to someone who works within a particular framework of information, seems entirely impossible to another who is focusing upon a different field of information. Instead of accusing our brethren of being devious or unfaithful, perhaps it would help to try to understand why someone does not believe a particular passage should be understood in its most literal sense. We may never agree completely, but a charitable respect for one another would surely manifest Christian love.

(Written originally ten years ago. Revised and submitted to Sharper Iron, December, 2019)

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and nine grandchildren.

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G. N. Barkman's picture

After thirty posts in response to my article, "Literal or Figurative," nobody has touched the only text I used.  Several have addressed other texts, and offered objections to interpretations of various texts that I did not cite.  So to try to get back to the main point of the article, I have a few questions for Paul H, or anyone else who wants to answer.

Should we interpret Paul's "rod" as literal or figurative?  If not literal, why not?  How do we know he is using a figure of speech instead of literal language?  If not literal, why is this not being inconsistent with the literal whenever possible hermeneutic?  What informs us that we should not interpret Paul's statement inductively, rather than deductively?  Or to address Larry's concern, if we don't take Paul's statement for what it says, how can we know anything for certain?  Who could be expected to know the hidden meaning of Paul's rod?

In the case of I Corinthians 4:21, it all seems so obvious, and to raise questions seems foolish.  But those are largely subjective and intuitive sentiments.  It's fairly easy to apply a little common sense to a text like this one.  But many of the objections Paul and Larry and others raise about non-DT interpretations could be applied with equal validity to the figurative interpretation of Paul's rod.  Interpretation, like beauty, is owing more to the eye of the beholder than to clearly revealed and consistently applied rules of interpretation.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

In the case of I Corinthians 4:21, it all seems so obvious, and to raise questions seems foolish.

I think you answered your own question. The "rod" is an image of discipline and that is obvious.  Does anyone dispute that?

I think you demonstrate a misunderstanding or misuse of "literal" confusing it with "literalistic." You ask why this isn't consistent with a "literal when possible" hermeneutic. Again, the answer seems obvious, as you say: It isn't possible because no one would that here. "Literal" includes metaphors, symbols, and the like.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Some things aren't so obvious to everybody. See the Marburg Colloquy and the dispute over "this IS my body."

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Well, literarily, we'd start with the fact that 1 Cor. 4:21 is really a rhetorical question, no?  It's not poetry, it's not narrative, it's not prophecy, but rather dialogue--or perhaps we might say monologue with an implied likely response from the Corinthians.  So we would process it really in the same way we'd process the old parents' challenge to their children:  "If your friends were all jumping off a cliff, would you do that, too?".   In fact, the parental rebuke is all the more appropriate in light of 1 Cor. 4:15, and so we would infer that, whatever the preferred methods of church discipline in that area, that the reference to the rod is going to be seen in light of verses like Proverbs 23:14.

Again, I think it's pretty clear that a lot of us have stepped in a hole as we try to respond to liberal theologians who say "well, this passage doesn't mean what everybody thinks it means".  We think it's as simple as saying "this is what these words mean, there we go", and in reality, there's an entire layer of interpretation that we've skipped--and hence the very people we're trying to convince won't take us seriously.

And on the light side, nobody's responded to my question about DTs, either.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Does anyone think Paul was asking them if he should come with an actual stick to beat them with? 

Larry's picture

Moderator

We think it's as simple as saying "this is what these words mean, there we go", and in reality, there's an entire layer of interpretation that we've skipped--and hence the very people we're trying to convince won't take us seriously.

What's the layer that's being skipped?

pvawter's picture

Greg,

I don't think your "rod" example proves what you think it does. We don't need the "analogy of Scripture" to understand what Paul meant in 1 Cor. 4:21, we just need to practice reading comprehension. “What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?” By contrasting the rod with a spirit love and gentleness, Paul tells us what he means. No appeal to some greater Pauline theology is necessary.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I agree that the figurative use of "rod" is obvious.  But why it's obvious isn't quite so easy to explain.  As I said in my article, the same word used in the Quran would more likely be understood as literal.  As helpful as Paul V's comments are, that still doesn't nail it.  A literal meaning for rod could also be contrasted with "love and a spirit of gentleness."  If the meaning were literal, what words would provide a more likely contrast?

The point being, these issues are a lot less clear than many of my DT friends on SI want to make it.  DT's want to excuse themselves from their normal hermeneutical rules for passages like I Corinthians 4:21 by saying it's so obvious.  But obvious, like beauty, is still largely in the eye of the beholder.  To me, it's obvious that Ezekiel's Temple should be understood as figurative.  To Paul H, it's obvious that it should be considered literal.  Paul points to his consistent literal hermeneutic to support his conclusion.  But that same hermeneutic, applied to Paul's rod, would yield a literal result.  Who gets to decide which texts require the "consistent" hermeneutic, and which get a pass?

Everyone agrees that we must begin with a basically literal reading of the text.  Everyone also agrees that there are times when literal is not what the author had in mind.  Now, who's the referee who gets to make the call about which approach applies to which texts?

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

To me, it's obvious that Ezekiel's Temple should be understood as figurative.  To Paul H, it's obvious that it should be considered literal.  Paul points to his consistent literal hermeneutic to support his conclusion.  But that same hermeneutic, applied to Paul's rod, would yield a literal result.  Who gets to decide which texts require the "consistent" hermeneutic, and which get a pass?

Come on Greg, you are trying to compare an incidental metaphor like "rod" to an extended revelation in a prophet and say they are equivalent? You ought to know better than that. That's really a ridiculous argument.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

G. N. Barkman's picture

Don, an extended metaphor is still as much a metaphor as a brief one.  For example, does the fact that the book of Revelation is twenty-two chapters long make it less likely to be heavily freighted with symbols and figures?

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

A Dispensationalist posted that short metaphors are allowed, but not extended ones.  Is this an accepted rule of interpretation among DT's?  (I've never heard it before.)  Does any other DT want to add his endorsement to this principle?

G. N. Barkman

Steve Davis's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

 

G. N. Barkman wrote:

 

To me, it's obvious that Ezekiel's Temple should be understood as figurative.  To Paul H, it's obvious that it should be considered literal.  Paul points to his consistent literal hermeneutic to support his conclusion.  But that same hermeneutic, applied to Paul's rod, would yield a literal result.  Who gets to decide which texts require the "consistent" hermeneutic, and which get a pass?

 

 

Come on Greg, you are trying to compare an incidental metaphor like "rod" to an extended revelation in a prophet and say they are equivalent? You ought to know better than that. That's really a ridiculous argument.

The temple/sacrifice question has surfaced several times. In seminary I was taught the memorial view, that the "sin offerings" would look back to the cross. If one accepts a so-called "literal" understanding of Ezekiel 40-48 then that's one way to avoid the teaching of Hebrews 10 and redefine "sin offering." Any way you slice it, I can't fathom any return to any sacrifice, memorial or otherwise. This is a great problem for DT IMO. 

Paul Henebury's picture

There is a real misrepresentation of my position here.  I do not simply say that "literal whenever" is my lone stance.  In fact, in this very thread I have referred to the covenants of God.  Here I give 10 lines of evidence for Ezekiel's temple being literal."  

Also, remember this post: https://sharperiron.org/article/covenant-ezekiel-part-5

The "rod" in Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians is a figure of speech for "punitive" or at least "in the spirit of firm rebuke."  Since the rod DID actually inculcate these things noone was in any doubt as to Paul's meaning.  Years ago a prominent CT said it was time the gauntlet was thrown down to these Dispensationalists.  Everyone knew that he didn't mean an actual medieval glove. 

But to leap from this sort of thing to saying there is good excuse for spiritualizing Ezekiel's temple, with all its very detailed and pointed language, and its future setting, plus the fact that there is no record in the OT or Second Temple Judaism that ANYONE thought it was not literal, is a whopping leap quite unlike the example of the rod.  On such a basis one can morph any passage!  No, the person who makes this claim must show how a passage the size of 1 Corinthians, with so much detail, and so much covenantal backing can be treated as a giant metaphor.       

I don't have time to fully engage this, but at least study my links above before responding.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Steve Davis's picture

Paul, I don’t think you were addressing my brief post. However, I would call a non-DT reading of Ezekiel 40-48 figurative, not spiritualizing (although some clearly spiritualize it). I’m sure you’re aware of the different figurative views: ideal temple or a real heavenly temple given in earthly terms and fulfilled in the new creation as the dwelling place of God. In other words, literal fulfillment in a non-structural way (G. K. Beale). Ezekiel could only use a vocabulary and description with which his readers were familiar to describe something even more expansive and more glorious. This figurative view has much in its favor especially when compared to the eschatological fulfillment in Revelation when all creation becomes the temple of God.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul and Don, I believe you have both misrepresented me.  You both characterized my statements about Paul's rod as "being a good excuse for spiritualizing Ezekiel's temple."  (To use Paul's words.)  No, I used it as a second example of how some people see a particular text as being clearly literal, whereas others, with equal desire to understand the true meaning of the text, believe it is figurative.  I offered no link between these two texts except to offer them both as examples of how what appears to be obvious to one does not seem obvious to another.

It was Don who first asserted that I was using the rod text as support for Ezekiel's temple, then Paul picked up Don's assertion and assumed that was what I said.  It was not.  I don't want to misrepresent Paul's position anymore than he wants to misrepresent mine.  We have substance enough to discuss thoughtfully without misrepresenting one another's positions.

To recap.  I first used the rod passage as an example of a text that could be taken literally, but nearly everyone agrees is figurative.  My point was to examine how we determine whether a text is literal or figurative.  Although the figurative conclusion is obvious, determining the hermeneutical principles that guide that conclusion is not so clear.  That conclusion is more subjective and intuitive than objective.  I then offered Ezekiel's Temple as a second example.  Paul is convinced that the Temple is literal, and offers several reasons to support that conclusion.  But they rest upon hermeneutical principles that if applied to Paul's rod would require a literal understanding.  DT's strongly reject this assertion.  But my hope is that perhaps it will help us understand why the conclusions that seem so obvious and inevitable to one, are far from compelling to others equally committed to understanding the author's intended meaning in every passage of scripture. 

The literal whenever possible hermeneutic itself is an assumption, not a revelation, about how scripture should be interpreted.  All of the supporting reasons for that particular hermeneutic are based upon logic (deductive reasoning), not revelation.   Many, like myself, have concluded that scripture itself fails to support this assumption.  That's my bottom line point in this entire discussion.

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

I get what Greg (and Steve) is saying, but there are good reasons to see the "rod" as figurative.  They have provided no reasons for seeing 9 chapters in Ezekiel (plus all the natural references to it in Ezek. 36-37; Isa. 2, Zech. 14 etc) as figures.  

I have provided many reasons for taking Ezek. 40-48 in its plain-sense.  It is supposed that the reason I do this is because I hold to "literal wherever possible" interpretation.  Well, so does everyone.  The difference is that owing to certain assumptions on both sides we differ on what is possible. 

Over the years I have set out several lines of proof for my hermeneutical position.  They include, but are not exhausted by, the following:

1. God's actions follow His words.  He does what He says He is going to do wherever that can be checked.

2. God makes covenants in order to be believed (e.g. Heb. 6:13-18).  Covenant oaths are not transformable (Gal. 3:15), and God holds people to them (cf. Ezek. 17:15c).  He surely holds Himself to the same standard.

3. I concocted the Rules of Affinity to measure the amount of agreement between what we say we believe based on our proof-texts and and what those texts actually say in context.  They also measure the amount of deductive inference by said interpreters.  CT's employ large amounts of inference to make their texts conform to their doctrines.

4. I have shown that the OT consistently teaches the same "Creation Project" based around God's oaths.  This Project combines eschatology and teleology and includes the nation of Israel, the Nations, the Church on this planet.   

5. FAITH is not possible if we don't know what God means.  If God can swear oaths in the OT but then change their meaning beyond recognition, then He can do the same to us.  We cannot please God without faith, but we cannot be sure that He will stick by what He has said He will do, so what do we have faith in?

6. If the above is true then this effects the nature and character of God Himself.  God as a communicator often does not mean what He seems to mean (i.e. He changes His meaning down the road).  Hence, God's nature include equivocation as an attribute!  But if so we cannot be sure of anything He says.  (Obviously I don't agree with this, but it is logical), then God's promises become disingenuous.

7. I'll stop with this one.  If the above is so then Jesus had no business expecting the Pharisees to believe He was the Christ.  I know many will not think this through, but it is the natural conclusion and I have tried to prove it elsewhere.    

Now folks are free to pick fault with what I have written, but it cannot be boiled down to "literal wherever possible." 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

The only clearly good reason I can see for taking the rod as figurative is that it seems to make better sense than to take it literally.  As I've stated twice before, if a similar statement were found in the Quran, would anyone find it difficult to take literally?  It's only because of the broader context of Paul's life and demeanor that we find it difficult to take literally.  It just doesn't fit what we know about Paul.  In the Quran, a literal rod fits well with what we know about Mohammad.  This "analogy of scripture" is what drives much of our interpretation.  Paul H studies Ezekiel's Temple, and believes a literal rendering best fits his broader understanding of Scripture.  Others read the same passage, and believe a literal temple is impossible to reconcile with their broader understanding of scripture.  In truth, I find some of the temple descriptions very difficult to imagine literally.  Is it possible they could be literal?  Of course, with God all things are possible.  If God intends to fulfill this literally He is certainly able to do so.  Is it likely God intends to fulfill this literally?  That seems very unlikely to me. 

For example, like Steve, I have a problem with renewed sacrifices.  Christ fulfilled the purpose for Temple sacrifices when He died.  His was the ultimate and final sacrifice.  Not only are none now needed, to return to literal sacrifices seems to insult the once for all sacrifice that Christ has made. (Not terribly different from the Roman mass.) Paul believes that the absence of a Day of Atonement is sufficient to satisfy these concerns.  I find that unconvincing.  I doubt that any animal sacrifice could please God after the cross.  I believe the book of Hebrews make that point. 

Paul thinks animal sacrifices are appropriate in connection with Ezekiel's temple because there will be sinners present at that time.  Isn't that what the cross of Christ addresses?  There are plenty of sinners around today, but we aren't making animal sacrifices.  We point men to the cross, the all sufficient sacrifice that has been made.  What's going to change that reality in the future?  

G. N. Barkman

Steve Davis's picture

It's Sunday afternoon naptime so I'll be brief. There are indications that we should understand the vision figuratively (with real future fulfillment in the new creation). Here's one: Ez. 40:1-2, the setting is a "very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city." Presumably this city is Jerusalem. Geographically speaking, there is no such literal mountain overlooking Jerusalem. The language is similar to Rev. 21:10 where John  is carried away "in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." John sees the reality of what Ezekiel prophesied. We might say that Rev. 21:22  is the eschatological fulfillment of Ez. 40-48 where John did not see a temple "because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Any way you slice it, I can't fathom any return to any sacrifice, memorial or otherwise. 

Steve, this sounds like you are willing to interpret Scripture based on what you can fathom rather than what God has revealed. I am sure you wouldn't put it that way, but I am not sure how you avoid it. For you, the sacrifices in Ezekiel can't be literal because you can't fathom it. Why wouldn't we say, "I can't understand it but God said it."

There might be some good reasons to take Ezek (or any other passage) in a figurative or symbolic sense, but I don't think our understanding is one of them. 

Paul Henebury's picture

Without impugning anyones motive, what I read from Steve and Greg reminds me of Abraham's test of faith in Genesis 22.  It was a test of his hermeneutics.

He might have reasoned, "since God has promised Isaac is the promised seed it makes no sense that he wants him dead.  Therefore God must mean this figuratively."  Of course, Abraham didn't do that (Heb. 11:17-19). 

Our business is to believe God.  God's business is to do what He tells us He's going to do.  That's where I am on this issue.

We're all brothers and we all have things wrong.  I'm sure all of us will be surprised in that Day. 

Merry Christmas to everyone! 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Steve Davis's picture

Larry wrote:

Any way you slice it, I can't fathom any return to any sacrifice, memorial or otherwise. 

Steve, this sounds like you are willing to interpret Scripture based on what you can fathom rather than what God has revealed. I am sure you wouldn't put it that way, but I am not sure how you avoid it. For you, the sacrifices in Ezekiel can't be literal because you can't fathom it. Why wouldn't we say, "I can't understand it but God said it."

There might be some good reasons to take Ezek (or any other passage) in a figurative or symbolic sense, but I don't think our understanding is one of them. 

I can't fathom a return to sacrifices because of NT teaching. No need to ascribe any other reason to my reticence to accept the DT view. I would not put it the way you frame it because it's not remotely true. One of the best DT views on future sacrifices that departs from the memorial view is the ceremonial cleansing view of Jerry Hullinger in "A Proposed Solution to the Problem of Animal Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48" (ThD diss , Dallas Theological Seminary, 1993), I don't accept it but it's an improvement on the memorial view which it seems is held by most dispensationalists (apart from maybe G. N. H. Peters in his massive The Theocratic Kingdom). 

As for figurative interpretation I was responding to Paul H's request for evidence. The mountain was only a sample. I'm not sure how dispensationalists answer that objection to literal interpretation. We have Ezekiel’s view of the temple before Christ described in a vision with the limitations of language. We have John’s post-resurrection view of the temple which is in fact the glory of God and the Lamb. IMO DT makes too little of the temple in a literalistic earthly interpretation which ignores the progressive nature of revelation. Ezekiel’s vision points to something much more glorious as seen by John in Revelation.  I’d recommend Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission for further evidence for the figurative view of Ezekiel 40-48.  

 I’m not trying to persuade anyone. My journey out of DT did not come easily or immediately and I have enough questions that the journey continues. In the end I agree with Paul H. that we all are in for some surprises.  

pvawter's picture

So let me get this straight. In the OP you say that we only recognize Paul's metaphor by applying the "analogy of scripture," that we wouldn't know he's using a figure of speech without bringing to bear an entire Pauline theology. Now you're saying that it's obvious that rod is figurative, and we all know it, we just can't agree on how we know.

It seems to me that if it's obvious, then your illustration fails, because we can recognize a metaphor using the normal rules of interpretation. But you've spent this post and multiple threads arguing that we cannot actually identify metaphors or other figures of speech by means of normal rules of interpretation.

As far as your assertion that we would naturally conclude that "rod" is literal in the Quran, I don't see any support for that other than your claim. As a figure of speech, metaphors aren't exactly mysterious. I mean, we teach children in grammar school to identify them without the benefit of divine revelation, so I just don't find your objections to the hermeneutic of DT very accurate or compelling.

RajeshG's picture

Steve Davis wrote:

It's Sunday afternoon naptime so I'll be brief. There are indications that we should understand the vision figuratively (with real future fulfillment in the new creation). Here's one: Ez. 40:1-2, the setting is a "very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city." Presumably this city is Jerusalem. Geographically speaking, there is no such literal mountain overlooking Jerusalem. The language is similar to Rev. 21:10 where John  is carried away "in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." John sees the reality of what Ezekiel prophesied. We might say that Rev. 21:22  is the eschatological fulfillment of Ez. 40-48 where John did not see a temple "because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." 

Ezekiel 40:1-2 can be explained by the topographical changes that will happen in the future by which Jerusalem will be raised up:

Zechariah 14:10 All the land shall be turned as a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem: and it shall be lifted up, and inhabited in her place, from Benjamin's gate unto the place of the first gate, unto the corner gate, and from the tower of Hananeel unto the king's winepresses.

Steve Davis's picture

RajeshG wrote:

 

Steve Davis wrote:

 

It's Sunday afternoon naptime so I'll be brief. There are indications that we should understand the vision figuratively (with real future fulfillment in the new creation). Here's one: Ez. 40:1-2, the setting is a "very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city." Presumably this city is Jerusalem. Geographically speaking, there is no such literal mountain overlooking Jerusalem. The language is similar to Rev. 21:10 where John  is carried away "in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." John sees the reality of what Ezekiel prophesied. We might say that Rev. 21:22  is the eschatological fulfillment of Ez. 40-48 where John did not see a temple "because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." 

 

 

Ezekiel 40:1-2 can be explained by the topographical changes that will happen in the future by which Jerusalem will be raised up:

Zechariah 14:10 All the land shall be turned as a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem: and it shall be lifted up, and inhabited in her place, from Benjamin's gate unto the place of the first gate, unto the corner gate, and from the tower of Hananeel unto the king's winepresses.

It is a possible explanation but a stretch - Isaiah 40:4 - "Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain." Taken literally will there be any mountains apart from the mountain of the Lord (Is. 2:2)? I'm not sure since the mountain was in a vision. I find the Apostle John's description more compelling and less speculative for fulfillment. 

 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Larry, you applaud taking Paul's rod figuratively because that seems to make the most sense.  To apply your standard used in Ezekiel's temple to Paul's rod, why don't you just say, "I can't understand how this rod could be literal, but God said it."  

Except with the Temple, there is not only language that seems more figurative than literal, there are also a number of New Testament statements that seem to make literal, at least in regard to animal sacrifices, impossible.  Here, you say, "I can't understand it, but God said it."  With Paul's rod, you say something like God didn't intend for us to take that literally.  But there are no Biblical reasons to avoid a literal rendering.  Why does, "It just doesn't make good sense" provide an excellent principle of interpretation for Paul's rod, but not for Ezekiel's temple?

Why would you reject my saying, "Paul, you must accept Paul's rod as literal because God said it.  That's what faith requires"?  I believe God wants us to weigh both New Testament revelation along with literary evidence to understand what He said.  God is not honored by insisting upon a literal understanding of Ezekiel's temple when God himself has given us ample evidence to consider it figurative.  He is most honored when we study what He wrote, and believe what He intends to communicate, not what we think He ought to have said.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Why should we not take Paul literally when he commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss? If he wanted to say something else, he could have. Our attitude should be, "I don't understand it, but God commands it!" Heh ...

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

Greg, I think you might be replying to me with the last one since I think Steve is on your side and you are quoting me. I have a longer post I will probably post here in a bit.

I find this whole discussion a little bizarre because everything we know about communication and everything we do everyday (even here) gets thrown right out the window. (And of course even in that statement no one needs an explanation that "everything" isn't "literal"). We don't sit around the dinner table or the office and analyze speech this way. Yes, there are occasional misunderstandings. But they are occasional. The fact is that we do this everyday with very few problems. So why do have problems with the Bible?

The Bible is not some special form of communication that breaks all the rules. God's intent in revelation was to communicate, not to obfuscate. Therefore, he used human forms of communication. That is why "rod" isn't a problem. When Theodore Roosevelt said, "Walk softly [or perhaps speak softly] and carry a big stick," newspapers weren't sitting around debating the kind of shoes he was wearing, the decibel level of his voice, or the size of the stick that qualified as big. They needed no one to tell them how to interpret that. Why? Because we all know. The Bible is divine revelation. It is not divine language.

I think you continue to misuse "literal" when what you mean is "literalistic" or wooden, and I posted about that elsewhere. 

Meaning is tied to authorial intent. What did the author want his reader/audience to understand? Did Ezekiel think he was talking about an actual temple with actual sacrifices? Did Joel intend to communicate actual cosmic disturbances?

Of course people resort to dual authorship, in which the divine author knew more than the human author. This, in my mind, seem to make it even more clear. If God knew there would be no sacrifices in Ezekiel, then why did he say it and leave open the possibility of misunderstanding? If he knew the NT would confuse people with that, why wouldn't he make it clear? And if, in fact, he did intend to have sacrifices for one reason or another in the kingdom, how would he have made it more clear? 

So again, I think if we were to use Greg's hermeneutic, we could never have a conversation at all. Conversely, using Greg's hermeneutic, I could just declare that he agrees with me and he would have no way to object because meaning is not tied to authorial intent but to some mystical deeper meaning that will later be revealed that the author might not even know about.

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