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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Larry's picture

Moderator

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 ...

If you are in a culture where that applies, then you should, and there are many of them around the world. Again, we all understand that (at least once we got out of high school when the "holy kiss" was one of the favorite Bible verses). 

To press in, this is a prime example of a red herring. A "holy kiss" is clearly a cultural greeting. A sacrifice is a religious practice. It doesn't really have a cultural expression, per se. So resorting this sort of false analogy does nothing to further the conversation.

Larry's picture

Moderator

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. 

As I said, I don't think you would agree to that description. Having read your explanation, I still don't understand how you avoid it for several reasons. One, the NT is clear that the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. So a return to them for one reason or another is not going to change that. Two, and you get at this with your reference to Hullinger, sacrifices were about more than simply actual atoning for sin. No Bible believer thinks that millennial sacrifices are going to atone for sin. 

But the question remains, why does God even mention it in Ezekiel if there was no intention of it happening? 

I still the "cannot fathom it" is a weak argument. I agree that there are things that are "hard to be understood" and not just in our beloved brother Paul's writing. But I think we tend to overcomplicate it by trying to fit it all in a box of our sizing. 

And no, that is an actual cardboard structure, for those who might want to accuse me of some such.

But the truth is that I didn't need to say that because you all agree with me in everyday communication. It's just the Bible that you treat differently.

Paul Henebury's picture

I have read and interacted with Beale quite extensively here and here.   Beale doesn't believe either Ezek. 40ff. or Rev. 21-22 are to be taken literally (which is usual with CT's).  

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Don Johnson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

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.

Here is what I actually said:

Quote:

Quote:
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.

I literally did not say "support" - I said "compare"

Who is misrepresenting whom?

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Steve Davis's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

I have read and interacted with Beale quite extensively here and here.   Beale doesn't believe either Ezek. 40ff. or Rev. 21-22 are to be taken literally (which is usual with CT's).  

I don't have his book at hand but I think his view can be described by saying that Ezekiel’s temple is not a literal building, but a literal reality that will be established on earth in non-structural form in the new creation. Not that that satisfies the literal literalists. 

RajeshG's picture

Steve Davis wrote:

 

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. 

There is no stretch at all. Isaiah 2:2 confirms what Ezekiel and Zechariah say:

Isaiah 2:2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

This passage states that the LORD's house will be on the mountain that will be exalted, which corroborates what Zech. 14 says about all the rest of the surrounding area being flattened.

There are numerous problems with equating the Millennial Temple in Ezekiel 40-48 with what is revealed at the end of Revelation.

Steve Davis's picture

RajeshG wrote:

 

Steve Davis wrote:

 

 

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. 

 

 

There is no stretch at all. Isaiah 2:2 confirms what Ezekiel and Zechariah say:

Isaiah 2:2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

This passage states that the LORD's house will be on the mountain that will be exalted, which corroborates what Zech. 14 says about all the rest of the surrounding area being flattened.

There are numerous problems with equating the Millennial Temple in Ezekiel 40-48 with what is revealed at the end of Revelation.

So let me get this right. Ezekiel was taken to a high mountain overlooking the city and the temple. But now the temple is on the top of the mountains. Which way is it? You can't have it both ways. Or are there are multiple topographical changes, Ezekiel looking down on the city and temple from a high mountain then the temple transported to the top of the mountain! I think this shows the confusion when one insists  on geography and topography from a vision.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Agreed.  What we want to understand is what the author intended.  You seem very certain that the prophet Ezekiel did not intend a figurative meaning for his temple description.  How do you know this?  You don't.  It is am assumption.  Where might we get some additional insight?  By including NT revelation.  What's so difficult about that?

However, with Scripture, we have the additional statement in Hebrews that the writers of OT scripture didn't always understand their own writings.  They searched them to try to better understand details of Messiah's coming.  This is because there is not one, but two authors, the human one, and the Holy Spirit.  So even if we could be certain of the human author's intent, we shouldn't be surprised to discover that God had additional intent unknown to the human author.  That's the nature of the Bible.  In respect to authorship, it is unlike any other book ever written.

Furthermore, you keep side-stepping questions about how we know to take Paul's rod figuratively.  Appeals to human conversation does not address the issue.  The word can have both a literal and a figurative meaning.  In one context, it may be literal, whereas in another, it may be figurative.  I don't have a huge problem figuring this one out, but I'm relying on common norms of literary usage.  I use my common sense to conclude that in I Corinthians 4:21, the word "rod" is figurative.  But I use those same norms when reading about Ezekiel's temple.  The literary style sounds very figurative to me, just like the use of rod.  But in Ezekiel's case, you strongly object to my ultilization of common literary norms.  Why?  Evidently because what seems obvious to me does not seem obvious to you.  You apply previously adopted hermeneutics to Ezekiel that you do not apply to I Corinthians 4.  You keep appealing to common sense communication as your reason.  But you can't or won't explain why the same norms you apply to Paul's rod do not apply to Ezekiel's temple.  The same common sense figurative understanding of rod yields a figurative understanding of Ezekiel's temple to many readers.  

G. N. Barkman

Kevin Miller's picture

Larry wrote:

To press in, this is a prime example of a red herring. A "holy kiss" is clearly a cultural greeting. A sacrifice is a religious practice. It doesn't really have a cultural expression, per se. So resorting this sort of false analogy does nothing to further the conversation.

I don't really think it's a red herring. For the Israelite's, weren't their religious practices basically the same as cultural expressions? Oh, they had some cultural expressions that weren't religious, such as the kiss upon greeting, but any religious practice they had would have been, since they were culturally a theocracy, also a cultural expression. Wouldn't it have been? Sure, their religious practices also had meanings that went beyond culture, but it is those religious meanings that have significance in this discussion, just as a cultural meaning has significance when applied to the kiss.

How would the author of Ezekiel have interpreted the meaning of a sin offering? Does that question not make a difference in this conversation? With the kiss, we assume the cultural practice can change as long as the meaning, that of greeting, stays the same. Do we switch that it regards to the sin sacrifices? Do we say that the cultural, religious practice stays in place in the future, but the actual meaning behind it has to change? Would Ezekiel have understood that the meaning would be changing? It's obvious to us today that the meaning would have to change, but I think the significance of a "changed meaning" does need to be a valid part of the conversation rather than just be considered a red herring.

I see people here have made note of some of the ways these sacrifices have been interpreted, so I'm looking forward to checking out some of the authors mentioned.

Bert Perry's picture

Larry wrote:

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?

Larry, I discussed this at some length in the very comment you replied to.  If, as I claimed, 1 Cor. 4:21 is indeed a rhetorical question in a passage where Paul refers to himself as their father, but we know that they are not literally his biological children that he would ordinarily discipline, we are almost compelled to a metaphorical understanding of the passage.

The Jerusalem passage in Ezekiel is a bit more difficult because there is, as Rajesh's citation indicates, some suggestion that there might be "a giant earthmoving party" in the very context, but you've still got that layer of interpretation going on there.  Is it prose or poetry?  Is it narrative, parable, prophecy, or what?  How would the original readers have responded?  What do we know about the re-establishment of a Temple with sacrifice mean in the New Testament era?  

We would do the same with the five "holy kiss" uses in the New Testament.  (my wife and I counted them while courting....perhaps not all of our kisses at that time were "holy", but God forgives)  OK, it's didactic/command, not narrative, Paul was telling them to do so for some reason that made sense in their church culture, this is what we know about secular and church culture at the time, this is what we know about our culture, etc..

And in that case, we would be struck by the fact that northern Europeans and Americans, at least outside of Italian neighborhoods and such, do not greet one another with a holy kiss, and we would yet consider the reality that we ought to assume God wants us to somehow apply these passages.  But how?  And why?

And that is the kind of layer (or layers) I'm writing about.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

Ezekiel does NOT say he looked down on the city and the temple.  

In the visions of God He took me into the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain; on it toward the south was something like the structure of a city.

The prophet did not look down on the temple.  Further, saying you take something literally AFTER transforming it into something utterly different is not literal

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

RajeshG's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

Ezekiel does NOT say he looked down on the city and the temple.  

In the visions of God He took me into the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain; on it toward the south was something like the structure of a city.

The prophet did not look down on the temple.  Further, saying you take something literally AFTER transforming it into something utterly different is not literal

Exactly correct. I was going to reply the same thing that Ezekiel does not say that he looked down on the city and the temple, as if they were not on the mountain:

NETS Ezekiel 40:2 in a divine vision into the land of Israel and set me upon a very high mountain, and upon it was something like a construction of a city, opposite.

NAU Ezekiel 40:2 In the visions of God He brought me into the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain, and on it to the south there was a structure like a city.

NET Ezekiel 40:2 By means of divine visions he brought me to the land of Israel and placed me on a very high mountain, and on it was a structure like a city, to the south.

NKJ Ezekiel 40:2 In the visions of God He took me into the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain; on it toward the south was something like the structure of a city.

CSB Ezekiel 40:2 In visions of God He took me to the land of Israel and set me down on a very high mountain. On its southern slope was a structure resembling a city.

ESV Ezekiel 40:2 In visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel, and set me down on a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south.

NIV Ezekiel 40:2 In visions of God he took me to the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city.

Steve Davis's picture

Pardon my reading "to the south" as more than directional. The point remains on geography that doesn't exist and to Rev. 21:10 corresponding to Ezekiel's vision. At best the millennial temple exists for a short period. The true temple of the new creation is eternal. We are probably at an impasse until greater light or future fulfillment. Merry Christmas!

Larry's picture

Moderator

I agree that the figurative use of "rod" is obvious.  But why it's obvious isn't quite so easy to explain.

I think the reason it's obvious because it's how language works. It's obvious because we do it everyday. But for some reason, when it comes to the Bible, we forget how we communicate and how language works.

Again, I think you are confusing "literal" with "literalistic." A literal meaning is the normal meaning. Literal includes the metaphors, images, etc. Metaphor and image is not a step beyond literal.

DT's want to excuse themselves from their normal hermeneutical rules for passages like I Corinthians 4:21 by saying it's so obvious. 

Not at all, at least for me. I instead want to rely on my normal hermeneutic.

But obvious, like beauty, is still largely in the eye of the beholder. 

Not really, IMO. I think obvious is obvious, unless there is a reason for it not to be, such as someone not knowing the language, someone not knowing the culture, someone not knowing the speaker, or someone having some baggage, etc. Some things that are obvious are missed, but the problem is cloudiness on the part of the hearer.

Who gets to decide which texts require the "consistent" hermeneutic, and which get a pass?

All texts require a consistent hermeneutic. 

Now, who's the referee who gets to make the call about which approach applies to which texts?

The author by his words.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think we need to turn this back to the very basic issues of communication. If what Greg says is true, how is communication possible at all? Our communication here is based on using a common set of words and a common dictionary of sorts. And one of us can freely say, "No, you misunderstand me." Why? Because we intend something with our words and it is our privilege to define those words and to tell others when they are incorrect about our meaning. For Greg, the way to misunderstand Joel is to think that his words have the meaning they would have in every day normal usage. To understand Joel, we have to assume that the meaning of the words has nothing to do with their every day normal usage. But the only way we know that is that hundreds of years later, one person invokes those works in a disputable way. 

I know people routinely want to do with biblical communication what they would never do with their own communication. Or to put it differently and strongly to be sure, we would never allow someone to treat our words like some treat the words of Scripture.

 

Yet Greg (and others) propose a system of communication in which that is not possible. Using Greg's interpretive technique, Greg cannot tell me I have misinterpreted his words because I can just say, "There was a deeper meaning you didn't really know and all that is symbolism." And Greg can't argue because he has already stipulated that this is a valid hermeneutic.

Greg would likely respond, Well these are God's words and they are different because God intended more than the human author. And that would then spark a whole discussion about how we know that God intended more. He would say future revelation, but that simply begs the question. It doesn't prove it .

Back to Joel, Greg asks

But what if your Joel interpretation is wrong? 

Apart from the words of Joel, how could we possibly determine this? I believe my interpretation of Joel is correct because there are words there, words that have meaning and that Israel was expected to believe. They are not words typically associated with symbolism. Other passages confirm these expectations. And Peter gives us no reason to doubt them. In fact, I think Peter's whole use of Joel indicts Israel for their lack of belief. They should have expected to see such a great work of the Spirit's outpouring people other than Jews because Joel said the Spirit would be poured out and whoever (not just Jews) would call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. So this was not some sort of change. Far to the contrary, this is exactly like what Joel has already talked about.

Think of a few questions this raises:

  1. Why is the outpouring of the Spirit "literal" but the prophesying, dreams, vision, and cosmic disturbances are symbolic? And what are they symbolic of?
  2. Why does Peter stop after the offer of salvation before he gets to the end?
  3. Why does Peter say that this is about the promise of the Holy Spirit [whom] He Has poured forth this which you both see and hear (2:33)? 
  4. How much of the other OT citations in Acts 2 are symbolic? And how do we know?

Once we remove meaning from words, we have no way left to communicate. Obviously we all agree, but it seems to me we have here is essentially a case of special pleading: Everything that doesn't fit is written off as symbolic. Perhaps "symbolic" is sometimes a code word for "Doesn't fit what I believe."

What if the faithful Jews in Acts 2 said, "Peter, I see no sons and daughters will prophesying. I see no old men dreaming dreams. I see no young men seeing visions. I see no wonders in the sky and on the earth, Blood, fire and columns of smoke. The sun has not turned into darkness nor the moon into blood. So this can't be Joel."

Would those faithful Jews be convinced if Joel said, "No, no, you gotta understand. I know those words sound like they mean certain things but they actually don't really mean anything that they sound like. All that meant was that a few of us followers of Jesus were going to speak in languages that we have never learned in a way that people were going to accuse us of being drunk, and afterwards, a bunch of people would repent and trust Christ, be baptized and added to the church. The rest of that was never going to happen."

Say those Jews respond with, "Can you show me that in the words of Joel? Why did Joel say it?"

What would Peter say? He would be a complete loss because everyone can read the words of Joel and see that Acts 2, as great as it is, does not fully account for those words. Now, we are at a crossroads.

If we question the meaning of Joel or make it into symbols for things in Act 2, what else would we question? And where do we stop? After all, if we cannot accept the words of Joel for what they seem to mean in their context, can we really accept anything from the OT? What about 2nd coming prophecies? What if the promise of a second coming was a symbol and didn't really mean that Christ would return as king? 2 Peter 3 has an exchange with mocking mockers about the delay in the promise of his coming. What if all those 2nd coming prophecies were just spiritual and symbolic? After all, the only way to combat the mocking mockers (or the doubting skeptics in Luke 24) is to appeal to the words of the text.

And what if the NT isn't even the final word. What is it, in the NT, that seems to have a clear meaning by which we are supposed to live by faith, but which one day we will find out we were completely wrong about?

Can you not see the huge hole that is opened up here once we remove meaning from words? 

What if a more literal interpretation of Acts 2 indicates an inspired adjustment in the way you should understand Joel?  

So where is the stuff Joel talked about? You just want to punt on that. But I think the words meant something. And I think faithful Jews of Acts 2 thought they meant something. What if the adjustment is on your part, rather than on mine?

That's what I was forced to wrestle with years ago as I kept bumping into NT citations of the OT that indicated the NT authors were not applying a strictly literal hermeneutic to their understanding of the OT.

I completely agree with this. This is why, multiple times now, I have raised the issue that we must determine what NT authors were doing with OT words. You talk about not applying a strictly literal hermeneutic. I think they very often did not apply a strictly literal hermeneutic. The question is what they did and how they did what they did. Again, I reference Longenecker and Walton as the two I consider with the best argument. 

So how did you determine that Peter was giving a strict interpretation of Joel to begin with? You ask, "What if a more literal interpretation of Acts 2 indicates an inspired adjustment in the way you should understand Joel?" I ask, "What if a more literal interpretation of Acts 2 indicates an inspired adjustment in the way you should understand Joel?" Or understand Peter?

What if you took Acts 2 and the things there and checked off what see in Joel and then reserve the rest of it for another occasion? Or what if you took Acts 2 as an analogy or a similarity? Both of these are well-attested uses of OT literature, and both of them do justice both to Peter and Joel, and neither require us to resort to "symbolism" for things that don't exist in the "fulfillment." Why isn't that a better option for you?

So this is rather long and unlikely to solve anything. And if you are still reading at this point, give yourself and gold star. And reflect on the fact that we do this kind of communication all the time, so why do we do something different with Scripture?

 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Larry, give me a gold star.  I read it all.  We continue to assert our positions, but neither of us is persuaded by what the other says.  I am tempted to call it a truce.  Except I reminded that you are willing to consider analogy or similarity in Peter's use of Joel, but not figuratively.  That's baffling.  You seem to be saying it must be understood literally unless it can't.  Or, Joel's words must be understood literally, but not Peter's.  Why not Peter's words should be understood literally, which means Joel's must be understood in something less than a strictly literal manner?  Your repeated appeals to normal patters of communication are less than convincing.  They seem to boil down to, "The words must be understood that way I understand them.  Anything else places them outside the normal patterns of communication."  Balderdash!  You are making yourself the standard of what is acceptable and normal communication.  Sorry.  Others, who are operating within exactly the same patterns of communication arrive at different conclusions. 

As I have stated  above, you dogmatically assert which passages must be interpreted literally, and which must therefore be interpreted in a less than literal manner so that they do not contradict one another.  So do I.  I just choose different passages to interpret literally and therefore different ones to adjust accordingly.  We are both doing essentially the same thing but in opposite directioins.  That seems obvious to me.  You refuse to acknowledge that any such choices that differ from yours are legitimate.  You alone, and those who agree with you, become the ultimate standard by which to judge the vadlidity of interpretation.  That's too heavy a mantle for your fallible shoulders.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Food for thought:

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?

pvawter's picture

Steve Davis wrote:

Thanks for the link. Interesting that of the six views five are dispensational. I'm not sure how a supposedly literal hermeneutic lends itself to such confusion. 

Haha! That's funny. Reminds me of the RCC use of the variety of Protestant denominations to argue against sola scriptura. I mean, if the Bible is the only rule of faith, then why do any of us disagree at all? Of course, their objection is silly.

RajeshG's picture

Showing that 1 Cor. 4:21 uses figurative language when it speaks of "a rod" is very different from showing that Ezekiel 40-48 is figurative language for the Church (or something else). To show that the latter is figurative language requires addressing and answering numerous problems caused by taking that approach. I believe that it would be helpful to have a careful and extended discussion of these problems to see if supporters of the figurative language view are able to sustain the viability of their position under close scrutiny.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I'm not sure how a supposedly literal hermeneutic lends itself to such confusion. 

At the risk of beating an old drum, I think it's because of a continued misunderstanding of "literal." Some people here seem to think literal does not include metaphors, symbols, and other figures. So "literal" means "wooden." But that is false. "Literal" means "normal." People can differ on what the metaphors mean or how they are used. That isn't surprising at all, IMO. A "literal" reading of a metaphor reads the metaphor as a metaphor or the symbol as a symbol. "Literal" does not read a symbol as an actual description. 

I was thinking of this again this morning as I read Dan 7-12 in preparation to finish preaching the book of Daniel in 2020. It strikes me again how odd this conversation is. Why identify all these symbols and images if it just flattens into one thing as people would have us believe Joel was used? The images are images, but they are images or symbols that mean things. So the literal understanding of "horn" is king or ruler. Do we have to explain that? Probably, but probably like if we went back to that time period we would have to explain what "Big Cheese" meant when talking about an organiziational heirarchy. 

So, IMO, we overcomplicate because we think the Bible is something other than normal human communication, given by God progressively for the readers and hearers at each stage and later stages.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Agreed.  But what you don't seem to understand is that normal does not always communicate the same way to every person.  Consider the number of times the disciples misunderstood Jesus.  For example, Jesus said, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees."  They thought He was talking about literal bread.  He was not.  He was using leaven as a metaphor for false teaching.  

Here's the problem as I see it.  When something seems obvious to you, such as the figurative use of Paul's rod, you plead that this is common normal usage.  Everyone understands it clearly and in the same way.  No explanation for how hermeneutics applies to this situation.  It's just too obvious.  But when something doesn't seem obvious to you, such as the figurative language describing Ezekiel's temple, you argue that symbolic language is so far from normal that to understand it in a figurative way is to defy the norms of common communication and render conversations meaningless and impossible.

Wrong.  Normal communication includes analogies, comparisons, and figurative language.  Often, literal and figurative language are closely joined.  John the Baptist said that when Jesus came, he would baptize you with the Holy Spirit (literal) and with fire (figurative).  You may not agree that Ezekiel's temple language is more likely figurative than literal, but to rule it outside the norms of common communication is nonsense.  It almost sounds like dispensatioinalists are so accustomed to making such statements that they are beginning to believe their own assertions which are necessary to defend their (at times) unnatural literalism.  Neither normal nor scriptural use of language supports these assertions.

G. N. Barkman

Kevin Miller's picture

Larry wrote:
The images are images, but they are images or symbols that mean things. So the literal understanding of "horn" is king or ruler. Do we have to explain that? Probably, but probably like if we went back to that time period we would have to explain what "Big Cheese" meant when talking about an organiziational heirarchy. 

Using this idea, wouldn't the literal understanding of "temple" be "dwelling place of God?" I Cor 6:19 uses that understanding when it says "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;"

This understanding of temple is also present in Ephesians 2:19-22, in which people of the church are built together as a temple, a dwelling place of God. "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."

So when Ezekiel sees a temple in his vision, isn't it at least possible he could be seeing this Ephesians 2 temple that has risen up, that is literally a temple because it is a dwelling place of God?

Larry's picture

Moderator

Using this idea, wouldn't the literal understanding of "temple" be "dwelling place of God?" 

Yes, and in some contexts is a people and in some contexts a building, etc. Is it possible that Ezekiel was seeing the church? It doesn't seem likely since Ephesians says the church was a mystery, unknown in the OT.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I think we are probably past the point of usefulness here so I won't prolong this. But ...

For example, Jesus said, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees."  They thought He was talking about literal bread.  He was not.  He was using leaven as a metaphor for false teaching.  

Yes, and the problem was with their understanding. As I have said, misunderstanding is possible for a lot of reasons. That doesn't invalidate the principle. The reason it can be misunderstood is because the words had meaning. Going back to Joel, what did the words mean before Peter used them at Pentecost? If you were to exegete Joel during the time of Joel, what would you conclude Joel was talking about?

Again, I refer to my imaginary conversation with a faithful Jew above, one that I would be interested in hearing your response to.

As for Ezekiel's temple, I don't think I have commented on that, at least that I recall.

You may not agree that Ezekiel's temple language is more likely figurative than literal, but to rule it outside the norms of common communication is nonsense. 

On this, I agree. I don't think Ezekiel's temple language is outside the norm. I think we should treat it like normal language.

It almost sounds like dispensatioinalists are so accustomed to making such statements that they are beginning to believe their own assertions which are necessary to defend their (at times) unnatural literalism.  

I would hope dispensationalists believe their own assertions (though I don't know what unnatural literalism you are talkinga bout). I think at heart you believe dispensationalist assertions because if you didn't, we couldn't even have a rational conversation. I don't know how you communicate without them.

RajeshG's picture

Kevin Miller wrote:

 

Larry wrote:
The images are images, but they are images or symbols that mean things. So the literal understanding of "horn" is king or ruler. Do we have to explain that? Probably, but probably like if we went back to that time period we would have to explain what "Big Cheese" meant when talking about an organiziational heirarchy. 

 

 

Using this idea, wouldn't the literal understanding of "temple" be "dwelling place of God?" I Cor 6:19 uses that understanding when it says "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;"

 

This understanding of temple is also present in Ephesians 2:19-22, in which people of the church are built together as a temple, a dwelling place of God. "Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit."

So when Ezekiel sees a temple in his vision, isn't it at least possible he could be seeing this Ephesians 2 temple that has risen up, that is literally a temple because it is a dwelling place of God?

No, Ezekiel was not seeing the Church in his vision because many details of Ezekiel 40-48 correspond historically with literal Israel but making them pertain to the Church leads to spiritualization that has no controls and makes detailed language either meaningless or makes it speak of things that are impossible to apply to the Church. 

Kevin Miller's picture

Larry wrote:

Using this idea, wouldn't the literal understanding of "temple" be "dwelling place of God?" 

Yes, and in some contexts is a people and in some contexts a building, etc. Is it possible that Ezekiel was seeing the church? It doesn't seem likely since Ephesians says the church was a mystery, unknown in the OT.

Yes, it was a mystery, but that doesn't mean OT revelation would contradict future revelation that finally revealed whatever mysteries God was withholding. The OT revelation was just a partial picture.

In just the next chapter of Ephesians, after Paul speaks of the church as a temple/dwelling place of God, Paul talks about the mystery that is the church. Ephesians 3:6 says "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." So what promise would Gentiles be sharing with Israel that can finally be fulfilled through the gospel as both groups are made one body? Could it be some promise from the OT that OT readers would have only understood to be fulfilled in national Israel since the full truth hadn't been revealed yet?

Paul goes on about this mystery in verses 7 through 12 "7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. "

So God's intent from ages past was that God's wisdom would be made known through the church. In Christ and through faith, we can approach God with freedom. This is what the power of the gospel accomplishes. Does the gospel only accomplish this for a short period of time we call "the church age" and then some other organization or system takes the place of the church? It seems to me that if some literal future sin sacrifices need to take place in some literal Israelite temple building, then that understanding would contradict the supreme importance God places on the church. We can go back again to Ephesians 2. Eph 2:13-16 says "13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility." Because of the blood of Christ, I find it hard to see how the future would contain a return to specific Israelite worship when a brand new humanity and a brand new body have been created. Especially when that new body is described as the dwelling place of God and as a mystery that the OT prophets did not understand.

So Ezekiel saw something, but what he saw was revealed to him in a way that kept hidden the mystery of the new dwelling place. Is it possible there will be a future temple building? Sure, but that seems to create a number of problems in regards to the importance of the church.

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