The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

I was wondering what I ought to write about when I stumbled upon my old unfinished series on The Parameters of Meaning. I think these parameters are quite helpful guides for interpreters, but I clean forgot about them. Well, I’m going to try to put things right! Here’s “Rule 9” with a link to the previous eight:

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale spiritualizing or allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal.” There will always be another literal meaning available that preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.

Reminding ourselves that by “literal” interpretation I am just talking about a prima facie or plain-sense reading of the text in its right setting, taking special care to examine the surrounding context before employing a text theologically. Strange as it may seem, more than one literal reading of a text is possible (hence, these “parameters”). It is possible to take a literal view of one text which will skew the rest of the passage, or a whole theology. A few examples will show what I mean:

Prolepticism in Christ’s Sending Out of His Disciples: Matthew 10:5-23

“Prolepsis” involves the representation of an event that is in the future as if it were happening now, or about to happen. It is a rhetorical way of anticipating an outcome that lies afar off, especially in prophecy. When Jesus says in John 14:3, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also,” The “You” in the verse extends beyond the disciples and contemplates those who come after them. The pronoun is proleptic in verse 3 even though in verse 1 (“Let not your heart be troubled”) it may not be.

In Matthew 10 we read of the sending out of the twelve to minister to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (10:6), with basic instructions about what they were to do. This included preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; a message proclaimed before by both John the Baptist (3:2). and Jesus Himself (4:17). So far so good. Let us get to the example I have in mind. At Matthew 10:23 the Lord says,

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Many Preterists take this verse literally and believe it means that Jesus must have returned before the disciples had traversed the entire land of Israel. Many would locate this “return” around A.D. 70 in the guise of the Roman armies. Now certainly they would be taking verse 23 literally, but their literal interpretation would result in a great deal of spiritualization of many other parts of Scripture. For one thing, one would necessarily have to make the “coming” of Jesus spiritual not physical. The context helps us see what is going on. From Matthew 10:16 Jesus begins to warn the disciples about persecutions in a manner akin to the eschatological passages found in Mark 13:9-13 and Luke 21:12-17. This is prolepsis, just as in John 14:1-4. The Son of Man (a term most clearly associated with Daniel 7) did not “come” midway through the carrying out of Acts 1:8. This is an instance when the wrong literal interpretation is being chosen (it may surprise some readers, but rarely is there just one literal interpretation to choose). Another will fit the context better, perhaps in this case one that reads Matthew 10:16-23 proleptically as reaching into the end times.

“This Generation” Is Not That Generation: Matthew 24:34

Also a favorite landing site for Preterists is Matthew 24:34:

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

Some Bible interpreters understand this verse literally to be referring to the Roman overthrow of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 under Titus. What this means is that everything else in the chapter has to be fitted in before that time. This includes things like famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places (v.7), the killing of the disciples (v.9), the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all nations (v.14), the abomination of desolation in the holy place (v.15), many false christ’s and false prophet’s performing great wonders (v. 24), and the devastating physical coming of Christ with angels in un-ignorable fashion (vv. 29-31). This just didn’t happen. Houston, we have a problem. And the parable of verses 45ff. also show that no spiritual coming of Christ is in view. This is the second advent.

Who then is the “this generation” Christ is talking about? Well, Daniel 12:11 has the abomination of desolation at the end of time (see also Dan. 11:31 and notice the similarity). And remember, Jesus was answering the disciples questions, in particular the one about “the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age.” (24:3). Jesus was speaking about “the end” (24:6, 13, 14). So the generation referred to in Matthew 24:34 is the generation of “the end of the age” who witness “the sign of Your coming.” Again, if a literal reading forces you to spiritualize everything else, you have the wrong literal reading. Another will fit the context without you having to resort to spiritualization or allegory. Not all literal readings are equal.

The World Is Not Always the Planet

One more example of this might help. This one is not about end times prophecy, though it does concern eschatology. It comes from Romans 4:

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

A lot of Christians think that “the promise that he would be heir of the world” is speaking about Abraham being promised the literal planet. But there is a problem with this. Abraham was made no such promise! Neither was Israel. What he was promised was that his literal descendants (Gen. 15:4-5, with v.6 being cited by Paul in Rom. 4:3) were to be very numerous, that they would be given a literal land (Gen. 12:7; 15:7-21). Also promised to Abraham was that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3). Nowhere was Abraham promised the whole literal earth. But further, Paul is not even thinking about the land promise, at least from Romans 1 – 8. I have written in another place:

The word “world” appears once in Romans 4 so we must look at what Paul is speaking about to determine what he means by it. As anyone can see from Romans 4:1-5 the Apostle is thinking in terms of justification and righteousness. Faith, not works, is the bridge from one to the other (hence the insertion of Gen. 15:6). Then David is used to illustrate the point at issue (4:6-9). Then we get a question about whether this imputed righteousness is only for the Jews (circumcision – 4:9), which is answered by the fact that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (4:10). This means that his faith-justification to righteousness is not bounded by circumcision, so that those not circumcised may receive justification through faith the same way Abraham did (4:11-12). Those not circumcised would be the rest of the peoples of the world. So far, not a word about the physical land! Now comes their proof text for land=planet earth, verse 13.

The Apostle is talking about justification, not the land promise, and the land promise was not that Abraham would inherit the whole planet. This is an illegitimate use of the literal sense; a better use of it is on hand, even if it might not serve the purposes of certain eschatologies quite as well.

(Photo: Bennett Dungan)

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josh p's picture

Paul this is helpful thank you. I appreciate the point that a proper literal interpretation does not mean “most literal” but what is plain and also fits the context and the rest of the Bible.

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