Maximizing Literalness or Evenness of Interpretation

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I was reading Isaiah 11 recently, and in the second half especially something occurred to me. There's a picture of Ephraim (i.e. the northern kingdom of Israel) and Judah (i.e. the southern kingdom) working together against Edom, Moab, and the Philistines. The northern kingdom had already fallen by the time Isaiah would have first delivered this oracle. There's no sense anywhere in the rest of scripture that any unification or restoration of Israel would involve two separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah, such that there would be two nations working together, and the nations of Edom, Moab, and Philistia were pretty much non-existent by the time of Christ, even if there are people nowadays who do associate themselves ethnically with them (and I don't even know if that's true).

So it seems as if someone today interpreting this passage (while holding it to be true) cannot take it to refer to a literal teaming up of the nations of Judah and Israel against the nations of Edom, Moab, and Philistia.

Then there's a bit about God striking a river and turning it into seven channels, followed by a highway from Assyria for the return of God's people from exile. Israel had been taken to Assyria and scattered throughout the ancient near east, and other peoples had been resettled in the northern land. What was to come for Judah was exile to Babylon and then return after Persia conquered Babylon. Then you get all the stuff about various animals hanging out with each other and all eating plants.

So how much of this is literal? I've seen dispensationalists explain one of their chief interpretive principles as follows. We should try to find literal interpretations for prophecies about Israel if we can possibly do so. The goal is maximize the number of literal prophecies.

Most other interpreters with a high view of scripture will not try to maximize the number of literal prophecies but will look for evenness of interpretation. The result is that, when you have this sort of thing that seems implausible to take literally, you might also have other prophecies of the same sort about a future Israel that we shouldn't take literally, even if you can (and dispensationalists do). If prophecies about Judah and Israel as physical nations aren't necessarily about literal nations, then why should we expect other prophecies about a future Israel to be about the literal nation of Israel?

So it seems to be a dispute between (a) those whose principle is to see everything as literal unless you can't avoid the alternative and (b) those who let scripture interpret scripture by seeing kinds of prophecies and looking for evenhandedness in letting prophecies about the same subject with the same style generally be interpreted in the same way.

10 Comments

I don't remember reading any of the classical or traditional dispensationalists say that the goal is to maximize the number of literal prophecies. The goal, I have read them say, is to be faithful to the words God has chosen to be recorded and the promises he has decided to make.

I don't remember what I was reading that said this, but it was a dispensationalist presenting it in response to those who claim that dispensationalists are overly literal about Israel. The argument was that we should take any statement to be literal if we can do so, and we should only assume it's not in cases where that would be ludicrous (such as thinking Jesus would sprout vine branches that would be us after we stopped being human and started turning into plant matter). It might have been one of those four views books, or it might have been a review of one of those kind of books. But it might have just been something I read on a website (if so, most likely Bible.org).

Now if the goal is just to be faithful to God's promises, then why in what circumstances should we take those promises to be literal? Is there an overarching principle, given that some promises (like the one about Israel and Judah working together to beat Moab, Edom, and Philistia) are not? I understand the principle that we should default to literal unless it's impossible to do so. Short of that, I'm not sure what the principle is.

Well, Dispensationalists (as you know) have been in the process of discussing some of that quite a bit. What exactly is the hermeneutical principle; why is a literal hermeneutic(according to the Ryrie and the rest of Revised camp) one of the tripartitethe sine quo non (next to keeping Israel and the Church distinct)?

Ryrie said, explaining the literal hermeneutic as a "literal/historical/grammatical interpretation" that is noted that it "does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation." Some have tried to revise the language by saying a "literary" hermeneutic but what does that mean? Doesn't everyone have that?

Anyway, Revised and Classical D would likely say that it is absurd to expect a meaning (for God's words) so far outside the understanding of the original recipients of the message. As a poor analogy, it would be like telling a child "I promise to give you a Cat." and then fulfilling that promise by giving her a CAT Scan. If God's promises are like that then no one can really bank on anything he says beyond "well, whatever he meant (even though we can't figure it out) it's true." It would functionally overturn anything about the perspicuity of Scripture. So that might be the overarching principle for Classic and Revised.

Progressives are still wrestling with all of this so our principle likely looks a bit different..but I don't think by much.

In the discussion I was reading, it was clearly about the proper use of 'literal' as opposed to 'metaphorical' and such, not misusing it as many do as a shorthand for inerrancy, which is what Ryrie seems to be doing. So the idea was the debate between seeing as many instances of Israel in prophecy referring to an actual restored Israel as possible vs. recognizing that passages like Isaiah 11 can't mean that and concluding that many or even most of the others could also be like Isaiah 11 and simply mean the spiritual Israel that Paul speaks of.

So does it overturn the perspicuity of scripture to take Israel and Judah in Isaiah 11 and Moab, Edom, and Philistia to mean something other than the historical nations who were mostly no longer around by the time of Isaiah?

Not sure how you're using the term "spiritual Israel" (Israel that believes in Messiah or The Church which is, according to some, the true Israel; if the former, well, even the text is outright saying that. If the latter, then I think you get into major problems) but I don't think that it’s even necessary to leave the context of Isaiah 11, jump to Paul, and then figure out what Isaiah is saying. It doesn’t say “Nation of Israel” and “Nation of Ephraim”. It definitely makes the proclamation that those nations don’t exist and the children of said nations are scattered to “the four corners of the world”. It also doesn’t necessitate them knowing if they’re Ephraim or not—it just necessitates the Lord knowing (v12)

The text doesn’t even say “the Nation of Phillistia” —it refers to the slopes of Philistia. That wouldn’t be a question of being the literal nation or not—it would be a question on the literary use of “slopes of Philistia”. When Bilbo and the Dwarves looked down the Lonely Mountain at the slopes of Dale, we the reader know that the Kingdom of Dale isn’t existent—we know that’s where the Kingdom was. It is literary shorthand for the area.

So does it overturn the perspicuity of scripture to take Israel and Judah (and Edom, Moab, and Phillistia) in some other way than as it stands in Isaiah 11 (ie: by making it mean something else). Yeah, that I think it does. But you’re offering a complex question which seems to me to assume a lot about the passage (and about what Dispensationalists have to conclude!).

But maybe if you embroider on your (B) by explaining how it works with Isaiah 11?

I was just thinking the Israel and Judah of Isaiah 11 symbolizes the unity of God's people as a whole, which Paul describes in terms of believing Gentiles being grafted into the believing Israel (with unbelieving Israel being cut off except for those who repent at the end). The defeat of Edom, Moab, and Philistia would then refer to the defeat of all who oppose God in Revelation 19, symbolized by the enemies of the nation Israel as categories Isaiah's audience would have grasped.

Does the perspicuity of scripture allow for what the apostles say about how even the prophets couldn't foresee what God had in store for them despite talking about it? I do think we have to allow for the claim that those in Jesus' own time who couldn't see him as Messiah were responsible for their mistake, but we also need to account for the statements by Peter and others that the prophets themselves didn't see all the implications of what God inspired them to say, and that might include not knowing that the pictures they were presenting were sometimes not meant about literal nations they seemed to be describing but about a spiritual reality that was more real than those literal nations were.

Yeah, the perspicuity of Scripture allows for that but I don't think in the sense you're making it (even though there is a crazy amount of Church history that says exactly in the sense you're saying). This is another reason why I think that's where Bock and the Progressives understanding is important but I'll get to that.

Classic and Revised D's tend to stick with the Old revealed in the New and the New hidden in the Old so the remnant of ethnic (not national) Israel and Judah gets what is coming to them as tied to Messiah but the stuff revealed in the The Church is something so new that it's Other. That would wind up flattening the clarity of Scripture so that everyone along redemptive history understands what they get and there is no sense that they don't speak better than they knew. I think that has problems.

Non-D's come at it the other way saying that all those folk back then were dealing with shadows while the reality is what is revealed later but then that does exactly what I think to the clarity of Scripture: it occludes it for the people in redemptive history. Hypothetically speaking, what's to stop the same thing from happening to us?

Which cuts to Moses. God spoke to him like a friend, face to face as it were. Did Moses get all the implications of what God was doing? Well, no...but it would be strange if he didn't get any of the implications. When Moses was told to strike the rock he surely didn't stop and think "this is a picture of Christ". But he did go and strike the rock and it offered real benefits for the people and he expected to offer real benefits as they read the recording of God's faithfulness. If he later found out that it was a picture of Christ he might applaud, but he might also note that it underscores God's faithfulness to his people.

Likewise Isaiah. He might go along with "yeah, the people of God as a whole" but that clearly includes the remnant of ethnic Israel and Judah (believing of course, but still that remnant). If he found out it included, in some sense, the Gentiles, it might be a surprise but it would make sense of some of the things he's been recording (the nations also flocking to the branch of Jesse).

Progressive D's say that there was more revelation which is just as clear as the one before even if God expanded the promises outwards as part of that redemptive history. So when Paul and Peter point out that the prophets didn't see all the implications of what they were saying, that doesn't mean that they didn't see at least some of the implications; it just means that they stand in the stream of an unfolding redemptive history.

But with (b) as I had it in mind, Isaiah would still have seen some of the implications of what he was saying, just not enough maybe to satisfy you.

Rey, would you say that prophecies about Elijah referring to John the Baptist violate the perspicuity of scripture?

Depends on what someone does with those prophecies.

God announced that John would come in the power of Elijah and yet John says He's not Elijah (or the Prophet)--likely reflecting the same understanding as the Jewish Leaders based on the text. The understanding which the Lord affirms, including the tense. He even does something that the Malachi passage doesn't account for, affirming a counterfactual: that John would have been Elijah if the people would have had him.

So he's expanding, he's pointing out hypotheticals but he does so by affirming the clear understanding they already held. As the incarnate God, He has the prerogative and authority to tell us those other details.

If I were to boil it down to a principle: Occlusion occurs when we add a layer to the text that the text never explicates. One might be able to find reasons for doing it, but one isn't justified in doing it. Perspicuity is violated.

So going back to my opening post, the concern is not (I don't think ever) the amount of literal prophecies one can maximize; it's faithfulness to what God decides to say (and record).

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