The Bible must be interpreted literally, which is the way language is normally and naturally understood. We recognize that the Bible writers frequently used figurative language which is a normal and picturesque way of portraying literal truth. The Bible must be understood in the light of the normal use of language, the usage of words, the historical and cultural background, the context of the passage and the overall teaching of the Bible (2 Timothy 2:15). Most importantly, the believer must study the Bible in full dependence upon the SPIRIT OF TRUTH whose ministry is to reveal Christ and illumine the minds and hearts of believers (John 5:39; 16:13-15; 1 Cor. 2:9-16). The natural, unregenerate man cannot understand or interpret correctly the Word of God. The things of God are foolishness to him; he cannot know them (1 Cor. 2:14). His mind is blinded (Rom. 3:11; 2 Cor. 4:3-4).
God means what He says and says what He means. God has not given us His Word to deceive us or to trick us. He expects us to receive what He has said in simple childlike faith. We are simply to take Him at His Word.
Reformed Theology has abandoned literal interpretation in three key areas:
- The Prophecies of the Kingdom
One cannot read the great prophecies of the Bible found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and in all the other prophets without coming face to face with amazing detailed descriptions of a future kingdom age when the Messiah will be ruling in Jerusalem. How can we ignore such prophecies? How can we proudly declare that these predictions will never be literally fulfilled? Were the prophets mistaken? Were their predictions somehow nullified? Why do Reformed men refuse to understand these kingdom prophecies in their normal, literal sense?
- The Prophecies of the Great Tribulation and the Second ComingMany Reformed men today have joined the preterist camp. They believe that most or all prophecy has already been fulfilled in the past, especially in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. They claim that these great prophecies about the great tribulation and the second coming of our Lord are not FUTURE, but are already FULFILLED. They claim these major prophetic events have already happened! What about the Great Tribulation? They say it has already taken place, in 70 A.D. What about the Lord’s second coming? They say it has already taken place, in 70 A.D.
This approach is the result of a non-literal interpretation of prophecy. The Bible has many things to say about when our Lord will come in His kingdom. Consider the following and notice how they completely contradict the notion that Christ came in His kingdom in 70 A.D.:
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, He will return to earth and be seen by every eye (Matthew 24:25-30 and Revelation 1:7).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. In 70 A.D. Christ was not seen by anyone.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, the Jewish people will be regathered from every country on earth and brought into their promised land (Matthew 24:31; Jeremiah 16:14-15; Isaiah 43:5-7; Jeremiah 23:7-8; Jeremiah 31:7-10; Ezekiel 11:14-18; Ezekiel 36:24).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. Instead of being regathered, the Jews were killed and scattered.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, there will be no wars on earth (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3; Psalm 46:9; Zech. 9:10).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. 70 A.D. was a time of fierce warfare carried out by the powerful Roman army.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, the kingdom will be restored to Israel (Acts 1:6) and the Messiah will sit on the throne of David which will be located in Jerusalem (Isaiah 9:7; Jeremiah 17:25; 23:5-6; 33:15; Hosea 3:4-5; Amos 9:11-15; Luke 1:32-33).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple destroyed and no King from the line of David was reigning on the throne!
- When Christ comes in His kingdom it will be a time of great deliverance and great blessing for the Jewish people (Jeremiah 30:7-9; Ezekiel 34:25-31).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. which was a time of great judgment upon the Jewish people who decades earlier had crucified their Messiah and rejected Him (although some Jews did believe on Him).
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, God’s sanctuary (His temple) will be in the midst of His people (Ezekiel 37:26-28; Ezekiel 40:5-43:27).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. because it was then that the Jewish temple was destroyed resulting in the Jews having no temple at all.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, there will be a priesthood operating in the temple and animal sacrifices will be offered (Ezekiel 44:1-46:24).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. because when the Romans destroyed the temple they put an end to a functioning priesthood and they put an end to animal sacrifices.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, “the Jews will possess and settle in all of the promised land, and it will again be subdivided into the twelve tribal divisions. But these tribal divisions will be different than those described in the book of Joshua” (Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Footprints of the Messiah, p. 328). The description of the location of all of the 12 tribes during the kingdom is described in Ezekiel 47:13-48:29. Seven tribes will be situated to the north of the temple (Ezekiel 48:1-7) and five tribes will be situated to the south of the temple (Ezekiel 48:23-29).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem the surviving Jews were scattered throughout the world until the 20th century when a small remnant returned to the land of Israel and a Jewish state was established.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom, there will be a message of good news that will be declared to Jerusalem (Isaiah 52:7-10). This message will consist of the following elements: 1) The good news of peace; 2) The good news that Messiah will reign in Zion; 3) The good news that God has comforted His people; 4) The good news that God has redeemed Jerusalem.
This did not take place in 70 A.D. In 70 A.D. there was only bad news for the Jewish people. It was the bad news of judgment and destruction and ruin and death, not the good news of comfort and peace.
- When Christ comes in His kingdom there will be joy and gladness (Isaiah chapter 35). This joy and gladness will result from the following conditions: 1) the desert will become fertile (verses1-2,6-7); 2) Messiah will come to deliver Israel (v.3-4); 3) Those who are lame or blind or deaf will be healed (v.5-6); 4) Wild vicious animals will no longer be a problem (v.9); 5) It will be a time of great rejoicing (v.10).
This did not take place in 70 A.D. In 70 A.D. the Jews who were fortunate enough to survive the Roman invasion did not have joy and gladness, but only sorrow and sighing (compare Isaiah 35:10).
- The Passages Which Speak of the Extent of Our Lord’s Atonement
Another example of Reformed men abandoning literal interpretation is their theological interpretation when it comes to the question, FOR WHOM DID CHRIST DIE?
Reformed men would agree that universal terms are used to describe those for whom Christ died. How should these universal terms be understood? Those who hold to a limited atonement tell us that “world” (John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19; John 6:51) does not really mean “world” and that “the whole world” (1 John 2:2) does not really mean “the whole world.” Furthermore they insist that “all” (1 Tim. 2:6) does not really men “all,” that “all men” (1 Tim. 2:4) does not really mean “all men,” that “every man” (Heb. 2:9) does not really mean “every man,” and that “us all” (Isa. 53:6) does not really mean “us all.”
Sir Robert Anderson has written the following:
In the early years of my Christian life I was greatly perplexed and distressed by the supposition that the plain and simple words of such Scriptures as John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:6 were not true, save in a cryptic sense understood only by the initiated. For, I was told, the over-shadowing truth of Divine sovereignty in election barred our taking them literally. But half a century ago a friend of those days—the late Dr. Horatius Bonar—delivered me from this strangely prevalent error. He taught me that truths may seem to us irreconcilable only because our finite minds cannot understand the Infinite; and we must never allow our faulty apprehension of the eternal counsels of God to hinder unquestioning faith in the words of Holy Scripture.20
Dispensationalists have endeavored to follow this rule of Biblical interpretation: When the plain sense makes good sense seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense! But others have abandoned a literal approach when it comes to certain areas of Scripture. Limited redemptionists, for example, seem to have followed another rule: When the plain sense contradicts our theological system seek some other sense lest we end up contradicting our particular brand of Calvinism.
Over three hundred years ago Richard Baxter wrote the following:
When God telleth us as plain as can be spoken, that Christ died for and tasted death for every man, men will deny it, and to that end subvert the plain sense of the words, merely because they cannot see how this can stand with Christ’s damning men, and with his special Love to his chosen. It is not hard to see the fair and harmonious consistency: But what if you cannot see how two plain Truths of the Gospel should agree? Will you therefore deny one of them when both are plain? Is not that in high pride to prefer your own understandings before the wisdom of the Spirit of God, who [inspired] the Scriptures? Should not a humble man rather say, doubtless both are true though I cannot reconcile them. So others will deny these plain truths, because they think that [All that Christ died for are certainly Justified and Saved: For whomsoever he died and satisfied Justice for, them he procured Faith to Believe in him: God cannot justly punish those whom Christ hath satisfied for, etc.] But doth the Scripture speak all these or any of these opinions of theirs, as plainly as it saith that Christ died for all and every man? Doth it say, as plainly any where that he died not for all? Doth it any where except any one man, and say Christ died not for him? Doth it say any where that he died only for his Sheep, or his Elect, and exclude the Non-Elect? There is no such word in all the Bible; Should not then the certain truths and the plain texts be the Standard to the uncertain points, and obscure texts?21
Richard Baxter then skillfully applied these principles to the case at hand:
Now I would know of any man, would you believe that Christ died for all men if the Scripture plainly speak it? If you would, do but tell me, what words can you devise or would you wish more plain for it than are there used? Is it not enough that Christ is called the Saviour of the World? You’ll say, but is it of the whole World? Yes, it saith, He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole World. Will you say, but it is not for All men in the World? Yes it saith he died for All men, as well as for all the World. But will you say, it saith not for every man? Yes it doth say, he tasted death for every man. But you may say, It means all the Elect, if it said so of any Non-Elect I would believe. Yes, it speaks of those that denied the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And yet all this seems nothing to men prejudiced.22
I knew of a man who was not committed to the belief that Christ died for all men and yet he made this remarkable concession: “If Christ really did die for all men, then I don’t know how the Bible could say it any clearer than it does.” How true! This same man later embraced the doctrine of unlimited atonement because he could not deny the clear and plain statements of Scripture.
For a much fuller discussion of the importance of a literal interpretation, see the following document: Do I Interpret the Bible Literally? Six Tests To See if I Truly Do[25 cents].