Last night in the eschatology class, we considered two important hermeneutical questions that we must ask prior to studying eschatological passages. We spent the vast majority of our time on one of those questions: Are there two peoples of God or one? (Check the website in the next couple of days for the audio and video.) The other question, which I’d like to address here, is this: will we employ a literal hermeneutic or a genre-sensitive hermeneutic?
Some folks would advocate approaching all Scripture with the same principles of interpretation regardless of the genre. Whether the text is narrative, law, poetry, or prophecy, they would interpret the text literally, unless the context requires a figurative interpretation.
I won’t rehash all that I said regarding genres of biblical literature in the first part of the hermeneutics section, but I will say that approaching the text literally unless the context requires a figurative interpretation is exactly backward when we are studying prophetic/apocalyptic literature. Literal-unless-the-context-requires-otherwise is a great approach for narrative and epistles, but for genres that are characterized by highly figurative language, like poetry and prophecy/apocalyptic, the better approach is figurative-unless-the-context-requires-otherwise.
Remember that this is how the apostles interpreted Old Testament prophecy. Peter in Acts 2 interpreted Joel 2 figuratively. That is, he understood Joel to be referring not to the sun literally turning dark and the moon literally turning to blood, but that these images spoke metaphorically of God powerfully working among men. In our sermon series on Matthew 24 we noted that the OT frequently uses cosmic and cataclysmic language to speak of God bringing about changes in nations, governments, social structures, etc.
Similary, in Luke 3 the Gospel writer interpreted Isaiah 40 figuratively. Isaiah wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Luke did not record these events (valleys being lifted, mountains being lowered, etc) taking place in a literal sense. If they had happened literally, that would certainly warrant inclusion in his Gospel! Rather he recorded John the Baptist preaching the gospel and notes that this preaching fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. Luke understood Isaiah to be speaking metaphorically of the preaching of the gospel humbling the proud and exalting the lowly.
When a modern interpreter interprets other prophetic passages in the same way, those who pride themselves on always interpreting the Scriptures literally will characterize this kind of genre-sensitive interpretation as “spiritualizing” the text, or removing it of its significance. This is an unfair characterization. Understanding figurative language in a figurative sense does not “spiritualize” the text or empty it of meaning. Rather it understands that language in the sense in which the biblical authors intended and in the sense in which the apostles themselves understood it. If the apostles interpreted prophecy this way, certain we can and should do the same!
Why is this an important issue? It’s going to greatly impact how we interpret eschatological texts, like those in Daniel, Revelation, and elsewhere. If we insist on a literal-unless-the-context-demands-otherwise interpretation, we’ll end up with a very different picture than if we interpret these texts in accordance with their respective genres.
As with the question of two peoples of God or one, we may disagree and that is fine. These are not questions that should divide us. We simply need to understand that our answers to these preliminary questions will largely determine our answers to the big questions of eschatology.