Principles of Biblical Interpretation of Prophecy
There are many excellent books on the topic of Bible interpretation. In fact, this subject is so broad that it has its own technical name: Hermeneutics. The word hermeneutics comes from the Greek hermeneo, which means ‘to translate’ or ‘ to interpret.’ For a general purpose book about principles of Bible interpretation we recommend “Living by the Book” by Howard Hendricks.
Interpretation of Bible prophecy takes special care, and there are books written just about prophecy hermeneutics. But, for the sake of simplicity, we submit this list of rules for your consideration. Please feel free to comment on these guidelines and suggest additions or modifications.
1 – Understand that all true Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable to every believer.
Since a large part of the Bible is prophecy, that portion of God’s Word should not be ignored or minimized. The literal fulfillment of prophecies about the first coming of Jesus Christ are the greatest proof that the Bible is inspired, and sets the standard for a literal interpretation of End Times events.
No portion of Scripture should be set aside as unimportant or irrelevant. All Scripture is worthy of sincere study and application.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
2 – Understand progressive revelation.
Part of God’s plan for the human race was introduced in Genesis, but later Scripture added additional information and understand culminating with the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament. Later inspiration often added to previously revealed knowledge, but never negated what was already given.
Though God does guide us as individuals in various ways, any true revelation of that sort will never conflict with or supersede the written and generally accepted canon of the 66 books of the Bible.
Hebrews 1:1-2; Ephesians 3:1-11
3 – Understand the language and culture of the time of the writing.
The original biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) are full of ancient root meanings, idioms, and grammatical nuances that require intense study, and for most of us, dependence on reliable scholarship.
Cultural factors must be considered in order to grasp the impact and meaning of any portion of Scripture. In other words, how would the people of that time understand the plain meaning of the event, story, or teaching?
1 Corinthians 8 – Eating meat offered to idols
4 – Understand the necessity of studying any Bible portion in the context of the passage in which it is found, and by comparing it with other passages of Scripture before trying to determine the truth about the matter.
Let the Bible interpret itself wherever possible. Otherwise, as has often been said, “The Bible can be used to prove anything.”
2 Timothy 2:15
5 – Understand that every passage of Scripture has a literal meaning, though it may also use symbolic language and have additional applications.
The Bible contains much symbolism, including figurative language, similes, metaphors, parables, dreams and visions of beasts and other objects. But when any symbol is properly interpreted, often by another passage of Scripture, it has one literal meaning. This concept is also called the grammatical-historical method of interpretation.
Revelation 12:3; 13:1 with Revelation 17: 9-14
6 – Understand the value of prayerful study, brotherhood and discussion in applying the Scripture to current times.
Jesus taught that when the Holy Spirit came He would give enlightenment to the Disciples. Even the best of teachers can be mistaken, but as it says in Proverbs 11:14, “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” (NKJV)
7 – Understand that it is unwise to be dogmatic about one’s own point of view in regard to future developments.
As seen in the Gospels, some facts about the life and work of Jesus Christ could have been described in advance by knowledge of Old Testament prophecies, but others could only be seen in retrospect.
The Bible requires belief in the eventual return of Christ in power and glory, but the timing of various events (including the Rapture) should not be a test of fellowship among orthodox Christians.
8 – Understand the differences between Israel and the Church.
The Bible can not be understood if one does not see the many distinctions between Israel and the Church.
9 – Understand the cultural influence of later historical periods in the interpretation of Scripture.
Commentators differ widely in their interpretation of prophecy, depending, in part, on their place in history. Their views were influenced by world affairs of their time and are often contradictory. They must constantly be held up to the higher standard of the Word of God itself. Here are some examples of these historical periods.
The strengths and weaknesses of various periods of Church history are given in short messages to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2 & 3.
The Early Church – First Century believers lived constantly in anticipation of the return of Christ. The concept of the Mystery of the Church Age was revealed and understood gradually, including the end-point of this age, the Rapture.
Middle Ages – Historicism was the predominant explanation: that prophecy has been fulfilled in various events that have taken place throughout history. This included the rise and fall of empires such as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome.
Historicism – The traditional view was amended by persecuted Protestants to view the Roman Catholic Church and its Pope as the fulfillment of End Times prophecy and especially of the antichrist predictions..
Preterism – This was a defense by Catholic Church against the Historicist view. This perspective claimed that most or all End Times prophecies were fulfilled in the First Century BC. Preterism was later adopted by some Protestants.
Covenant Theology (Calvinistic) – This viewpoint considers all of history as the development of three overarching theological covenants — the covenants of redemption, of works, and of grace. In their system, the covenants include the return of Christ, resurrection of the dead, and the Great White Throne Judgment, but no literal 1000 year Millennium.
Dispensationalism – This is a method of categorizing God’s dealings with humans in various ways during several different periods of time. It was developed in the nineteenth century and adopted by many evangelical teachers. This viewpoint considers the present time as the “Church Age,” with the Millennium and the Eternal State yet to come.
Current Tension – Influenced greatly by the writings of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and others, a large percentage of evangelical Christians expect a literal Rapture of the Church and generally agree that we are in the last generation before Christ’s return. For many others, there is a tendency to ignore prophecy because it is difficult, controversial, or because some leaders feel that it takes the focus away from missionary and humanitarian endeavors.
Each of these periods produced differing eschatological points of view. Caution is needed not to elevate any of these human perspectives to equality with direct Bible teaching.
We will continue addressing the subject of “Systematic Prophecy” in our next two blogs –
Teaching with Humility and