On the Interpretation of Prophecy

It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage in a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).

“On objective grounds…”

This is a phrase (“on [purely] objective grounds”) I use rather frequently in the notes and articles posted here. The purpose of the phrase is to indicate when a saying, narrative, or other tradition recorded in Scripture may be considered as authentic on the grounds of critical scholarship, without resort to any doctrine regarding the inspiration or historical reliability of Scripture. Similarly, it is used to judge the greater likelihood of various (critical) theories related to the development of tradition and how the Scriptures (the Gospel narratives, especially) came to be composed. For more traditional-conservative commentators, and for many devout believers in general, the accuracy and authenticity of the Scriptures is self-evident—is assumed or taken for granted—and requires no (objective) critical analysis to confirm the matter. However, even for those who hold, or tend toward, the traditional-conservative position, the observations and insights of critical scholarship can be most beneficial: it is foolhardy (in the worst sense) to ignore or disparage them, and, I should say, unworthy of the believer who wishes to be a serious student of the Scriptures.

The qualifying term “objective” implies verifiable evidence, both internal and external to Scripture, which can be analyzed, agreed upon, and accepted, by all commentators—believer and non-believer alike—apart from what one personally believes or thinks about the Scripture. This is contrasted with (or, one may say, complemented by) interpretation on “subjective” grounds—that is, the personal (whether unique or shared by a wider community) opinion or belief of the commentator. Examples of “objective” evidence include: word usage, the development and particular meaning of a word or phrase, historical parallels to a word or passage, similarities of usage in other writings, signs of historical/literary development in a narrative, and so forth. Complete objectivity may or may not be possible for a scholar or commentator, but it remains a noble goal, and one which ought to be pursued in faith and humility.

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.

“Critical”

For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article Learning the Language, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.

“Traditional-Conservative”

As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).