Biblical Future Prophecy –Part 2: How Interpretive Frameworks Affect Our Understanding of Future Prophecy

[This is the second in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from the author’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]

Scripture in general, and future prophecy in particular, is never interpreted in a vacuum. We all come to the study of future prophecy with prior theological constructs. These constructs should reflect the truth of God’s word. In the study of future prophecy one of the predisposing theological constructs that will greatly affect our understanding of prophecy is our view of Israel and the Church. The reason is that one of the most important questions to be addressed in the interpretation of any prophecy is this: To whom was the prophecy addressed, and consequently, to whom does it apply? In other words, we need to know whether or not the prophecies that were made to Abraham, David, and Israel are directly applicable to the Church. As we will see, the nature of Israel and the Church, and their relationship to one another is perhaps the single most important issue to be resolved as far as the interpretation of future prophecy is concerned.

Dispensationalism and covenant theology, the two major interpretive frames of reference, each have very different views of the Church. These views lead to entirely different interpretations of future prophecy. Understanding these systems and their theological implications is fundamentally important if we are to understand why interpreters disagree over the meaning of future prophecy.

The Historical Development of Millennial Views

The early church was premillennial. That is to say, they believed that Christ would come and personally establish his kingdom on earth. That being the case, they believed his coming would be pre-millennial (i.e., before the millennium). This belief was simply the result of taking scripture at face value, according to the normal understanding of language, since numerous passages clearly picture the second coming as occurring immediately prior to the beginning of the millennial kingdom (cf. Isa. 35:4-10; Zech. 2:10-11; 14:1-11; Matt. 24:29-25:46, esp. 25:31-34; Rev. 19:11-20:6).

It was not until the third century that the method known as “spiritualization,” the seeking of a higher, more sublime (and nonliteral) meaning of scripture became popular. We first encounter this formally with Origen (A.D. 185-254). For Origen the spiritual sense of a passage represented its highest meaning. Unfortunately, Origen’s method of interpretation resulted in nothing more than a highly subjective assessment of the meaning of scripture, usually viewing it as an allegory to be unraveled. This jeopardized even the most fundamental teachings of the Bible, all of which rest upon the normal/objective sense of the text. Origen himself held many unorthodox views, including universalism (the view that everyone will be saved and spared from eternal damnation). His system of interpretation is hardly worthy of emulation, yet many have followed in Origen’s footsteps, ultimately to be led away from the truth into the morass of subjective interpretation.

The second through the fifth centuries saw an increasing rejection of premillennialism. There were many reasons for this. In the eastern churches, Greek philosophy, Mysticism, and Gnosticism all had an impact on biblical interpretation. For a brief period some eastern churches even removed the book of Revelation from their canon in an effort to eliminate premillennialism. Meanwhile, in the western churches premillennialism remained the dominate position well into the fifth century. In the West the decline of premillennialism can be traced to the influence of Augustine (A.D. 354-430). Augustine lived through a transitional period in church history. Previously Rome had persecuted the church, but by Augustine’s time it had developed a patron relationship. It must have seemed to Augustine that the church was being manifested as the kingdom of God on earth, though in a spiritual (mystical) sense. Such a view was propelled along by the influence of Neo-Platonism, which viewed the physical world as an inferior realm, and realized eschatology, which was promoted largely by Gnostics and other Christian sects. Also, there was a need for a view of the kingdom that did not exacerbate existing anti-Christian sentiment among the Romans. In Augustine’s day Rome’s decline was being attributed by many to its rejection of the traditional Roman gods and the state’s adoption of Christianity. Of course, this was a two-way street, for no doubt Christians also wondered why Rome, having adopted Christianity, had fallen into such a state of decline. Augustine’s work, City of God, addressed these issues. Premillennialism could only have added fuel to this fire, since premillennialism views the Gentile nations as being subjugated to the rule of a Jewish Messiah reigning from a restored and ascendant Israel—a nation the Romans had destroyed because of its rebellion against the Empire. Augustine’s adoption of amillennialism probably saved the church’s relationship with Rome, but at the high cost of biblical truth.

Since Augustine’s belief could not be derived from a normal/objective, grammatical and historical interpretation of scripture, it was necessary for him to develop a system of interpretation that would support his theological ideas concerning the spiritual nature of the kingdom. Thus, Augustine developed what today is referred to as the dual interpretive system (or, “dual hermeneutic”), wherein most of the Bible, except future prophecy, is to be understood normally/objectively, but future prophecy is to be understood allegorically so as to conform to a mystical view of the messianic kingdom. Essentially, Augustine applied Origen’s system of spiritualization in a highly selective manner, in order to ensure biblical integration for his view of the kingdom. The Gnostics of the second through the fourth centuries also made use of allegorization in general biblical interpretation, and Augustine was heavily influenced by Gnosticism. Augustine’s view of the kingdom resulted in the elevation of the status of the church and soon became the dominant view. Today, this view of the kingdom is referred to as “amillennialism,” or “realized eschatology.” [The term amillennialism is of fairly recent origin. Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century there was simply premillennialism and postmillennialism, with postmillennialism split into two groups: those who in the spirit of Augustinian interpretation spiritualized the kingdom as a present (realized) kingdom, and those that looked for a more literal golden age to come. The former are now referred to as “amillennialists,” and the latter as “postmillennialists”—though with respect to the second coming of Christ, both views are postmillennial.]

At the time of the reformation the amillennialism of the Roman Catholic Church, with some modifications, was simply carried over into the reformed churches. However, the intellectual and scientific revolution that followed opened the door to question Augustine’s view. This not only afforded the opportunity for the re-emergence of premillennialism (Joseph Mede, 1586-1638, seems to be the first post-reformation scholar to embrace premillennialism), but also an opportunity for the emergence of what today is referred to as “postmillennialism.”

Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) is generally credited with the development of modern postmillennialism—the belief that there will be a progressing theocratic kingdom on earth that will be brought about not by the personal presence of Christ, but through the agency of the church. Postmillennialism quickly took two distinct forms. One form held by theological conservatives maintained that the spread of the gospel would bring about a golden age on the earth to be culminated at the personal appearing of Christ at the end of the age. The other form, held by theological liberals who did not accept the inspiration of the Bible, took the position that the kingdom of God would be brought about on earth through the combined efforts of Christian morality, science and technology, and education. Since liberal theologians did not accept the deity of Christ or the reality of his resurrection, they did not expect the millennium to be followed by the personal return of Christ. Postmillennial thinking was very widely accepted in different forms in both conservative and liberal circles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and even into the early twentieth century. However, the events of two world wars dealt a blow to the optimism of postmillennialism as it became apparent that man could also employ his scientific and technological achievements to serve his own fallen nature. Before the conclusion of the Second World War, postmillennialism was effectively dead. After the collapse of postmillennialism most postmillennial institutions (churches, seminaries, and other societies) were simply reabsorbed back into amillennialism from whence modern postmillennialism originated.

There were many similarities between classic postmillennialism and amillennialism. In their more conservative forms both held that the return of Christ would not occur until the end of the millennium. Both views also held to a general resurrection at the end of the age, and both views allegorized the tribulation prophecies. In short, both views employed essentially the same method of biblical interpretation (selective non-normal/non-literal interpretation of future prophecy). Seen in this light, it is not surprising that modern postmillennialism sprang from amillennialism only to be reabsorbed when its theological conclusions failed the test of reality. Since the 1970s a new form of postmillennialism has emerged called “theonomic postmillennialism.” The term “theonomy” is derived from the Greek words theos (”God”) and nomos (”law”). Theonomic postmillennialism (also referred to as “reconstructionism”) is the belief that the millennium will be brought about by world evangelism and the establishment of biblical law (principally the Mosaic Law) as the absolute standard of conduct, both personal and civil; thus making obedience to the Old Testament Law both a religious and a civil obligation. Such a view leads to a highly legalistic view of Christianity.

Meanwhile, the revival of premillennialism was slow. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the major church movements and their schools were dominated either by amillennial or postmillennial interpretation. Nevertheless, premillennial teachings were popularized by the Plymouth Brethren in England, especially J.N. Darby, and through the ministries of influential revivalists in America. The latter part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century in America saw the establishment of numerous premillennial Bible institutes, colleges, and seminaries, as well as a number of premillennial mission boards and other Christian societies. Today, while amillennialism is by far the dominant view, premillennialism is again a major view among theological conservatives.

Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology as Views of Redemptive History

Premillennialism and amillennialism represent not only different conceptions of the kingdom, they also rest upon entirely different views of redemptive history. Today, there are essentially two views of redemptive history among biblical conservatives: covenant theology, and dispensationalism. Both views are relatively new, having their origins in the reformation and post-reformation period. In the middle ages there was little need for a defense of amillennialism; the church simply declared it to be so, and as they say, “that was that.” However, in the post-reformation era, even before the re-emergence of premillennialism, it became clear that amillennialism rested upon a poorly supported foundation. Previously, the dual interpretive system employed by Augustine provided no real justification for its highly selective use of allegorical interpretation. The bias of such interpretation was obvious and would not do in the post-reformation era. Thus, amillennialism gave birth to covenant theology, essentially a view of redemptive history that allows the kingdom promises made to Israel to be applied directly to the Church, thus affording justification for the selective use of allegorical (i.e., spiritualized) interpretation.

Covenant Theology and its View of Redemptive History

The central tenet of covenant theology is that all redemptive history from the fall of man forward is the outworking of a singular covenant, referred to as “the covenant of grace.” While covenant theologians do not agree on the precise nature of this covenant, since it is not explicitly referred to in the Bible, it is generally conceived as a covenant between God and elect sinners, promising redemption upon the exercise of true faith in God. Covenantalists refer to three covenants: 1) the covenant of redemption, made between the members of the Godhead in eternity past, in which the redemptive roles of the members of the Godhead were established; 2) the covenant of works, made between God and Adam in which God promised Adam eternal life, if he would obey him; and, 3) the covenant of grace made between God and elect sinners after the fall, promising life upon the exercise of genuine faith in God. This being the case, covenant theology associates redemptive history from the fall of man forward under one covenant—the covenant of grace. According to this conception of redemptive history the distinctive dealings of God with specific individuals and groups is characteristically blurred, or simply ignored. The result is a view of history in which all the redeemed share equally in all of the divine promises, since all are redeemed under the same covenant and therefore, according to covenantal reasoning, comprise the same entity, whether it happens to be called “Israel” (in the Old Testament) or “the Church” (in the New Testament). Thus according to covenantalism, the kingdom promises made to Abraham and to his descendants, Israel, can be applied to the Church. Of course it would be impractical for the physical and geopolitical promises to be literally fulfilled to the Church, and therefore according to covenantal reasoning, these must be understood as representing spiritual blessings to the Church.

Dispensationalism and its View of Redemptive History

In the post-reformation era another view of redemptive history arose called “dispensationalism.” A dispensation is a distinct era in which a unique set of operative principles is in place governing human life and man’s stewardship before God. The manifestation of dispensational characteristics in redemptive history was recognized very early; the New Testament writers themselves were well aware of dispensational distinctives. On three occasions Paul made specific reference to particular dispensations (Gr. oikonomia = “economy,” cf. Eph. 1:10, 3:9, and  Tim. 1:4). The concept, however, is not limited to a particular vocabulary, and was expressed in various forms in many New Testament passages (e.g., Gal. 3:19; 4:1-5; Heb. 3:1-6; 7:11-25; 8:6-7; 9:15-28; 10:1-18; Rev. 20:4; 21:1-22:5). It is important to point out that while each dispensation involves changes in man’s responsibilities before God, this does not mean that dispensationalists believe there has been more than one way of salvation. No matter what the dispensation, salvation is only by grace through faith since there is no other way for men to be saved.

What distinguished this emerging dispensationalism was a commitment to interpret the Bible normally/objectively (i.e., exegetically), in the light of its dispensational context; this was something that covenantalists had not done consistently. One fundamental difference between covenantalism and dispensationalism is that dispensationalism recognizes that normal/objective interpretation leads to the conclusion that Israel and the Church are distinct; and therefore promises made to Israel must be fulfilled to Israel, not the Church. Dispensationalists contend that the Bible can only be properly understood when it is understood in its grammatical, historical, and dispensational context; and the covenantal conception of an overarching covenant of grace, if acknowledged at all, should not obscure the dispensational context of a passage. When scripture is interpreted normally/objectively in its dispensational context, without the imposition of covenantal assumptions, the result is inevitably a premillennial conception of the future.

Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology as Systems of Interpretation

Because dispensationalism and covenant theology are ways of looking at redemptive history (past, present, and future), each view naturally has a profound influence on how prophecy will be interpreted. The effects of applying either frame of reference will influence almost every area of one’s theology. Nowhere is this influence more noticeable than in the study of future prophecy. The point of controversy between these two frames of reference is not, as might be supposed, the validity of the covenant of grace. Rather, the disagreement involves the covenantalists’ use of the covenantal construct to equate Israel with the Church. Even if Israel and the Church are saved under the same covenant (they are; but the covenant is the New Covenant, cf. Jer. 31:31-37), there is no necessity to view them as the same entity. Viewing the Church as an extension of, or replacement for Israel confuses two prophetic programs that scripture clearly presents as distinct (Rom. 11:1-36).

Covenant Theology as a System of Interpretation  

If, as covenantalists believe, the Church is an extension of or replacement for Israel, the interpretive implications would be almost endless, but the final result would be that there could be no real distinction between God’s revelation to and plan for Israel and that of the Church. Obviously, such a view has far-reaching implications. Covenantalists recognize the problems of a literal fulfillment of Israel’s promises to the Church. The solution is to selectively allegorize any prophecies that present difficulties—which turns out to be nearly all of them. Nevertheless, what covenant theology has not been able to satisfactorily defend is its manifestly a priori approach in applying a dual hermeneutic, that is, the selective, rather than consistent use of allegorical interpretation. How does the covenantal interpreter know when to switch from a normal/objective hermeneutic, used in interpreting most scripture, to an allegorical method, used mainly with future prophecy? The answer is simple: The interpretation is not determined by the statements of scripture, but by covenantal assumptions. Unfortunately, this practice reveals that the covenantal interpreter is not really interpreting at all; insofar as he or she chooses to engage in this practice, they are merely conforming scriptural statements to their own preconceived theology. Allegorical interpretation is an inherently eisegetical process, in which meaning is read into a passage rather than derived from the passage; this can be seen from the fact that there are no rules governing the process of allegorical interpretation, nor can there be since the meaning originates in the subjective impression of the interpreter rather than from the objective statements of the text. While this appears to have a veneer of biblical facts and observations from which to work, the core process is essentially subjective.

Dispensationalism as a System of Interpretation

In contrast to covenant theology, which is based primarily on the construct of the covenant of grace, dispensationalism does not impose an artificial grid upon the interpretive process. Instead, it recognizes the natural landscape of theological history as recorded in scripture, and interprets accordingly. Dispensationalism maintains that instead of pre-concluding the nature of the kingdom and then tailoring the interpretive process to support that pre-conclusion, one should simply interpret scriptural statements in light of their clearly intended meaning, according to the normal rules of grammatical and historical interpretation. In other words, dispensationalists maintain that the meaning of a text should be determined by the text and its context, not the theological pre-conclusions of the interpreter. If this point is sustained, it becomes apparent that the interpreter cannot arbitrarily manipulate interpretation whenever needed to support his theological assumptions. The interpreter must, at the very least, apply his interpretive principles consistently; failure to do so is an indication of theologically biased interpretation.

Dispensationalists reject the notion that simply because people are saved under the same covenant that automatically makes the promises made to one person or group applicable to all people or groups under the same covenant. If specific promises made to individual believers cannot be applied to others (e.g., that Abram would become the father of many nations, or that Hezekiah would live another fifteen years), it does not seem logical that promises made to Israel should be applied to the Church, particularly in view of the fact that the New Testament makes a clear distinction between the two (Rom. 11:1-36). Again, dispensationalists maintain that the meaning of a passage must be derived from the text according to the only rules of communication suitable—the customary usage of language, understood in its historical and dispensational context. When this is done, premillennialism is the clear and natural conclusion.

Covenant Premillennialism

Since covenant theology was developed largely as an explanation of, and interpretive framework for amillennialism, it is strange that a premillennial form of covenant theology would emerge. Covenant premillennialists hold to the same basic assumptions about the nature of the Church as do amillennialists—that is, that all believers throughout history are part of the Church. However, when it comes to applying to the Church the millennial promises made to Israel, covenant premillennialists object to the degree of allegorization found in amillennialism, and take a more moderate position, holding to covenant theology’s view of the Church, but dispensationalism’s view of the millennium. As will be discussed later, such a position leads to what is referred to as “premillennial posttribulationism,” or just “posttribulationism”—the belief that the rapture of the Church will occur at the second coming. While meditate positions tend to be attractive, in that they appear to avoid extremes, they are sometimes the product of internal inconsistencies. If covenant theology’s assumption that Israel and the Church are the same entity is accepted as true, which covenant premillennialists do accept, the natural conclusion should be that the millennial promises will not be fulfilled to Israel, but to the Church (spiritually), leading to amillennialism. Yet, premillennialism is based upon those promises being fulfilled to Israel, as distinct from the Church. Thus, premillennialism is not compatible with covenant theology’s view of Israel and the Church. Consequently, covenant premillennialism is a theological paradox.

Progressive Dispensationalism

Progressive dispensationalism is a movement among some dispensationalists to bridge the gap with covenant premillennialism. The basic tenets of progressive dispensationalism are that there is one people of God, and that the kingdom rule of Christ has already been inaugurated. Progressive dispensationalists see the Church as a co-inheritor with Israel of the Old Testament promises, rather than a parenthetical entity as in classic dispensationalism. This is accomplished through the progressive subsuming of one dispensation into the next. This then becomes a mechanism for folding, or graduating the people of God under the Old Testament into the Church. The difficulty is that this simply does not represent a biblical picture of Israel, or the Church, or the kingdom of God; and such a view requires significant reinterpretation of scripture. While progressive dispensationalists insist they continue to accept the basic tenets of dispensationalism, the fact is, they do not, since the hallmark of classic dispensationalism is the recognition of the distinctness of both Israel and the Church. Neither Paul’s teaching concerning the relationship between Israel and the Church (Rom. 11:1-36) nor the prophetic plan revealed for Israel’s future in both the Old and New Testaments (cf. Zech. 14:1-21; Matt. 24-25; Rev. 19:11-20:4) fit with the scheme proposed by progressive dispensationalists. Additionally, the idea that Christ’s kingdom has already been inaugurated and that he is now ruling over that kingdom is explicitly contradicted by Christ’s own teaching in Matthew 25:31.

Why the Bible Should be Interpreted Normally

Of the two major interpretive systems found in conservative Christianity, only dispensationalism subscribes to a consistently normal/objective interpretation of scripture. At its best, dispensationalism represents a truly exegetical method of interpretation.

By normal/objective interpretation dispensationalists do not mean that one should ignore figures of speech or literary devices such as symbols. Normal interpretation requires that these forms of expression be understood according to the prevailing usage in the culture and at the time they were recorded. Thus, the key to interpreting symbols is to ask the question, “How would they have been understood by the writer’s contemporary audience?”    

A consistently normal/objective method of interpretation is superior for at least two reasons. First, it is the only method by which exegesis (deriving meaning out of the text) is possible. If we accept as fact that the Bible is God’s communication to man and that God intends for man to understand that communication, we can only conceive of God as using human language in a conventional manner. The reason is that this is the only way man could ever discern the intended meaning, because the rules of language apply only when language is being used in its normal, conventional sense. (Languages are, in their most basic sense, conventions for communications.) Second, scripture in general, and prophecy in particular, makes sense when interpreted normally/objectively. It is worth observing that prophecy that has been fulfilled has been fulfilled in a manner consistent with normal/objective interpretation.

The application of a dual (normal/allegorical) system of interpretation results in inconsistencies. For example, it results in the first sixty-nine weeks of Daniel’s seventy-weeks prophecy (Dan. 9:24-27) being interpreted literally, but the last, or seventieth week, being taken figuratively (unless, of course, the entire prophecy is allegorized, which is what covenantalists tend to do). Or, in the case of Christ’s advent, it requires a literal interpretation of the first advent and a non-literal interpretation of the events associated with the second coming, even though they may be contained within the same passage (cf. Isa. 61:1-3). Once the decision is made to depart from a consistently normal/objective method, interpretation becomes merely the opinion of the interpreter. In reality allegorization doesn’t derive meaning from the text; it simply uses the text as a medium through which to project the interpreter’s own preconceived theology.

In summary, there are at least three key advantages to the normal/objective method of interpretation: 1) The normal/objective method anchors interpretation in fact, rather than subjective opinion. 2) The normal/objective method promotes restraint in the interpretive process, since interpretation cannot go beyond the objective statements of scripture. 3) The normal/objective method is the cornerstone of most orthodox theology; its abandonment in other areas of theology can lead, and has led, to apostasy, and its abandonment in the area of future prophecy is often the first step in that direction.

To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.

(Adapted in 2017 from What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged], illustrated. Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.)

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