Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Clark-Van Til Controversy: Traversing the Impasse

Epistemology, the theory of knowledge, is of paramount importance in the study of prolegomena in Systematic Theology. Before we seek to understand and know God, we must ascertain what we can actually know. We would need to understand and define the term “knowledge,” for it would be absolutely meaningless if we claim to have knowledge, but couldn’t state what knowledge is. I would proceed to illustrate the importance of understanding epistemology and knowledge in the study of theology with the well-known debate concerning the ontology of Man’s knowledge of God in the Clark-Van Til conflict.

Gilbert B. Weaver, in his essay Man: Analogue of God, furnishes us with a brief introduction to the controversy:

“When Cornelius Van Til describes man’s knowledge as being in an analogical relationship to the knowledge of God, Gordon Clark charges him with skepticism. In a 1957 Bibliotheca Sacra article Clark aired his side of an ecclesiastical controversy with Van Til and others. … Noting that Van Til signed a statement that man’s knowledge must be “analogical” to the knowledge God possesses, Clark states, “If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy, it follows that he does not have the truth. An analogy of the truth is not the truth; and even if man’s knowledge is not called an analogy of the truth but an analogical truth, the situation is no better. An analogical truth, except it contain a univocal point of coincident meaning, simply is not the truth at all.”[1]

John Frame, Van Til’s disciple, understand Van Tillian analogical reasoning as “Thinking in subjection to God’s revelation and therefore thinking God’s thoughts after him.”[2] So, for Van Til, God is the original Knower; He is the embodiment of true knowledge. Man can have knowledge because God condescended and revealed Himself in the Scriptures (special revelation). According to Van Til, the Scripture is the starting point for Man’s knowledge, and it is from them and from them alone that any true knowledge on any subject (direct or implied) can be gained. This is Van Til’s understanding of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

Van Til understood God’s knowledge of Himself as being uncommunicable to His creatures. It is different from Man’s knowledge of God both qualitatively and quantitatively. In other words, the self-knowledge God has - being an infinite, necessary being – is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the knowledge of God finite, contingent beings have. Man, created in the image of God, is only able to think analogically God’s thoughts after him. Therefore, for Van Til, there is no univocal point between Man’s knowledge of God, and God’s self-knowledge of Himself.

Van Til writes, “For man any new revelational proposition will enrich in meaning any previous given revelational proposition. But even this enrichment does not imply that there is any coincidence, that is, identity of content between what God has in his mind and what man has in his mind….There could and would be an identity of content only if the mind of man were identical with the mind of God.”[3]
He continues, “Christians believe in two levels of existence, the level of God’s existence as self-contained and the level of man’s existence as derived from the level of God’s existence. For this reason, Christians must also believe in two levels of knowledge, the level of God’s knowledge which is absolutely comprehensive and self-contained, and the level of man’s knowledge which is not comprehensive but is derivative and re-interpretative. Hence we say that as Christians we believe that man’s knowledge is analogical of God’s knowledge.”[4]

Van Til places special emphasis upon the Creator-creature ontological distinction, and it is this distinction that permeates his theory of knowledge. It is hereby interesting to note that this Creator-creature distinction is not new in historical Reformed scholasticism. Franciscus Junius (1545-1602) is often credited for his exposition on the archetypal/ectypal distinction in the ontology of knowledge. A likely antecedent is the Scotist distinction between theologia in se (God’s self-knowledge) and theologia nostra (our finite knowledge of God).[5] According to Junius, there are two kinds of knowledge of God. Archetypal knowledge is God’s perfect knowledge of Himself. This knowledge is eternal, uncommunicable and uncreated. It is not comprehensible for the His creatures.

Ectypal knowledge, however, is the knowledge of God as conceived by other contingent beings, for example, human beings. Junius further differentiates ectypal knowledge into theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta and theologia ectypa secundum quid. The first refers to the entire, perfect body of knowledge of God which is communicable to created beings. This knowledge resides in God’s Mind in order to be revealed to us, and it is knowledge accommodated to our capacity to understand. The later refers to the relational form of knowledge graciously revealed to Man by God in the form of union, vision or revelation according to Junius.

Junius makes “a distinction between (1) the internal concept of ectypal theology in the mind of God and (2) the external form in which God communicates this concept to human beings. The internal concept in the mind of God is his divine will and grace; the external form is the body of knowledge that God decided to reveal to mankind. … Furthermore, the concept of ectypal knowledge existing in the mind of God must be distinguished from archetypal theology. Junius calls the former theologia simpliciter dicta which differs from archetypal theology in that the latter is incommunicable, while the former is communicable. When communication of ectypal knowledge takes place then theologia simpliciter dicta becomes theologia secundum quid, i.e., relational theology, for it depends upon God’s accommodation of himself to a form which finite beings are capable of grasping.”[6]

It is important for us to realize that both archetypal knowledge and ectypal knowledge (theologia simpliciter dicta) resides in the Mind of God. This becomes relevant when we discuss further the definition of knowledge as understood by philosophers, and how propositional truth relates to knowledge.

We now recall Gilbert Weaver’s description of the Clark-Van Til controversy in the beginning paragraphs of this article. Weaver, a Van Tillian, have the following to say concerning Clark’s criticism of Van Til, “Clark converts the term “knowledge” of Van Til’s statement into “truth” in his criticism of Van Til. Clark takes for granted a virtual identification of knowledge with true propositions, because he denies the possibility of any knowledge in the realm of sense experience.” This statement is remarkable for it reveals a lack of understanding of how philosophers conceive knowledge, and what knowledge actually entails. When God communicates His knowledge to Man by special revelation (theologia revelationis), He communicates through the Scriptures via propositional truths. Hence, a “virtual identification of knowledge with true propositions” is justified, especially when we are referring to Man’s knowledge of God. The existence (or non-existence) of knowledge beside propositional truths is not relevant to our discussion here, because Scripture is propositional, and the truths Scripture conveys are propositional. The senses are only the means whereby the mind of Man can have any contact with the propositional truths expressed in Scripture, for example, by using the eyes to read the language used to convey truths.

Knowledge Defined

It now becomes pertinent for us to understand what constitutes knowledge. In the perennial debate amongst epistemologists concerning justification and warrant in the definition of knowledge, one salient point stands out. Whether a philosopher defines knowledge as “justified true belief” or “warranted true belief,” knowledge must relate to true propositions. For Man to claim knowledge, his belief must be truthful. Take for example the following simplistic definition of knowledge:
“S knows that p if and only if (i) S accepts that p, (ii) it is true that p, (iii) S is justified in accepting that p, and (iv) S is justified in accepting that p in a way that is not defeated by any false statement (that does not depend on any false statement).”[7]

Lehrer explains, “The first condition of knowledge is that of truth.”[8] Therefore, any definition of knowledge would include the following: If S knows that p, then it is true that p (where p refers to a proposition or propositional truth). Gordon Clark was correct to use the term “truth,” as truth is always referred to when we consider knowledge.

We recall that for Van Til, “God is “infinite,” “eternal,” and “unchangeable” in his being. Because God’s being is such, and because man’s being is finite, temporal, and changeable, in short, because there is the ontological distinction, man can have no univocal knowledge of such a being as God. Nor can man, because of the ontological distinction, know what God knows in the same way as God knows it, whether that knowledge pertains to God Himself or to some created thing.”[9]

But Gordon Clark was adamant that Man’s knowledge must have a univocal point of reference to God’s knowledge of Himself. There were attempts at resolving or reconciling the differences between Van Til’s and Clark’s understanding of epistemology in this aspect. For example, one can say that Man’s knowledge of God (theologia ectypa secundum quid) is analogical to God’s self-knowledge (theologia archetypa), but univocal to the theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta. This proposed solution would not fulfill its intended purpose. Firstly, Van Til does not make a distinction between theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta and theologia ectypa secundum quid. This is because according to Van Til, all that God knows of Himself (i.e. all the true propositions that exist in God’s Mind) can have no univocal point of contact with Man’s knowledge of Him. Both the theologia archetypa and the theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta reside in God’s Mind. And as such, Van Til would consider that all the true propositions which reside in God’s Mind can never be univocal to Man’s knowledge of these propositions. Secondly, ectypal knowledge, by definition, is knowledge of God as conceived by contingent beings. As such, it is qualitatively and quantitatively different from God’s perfect self-knowledge (archetypal knowledge). Therefore, ectypal knowledge can only be analogical to archetypal knowledge. It is philosophically and theologically meaningless to say that theologia ectypa secundum quid is univocal to theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta, as both are by definition ectypal knowledge and analogical to archetypal knowledge. Therefore, if God knows a proposition that P (archetypal), an alleged corresponding proposition P1 (ectypal) cannot be the same as P (archetypal). P and P1 are only analogical or similar, but they are not the same or univocal. Van Til would not accept that Man knows P.

A Proposal for Resolution

So how do we preserve the Creator-creature distinction while allowing Man to have knowledge of God? According to Junius, the theologia ectypa is communicated “by union (unione) to Christ, by vision (visione) to the beatified, and by revelation (revelatione) to the pilgrim or viator. In descending order ectypal theology can be communicated to Jesus Christ, to the spirits in heaven, and to men on earth.”[10] For our purpose, we shall focus on revelatione, specifically, special revelation as this is the source of our knowledge in God on earth.

God reveals Himself in Scripture via the medium of human language. In the philosophy of language, there is a distinction between sentences and propositions. A proposition is the meaning of a sentence.  So, the distinction between a proposition and a sentence is really the distinction between the sentence and its meaning. For example, three different sentences in three different languages can have the same meaning. Alternatively, a simple sentence can have several different meanings depending upon context. We must be careful not to confound sentences in a certain language medium with actual propositions.

With regard to special revelation, God through the Spirit of Truth has communicated to Man with the medium of human languages in Scripture. The sentences of the language used are obviously analogical to the actual propositions in God’s Mind. Language is the medium whereby God reveals Himself to Man via the Scriptures. This language medium convey propositional truths that are univocal to the propositional truths found in God’s Mind. If God’s Mind consists of only all true propositions (as He is omniscient), it follows that no untrue proposition exists inside the Mind of God. And if, according to Van Til, Man’s knowledge of God through the Scriptures is only analogical to God’s knowledge of Himself, and if the propositions in God’s special revelation are only analogical and not identical to the true propositions that exist in God’s Mind, then the propositions conveyed to Man cannot be true. Knowledge for Man is then impossible.

We have discussed that all true propositions and only true propositions exist in the Mind of God since God is omniscient and knows all Truth. We also recall that both archetypal knowledge and ectypal knowledge (theologia ectypa simpliciter dicta) reside in the Mind of God, and these knowledge would consists of true propositions known by God. Since all that God knows is Truth, and there is no falsehood in Him, it follows that both archetypal and ectypal knowledge (which exists in the Mind of God) consists of only truths or true propositions. Man’s knowledge of God (ectypal knowledge) is analogical to God’s self-knowledge in the sense that there is a qualitative difference between God’s archetypal knowledge of Himself and Man’s knowledge of God through the medium of language. The sentences of Scripture, written and transmitted with human language, expresses the true knowledge (true propositions) concerning God for Man, but is qualitatively different in an ontological sense with respect to God’s archetypal knowledge. Scripture exists in a finite world, while God’s Mind is transcendental.

However, if Man is to have knowledge concerning God, there must be an univocal point of reference between the true propositions in Scripture, and the true propositions in God’s Mind. In the ontological sense, Man’s ectypal knowledge is therefore analogical in the sense that Scripture uses language which is finite and non-transcendental, and at the same time, univocal to the true propositions found in God’s Mind. We can know true propositions about God, not because we are like gods, but because we are made in the image of God (Imago Dei). We are created with cognitive faculties capable of understanding God’s special revelation to Man. And special revelation in itself is already a miracle of God!

What Alvin Plantinga commented concerning another form of theological agnosticism applies to our current discussion concerning the analogical knowledge of Man. Such theological pursuits concerning the ontology of knowledge, “begins in a pious and commendable concern for God’s greatness and majesty and augustness, but it ends in agnosticism and incoherence. For if none of our concepts apply to God [or if none of our inferences extend to God], then there is nothing we can know or truly believe of him – not even what is affirmed in the creeds or revealed in the Scriptures. And if there is nothing we can know or truly believe of him, then, of course, we cannot know or truly believe that none of our concepts apply to him. The view … is fatally ensnarled in self-referential absurdity.”[11]

Therefore, it is self-defeating to propose that “Man cannot know true propositions concerning God.” In order to know the proposition “Man cannot know true propositions concerning God,” Man must at least know this proposition concerning God – that “Man cannot know true propositions concerning God!” This is what Plantinga describes as “self-referential absurdity.”


[1] See Geehan, E. R. ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Nutley, NJ., 1971.

[2] In order to discuss further, we must elucidate upon the meaning of these terms: analogical, univocal, and equivocal. See for an accessible explanation of these terms, but keeping in mind that Van Til’s understanding of analogy is distinct from Thomas Aquinas.
[3] Van Til, Cornelius, An Introduction to Systematic Theology. In Defense of the Faith, Vol. V (Nutley [N.J.]; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), p. 165.

[4] Ibid, p. 12.
[5] See Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 227-228.

[6] Van Asselt, W. J., The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought, Westminster Theological Journal (2002), 64(2), p. 329.
[7] Keith Lehrer, Theory of Knowledge (Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), pp. 169-170.

[8] Ibid, p. 11
[9] Jim Halsey, “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian A Review Article,” Westminster Theological Journal, 39(1), p. 122.

[10] Van Asselt, The Fundamental Meaning of Theology, p. 330
[11] Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), p. 26.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reformed Hermeneutics and the Analogy of Faith in Prophecy

The interpretation of Old Testament prophetic passages with New Testament revelation is a biblically based method of hermeneutics. Consistent with the principle of the progressive revelation of Scripture,[1] this is also known as the Analogia Fidei.[2] The analogy of faith is the Reformed principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture. In other words, special attention must be given to clear, didactic passages of New Testament Scripture, so as to harmonize Old Testament Scripture with New Testament revelation. Contrariwise, we must not explain away plain New Testament Scripture with Old Testament types and shadows.

Terry elaborates that the analogy of faith “assumes that the Bible is a self-interpreting book, and what is obscure in one passage may be illuminated by another. No single statement or obscure passage of one book can be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages. The obscure texts must be interpreted in the light of those which are plain and positive.”[3]

The analogy of faith is an indispensable, fundamental principle of Reformed hermeneutics. It is also a principle which recognizes God as the divine Author of the Bible, and ipso facto, Christians must interpret Scripture as an organic unity. As Bavinck has aptly commented:

“The New Testament is the truth, the essence, the core, and the actual content of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is revealed in the New, while the New Testament is concealed in the Old (Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet, Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet).”[4]

In the area of prophetic interpretation, dispensational theologians might argue that the New Testament writers were inspired, and therefore, they can apply Old Testament prophecies - originally addressed to ethnic Israel - to the church via divine inspiration. Reformed theologians would reply that, following the hermeneutics of Jesus and the Apostles, we must understand Old Testament prophecies in the light of New Testament revelation.

Surely Dispensationalists are not insinuating that the meaning of a specific Old Testament prophecy is confined to what the original writer or recipient would have understood. To understand kingdom prophecies in the Old Testament using Judaistic glasses, without the light given in the New, would be to limit the meaning of the prophetic text. In the absence of access to future revelation, the original recipients may have understood the prophetic passages in terms of antecedent revelation.[5] But for the Church today to insist on understanding these prophetic passages in terms of Old Testament shadowy forms is to ignore subsequent revelation in the New Testament. As Ramm has emphasized, “The New Testament is the capstone of revelation, and God’s word through the supreme instrument of revelation, His Son (Hebrews 1:2). Because it is the final, full, and clear revelation of God, it would be foolhardy to make the New revolve around the Old.”[6]

The determination of the fuller meaning of a prophetic passage requires the understanding of the figurative and symbolical style of prophecy, as well as an analysis and comparison of other similar prophecies in Scripture.[7] Ultimately, it is inevitable for an exegete to apply a theological grid derived from the entire Bible as an organic whole in his interpretation of Scripture.[8] This is because the Old and New Testament are related to each other as type and antitype, prophecy and fulfilment. Whatever theological seed planted in the Old Testament finds its complete fruition and development in the New. Terry writes:

“It is of the first importance to observe that, from a Christian point of view, the Old Testament cannot be fully apprehended without the help of the New. The mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known unto men, was revealed unto the apostles and prophets of the New Testament (Eph. iii, 5), and that revelation sheds a flood of light upon numerous portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the other hand, it is equally true that a scientific interpretation of the New Testament is impossible without a thorough knowledge of the older Scriptures. . . . In short, the whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and there is danger that, in studying one part to the comparative neglect of the other, we may fall into one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition.”[9]

The exegete must not ignore the typological-symbolical elements present in certain Old Testament prophecies.[10] Fairbairn goes even further, stating that type and prophecy are often interrelated to each other. “Not only do they [type and prophecy] agree in having both a prospective reference to the future, but they are often also combined into one prospective exhibition of the future.”[11] The fuller meaning of a prophecy, in particular, a prophetical type, may not be apparent until the time of fulfillment.[12] Poythress explains:

“The significance of a type is not fully discernible until the time of fulfillment. . . . One can anticipate in a vague, general way how fulfillment might come, but the details remain in obscurity. When the fulfillment does come, it throws additional light on the significance of the original symbolism. In other words, one must compare later Scripture to earlier Scripture to understand everything. Such comparison, though it should not undermine or contradict grammatical-historical interpretation, goes beyond its bounds. It takes account of information not available in the original historical and cultural context. Hence grammatical-historical interpretation is not enough. It is not all there is to interpretation.”[13]

The biblically sanctioned method of interpretation of Old Testament prophecies is to apply the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers, as well as the ideas communicated by them.[14] In fact, New Testament scholar Earle Ellis emphasizes that,

“It very probably underlies the conviction of the early Christians that those who belong to Christ, Israel’s messianic king, constitute the true Israel. Consequently, it explains the Christian application to unbelieving Jews of Scriptures originally directed to Gentiles and, on the other hand, the application to the church of Scriptures originally directed to the Jewish nation.”[15]

For example, the church is referred to as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:15-16.[16] Also, the “sure blessings of David” is applied to the church in Acts 13:32-34, 38-39. The expressions “my chosen” (Isa. 43:20) and “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation (Exod. 19:6),” used in the Old Testament to refer to Israel, are applied to the New Testament church in 1 Peter 2:9. Furthermore, Old Testament terms such as “Mount Zion” and “heavenly Jerusalem” are used in Hebrews 12:22-24 to address the Church. Last but not least, it is significant that the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which was addressed to national Israel, is applied to the church in Hebrews 8:6-13.[17]

The prophets often used Old Testament language and terminology, which are understood by and familiar to the original recipients, to describe New Testament realities. To understand such terms and language in the Old Testament literally is to force a regression of New Testament realities back into the shadowy forms of ancient Judaism.

Dispensationalists, likewise, interpret portions of kingdom prophecies in the Old Testament literally, while furnishing a figurative understanding for other portions which may otherwise engender internal contradictions within the dispensational, prophetic framework. An example is found in Isaiah 2:3-5:

“And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

According to Dispensationalists, the context of this passage is the millennial reign of Christ, with Jerusalem as the center of the theocracy. John Martin, the former Dean of Faculty and Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, comments on Isaiah 2:4, “Universal peace, with no military conflict or training, will prevail because the implements of warfare (swords and spears) will be turned into implements of agriculture (plowshares and hooks; cf. Joel 3:10).”[18]

Apparently, the reader will find it difficult to reconcile the literal or prosaic meaning of Isaiah 2:4 with the Dispensational understanding of Revelation 20:8-9. According to dispensational premillennialism, there will be a great, worldwide rebellion of Gog and Magog towards the end of the earthly, Davidic reign, led by the Devil himself. This uprising will be quickly quenched, when “fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them (Rev. 20:9b).” Erickson elaborates,

“Christ’s second coming will bring Satan and his helpers under control, binding them for one thousand years. . . . Near the end of the millennium, however, Satan will be unbound briefly and will launch one desperate, final struggle. Then he and his demons will be utterly vanquished, cast into the lake of fire prepared for them.”[19]

But in keeping with a consistently literal understanding of Isaiah 2:4, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[20] That is, there will not be war any longer under the theocratic reign of Christ, and even after the Millennium. If this phrase “no more” is understood plainly, or at face value, it would mean “no longer,” or “not ever again.” There ought to be no longer any war during, or after, the Millennium. The Dispensationalist is therefore forced to interpret either Isaiah 2:4 or Revelation 20:8-9 literally, while rendering the other verses figuratively. Both cannot be taken literally in a consistent manner. It also seems that the dispensational prophetic schema is the final arbiter as to which verse is to be taken literally or figuratively.[21]

In his magnum opus Systematic Theology, Charles Hodge elaborates upon the proper understanding of prophetic language in the Old Testament:

“It is undeniable that the ancient prophets in predicting the events of the Messianic period and the future of Christ’s kingdom, borrowed their language and imagery from the Old Testament institutions and usages. The Messiah is often called David; his church is called Jerusalem, and Zion; his people are called Israel; Canaan was the land of their inheritance; the loss of God’s favour was expressed by saying that they forfeited that inheritance, and restoration of his favour was denoted by a return to the promised land. This usage is so pervading that the conviction produced by it on the minds of Christians is indelible. To them, Zion and Jerusalem are the Church and not the city made with hands. To interpret all that the ancient prophets say of Jerusalem of an earthly city, and all that is said of Israel of the Jewish nation, would be to bring down heaven to earth, and to transmute Christianity into the corrupt Judaism of the apostolic age.”[22]

It must be emphasized that Reformed theologians are neither advocating an allegorical method of interpretation, nor are they encouraging a typological or symbolical interpretation for just any Scripture text. Rather, they recognize the presence of typological-symbolical elements inherent within prophetic passages. At the same time, they understand that Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted with the light given in the New.

Bavinck comments:

The New Testament views itself - and there can certainly be no doubt about this - as the spiritual and therefore complete and authentic fulfillment of the Old Testament. The spiritualization of the Old Testament, rightly understood, is not an invention of Christian theology but has its beginning in the New Testament itself. The Old Testament in spiritualized form, that is, the Old Testament stripped of its temporal and sensuous form, is the New Testament.”[23]

Sizer also reminds us that Reformed hermeneutics must be distinguished from the allegorical hermeneutics of pre-Reformation Catholicism. He writes:

“Because of their commitment to literalism, for example, [Hal] Lindsey and other dispensationalists do not distinguish between the figurative or typological approaches used by the Reformers and the allegorical methods of interpretation found typically in pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism. The distinction between these two methods of interpretation is significant since the former places particular emphasis on the historical context of passages as well as upon the way Scripture interprets Scripture, whereas an allegorical approach finds eternal truths without reference to any historical setting. A typological approach also highlights the way New Testament writers see Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of most Old Testament images and types.”[24]

In setting out the “definitive marks of typological interpretation” described by Leonard Goppelt, Ellis further elaborates, “Unlike allegory, typological exegesis regards the words of Scripture not as metaphors hiding a deeper meaning (ὑπόνοια) but as the record of historical events out of whose literal sense the meaning of the text arises.”[25] In other words, typological exegesis is not a subjective means of interpreting Scripture, but is shaped by how the New Testament interprets the Old. It does not seek to find any esoteric, hidden meaning behind the words of Scripture. At the same time, typological exegesis affirms the perspicuity of Scripture, in that Old Testament typological-prophetic elements are clearly interpreted by the Holy Spirit with further revelation in the New. The exegete is not required to search for some subjective, deeper meaning in types and shadowy forms, because the New Testament unveils their antitypes and fulfillment.

Therefore, any attempt at making “guilt by association” ad hominem attacks by accusing amillennial or postmillennial exegetes of spiritualizing or allegorizing Scripture like Catholic exegesis is unhelpful in the current dispensational-covenantal dialogue.[26]

Reformed theologians adamantly reject the dispensational hermeneutics which forces New Testament revelation to conform to Old Testament shadowy forms. Besides historical, grammatical and contextual considerations, good hermeneutics must take into account the literary form of a particular passage of Scripture, as well as the Reformed principle of the analogy of faith. The interpretation of a particular prophetic text must harmonize with the rest of Scripture, and with the systematic theology derived from a thorough understanding of Scripture as a canonical whole. The actual and fuller meaning of a passage should be determined using the “historical-grammatical-literary-theological” hermeneutics. Undoubtedly, a wooden literalism is not biblically warranted in the interpretation of prophecy.


[1] “By progressive revelation we mean that the Bible sets forth a movement of God, with the initiative coming from God and not man, in which God brings man up through the theological infancy of the Old Testament to the maturity of the New Testament. This does not mean that there are no mature ideas in the Old Testament nor simple elements in the New Testament. Progressive revelation is the general pattern of revelation.” See Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1970), 102.
[2] This is also known as the analogy of faith. See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, paragraph 9.
[3] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Hunt and Eason, 1890; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 449. Also see pp. 449-451.
[4] Herman Bavinck, The Last Things: Hope for This World and the Next, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1996), 96-97.
[5] This writer disagrees with Walter C. Kaiser who claims that meaning can be ascertained only from the amount of prior information available to the text under consideration. See Walter C. Kaiser, “Analogy of Antecedent Scripture,” in Towards an Exegetical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1981), 90, 134-137, 145.
[6] Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 167.
[7] For a detailed discussion of the hermeneutics involved in interpreting prophecy, see Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 313-389.
[8] An example of this exegetical application of a theological grid is given when we study the temple visions of Ezekiel later in this book, which relate to the doctrine of the atonement of Christ.
[9] Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 18
[10] “Typological interpretation is specifically the interpretation of the Old Testament based on the fundamental theological unity of the two Testaments whereby something in the Old shadows, prefigures, adumbrates something in the New. Hence what is interpreted in the Old is not foreign or peculiar or hidden, but rises naturally out of the text due to the relationship of the two Testaments. To find Christ or the atonement in the sacrificial system, or to find Christian salvation or experience in the Tabernacle follows from the character of the divine revelation.” See Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 223. Milton S. Terry provides an excellent treatise on the method of interpreting types in Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 244-256. On the typological usage of the Old Testament by the New, see E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1993), 165-169.
[11] Patrick Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1989), 106. Concerning how types and prophecies may relate to each other, Fairbairn explains, “From the general resemblance between type and prophecy, we are prepared to expect that they may sometimes run into each other; and especially, that the typical in action may in various ways form the groundwork and the materials by means of which the prophetic in word gave forth its intimations of the coming future. And this, it is quite conceivable, may have been done under any of the following modifications. 1. A typical action might, in some portion of the prophetic word, be historically mentioned; and hence the mention being that of a prophetical circumstance or event, would come to possess a prophetical character. 2. Or something typical in the past or the present might be represented in a distinct prophetical announcement, as going to appear again in the future; thus combining together the typical in act and the prophetical in word. 3. Or the typical, not expressly and formally, but in its essential relations and principles, might be embodied in an accompanying prediction, which foretold things corresponding in nature, but far higher and greater in importance. 4. Or, finally, the typical might itself be still future, and in a prophetic word might be partly described, partly presupposed, as a vantage-ground for the delineation of other things still more distant, to which, when it occurred, it was to stand in the relation of type and antitype.” See Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture, 107. Also see especially pp. 106-130 for a discussion of the relations between types and prophecies.
[12] Prophecies of Scripture do not contain an occult or double sense. Each prophecy has only one fulfillment. There may be manifold applications of certain prophecies, but not multiple fulfillments. The doctrine of typology and the doctrine of double sense must not be confounded. Terry writes, “Some writers have confused this subject [i.e. the doctrine of double sense] by connecting it with the doctrine of type and antitype. As many persons and events of the Old Testament were types of greater ones to come, so the language respecting them is supposed to be capable of a double sense. . . . But it should be seen that in the case of types the language of the Scripture has no double sense. The types themselves are such because they prefigure things to come, and this fact must be kept distinct from the question of the sense of language used in any particular passage. We reject as unsound and misleading the theory that such Messianic psalms as the second, forty-fifth and seventy-second have a double sense, and refer first to David, Solomon, or some other ruler, and secondly to Christ. If an historical reference to some great typical character can be shown, the whole case may be relegated to biblical typology, the language naturally explained of the person celebrated in the psalm, and then the person himself may be shown to be a type and illustration of a greater one to come.” See Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 384.
[13] Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2d. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1987), 115-116.
[14] For a technical discussion on how the early New Testament church interprets the Old Testament, see E. Earle Ellis, The Old Testament in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1991), 77-121.
[15] Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, 171.
[16] Galatians 6:15-16 is discussed in Chapter 3.
[17] This passage in Jeremiah will be discussed later in this chapter. A few other noteworthy cases of Old Testament prophecy directly applied to the Church are as follows: Acts 2:15-21, Acts 10:43, Acts 15:14-18, Romans 1:1,2, Romans 4:13-17, 23, 24, Romans 9:32, 33, Romans 15:4, 8-10, 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1.
[18] John A. Martin, “Isaiah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1038.
[19] Millard J. Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1998), 92-93.
[20] I have consulted more than 12 different translations of this verse, and they all generally agree with the King James translation of Isaiah 2:4b. Even the 1890 Darby Bible renders Isaiah 2:4 as, “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall reprove many peoples; and they shall forge their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-knives: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
[21] Poythress expresses his criticism concerning how a Dispensationalist might interpret figures in prophecy, “How do we tell the difference between a figurative and a nonfigurative expression? Is this always perfectly plain to everyone? Dispensationalists have in fact left themselves some convenient maneuvering room. It is possible that sometimes they have decided what is figurative and what is nonfigurative after the fact. That is, they may have conveniently arranged their decisions about what is figurative after their basic system is in place telling them what can and what cannot be fitted into the system. The decisions as to what is figurative and what way it is figurative may be a product of the system as a whole rather than the inductive basis of it. Or rather we may have a circular process. The needs of consistency with the system help the proponents to decide what is figurative; and making those decisions helps them to produce interpretations of particular texts that support the consistency of the system.” See Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 53.
[22] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1989; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 809.
[23] Bavinck, The Last Things, 96.
[24] Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 123. I am aware that, “in the history of interpretation the question has been occasionally asked whether allegorical and typological interpretation are one method of interpretation mistakenly called by two different names, or actually two different methods of interpretation.” See Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 221-222. Also refer to Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 221-227 for a summary of the ongoing controversy between scholars with regard to the distinction between the allegorical and typological methods of interpretation.
[25] Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, 168-169.
[26] Reformed exegetes are aware that the allegorical meaning is neither argumentative nor conclusive, i.e. sensus allegoricus non est argumentativus.