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 future blogs. 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.


Lance said...

Both Ellis and Goppelt build to some extent upon the previous work of J.C.K. von Hofmann, who makes room for a future conversion of Israel as a nation, much as many of the Puritans (like Richard Sibbes), Charles Spurgeon, and even the earlier Count Nicholas Zinzendorf did. Swizer thus is too simplistic in his grouping all "literalists" together in the Dispensational camp. Goppelt saw "the commonwealth of Israel" in Eph. 2 as INCLUDING all believers, even among "the nations" -- but that DID NOT "exclude" ethnic Israel itself, as "last but not least" among those whom God chooses to save at the end of salvation history. Just hoping you are open to that insight -- not all "Reformed Evangelicals" are. Blessings, Lance Wonders -- USA and

vincit omnia veritas said...

Thank you Lance for your insights. Yes, I would agree that a future nationalistic conversion of Israel is not excluded from Reformed hermeneutics in toto, only that the "sine qua non of Dispensationalism" would be inconsistent with it.