Rightly Interpreting Scripture

Most are familiar with the Dispensational school of eschatology, or at least as it is popularly represented in the Left Behind series.  There has been no shortage of criticism for this school of thought.  Various authors have critiqued dispensationalism because of its method of Scripture interpretation.  At many points dispensationalists turn to current events to seek interpretive keys and answers for interpretive keys to various passages of Scripture.  The most famous example of such ‘newspaper exegesis’ have been the multiple attempts to identify the ‘beast’ of Revelation which include: Hitler, Stalin, the Pope, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Bill Gates.  This interpretive method has been criticized because its adherents eisegete, or read something foreign into a text, current events into the Bible.  Now, the Reformed community virtually speaks with one voice in its disapprobation of dispensationalism for this reason, and rightly so.  Yet, what may come as a surprise is that on the one hand, Reformed interpreters reject dispensationalism, but on the other hand employ the same flawed method in other areas.  Let us look at two examples of this flawed interpretive method.

Within the Reformed community the Preterist interpretation of Scripture has grown in popularity.  Preterism comes from the Latin word praeterire, which means ‘to pass by.’  This school of thought looks upon many of the NT prophecies not as future events, but past events.  Ken Gentry in his He Shall Have Dominion argues that the Olivet Discourse and the lion share of Revelation, were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ad.  How does he arrive at this conclusion?  He shows the parallels between historic events in the first century and the book of Revelation as they are recorded by the ancient Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus.  Gentry argues, for example, that Revelation 15-16 was fulfilled when the Roman army of crossed the Euphrates river and approached Jerusalem (He Shall Have Dominion, p. 425).  Yet, we must ask, Is this not newspaper exegesis?  The newspaper is from the first century, but it is the very same interpretive method that dispensationalists employ.  We find another example of this method when we examine protology.

Henry Morris is well-known for his scientific acumen and his defense of the Christian faith from the onslaught of Darwinian evolutionary theory.  Morris’ best known work is his The Genesis Record: A scientific & devotional commentary on the book of beginnings.  Many well intentioned people within the Reformed community sing Morris’ praises for this book.  What of Morris’ interpretation of Genesis?  In his comments on the tree of life (TOL) and of the knowledge of good and evil (TKGE), Morris enters into a discussion about gerontology and aging saying that perhaps science will one day understand how the fruit of the TOL could have prolonged human life.  Likewise, he argues that the fruit of the TKGE possibly contained a toxic substance that penetrated the blood stream and genetic system, which upset the perfect balance in man’s body (Genesis Record, pp. 87-88).  Once again, we see the same interpretive method—taking something that is foreign to the text, in this case gerontology, genetics, and toxic substances, and reading them into the passage.  We must ask again, Is this a proper biblical interpretive method?  We must reply, No.  It should come as no surprise that Morris is also a dispensationalist.

We have demonstrated that many in the Reformed community simply reject the conclusions of dispensationalism rather than rejecting the interpretive method.  At the core, dispensationalism, preterism, and the scientific interpretation of Genesis fail for the same two reasons.  First, they take foreign elements, current events, historical events, or scientific facts, and read them into Scripture.  This is eisegesis.  Second, these three schools of thought fail because they abandon the historic method of interpreting Scripture, namely the analogia Scripturae, or the ‘analogy of Scripture.’  In other words, we must always interpret the Bible with the Bible itself (see WCF 1.7).  Whether it is dispensationalism, preterism, or creation science, there is the common thread of eisegesis.  We can easily demonstrate this error.  Suppose that the pastor will debate advocates from each of these views.  The pastor will, of course, set the limits of the debate by allowing only one source to be cited—the Bible.  The dispensationalist can not refer to current events, the preterist can not refer to Josephus, and the creation scientist can not refer to science.  The pastor, on the other hand, can use the OT to interpret Revelation without a single reference to current events or Josephus and completely argue his case.  Likewise, the pastor can also explain the significance of the trees in the Garden by reference to the teaching of the OT and NT on sacraments without a single reference to gerontology, genetics, or toxic poisons to argue his case.  The other advocates, however, would have a very hard time arguing their cases.

We must never abandon the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture no matter how attractive an interpretive solution we find elsewhere.  God Himself is His own interpreter and needs no help from current events, Josephus, or science to explain His Word.  The analogia Scripturae is a fundamental interpretive presupposition that we need to interpret rightly Scripture.  If we can all agree on this fundamental principle, and not simply reject conclusions, we one day might see greater agreement between pre-, a-, postmillennialists, literalists, day-age, and framework advocates.  God grant this!