THE OLIVET DISCOURSE
Have you ever wondered how it can be that different Bible scholars can study the same subject, each one praying for insight and wisdom, asking God to open their spiritual eyes and hearts to the truth of His Holy Word…but present individual conclusions for review which are discovered to be contradictory to each other? Well I have, too! What do you suppose could cause distinctly different conclusions among well intended, godly teachers and scholars? And perhaps even more important, how do we discover the real truth?
This work is somewhat of a journal of my quest to find an answer to these perplexing questions, especially pertaining to conclusions regarding the biblical subject of the Second Coming of Christ. It’s almost like a documentary of my journey to discover the truth of what the Bible really teaches about pivotal issues surrounding His return. It’s a commentary as well, and for some, may be a little technical in places. A general familiarity with the Word of God is helpful to follow the development of viewpoints that emerge from the study. Using the “Glossary of Eschatological Terms” providing my definitions will assist you and should be referred to as necessary. My prayer, as you undergo this journey, is the Holy Spirit of Truth will be your guide. When you discover an error, point it out! I too, am willing to make correct positive adjustments in my personal theology to more closely align with the Truth of God’s Word. Let the journey begin!
Has ever a Christian author, pastor, teacher or scholar presented a work to the public without also having an earnest and sincere desire of that work bringing glory to God? Add my name to the list! However, sincerity does not guarantee accuracy, let alone consensus. One reason for differences of opinions I discovered was different methods of interpretation. The key word here is HERMENEUTICS. One’s hermeneutic is the process used to help answer such questions as, “How do I know what I know? How am I to take this scripture passage? What is the intended meaning? How can I understand what is trying to be communicated? How can I be confident in my belief of what the scriptures teach?” Seminaries offer classes covering principles of the science and art of biblical interpretation as there is much to consider if one desires to become a true scholar of the Word of God. I will not cover this subject in depth; I only want to insure the reader is aware there are different methods of interpretation which can obviously lead to radically different theological positions or conclusions on the same subject, and offer my critique. Briefly, what are some of the methods used to reveal the meaning, the “interpretation” of scripture?
The ALLEGORICAL/SPIRITUALIZATION Method: This method frequently disregards the plain, literal and obvious sense of scripture to allow for a more meaningful (though foreign) understanding of the text and exchanges the literal meaning for one that is hidden, that seems deeper, more spiritual/mystical. Often the historical context is removed. My illustration criticizing this method is the miracle of the Lord feeding the five thousand, found in Matthew 14. An interpreter that doesn’t believe in the miraculous can claim Jesus merely taught the people who had extra bread and fish to share with those who had none. When they did, why, low and behold, there was an abundance for everyone through the “miracle” of sharing and that’s a reason why sharing is the “Christian” thing to do even to this day as it blesses others and honors God at the same time. Is this illustration an over-simplification of the Allegorical method? Of course it is. But I trust you get the point.
The CULTURALIZATION Method: This method restricts (often unduly) the application of a passage to the time period in which it was communicated. Much of this seems to do with the emergence of Dispensational Theology, which has differing positions, views, or “camps”. I find myself more within the Reformed Dispensational Theology camp.
My experience with the culturalization method is it seems to be implemented sparingly rather than as a broad method for interpreting most of the canon of scripture. Arguably there can be merits for considering this method at times, yet there are pitfalls that must be avoided as well. It perhaps should not be merely at the discretion of one desiring to promote a personal bias, and certainly should not be considered as a replacement for including the actual and necessary historical context of scriptural words and passages when interpreting. An example I use is “The Lord’s Prayer”. I was taught to call it “The Disciples Prayer” as it was given to the disciples. This point is used to convince others the application of this prayer was/is for Jews–not the Church, focusing on the “Jewishness” of the disciples at that time the Lord taught it to them, rather than considering the fact these men were being groomed by the Lord to become the founding fathers of the Church, as far as human agents are concerned. An argument is made the prayer speaks of the coming physical Kingdom that Jews are supposedly looking forward to, while the Church is to look forward to “the rapture” which precedes the physical Kingdom. But our Lord taught on many issues. Who has the right to be dogmatic about which of His teachings apply to those of us living today and those that are for a different era of history if no such distinction is clearly indicated in the scriptures? If there was some biblical instruction on how to differentiate, we would have an accurate criterion for evaluation. But perhaps there is! Did not Christ Himself commission the disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”? (Matt. 28:19, 20 NASB) And please, I am not ignorant nor unsympathetic of important points such as Christians do not need to ask for forgiveness because we look back at the payment for sin provided by Christ as He hung on the cross. For the uber-righteous who never blew it royally anytime in their Christian walk, I applaud you. But please don’t try to shame those who have, then failed to precisely follow some seven step process point by point, devised to provide official restoration back into a particular theological camp of the spiritually elite. I don’t wish to have a debate about this, I merely made a point.
Moving on, it seems selecting the proper determining criterion for discerning truth appears to often be the sole discretion of scholars promoting favored theological positions. I praise the Lord for the many godly scholars I have been taught by over the years. Yet we should never blindly accept a scholar’s teaching for the simple sake that he is a “scholar”. Rather, we need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17, examining the scriptures to see if someone’s teaching lines up with scripture while beseeching the Holy Spirit to guide us. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by me or any other teacher, author or scholar. Take the time to obtain a broad and accurate context when interpreting controversial passages.
At this point I’m sure to have raised the eyebrows of some, but don’t quit now; keep on the journey a little longer and give it a chance. Let’s be clear, there are places in scripture that warrant the use of these methods, such as parables and obvious uses of imagery found in the scriptures. For example, “The Lord is my shepherd“, and, “I am the vine, you are the branches“. But the obvious potential problem arising from the habitual use of the allegorical or spiritualization method of interpretation is a person can use these methods to make the bible seem to support just about any concept someone is clever enough to promote. I have read certain proponents who claim they had received special revelation or visions concerning the correct interpretation of scripture. These are the preferred methods of interpretation used by cults, as they more readily allow the interpreter to stand in judgment of the Word of God, rather than the Word standing in judgment of any points or conclusions derived by the interpreter. That being said, there is another method of interpretation and it is the one I prefer to use.
The HOLISTIC/LITERAL Method: It’s kind of tough discovering truth via the holistic method because you need to be skilled in a “whole list” of issues involved with the science and art of biblical interpretation. Continuing from this poor attempt at a little humor, the holistic method employs the literal, face value, common and customary usages of language. It utilizes analysis of literature, grammar, syntax, etymology, history, theology and context, along with numerous sub-category principles. Arguably, it is the best method for actually “discovering” the truth in God’s Word as it is the most effective at discouraging preconceived notions, prejudice and presuppositions. In my opinion, it’s not that proponents of the other methods never consider the process or procedures of the holistic method. It seems as though certain scholars feel free to disregard the holistic method at times, often considering the principles behind the method as a hindrance to true interpretation. The spiritualization and allegorical methods can be handy tools when trying to promote the Bible as teaching what one desires it to teach, as opposed to discovering what the Bible teaches about an issue, subject or doctrine. What many want is to use the scriptures in attempting to verify “sacred” positions and biased opinions. I don’t believe this is done as a devious plot to deliberately mislead people. I feel it is done because someone honestly believes their theological doctrine/position is the real truth. I maintain the Holistic Method of interpretation is the acceptable method, siding with those believers and scholars who usually consider themselves of an evangelical, fundamental, conservative persuasion. Admittedly, it is likely there are a few scholars within this group who will still disagree with my approach, but even more particularly, my conclusions.
There is a group of Pastor-Teachers I respect, even though we differ on important issues dealing with the second coming of Christ. This group is often referred to as “ICE Teachers”, in that they use the “ICE” method of interpretation in their studies and presentation of the scriptures and doctrinal teachings. This method is fundamentally the same as the Literal/ Holistic method, with ICE being an acronym for Isagogics (the historical background of words, writers, recipients, etc., regarding scriptural issues), Categories (the cataloging, culmination and organization of information on any specific subject touched upon in scripture, incorporating the whole council of God’s word), and Exegesis (utilizing principles of grammar, syntax, etymology, definition, etc. for a most accurate translation, which is intended for use toward an accurate interpretation of scripture). I applaud this approach to studying God’s Word.
Reflecting back on my original question, that being, if God is not the author of confusion, why are there so many different theological conclusions on the same subject, I found I still had a dilemma. Even among the evangelical, fundamental and conservative students and scholars claiming to hold to the holistic/literal method of interpretation, there are diverse theological persuasions and conclusions. My personal study led me to conclude it is only to the extent the student or scholar applies and abides by the principles or rules, if you please, of the literal or holistic method (or, ICE method), that they will discover the accurate teachings of the Word. I’ve seen it happen time and again; a teacher, student, scholar or pastor–even myself, deviates off course, manipulating the scriptures–just a little, in the effort to provide stronger credence for a personal bias. I compare it to shaving edges and forcing pieces of the biblical picture puzzle to fit where the interpreter wants them to fit, rather than allow those pieces to fall into the place they naturally belong. It’s been my experience the more emotional the topic the greater the probability deviations from the standard principles may be found. Presently, I know of no topic more emotional than the Second Coming of Christ. Under the guise of academic scholarship, godly men and women have abused the scriptures in an attempt to validate personally held theological positions. It can often be so subtle one feels perfectly justified throughout the process. After all, when one strongly believes one is correct and is attempting to teach others, one feels obligated to protect against the “false teaching” of those of a different theological persuasion, position or doctrine. I don’t wish to belabor this issue and I admit I have committed this offense myself. But I have also observed other authors, scholars, pastors and teachers, glossing over, ignoring or minimizing “problem passages”. In certain instances ludicrous interpretations are provided for various portions of scripture, in an effort to promote a theological bias. This seems particularly prevalent with the subject of the second coming of Christ. I present this because I believe all of us need to be alerted that this occurs. Yet, as a dear friend of mine used to say, “Always be suspicious of the guy who tells you to be suspicious of…(some other person).” Ergo, be suspicious of this author!
There is yet another pivotal conviction I arrived at based upon observation while reading many books, hearing many messages, talking to various people, and teaching. Perhaps the major reason students and even scholars of the Word holding to the holistic method of interpretation can so easily arrive at differing positions or conclusions on the same biblical issue is the approach to uncovering the truth. Some, having every indication they are qualified to be a spiritual advisor in the interpretation of God’s Word, may select a very common approach when teaching on a topic involving several relevant issues, and first develop those issues removed from their context. Then, these issues will be arranged in such a manner as to promote the interpreter’s theological position on the topic. This is followed (as necessary) by viewing any “problem” passages which appear to contradict that conclusion or doctrinal position in an effort to explain away the difficulty and further validate a personal bias.
I innocently learned to apply this approach myself and used it numerous times in the past to promote a theological position I later discovered to be false. I see it as the major approach used by cults attempting to gain new converts or argue with those challenging their beliefs. I am not saying there is no value to the instruction process in using this approach. To me, it lacks full merit when dealing with controversial subjects having proponents of differing conclusions or doctrinal positions or, to put it more poignantly, when attempting to discover the truth of God’s word. One of the most infamous examples that comes to my mind is the term “The Rapture”. Everybody loves to talk about the Rapture of the Church and it seems to be the highlight of many books and messages dealing with the subject of the second coming of Christ. And yes, I’m aware that I will be criticized for doing the very thing I have just complained about, and rightly so. Every communicator, teacher, instructor, must establish proper vocabulary, accurate definitions and develop the frame of reference of those who would engage in meaningful communication. Here’s the point: creators of works and those that view them must both use caution.
As you follow my journal of trying to discover the truth of God’s Word you will find an enormous amount of effort given to provide the accurate context leading up to addressing issues regarding the second coming of Christ. I perceive the failure to provide the accurate context, one that is broad enough, to be a serious shortcoming and stumbling block inherent within the works of others I have read or listened to, which ultimately leads to false conclusions. Having an adequate understanding of the context is a major key to discovering biblical truth. While others that produce their own works on this subject will readily admit this is a key rule, my complaint is they don’t seem to be providing it in their works.
I prayerfully hope I haven’t discouraged any readers from continuing on at this point. If you are willing to continue the journey with me it is time to go to the next chapter to see what lies in store there as we begin to build on what was learned in chapter one.