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Postmillennialism: Principles of Interpretation by Loraine Boettner

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Postmillennialism

It is clear that each of the millennial views has been held and at the present time is held by men concerning whose sincerity and loyalty to the evangelical faith there can be no doubt. That believing Christians through the ages, using the same Bible and acknowledging it to be authoritative, have arrived at quite different conclusions appears to be due primarily to different methods of interpretation. Premillennialists place strong emphasis on literal interpretation and pride themselves on taking Scripture just as it is written. Post- and Ami1lennialists on the other hand, mindful of the fact that much of both the Old and New Testament unquestionably is given in figurative or symbolical language, have no objection on principle against figurative interpretation and readily accept that if the evidence indicates that it is preferable. This causes Premillennialists to charge that Post- and Amillennialists explain away or reject parts of the Bible. One premillennial writer says:

‘Premillennialists insist that one general rule of interpretation should be applied to all areas of theology and that prophecy does not require spiritualization any more than other aspects of truth… History is history, not allegory. Facts are facts. Prophesied future events are just what they are prophesied’ (Dr. John F. Walvoord, Bibliotheca Sacra, July-Sept., l951, p. 272).

Another says: ‘Premillenarians hold to a literal interpretation of the sacred Scriptures, believing that the teachings of Christ and the Apostles are to be understood in a literal sense except in certain places where some other meaning is designated’ (Jesse F. Silver, The Lord’s Return, p. 204).

This general principle of interpretation has been expressed as, ‘Literal wherever possible’ ( H. Bonar ), or ‘Literal unless absurd’ (Govett). One does not have to read far in the Bible to discover that not everything can be taken literally. Silver refers to ‘certain places’ where some ‘other meaning’ is designated. But he gives no rule by which those certain places are to be recognized. We find no labels in the Scripture itself telling us, ‘Take this literally,’ or ‘Take that figuratively.’ Evidently the individual reader must use his own judgment, backed by as much experience and common sense as he can muster. And that, of course, will vary endlessly from individual to individual.

As an example of what he means by literal interpretation Silver says: ‘Every prophecy pointing to the first advent of Christ was literally fulfilled to the letter in every detail’ (p. 209). That statement has been made in substance by various other Premillennialists. But it simply is not so. The very first Messianic prophecy in Scripture is found in Genesis 3:15, where, in pronouncing the curse upon the serpent God said, ‘He shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.’ Now that prophecy certainly was not fulfilled literally by a man crushing the head of a snake, or by a snake biting the heel of a man. Rather it was fulfilled in a highly figurative sense when Christ gained a complete victory and triumphed over the Devil and all his forces of evil at the cross. The last prophecy in the Old Testament is found in Malachi 4;5, and reads as follows: ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Jehovah come.’ That prophecy likewise was not fulfilled literally. Christ Himself said that it was fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:14), who came in the spirit and power of Elijah.

Again, we have the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘The voice of one that crieth, Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain: and the glory of Jehovah shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it’ (Is. 40:3-5). This certainly was not fulfilled by a highway building program in Palestine, but rather in the work of John the Baptist who prepared the way for the public ministry of Jesus. John himself said, ‘For this is he that was spoken of through Isaiah the prophet, saying…’, and then proceeded to quote these verses (Matt. 3:1-3; Luke 3:3-6).

The words of Isaiah 9:1,2, regarding the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined,’ are fulfilled figuratively in the ministry of Jesus. For Matthew says: ‘Now when he heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the border of Zebulun, and Naphtali: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophet, saying,

The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, Toward the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, The people that sat in darkness Saw a great light, And to them that sat in the region and shadow of death, To them did light spring up’ (Matt. 4:15,16).

In these words Isaiah clearly was speaking of the spiritual darkness that exists wherever sin rules, and of the spiritual light that would be brought to those lands when the Messiah came.

And when Balaam attempted to pronounce a curse upon the people of Israel he pronounced instead a blessing, and said:

‘There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, And a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, And shall smite through all the corners of Moab And break down all the sons of tumult’ (Nu. 24:17).

These words are commonly understood as embodying a Messianic prophecy, and as having had their fulfillment in the coming of Christ, who arose like a star out of Israel, and whose kingdom eventually is to embrace the whole world.

Many other Old Testament prophecies in figurative language might be cited, but surely these are sufficient to show that it simply is not true that ‘Every prophecy pointing to the first advent of Christ was literally fulfilled to the letter in every detail.’

That a great deal of the Bible is given in figurative or symbolical language which by no stretch of the imagination can be taken literally should be apparent to every one. We spiritualize these statements because we regard this as the only way in which their true meaning can be brought out. To cite only a few further examples: In the midst of a very prosaic historical account of the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt the providential and protective power of God is set forth in these words: ‘Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself’ (Ex. 19:4). Palestine is described as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Ex. 3:8). Read the 23rd or 91st Psalm and note the almost continuous use of figurative language.

The New Testament follows the same practice. To his disciples Jesus said, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth… Ye are the light of the world… Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 5:13-16). When instituting the Lord’s Supper He said: ‘This is my body… This is my blood’ (Matt. 26:26, 28). The writer recently heard a Roman Catholic priest argue quite convincingly that these words prove that in the Mass the bread and wine actually are changed into the flesh and blood of Christ. From the standpoint of literalism it would be impossible to refute that doctrine. Speaking to the elders of the Church in Ephesus Paul said: ‘I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock’ (Acts 20:29). To the Philippians he wrote: ‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision’ (3:2). And to the Galatians: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me’ (2:20). The word ‘blood’ is used repeatedly in a figurative sense with reference to the suffering and death of Christ through which salvation was purchased on Calvary, e.g., ‘…in whom we have our redemption through his blood’ (Eph. 1:7); ‘…the blood of an eternal covenant’ (Heb. 13:20); ‘…and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ ( Rev. 7:14; etc.). In spiritualizing certain Old Testament prophecies we are in good company, for the New Testament writers often do the same. In his discourse on the day of Pentecost Peter spiritualized the rather extended prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:16-21). James’ discourse at the Jerusalem Conference spiritualized the prophecy of Amos (Acts 15;14-18). Literally thousands of such figurative and symbolic expressions are found throughout the Bible, usually without explanation. It is assumed that the reader will understand. Furthermore, foot washing is clearly commanded by Jesus ( John 13:14), and is commended by Paul (I Tim. 5:10); and five times we have the command, ‘Salute one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12; I Thess. 5:28; and I Peter 5:14). Yet only a very few people take these literally.

To spiritualize certain prophecies or other statements does not mean that we explain them away. Sometimes their true meaning is to be found only in the unseen spiritual world. Premillennialists often materialize and literalize the prophecies to such an extent that they keep them on an earthly level and miss their true and deeper meaning. That is exactly what the Jews did in their interpretation of Messianic prophecy. They looked for literal fulfillments with an earthly kingdom and a political ruler, and the result was that they missed the redemptive element so completely that when the Messiah came they did not recognize Him but instead rejected and crucified Him. The fearful consequences of literalistic interpretation as it related to the first coming should put us on guard against making the same mistake in regard to the second coming.

The general principle of rigid literal interpretation leads to the conclusion that when Christ comes again He will re-establish the throne of David in the city of Jerusalem, and that He will reign in an earthly political kingdom of Jewish supremacy for one thousand years. According to that view the Jews are again to possess all of Palestine and the surrounding areas and are to live there, the temple is to be rebuilt, and the priesthood, temple ritual, animal sacrifices, feasts and fasts are to be reinstituted.

Premillennialists encounter real difficulty, however, and are forced to abandon their literalism when they come to the prophecies which predict that in the new kingdom all the nations of the earth are to go up to Jerusalem every year, and indeed every Sabbath; ‘And it shall come to pass that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, Jehovah of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles’ (Zech. 14:16); ‘It shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith Jehovah’ (Is. 66:23); and, ‘Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into my sanctuary, of any foreigners that are among the children of Israel’ (Ezek. 44:9).

It soon becomes evident that such startling literalism goes a great deal farther than its advocates are willing, or indeed, able to carry it. Taken literally these predictions mean that the whole earth is to become one great Israelitish nation and Church, with but one temple, one form of worship, and one common law. Premillennialists do not want to acknowledge that weekly pilgrimages or universal circumcision is to become the rule during the Millennium. Since they cannot go through with the literal interpretation of their own millennial passages it becomes evident that their principle of literal interpretation is basically wrong.

Premillennialists also encounter difficulty with the Messianic and kingdom prophecies which involve the restoration of the historical conditions of Israel’s national life, including her national enemies, not only the great powers of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, but the smaller nations of Moab, Ammon, Edom and Philistia, nations that have long since vanished from history without possibility of recall. Note especially: Micah 5:5,6 (following the prediction that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, vs. 2): ‘And this man [Messiah] shall be our peace. When the Assyrian shall come into our land, and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise up against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men. And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof: and he shall deliver us from the Assyrian.’ Similar references are found relating to Egypt, in Joel 3:19, and to Babylon in Revelation l8:1-24. In the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah ll regarding the relationship of the future kingdom to the smaller surrounding nations we read: ‘And they shall fly down upon the shoulders of the Philistines on the west; together shall they despoil the children of the east: they shall put forth their hand upon Edom and Moab; and the children of Ammon shall obey them’ (vs. 14).

It would require a miracle of raising from the dead the nations referred to if these verses are to be literally fulfilled. We believe that George B. Fletcher gives the true interpretation when he says: ‘These verses are a prophecy of the conversion of the Gentiles (vs. 10), and of the return of the remnant according to the election of grace from among the Jews, that is, their return to God in Christ (vss. 11:16). This prophecy began to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost when ‘Jews, devout men out of every nation under heaven,’ were evangelized by the apostle Peter, and returned home to God in Christ, the mighty God. Under a figure of speech these Hebrew preachers are represented as flying from Jerusalem with eager activity upon Philistia to convert it; as an eagle pounces upon the shoulders of a sheep or other animal, its prey (see Acts 8:26-40, Philip’s preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch; and 9:32-43, Peter’s mission to Joppa)’ — Pamphlet, The Millennium, p. 30. This one point alone, that the nations referred to have disappeared from the face of the earth and so could play no part in a future restoration of Israel, should be sufficient proof that the literalistic method of interpretation cannot be defended.

Rejecting the clearly enunciated Scripture principle that the Church has been established as the instrument through which Christ makes a spiritual conquest of the world — He is to sit at the right hand of God where He now is, the position of power and influence, until His enemies have been made the footstool of His feet (Mark 12:36; 16:19; Heb. 1:13) — Premillennialism substitutes the view that until He comes again the world is to grow progressively worse, and that at His coming He is to conquer the world and overthrow His enemies in the most gigantic and spectacular and sudden military conquest of all time. He is pictured as using overwhelming force in this conquest in that He rains fire and brimstone from heaven upon His enemies and thus utterly defeats Antichrist and all his hosts. Premillennialism seriously misunderstands the genius of Old Testament predictive prophecy in that it interprets in a literal, materialistic sense those foreviews of the Messianic age which can only be understood in a figurative sense.

In the following passage material objects and familiar ideas of the Old Testament era are used to set forth spiritual truth and to describe an era that had not yet dawned and which therefore could be described intelligently only in the thought-forms and language with which the people were familiar. ‘And it shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of Jehovah’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, 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 Jehovah from Jerusalem’ (Is. 2:2,3).

These words are fulfilled in that the Gospel took its course out from- Jerusalem as the disciples went under orders to evangelize all the world, with the Church over the centuries gradually coming into a position of world-wide prominence, gradually increasing in power and becoming more influential in the lives of men throughout the world until it stands out like a mountain on a plain. The attempt to assign specific meaning to each figure of the landscape not only mars the beauty of the picture but obscures the real meaning of the prophecy. When God says, ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,’ let not the reader absurdly imagine that He had in mind only that insignificant elevation called Zion, in the southeast corner of the city of Jerusalem. ‘God’s holy mountain,’ which at that time was the site of the temple and the center of the true religion, is the familiar and endeared name for the Church or Kingdom in the present Messianic age.

When we are told that God will ‘create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy’ (Is. 65:18), Jerusalem, the center of the theocracy and symbol of Old Testament Israel, is used to represent the New Testament Church. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews spiritualizes these passages and shows that their true fulfillment is found in the Christian Church when he says of believers: ‘For ye are not come unto a mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire… but ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels and to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12:18-23); ‘Having then a great high priest, who hath passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God’ (4:14); and, ‘We have such a high priest, who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man’ (8:1,2). Paul, too, spiritualizes the term Jerusalem when he says that, ‘The Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother’ (Gal. 4:26).

Isaiah says: ‘He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked’ (11:4). Similar language is found in Revelation 19:11-21, where Christ is pictured as the rider on the white horse, who slays His enemies with a sharp sword that proceeds ‘out of his mouth,’ that is, by the spoken word, the Gospel which is preached by His followers all over the world, and by which He makes a thorough conquest of His enemies. Isaiah says: ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ (2:4) — fulfilled in the gradual elimination of wars as the world is Christianized and the energies and resources of the people are devoted to peaceful purposes. Again, he says: ‘And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them… And the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea’ (11:6-9) — that is, forces naturally antagonistic and at enmity with each other shall be gradually subdued and reconciled with each other in a new relationship so that they cooperate harmoniously in Messiah’s Kingdom. A fitting example of the wolf dwelling with the lamb is seen in the change that came over the vicious persecutor Saul of Tarsus, who was a wolf ravening and destroying, but who was so transformed by the Gospel of Christ that he became a lamb. After his conversion he lost his hatred for the Christians, and became instead their humble friend, confidant, defender. The lion eats straw like the ox when men who formerly were strong and cruel and wild by nature are so changed by the Gospel that they become gentle, meek, humble, and feed on the word of life along with those who are members of Christ’s Church.

One writer has this to say about Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘Since we have here a description of Christ’s kingdom which is not composed of beasts, wolves, serpents, lions, etc., but of men, we must understand that ‘in all My (God’s) holy mountain,’ that is, the Church of Christ (‘Zion’), the peace that is to reign is of such a nature that those people who formerly were like wolves, bloodthirsty lions, insidious adders will by the grace of God put off their old nature, cease to harm one another, and peacefully dwell together as the lambs of Christ and feed on the green pasture of the Gospel. Of this change of nature St. Paul speaks in plain words (II Cor. 5:17), ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.’ Not only the ferocious persecutor Saul who became the Gospel-preaching, soul-seeking Paul is an example (I Tim. 1:13), but the entire history of Christian missions abounds with such examples’ (L. A. Heerboth, booklet, The Millennium and the Bible, p. 12).

When Ezekiel says that Israel is to be restored to her land forever (37:24 — 28), he indicates clearly that those words are not to be taken literally. He says: ‘And my servant David shall be king over them… David my servant shall be their prince for ever’ (vss. 24,25). Jeremiah likewise says that David is to be their king (30:9). If we take that literally, then David must be raised from the dead to be the millennial king in Palestine,– David, and not Christ. The literalists say that David is here used as a symbol for Christ. But that is not what the Bible says. To take David as a symbol for Christ would be to ‘spiritualize’ the prophecy away. If the other parts of the prophecy are literal this must be too.

To take these descriptions literally is to miss their real beauty and their great spiritual import. The literalistic premillennial interpretation of many Old Testament passages is, as Rutgers points out, ‘even beneath the level of certain passages in the Old Testament itself, which transcend the particular, local color and open up the higher spiritual, ethical and universal. These carnal, materialistic notions,’ he very appropriately adds, ‘are (but) the ‘swaddling clothes’ of Judaism’ (Premillennialism in America, p. 255).

We have indicated earlier that one of the errors of Premillennialism is that it fails to understand that the Church is New Testament Israel. It persists in thinking of ‘Israel’ as composed only of the physical descendants of Abraham. Dispensationalism carries this principle to an almost unprecedented extreme, and insists that in all cases Israel must mean fleshly Israel, or the Jews, that it can never mean the Church, and that the kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament must be fulfilled to the Jews literally. And since some of these were not fulfilled before the nation of Israel passed out of existence, they tell us that Israel must be re-established in Palestine and these fulfilled in a future age.

But the fact of the matter is that the spiritual relationship is more important than, and takes precedence over, the physical. Paul stated that quite clearly when he said: ‘Know therefore that they that are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham’; and again, ‘If ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise’ (Gal. 3:7,29). And Christ himself placed the spiritual above the physical when he said, ‘Whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother’ (Matt. 12:50). The Epistle to the Hebrews is one sustained argument that the old forms and ceremonies and relationships have passed away forever, and that all nations and races now stand as equals before God.