How literal is literal?

This past weekend has really left me realizing the importance of having a clear and literal hermeneutic. For those who don’t know what a hermeneutic is, it is the science and art of interpreting the Bible. John MacArthur delivered a message at Shepherd’s Conference challenging people to use the same hermeneutics in Revelation as they do in Genesis. His desire was to show how Amilliennialism cannot be the conclusion one comes to while using a clear interpreation of the Bible.

This created quite the uproar. Some questioned whether MacArthur was getting old and is being influenced by others. Some have called him unkind and unloving. Others have said that he set up strawman arguments to make his side look and sound better. While his approach will be questioned and one can debate whether it was the best way to deliver such a message, I don’t think you can discount the message on acount of that.

What it has made me realize is that it is so important to clearly define what a literal hermeneutic is. There are those on both sides taht claim to use it, so I believe we must define what we mean. This is my attempt to narrow down what MacArthur would mean.

Literal could also be described as being “normal” or “plain”. Some have thought that the literal interpretation forces a wooden reading of everything in the Bible. Normal and plain mean that we approach every text as it would normally be approached in the world.

Obviously, there are metaphors and allegories in the text of the Bible, and those are to be interpreted likewise. This isn’t a call to read an allegory literally, but as an allegory. The problem comes when people begin to force an allegory interpretation on a text that isn’t an allegory.

one example of this was a conversation I had on another blog. The man had said that we should interpret 1,000 years as a literal thousand years. He said we don’t pretend to think that “666” or “144,000” are literal, after all. I responded by saying he isn’t be consistent with the text. 666 isn’t a measurment or count of everything, but an image, so that can’t be used to compare to. And to see that 144,000 means anything other than 144,000 isn’t necessary. It isn’t that it is obviously allegorical or a common number that represents something. John specifically chooses that number for a reason! And the fact that he goes into saying it is 12,000 from each tribe only further forces us to interpret that as being literal. If the main sense makes sense, seek no other sense.

The Bible uses non-literal language, and we need to read those passages that way. We need to read the Bible in the way that the original author intended it. The Bible was clear to the people that it was written to, and they were able to understand it. Some would say that you can’t understand the Old Testament without understanding the New Testament, but that would be to say that the people of the OT couldn’t understand the OT.

Language was created in order to clearly communicate an idea. God didn’t give us a language to use so that we can be overly confused by it. God communicated to man in this way because it was His desire to clearly communicate His nature and plan for man. He isn’t trying to keep the cookies on a higher shelf, making it hard to understand what He thinks.

I hope this is clear. I may write later about clear, literal heremeneutics role in prophecy, as that is really where the rubber hits the road, as seen in my example with numbers in Revelation.

Shepherd’s Conference 2007: Update 2

I’m not going to attempt to cover all of what has been taught and preached because I don’t have the time for that and you can just visit Challies.com for that. What I thought I would do is share some highlites thusfar.

Main Sessions
I have to say my favorite so far has to be CJ Mahaney’s message on Humility. For those of you who have not read his book on Humility, I would highly suggest picking it up. It’s a good read and doesn’t take long to get through. Most of what he spoke was in the book, but it it was really good to hear it preached. He spoke from the text of Isaiah 66:1-2. If you purchase one message, that’s the one to get.

The other messages were ok, Dever did well on preaching through various parts of the Daniel 1-6 and belabored the point of the opposition that pastors should expect to face. The last 10 or so minutes of his message were very powerful, as he called for the pastors to rethink their outlook on expecting to be accepted, but instead expecting growing opposition in our culture.

I was honestly a little disappointed with Mohler. He’s one of my heroes and actually spoke on one of my favorite passages, I Cor 2:1-5. It wasn’t the best I’ve heard from him. And Ligon Duncan preached from Numbers 5 as an example of how to preach from the OT. He seemed to find some things in the passage that weren’t necessarily there, though. I heard there are some interesting comments on Challies.com, so I’ll have to go check those out.

Seminars
I have actually only attended one seminar, due to homework. The one I did attend was on prayer, taught by Andy Snyder. It was a good balance of the role of prayer in the pastor’s life and then how that is carried over into the life of the church.

I was planning on going to one taught by Steve Lawson on the life of John Calvin, but the guys from my church decided to head back to the hotel for some time together. We’re buying the audio, so I’ll have to listen to it later.

BOOKS!
Well, this year they didn’t exactly give as many books, but there were a few that I’m pretty excited about. We got a couple MacArthur things. One was a NT Commentary, humorously bound to look just like a Bible. It was even given in a gold cardboard box. We thought that was pretty funny. Two other books by MacArthur were “The Second Coming” and “Because the Time is Near”, which is his reader friendly commentary on Revelation.

We also got one on I also got a book that was on my wishlist, which is a Piper book, “What Jesus Demands from the World”. I was also pleased to receive Steve Lawson’s book, “Foundations of Grace”. That came out last year, but I didn’t get around to buying it. One book that also perked my interest and will be a fun read is “Meet the Puritans” by Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson.

Other books that I do not have much of a knowledge of are “Life in the Body of Christ” (a book about the local church) by Curtis C. Thomas, “For teh Sake of His Name” (on missions) by David M. Doran, and “Assureed by God” edited by Burk Parsons. We also got a DVD by MacArthur called “Why We Believe the Bible Is True.”

As far as some books that I purchased, one I’m very interested in is “Growing Up Christian”. this is written by the principle of the school at Mahaney and Harris’ church. It is a book about kids who grow in up in the church and in Christian families. I was told it would be very useful for youth ministry.

I also bought a brand new book by Lawson, “The Expository Genius of John Calvin”. It was the first day it was available. I purchased a book on suffering by D.A. Carson (“How Long, O Lord?”) that was highly reccommended to me, as well as Piper’s new book on dealing with doubt called “Battling Unbelief”, which was taken from the book, “Future Grace”. I was also able to get “Praying Backwards: Transform Your Prayer Life by Beginning in Jesus’ Name” by Bryan Chapell. So basically, I need to get out of seminary so I can do my own reading.

Personal Experiences
Maybe the best part of this conference is the time that I’ve been able to spend with the pastors, some of the elders and other men from my church. Since Leah’s close to the end of the road, I’m not able to stay with them in their hotel, but i’ve still been here all day with them, and getting to eat and talk with them. Last year we were able to go to the “Together for the Gospel” conference in Louisville, Kentucky, which was an absolute blast.

We’ve shared quite a few laughs, as well as debating a literal six-day creation, dispensationalism, the NT use of the OT, the role of literal Israel in eschatology, as well as the mother of all debates. yes, that’s right, the most devisive debate we’ve had was our ‘Pie vs. Cake’ debate. It didn’t exactly go as I had envisioned it, and to save you the agony of putting you through the whole thing, I may have at one point yelled out “I’m surrounded by lunatics!” in the passanger van we’re cruising around in. Lets just say that I’m surrounded by very unreasonable men when it comes to their high regard for fake, dry cakes. Unfortunately, Geoff was not there at the time to get my back over pies, but the waitress at “The Cheesecake Factory” joined my side. (That also lead to the debate of whether a cheesecake is more of a pie or cake. I hold firm that despite is unfortunate name, it is more of a pie than cake.)

So, that’s all for now. I’ll write some closing comments on the week at another time.

Shepherd’s Conference 2007: Session 1

Thought I would take a moment here to let you know how things are going here at the Shepherd’s Conference. This isn’t intended to be anything like a liveblogging experiment or anything. You can go to Tim Challies’ website for that.

MacArthur kicked things off again, and began talking about how for awhile he had been the only speaker at Shepherd’s Conferences, but had began bringing in other speakers to make it better. Something tells me after this morning that he might have to do a few more if some speakers leave due to his first message.

BANG!
That’s how MacArthur started this week, with a message about God’s sovereign election, the status of Israel, and our eschatology. I know this might sound like a snoozefest to some of you, but it was actually quite entertaining. MacArthur basically laid out an argument about how there is no way that you can be A-Millennial and hold to a clear, grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible.

He basically called out everyong that doesn’t believe in Pre-Millenialism. For those of you who don’t know, it may be convenient that Sproul is not here this year, but Ligon Duncan is… this could be awkward.

MacArthur set out to defend how every selfrespecting Calvinist is Premillennial. He said that A-Mil is perfect for Arminianism, so leave it to them. Leave it to the Openists, leave it to the charasmatics. He set out through the entire Bible to prove that Israel has a promise and a convenant dependent upon God alone, and God still has a plan for them. He did this by showing that there is no a-millennialism in the Old Testament, there was no a-millennialism in the beliefs of the Jews of Jesus’ day, there was no a-millennialsim in the teachings of Jesus, and there was no a-millennialism in the teachings of the apostles.

He took a moment to assure the audience that this would not be about preaching dispensationalism. he said there would be not gift of a Scofield Bible, there would be no hand out of Left Behind books. He said that Henry Kissinger is not the antichrist and Hillary Clinton is not the harlot of Babylon. That one got quite the reaction. He said, “apparently you haven’t heard that theory.”

He spent quite a bit of time in the OT, showing that Israel’s existence proves pre-millennialism. “Israel still exists today… Isn’t that interesting?” followed by a pause… “Have you ever met a Hittite?”

The basic plea was to have the same consistent hermeneutic when you approach Genesis 1-3 as you would in the book of Revelation. God intended language to be able to communicate clearly and not confuse. His purpose was not to be mysterious, but to communicate His plan. Covenant theology makes a practice of reading the NT into the OT. They see that the only way you can understand the OT is to read it through the lense of the NT.

This was somewhat of a shocker for him to start out with, but you can understand why he would do this. This has been an increasing problem in graduates of both the college and seminary, and the covenants of grace have grown in popularity. The MacArthur that preached today was the result of seeing so many people use inconsistent hermenuetics and totally misplay the interpretation of the end times.

He also traced the effect that this practice has on witnessing to Jews. You tell them that Jesus was the Messiah and they’ll ask you, ‘Where’s the kingdom?’ Response: “We’re in it!” “Why are we being killed?” “Why don’t we have the whole land?” “THIS IS THE KINGDOM?!” Finally, he wrapped with the quote: “Al Gore is not in charge of the end of the world.”

I don’t know if I liked this more than I normally would because I had just studied this in my Theology class, but I thought it was needed. I agree that we are too quick to say that we will agree to disagree on such horrible hermeneutics when it comes to end times. This will also make the rest of the week interesting, as we have speakers here who would very much disagree with what MacArthur said. Stay tuned.

One sad note, John Piper will not be able to be here, as his father passed away last night. He spent the last couple days by his father’s bed, singing some of his favorite hymns and recounting the goodness of God. In his place, C.J. Mahaney was in the neighborhood and has agreed to come and fill in. Should be interesting to hear Mahaney’s self depricating introduction about filling in for John Piper.