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On the Interpretation of Prophecy

It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage is a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).

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