Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sun Darkened and Moon turned to Blood


There are some who claim that Matthew 24 is using "dramatic hyperbole" when the Bible says "sun, and moon darkened" (e.g. Matt. 24:29) giving the interpreter license to dream up whatever he or she wants. For example, Dr. Gentry says of Matthew 24:29, "What does verse 29 mean? To understand it properly, we must interpret it covenantally, which is to say biblically, rather than according to a presupposed simple literalism." (Thomas Ice & Kenneth Gentry, The Great Tribulation: Past or Future (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), p. 55) Gentry provides the following examples as "apocalyptic language" saying it is a "dramatic way of expressing national calamity or victory in battle." And he backs up his claim citing: Judges 4-5; Isaiah 13:10; 13; Ezek. 32:2, 7-8; Jer. 4:11, 23-24, 29; and Joel 2:1, 10. By saying that the author uses "dramatic hyperbole," and "apocalyptic language," the critic means to change what the author intends into some perversion of what the interpreter wants.

Though it is true that dramatic hyperbole is used as part of normal speech, it is also true that since God Himself created the heavens and the earth, He alone is able to do with His creation as He pleases. And with respect to references concerning the sun and moon, I cannot find a single instance where God uses them as "hyperbole." They are found to be used as metaphors, but not hyperbolically. The Lord usually has no need for hyperbole. So, for example, when Joshua "intensely spoke" with God in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites and the sun and moon stopped in the sky (Josh. 10:12-13), did the sun and moon literally stop in the sky? The critic does not question the literalness of this event does he? When one reads of this event there is no way to understand it any other way than literal because of the context and the events that are described. There are a few natural grammatical rules that demand a normal reading. First, the result clause is given which provides no room for metaphor; "So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole (complete) day." (v. 13)

In Scripture there are often times when literary pictures are painted in order to describe an event. When one comes across these pictures, this type of language, there is no mistaking what is meant or how to interpret it. This article examines the historical development of interpretation and how we got to this debate. Then the sun, moon and stars as literary agents will be examined, providing common sense interpretative rules identifying the literary picture that is being drawn. And, finally, when a figurative or metaphoric interpretation is demanded and when a literal meaning is expected.

The Allegorical Verses Literal Method

The Literal

The literal method of interpretation is what everyone learns in elementary school. It is the normal way of reading, and contrary to those who profess otherwise, there is no difference in the way one reads the Bible and any other literary book. When it comes to basic rules of grammar and addressing the who, what, when, why and where, communication is communication! The rules of grammar, like the rules of physics, have been established by God and are fixed. It is God who supernaturally created the laws of communication. The rules are universal! Just as one cannot expect to ignore the physical laws such as gravity and live to tell the story, so one cannot ignore the rules of grammar and expect the audience to understand. Especially since God's intention is that all might hear His word and understand! God is a God of order and rules. One cannot work around His rules without perverting what He has established.

Dr. Ryrie says of the normal, plain method, "In giving us the revelation of Himself, God desires to communicate, not obscure, the truth. So we approach the interpretation of the Bible presupposing the use of normal canons of interpretation. Remember that when symbols, parables, types, etc. are used they depend on an underlying literal sense for their existence, and their interpretation must always be controlled by the concept that God communicates in a normal, plain, or literal manner." (Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), pp. 16-17).

The literal method is what the early church used which is clear by examining the historical record of their writing. The literal method is what the orthodox Jewish school used which, likewise, is clear by examining their early writings and practice. The literal method is the normal method and is what God intended. The allegorical method is what the Greeks came to use in order to make their strange mythology acceptable and believable.

It is true to say that the Bible contains allegory, figures of speech, metaphors, idioms, and etc. But what has happened to the interpretation of the Bible is that interpreters in their zeal to provide an emotional response to the word of God, or prove some perverted theory, going outside the immediate text to bring out "spiritual" truth that may or may not be there!

The Allegorical Method

The allegorical method of Bible interpretation seeks to find deep spiritual meaning with every passage in the Bible. The word allegory comes to the English from the Greek where it is a compound word meaning "other (of the same kind) to speak," "to say what is either designed or fitted to convey a meaning other than the literal one." So the word is defined in a modern dictionary as "the use of characters or events to represent ideas or principles in a story, play, or picture."

The first biblically applied appearance of the allegorical method came from the Hellenistic dominated Alexandrian Jews and the most notorious being the Jewish philosopher Philo. Philo's famous work on the creation account illustrates his method as he changes the creation account into a spiritual lesson on virtue:

And God planted a paradise in Eden, in the east: and there he placed the man whom he had formed for he called that divine and heavenly wisdom by many names; and he made it manifest that it had many appellations; for he called it the beginning, and the image, and the sight of God. And now he exhibits the wisdom which is conversant about the things of the earth (as being an imitation of this archetypal wisdom), in the plantation of this Paradise... (45) God therefore sows and implants terrestrial virtue in the human race, being an imitation and representation of the heavenly virtue. For, pitying our race, and seeing that it is exposed to abundant and innumerable evils, he firmly planted terrestrial virtue as an assistant against and warderoff of the diseases of the soul; being, as I have said before, an imitation of the heavenly and archetypal wisdom which he calls by various names. Now virtue is called a paradise metaphorically, and the appropriate place for the paradise is Eden; and this means luxury: and the most appropriate field for virtue is peace, and ease, and joy; in which real luxury especially consists. (46) Moreover, the plantation of this paradise is represented in the east; for right reason never sets, and is never extinguished, but it is its nature to be always rising. And as I imagine, the rising sun fills the darkness of the air with light, so also does virtue when it has arisen in the soul, irradiate its mist and dissipate the dense darkness. (47) "And there," says Moses, "he placed the man whom he had formed:" for God being good, and having formed our race for virtue, as his work which was most akin to himself, places the mind in virtue, evidently in order that it, like a good husband, may cultivate and attend to nothing else except virtue.. (53) "And the man whom he had formed," Moses says, "God placed in the Paradise, for the present only... (54) Therefore, the man modelled after the idea of God, is perceived not only amid the planting of the virtues, but, besides this, he is their cultivator and guardian; that is to say, he is mindful of the things which he has heard and practised. But the man who is factitious, neither cultivates the virtues, nor guards them, but is only introduced into opinions by the abundant liberality of God, being on the point of immediately becoming an exile from virtue...

Notice how Philo takes the names of the rivers of Eden and applies a rather lengthy explanation relating the creation account to his made up virtues:

(63) "And a river goes forth out of Eden to water the Paradise. From thence it is separated into four heads: the name of the one is Pheison. That is the one which encircles the whole land of Evilat. There is the country where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good. There also are the carbuncle and the sapphire stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon; this is that which encircles the whole land of Ethiopia. And the third river is the Tigris. This is the river which flows in front of the Assyrians. And the fourth river is the Euphrates." In these words Moses intends to sketch out the particular virtues. And they also are four in number, prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Now the greatest river from which the four branches flow off, is generic virtue, which we have already called goodness; and the four branches are the same number of virtues. (64) Generic virtue, therefore, derives its beginning from Eden, which is the wisdom of God; which rejoices and exults, and triumphs, being delighted at and honoured on account of nothing else, except its Father, God, and the four particular virtues, are branches from the generic virtue, which like a river waters all the good actions of each, with an abundant stream of benefits.. One of the four virtues is prudence, which Moses here calls Pheison: because the soul abstains, {pheiso from pheidomai, to spare, or abstain from.} from, and guards against, acts of iniquity.. (67) And when he uses the expression, "that is the country where there is gold," he is not speaking geographically, that is, where gold exists, but that is the country in which that valuable possession exists, brilliant as gold, tried in the fire, and valuable, namely, prudence.. (68) "And the name of the second river is Gihon. This is that which encircles all the land of Ethiopia." Under the symbol of this river courage is intended. For the name of Gihon being interpreted means chest, or an animal which attacks with its horns; each of which interpretations is emblematical of courage.. (69) "And the third river is the Tigris; this is that which flows in front of Assyria." The third virtue is temperance, which resolutely opposes that kind of pleasure which appears to be the directress of human infirmity. For the translation of the name Assyrians in the Greek tongue is euthynontes, (directors). And he has likened desire to a tiger, which is the most untameable of beasts; it being desire about which temperance is conversant.. (72) "And the fourth river," continues Moses, "is the river Euphrates." And this name Euphrates means fertility; and symbolically taken, it is the fourth virtue, namely, justice, which is most truly a productive virtue, and one which gladdens the intellect.
Finally, notice how Philo's allegory of the creation account moves logically to the theological as he redefines and minimizes spiritual death to simply mean destruction of virtue:

(105) Accordingly God says, "In the day in which ye eat of it ye shall die the death." And yet, though they have eaten of it, they not only do not die, but they even beget children, and are the causes of life to other beings besides themselves. What, then, are we to say? Surely that death is of two kinds; the one being the death of the man, the other the peculiar death of the soul--now the death of the man is the separation of his soul from his body, but the death of the soul is the destruction of virtue and the admission of vice;

As can be observed by the technique used by Philo, the allegorical method affects the theological. That is the purpose of allegorical method. Take what is normal and change it into something different and in most cases more difficult. While the modern evangelical does not support such extreme allegory, a less extreme, but no less result is supported by some who desire to minimize sections of Scripture that do not line up with their doctrine. An example of the allegorical approach in modern evangelicalism can be seen by the words of Dr. Gary DeMar who argues for the symbolical interpretation when he writes:

The darkening of the sun and moon and the falling of the stars, coupled with the shaking of the heavens (24:29), are more descriptive ways of saying that 'heaven and earth will pass away' (24:35). In other contexts, when stars fall, they fall to the earth, a sure sign of temporal judgment (Isaiah 14:12; Daniel 8:10; Revelation 6:13; 9:1; 12:4). So then, "passing away of heaven and earth" is the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism (1 Cor. 2:8). (
John MacArther, in Tim LaHaye & Thomas Ice gen. ed., The End Times Controversy (Eugene: Harvest House Books, 2003), p. 111)

This is reading into the text something that is not there. It is spiritualized eisegesis (reading into) not proper exegesis - taking out of the text what is there, not adding things to the text that cannot be substantiated by the text itself. Notice he says "in other contexts," which takes the reader away from the immediate context. Can you imagine, the visual signs simply mean the passing away of the old covenant world of Judaism (in 70 A.D.)? This is classic destructive biblical allegorism.

The Early Church Fathers
Though the literal dominated the fathers up to the around AD 250, it was at that time that the allegorical method started dominating Christendom. Origen (ca A.D. 185-254) is known as Mr. Allegorism though the technique that he came to promote was past down from Greek philosophy to the Alexandrian Jew Philo (ca 20 B.C.-54 A.D.) who did not think that the literal meaning was useless, but "it represented the immature level of understanding. The literal was the body of Scripture, and the allegorical sense its soul." (Barnard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1970), p. 27). This type of thinking, namely, that the allegorical is the more important sense of the word, is found in Origen's work On First Principles, where he argues, "that if no spiritual significance is found on the surface of a Bible passage, it may be concluded that the verses are to be taken symbolically.. In short time, Origen 'made allegory the dominant method of biblical interpretation down to the end of the Middle Ages.It took no genius to recognize that such allegory was a desperate effort to avoid the plain meaning of the text, and that, indeed, is how Origen viewed it.'" (Mal Couch, gen.ed., An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids:Kregel Publications, 2000), p. 99)

Augustine (A.D. 354-430) furthered the allegorical method by trying to develop a theory of signs. He "speaks of natural objects which are precepts but not signs, e.g., a piece of wood or metal. Next he speaks of things which signify other things. A tree may signify forestry service, a shoe a shoemaker, and an anvil the blacksmith guild..He defines a sign as: 'A thing which apart from the impression that it presents to the senses, causes of itself some other thing to enter our thoughts." (Ramm, p. 35)

Bernard Ramm in his classic work Protestant Biblical Interpretation defines the allegorical technique as "allegorical interpretation believes that beneath the letter (rhētē) or the obvious (phanera) is the real meaning (hyponoia) of the passage." (Ramm, p. 24) He goes on to note the following warning:
If the writer states that he is writing an allegory and gives us the cue, or if the cue is very obvious (as in an allegorical political satire), the problem of interpretation is not too difficult. But if we presume that the document has a secret meaning (hyponoia) and there are no cues concerning the hidden meaning interpretation is difficult. In fact, the basic problem is to determine if the passage has such a meaning at all. The further problem arises whether the secret meaning was in the mind of the original writer or something found there by the interpreter. If there are no cues, hints, connections, or other associations which indicate that the record is an allegory, and what the allegory intends to teach, we are on very uncertain grounds.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages brought the allegorical method to its most refined in the Roman Catholic Church who dominated life in the west. The use of the Scriptures placed outside the people's native tongue only served to further distance the author from the interpreter. The Roman Church's insistence upon a common Bible in the Latin Vulgate moved the Word further from the individual. The Latin Vulgate moved the word of God first from the original languages and secondly from the individual believer, who often times could not read Latin, to the Church and her hierarchy. This resulted in an interpretative disaster as the Church became the only authoritative source of interpretation. And the Church strictly enforced her authority. A set of fundamental rules of interpretation resulted. Dr. Ramm writes:

It would be over-simplification to assert that the only method of exegesis during the Middle Ages was the allegorical. It would not, however, be an exaggeration to assert that the preponderance of exegetical work was allegorical. To clarify terminology we should note that the scholastics divided the meaning of the Bible into the literal and the spiritual (i.e., the spirit is more central to human personality than the body, so the spiritual meaning of the Bible is the more important one) or the mystical (i.e., it is more refined, subtle, less obvious). Under the spiritual or mystical are the three divisions of (i) allegorical or what passes as a combination of typology and allegorism, (ii) tropological or moral interpretation, and (iii) anagogical or how the church now anticipates the church glorified, the eschatological sense.

The Roman Catholic Church developed Origen's three-fold sense (the literal, the moral, and the spiritual) into the four-fold, splitting the spiritual into the allegorical and the anagogical. Dr. Paul Tan illustrates their four-fold technique using Genesis 1:3 "Let there be light" as follows: "Medieval churchmen interpreted that sentence to mean (1) Historically or literally - An act of creation; (2) Morally - May we be mentally illuminated by Christ; (3) Allegorically - Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically - May we be led by Christ to glory." (Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Dallas:Bible Communications, Inc, 1993) p. 53).

The Reformation
The Reformation brought the original languages back as the source of mainstream interpretation and brought the literal method back to a large mainstream group within the Church. The Protestants had enough and their blood flowed defending themselves, opposing the perverted interpretative techniques and tradition of the Roman Church. The result was the Protestant's call for Sola Scriptura.

The two most famous individuals of the reformation, Luther and Calvin, rejected the allegory of the Roman Church. Both relied on the original languages of the Bible and promoted a return to the literal method. Luther called allegorical interpretation "dirt," "scum," "obsolete loose rags," and likened allegorizing to a harlot and to a monkey game. Calvin aired the same distaste as he called it Satanic because it led men away from the truth of Scripture. But they were not totally free from allegory as they too practiced the technique in a different form than the Roman Church, but allegory it what it still was.

Post ReformationThe post reformation era continued the reformer's method of "literal" interpretation. The problem was for the most part that their method was not pure. Most carried over allegory when it suited their theology. For example, they continued the technique of Augustine to interpret non-prophetic portions of Scripture literally and prophetic portions allegorically. With the creation of a system of theology called Covenant Theology in the sixteenth century, the interpreter had to change anything that was in conflict with Covenant Theology's imagined covenants into something else. The most popular technique used to harmonize their theology is the allegorical method. The same intent as the early Greeks is achieved, namely, to change the normal meaning into something different. The same intent as the Roman Catholic Church is maintained, namely, they maintain their tradition and creeds. The result is the perversion of the Word of God. They are changing it, perverting it into something that the laws of grammar do not allow. The plain reading of Scripture is changed in order to "prove their theology" which the plain reading destroys.

The Literalists of the Post Reformation
The proponents of reading Scripture using normal rules, the same rules used to read any historical material, not placing any theological restrictions, spiritual measuring rods, or ecclesiastical demands, became a solid base in the sixteenth century. It was during this period that premillennialism came back so to speak, from the dead. The normal reading of Scripture and hence, premillennialism, was dominate in the early church until the mid-three hundreds when allegory took center stage. With the reformation, some scholars of the sixteenth century returned to a more pure form of normal interpretation and hence the return of premillennialism was scattered throughout the Protestants of the west.

"In contrast [to Amillennialists], premillennialist, following the teaching of the early church, treat the Second Coming with the same literal hermeneutic as they would the First Coming of Jesus. They hold that the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, should be understood literally from a normal reading unless typology or poetry is clearly used. And even then, premillennialists believe that 'literalness' is implied behind the figure of speech or illustration used." (Mal Couch, gen.ed., An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids:Kregel Publications, 2000), p. 11)

To speak of a normal reading of Scripture is to say that one reads with a literal, grammatical-historical technique. Dr. Ice notes, "Literal interpretation of the Bible simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary usage of its language. How is this done? It can only be accomplished through the grammatical (according to the rules of grammar), historical (consistent with the historical setting of the passage), contextual (in accord with the context) method of interpretation." (Thomas Ice. in Tim LaHaye & Thomas Ice gen. ed., The End Times Controversy (Eugene Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), p. 69)

One of the foremost literalist was the Englishman Joseph Mede (1586-1638) who was a fellow of Christ's College Cambridge and an important intellectual of his day. He served as professor of Greek and was self-taught in Hebrew. He, as all the intellectuals of that day, was well versed in many subjects. Mathematics, logic, and theology were all subjects he was known for. His importance in the movement towards literalism is primarily due to his teaching and influence upon the next generation.

The normal reading of Scripture came down to the incredible scholastic researcher John Gill (1679-1771). Though not consistent in his many writings, his premillennial literal view is significant for his day. The Irishman John Darby (1800-1882) used the literal method to understand the Scriptures as revealing a set of dispensations that God deals with nations, laws, Israel, and the Gentiles in a unique way. The Scriptures describe God's dealing with people and nations and their subsequent failure to obey God resulting in judgment.

But it was the twentieth century and the Scofield Reference Bible that popularized the common sense normal reading of the Bible. C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) published his reference Bible in 1909 and along with the many Bible conferences and the Bible Church movement, the Bible and the literal method became a popular method.

Among the Evangelical Church, the Scofield Reference Bible and the return to a normal reading of Scripture, has found its harsh critics. The allegorical method and its intoxicating spiritual message are alluring even to the most sober of believer. It sounds good to the ear, but has no solid ground to stand on. It perverts the Word and only serves to satisfy the one who has an agenda, be it theological, spiritual, or ecclesiastical.

What has survived of the allegorical method in evangelical circles is mostly characterized by typological. That is, since the reformation the expositor has used words from other sections of Scripture to justify his or her interpretation. Where words might mean one thing in one section of Scripture does not mean that the word means that very same thing in every section of Scripture. Grammar and context is what is used in a normal reading.

In the next article, the sun and moon will examined systematically and Dr. Gentry's list of apocalyptic language will be examined along with more on the modern evangelical's use, or rather misuse, of context and cultural word usage.