The Reformed position has always approached Scripture using a literal hermeneutic—one that takes the Bible at face value and applies the normal rules of language in order to understand the text.
None other than John Calvin was a staunch defender of the literal method of Bible interpretation. As he explained, “Let us know that the true meaning of Scripture is the genuine and simple one, and let us embrace and hold it tightly. Let us . . . boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those fictitious expositions which lead us away from the literal sense” (Commentary on Galatians 4:22).
Calvin’s commitment to literal hermeneutics meant he sought the original author’s intended meaning. He wrote, “Since it is almost [the interpreter’s] only task to unfold the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to expound, he misses the mark, or at least strays outside his limits, by the extent to which he leads his readers away from the meaning of the author [of Scripture]” (“Dedicatory Letter to Simon Grynaeus,” in Calvin’s Commentary on Romans).
In interpreting the text, Calvin underscored the seriousness of biblical exposition. He wrote, “It is presumptuous and almost blasphemous to turn the meaning of Scripture around without due care, as though it were some game that we were playing” (ibid.)
Moreover, he aggressively opposed an allegorical interpretation of the text.
This error [of allegory] has been the source of many evils. Not only did it open the way for the adulteration of the natural meaning of Scripture but also set up boldness in allegorizing as the chief exegetical virtue. Thus many of the ancients without any restraint played all sorts of games with the sacred Word of God, as if they were tossing a ball to and fro. It also gave heretics a chance to throw the Church into turmoil, for when it is accepted practice for anybody to interpret any passage in any way he desired, any mad idea, however absurd or monstrous, could be introduced under the pretext of allegory. Even good men were carried away by their mistaken fondness for allegories into formulating a great number of perverse opinions. (Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:6)
Thus Calvin concluded that students of God’s Word must “entirely reject the allegories of Origen, and of others like him, which Satan, with the deepest subtlety, has endeavored to introduce into the Church, for the purpose of rendering the doctrine of Scripture ambiguous and destitute of all certainty and firmness” (Commentary on Genesis 2:8).
Premillennialists wholeheartedly affirm statements such as these. A literal hermeneutic is the exegetical key on which premillennialism rests.
But significantly, Calvin proved to be inconsistent in the application of his own commitment to literal hermeneutics, especially when he came to end times prophecy. In millennial passages, the renowned Reformer all-too-quickly jettisoned his own literal hermeneutic and used an allegorical approach instead.
As he himself explained:
When the prophets describe the kingdom of Christ, they commonly draw similitudes from the ordinary life of men. . . . But those expressions are allegorical and are accommodated by the prophet to our ignorance, that we may know, by means of those things which are perceived by our senses, those blessings which have so great and surpassing excellence that our minds cannot comprehend them. (Commentary on Isaiah 30:25, emphasis added)
For example, in his commentary on Amos 9, Calvin completely abandoned a literal approach to the text, arguing instead that the passage is full of “metaphorical expressions” and “figurative expressions.” In his view, the prophet Amos spoke of physical blessings in order to describe to Israel the “spiritual blessings” and “spiritual abundance” of the church. As Calvin himself concluded:
If anyone objects and says, that the Prophet does not speak here allegorically; the answer is ready at hand, even this, —that it is a manner of speaking everywhere found in Scripture, that a happy state is painted as it were before our eyes, by setting before us the conveniences of the present life and earthly blessings: this may especially be observed in the Prophets, for they accommodated their style, as we have already stated, to the capacities of a rude and weak people. (Commentary on Amos 9:13–15)
But if Calvin had interpreted Amos 9 and other apocalyptic passages in the same way he interpreted the rest of the Bible, using the literal hermeneutic he championed, he would have inevitably reached premillennial conclusions. After all, a literal hermeneutic, consistently applied, leads to premillennialism—a point which amillennial scholars have openly admitted over the years.
For example, here are a few amillennial authors who acknowledge that very point:
Herman Bavinck: “With equal vigor and force, all the prophets announce not only the conversion of Israel and the nations but also the return to Palestine, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the restoration of the temple, the priesthood, and sacrificial worship, and so on. . . . Prophecy pictures for us but one single image of the future. And this image is either to be taken literally as it presents itself [and as premillennialists take it] . . . or this image calls for a very different interpretation than that attempted by chiliasm [premillennialism].” (Reformed Dogmatics, 658)
William Masselink: “If all prophecy must be interpreted in a literal way, the Chiliastic [premillennial] views are correct; but if it can be proved that these prophecies have a spiritual meaning, then Chiliasm must be rejected.” (Why Thousand Years?, 31)
Anthony Hoekema: “Amillennialists, on the other hand, believe that though many Old Testament prophecies are indeed to be interpreted literally, many others are to be interpreted in a nonliteral way.” (“Amillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, 156)
Graeme Goldsworthy: “It could be argued that, though the details may be hard to pin down because of the prophetic preference for poetic imagery and metaphor, the big picture is abundantly clear. On this basis, the literalist asserts that God reveals through the prophets that his kingdom comes with the return of the Jews to Palestine, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the restoration of the temple. . . . The literalist must become a futurist, since a literalistic fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy has not yet taken place.” (Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 170–71)
Loraine Boettner, a postmillennialist, echoes similar sentiments: “It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine with the Jews having a prominent place in that kingdom and ruling over the other nations.” (“Postmillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, 95)
As these examples demonstrate, premillennialism is the result of the consistent application of literal hermeneutics. Though Calvin strongly advocated the literal approach, he was inconsistent in the application of that hermeneutic. Generations of Reformed theologians have followed his example, adopting an allegorical approach to many prophetic passages.
But, with all due respect to the distinguished Reformer, there is no good reason to change our hermeneutic when we encounter biblical prophecy. We ought to interpret prophecy the same way we interpret history, as a record of events that will happen just as they are revealed. As J. C. Ryle rightly remarked,
All these [prophetic] texts are to my mind plain prophecies of Christ’s second coming and kingdom. All are yet without their accomplishment, and all shall yet be literally and exactly fulfilled. I say “literally and exactly fulfilled,” and I say so advisedly. From the first day that I began to read the Bible with my heart, I have never been able to see these texts, and hundreds like them, in any other light. It always seemed to me that as we take literally the texts foretelling that the walls of Babylon shall be cast down, so we ought to take literally the texts foretelling that the walls of Zion shall be built up—that as according to prophecy the Jews were literally scattered, so according to prophecy the Jews will be literally gathered—and that as the least and minutest predictions were made good on the subject of our Lord’s coming to suffer, so the minutest predictions shall be made good which describe our Lord’s coming to reign. (Wheat or Chaff?, 85)
As Ryle points out, it is inconsistent to arbitrarily change our method of interpretation when we come to biblical prophecy. Calvin’s own reasons for doing so were based on his assumption that those prophecies had not yet been fulfilled in history, and therefore could not be taken literally (cf. David Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament, 113.) By rejecting the possibility of a future fulfillment, Calvin embraced the very hermeneutical error he denounced: the allegorical method.
But the allegorical hermeneutic, even when used in moderation (as Calvin used it), is full of dangers—because it opens the door to an endless number of possible, spiritualized interpretations.
The text ought to be taken at face-value, not in a woodenly-literalistic way, but according to the normal use of language. To repeat an excellent line from Calvin, “Let us know that the true meaning of Scripture is the genuine and simple one.” If he had applied that principle to every biblical passage, the history of Reformed eschatology would have been radically different.
Those who follow in the Reformed tradition, who hold to a literal approach to Bible interpretation, ought to be the foremost advocates of premillennialism. From the standpoint of hermeneutics, it is inconsistent for them not to be.
Today’s post is adapted from Dr. MacArthur’s chapter 7 in Christ’s Prophetic Plans (Moody, 2012).