debate at Cairn

Last week, I participated at Cairn University in a friendly, intra-evangelical debate on eschatology (future things, premill, postmill, amill, and all that); also on the panel were Dr. John Master of Cairn University, Dr. Gregg Strawbridge, pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Vern Poythress of Westminster. The whole thing was recorded and is available below:

At one point, Dr. Master forwarded the old dispensationalist point that dispensational, pre-trib rapturist, premillennialists interpret the Bible “more consistently literally” than anyone else, that the key to understanding prophetic literature is to take it literally, rather than metaphorically.

To which I replied, “literal vs. metaphorical” does not represent a sufficient number of categories for the kind of interpretive assessment really called for. Nor is emphasis on “consistently literal” particularly persuasive as a point of distinction in light of how the New Testament (Jesus in particular) reads the Old Testament. Consider:

In John 2:

Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” To which the Jewish leaders therefore replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple! And you say you will raise it up in three days?!”

— Why did these Jewish leaders misunderstand Jesus? They took him too ___________ [fill in the blank].

In John 3:

Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” To which Nicodemus replies, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

— Why did Nicodemus misunderstand Jesus? He took him too ___________ [fill in the blank].

In John 4:

Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” To which the woman replies, “But, sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; from where are you going to get this living water?”

— Why did the woman at the well misunderstand Jesus? She took him too ___________ [fill in the blank].

In John 5:

Jesus REBUKES the Pharisees hermeneutical approach. “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; but these Scriptures actually bear witness of Me.”

— Given that there is no explicit mention of Jesus per se in the Old Testament, what about the Pharisees’ approach to Scripture-reading and Law-keeping is He rebuking? In part, is it they are approaching the Old Testament Scriptures overly ___________ [fill in the blank].

In John 6:

Jesus tells the crowd following Him, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is My flesh. To which some of the followers began to argue with one another, and reply, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”

— Why did these followers misunderstand Jesus? Because they took him too ___________ [fill in the blank].

Now, in chapter after chapter, John gives example after example, explicitly and implicitly rebuking a hermeneutical approach to reading the Scriptures and hearing of Jesus that botches the interpretation by taking them too . . . LITERALLY! And then, who writes the book of Revelation? . . . Same guy! What is the likelihood that “the key” to interpreting Revelation properly then is to be stubbornly insistent enough to interpret it . .. “literally”? . . . ! Yeah, right. I doubt it.

What I Wish I had added:

That’s what I said at the debate. And I still stand by that part. But then the moderator said, “I understand what you’re saying, but none of these examples are from the Old Testament.” . . . By that point, I knew I’d taken a bit of time to make my melodramatic run at scoring debate points through this little survey of the gospel of John. And others jumped in at that point to suggest that, yeah, interesting point, but not definitive, etc.

And THAT’s where I WISH I would have jumped in and just made this brief assertion: alright, these examples aren’t from the Old Testament. But aren’t I within a hairsbreadth? I mean, if Jesus comes on the scene and, in chapter 2 already of John’s gospel, is making the point (right in line with John’s introduction of Jesus in chapter 1 that “the Word became flesh and ‘tabernacled’ among us” (John 1:14), then isn’t Jesus telling us something about the purpose of the temple in the Old Testament? When Solomon builds the temple, he tells us explicitly that this temple, the “house of God,” cannot REALLY (“LITERALLY’ [!!]) “contain” Him; shoot — “literally speaking,” not even the highest heavens can “house” Him! (1 Kings 8:27)

So . . . might Jesus’ “reconfiguration” of what “the temple” is have significance for understanding the Old Testament revelation in general? To wit: what if it’s the TEMPLE that’s the “metaphor” for JESUS (“God with us” embodied “LITERALLY” in human flesh!) rather than the other way around?!! And might that help explain also why the temple vision of Ezekiel (in chapters 40 and following) has such peculiar features — it’s a giant temple (that stretches beyond the borders of Jerusalem) because it’s actually pointing to something greater than a “literal” building? And why the water that flows from this “building” (in Ezek. 47) flows so funny — in that it gets deeper and deeper the farther away from “the source,” rather than like “literal water,” that one would think would start deep and get shallower and shallower? Might it be that the “literal building” is not the point, any more than the “literal animals” that appear in Daniel’s visions (of Daniel 7 and 8)? . . .

That’s what I WISH I’d said. . . . The French have a phrase for that — l’esprit d’escalier.

Anyway, am I making any sense here? Get what I’m trying to get at about “literal” interpretation being too narrow and too shallow of a hermeneutical conception?

I’d love to get your feedback and interaction on this.

About the Author

Todd Mangum

Dr. R. Todd Mangum

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical. He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention. Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and co-author (with Dr. Paul Pettit of the Howard Hendricks Leadership Center in Dallas, TX) of the just-released book, Blessed are the Balanced: Following Jesus into the Academy (Kregel), and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.

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