07 April 2014

The Poverty of Hyper-Literalism

In the recent piece on the Gates of Hell I mentioned how the Postmillennial hermeneutic struggles with the imagery of the gates and how they over-read the metaphor to the point it becomes a stumbling block for them and they end up missing the point altogether.

It led me to recall a similar example. Years ago sitting in a Baptist church I recall the pastor alluding to the 'Crossing of the Jordan' under Joshua, and how the normal or perhaps even traditional conceptions of it being a symbol of passing from death unto life were misguided.

The notion that the Jordan was used as a symbol of the Christian leaving this life and passing into the Promised Land (Heaven) presented a great problem.


Well, when the Israelites ventured into Canaan they went about conquering and establishing the Kingdom of Israel and so forth. Heaven for us is a rest and we won't be doing anything like that.

Thus for him crossing the Jordan wasn't death unto life, entering into the rest. No, for him it had to be the Christian stepping across into the Higher Christian Life, a state of enhanced and elevated spirituality. Of course a little 'Second-Blessing' theology was also at work in his thinking...

This is one of the dangers of hyper-literalism and I encounter it all the time. In fact his interpretation is quite common.

God uses types and symbols often in history to communicate larger truths. They are creating an image, a picture in the mind that connects with the larger thematic development we often refer to as the history of salvation or Redemptive-History.

But it's not to be read like a moral tale in a mythological story or even a parable where every last syllable, action and object are part of the lesson or the symbol. This is to miss the forest through the trees.

It's literally true. These were real historical events, and thus so is the typology but it's in how we read it. The New Testament helps us in this as we see how the Apostles and even Christ Himself interact with the text of the Old Testament. Think of the image of a returning Elijah... being fulfilled in John the Baptist.

It's clearly taught, but many stumble over this and without meaning to, actually end up rejecting Christ's words and insist (ironically like the Jews) that Elijah is still yet to come.

Many have overly focused on the particulars of typology and in their zeal to faithfully extrapolate the accurate meaning they miss the true and actual... and thus miss the accurate as well.

Yes, the Old Testament imagery fails at some point which is also demonstrative that it was weak, flawed and ultimately not the reality of which it typified.

Even though Canaan was the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, the reconstituted Eden... it wasn't the 'real' Second Eden, the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Even though the Temple was where the Shekinah dwelt between the Cherubim, it was not the 'real' Temple. It was a symbol of the True Temple that was to come... Jesus Christ. The Temple is a picture of Heaven itself, the throne of God and the way of salvation.

God doesn't live in buildings made of stone. The Temple in Jerusalem (and Jerusalem itself for that matter) could never ever be the real thing.

The Jews got hung up on the symbols of the Temple, the Land, the earthly Kingdom and the Priesthood.

And in their hyper-literal readings they missed the Messiah and His fulfillment of these symbols and prophecies when He was standing right in front of them, teaching them of the Kingdom, the Realm He was establishing through His Person, work and death on the cross.

Passing through the waters was a type of Baptism, both in terms of the ark, the passing through the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan. (See 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 10)

While on the one hand that's the spiritual rebirth (from spiritual death) it's also symbolic of passing from death unto life in terms of our physicality. This body, this sinful flesh dies and passes unto a new life wherein we will have resurrected bodies. Even though we don't 'yet' have them, we're 'already' in the age to come. We're already seated with Christ in heaven. We've already died and risen again as it were. Our salvation consists in our Union with Christ.

And yet we groan and wait eagerly for the redemption yet to come and our new redeemed bodies.

The sea and the waters are often presented as the realms of death and chaos. It is from the sea that the Beasts arise. It is the sea of death and judgment that washed over the earth.

The sea is a barrier between us and the Throne of God. Christ the Mediator makes the way.

Christ saves us from the destructive flood and the floods of fire as it were. Moses as a type of Christ (but a failed type) takes the Hebrews through the sea. Joshua (or Jesus if you like) takes the Hebrews across the Jordan, the valley of the shadow of death into the typological heaven.

It's interesting how the older authors understood this typology a lot better than most Evangelicals in our day. You certainly find it in people like Spurgeon and Bunyan.

I think part of the problem is that Modernism sought to mythologize the Bible by moving from Christ-centered symbolism to a kind of comparative religion motif. They assumed the religion of the Hebrews was just another man-made belief system that due to its situation and context would obviously borrow and modify from the contemporary Middle Eastern cultures and their folklore.

Early 20th Century Fundamentalism represented something of a pendulum swing. It was a strong reaction to Modernism's mythologizing tendencies. Fundamentalism sought to take the Bible very seriously and tended to try and 'justify' the claims of Scripture. This led Fundamentalism to take an almost scientific method in how it approached Scripture. Its understanding of the text took on a more mechanical and systematic/cohesive flare but sadly this did not lead to a better understanding. In fact it led to a classic case of being unable to see the forest through the trees.

Approaching the Bible in an atomistic fashion...focusing on the particular 'literal' meaning of individual verses rather than a thematic typological storyline which told the history of God's Redemptive work they consequently missed the main theme of the Bible--- Jesus Christ.

Ironically most of them think the main storyline is about the Jews and as soon as the Church has been 'raptured' we return to the original plan.

This is to completely misread the New Testament and what it teaches about the Old.

Romans 15 and 1 Corinthians 10 tell us the history of the Old Testament was illustrative of the New Testament reality. Hebrews 10 explains this more clearly and we learn that the Old Testament events and types were shadows all pointing to the New Testament reality which is Jesus Christ. All the promises were about Christ and are fulfilled in him. See 2 Corinthians 1.20 where we learn Christ is the Yes and Amen, the affirmation and confirmation of all the promises.

Anyone who looks for promises to be fulfilled apart from Christ is rejecting Paul's interpretation of the Old Testament.

But the land...

But the Jews...

But the Temple...

Paul says those promises were about Christ and fulfilled in Him.

Treating the Bible like a codebook to be deciphered has led to a shallow and impoverished understanding of typology and certainly the nature and wonder of God's plan throughout history.

Missing Christ means that they are still focused on the types and awaiting their fulfillment. There are still yet future prophetic events to take place but they are all associated with and to be understood in light of Christ.

Yes, there's double-fulfillment... but it's always Christological. The multiple-fulfillments found in Old Testament prophecy were referencing a near future event which somehow typified the work of Christ...either as Saviour or Judge. They also looked ahead and saw the 1st and 2nd Comings, and these were often 'blended' into one event.... for in a sense they are.

But again, the prophecies are always about Christ and in the sense that there are still additional fulfillments that are applicable, they are all centered on the Person and Work of our Lord.

Reading the Bible in a hyper-literalistic fashion has led many Christians to fall into the error of the Jews who read the Old Testament in much the same way. Like the Jews they are focused on a literal Jerusalem with a worldly political kingdom and sadly many of them are chasing after prophetic types and symbols they have not understood.

In their zeal to be literal, they've actually wandered into some of the most fantastic, sensational and bizarre interpretations of prophecy that could ever be imagined. And as to their claims of being literal, they are anything but. They allegorize, spiritualize and have figurative understandings as well... when it's necessary to maintain the system. They are no more 'literal' in their reading of Revelation than I am.

They've missed that the book of Revelation is the story of the Seed of the Woman battling the Seed of the Serpent. It's the story of the Church in the world and the spiritual battle that runs parallel to it. It has nothing to do with China, Russia or the modern state of Israel, let alone rebuilt temples and the like.

These things are fulfilled in Christ, the True Temple, the True Israel.

The Jews were so enamoured with the Temple and the political boundaries of their land they (like the Hyper-Literalists of today) couldn't understand the True Israel, the True Temple was right in front of them.

I often think of the Bibles which put the little 'star' markers in the Old Testament to denote the passages which are specifically about the Messiah. While in some cases these verses are literally quoted and are therefore verified by the New Testament, this atomistic (single-verse) focus demonstrates the poverty of this approach. As you read the Psalms or the Prophets, it's not the individual verses buried (code-fashion) in the text that point to Christ. No, it is the voice of Christ 'the' Prophet speaking through David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel etc... It is Christ speaking of the glorious spiritual Kingdom to come that is Heaven itself.

It is Christ speaking as Judge. Christ is the Righteous Faithful Servant. This is the wonder of Biblical Inspiration. It is Christ speaking through the prophet simultaneously addressing both the contemporary situation and the future in allowing us to glimpse into the eschatological realm, the post-Judgment Zion.

I so look forward to the day I will cross Jordan and rest in Zion, the Promised Land. In Christ, I'm already there.

Here are a couple of relevant links:


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