THE widespread confusion evident among Christians when it comes to interpreting Biblical prophecies with regard to last-days events is largely owing to lack of a clearly defined set of Biblical principles of prophetic interpretation. Such principles or rules are indispensable as a safeguard against exegetical anarchy, as the assurance of the eternal purpose of God and the unity of the everlasting gospel.
Generally speaking, two extreme principles of interpretation have been followed, neither of which makes Christ the norm of Scripture interpretation: allegorism and literalism. The first, allegorism, spiritualizes all terms into speculative ideas, denying the literary and historical context of each word; the second, literalism, interprets each term into profane, everyday meaning, ignoring the religious-spiritual values that the words carry within the over-all plan of redemptive history. Literalism then becomes "letteralism" and leads to a forced exegesis. While allegorism searches for the secret spiritual meaning by ignoring the letter, literalism stresses the letter at the expense of adequately considering the spiritual value the word carries in its own con text. Both suffer from a compartmentalizing of Scripture.
When the Bible is experienced as the saving gospel in Christ Jesus it can also be accepted as a religious book containing spiritual letters or "living oracles" (cf. Acts 7:38). The literal word of God is never empty. It contains in itself the working of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ (1 Pet. 1:11). Therefore the illumination of the Spirit of God is a prerequisite for grasping the deep meaning of the words of Holy Scripture (see 1 Cor. 2:12-14). This meaning includes the personal application of redemptive-historical truths, that is, the individual identification of the soul with Christ as man's substitute and surety.
Only when what God has to say is related to Him and His over-all plan of redemption in Christ (1 Cor. 10:4; Heb. 4:2) will the literal-historical sense of the prophetic scriptures be fully recognized.
It is true that God's revelations always bear a historical character and that there is, consequently, a progressive revelation in Scripture. To realize this historical perspective is of basic importance to all prophetic interpretation. But this should not prevent us from accepting the principle that later inspired writers of Scripture further unfold and develop more clearly the revelations of earlier prophets.
This leads to what has been called the "hermeneutical circle." In prophetic interpretation the application of the hermeneutical-circle principle means that the full understanding of a single text is possible only on the basis of a pre-understanding of the total context of Scripture and its overarching plan of salvation. Of course, such a comprehensive view of Scripture is received only from an understanding of single texts. This going back and forth from a single point to the whole circle constitutes what is known as the hermeneutical circle.
Interrelating of Testaments
Of crucial importance in this ongoing interaction within the circle of Scripture is the theological interrelationship of the Old Testament and New Testament. In this wider context our understanding really is rooted in presuppositions. Here the line of demarcation is drawn be tween the historic Protestant hermeneutic and that of modern Dispensationalism. Dispensational theology is based on the presupposition of fundamentally contrasting dispensations and covenants in God's plan. Christ's covenant with His church is then conceived to be basically different from God's plan with Israel. Only in so far as the New Testament reintroduces parts of the Old Testament for the church is the Old Testament still relevant for Christians.
Historic Reformation theology is based on the concept of the fundamental unity of the old and the new covenants in Christ. That makes the Old Testament still extremely relevant for the church. The new covenant is seen as the renewal and further unfolding of God's covenant with Israel in Christ Jesus. (See Calvin, Institutes II, 10-11.)
The Unity of Word and Spirit
In harmony with the sixteenth-century Reformation, Adventist Bible interpretation confesses that the unify ing theme of the Old Testament and New Testament is Jesus Christ and the redemption that centers in Him. There fore we accept by faith the spiritual unity of the Bible on the basis that both the Old Testament and New Testament claim to be inspired by the same God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). If the whole of Scripture is the Word of God, its various teachings should all form a coherent unity, a religious-spiritual harmony, one Christ-centered and Spirit-filled message (John 5:39). In this presupposition of the Bible's unity we find the fundamental principle and test of a sound hermeneutic: the Bible is its own interpreter. If the hermeneutical system is not able to demonstrate the Bible's unity in Christ it must be an inadequate system.
The key to unlocking the hidden, underlying unity of the two Testaments is not some magic formula regarding literal or allegorical interpretation, but the key is the Person of Christ. Jesus Christ is the only true interpreter. He explained from Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms "in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). He announced their fulfillment in Him, in His humiliation and exaltation, and that in His name should be proclaimed the gospel of salvation to all nations (Luke 4:21; 24:44-47).
How can we by faith capture this Christological scope of promise and fulfillment, type and antitype, in interpreting the yet-unfulfilled prophecies of the Bible, those of Daniel and Revelation in particular?
Four basic rules or principles are submitted as guidelines to a responsible Christological-ecclesiological interpretation of the covenant promises of the Bible.
1. The Bible as an organic whole and spiritual unity is its own interpreter.
2. Both the old and the new covenant are Christ-centered and therefore constitute a Christo-centric unity in their soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and eschatology (doctrine of final events).
3. The many covenant promises to the house of Israel and the house of Judah in the Old Testament found an initial fulfillment after the Assyrian- Babylonian exile, and are finding a present fulfillment in the gathering of believing Jews and Gentiles into the church of Christ, and will find their future fulfillment in the universal gathering of all believing Jews and Gentiles from all ends of the earth to the visible returning Christ from heaven and to the kingdom of glory.
4. In applying the Old Testament covenant gathering promises, the New Testament removes their ethnic and geographic limitations while maintaining their Old Testament terminology and imagery.
As four widening concentric circles, each of these rules unfolds more fully the implications of the previous rule. Underlying all four is the concept of God's everlasting covenant between the Father and the Son, to redeem mankind from sin and Satan, and to unite heaven and earth in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3-10; 3:4-12).
Significance of the Election of Israel
In order to grasp the implications of these hermeneutical rules for eschatology, we should realize the central significance of the divine election of "Israel." From the time of Abraham on, all the covenant promises of God to man are crystallized in the seed of Abraham. Both the Mosaic and the Davidic covenants are placed within the framework of the Abrahamic covenant and are further outworkings of the promise of Genesis 12:2, 3.
The Abrahamic covenant in turn is the outgrowth of God's first promise to man after the Fall, in Genesis 3:15. In this original "mother promise" both the first and the Second Advent of a Deliverer for fallen man were announced, His suffering of a deadly wound, and His smashing triumph over the Serpent. In the light of this larger context it can be seen that the divine election of Israel was never just for its own sake, or anchored in any inherent virtues of Israel (see Deuteronomy 9: 4-6). God chose Israel as His peculiar people with the purpose in mind that they would fulfill the original mother promise of Genesis 3:15, the promise of the Saviour of the world.
From the very outset the real issue at stake was of universal scope, even of cosmic dimensions: Who will reign supreme over man and who will be worshiped on earth? God or Satan? God chose the patriarchs and their offspring to enter into a holy covenant relation ship with Him, to worship Him exclusively as Creator and Redeemer, and to be an intercessory light for all the Gentiles. In the universal outreach of all God's covenants with Israel, God dis closed His eternal purpose to establish His kingdom of righteousness and peace in the whole world.
A House of Prayer
Israel's Temple was to be a house of prayer for all peoples and races (Isa. 56:8; cf. Gen. 12:3; Ex. 19:5-6; Ps. 72:8; Zech. 9:10; Isa. 49:6). This plan of God will not be thwarted by Israel's unfaithfulness, rebellion, and apostasy, be cause God will keep His covenant through His only faithful servant, the Messiah (Isa. 42:1-10; 53:10-11). This revelation of the righteous Servant and substitutionary Sinbearer has rightly been called the culmination of prophetic preaching in the Old Testament.
In the light of the sufferings of Jesus Christ at the cross, the apostle Paul calls Jesus the only seed of Abraham in whom alone all the covenant promises are secured and passed on (Gal. 3:16; 2 Cor. 1:20). Israel's covenant promises of being God's blessing to all the Gentiles were now all conditioned by faith and baptism in Messiah Jesus (Gal. 3:22, 26-29). Notice this explicit condition for both Jews and Gentiles: "And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29).
The apostolic gospel makes faith in Jesus as the Messiah of prophecy the all-decisive criterion for becoming sons of God and the true Israel of God. (See especially Gal. 4:21-31; Eph. 3:4-6.) It was Christ Himself who ultimately decided to institute a new Christ-believing Israel under the leadership of twelve apostles within and besides the Jewish nation of twelve tribes (see Matt. 16:18; 18:15-20; 19:28). Jesus in His Messianic authority finally with drew the kingdom of God, the theocracy, from national Israel because of their rejection of Him (Matt. 21:43). Christ did not reject the faithful remnant of Israel, but the Christ-rejecting Jewish nation. In the parable of the vineyard He made it clear to them that in the long history of Israel's rebellion the acid test had arrived in what Israel as a nation would do with the Messiah, the Son of God. This would irrevocably bring either God's blessing or His curse upon Jerusalem (Matt. 21:42, 44; 1 Thess. 2:15, 16).
With tears in His voice Christ announced God's decision to withdraw His presence from the Temple and the Jewish nation: "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate!" (Matt. 23:38). Only in Christ could national Israel remain the true covenant people of God. In rejecting Christ the Jewish people as a chosen nation failed the decisive test of fulfilling God's purpose.
The doom foretold by the prophet Daniel (9:26, 27) came upon the Jewish nation in A.D. 70, when the city and the Temple were completely destroyed by the Roman army. This was God's final judgment on national Israel, because they refused to repent when the saving gospel of the cross was preached to them and their children by the twelve apostles (see the book of Acts). Here we see illustrated a vital principle of God's dealing with His people. He never coerces the human will, nor does He ever force the conscience in order to gain control of man or to secure his worship.
God is not dependent on the Jews for the fulfillment of His promises and eternal purpose (Matt. 21:43). The salvation of the world is in Christ. Through Him and in His people alone will all the covenant promises be fulfilled and consummated. Outside Christ no one will ever receive the fulfillment of any Old Testament promise or blessing. Apart from Christ there remains only the covenant curse. Jesus announced: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters" (Matt. 12:30, R.S.V.).
Those who accept Jesus as the Messiah of Israel are the faithful remnant of Israel (Gal. 6:14-16), the only true sons of the kingdom (Matt. 13:38; 8:12). Christ's twelve apostles and His disciples are the new, the true Israel, the "little flock" that inherits the kingdom (Luke 12:32).