What did this text mean to the original recipients? What was the intended meaning of the human author? These questions are commonly presented in contemporary biblical scholarship as the main questions an interpreter should ask when approaching a biblical text. Scholars say that the Bible must be interpreted in its historical and cultural setting, and that means asking these two hermeneutical/interpretive questions. However, these two questions are often merely smokescreens designed to conceal/justify an antichristian theological agenda that has nothing to do with interpreting the Bible in its historical and cultural setting. This theological agenda is the a priori denial of all predictive prophecy on the basis of the belief that (1) the Bible is a purely human product, not revelation from God because (2) there is no (overt) divine activity in the world because (3) “God” is either impersonal, or removed from the world, or does not have any real existence at all.
There is no doubt that understanding the historical, cultural, and linguistic setting of the biblical world is important for interpreting the Bible accurately. When the Bible speaks of “trumpets,” for example, we need to do archaeological research to understand what those instruments were like and how they were used, rather than thinking of them in terms of the trumpets that are used in modern orchestras. We also need to study the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages in which the Bible was originally written in order to understand the grammar and idioms of those languages. But when scholars ask the question “What did this text mean to the original recipients?” what they mean is, “How was this text relevant to the original recipients?” They further claim that the primary, objective meaning of the text is limited to its relevance to the original recipients, even if it has a secondary, subjective meaning or application that is relevant to others.
There are four key, usually unstated, assumptions made by scholars who equate the meaning of a text with its relevance to its original recipients. Each of these assumptions is demonstrably false.
- The Bible was written solely or primarily to the writer’s contemporaries, and not to future generations. Response: The assumption that everything in the Bible had to be written specifically for and understood by the original recipients contradicts such verses as Daniel 8:27, Daniel 12:8-9, and 1 Peter 1:10-12. These verses state directly that some prophecies could not be understood by the original recipients, and were not directed primarily to them. First Corinthians 10:11 states that even some or all historical passages in the Bible were written primarily to later generations of believers, rather than to the original readers/hearers. Usually when a writer records events and messages of his own time, it is not for the benefit of his contemporaries who lived through the events and heard the messages, and therefore knew all about them. It is for the benefit of future generations, who would not otherwise have knowledge of these things. While this is true in general, it is especially true of the Bible, as the special revelation of God to man. The Bible was written as a testimony to all believers of all times and places until the second coming of Christ.
- The original recipients of Scripture did not understand any of the Bible as direct prophecies of events in the distant future. Response: Both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity interpreted much of biblical prophecy eschatologically. For example, the the earliest known Christian interpretations of Revelation follow the futurist approach (e.g., Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus). By contrast, the first systematically preterist interpretation of Revelation is found in the writings of the Jesuit Alcasar circa 1614, making preterism the last of the four major interpretive approaches to Revelation to be developed. The assumption that the original recipients of Scripture followed the preterist approach to prophecy is disproved by history.
- People only find a discussion of contemporary events relevant, not future events. Response: It is assumed that prophecies of the distant future have no practical significance and would have held no interest to the original recipients of Scripture—prophecy is essentially worthless. In fact, however, people have always great interest in future events, and they have always seen eschatological prophecy as relevant to them. The New Testament presents the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the saints, and the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on the earth as the central hope of the Christian faith. Eschatological prophecy had great significance to the original readers/hearers of Scripture, and it still does for us today.
- The primary meaning of the text is the intended meaning of the human author, who had no awareness of future events and did not intend to write about future events. Response: (a) The idea that the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture is excluded (by unbelievers) or made of secondary importance (by evangelicals, who say that the Holy Spirit gave a secondary meaning to the human author’s intended meaning). However, the New Testament asserts that the Holy Spirit was the primary author of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:19-21 (cf. 2 Sam 23:2; Acts 1:16; 28:25; Heb 3:7). (b) While many contemporary scholars assume that the human author was focused completely on his own time and place, and did not know and was not interested in events in the distant future, we know from our own experience that future events hold great interest and relevance to people in the present. (c) The intended meaning of the human author is a matter of speculation or psychology. If we want to understand what the text means, then we need to focus on the meaning of the words in the text, interpreting them according to the literal hermeneutic. (d) There are indications in the New Testament, especially in 2 Peter 3:15-16, that the writings of the New Testament were misinterpreted by false teachers and claimed to support false doctrine while the writers were still alive. This is because the writings were recognized in the churches to carry an authority which transcended that of a human author and whatever he said he had in mind as he wrote.
When we read the Bible, we need to seek the literal (i.e., non-allegorical) meaning of the text, rather than speculating about the mind of the human author or making assumptions that exclude the possibility of predictive prophecy. Doing so results in a dispensational, premillennial, pretribulational understanding of the Bible. The denial of eschatological prophecy is based on an allegorical reading of the text that views the literal meaning as a sort of code for the “real meaning.” Every scholar who denies predictive prophecy and/or the classic dispensational reading of eschatological prophecy also strongly opposes the literal hermeneutic. The mainstream view today is nothing more than a theological construct that is imposed on the Scriptures, and as such it has no validity.
Asking how the original recipients of Scripture would have understood the text or what the human author meant can be helpful when studying certain passages, if the right assumptions are made when asking these questions and they are not presented as the sole goal of interpretation. But more often than not, these questions are merely designed to render palatable the old antichristian theological agenda of unbelieving Bible scholars. This agenda contains an a priori refusal to recognize any genuine predictive prophecy in the Bible, based on the basic premise of higher criticism—that the Bible is a human product—and the common theological assumption which underlies it—that there is no (overt) divine activity in the world.
While there was a time when higher criticism was recognized as anti-evangelical, in the past fifty years there has been a big push by evangelical scholars seeking respectability among their unbelieving peers to “evangelicalize” higher criticism—the terms and methods used by critical scholars are slightly modified and redefined by evangelical scholars, who then use them. Many evangelical scholars have adopted the critical approach to prophetic passages throughout the Bible, while still trying to put an evangelical “spin” on them. This includes not just eschatological prophecies, but also OT messianic prophecies. The “spin” is that while the intended meaning of the human author was always directed solely with the affairs of his own day, and this is the primary meaning of the texts as understood by the original recipients, in some cases the Holy Spirit, at a much later point, gave these texts a messianic application/meaning to Christians. The validity of this later application, however, can always be called into question. Some leading evangelical scholars claim that there are no direct messianic prophecies in the OT (or perhaps no more than one or two). Jewish messianism is said to have developed in the Second Temple Period through a hermeneutically dubious reading of the OT. If this is true, then it would seem that Jesus came to fulfill a misinterpretation of prophecy, and Christianity has no validity. Without prophecy, the revelatory nature of Scripture itself could be called into question as well, since the Bible presents predictive prophecy as proof of the Bible’s divine origin (Deut 18:21-22; Isa 40–48).
Making concessions to higher criticism begins a causal chain whose logical conclusion is always the outright rejection of the Bible as revelation from God. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the progressive dispensationalist denial that Psalm 110—the most-quoted psalm in the NT—is a direct messianic prophecy. This denial requires a denial of the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110, even though every Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) manuscript attributes Psalm 110 to David, and Davidic authorship is the linchpin of Jesus’ use of this text to prove that the Messiah is divine (Matt 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44; cf. Acts 2:34-35). A denial of Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 is a denial of the inerrancy of the Bible.
Another striking example of the lengths to which scholars must go to deny the existence of predictive prophecy is their translation in the New Testament of βασιλεία—a common Greek word that always refers to both a territory and a people ruled by a king—as “reign” rather than “kingdom.” This term actually has to be redefined on the basis of theology, without lexical evidence, in order to deny the truth that the NT predicts a future earthly kingdom of God on the earth, ruled by King Jesus. The translation of βασιλεία as “reign” in many modern English Bible versions is extremely poor scholarship, which is an expression of extremely poor theology.
Many evangelical scholars have been deceived by the antichristian agenda of unbelieving scholars who deny the existence of most or all direct predictive prophecy in the Bible. But the root of the problem is spiritual, not intellectual. When scholars acknowledge that simply taking the words of the Bible at face value will result in understanding many passages as direct predictive prophecies, the denial of these prophecies is a spiritual problem. The error of their views is manifested by the way in which they must advocate for them, writing whole books of full of confusing arguments—such as the already/not yet, both/and, postmodern hermeneutic of progressive dispensationalism—solely to avoid understanding the Bible to mean what it actually says. Simply asking what the text means—instead of what it hypothetically meant to specific people—will result in understanding much of the Bible as prophetic, and will strengthen one’s faith by giving assurance that just as many prophecies have already been fulfilled precisely, the rest also will be fulfilled precisely in due time.