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Interpreting Prophecy Today — Part 1: Basic Considerations in Interpreting Prophecy

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary.]

The wide diversity in the interpretation of prophecy alerts anyone who approaches this field of biblical exegesis that there are also widely differing principles of interpretation. How can it be that reputable scholars who agree on many basic Christian doctrines interpret the prophetic portions of Scripture with such differing results? How can this be explained?

Differing Views of the Bible

One of the most obvious reasons for difference in interpretation in prophecy is that scholars do not all regard the Bible as having the same authority and accuracy. Liberal theologians tend to regard the Bible as a human instrument written by fallible men, and therefore conclude that the Scriptures are not infallible. It is understandable that liberals have no clear conclusions about the future. Some question the validity of prediction itself on the grounds that no one knows the future. Others accept the premise that prophecy is in some cases true and in other cases not true. This leaves the interpreter with the difficult question of sorting out the true from the false. Generally, there is little scholarly discussion of prophecy among those who are clearly liberal in their approach to the Bible.

Among conservatives who regard the Bible as authoritative in prophecy as in history, a more serious attempt is made to try to determine what the Bible actually reveals. Here the diversity is not based on the premise that the Bible in some respects is untrue; instead, the difficulty arises in various schools of interpretation.

Major Schools of Interpretation

Most Bible scholars recognize at least three major approaches to prophecy, all dealing primarily with the doctrine of the millennium. The most ancient view, that of the church of the first few centuries, was what is known today as premillennialism or chiliasm. Premillenarians assert that the second coming of Christ will precede a millennium or a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Chiliasm is another word (derived from the Greek χιλιὸς “one thousand”) which affirms the same doctrine. Most impartial interpreters of the history of doctrine agree that premillennialism was the doctrine of the early church. Adherents of this view hold that Christ taught that His second coming would be followed by His kingdom on earth, as indicated in such passages as Matthew 20:20-23; Luke 1:32-33, 22:29-30 ; Acts 1:6-7. In the first two centuries of the church there seems to have been an absence of any controversy on this point.

Premillenarians cite many early adherents of their interpretation, such as Papias, who was acquainted with the Apostle John and many others such as Aristio, John the Presbyter, and a number of the twelve apostles including Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew. G. N. H. Peters also lists in the first two centuries premillenarians such as Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp.1 It was not until the close of the second century and the beginning of the third century that specific opposition to this view seems to have arisen. In the second and third centuries, however, many other premillenarians surfaced in their writings, including Cyprian (200-258), Commodian (200-270), Nepos (230-280), Coracion (230-280), Victorinus (240-303), Methodius (250-311), and Lactantius (240-330). While the premillennial views of some of these have been challenged, it is unquestionably true that Nepos was an ardent defender of premillennialism in North Africa and he was joined by Commodian. Even opponents of premillennialism concede that there was a broad premillennial teaching in the first three centuries.

A second prominent approach to prophecy is the view which has been called amillennialism since the nineteenth century . It is basically a nonmillennial view, which teaches that there will be no literal millennium after the second advent of Christ. While amillenarians tend to avoid identification of any adherents of their view, they usually find the first strong advocacy of amillennialism in the school of theology at Alexandria, Egypt, with the first adherents appearing about A.D. 190. A few writers claim that amillennialism existed earlier. Landis, for example, tries to trace amillennialism back to Christ and the apostles.2 Most amillenarians, however, claim that it had its beginning in the second and third centuries. And yet even careful scholars like Berkhof 3 tend to slur over the facts by claiming that amillennialism was prominent in both the second and the third centuries, when actually it was practically all in the third century except for the last ten years of the second century.

Early amillenarians include Gaius, whose writings come from the third century, and Clement of Alexandria, a teacher in the school at Alexandria, from 193 to 220. Clement’s disciple Origen (185-254) and Dionysius (190-265) led the opposition to premillennialism in the third century.

Amillenarians usually concede that the basic approach of the Alexandrian school was to take Scripture, especially prophecy, in a nonliteral sense. They regarded the entire Bible as one great allegory in which the real meaning is hidden behind the actual statements of Scripture. They attempted to combine the idealism of Plato with Scripture which was only possible if Scripture were interpreted in a nonliteral sense.

Amillenarians admit that the school at Alexandria was heretical inasmuch as they challenged almost all the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. For instance, W. H. Rutgers, an amillenarian, wrote the following concerning Clement of Alexandria.

Clement, engrossed and charmed by Greek philosophy, applied this erroneous, allegorical method to Holy Writ. It was a one-sided emphasis: opposed to the real, the visible, phenomenal, spacial and temporal. A platonic idealistic philosophy could not countenance carnalistic, sensualistic conceptions of the future as that advanced by Chiliasm. It shook the very foundation on which Chiliasm rested. Robertson observed that “it loosed its [Chiliasm’s] sheet-anchor—naive literalism in the interpretation of Scripture.”4

In spite of the fact that the major thrust of amillennialism in the second and third centuries was provided by those who were heretics, Rutgers offers the questionable proof that amillennialism was the prevailing view in the second century simply because many of the church fathers never discussed the issue at all. On the basis of this, and without citing those definitely committed to amillennialism, Rutgers states, “Chiliasm found no favor with the best of the Apostolic Fathers, nor does it find support in the unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetus.”5

While it is true that many early church fathers simply do not discuss the millennial question, the fact that specific adherents to premillennialism can be cited makes the almost complete silence of any advocates of amillennialism until A.D. 190 most significant. While there is dispute as to whether Barnabas, an early church father, is amillennial or premillennial, even those in the amillennial camp usually do not claim Barnabas. Up until A.D. 190, no clear adherent to amillennialism can be found. This fact is in stark contrast to the fact that many held to the premillennial point of view.

For this reason, most amillenarians trace their view to Augustine (354-430), the famous bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine was the father of amillennialism because he discarded the allegorical system of interpretation of the Bible as a whole as advanced by the school at Alexandria in favor of limiting allegorical interpretation to prophetic Scriptures only. He held that other Scriptures should be interpreted in their natural, grammatical, historical sense. With Augustine began general acceptance of the modern approach of recognizing the basic and normal interpretation of Scripture as literal and grammatical (as held by the Protestant Reformers such as Calvin and Luther) but at the same time holding that prophecy is a special case requiring nonliteral interpretation. It is this difference with premillennialism which is the basic problem in the continued discussion between premillenarians and amillenarians.

The third broad view of prophetic interpretation is postmillennialism. It holds that Christ will return at the end of the millennium. Postmillenarians hold that the “millennium,” such as it is, must be fulfilled before the second coming of Christ, and in this, amillennialism and postmillennialism agree. The difference between the two schools is the more optimistic approach of postmillennialism which regards the gospel as being increasingly triumphant until the world is at least Christianized, and this victory is climaxed by the second coming of Christ and the immediate introduction to the eternal state. While some leaders throughout the history of the church, such as Joachim of Floris, a twelfth-century Roman Catholic, held views close to postmillennialism, most postmillenarians trace their view to Daniel Whitby (1638-1725). While some amillenarians tend to emphasize the earlier postmillennialism, A. H. Strong, a postmillenarian, states clearly, “Our own interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10, was first given, for substance, by Whitby.”6

Postmillennialism related to the optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and coincided with the general hope of a better world. While largely discarded now, it was a prevailing view among many conservative theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of which Charles Hodge is an example.

The Needed Return to Basic Hermeneutics

For students of prophecy seeking to weigh the relative cogency of premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism, the first requirement is a clear view of ordinary rules of interpretation as normally advanced in hermeneutics. Adherents of all views of prophecy tend at times to forget that basic rules for exegesis have been established in the history of the church at least by conservative scholars, and one is not free to disregard them in favor of establishing his own particular interpretation. Conservative scholars tend for the most part to agree on these basic principles, which include the following:

1. Words are to be understood in their normal, natural sense unless there is firm evidence in the context that the word is used in some other sense.

2. Each statement of Scripture should be interpreted in its context. This usually means that a word should be interpreted in its immediate context, although sometimes usage in other passages is also relevant. A common fallacy, however, is to read into a passage something that is found elsewhere in the Bible instead of allowing the immediate context to have primary weight.

3. A text of Scripture must always be seen in its historical and cultural contexts, and the intended meaning of the author is important. Conservative scholars, however, recognize that the Bible is not only a work by human authors, but is also inspired by the Holy Spirit, and in some cases even the human author did not understand entirely what he was writing.

4. Scripture should be interpreted in the light of grammatical considerations including such important matters as tense and emphasis. Bethlehem, pinpointed in Micah 5:2 about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was to be the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) who would have victory over Satan. His lineage is described in the Old Testament as extending through Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and then through Boaz, Obed, Jesse, and David. All of this is pointed out in the genealogies of the New Testament (cf. Matt 1:1-16: Luke 3:23-38). The Old Testament abounds with prophetic details about Jesus as prophet, priest, and king (Deut 18:15-18; 1 Sam 2:35: Ps 110:4: cf. Gen 49:10; 2 Sam 7:12-16; Zech 6:13; Heb 5:6). Isaiah 9:6-7 summarizes His birth, person, and deity. All these prophecies have been literally fulfilled. Even His death on the cross is anticipated in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, and His resurrection is predicted in Psalm 16:10. In all these cases the prophetic Scriptures have been fulfilled historically in a literal way.

In view of these fulfilled prophecies it seems reasonable to conclude that yet unfulfilled prophecies will have the same literal fulfillment, especially when they are couched in terms that make sense literally.

In general, conservative expositors have agreed on the literal interpretation of Scripture when it comes to broad doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, His life on earth, His death, His resurrection, and His second coming. They agree that there is a literal heaven and a literal hell. In discussion of prophetic interpretation. it soon becomes evident that the crux of the matter is whether there is a future, literal millennial reign of Christ on earth. It is here where conservative scholars differ, going in general in three directions: premillennialism, amillennialism, or postmillennialism.

Further Definition of the Interpretive Problem

Although it is generally agreed that amillennialism sprang from the theology of Augustine and that postmillennialism derived from it, it is quite clear in current discussion that the problem is more than a general rule that prophecy should be interpreted in an allegorical or nonliteral sense. As has been pointed out, as a matter of fact, both amillenarians and postmillenarians often interpret prophecy in a very literal way. What, then, is the real point of distinction?

The abundant literature in the field supports the concept that the major problem is the doctrine of the millennium or a thousand-year reign of Christ. If the millennium precedes the second coming of Christ as amillenarians and postmillenarians contend, it is also clear that many of the precise predictions related to the millennium cannot be clearly fulfilled. The present world is not under the political direction of Jesus Christ, and evil as such is not being immediately judged by God as it will be in the millennial kingdom.

By contrast the premillennial view anticipates a second coming of Christ followed by His thousand-year reign on earth. This is the historic interpretation held by the early church fathers and which has continued in contemporary premillennialism.

Current discussion on the subject, however, has tended to blur some of these time-honored distinctions. For instance, Arthur H. Lewis denies that he is amillennial but at the same time he prefers not to be known as premillennial or postmillennial.7 Lewis holds that the millennium must be before the second coming because there is sin in the millennium and for him there can be no sin on earth after the second coming of Christ. His problem is in his premise that the millennial kingdom is perfect. This, of course, is contradicted by many Old Testament passages which he ignores.

Others have followed the lead of Lewis by claiming to be historic premillennialists and then proceeding to describe the millennium as something which precedes the second coming of Christ. Often the problem arises because they are forced in their denominations or schools to agree to a premillennial statement.

Gilbert Bilezikian, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College, is typical of those who blur the distinctions on the doctrine of the millennium. While affirming agreement with the premillennial position of Wheaton College, he nevertheless adopts what is normally called amillennialism. He writes, “Peter, reading about God’s oath to David to set one of his descendants upon his throne (Psalm 132:11), interpreted the promised messianic rule as having been fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ and his exaltation in heaven (Acts 2:30-31).”8 This view is obviously not historical premillennialism, for it allows for no literal thousand year reign of Christ after His second coming. This he makes clear later in the same article, when he states that “the essential features accompanying the second coming of Christ” are “the general resurrection, the universal judgment, and the inauguration of the reunion of the redeemed in eternity.”9 He further adds insult to injury by accusing those who differ with him as being guilty of “shoddy exegesis consisting of facile scissors-and-paste patchworks of fragments of biblical texts,” which he claims is motivated by their desire to reap monetary gain.10 He discards the testimony of a millennial reign in Revelation 20 because it is found in one of “relatively unclear passages where figurative and symbolic motifs are present (such as the thousand years’ rule of Revelation 20).”11 What can be said of this type of “premillennial” interpretation? Actually this approach brings confusion rather than clarity to the subject. Any system that says the millennium is fulfilled before the second advent and also teaches that the eternal state begins at the second advent cannot accurately be labeled premillennialism. It would be far better for a scholarly discussion of the problem to accept the time-honored terms rather than attempt to redefine prophetic interpretation in a way that does not correspond to the historic handling of the problem.

It is clear that the major problem in the interpretation of prophecy is the doctrine of the millennium. Along with this is the corresponding difficulty of whether many Old Testament prophecies relating to Israel will be fulfilled before or after the second coming of Christ. The doctrine of a future millennium following Christ’s second advent is inevitably related to the question as to whether promises given to Israel will have a literal fulfillment. Accordingly in other articles in this series special attention will be addressed to these issues which have been characteristic of the discussion for many generations but which have also been evident in recent literature.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. 1952), 1:494-95.

2 Ira D. Landis, The Faith of Our Fathers and Eschatology (Lititz, PA: By the author, 1946).

3 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941), p. 708.

4 W. H. Rutgers, Premillenialism in America (Goes, Holland: Oosterbaan and Le Cointre. 1930), p. 64.

5 Ibid., p. 57.

6 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), p. 716.

7 Arthur H. Lewis, The Dark Side of the Millennium (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 6.

8 Gilbert Bilezikian, “Are You Looking for Signs—Or for Jesus?” Christian Life, September 1977, p. 17.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.