Literal Hermeneutics and Allegory

Properly Understanding Scriptures

John MacArthur, Jr., opened an article with this paragraph:

The Reformed position has always approached Scripture using a literal hermeneutic End Note 1 -one that takes the Bible at face value and applies the normal rules of language in order to understand the text.   ("Calvinism, Prophecy, and Premillennialism, May 18, 2015,"

He continued by emphasizing that John Calvin was a "staunch defender" of a literal method of Bible interpretation:

"Let us know that the true meaning of Scripture is the genuine and simple one, and let us embrace and hold it tightly. Let us . . . boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those fictitious expositions which lead us away from the literal sense" (John Calvin's Commentary on Galatians 4:22).

MacArthur understood that Calvin's purpose, as with any good interpreter of Scripture, was to understanding the original author's intended meaning.  This, of course, meant that Calvin was opposed to the practice that distorted this, namely making the plain truth of Scriptures into an allegory and distorting its clear meaning.

This error [of allegory] has been the source of many evils. Not only did it open the way for the adulteration of the natural meaning of Scripture but also set up boldness in allegorizing as the chief exegetical virtue. Thus many of the ancients without any restraint played all sorts of games with the sacred Word of God, as if they were tossing a ball to and fro. It also gave heretics a chance to throw the Church into turmoil, for when it is accepted practice for anybody to interpret any passage in any way he desired, any mad idea, however absurd or monstrous, could be introduced under the pretext of allegory. Even good men were carried away by their mistaken fondness for allegories into formulating a great number of perverse opinions. (John Calvin's Commentary on 2 Corinthians 3:6)

I, as would a majority of Bible teachers, wholeheartedly agree with this needed literal hermeneutic and dismiss allegorical manipulation of the text as a dangerous distortion of God's Word.  Where I disagree with John MacArthur is his willingness to castigate Calvin and many others who allow for allegory in the Book of Revelation as though they were violating this literal hermeneutic principle.  After assuring us that "Premillennialists wholeheartedly affirm" such statements and that "A literal hermeneutic is the exegetical key on which premillennialism rests," he blatantly accuses Calvin of inconsistency in the application of this principle in regards to end times prophecy.  MacArthur's charge:

In millennial passages, the renowned Reformer all-too-quickly jettisoned his own literal hermeneutic and used an allegorical approach instead. (John MacArthur, "Calvinism, Prophecy, and Premillennialism, May 18, 2015)

While it is true that even the best interpreter of Scriptures can fail and be accused of inconsistency in application of rules of interpretation, I believe that fairness requires a side-by-side comparison of the method of application utilized by John MacArthur and those such as Calvin who would find allegory in end-times prophecy including the book of Revelation.  Actually, this comparison needs more than two contenders, adding in the additional parties that have been brought to the table by insinuation as straw men.

The four contending viewpoints:

#1. The always literal hermeneutic

#2. The true literal hermeneutic

#3. The sometimes allegorical approach

#4. The arbitrary allegorical approach

In MacArthur's article you would think that the only real battle here is between #1 and #4.  From his writing you would conclude that Premillennialists have rejected all allegory and only accept a strictly literal reading of the text.  His whole issue of end-times prophecy is couched in language that would seemingly make its interpretation that straightforward and absolute.  It appears that method #1 is what is being espoused by MacArthur and his Premillennialists.

In Calvin's remarks on rejecting the error of allegory, one only needs to consider more of his writings and texts of those Calvin rejected to see what he was rebuffing.  Throughout far too much of church history, from at least the third century A.D. until his time, many had embraced an arbitrary allegorical approach to interpretation.  Any and every passage of Scriptures, or word within Scriptures, could be turned into allegory at the will of the interpreter.  This resulted into discarding the plain sense of the passage and finding new and esoteric understanding with no actual merit. End Note 5   Allegorical usage of this kind had nothing to do with the historical meaning intended by the original author.  Calvin and a majority of Biblical interpreters easily reject #4.  And yet, this is what MacArthur accused Calvin of embracing.

Let's return to MacArthur and his Premillennialists for a moment.  In fact, their methodology is not #1.  When pressed, (or, in the case of MacArthur, his commentaries and writings are examined) it can be proven they do not take every word and passage of Scriptures literally.  When Jesus says "I am the door/gate (John 10:9)," they don't hold Jesus to literally be a wooden door mounted on hinges.  Or when Scriptures warn us to beware of the dogs (Philippians 3:2; Matthew 7:6; Revelation 22:15), they don't take on a Muslim view that all canines are unclean and are to be banished from their homes.  Further, when Jesus took bread and wine and said "this is my body (Matthew 26:26)" or referred to the wine as his blood (Matthew 26:28), they categorically reject a literal interpretation (as the Roman Catholics require in this instance for their miracle of transubstantiation).  When the Bible refers to sunrise and sunset, as we all commonly do, they take these figuratively and don't hold dogmatically that the sun revolves around the earth as those statements would literally require.

A host of additional examples could be offered. End Note 2  Consider figures of speech such as the "yeast" of Jewish religious leaders (Matthew 16:6).  Figures of speech, of which the Bible has numerous, Old Testament and New, by definition are not to be taken literally.  And I don't see these people literally clawing their eyes out when sinful temptation fills them in our sexually salacious culture and entertainment filled world (Matthew 5:29).

One larger passage will serve as a final example: 

Luke 3:4-6   As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  6 And all mankind will see God's salvation.'"  (NIV)

The beginning of Luke chapter 3 and the verses which follow this passage both make it very clear that this cited excerpt from the book of Isaiah was fulfilled in John the Baptist during a specific time in history.  The always literalist (#1) would have to claim that in that day every valley was filled up with dirt, every mountain and hill was leveled to the ground, and every crooked and rough road was straightened and smoothed. And yet, we know that didn't literally happen, so this passage of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5) is shown to be symbolic both in the original words of Isaiah and the account of its fulfillment in the gospel of Luke.  Many of these professed "always literalists" recognize the allegorical nature of this passage again showing that they are really "sometimes allegorical (#3)" in practice.

In fact, I don't believe it's possible to fully be #1. *End Note 3  When it comes down to practice and teaching, MacArthur and those he represents are not truly absolute literalists (#1), their words betray them.  In reality they show themselves to be #3 - admittedly sometimes interpreting words and passages in an allegorical fashion.

Is their "sometimes allegorical" interpretation wrong?  No. There are clearly times that the text requires such allegorical understanding. *End Note 4  These figures of speech and allegorical illustrations were exactly what the original authors intended in their historical setting.  In fact, other contemporary writers used many such words and phrases in similar fashion as shown by extra-biblical writings.

So why do the "sometimes allegorical" reject and condemn others who use allegorical interpretation in regards to end-times events?  Simply put, they don't recognize that those texts call for allegorical readings.  This returns us to the only category not yet defined, #2.  True literal hermeneutic calls for accurately accepting the text for what it intends to be.  If it is completely literal (the normal default), then read it for exactly what it says.  If it is a figure of speech, understand the figure of speech for what it conveys.  By the immediate context, or the greater context of the passage or book, the passages in allegorical language must be consistently taken as allegory.  This is literally what was intended.

For example, if I was to write a letter and tell you that a sword represents a pen then my every additional use of the word sword, in the text, must be taken to mean a pen; I cannot and must not claim a random occurrence to literally mean a sword.  In Revelation, where the text very clearly says the dragon represents Satan (Revelation 20:2), to claim that dragon is a literal creature other than an allegorical representation of the devil himself is to misuse scriptures.  This is not arbitrary (#4), neither is always literal (#1).  It certainly is recognizable within the "sometimes allegorical (#3), but it is demanded by the "real" literal hermeneutic (#2).

Many of the sometimes allegorical will take a passage regarding this clearly allegorical creature and then try and force a strictly literal interpretation on all the details given it.  Here the seven heads have to be literally seven, rather than understanding that symbolic or allegorical use of the number seven is in play (and the same for the 10 horns and seven crowns.  Revelation 12:3).  I find it quite compelling that many of these professed strict literalists (in reality #3s) then try and read significance into the numbers making horn or heads into nations or kingdoms, etc.  The inconsistency here goes against what they profess and flies in the face of their accusations of inconsistency against such as Calvin.

If they want to be fully literal, then "the beast coming out of the sea (Revelation 13:1)" would have to be a literal creature, akin to a mutant dinosaur (as it too has ten horns and seven heads).  As soon as they turn the beast into a person (i.e. the antichrist) or a confederacy of nations, versus a fearsome wild animal, they have already made the passage into an allegory (merely one limited by their preconceived notions).

In a volume filled with allegorical usage of numbers and illustrative creatures and objects, not to mention a plethora of "looks-like" descriptive statements, the burden is on the interpreter to prove (by the context of the passage and the book) that 1000 years (in regards to a Millennium) is not being used in similar figurative manner.  To claim it literal if the author's intent is figurative or representative is to distort the meaning of the text and, in so doing, it does not literally present what the text means.  

The onus is on MacArthur to show how Calvin is misusing specific scriptures, if he is at all.  Overly broad charges of willfully abandoning proper hermeneutics, without contextual specifics, must be dismissed:

... with all due respect to the distinguished Reformer [Calvin], there is no good reason to change our hermeneutic when we encounter biblical prophecy. We ought to interpret prophecy the same way we interpret history, as a record of events that will happen just as they are revealed. (John MacArthur, "Calvinism, Prophecy, and Premillennialism, May 18, 2015)

Calvin did not willfully change his hermeneutic when approaching Bible prophecy; he was faithfully attempting to continue to apply the true literal hermeneutic.  His goal was to discover by context of the passage, book, and Bible, the meaning of the words in the time of the author and to literally convey that truth, making plain the meaning of the figures of speech, the symbolism, and the allegorical passages which those biblical authors employed.

Instead of creating straw-men to easily knock down, the Biblical expositor must give full consideration to any that would show from Scriptures that a passage is allegorical or symbolic in its context or usage.  It is true that a basic principle of Biblical interpretation is to first consider the passage in its most literal and straightforward manner.  But if a case can be made via standard principles of language, historical usage, and especially using scriptures to interpret scriptures, that any passage should be understood otherwise, to ignore this is to distort the text to the peril of oneself and any they may teach.

The evidence is irrefutable that portions of the Bible are meant figuratively.  If we refuse to consider the possibility of figures of speech, common symbolism, and allegory, we are rejecting the Word of God. We cannot refuse to understand a method that the Bible itself uses.  It is equally dishonest to reject figurative meanings where they were intended, as it is to read them where they shouldn't be.


End Notes

1. The purpose of biblical hermeneutics is to help the reader to know how to interpret, understand, and apply the Bible.  In quick summary, using statements common to numerous works on this subject, two key concepts include:  (a) The most important law of biblical hermeneutics is that the Bible should be interpreted literally. The Bible says what it means and means what it says. This means avoiding reading between the lines and coming up with meanings for Scriptures that are not truly in the text. Biblical hermeneutics hold the reader to the intended meaning of Scriptures and away from allegorizing and symbolizing Bible passages that should be understood literally. (b) The second crucial law is that a verse or passage must be interpreted grammatically, historically, and contextually.  Grammatical interpretation requires recognizing rules of grammar and nuances of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek languages and applying those principles to any understanding of a passage.  Historical interpretation requires understanding of the background, culture, and circumstances that prompted the text. Contextual interpretation mandates taking the surrounding context of any verse or passage into consideration when trying to determine the meaning.

2. Without considering descriptive, representative, and allegorical passages pertaining specifically to end-times prophecy; these common allegorical figures of speech are found throughout the Bible.

    Anthropomorphism: Supernatural and spiritual Deity described in human terms. "For the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth..." (2 Chronicles 16:9, NASU).

    Euphemism: Substituting an unobjectionable word for a possibly harsh or more objectionable one. "Adam lay with his wife Eve" (Genesis 4:1, NIV) means that they had sexual intercourse. "Bow down over her" (Job 31:10) also meaning sexual relations. In fact, Targum Job (an ancient translation into Aramaic) understands the prior "grind for another [man]" as being a sexual euphemism too.  Another: "Cover his feet" (Judges 3:24; 1 Samuel 24:3) meaning to defecate.

    Dysphemism: The substitution of an offensive or disparaging term for an inoffensive one.  In Leviticus 26:30 the Hebrew word translated "idol" literally is a "dung log" in the Hebrew.  A word commonly used as a synonym for an idol or idolatry is literally "filth" or an abomination (1 Kings 11:7), which the NASU translator then expands to "detestable idol."   The substitution of the place name Beth-Aven ("house of wickedness") for Bethel (i.e. Beth-El, "house of God"; Hosea 4:15; 5:8) is also a form of dysphemism, employed because idolatrous worship in that place.

    Hyperbole: Intentional exaggeration. "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29, NIV).

    Irony: The literal meaning is contrasting or opposite of the real meaning. "You have become kings...! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!" (1 Corinthians 4:8, NIV).

    Metaphor: One object is described in terms of another object. "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32, NIV).

    Personification: Personal qualities assigned to an object. "The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs." (Psalm 114:4, NIV).

    Simile: A comparison utilizing "like" or "as."  Example: "For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man" (Matthew 24:27, NIV).

    Words of association: One word stands for something else. Examples: "sword" for all weapons (Romans 8:35, NIV); "Circumcised" or "Circumcision" meaning the Jewish people (Galatians 2:9, NASU or KJV).

3. Attempts to be excessively literal have led to serious error in cults such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Selective hyper-literalism is commonly used by Mormonism to make claims such as that God the Father has a literal body similar to any other male individual. 

4. The Bible itself states that is uses allegory.  Consider this passage by the Apostle Paul:

Galatians 4:24-26   These things may be taken figuratively [Greek "allegoreo"], for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.  (NIV, square parenthesis mine for clarification)

I like the opening words of the NASU for this passage: "This is allegorically speaking&ldots;"  To not accept the allegorical interpretation given is then to oppose the clear and stated sense of God's word.  While others certainly use some allegorical statements or figurative words, here Paul clearly employs the Greek word for allegory, with the same meaning as today, to say "this is allegory" and must be taken figuratively.

Make note that MacArthur, if he is in agreement with the notes in the study Bible that bears his name, makes a claim that the Bible has no allegory whatsoever and that this passage in Galatians is not allegory, no matter what it claims. Holding such a position requires distorting and redefining the meaning of the word allegory - and certainly such a redefinition makes it easier to dogmatically hold to some of the eschatological positions he has.  

5.  One of the earliest allegorists was Origen Adamantius of Alexandria (lived circa 185-254 A.D.).  He allegorized large portions of Scriptures, even creating or promoting new doctrines not found anywhere in Scriptures (such as the preexistence of souls, a final reconciliation of all creatures, likely even including the devil) and some that even contradicted the clear teachings of the Apostles.  Creation was an easy target (and one that many today would emulate).  In denying any literal meaning he went on to write:

"Could any man of sound judgment suppose that the first, second and third days (of creation) had an evening and a morning, when there were as yet no sun or moon or stars? Could anyone be so unintelligent as to think that God made a paradise somewhere in the east and planted it with trees, like a farmer, or that in that paradise he put a tree of life, a tree you could see and know with your senses, a tree you could derive life from by eating its fruit with the teeth in your head? When the Bible says that God used to walk in paradise in the evening or that Adam hid behind a tree, no one, I think, will question that these are only fictions, stories of things that never actually happened, and that figuratively they refer to certain mysteries." (Origen, De Principiis 4:3:2)

Selecting another random example from Origen works, the account of Balaam and his talking donkey is also reduced to an illustrative fiction.  Here he believed that the angel who appeared to Balaam depicted the Angel of God who was leading His people, while Balaam represented non-believers (with his name denoting "vain people").  As for the donkey it referred to the simple Church that serves non-believers, a Church that reveals to them what they cannot perceive.

Roman Catholic thought utilized an allegorical approach in numerous aspects, many which appear in the teaching and artworks of the church.  Consider 1 Kings 2:19...

3 Kings 2:19  Then Bethsabee [Bathsheba] came to king Solomon, to speak to him for Adonias [Adonijah]: and the king arose to meet her, and bowed to her, and sat down upon his throne: and a throne was set for the king's mother, and she sat on his right hand.  (Douay-Rheims, note that the book appears as 3rd Kings as was sometimes done in early English translations, square parenthesis mine for clarification)

Turning a scene such as this into allegory, Mary is then portrayed as the mother of God, reigning with Christ in heaven. (An artwork in the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme [The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem] in Rome, Italy, comes to mind).


Article by Brent MacDonald (c) 2015
Discipleship Training Institiute/Lion Tracks Ministries
As posted on
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