Copyright Rev. Stanley L. Derickson Ph.D. 1992



When I move into a study of interpretation, I am reminded of a cartoon I saw once. The picture is of a little wimpy person who is standing by a huge strapping motorcycle person, with a skull and crossbones on his leather jacket. The little person says something to the effect that he is sorry but he will have to interpret the other man's last remark as a compliment.

Interpretation has always been a little subject to the context. In the late 1900's most believers find that their context allows them to sidestep the Bible's command to greet one another with an holy kiss. We relegate that portion to only the apostolic time, or any time other than ours.

There are different methods of interpretation. The technical name for these systems of interpretation is Hermenutics. The purpose of any of these systems is to learn the meaning of the Word of God. The types of hermenutics vary, however the main two are literal and allegorical. We will look at these two types.

We need to understand that your eschatological system will probably be determined by which system of hermeneutics you chose. The allegorical method leads to Amillennialism and Postmillennialism, while the literal method leads to Premillennialism.

May I illustrate why the method you use is important? Turn to Rev 1:14-16 and interpret it.

Using the allegorical method I would say it is a sword swallowing albino with sunburned feet, dressed in his bahai robe. A former student of mine claimed that it was an old time bath tub with brass feet in which the water is running. Neither of these interpretations can be proven correct, so we have a very serious problem in interpretation. Whose interpretation do we follow? Indeed, your interpretation might well be completely different that the two mentioned.

As a sidelight, it might be mentioned that when literal interpreters enter the book of Revelation, they usually leave all principles of interpretation behind. They usually end up using the allegorical method rather than the literal method. Just one brief example. I read a commentary on Revelation written during World War II and the creatures coming from the abyss were identified as the bombers of that war. A more modern commentary lists these creatures as the Huey helicopters of the Viet-Nam era. When a person leaves literal interpretation they leave themselves open for all sorts of discussion and confusion.


Ramm defines this system as follows: "Allegorism is the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense." (Ramm, Bernard; "PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION"; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, p 21)

In this method the historical and literal sense of a text is ignored, while the interpreter goes on to some deeper meaning. The use of this method allows for easy proof of different religious views and systems of thought.

Pentecost makes a statement that on the surface may be a little strong however it is worth considering. "It would seem that the purpose of the allegorical method is not to interpret Scripture, but to pervert the true meaning of Scripture, albeit under the guise of seeking a deeper or more spiritual meaning." (Taken from the book, THINGS TO COME by J. Dwight Pentecost. Copyright 1958 by Dunham Publishing. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. p 5)

This method sees very little historical importance to the text. The method may even ignore the original words and meaning entirely, while looking only to the message that those words convey. The method would see the words of scripture as the vehicle that carries the deeper spiritual truth. They seem to feel that scripture is a dump truck that is carrying the load of spiritual information to you the reader, and interpreter.

There are some dangers with the allegorical method. I will quote from Pentecost for our headings in the first three items (p 5-6) and add a fourth. (Taken from the book, THINGS TO COME by J. Dwight Pentecost. Copyright 1958 by Dunham Publishing. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.)

1. "it does not interpret Scripture."

Terry states: " will be noticed at once that its habit is too disregard the common signification of words and give wing to all manner of fanciful speculation. It does not draw out the legitimate meaning of an author's language, but foists into it whatever the whim or fancy of an interpreter may desire. As a system, therefore, it puts itself beyond all well-defined principles and laws." (Terry, Milton S.; "BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS"; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, no copy right, p 224)

If the authors of Scripture had thoughts to convey, would they cloud these thoughts in a menagerie of words? NO!

2. "the basic authority in interpretation ceases to be the Scriptures, but the mind of the interpreter."

If the man decides what the meaning is then the Scripture, and the authors of Scripture can give the man nothing by which he may interpret. He is on his own to do as he would please with the Word.

To think that some men are setting the Word of God aside for the PREFERRED THOUGHTS OF MAN!

3. " is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested."

Who is correct? Who determines if I am correct, or if you are correct?

I sat in a study group in a fundamental church one evening. There were about 25 present. The leader read one of the Beatitudes and asked what it meant. Almost everyone had some thought about the meaning of the text. The study ended when the leader said, "Well I'm not sure which of these ideas is the correct meaning, but I'm sure one of them is." There can never be any proven valid interpretation!

If God wanted to communicate with man through the Word and could do no better than that, then He is not a God with which we should desire communication.

4. It perverts Scripture.

Example: One author, when interpreting a passage concerning Joseph fleeing from Potifer's wife, surmised that Joseph had many mental hang ups concerning sex, and that his attitudes toward sex were very mixed up.

Allis (an amillennialist I believe) is quoted in "THINGS TO COME." His thoughts are recorded in relation to the idea that the system is in danger of doing damage to the meaning of the Scripture. "Whether the figurative or "spiritual" interpretation of a given passage is justified or not depends solely upon whether it gives the true meaning. If it is used to empty words of their plain and obvious meaning, to read out of them what is clearly intended by them, then allegorizing or spiritualizing is a term of reproach which is well merited." (Pentecost, J. Dwight; "THINGS TO COME"; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958, p 6 quoting from "PROPHECY AND THE CHURCH" By Allis, Oswald T. p 17)

Let us look at some further examples of allegorical interpretation.

Isa 11:6-9 mentions that the lamb and wolf will be together. An alogorist could say that this was Paul and Barnabus, and that Barnabus is trying to get along with the wolf Paul. Someone prove that this interpretation is incorrect.

Ezek. 37:16-18 speaks of two sticks with two names on them. One of the names is Joseph and of course the Mormon Church mentions that the Joseph is Joseph Smith! This is their basis for bringing all of his false teachings into a Biblical context. In truth the text speaks of Israel and Judah being reunited. (See vs. 19-22)

The allogorist believes that Israel in the Old Testament is the church now, and that all the promises for Israel are being fulfilled in the church today.

If that is true, then God promised me a chunk of the promised land. I want the corner of Tel'Aviv and Jericho for my mansion. That is in the upper middle class section of Jerusalem, mind you!

Luke 10:30-37 the account of the good Samaritan might be interpreted like this:

The man is Adam; The robbers illustrate the Devil; The priest depicts the Law; The Levite represents the Prophets; The Good man would probably be Christ; The Beast would be the physical body of Christ; The Inn is the Church and the 2 pence could be Christ and the Father. I think that you are beginning to get the picture.


A. Defined

Literal interpretation is giving to the words the same meaning they had when they were originally spoken or recorded. This demands that we attempt to determine how the term was used in the time when it was used. This would be the definition as well as the way in which it was used.

The system is known as the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This is due to the fact that both the grammar and historical setting are important to the proper interpretation.

Ramm states:

"The customary, socially-acknowledged designation of a word is the literal meaning of the word.

"The 'literal' meaning of a word is the basic, customary, social designation of that word. The spiritual, or mystical meaning of a word or expression is one that arises after the literal designation and is dependent upon it for its existence.

"To interpret literally means nothing more or less than to interpret in terms of normal, usual, designation. When the manuscript alters its designation the interpreter immediately shifts his method of interpreting." (Ramm, Bernard; "PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION"; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, p 64)

B. Evidence of the literal method:

Pentecost summarizes Ramm's comments on literal interpretation. (Taken from the book, ALL THE DOCTRINES OF THE BIBLE by Herbert Lockyer. Copyright 1964 by Zondervan Publishing House. Used by permission. p 10.) Ramm's comments are located on p 123ff in his tenth printing of "PROTESTANT BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION"; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970, if you would like to study further. We will use these comments as a basis for further comments.

1. "That the literal meaning of sentences is the normal approach in all languages."

There is no known society that communicates in allegories. When a person says something, it is interpreted literally. Indeed, a society could not function if everyone was interpreting what others said to their own allegorical desire.

2. "That all secondary meanings of documents, parables, types, allegories, and symbols, depend for their very existence on the previous literal meaning of the terms..."

We cannot understand allegories unless we understand the text in which they appear in a literal sense.

Parables often are interpreted within their context so we can KNOW their meaning from the text instead of our imagination.

3. "That the greater part of the Bible makes adequate sense when interpreted literally."

Even the book of Revelation can be viewed in a literal sense unless the context states that some other mode of view is to be used. For example, a phrase such as "it was like unto" would alert the reader that the item to be described is "like," not an exact replica.

4. "That the literalistic approach does not blindly rule out figures of speech, symbols, allegories, and types; but if the nature of the sentence so demands, it readily yields to the second sense."

In John 1:29, "Behold the Lamb of God" we see a figure of speech. John the Baptist did not mean a little woolly animal that came to be baptized! He was depicting Christ as the Lamb that would die for the sins of the world. Ps 98:8 mentions, "Let the floods clap their hands...." This is obviously not literal. You might look up Isa 55: 12 for another example.

Let me give you a modern illustration: "John is black." Please interpret that for me. The allegorically method might suggest that John has psychological problems, and that he has a very dark personality. The literal method on the other hand would submit that he is a Negro. This is from our view today, however this literal interpretation may change with a number of items.

HISTORICAL SETTING: He may have been a chimney sweep in past days.

GEOGRAPHICALLY: He may be a coal miner if he's in the south.

CONTEXTUALLY: John is black since he fell into the vat of ink.

Do you get the point? The historical setting, the geographical setting and the contextual settings may well vary your interpretation of a certain statement.

5. "That this method is the only sane and safe check on the imaginations of man."

When we remind ourselves of the suggested interpretations of John's vision of Christ in Revelation 1"14-16, we must admit that insanity would reign if we interpreted allegorically.

6. "That this method is the only one consonant with the nature of inspiration. The plenary inspiration of the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit guided men into truth and away from error. In this process the Spirit of God used language, and the units of language (as meaning, not as sound) are words and thoughts. The thought is the thread that strings the words together. Therefore, our very exegesis must commence with a study of words and grammar, the two fundamentals of all meaningful speech."

The idea is this, if the Bible we hold is to be the message from God to man then the logical method of knowing what it means is to assume that God communicated it to man in a manner that would be consistent with his understanding, and not in a cloaked form that we cannot immediately understand.

Probably one of the prime examples of literal interpretation and fulfillment would be the prophecy against Tyre in Ezekiel 26. A study of history will show that this prophecy was fulfilled very precisely and very literally.

Within the literal camp we realize there are some methods of writing that the authors of scripture used which can alter how we view a particular text. We will take a brief look at these.

1. HYPERBOLE: To use exaggeration to draw attention to a point. For example: "I'm going to die if I don't get a coke!" A Biblical example of this is seen in Ps 6:6, "All the night make I my bed to swim: I water my couch with my tears" See also Ps 78:27; 107:26.

2. ANTHROPOMORPHISM: This is the practice of assigning some body part to God to show one of His attributes. Ps 31:2, "Bow down thine ear to me" We know that God has no ears, for He is a spiritual being, yet we know that He hears us when we pray. Also see Ps 11:4; 18:15; 32:8.

3. IMPLICATION: The use of an item that illustrates the feeling you want to convey. In Ps 22:16, "For dogs have compassed me" we see that the enemy has surrounded the psalmist and his view of these enemies is one of fear that he might have from a pack of dogs. (Jer. 4:7; Matt 15:13 also.)

4. METAPHOR: This is a comparison of two things where one is said to be the other. Ps 84:11, "For the Lord God is a sun and shield" This implies that God is light and protection. Jn 10:9, "I am the door" - Christ declares with this phrase that He is 73 the entrance through which man must approach God and not that He is wood and hinges! Hosea 7:8, "Ephraim is a cake not turned" He is half baked! NO! Ephraim is a man - not flour and water! (Ps 23:1; 84:11; 91:4 also.)

5. METONYMY: The using of one noun in place of another to describe a similarity between the two. Ps 73:9, "Their tongue walketh through the earth" This implies that wrong speech is heard everywhere. (Ps 5:9; 18:2; 57:9)

6. ZOOMORPHISM: A zoomorphism is the ascribing of an animal part to God so the reader can understand some concept about God. Ps 17:8, "Hide me under the shadow of thy wings" This depicts the protection offered to the believer by God. (Ps 36:7; 63:7; 91:4)

7. RHETORICAL QUESTION: The use of a question that requires the reader to accept or reject a fact. Ps 106:2, "Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord? Who can shew forth all his praise?" The implication is, that no one can do either. (Ps 35:10; 56:7; 94:6)

8. SIMILE: The simile is used to compare two similar items. Ps 1:3, "He shall be like a tree planted by rivers of water" would indicate that the "He" is going to thrive as the well watered tree. (Ps 1:4; 5:12; 17:8; 131:2)

9. PERSONIFICATION: Giving a characteristic of a human to some inanimate object. Ps 35:10, "All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee" This implies the inner depths of the psalmist. (Ps 77:16; 96:11; 104:19)


Pentecost lists several advantages of the literal method from Ramm and then adds some of his own. I will paraphrase and combine these.

1. This method attempts to base its findings on facts and not the whims of man's mind. Facts gained from "grammar, logic, etymology, history, geography, archaeology, theology...." (Ramm)

2. The method requires similar controls upon interpretation to those controls that are imposed upon science. The information must be based upon fact.

3. The method has literally opened the scriptures since the reformation when Luther and others realized that the Word had a message for all of mankind. Many have followed through in history by using this method.

4. The method becomes its own standard of authority. The Word becomes the authority and not the theological system or whims of a man. The interpretation is compared with other Scripture instead of a theological system for correctness.

5. We are free to offer the Word to the common person that can read and understand it, instead of limiting its interpretation to only those that are trained in the mystic method of finding that illusive true meaning behind the words.

In short the allegorical method can only be limited by the number of people interpreting. They can each go his or her own way and none can disprove the other.


1. Interpret using all tools available. Meaning, grammar, logic, culture, geography and all others.

2. Interpret contextually.

3. Interpret figuratively only when necessary.

4. Interpret in light of how the scripture interprets. Look to see if the context has the Lord's interpretation included, before you go into long dissertations of error.

I trust that this has been adequate to convince all to interpret literally. When we read the newspaper we interpret literally, when we read road signs, we interpret literally and in all of life we interpret literally unless there is something in the context which indicates we should do differently. So as we approach the most important Book in all of life, we must be consistent and interpret literally.

It would seem that the application of this section if obvious. The method of interpretation is critical to a proper understanding of scripture, thus be sure that your method is correct.

By the same token, you might be sure that your teachers and church leaders use the same method, rather than a method that could lead your church off into false doctrine.

There is the thought of your own family as well. As you take time to teach your children, be sure that you tell them how to interpret the Bible. This is a major doctrine they will grasp quite easily. They understand you because they already interpret literally and would see any other method of interpretation as foolish.

Teach the method in your Sunday School as well. All believers need to know this doctrine!

Finally, know that any method other than the literal method will lead you into false doctrine. You may also know that if you run into someone that is not interpreting literally that you are talking to someone that holds to false doctrine. BEWARE.