Home > Book of Revelation, Literalism, Mountains in prophecy, Olivet Discourse > On literal vs. allegorical interpretation

On literal vs. allegorical interpretation

November 3, 2011

In an article on Is Revelation literal? Tim McHyde says:

The Book of Revelation indeed is full of symbolic descriptions. However, we should be very careful before we discount the literal fulfillment of those symbols, and choose to focus on a purely allegorical interpretation.

In what way is an allegorical interpretation different from a symbolic one? The meaning of allegory seems to be quite similar to the meaning of symbol; the main difference seems to be that the idea of an allegory seems to involve a story, that has  a meaning other than the literal one. Another related word is metaphor. Their definitions, from dictionary.com, are provided in the table below.

symbol noun
1. something used for or regarded as representing something else; a material object representing something, often something immaterial; emblem, token, or sign.
2. a letter, figure, or other character or mark or a combination of letters or the like used to designate something: the algebraic symbol x; the chemical symbol Au.
3. a word, phrase, image, or the like having a complex of associated meanings and perceived as having inherent value separable from that which is symbolized, as being part of that which is symbolized, and as performing its normal function of standing for or representing that which is symbolized: usually conceived as deriving its meaning chiefly from the structure in which it appears, and generally distinguished from a sign.
metaphor noun
1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.” Compare mixed metaphor, simile (def. 1).
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.
allegory noun
1. a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
2. a symbolical narrative: the allegory of Piers Plowman.
3. emblem (def. 3).

For McHyde, symbolic descriptions are okay, but not allegorical interpretations. But that seems to be more than a little confused, and self-contradictory, and in these comments, I hope to clarify the issue. An article on the Ant Writes blog entitled: Is the Word of God the Word of God? states:

When it comes to interpreting Revelation, I exclusively use a literal translation to meet the requirement Jesus put forth that the plain sense of Scripture cannot be broken, a rule which allegorical interpretations ignore.
This makes for explanations that are able to withstand scrutiny and be verified as correct by anyone, something you can never quite do with a human invented allegory.  Saying that certain parts of Revelation are literal and some are not breaks Scripture.

Is it true that literalism leads to unanimity or a consensus among interpreters? The fact is, a lot of division and conflict exists among the expositors who claim to take a literal approach. The preterists and dispensationalists, for example, are in agreement that the 70th week of Daniel’s prophecy is to be taken as seven literal years, but they are as far apart as can be in their interpretations. Even among dispensationalists, there is little consensus. They are divided into separate camps, such as, Classical dispensationalism, Reformed dispensationalism, Progressive dispensationalism, mid-Acts dispensationalism, Ultradispensationalism, etc. Literalism is the preferred approach of the infidel, and the skeptic seeking contradictions which he uses to overthrow the faith of believers, and to justify his unbelief. Literalism has led many people to make absurd claims about Scripture, sometimes even blasphemy. Literalism was the approach of the Jews, who sought to condemn Jesus, when they accused him of claiming he was able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.

Matthew 26:60-63
At the last came two false witnesses, And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace, And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.

In Mark’s account, Jesus is reported to have said he would build a new temple without hands; they said, “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.” [Mark 14:58] These are words put in the mouths of false witnesses, because they implied the literal temple was meant. But Jesus referred to himself, when he said, “destroy this temple.” That is what the Jews refused to acknowledge; they took his words literally, as if he threatened the temple that Herod had built, which of course was not what he meant.

When Jesus said, “flee to the mountains,” the literal approach assumes that he meant literal mountains, and since he directed the warning to “them that are in Judea,” the mountains of Judea must be meant. Preterists apply this to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, but the Christians are supposed to have fled, not to the mountains, but to Pella, a town in the Jordan valley. So their interpretation implies that the warning Jesus gave was nonsense; in their interpretation, it would be better if he had said, “flee to the valleys.”

If the mountains are viewed as literal and the meaning was for people to flee for their own safety, then the teachings of Jesus contradict; Jesus also said he who seeks to save his life will lose it: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” [Matthew 16:25]

Thus, taking the mountains in the saying “flee to the mountains” as literal ones has Jesus contradicting himself, which is madness. Yet this is how almost all dispensationalists interpret the saying. They also think it applies only to ethnic Jews living in Palestine. Jesus does not say what to flee from, or which mountains to flee to. But if the mountains in this prophecy are interpreted spiritually, and if they are symbolic of God’s promises, he meant enlightened Christians should seek God’s promises and his righteousness; David said: “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O LORD, thou preservest man and beast.” [Psalm 36:6]

The mountains of the scripture are symbols of God’s righteousness, and his promises, as Jacob indicated in his blessing of Joseph. [Genesis 49:26] In another Psalm, David said: “The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.” [Psalm 72:3]

The mountains that bring peace to the people are the promises of God, not the literal ones in Palestine. When Jesus said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” did he mean that false prophets were literal trees?

Matthew 7:16
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

Of course not! Jesus never said, “the plain sense of Scripture cannot be broken.” Instead, he chided his disciples for their immature literal approach, and for thinking he meant literal leaven when he said “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” [Matthew 16:11]

The doctrine of the Pharisees was in part a literalist approach to the Scriptures, that naturally led to hypocrisy, and contradictions.

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  1. November 4, 2011 at 6:06 am

    Hey Doug, thanks for stopping by. There is one thing you forgot. I did not write the article. The bottom of the blog post says
    “This blog post was a repost from Tim McHyde – Escape All These Things”

  2. November 4, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Oops, my apologies. I have corrected the attributions in my post to show that the first quote was from an article by Tim McHyde, and the second quote is from your article. Thanks.

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