G.K. Beale on the difference between a “Literal” and a “Biblical” Hermeneutic of Old Testament Prophecies

G.K. Beale is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Testament interpreters. He has a long list of impressive works including authoring what is likely the new standard commentary on the book of Revelation, editing the New Testament Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, and delivering the recent tome that is A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Needless to say based on the titles of these last two works, one of his specialties is the problem of the interpretation of the use of the Old Testament, especially prophecies, in the New Testament.

One of the main issues in this area of study is whether or not certain interpretations, both by the NT authors and their later commentators, seem to illegitimately “spiritualize” the fulfilment of a “literal” prophecy. Beale has a helpful passage on this very problem with respect to his interpretation of the Antichrist (“the man of lawlessness”) and the Temple in 2 Thessalonians in his work The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God.  One of the central contentions of his book is that in the NT, the Temple is replaced by Christ and in Christ by the people of God.  Therefore, the reference to the Temple in 2 Thessalonians is a reference to the church. On this basis and many other exegetical insights he claims that the prophecies of Daniel being alluded to in the text about the man of lawlessness setting up his rule in the Temple are ultimately taking place in the Church, not in some reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem as is commonly thought in popular Dispensationalism.

Obviously, for those advocating a strictly “literal hermeneutic” this will be a hopelessly spiritualizing interpretation that violates the principle by which all Scripture is to be interpreted. His responses to this charge are instructive both for general biblical hermeneutics as well as the specific problem of prophecy:

First, a ‘literal hermeneutic’ is not the best way to describe a biblical hermeneutic. Perhaps a ‘literate hermeneutic’ that aspires to the broad literary meaning in the canonical context is the better way to put it. We should want to follow an interpretive method that aims to unravel the original intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities…”

So, there is a difference between reading something “literally” and “literately”. Kevin Vanhoozer has elsewhere said that if we want to talk about what the Reformers meant, and we ought to mean, by the term “literal interpretation”, we should speak of a “literary interpretation.” Basically, if the author intended a statement to be taken as a straightforward description, “the tree is outside”, we should understand it that way. But, if the author says, “the tree was a skyscraper”, we shouldn’t understand him to be saying that the tree is actually “scraping” the sky.  So, if a text is meant to be taken spiritually, then to read it appropriately is to read it spiritually.

“Second, the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfilment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant.” (pg. 289)

So, a prophecy about the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth amongst his people, can ultimately fulfilled in the church, who are now the dwelling place of God on earth amongst his people. For a prophecy to be fulfilled this way is not disruptive or illegitimate because the essential, organic content of the prophecy is preserved and grows naturally out of the original. Beale uses the example of a father in the year 1900 promising to buy his son a horse and buggy when he gets married, but by the time the son has grown up 30 years later, he ends up buying him a Ford. (pg. 291) The essential content of the promise is fulfilled even if the form is somewhat altered in a way the original utterer of the promise was unaware of.

I found these insights helpful. I pass them on to you with the hope that they will aid in your understanding of the scriptures and the surprising way that all of God’s promises “find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor 1:20)

8 thoughts on “G.K. Beale on the difference between a “Literal” and a “Biblical” Hermeneutic of Old Testament Prophecies

  1. Re your statement: “G.K. Beale is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Testament interpreters.” Beale is also on my radar. I have been teaching from “The Temple” for many weeks in my church. The concept that impressed me is how the temple is a symbol for the presence of God and our entering into his presence. In some circles this is called “temple theology”. Your summary comments were very helpful.

    • Yeah, the whole book is teachable. The interlinking between the Temple and the Garden and the way those to realities mutually-interpret each other has been eye-opening. Also, in connection to the Image of God it has been fascinating. I’m looking forward to the concluding reflections because there has to be some fascinating implications for the problem of the church and the culture. If the Temple was always meant to be a symbol of the expanding Garden that represents God’s good rule and reign, then the church as the Temple has a task in the world. I look forward to seeing what Beale does with that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Your recounting of the New Testament “temple” interpretation is an historic Reformed position. Why do we have to “rediscover” this stuff? Keep up the good work! When I tried to advocate this stuff in the “Calvary Chapel” days, I was branded a heretic!

    • Oh, it totally is. We have to rediscover it because we forget it, we deny it, etc. Also, Beale doesn’t think he’s rediscovering that part. What he’s doing is using Ancient Near Eastern background to connect the Temple to the Garden, then show the purpose of the Temple, as well as connect it to the end-time Temple imagery in Rev. 21-22 which he argues is not just coterminous with the New Jerusalem, but the whole earth which is the new Holy of Holies. He also reviews extensively a bunch of the inter-canonical connections in the prophets, the Gospels, Acts, Paul, Hebrews, etc. Really eye-opening, even for someone who holds to the historic view.

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