Title: The Interpretation of Prophecy
Author: Paul Lee Tan
Completed on March 10, 2012
Paul Lee Tan’s book The Interpretation of Prophecy was completed as part of the assigned reading for Reverend J. Stallard’s Interpreting Biblical Prophecy course at the Baptist Bible College & Seminary. Tan approaches the subject of prophecy from the dispensational premillennial viewpoint and endorses a literal, or normal, rendering of the prophetic books of the Bible. The Interpretation of Prophecy “is based on the proposition that consistent literal interpretation of prophecy is good hermeneutics” (Tan, 1974, p. 22). It is Tan’s assertion that a consistent literal hermeneutics naturally lead an interpreter to a premillennial, pretribulational interpretation of prophecy (Tan, 1974, p.22) and The Interpretation of Prophecy is his attempt to illustrate this point.
Tan’s book begins with a practical defense of literal interpretation methods. He defines literal interpretation as “… explain[ing] the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary uses of its language … consider[ing] the accepted rules of grammar and rhetoric, as well as the factual historical and cultural data of Biblical times” (Tan, 1974, p.29). It is a definition that closely resembles those of other writers on the subject. For instance, in The Moody Handbook of Theology Paul Enns defines literal interpretation as meaning “… the words and sentences of Scripture are understood in their normal meaning – the ways that words are understood in normal communication” (Enns, 2008, c.18). It is on this foundation that Tan begins a reasonable defense of literal interpretation. Tan asserts, “… the words of Scripture are adequate in conveying all that God wants man to know” (Tan, 1974, p.33) and reminds readers that “There is nothing clandestine about Christianity. The proper approach to God’s Word is the reverent one of accepting what it says and then making applications to life” (Tan, 1974, p.35).
Having established the terms of what constitutes a literal interpretation, Tan then briefly explores the history of interpretation. Tan walks readers through the methods of the Alexandrian Jews to the early church fathers, the medieval period, the reformation, and post reformation all the way up to the twentieth century. In this section of the book, Tan explores the paradigm shifts throughout history in the way interpreters viewed Scripture. He then asserts, “… although the battle for the interpretation of Scripture has largely been won in evangelical circled for the literal method, a hard and bitter conflict still looms over the interpretive method for the prophetic Scriptures” (Tan, 1974 p.57-58).
Having established that there are still some disagreements over interpretation methodology concerning the prophetic Scriptures, Tan then makes the case for the literal interpretation of these Scriptures from a Biblical perspective. Tan’s argument is based on the supposition that the prophetic Scriptures, like the rest of the Bible, originate from God and are intended to be understood (Tan, 1974, p.59-61). Tan references multiple Scriptural passages including Matthew 24:15 and 2 Peter 1:19 to strengthen his point. He sums up this argument by asserting, “Practical consideration demands that the literal method of interpretation be used for all of Scripture” (Tan, 1974, p.74).
Following this appeal to Scripture, Tan explores the nature of Biblical prophecy itself. The author divides Biblical prophecy into two main categories – predictions and apocalyptics. Predictions are those that involve events in the near future while apocalyptics are prophecies that involve the end-times (Tan, 1974, p.76-77). Tan then argues, “The prophets see future events in their visions as the common observer would observe the stars, grouping them as they appear to his eyes and not according their true position is space” (Tan, 1974, p.92). It is for this reason that prophecies often can only be interpreted correctly from the perspective of history (Tan, 1974, p.93).
It is at this point that Tan appropriately chooses to explore the principles of interpreting prophecy. Tan spells out the process for his readers with common sense applications. Tan then progresses into the nuts and bolts of prophecy with sections that explore prophetic language, symbols and types, the fulfillment of prophecy, and specific hermeneutical issues. Tan even includes an extensive appendix that addresses specific elements of prophetic Scripture. He concludes his book with the reminder, “When the interpreter has arrived at a well-based interpretation of prophecy, the next step is to apply this discovery to lives” (Tan, 1974, p.281).
The strengths of The Interpretation of Prophecy far outweigh the weaknesses. In fact, any attempt by this student to explore the weakness of Tan’s book may seem slightly contrived. However, if forced to divulge a quibble with Tan’s work, it would have to concern his statement on page 33 that “literal interpreters believe that the words of Scripture are adequate in conveying all that God wants man to know” (Tan, 1974, p.33). While I agree in principle with this statement I would revise it to read ‘all that God needs man to know.’
Most Biblical scholars agree that God communicates with mankind via Special and General Revelation. By definition, prophetic Scripture is Special Revelation as it involves God directly revealing Himself in miraculous ways. While I would agree with Tan that Scripture provides mankind with all that God needs mankind to know, his brief exploration of the subject seems to ignore the existence of the General Revelation as defined by the Apostle Paul in Revelation 1:20. The issue is further complicated when Tan appeals to history (often an extra-biblical discipline) as the proper perspective by which to observe prophecy (Tan, 1974, p.93).
It must be acknowledged, however, that an in-depth exploration into the nature of Special and General Revelations may be beyond the scope of Tan’s book. Furthermore, the strengths of The Interpretation of Prophecy far outweigh any perceived weaknesses. Mainly, Tan’s book provides as well-balanced argument in favor of literal interpretation that progresses in a logical and thoughtful manner. Tan’s arguments are flavored with the sort of common sense that is often absent from such discourse. Rather than simply attacking liberal and spiritual interpretations of Scripture, Tan spends the majority of his time explaining in layman’s terms why a literal approach to interpretation leads to the best possible interpretation.
The strongest sections of Tan’s work include the opening chapter that seeks to define literal interpretation and in chapter three that appeals to Scripture as the basis for such an interpretation. Tan is at his best when he writes:
When the Alexandrian church fathers left the sure footing of the literal interpretation of Scripture in favor of the allegorical method, a runaway situation resulted. Taking flight from the literal Word, every father became virtually an authority unto himself, and the sky was the limit. No concrete test of an acceptable interpretation was available. And exegesis differed from church father to church father, and even from time to time under a man. (p.72-73)
Tan’s words are appropriate because they can be seen in practice today. With the popularity of movements such as the emergent church that are drifting away from literal methods of interpretations, students can see the folly of such spiritualization in progress.
How The Interpretation of Scripture has influenced this Student
Tan’s work has helped solidify a number of concepts in my mind. Most notably, I am more convinced than ever that a literal approach to the interpretation of Biblical prophecy is the most Biblical and appropriate method. Having once viewed Biblical prophecy as mysterious and vague I was content in just knowing that God was in control of such things. I was not convinced that God actually intended for me to understand such matters. As a result of my studies under Reverend J. Stallard and of reading The Interpretation of Scripture I now understand that God wants me to understand prophecy and that an adequate understanding of such matters is actually attainable.
Tan’s work has also clarified some very specific issues in my mind. For instance, Tan’s Rule of Simplest Alternative as presented on page 123 has especially resonated with me. Basically, the rule of thumb is that when two or more interpretations are offered for a single text (which is often the case with prophecy) the interpreter should choose the one that “imposes the least strain on credulity” (Tan, 1974, p.124). This single rule is one that I will carry throughout my life when reading the prophetic Scriptures.
In closing, Tan’s work helps dissolve the fanciful interpretations of Scripture in favor of a common sense, literal approach. In an age when everyone seems concerned with far out apocalyptic predictions, Tan’s book is a reminder that it is far better to rely on the Word of God as was intended by the writers of Scripture. The Interpretation of Scripture is one that I will refer to often throughout my life as I engage with the Word of God.
Enns, P. (2008). The moody handbook of theology. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers.
Tan, P. L. (1974). The interpretation of prophecy. Dallas, Texas: Bible Communications, Inc.
 For an example of such modern spiritualization read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, 2010, Harper One.