Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Literalism's Absurdities

by Ken Gentry, Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Especially since the rise to prominence of dispensationalism in the late nineteenth century, interpretive principles have become a major focus of eschatological discussion. One of the classic dispensationalist’s leading arguments is the claim to consistent interpretive literalism. Charles C. Ryrie sets forth interpretive literalism as a sine qua non of this leading branch of dispensationalism: "Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. . . . The dispensationalist claims to use the normal principle of interpretation consistently in all his study of the Bible." Thomas D. Ice declares: "Futurism . . . is the only approach that can consistently apply literal interpretation." Earl Radmacher states: "It is so utterly fundamental to under-stand that the foundational premise of dispensationalism is not theological but herme-neutical." Paul N. Benware calls it a "face value" form of interpretation.

Since Ryrie is perhaps the most prominent and respected classical dispensationalist, a few examples of literalism from his writings serve as illustrations of the classic dispensational approach to hermeneutics. For instance, he chides Mickelsen for suggesting that the ancient weapons and chariots of Ezekiel 39 (which both Ryrie and Mickelsen deem to be in the future) are symbolic equivalents of modern weaponry: "If specific details are not interpreted literally when given as specific details, then there can be no end to the variety of the meanings of a text."6 Here the principle of consistent literalism is so vigorously held that we are left with what non-dispensational evangelicals consider an absurdity, despite attempts at formal explanations.

But Ryrie is not alone in this bizarre line of reasoning; after all, it is endemic to the whole system. Thomas even goes so far as to place Jesus and the armies of heaven on literal horses at his second advent from out of heaven — and suggests a special creative act for explaining horses in heaven (which would apparently also cover their ability to survive the high altitude temperatures and rarified air involved in the second advent). Of Revelation 19:14 he argues: "These are real armies and horses, not imaginary ones. . . . The origin of the horses need not create a problem as they conceivably are a special creation of ‘The Word of God’ for the purposes of this occasion."

Elsewhere, Ryrie writes: "Jerusalem will be exalted (Zec 14:10), and there is no reason to doubt but that this will be literal and that the city by means of certain physical changes shall be exalted above the sur-rounding hills"! Walvoord concurs: "topological changes will take place which apparently will elevate Jerusalem so that waters flowing from Jerusalem will go half to the eastern sea, or the Sea of Galilee, and half to the western sea, or the Mediterranean." Their literalism on this issue even appears in the most symbolic book in Scripture. Of Revelation 16:20 Thomas writes: "These words speak of literal topographical changes, not figuratively of political turmoil. A literal understanding is no obstacle."

But consider the physical problems associated with such an elevation of Jerusalem: Were Jerusalem raised up to be the highest mountain, it would involve such tectonic upheaval that it would absolutely destroy the city. Earthquakes are destructive natural phenomena, but this up-thrusting is even worse. It involves full-scale mountain building, which would absolutely destroy an already built city. Furthermore, if it were raised above the highest mountains, it would be uninhabitable for it would be higher than Mt. Everest. This would give it an intolerably freezing climate. Surely this prophecy is speaking symbolically of the exaltation and dominance of God’s kingdom, not its physical elevation.

What is more, Paul Lee Tan inadvertently exposes literalism’s absurdity when he argues that the New Jerusalem is a city that "will be 1,323 miles in all directions" that could hold a staggering 72 billion inhabitants." The Space Shuttle flies around 200 miles high; this city extends over 1000 miles higher! The earth’s diameter is about 8000 miles at the equator; the city will extend out a full sixteen percent further in one small 1300 mile square spot on the earth’s 196,935,000 square mile surface. Robert L. Thomas explains that its size "is no more unimaginable than a pearl large enough to serve as a city-gate." His explanation only complicates the problem: I cannot imagine an oyster large enough to produce such a pearl. If I could, I would never swim in the ocean again!

In the final analysis, though, the New Testament applies this imagery non-literally. For instance, Luke applies Isaiah 40:4 to John Baptist’s ministry: "Every ravine shall be filled up, / And every mountain and hill shall be brought low" (Lk 3:5a). Unless the dispensationalist argues that in the third decade of the first century John flattened all mountains on the earth, their literalistic approach to mountain building and mountain destroying passages fails.

Can anyone accept such views as reasonable, especially since we may easily understand these elements as figures of exaltation and influence? Dispensationalism has painted itself into a corner with its bold claims (I don't mean that "literally"; Sherwin-Williams cannot be blamed for dispensationalism's problems.)


Zach Carpenter said...

I go to a dispensational seminary (undergrad program), and I see the professors wave the banner of literalism all the time. Claiming to teach the only correct interpretation the professors will tarnish the historical view by saying something like, “Others allegorize this because they don’t take the Bible at its word.”
I recently completed their survey of the Old Testament Prophetic books. One of the things I noticed is how every time an O.T. prophet mentions God’s faithfulness to His word by fulfilling His promise in some future timeframe, the professor would teach that he was describing the millennial kingdom. Yet over and over the promises don’t seem to have a limited aspect. One example, though there are many, is found in Micah 4-5. For this section the professor said that this is a, “picture of the future millennium.” Yet 4:7b reads, “and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore…” (ESV, emphasis mine). 1000 years is a good bit of time, but it’s definitely not “forevermore.” If I were a physical descendent of Abraham clinging to this promise it would seem to me that God was disproportionately unfaithful to my people since multiple thousands of years have already passed with none being able to participate in this blessing.
Additionally, when we were going through Ezekiel the professor mentioned that the sacrificial system will be instituted again in the “literal” temple. This took some of the students by surprise who aren’t familiar with all the implications associated with splitting up the people of God. The professor calmed them down by saying, “They will only be commemorative sacrifices.” I then asked where he read in Ezekiel that they would be commemorative. He couldn’t give me an answer, to which I followed up by pointing out Ezekiel 45:15 and 17 both say the sacrifices are “to make atonement.” I asked how we can understand these as commemorative sacrifices if the recipients would have understood these for the purpose of making atonement. He said he’d investigate that further for me. Literalism breaks down when you read the author of Hebrews declare over and over what Christ did, “Once for all.”
You guys are going a great job. May the Lord continue blessing your ministry.


By the way, I also grew up with dispensational teaching. After feeling called to ministry (primarily because the doctrines of Grace became precious to me), I started to see dispensational tentacles squeezing out God’s sovereignty in almost every area of doctrine. It’s been a journey, but I’m thankful to have been challenged by my present school and look forward to going to a non-dispensational seminary for my M.Div.

NiceneCouncil.com said...

Excellent comments, Zach! Thanks for interacting. Ken Gentry

Dorothy said...

Hi Zach,

I must say your post was refreshing. I was raised dispensational and I'm a laymen, but what convinced me that the system was seriously flawed - at least Tim LaHaye's version, was the book he wrote supporting his system called "Revelation Unveiled". I took my Bible and read every verse he cited and the texts around it. I wasn't even half way through the book before I knew he was seriously off base and ripping scripture out of context.

I've challenged my dispensational friends to do the same, but they seem to have no interest in that direction. I do believe it's because dispensationalism is so graphic with its charts that it makes them feel like they know more about scripture when they know very little.

I know it took me a good year of solid study to dispense with all those charts rolling around in my brain. I can't tell you how many nights I woke up and went to scripture with another "what about ?".

It's always good to hear that others have run into the similar things and seen it for what it is.