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.)