Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Prophecy and Literalism Revisited

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Dispensationalists have a strong commitment to a literalistic hermeneutic. In fact, the leading dispensational theologian of the last part of the Twentieth Century, Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, declared “consistent literalism” to be one of the three sine qua non of dispensationalism. Dispensationalists often speak of literalism as “plain interpretation.” Consequently, the average dispensationalist-in-the-pew reflexively (mindlessly) dismisses postmillennial and preterist interpretations due to their own naive commitment to (supposed) literalism. How shall we respond?

I would like to make three hermeneutical assertions that the Bible student should bear in mind in discussions with dispensationalists:

First, “consistent literalism” and grammatical-historical interpretation. The alleged “consistent literalism” of the dispensationalist is not the functional equivalent of “grammatical-historical” exegesis. The literalism principle is a sub-species of the grammatical-historical method, as even more recent dispensational theologians are beginning to admit. See works by former Dallas Theological Seminary professors Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, as well as other noted dispensationalists, such as Robert L. Saucy and John S. Feinberg. Blaising and Bock show that the claim to consistent literalism was never attainable in dispensationalism, but was really more-or-less a goal. Literalism is, in fact, an aberration of otherwise fundamentally sound principles. [1] We must drive this point home to our dispensational friends. While they write us off on interpretive issues, their own theologians are moving in our direction.

Dispensationalist theologians are now even forsaking so-called literalism. For instance, John S. Feinberg, a noted contemporary dispensationalist, complains of one of Ice’s mentors: “Ryrie is too simplistic” in his literalism. [2] Craig A. Blaising of Dallas Theological Seminary warns that: “consistently literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of dispensationalism. Development is taking place on how to characterize a proper hermeneutic for dispensationalists.” [3]

As Carson observes in his exposition of Matthew 24 (which forms the backdrop to John’s Revelation): “Untutored Christians are prone to think of prophecy and fulfillment as something not very different from straightforward propositional prediction and fulfillment. A close reading of the NT reveals that prophecy is more complex than that.” [4] In his comments on Matthew 24 renowned Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson agrees that “literalism is not appropriate in this apocalyptic eschatology.” [5] Moody Bible Institute dispensationalist scholars Pate and Haines warn: “It is in the failure to grasp the interplay between prose and poetry that doomsday prophets make a major mistake, overemphasizing the literal meaning to the neglect of the symbolic.” [6]

Second, the distinction between figurative and spiritual language. We must be careful to distinguish between a “figurative” use of language (a legitimate function of the grammatical-historical method) and a “spiritual” interpretive methodology. Misunderstanding this distinction is a major source of confusion among dispensationalists. Their misconception allows them an easy way out: they simply write off all non-dispensational interpretations as inherently liberal.

Dispensationalists must be shown that figurative expressions portray historical events. They do not discount objective history. Figurative language paints actual historical events by means of colorful, dramatic, and overdrawn descriptions.

Spiritual interpretation is different, however. It is a system of hermeneutics that evacuates all historical sense from a text in order to replace it with an abstract spiritual reality. Charges of “spiritualization,” though common in such debates as ours, are far afield when one is merely interpreting figurative language. As premillennialist commentator Robert Mounce notes: “That the language of prophecy is highly figurative has nothing to do with the reality of the events predicted. Symbolism is not a denial of historicity but a matter of literary genre.” [7]

Third, the Old Testament hermeneutical backdrop. We must be alert to the Old Testament warrant for occasional figurative interpretation. As noted New Testament commentator William Lane notes of the Olivet Discourse: “The OT plays an essential part in the structure and imagery of the prophetic discourse.” [8] The Old Testament prophets frequently use figurative language dramatically to portray future events. Christ, who is “the prophet” par excellence, employs their method in his Olivet Discourse.

All of this is especially important when we approach the Book of Revelation. Only the most naive of interpreters would claim that we must interpret Revelation in a “consistent literal” fashion. Unfortunately, there are millions of naive interpreters in the American pews today.

A dispensational objection. Some dispensationalists will object: “You say something is symbolic. But as I read the text, the Bible clearly states the matter. Therefore, you are imposing your view on Scripture.” How shall we respond? Are we at a stand-off? I think not. Notice the following:

(1) Actually all texts require interpretation. To say that “a text must be symbolic” is no more an imposition on the text by man that to say “a text must be literal.” The problem remains: Which man’s approach do you believe?

(2) We must ask: Can God speak symbolically? Is he confined to literalism as the only method of communication? After all, we speak symbolically often enough: “My love is a red, red rose”; “My world is falling in on me.”

(3) Consider the vision in Revelation 5: In 5:6 we read “I saw a lamb standing.” Is that an actual animal that we know as a lamb, a ruminant animal of the genus Ovis? Or does it represent symbolically something else, Jesus Christ? When we read the text, it becomes very clear that he is speaking of Jesus as if he were a lamb: 5:8-10 have angels singing to him of the salvation he has wrought. 5:12 ascribe honor and glory to the “lamb.” 5:13 puts the “lamb” on equality with God. 5:14 engages in heavenly worship of the “lamb.” In Rev. 14:1’ the “lamb” is in heaven with the redeemed. In 14:4 the saved follow the “lamb,” having been saved for God and the “lamb.”

[1] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism: An Up-to-Date Handbook of Contemporary Dispensational Thought (Wheaton, Ill.: Bridgepoint, 1993), 36-37. In fact, such an attempt is evidence of “conceptual naivete.” Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 29.

[2] John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1988), 73.

[3] Craig A. Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra (579), 272.

[4] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 8:27.

[5] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), 1:193.

[6] C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines, Jr., Doomsday Delusions: What’s Wrong with Predictions About the End of the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995), 27.

[7] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 218.

[8] William L. Lane, Gospel According to Mark (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 449.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Even Their Scholars Descend into Absurdity

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director of NiceneCouncil.com

I have long made the distinction between scholarly dispensationalists (e.g., Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and sometimes Dwight Pentecost) and the populist dispensationalists (e.g., Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and anyone else with book sales over 15 billion copies). I did this out of respect for the more thoughtful presentations in the scholars' writings. But now I don’t know what possessed me to do this. Let me explain and illustrate the blurring of the lines separating populist dispensationalists from the “scholarly” ones.

Generally the “scholarly” dispensationalists present the more theological and exegetical foundations for the system. Whereas the populists run grinning and skipping full-bore into date-setting, rapture-predicting, Antichrist-portending, Armageddon military-operation-plan describing (OPLANs), newspaper-exegeting, system-contradicting inane, vacuous, absurd, silly, vapid, pointless, fatuous, insubstantial slop. They do this for the mere pleasure of fleecing the sheep of untold millions of dollars of their non-invested, discretionary funds.

However, I have begun to question this distinction between populist and scholar in dispensationalism. And I even wonder why I ever allowed such a distinction. Though it is true that the populists never attempt any scholarly-sounding, exegetically-rigorous, theologically-astute presentations of their system, it is most certainly not true that the “scholars” are not lured into crass money-making publications. Consider the following books by the more reputable dispensationalist “scholars” Ryrie and Walvoord. (I believe that Pentecost also wrote one, but fortunately I have lost it.)

Walvoord published his newspaper-exegesis book Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis: What the Bible Says about the Future of the Middle East and the End of Western Civilization in 1974 and again in 1976. Then when the first Gulf War broke out, he revised and re-released it in 1990 whereupon it became a multi-million bestseller, making him so much money that he had to invest it in long-term real estate ventures.

Walvoord not only provides devotional readings from the newspapers, avoids indexing the book, and resists footnotes (as do populists), but he provides a table of “Prophetic Events in History Beginning with the Babylonian Captivity” (on pp. 107–08). And what are some of these “prophecies” (none of which should be occurring in the church age while awaiting the signless, imminent rapture)? Here are a few that may surprise you (I know they surprised the aluminum storm door salesman that came by my house yesterday):

• "1945: Rise of Russia and Communism to power."
(Gentry comment and analysis: Who would have known this would occur in 1945? This is an amazing prophecy. Of course, once you break the number down you will see obvious clues: 1 stands for the first commandment; 9 for number of centuries lived by Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Jared, Methuselah, Noah, Peleg (Gen 5; 9:29; 11:19); 4 for the number of Jacob’s sons whose name starts with the letter “j” [Judah and Joseph] multiplied by 2; 5 is a number often thought of while milking four-uddered cows.)

• "1946: Beginning of world government: United Nations formed."
(Gentry comment and analysis: Notice prophecy’s strange silence about “cheese.”)

• "1948: Israel established as a nation in the land: third return."
(Gentry comment and analysis: This date was necessary to get us into the age of television which would give rise to tele-evangelism.)

• "1956: Israel extends territory."
(Gentry comment and analysis: Carefully notice how this is but eight years after 1948. Need I say more?)

• "1967: Israel regains territory."
(Gentry comment and analysis: This is not the year of the invention of aluminum foil. Though on January 5 of this year Spain and Romania sign in Paris an agreement establishing full consular and commercial relations, though, sadly, not diplomatic ones.)

• "1975: Egypt reopens the Suez Canal."
(Gentry comment and analysis: Though apparently there is no clear prophecy discussing the original dredging of the Suez and the actual building of this particular canal.)

• "1979: Camp David Accords: peace with Egypt."
(Gentry comment and analysis: Little did Jimmy Carter know he was the subject of biblical prophecy, though obviously before he occurred in history peanuts had to be invented. This co-ordination of events then becomes a remarkable demonstration of God’s providence. Sadly though, peanut butter was invented before peanuts themselves, then had to await the later arrival of its main ingredient. Consequently, it originally sold very poorly as a jar of brown butter.)

• "1982: Israel attacks PLO in Lebanon."
(Gentry comment and analysis: I wish he had given the Bible verse backing up this one. I know the letters “p,” “l,” and “o” occur in Scripture, but they appear to be randomly placed rather than carefully articulated. Of course, their “gap theory” may account for this for we note that all three of these letters occur in their proper order in Gen 2:9: “And out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is Pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of Life also in the midst Of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This cannot be sheer chance. Unless of course you suppose that 1,000,000 monkies typing on 1,000,000 typewriters for 1,000,000 years produced The Late Great Planet Earth -- a view I confess to holding when I was a cartoon character.)

• "1990: Saddam Hussein, in preparation to attack Israel, seizes Kuwait."
(Gentry comment and analysis: Hussein’s name is difficult to find in biblical prophecy [though not impossible if you are double-jointed]. However, “Kuwait” is found all over both the Old Testament and the New Testament. I think.)

And what of Charles Ryrie, perhaps the most important, articulate, and prominent of dispensationalism’s “scholars”? In 1976 he presented the waiting world with The Living End, which was described on the cover as: “Enlightening and astonishing disclosures about the coming last days of earth.” In 1982 he released The Bible and Tomorrow’s News. Then during the first Gulf War he re-released it as The Final Countdown and enjoyed reprints in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, and beyond (I quit buying it after the fourth reprint so I don’t know how many more followed. And I am too tired to look it up.)

I will provide just one more disappointing evidence of absurdity among these “scholars.” In Walvoord’s Prophecy in the New Millennium (2001) we read the following discussion of the massive New Jerusalem:

“Clearly, the New Jerusalem could not rest on the earth because it is described as such a huge city that it would blot out the whole Promised Land, making impossible the fulfillment of other elements of the millennial kingdom. . . . It would have to be a satellite city, situated in space. . . . It may be that those who have been resurrected or translated will live in this satellite city over the earth.”

Consequently, though I will tip my hat to the likes of Ryrie and Walvoord in their attempts to establish secure foundations for the dispensational system, I will not be as quick to point to them as scholars who are immune from the lures of populism and absurdity. Such temptations are endemic to the whole system which reads like a rejected script from television’s Hee-Haw. Junior Samples refused to lower himself to such far-fetched scenarios. He was afraid it would hurt his used car business.