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.