by Jerry Johnson
Copyright 2009 - All Rights Reserved
Before the so-called Enlightenment took hold in the 18th Century — putting Man and Human Wisdom rather than God at the center of academia — theology was considered by universities throughout the Western world to be the “Queen of the Sciences.”
As a result of the Reformation, most scholars rightfully understood what the Bible clearly teaches:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10
Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. Proverbs 3:5
They recognized that man was a fallen, fallible and finite creature — a reality that tainted ever aspect of his nature – including his intellect. Therefore, the search for truth and understanding in any field — for example, philosophy or science — needed to begin with theology, the study of the nature and mind of a perfect, infallible and infinite Creator. Only in Him could man find the unshakeable foundation upon which to stand and attempt to study and make sense of the cosmos.
I hope to demonstrate that no matter how numerous, godly and sincere dispensationalism’s adherents may be, their system nevertheless is deeply in error and has led to all manner of beliefs and practices that are contrary to the revealed will of God. And the result has been a rapid decline of the Church in both character and influence.
I know for some these are fighting words. They aren’t meant to be. They are born out of a deep love for God, His truth and the world we are called to serve.
In actuality, we are not the one who picked the fight! It was forced upon us by a number of dispensational proponents over the last one hundred years. They’re the ones that have accused non-dispensationalists of everything from not taking God at His Word, to sowing the seeds of liberalism, even laying the charge of the anti-Semitism that led to the Nazi Holocaust.
And there’s something else as well.
Any discerning Christian knows that the Western world, what used to be called Christendom, has deep, deep problems. We are surrounded by indicators that when it comes to the banquet choice God sets before nations:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Deuteronomy 30:19
Our appetite for destruction has become increasingly insatiable. Narcissism, greed, violence, paganism, pornography, child abuse and pedophilia; the breakdown of the family; our obsession with vacuous and increasingly evil entertainments; the advance of humanistic governments, laws, schools, penal systems, philosophies and worldviews; and, perhaps most significantly, our surrender before two specific evils that the Bible suggests may well be the last signs that a culture has consummated its covenant with death:
• militant sodomy - see Romans 1:26-27
• child sacrifice (abortion) – see Psalm 106: 35-38)
…all this and much more should shatter our complacency and — are you ready for this? — our complicity. Because the most sobering fact of all is that these evils have found there way into the church; that Augustine’s distinction between the City of Man and the City of God has become increasingly blurred. We have, as Pogo famously observed, “met the enemy and he is us.”
This is the ultimate disaster. The praying, gospel-preaching, Great Commission-empowered Church is the salt and light of the world, God’s foundational solution for the world’s problems. And when the salt loses its saltiness, the “meat of culture” will inevitably rot.
No doubt most dispensationalist leaders would agree with this “state of the nation” analysis — though they would likely attribute it to the great falling away they see prophesied in scripture, many have boldly fought against this apostasy, For example, Dr. Tim LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, through their organization, Concerned Woman for America.
But we are convinced that no matter how godly and well-intentioned dispensationalists are, their theological system has inevitably produced a harvest of ideas and practices that have contributed to the very evils they join us in hating and ultimately leading to the decline of God’s Word and the Church in the world. Why do we say this? Well, because this is consistent dispensationalism.
For example, C.I. Scofield, wrote,
“It is true that the great body of the churches believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, BUT they have turned aside the greater part of their resources, to the attempt to reform the world, to educate the world, and, in short, to anticipate the next dispensation in which those things belong, and to do the work that is distinctly set apart for restored and converted Israel in her Kingdom Age.” C.I. Scofield, The Biggest Failure of the Church Age
Likewise, Dave Hunt, a popular dispensational writer echoes these sentiments with these words,
“The Great Commission does not involve exerting a Christian influence upon society. We are not to "change society," but to "convert individuals." There is much talk today about "changing the world for Christ." In fact, though, there is no Biblical teaching or example to support that popular slogan.” Dave Hunt, The Berean Call, Updated excerpt from Whatever Happen to Heaven (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1988) pg. 84-86
Given the magnitude of the destruction we now face — what could very well be the end of the Western world as we’ve known it — we believe that we have no choice but to do what a young monk named Martin Luther did — figuratively nail our 95 points of contention to the door of the Church and pray that God, in His wisdom and mercy, will grant us not only revival and reformation, but, in the words and command of our Lord and Savior – the grace and ability to “disciple the nations.”
If He doesn’t, the downward moral spiral of our day and age will pale in comparison to the harvest of judgment that America and the nations of Western Europe will experience. And we may fine the word “ICHABOD” “the glory of the LORD has departed” written over doorpost of the western church.
And please, please don’t grasp at the straw that God will somehow yank us out of the mess we helped create. The very idea is contrary to God’s character, His Word, and the history He has written over the ashes of other nations who have chosen self-rule over God’s, death over life.
One of the challenges in building a consensus about anything is understanding that there is no such a thing as a “naked fact” – that everything − from sunsets to quantum particles, history to eschatology − is seen through a lens of some kind, a grid of presuppositions that will first determine what we decide the facts are − and then how we will interpret them. And it’s just as vital we remember this when considering theology − what God has revealed to us in the scriptures.
“I’m at an age now where I normally need a pair of glasses to read my Bible. But there is another form of glasses we all wear when we look into God’s word. It is what theologians call our “hermeneutic.”
Dr. Louis Berkhof explains that hermeneutics is,
“…the science that teaches us the principles, laws, and methods of interpretation.” Louis Berkhof, Principals of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1950) pp. 11.
Or to say it another way hermeneutics is the system of interpreting the Bible and figuring out what exactly God is communicating to us.
The key here is to have the right glasses on, to view the Bible through the lens of the proper hermeneutic. And this comes − first and perhaps most importantly − through humility and a complete willingness to obey whatever the Scriptures show you. But the second key is diligent study and in letting the Bible interpret the Bible, bringing every thought captive in obedience to Christ.
And its here where people – even very good and sincere ones − can get into trouble. By leaning − even without realizing it − on other perspectives − be they Greek or American or rationalistic or romantic or any of a thousand other humanistic systems of thought − one’s hermeneutical lenses can get dirty. And error will inevitably result.
So what is the primary purpose or goal of hermeneutics? Dr. Robert L. Reymond explains,
“the exegete (or Bible student)…must seek to put himself in the authors linguistic, historical, and religious shoes to discover the writers intended meaning.” Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Second edition – Revised and Updated, 1998) pp. 49.
So just how does a Christian living in the twenty-first century understand something that was written in the first century? How can we put ourselves in the words of Dr. Reymond “in the writer’s linguistic, historical and religious shoes?”
Understanding the time in which something was written, to whom it was written and why - is enormously helpful. This is the essential nature of the “historical” in the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. As an example, suppose you read an article that identified a “gay event” that took place at Carnegie Hall. If you did not know that the article was written in the year eighteen ninety nine, but assumed it was written at the beginning of the 21st century, the phrase “gay event” would have a radically different meaning and the absences of this fact would ultimately lead to the wrong conclusion.
With the introduction of dispensationalism many of the established rules of interpretation were redefined, ignored and sometimes overthrown. Dispensationalist from Darby to Scofield and beyond reversed the method of the Reformation opting for a rationalistic scheme that started, not with the Scriptures, but with themselves.
They constructed new rules of interpretation, many times using the same terminology, but redefining the meaning and application. Please know that this is not a groundless charge. Early dispensationalist admitted to this; even boasting in it. When they could not find anyone who agreed with their new interpretation, they encouraged their followers to jettison the historic creeds, confessions and commentaries of the previous sixteen centuries.
Quoting Harry A. Ironside, a Plymouth Brethren who later became the pastor of the Moody Memorial Church,
"In fact, until brought to the fore, through the writings and preaching of…Mr. J. N. Darby, in the early part of the last century, it is scarcely to be found in a single book or sermon throughout a period of 1600 years! If any doubt this statement, let them search, as the writer has in a measure done, the remarks of the so-called Fathers, both pre and post-Nicene, the theological treatises of the scholastic divines, Roman Catholic writers of au shades of thought; the literature of the Reformation; the sermons and expositions of the Puritans; and the general theological works of the day…" Harry A. Ironside, The Mysteries of God (New York, NY; Loizeaux Brothers, 1908), pages 50-51.
This rejection led to a humanistic understanding of linguistics and gave primacy of Biblical interpretation, not to the Scriptures themselves, but to fallen man. I do not have the time to cover every aspect of the dispensational hermeneutic, therefore we will deal with the two major upheavals that this system of interpretation brought to the table and hopefully convince you that these rules or principles caused radical paradigm shifts and introduced new understandings that no other Christian believed or practiced during the first eighteen hundred years of Christian history.
Dispensationalists believe that their system is a result of simply reading God’s Word and taking it a face value. Non-dispensationalists so the charge goes, do not approach the Bible with this simply child like faith, but instead “spiritualized” the text and “allegorized” the meaning.
On nearly every front in every discussion, dispensationalists claim that they alone interpret the Bible correctly by using what they call consistent literalism. Their method of reading and understanding God’s Word, so they say, is superior to all others and too many supreme test of orthodoxy.
Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary explains,
“As a former dispensationalist I was mesmerized with the literal hermeneutic…I was satiated with the confidence that this principle of interpretation was the cornerstone of any true approach to Scripture, and paraded it before all as the bedrock of the dispensational method. This `literal' approach produced in me a calm lethargy to anything the [non-dispensationalist] could say. Any argument they could make was disarmed in advance with such statements as this: `They do not advocate a literal hermeneutic.'" Curtis I. Crenshaw, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, Fifth printing 1995) pp. 1.
How did this understanding of Biblical interpretation become the “cornerstone” for Dr. Crenshaw and so many others? He was simply echoing the words of his professors at Dallas Dr. Charles Ryrie who wrote,
“…only dispensationalism provides the key to consistent literalism.”
C.I. Scofield went so far as to say,
“Unless one interprets each passage of Scripture dispensationally, one is in a hopeless quandary and can never expect to understand the Bible.” C. I. Scofield, What Do The Prophets Say? (Philadelphia, The Sunday School Times Co., 1918), pp. 9.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the word literal is the arch principle of the dispensational interpretive method. Ironically, getting them to define it is another thing. Reflecting on his years at Dallas Seminary Dr. Crenshaw noted,
“No one seemed to know precisely what literal meant…There was a mysticism that shrouded the term, giving it force but little content…” Curtis I. Crenshaw, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, Fifth printing 1995) pp. 1.
Dr. Charles Ryrie attempts to give “literal” a theological definition as it would apply to the Word of God. Regrettably, he ends up having a word with an ambiguous definition at best. He explains literalism as that which the interpreter should give,
“…to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking.” (pg 80).
Of course, the problem with this definition is obvious! Now we need to understand what he means by the “normal usage”? And by the way, who gets to define what is normal? Jews? Gentiles? Liberals? Conservatives? 2nd Century Romans or 21st century Americans?
Dr. Ryrie attempts to defend this definition of literalism by claiming that it fits into “the received laws of language.” However, he never explains what these received laws of language are and just who received them?
Dr. Crenshaw notes,
“Since Ludwig Wittgenstein’s studies in linguistic analysis, no two philosophers have surfaced such “laws” on which they can agree nor a sound philosophy of language.” Curtis I. Crenshaw, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, Fifth printing 1995) pp. 2.
He concludes with this devastating remark,
“Such statements further indicate that the dispensational hermeneutic is derived from a humanistic concept of literal. By assuming the sovereignty of man and the neutrality of philosophy and facts, Ryrie has ‘straight jacketed’ Scripture with his humanistic notion of literal.” Curtis I. Crenshaw, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, Fifth printing 1995) pp. 3.
Beside this subjective and incomplete definition, Ryrie insist that,
“…the dispensationalist's….use the normal (or literal) principle of interpretation consistently in all his study of the Bible.” Pg 82
Is this true? Do dispensationalists employ consistent literalism?
After years of wrestling with many inconsistencies with respect to the dispensational view of what is “literal” and reflecting on what they had been taught in schools like Dallas Seminary, many former dispensationalists have been shocked by how often their teachers and professors violated their own definition of consistent literalism. Dr. Keith Mathison explains,
“John Walvoord…insists that when an Old Testament prophecy refers to Israel, it must mean the literal nation of Israel; but when the same Old Testament prophecy speaks of other nations, such as Assyria or Philistia, (according to Walvoord) it only refers to the land once inhabited by these nations. Whoever may be inhabiting these lands [now] may fulfill these prophecies.” Keith Mathison, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God (Phillipsburg, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed), pg 6-7
“This is not consistent literalism.” Ibid
The New Testament, especially the Gospel of John is full of examples where people erred by failing to distinguish Jesus' use of figurative language. When Jesus said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it” in (John 2:19) the Jews mistakenly assumed He meant the actual physical temple. As a result of taking His words literally, they sought to kill Him (Matt. 26:61). Nicodemus' anthro-literalism led him to question if being "born again" meant to "enter a second time into his mother's womb" (John 3:4). When Jesus spoke of "a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life" the Samaritan woman erred and wanted a actual drink of water (John 4:10-15). John records these blunders by his first century audience and they are found in practically every chapter. But these examples should be sufficient to demonstrate that a “consistent literal interpretation” is impossible and can even lead to wrong conclusions.
This tendency to disallow the use of figurative words and phrases is pursued so aggressively that sometimes dispensational have crossed the line from literalism to hyper literalism; and in some circles this has lead to an aberrant theological position.
For example, one dispensational writer argued that God must have a body since the Bible teaches that he has arms, hands and sits on a throne. Finnis J. Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible (Atlanta, GA: Dake Bible Sales, 1965), NT pg 280.
Of course Darby, Scofield, Ryrie, in fact most dispensationalist would vehemently disagree with Finnis Dake’s hyper- literalism and probably shudder to think that he was in their camp; though no doubt on the fringes. But it does make one wonder, would Finnis Dake charge these men with “spiritualizing” the text and not taking the Bible “literally”?
Another example that comes down to us through the annals of Church history can be found in the debate that raged between two Reformers; Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. The issue centered on the meaning of a single word spoken by Jesus in Mathew 26:26 as He instituted the Lord’s Supper.
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.”
Dr. John Gerstner explains that during this debate,
“There [was] no disagreement about the words this, my, or body…The debate concerns the interpretation of the word is.” Pg 89
Can you believe it? In the final analysis, it really does depend on what is, is.
Dr. Gerstner continues,
“[Luther said] is is to be taken literally; that is, it is to be understood to mean literal identity of body and bread, or blood and wine. [Zwingli said] that is is to be taken non-literally or metaphorically; that is, to mean ‘represents.’”
Despite Ryrie’s proclamation of the “received laws of language” there is nothing linguistically, per se, which demands that we interpret this passage one way or the other. When the dust of opinion settles it ultimately depends on ones theology; not grammar.
What is interesting to note is that most dispensationalist, by in large, maintain a Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper; that the bread and wine are symbolic and that the table is simply a memorial. In the end they spiritualize the word “is” not taking it literally.
Dr. O.T. Allis rightly concludes, "While Dispensationalists are extreme literalists, they are very inconsistent ones. They are literalists in interpreting prophecy. But in the interpreting of history, they carry the principle of typical interpretation to an extreme which has rarely been exceeded even by the most ardent of allegorizers." Prophecy and the Church, pp. 21, 22, 24
Dr. Allis makes an extremely important point. A historical narrative is the type of writing you would expect to find words to have, more often than not, a straight forward meaning. Prophecy, by its nature tends to be more figurative. Dispensationalists reverse this order and give to prophecy an unwarranted literalism. And dispensationalists have not only been inconsistent in its application, but down right contradictory in defense of their method.
In his book The Basis of the Premillennial Faith Charles Ryrie writes,
“The system of spiritualizing Scripture is a tacit denial of the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures which this author holds.”
A few chapters later this avowed "literalist" says,
"Although much of prophecy is given in plain terms, much of it is in figurative language, and constitutes a problem of interpretation."
Later he dismounts his Trojan horse when he explains,
"In conclusion it may be stated that in connection with the use of figurative language, the interpreter should not look for the literal sense of the words employed in the figure, but for the literal sense intended by the use of the figure"
Well, which is it? As William E. Cox noted,
“It is amusing indeed to have read, just a few pages before that this man called any and all "spiritualizing" a tacit denial of the Bible.”
So how did dispensationalist come up with their idea of literal? In all fairness to Dr. Ryrie, he really believes that his understanding comes from the Bible itself.
“…the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ — His birth, His rearing, His ministry; His death, His resurrection — were all fulfilled literally. That argues strongly for the literal method.” (PG 81)
Another leading dispensationalist put it this way,
"All of fulfilled prophecy has been fulfilled literally." William L. Pettingill, God's Prophecies for Plain People (Findlay, Ohio: Fundamental Truth Publishers, 1923), pp. 228.
Though literally true, many Old Testament prophecies concerning the Lord Jesus’ first advent would make no sense if one understood them literally. For example, the first prophecy found in the Bible concerning Christ coming to redeem his people is – (show on screen) Genesis 3:15,
“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
If we applied the dispensational definition of literal to this prophecy we would not expect its fulfillment to be a conflict between a literal man and a literal serpent, rather than between Christ and Satan. Instead of Christ hanging on the cross (symbolizing the bruising of His heel) would we not have an image of Him literally chasing a snake around and stepping on its head with His foot?
Besides Genesis 3:15 there are other Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ first advent in which figurative language was used?
In fact, many of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus’ first advent were recorded using metaphors, symbolism and figures of speech.
One study noted that approximately 65% of such prophecies were written in symbolic language; not the so-called literal language. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, Fifth printing 1995) pp. 9.
Looking at the New Testament and the book of Revelation
“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.” 13:1-2
Of course, we are not saying that dispensationalist believe it is a literal beast having literally seven heads or a genetic mutation between an actual leopard, bear and a lion. But the question the dispensationalists must answer is, “why not?”
That dispensationalist claim to take the Bible literally, especially when it comes to prophecy, may be one of the biggest shams of modern times. A simple examination of their works prove that they consistently employee non-literal explanations. For example, Hal Lindsey in his book There’s a New World coming gives this interpretation to the previous mentioned passage,
“What do the ten horns with ten crowns represent…”
Our question is, if we take the text “literally” why do the have to represent anything? Lindsey continues,
“In Biblical symbology horns almost always represent political power. In this case the Beast’s ten horns picture ten nations that will form a confederacy which the beast will rule during the tribulation.” Hal Lindsey, There’s A New World Coming, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1984), pp. 173-174.
Again we ask, is this consistent literalism? To counter this argument Ryrie’s writes one of the most confusing statements and in the end, betrays his own belief in literalism,
“Symbols, figures of speech and types are all interpreted plainly in this method and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.” Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966], 1995), pp. 80-81.
That is one peculiar statement. This is what we have been saying all along. However, for some twisted reason when we say it we are accused of not taking the Bible literally. This is a prime example of talking out of both sides of your mouth.
Of course symbols, types and figures of speech have a literally meaning - which is our point. Though they have a literal meaning, you don’t take them literally. A good example can be found in the 1970s song Convoy by C.W. McCall. There is a line in that song that went like this
“Pigpen this here’s the rubber duck and I’m about to put the hammer down?”
Putting the hammer down has a literal meaning, but the words are figurative! It meant putting the full strength of you leg and foot on the gas pedal or accelerator. It had nothing to do with a literal hammer or literally putting it down. (Show judges gavel being brought behind in slow motion.)
Perhaps E.P. Barrows said it best,
'The youthful student of Scripture should be reminded, first of all, that its figurative language is no less certain and truthful than its plain and literal declarations. The figures of the Bible are employed not simply to please the imagination and excite the feelings, but to teach eternal verities' E. P. Barrows, Companion to the Bible (New York: 1869) pp. 557.
As already note, the issue between dispensationalist and non-dispensationalist is not that we “spiritualize” the Bible and they take it “literally.” Both believe it to be the literal Word of God and literally true. The real question is when should the words and phrases meant to be taken literally and when are they to be understood figuratively?
Dr. Mathison hits the nail on the head when he writes,
“The fact is that nobody can be absolutely literal in his interpretation of Scripture. The Bible itself will not allow it. There are some insurmountable scriptural problems that occur if one attempts to be consistently literal in his approach to interpretation.”
We often hear dispensationalist say that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity. Sometimes called the “golden rule of interpretation” many put it this way,
“When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense…”
Hal Lindsey proudly states,
“This is the method [he] diligently sought to follow.” Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Books, eighth printing 1971), pp. 50
This may be simplicity at its finest, but when one tries to put it into actual practice its simplicity is not so easily applied. Dr. Milton S. Terry comments upon this very statement,
"It should be observed, however, that this principle, when reduced to practice, becomes simply an appeal to every man's rational judgment, and what to one seems very absurd and improbable may be to another altogether simple and self-consistent." Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise of the Interpretation of the Old and New Testament (New York, NY: Phillips & Hunt, 1883), pp. 247
During the nineteen sixty and seventies it seemed as if dispensationalism had captured they minds and hearts of the church. But during the nineteen eighties many of their own scholars began lifting the veil of the so-called literalism and, much to their chagrin; the curtain of dispensationalism tore. Many who had formerly been associated with the classical and modern forms peaked inside; and for the first time they saw that the wizard was a man. And so began the progressive dispensational movement.
Various "progressive dispensationalists" have rejected as inadequate the so-called literalist hermeneutic of Darby, Scofield and Ryrie. The inability of the movement to define and apply consistently their self proclaimed literalism has dispensationalists debating among themselves, searching for definition and meaning; questioning the man-made idol of their system.
The late Dr. S. Lewis Johnson a professor for twenty-seven years at Dallas Seminary summarized the problem of the seminaries literalism as follows: "Failing to examine the methodology of the scriptural writers carefully, and following too abjectly and woodenly the limited rules and principles of human reason's presuppositions, we have stumbled and lost our landmarks along the pathway toward the understanding of the Holy Scripture. Scriptura sui ipsius interpres [Scripture is its own interpreter] is the fundamental principle of biblical interpretation."
So how do we decide when to take something literal or figurative? This of course is the sixty four thousand dollar question which brings us to the second innovative principle put forth by dispensationalist.
An axiom on how to study the Bible that is the often attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo goes like this,
“The New Testament is in the Old Testament contained; and the Old is in the new explained.”
Though we believe that,
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” II Tim. 3:16-17
We must remember that the Scriptures are progressive in nature (Heb. 1:1-2). The New Testament writers in no way contradicted the Old Testament! On the contrary, they viewed the New as a true expansion and fulfillment.
A.W. Pink, pastor and former dispensationalist concurs,
“The New has all its roots in the Old, so that much in the one is unintelligible apart from the other…That it is entirely unwarrantable for us to suppose that the message proclaimed by the Lord Jesus was something new or radically different from the early communications of God.”
The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old. As the Apostle Paul wrote,
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” Colossians 2:16-17
The things Paul mentions are elements of the ceremonial law. They were shadows. And as the writer of Hebrews points out, shadows are not the things themselves. The great Baptist commentator John Gill explains,
“[as shadows] it had not neither the things themselves, nor Christ, the substance of them, so it did not give a clear revelation of them, as is made in the Gospel, nor exhibit a distinct delineation of them, such as an image expresses; it only gave some short and dark hints of future good things, but did not exactly describe them.”
The Old Testament is full of shadows and types; things that are not very clear. Now the question before us is who should we look to in helping us interpret these shadows and types? In other words, who is the best or preeminent authority to interpreter the Old Testament for us? Is it the Pharisees, the Ethiopian eunuch, modern-day newspapers, or Christ and His Apostles? (put as a question on the screen with multiple choice answers A. B. C. or D….)
The Bible is its own best interpreter. And the New Testament is the Old Testament's primary infallible interpreter. God’s Word, therefore, exhibits, within its sacred pages, both the principles and methods of a sound trustworthy exegesis; Jesus and His Apostles are our infallible guides as to what Moses and the prophets meant.
Instead of a Christo/Apostolic method (giving Christ and His Apostles preeminence in interpreting the Old Testament), the early dispensationalist advocated what has become known as “the Law of first mention” sometimes called the “first-occurrence principle.”
B.W. Newton, one of the leaders in the Plymouth Brethren movement explains this so-called “Law”:
"I find in Scripture a principle of interpretation, which I believe, if conscientiously adopted, will serve as an unfailing guide as to the mind of God as contained therein. The first mention of a thing, the very first words of any subject of which the Holy Spirit is going to treat, is the keystone of the whole matter." J.D. Hartill, Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Books, 1947) pp. 70.
A more practical definition comes from the pen of J. Edwin Hartill, dispensational author and professor of Bible at Northwestern College,
“The first time a thing is mentioned in Scripture it carries with it a meaning that will be carried all through the Word of God.” Ibid.
How important was this new light principle to the forming dispensational movement? According to A.T. Pierson, longtime friend of C.I. Scofield and consulting editor for the original Scofield Reference Bible, he called it,
“…the Divine Law of Firsts." Roel Velma, The Law of First Mention, (Hattem, The Netherlands) published on-line www.lampbroadcast.com
The argument for the certainty of the first mention principle takes two forms. The advocates first argue that God never changes, therefore, what He states the first time and the meaning He applies to a Word must never change. Second, is the appeal that in the Bible there is only one speaker; namely God Himself.
On the surface this seems to make sense. Of course we agree. God never changes and though He used forty-two authors to write His word, He is the One voice that is speaking. However, in the final analysis, inspiration and language simply do not work that way. How would you like to have your words limited to the sense they had the first time you spoke them?
Let us state plainly, the “first mention” method can be useful, but only to a certain point. If left unchecked it can very quickly lead to absurdity. Either one's conclusions become nonsense, or they become justification for doctrinal bias.
On another note, to refer to it as the “first principle” or “Law of First Mention” would mean that its application would be absolute. As Abraham Kuyper noted,
“…a sharply drawn distinction of conceptions and a constant usage of words is foreign to the Scripture.” Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) pp. 496
Any hermeneutic, and for that matter, any system of doctrine must be firmly guided and subjected to the whole of God’s Word; not a proof text that takes a writers thought out of context. As A.W. Pink observed,
“…we place first and foremost the need for recognizing the inter-relation and mutual dependence of the Old and New Testaments. We do so because error at this point inevitably results in a serious misunderstanding and perverting of not a little in the later Scriptures. We do not propose to enter into a refutation of the modern heresy of "dispensationalism," but…After a long and careful comparison of the writings of that school…it is our conviction that that eminent reformer[s were] far more deeply taught by the Holy Spirit than those who claimed to receive so much "new light on God’s Word" a century ago. Arthur W. Pink, Interpretation of Scripture, Chapter 4
As an example of the problems inherent in the first mention method consider Cain. He was the first person in the Bible to bring a botanical offering to God and that offering was rejected (Gen 4:2-5). Should we therefore conclude that all such offerings will be rejected? Of course not, because in Deuteronomy 26:1-4 God commands an offering of fruit to be brought by the children of Israel and placed on His altar.
Or better still what about the prophecy found in Malachi 4:5 predicting the return Elijah?
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.”
In fact, if one used the first mention method they would never see this being fulfilled in John the Baptist as Jesus said it was. If they were consistently literal, they should conclude, as the Scribes and Pharisees did that it would be Elijah himself and not someone in the spirit and power of Elijah.
The great Reformed commentator Matthew Henry agrees,
“The Jewish doctors will have it to be the same Elijah that prophesied in Israel in the days of Ahab—that he shall come again to be the forerunner of the Messiah…” Matthew Henry, The Comprehensive Commentary (Brattleboro, VT: The Brattleboro Typographic Company, 1839), Volume III, pp. 920.
In fact, this question was posed by the disciples to the Lord Jesus,
“And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” Matthew 17:11-13
During the first century the Jews had thoroughly corrupted God’s Word. Greek philosophy and their own apathy led many to funnel their understanding through a man-made literal interpretive grid. Matthew Poole notes,
“They knew him not, their tradition blinded them so as they could not discern the prophecy of Malachi fulfilled in [John the Baptist] him…”
Again citing John Gill,
“[John the Baptist]…was not Elijah the prophet that lived in Ahab’s time, and was called the Tishbite; for John’s answer is to the intention of their question, and their own meaning in it…he was the Elias that was to come; for he was the person meant by him in Mal 4:5 though not in the sense the Jews understood it.” Commentary john 1:21
It would appear that the so-called first mention method fed right into the dispensational position of literalism; the one confirmed the other. This type of circular reasoning is both fallacious and unfounded. This anthro-iteralism blinded the 1st century Jewish mind to the Lord Jesus’ advent. The question now before is simple, “should we trust this method of interpretation for understanding His second advent?
Perhaps this is what led Dr. S. Lewis Johnson of Dallas Seminary to rejected much of the modern dispensational hermeneutic and embrace a methodology that gave primacy of interpretation to Christ and His Apostles?
“…the New Testament understanding of the Old Testament is the true understanding of it…” S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), pp. 83.
These two new rules, “consistent literalism” and the “law of first mention” are the bedrock of the dispensational distinction between the Church and Israel and if they are abandoned, then like the walls of Jericho their house of cards will crumble.