dispensationalismIn my last blog, I left you hanging. I stated, quite boldly, that I am not a dispensationalist but did not give any reasons as to why. This blog and the next 3 or 4 will outline those reasons. As a covenant theologian and non-dispensationalist, there are a few beliefs that I do not hold which have become somewhat mainstream in North American Evangelicalism. For example, I do not believe that God has two peoples with two distinct covenantal relationships with him such that the Church is a parenthesis or pause in God’s redemptive plan for Israel. I do not believe in a pretribulational rapture but in a single second coming after which God will judge the living and the dead. I also do not believe that there will be a literal 1000 year reign of Christ at any point in the future.

Now I want to show you why I believe these things. To do so I want to interact with the summation of dispensationalism from the first chapter of the book, Christ’s Prophetic Plans in which Michael Vlach outlines its six essential beliefs. The first of the six beliefs form the heart of dispensational thinking – their way of interpreting Scripture. Vlach calls it the “most foundational of all the points.” Dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists have many texts at their disposal that they can use in an argument with those on the other side. But the issue is not who has the most texts to pull out since each side sees ALL of the texts on both sides in light of a theological and hermeneutical system. Thus we cannot begin to discuss dispensationalism and its problems by going immediately to the text of Scripture. Instead, we need to have a deeper more foundational discussion.

The real difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology is how we read the Bible – our hermeneutic. This blog will attempt to demonstrate why a dispensational hermeneutic – their method of interpreting Scripture – is misguided. I believe that in doing so, I will be able to cast significant doubt on the rest of dispensational beliefs.

Before we get too far, let us remember a few things we have mentioned before. There are different flavours of dispensationalism, and each one might say things a bit differently than the sources that I use below. My intention is not to tar and feather anyone, or to accuse anyone of being lesser of a Christian, but to get to the heart of dispensationalism in such a way that is fair and reflective of my dispensational brothers and sisters in Christ. I also desire that those dispensational believers would see the error of their understanding of Scripture and turn from it.

Let me outline the issue of biblical interpretation and then summarize it in simpler terms.

The meaning of Old Testament texts are not primarily found in New Testament interpretations of those texts; they are to be understood literally as they stand in the Old Testament. This means, simply, that Old Testament texts, particularly promises and prophetic passages relating to national Israel, are capable of two fulfillments/meanings. That which is stated in the Old Testament as given to national Israel, which will be literally fulfilled, and that which is understood about it in the New Testament as it relates to the Church (if the promise or prophetic passage relate to the Church). The progress of revelation does not cancel unconditional promises to Israel.

Summary: Dispensationalists employ “a consistently literal principle of interpretation.” This principle “is at the heart of dispensational eschatology.” (Ryrie)

This sounds really good, doesn’t it? But I would suggest at least four things that place Ryrie’s statement, and Vlach’s point 1, in the ‘too good to be true’ category.

First, it is notoriously difficult to ascertain a ‘literal’ meaning of the phrase ‘literal principle of interpretation.’ I won’t get into this too deeply as it takes us beyond the purview of our topic but it is a major issue. [See the following brief, but helpful article by Vern Poythress which explains the issues – http://www.the-highway.com/literal1_Poythress.html] Suffice it to say, the ‘literal principle of interpretation’ is in danger of dying the death of thousand qualifications. The word “literal” needs so much qualification that “literal interpretation” becomes a concept that is incredibly difficult to apply.

Second, no dispensationalist actually holds to this principle, at least not with any consistency. Read any dispensational book on the end times, or any responsible theological text by a dispensationalist, and you will find that they do not follow their own principle consistently. The reason? As dispensationalists would agree, it is often not possible to read the Bible ‘literally’ given the many different genres of Scripture. This is a key recognition when it comes to interpreting Scripture. Quite simply, the Bible contains various genres that, when interpreted in light of their nature, a literal interpretation is just not possible because it is not what the text demands. What we must seek is a literary interpretation. Narrative, law, gospels, prophecy, apocalyptic, epistles, psalms, proverbs, all must be interpreted in light of what they are as a literary text; according to their genre. Thus a purely ‘literal’ interpretation is rarely possible, especially once we get into the more complex, poetic, and/or symbolic of biblical texts. Try to take Revelation ‘literally.’ Try to read the bulk of Daniel ‘literally.’ Try to read the Psalms ‘literally’ (are we really “blessed” if we smash the “little ones” of our enemies upon the rocks”? 137:9), or the Proverbs ‘literally.’ I think it best, then, that we do not try to find a “literal interpretation” at all.

Third, notice that the distinction between Israel and the Church is really what defines the meaning of “literal interpretation” for the dispensationalist. I think it is fair to say that dispensationalists are not pure literalists (thankfully!) as Ryrie boasts and as Vlach demonstrates but are literalists with respect to what pertains to Israel. This is a glaring inconsistency in their hermeneutic.  As Duncan observes for the dispensationalist “Israel always means the literal physical descendants of Jacob.” The implications of this are that, for the dispensationalist, all prophecies about Israel are for the literal, physical descendants of Jacob and nothing else (such as the Church) This creates, I believe, a false dichotomy within a singular group – God’s people – which cannot be supported by Scripture. Scripture uses “Israel” in a number of different ways – it may be the physical descendants of Jacob, or it may mean spiritual Israel as a subset of the former, or it may actually be larger than the subset of literal physical Israel. It may even refer to a group that includes the Gentiles! (more on this in our next blog) (cf. https://www.the-highway.com/dispensationalism_Duncan.html)

Last, notice also the primacy given to the Old Testament in interpretation such that the Old Testament takes interpretive precedence over the New Testament. This is a key point to observe. Covenant theology believes that the New Testament is the hermeneutical manual for the Old Testament; that the New Testament has the final say on the meaning of an Old Testament passage. Dispensationalists are highly suspicious of this. They want to see a literal meaning in the Old Testament which is not in any way changed by the New Testament. Let me cite an example which Ligon Duncan uses,

Scoffield himself tells you that the most important passage in the Bible, from a Dispensational perspective is Amos chapter 9. Well, of course, Amos chapter 9 is interpreted in Acts chapter 15, but the interpretation of Amos chapter 9, that is given in Acts chapter 15 is diametrically opposed to the central principle of Dispensationalism. So how does the Dispensationalist deal with that? Well, he gives you his “literal interpretation” of Amos 9 and then simply attempts to harmonize the teaching of Acts 15 with his previous literal interpretation of Amos 9, whereas the Covenant Theologian says no, “James tells you what Amos 9 means in Acts chapter 15, and therefore, James’ interpretation must exercise all hermeneutical control even when you are doing your own original exegesis of Amos 9.” Because if James says that is what Amos 9 means, and James is speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts chapter 15, then that is what Amos 9 means. So you see a fundamentally different approach to Old Testament and New Testament interpretation. (https://www.the-highway.com/dispensationalism_Duncan.html)The covenant theologian believes that Scripture interprets Scripture. The dispensationalist accuses him of spiritualizing the Old Testament in doing so. But this is not true. We are simply allowing later revelation to help us understand earlier revelation. As Duncan says, “It doesn’t mean that you don’t start with the original context, and that you don’t bother yourself about original intent, it just means that you recognize from a biblical theological standpoint that later revelation, by definition, controls the final Systematic Theological understanding of earlier revelation.” (https://www.the-highway.com/dispensationalism_Duncan.html)

So what we need then is a different principle of interpretation than what dispensationalism offers. We need to interpret our Bibles in such a way that gives heed to historical context, as well as the text as it stands as a written text in the context of the entire counsel of God. Thus we are not after a ‘literal’ interpretation, but an interpretation that pays attention to historical context and genre. But even saying this we are missing a massive part of what it means to interpret any given text that is contained in a larger work. For if we leave it simply at the level of the specific text in question, we’ve missed something HUGE.

Since each biblical text is part of a larger book of the Bible, and that book is part of a larger testament, and that testament part of the entire Bible, we need to go further than the text at hand to truly understand that text. We need to pay attention to the part that each text plays in the redemptive-historical story that is being told by the entire Bible. This is where dispensationalism goes awry. It fails to see each text extending beyond itself. In particular, it does not allow the New Testament to aid us in our understanding of Old Testament texts. It fails to allow for the analogia fidei, the ‘analogy of faith,’ which is the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. Proper hermeneutics begins interpreting a text with the text in its original context, its place in history, its genre, its grammar and syntax and verbiage so that you can unpack the original intent. BUT good interpretation does not stop there. You must also recognize from a biblical-theological, redemptive-historical standpoint, that later revelation, by definition, controls the final understanding of earlier revelation. Later revelation unpacks earlier revelation. In this way, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is the way of the covenant theologian.

This is proper hermeneutics, misapplied by the dispensationalist. But this is no mere battle of theories. Covenantal hermeneutics, fits with the New Testament authors hermeneutics regarding the Old Testament. It fits with Luke’s words about Jesus’ hermeneutic as he explained to the men on the road to Emmaus how ALL of the Old Testament witnessed to him, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) In short, Jesus understood that all of Scripture witnesses to him and thus needs to be interpreted in this light. It also agrees with Paul, when he says that, “For all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in him [Jesus]. That is why it is through him that we utter our ‘Amen’ to God for his glory.” (2 Corinthians 1:20). This means that all of God’s promises, the Old Testament included, are fulfilled in Christ. It is also the interpretive method of the author of Hebrews. A perfect example of covenant theological (non-dispensational) interpretation of the Old Testament.

To conclude our look at the interpretive method of dispensationalists we can say that it is clearly deficient. This is the main reason why I have rejected the dispensationalism of my youth. To sum up, I believe that the dispensational interpretation of Scripture;

  • Is overly-narrow
  • Is obsessed with a ‘literal’ interpretive method that cannot be, and often is not, followed within their own camp
  • Allows a dubious theological decision (a distinction between Israel and the Church) to drive its hermeneutics
  • Does not take into account the fullness of God’s revelation and the movement of redemptive- history
  • Does not take into account Christ as the centre of all of God’s promises
  • Fails to do justice to the unity of biblical revelation
  • Does not view the Old Testament in the way that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, it.

Our next blog will deal with the trouble of seeing a distinction between Israel and the Church. A distinction which dispensationalism holds so very dear.

Soli Deo Gloria