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Literal Hermeneutics (Part 2 of 4—Theology: Method and the Essence of Dispensationalism)

by Dr. Stallard

The most basic objection that has been raised against dispensational literal hermeneutics is that the term “literal” does not possess such a simplistic definition as suggested by earlier forms of the debate. Feinberg, a dispensationalist, remarks that

many nondispensationalists make two claims that call into question the dispensationalists’ claim to being practitioners of sound hermeneutics. (1) They claim that they consistently use literal hermeneutics. (2) They claim that dispensationalists do not consistently interpret literally, for they admit that Scripture contains figures of speech and attempt to interpret such figures. [13. John S. Feinberg, “Salvation in the Old Testament,” in Tradition and Testaments: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, ed. by John S. and Paul D. Feinberg, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981): 45.]

The first point hinges on the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, a topic to be taken up in the next section. Here the nondispensationalist notes the many places the New Testament “interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.” [14. Ibid.] The second point is a matter of surveying the imperfections of dispensational theologians from the past.

This is precisely the tact taken by the nondispensationalist Poythress. [Vern S. Poythress has provided an excellent summary of some of the issues dispensationalists must work through to refine their system and respond to nondispensationalism in the current climate of the debate. See Understanding Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987). There seems to be some affinity between many of the things which Poythress says and the approaches taken in progressive dispensationalism.] Concerning inconsistencies among dispensationalists on the point of literal interpretation, he cites Pentecost’s alleged abandonment of literal hermeneutics when reading 1 Corinthians 15:5153. To fit this passage into the dispensationalist scheme, Pentecost must rid himself of the “plain” meaning of the “last trump.” [Ibid., 7177.] Of more consequence is Poythress’ exposition of the dual hermeneutics of Scofield, who, according to Poythress, practices a literal hermeneutic when Israel is in view, but a more “spiritualized” (nonliteral) hermeneutic when the church is in view. [17. Ibid., 2229.] Such interpretations of the dispensationalists themselves make the claim to consistent hermeneutics (as in Radmacher) a questionable one from Poythress’ point of view.

As to the other point made by Feinberg, Poythress makes the implicit claim that he, and those of like thinking, practice literal interpretation more than the dispensationalists. This is seen by emphasis upon the literal interpretation of the New Testament. In fact, Poythress seems to assert that a literal interpretation of the book of Hebrews will undo much of the dispensational understanding of the Old Testament. [18. Ibid., 6870.]  More will be said of this later. For now it is sufficient to conclude that many nondispensationalists feel comfortable with the term “literal interpretation” when they are simply doing with the Old Testament what the New Testament writers have done with it. [19. See Feinberg, 45. Here Feinberg asserts that the difference between a dispensationalist and a nondispensationalist is “how” literal interpretation operates not necessarily “what” it is. However, it still appears that the issue is pointing to the literal interpretation of the Old Testament versus literal interpretation of the New Testament. Thus, the next section is highly significant.]

Up to this point no definition has been given to “literal interpretation.” The use of it as an element in the delineation of the essence of dispensationalism has merely been called into question. Poythress is helpful here in this matter of definition. He sees three plausible ways of talking about literalness. [20. Poythress, 8286. Also, chapter 9 gives some significant descriptions of dispensationalist views of literal interpretation, 8796.] First, he refers to “first-thought” meaning in which the various words and phrases of a sentence or discourse are viewed in isolation from the context. Second, there is “flat interpretation” in which a passage is taken as literal if possible. Obvious figures of speech are recognized but nothing more. Consequently, “we would ignore the possibility of poetic overtones, irony, wordplay, or the possible figurative or allusive character of whole sections of material.” [21. Ibid., 83.] The shortcomings of these first two approaches are apparent. The potential for ignoring the entire context of a statement is great in both cases.

Thus, Poythress correctly opts for a third alternative, the equation of literal interpretation with the grammatical-historical interpretation of a passage. Of course, others have done this before. [22. Pentecost, 9.] But the key in this situation, which Poythress points out, is that this equivalence must not be given in the context of the older forms of debate involving literal versus allegorical interpretation:

Moreover, in the history of hermeneutical theory, the term sensus literalis (“literal sense”) has been associated with grammatical-historical interpretation. Therefore, there is some historical warrant for using the word “literal” in a technical sense, simply to designate the aim of grammatical-historical interpretation. Nevertheless, in our modern context the repeated use of the word “literal” by dispensationalists is not helpful. “Literal” tends to be understood as the opposite of “figurative.” Thus the word “literal” may quite easily suggest the two other types of interpretation above (first-thought interpretation or flat interpretation). [23. Poythress, 8485.]

Thus, Poythress finds no better way to describe literal interpretation than to say that it means the application of the grammatical-historical method to a text. Throughout this paper the term “literal interpretation” has that meaning.

As the above remarks show, the definition of literal interpretation may not be able to help one define the essence of dispensationalism. Both sides in the debate, unlike earlier forms of the debate, claim to be following the grammatical-historical method of interpretation even in matters of eschatology. Thus, to prove that the definition of dispensationalism is tied to literal hermeneutics in some way requires the dispensationalist to prove either that the nondispensationalist is incorrect in asserting his use of the method or that there is some particular way in which the literal hermeneutic is used that is unique to dispensationalism. In the former case, it is doubtful that any headway will be made. Inconsistencies on the part of both parties show that disagreement over many matters of exegesis will lead to no solution along those lines. Therefore, it remains to be seen if there is a particular way in which a dispensationalist uses the literal hermeneutic in principle which can be distinguished from the nondispensationalist.

The Priority and Harmonization of the Old and New Testaments

Hints have already been given which suggest the appropriate avenue of discussion. Ladd remarked that dispensational eschatology begins with a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. [24. Ladd, 27.] Ladd’s statement also suggests that the nondispensationalist begins with the New Testament. The issue is cast as the priority of the Old Testament versus the New Testament. [25. By “priority” I do not mean that one has logical superiority to the other. I would understand that the OT text has priority in OT interpretation and that the NT text has priority in NT interpretation. In the process of theologizing that brings them together, the OT text comes first because of the progress of revelation (more to say about this later).]

Saucy adds the pertinent comment,

Analysis of nondispensational systems reveal . . . that their less than literal approach to Israel in the Old Testament prophecies stems not from an a priori spiritualistic or metaphysical hermeneutic, but rather from their application of the same grammatico-historical hermeneutic used by dispensationalism to the New Testament Scripture from which they conclude that these Scriptures teach the equation of the Church with Israel. It is this conclusion based upon their application of normal evangelical hermeneutics which leads them to their differing interpretation of the Old Testament prophetic Scriptures. [26. Robert Saucy, “The Crucial Issue Between Dispensational and Nondispensational Systems,” Criswell Theological Review 1 (1986), 155.]

Hence, the basic distinction, if these writers are correct, seems to be posited in the starting place for theology. Dispensationalists begin their eschatological scheme by applying the grammatical-historical method of interpretation to the Old Testament. Nondispensationalists begin their sketch of prophecy by applying the same hermeneutic to the New Testament. Each system then branches out from its starting place to include the other remaining portions of Scripture. [27. Saucy still asks the question, “Why such divergent results from these two methodologies?” The next section is an attempt to show why the divergence exists.]

An example of how this can be seen is Poythress’ claim that the dispensational view of the Old Testament is altered (if not eliminated) by applying the grammatical-historical method of interpretation to the Book of Hebrews, especially Hebrews 12:2224. He remarks that

the Book of Hebrews is the single most important text to consider in a discussion of dispensationalism. More than any other part of the Bible, it reflects explicitly and at length on the crucial question of the relation of the Old Testament to the New Testament. [28. Poythress, 118.]

Poythress attempts to show exegetically that Hebrews 12 teaches that there is a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham within this age. [29. Ibid., 120.] Furthermore, the destiny of Israel and the church can be related as can the nature of Heaven and earth in the last days. [30. Ibid., 124.]  To Poythress these conclusions from Hebrews demonstrate what an interpreter knows about the meaning of the Old Testament promises before he encounters them in the Old Testament.

On the other side is a dispensationalist like Pentecost. It is no accident that after the opening chapters on hermeneutics, he begins (like other dispensationalists) with the covenants in the Old Testament. [31. Pentecost, 65 ff.] The starting point is different than the one used by the nondispensational Poythress. But the problem is the same for both sides. The Old and New Testaments must be harmonized regardless of which Testament is given priority. The issue is not a minor one:

It is evident that Allis and Chafer did not differ over some triviality or technicality in theology. Rather, they differed over the nature of the Bible’s unitya question which is second in importance only to that of the truth of Scripture. Both men were deeply committed proponents of the truth of Scripture, but each felt that the way the other viewed the Bible as a unity seriously threatened its truth. [32. Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 2526.]

It is no wonder that Turner asserts that the basic issue of eschatology is the “continuity of Scripture in progressive revelation.” [33. David L. Turner, “The Continuity of Scripture and Eschatology: Key Hermeneutical Issues,” Grace Theological Journal 6 (1985): 275-87.] Thus, the implication is that the different starting places lead to different approaches to harmonizing the two Testaments.

Fuller’s discussion concerning theological hermeneutics is helpful at this point. He notes that covenant nondispensational theology tends “to impute to passages a meaning which would not be gained merely from their historical and grammatical associations. This phase of interpretation is called the ‘theological interpretation.’ ” [34. Daniel P. Fuller, “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism,” (doctoral dissertation, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Chicago, 1957), 147. Note that the example which Fuller applies this comment to is a New Testament one (Jesus’ answer to the lawyer about inheriting eternal life). However, the primary point from this writer’s perspective is the introduction of theological considerations into the Old Testament by nondispensationalists. This is where the next section of the paper should prove to be helpful.] Fuller states that his spiritual pilgrimage has removed him from his earlier position and has led him to agree with Ryrie that “new revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation. Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different!” [35. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 94; Fuller, Gospel and Law, 62.] Recall that Ladd had said that nondispensational eschatology is formed from the “explicit” statements of the New Testament. Presumably this resultant theology, unlike Fuller and Ryrie, governs as one reads the Old Testament.

Therefore, it seems that the newer forms of the debate are really more refined ways of talking about whether or not the New Testament should be read back into the Old. Notice that this is somewhat different from the older debate’s forum of “literal versus allegorical.” In fact, the argument appears to be moving from basic hermeneutics to theological method. What remains to be seen from the standpoint of this paper is the relationship of literal hermeneutics to theological method as it is found in dispensationalism.

However, before one can address theological method directly, it is necessary to examine the justification used in nondispensationalism for the approach of harmonizing the two Testaments by reading the second back into the first. This justification is found in the way that the New Testament writers use the Old Testament. [36. See Feinberg’s comments, “Salvation in the Old Testament,” in Tradition and Testament, 45.] It is at this point that Bock’s four categories, or schools of thought, concerning the use of the Old Testament in the New prove to be helpful. [37. Darrell Bock, “Evangelicals and the Use of the Old Testament in the New,” part I, Bibliotheca Sacra (JulySept. 1985): 20923.]

The first school of thought is the full human intent school represented by Walter Kaiser. In this view, Old Testament prophets have a rather comprehensive understanding of their prophetic declarations with the possible exception of the time element in their prophecies. Kaiser relies on a concept of generic promise, the viewing of a prophecy as a whole which may or may not possess a series of parts. The fact that it is viewed as a whole prevents a separation of the later expansions of the prediction from the original prediction. Consequently, there is a downplay or elimination of any distinction between the human and divine intent in the original proclamation.

This school of thought can be a double-edged sword with respect to dispensationalism. It would seem that the concept of generic promise, which concentrates the totality of the Old Testament prophecy (including the idea of fulfillment minus the time element) in the Old Testament text itself, fits nicely with the dispensational priority of the Old Testament. However, one readily recognizes that, on occasion, the idea of progress of revelation, about which more will be said later, requires more emphasis upon the concept of development than this school allows. The dispensationalist would certainly not want to water down this aspect of revelation. On the other hand, to the nondispensational, particularly covenantal, point of view, the built-in aspect of unity which generic promise appears to present could easily commend itself. [38. The argument here is not that nondispensationalists readily endorse this school of thought. The issue is much more complicated than that. All that is being said is that an analogy can be drawn between the downplay of diversity in this school of thought and the downplay of diversity from the covenantal side that characterizes the history of the debate.]

The second school of thought is the divine intent-human words view represented by S. Lewis Johnson, James I. Packer, and Elliott E. Johnson. In this view, a distinction is allowed between what the human author in the Old Testament prophecy meant and what the divine intent is. The divine intent includes the meaning of the Old Testament author but is extended either by means of a fuller sense or the addition and clarification of new references. That this particular view has no distinctive relationship to dispensationalism is clear from the fact that it is expounded by both a nondispensationalist (Packer) as well as a dispensationalist (E. E. Johnson). Both are simply recognizing the need to express the progress of revelation demonstrated in the New Testament explanation of Old Testament prophecies.

The third school of thought is the historical progress of revelation school represented by Ellis, Longenecker, and Dunnett. In this view there is a recognition that at times the New Testament gives the “rewording of the Old Testament passage so that it more nearly conforms to the New Testament situation in light of larger biblical and theological understanding.” [39. Bock, 216.] Of special interest is the theological understanding of the New Testament writers with respect to messianic expectation and salvation history. It is interesting that the dispensational Bock, after citing some potential problems with the application of this view, notes a positive use of it:

For example, any New Testament passage where Yahweh in the Old Testament becomes Christ in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 10:13 and its use of Joel 2:32) follows this principle of reading the Old Testament in light of New Testament realizations about the nature of the Messiah (where Jesus of Nazareth is recognized as Lord and God Himself). Even Christianity’s interpretation of a gap in Isaiah 61:1, 2in which part of the passage refers to Jesus’ first coming (Luke 4:18) and the other part refers to Jesus’ returnis possible only because of the New Testament teaching about Jesus’ two comings. This ‘refractory’ and reflective use of the New Testament on the Old is a key factor that must be evaluated in the use of the Old Testament by the New. As a new revelation was given (in the life of Jesus and in the teaching about Him), the Old Testament was elucidated with greater detail.” [40. Ibid., 21718.]

Thus, even a dispensationalist can realize some reading of the New Testament back into the Old (if Bock is correct). It is important to realize that Bock’s statement allows “elucidation” of the Old Testament text and stops short of the Old Testament meaning being totally dictated by the New Testament.

This limitation is keenly felt in Bock’s discussion of the fourth and final school of thought known as the canonical approach and New Testament priority school represented by Bruce Waltke. The Old Testament must be read in light of the whole canon. The New Testament takes priority in the application of this principle by “unpacking” the literal meaning of the Old Testament. [41. Bock’s reference to Waltke’s interpretation of Psalm 2:67 in light of Acts 3:2425 is instructive, 220.] In what appears to be a rejection of Waltke’s position, Bock states,

So Waltke’s position is that the whole of the Old Testament is to be reread ultimately in light of the New Testament: as a result the original expression of meaning within the Old Testament passage is overridden and redefined by the New Testament. . . . Such a wholesale shift of referents to the exclusion of the original sense is actually a shift of meaning. [42. Ibid.]

Bock’s viewpoint is ultimately an eclectic one. [43. Ibid., see also Part II in Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct. Dec. 1985):306-19] Its significance lies in the fact that exegetical observations have forced him to recognize expanded meanings for Old Testament texts in light of the New Testament expositions of them. However, he, as a dispensationalist, predictably refuses to allow any such expanded meanings to abandon the priority of the Old Testament text for itself. This is another way of saying that a dispensationalist allows a reading of the New Testament into the Old with strong limitations. The implication may be that the nondispensationalist has no such limits. The discussion of these limits hinges upon the issue presented at the beginning of this section, namely, the priority of the Old Testament versus the priority of the New Testament as it pertains to Old Testament interpretation. Thus, a reminder is once again given of the need to examine theological method in the revised debate.

To summarize the thrust of this paper to this point, the following conclusions can be listed:

1. The older forms of debate which centered around “literal” versus “allegorical” are probably inadequate to explain the essence of the problems involved.

2. Both dispensationalists and nondispensationalists claim to apply literal hermeneutics defined as the grammatical-historical method of interpretation.

3. The starting place for both sides is different, the Old Testament for the dispensationalist and the New Testament for the nondispensationalist (such a difference implies a debate over the priority of the Testaments).

4. A different starting place leads to a difference in the way the Testaments are harmonized.

5. The way that the New Testament writers use the Old Testament does not lead one to abandon dispensational principles.

6. All of the above indicate that the essence of dispensationalism will probably be found in the arena of theological method. The pertinent question is how this involves in any way the method of literal interpretation.


Why is it helpful to understand the development of the debate?

What questions do you have about the Bock’s different schools or categories of thought?




One Comment

  • Joe Earle says:

    Thanks for posting this paper. I’m appreciative of Bock’s/Stallard’s understanding of an expanded meaning of OT texts while never abandoning the priority of those texts for themselves.

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