A Discussion with, Daniel, Cameron, and Chris: On Eschatology, Dispensationalism, and a Christ Concentrated Heremeneutic

The following is primarily intended to follow up on a discussion I had this last Wednesday with my pastor (Daniel), and other brothers from my church (Calvary Chapel, Vancouver/Downtown). We were talking, in general, gracejesusabout our views on “eschatology,” and attempting to articulate the lineaments of our various positions; or maybe, even, for some of us, trying to figure out where we are at (I know where I am at on this stuff, at this point). As most know, Calvary Chapels are as staunchly classical Dispensational, Premillennial, Pretribulational as they come; and usually (especially in Southern California) they hold to a rather idiosyncratic intensity in their application of classical Dispensationalism. My pastor, is dispensational (progressive, though … which is laudable), Pretrib and Premil. My other brother (at our meeting), Cameron, is pretty sure he is coming down as Historic Premillennial (good, Cameron! J ); and the other brother at our meeting (the Worship Pastor at our church), Chris, seems to be open and working towards his own view on these things. And, then there is me; I am currently an exegetical historical premil (which also means post-trib), and a theological amillennialist.

We covered a broad range of things in our discussion, and in our discussion, I attempted (in our short time we had together) to provide some historical background in regard to the setting in which the dispensational hermeneutic took shape (i.e. from Scottish Common Sense Realism, from positivism, from Enlightenment rationalism, etc.). And then attempted to explain how and why I reject the Literalistic, Grammatical, Historical approach on offer with classical Dispensationalism; and then briefly hint at why I jettison the ‘literalistic’ (which is rationalist) “L” in the literal for the classical Dispensational hermeneutic, and instead affirm an actual “Literal” understanding of Scripture in terms that are defined by the way the New Testament itself uses and interprets the Old Testament promises in light of Jesus Christ as their fulfillment. And so in this sense, I explained how I understand “Literal” interpretation (see Calvin’s sensus literalis, for example); and then along with this qualification,  how I attach this “kind” of literal to the grammatical-historical (I also like to see the “L” as literary).

Okay, so you have a better understanding now with what was going on in our conversation. With this understanding in mind, and with a kind of critique of my “L” approach, from my pastor (although, I would not say it was a critique, per se, just a concern that I was maybe moving too fast and ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ — meaning that I am probably adopting an allegorical approach or something), I want to share what would be informing the kind of thinking that might fear what I appear to be doing with my own (I would say, more historic) understanding of what being literal actually entails. Who better to provide this kind of insight, into this kind of apprehension (towards my direction), than Charles Ryrie (popularizer and stalwart of classical Dispensational hermeneutics)? The following is Ryrie critiquing Daniel Fuller, professor emeritus, from Fuller Theological Seminary; Fuller would maintain a more historical premil kind of view (which might as well be amillennial for Ryrie). Here is Ryrie on Fuller:

Thus, the nondispensationalist is not a consistent literalist by his own admission but has to introduce another hermeneutical principle (the “theological” method) in order to have a heremeneutical basis for the system he holds. One suspects that the conclusions determined the means used to arrive at them—which is a charge usually hurled at dispensationalists.

Fuller’s problem is that apparently his concept of progressive revelation includes the possibility that subsequent revelation may completely change the meaning of something previously revealed. It is true that progressive revelation brings additional light, but does it completely reverse to the point of contradiction what has been previously revealed? Fuller’s concept apparently allows for such, but the literal principle built upon a sound philosophy of the purpose of language does not. New revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation. Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different. It may add to it or even supersede it, but it does not contradict it. A word or concept cannot mean one thing in the Old Testament and take on opposite meaning in the New Testament. If this were so, the Bible would be filled with contradictions, and God would have to be conceived of as deceiving the Old Testament prophets when He revealed to them a nationalistic kingdom, since He would have known all the time that He would completely reverse the concept in later revelation. The true concept of progressive revelation is like a building—and certainly the superstructure does not replace the foundation.[1]

Ryrie’s fear is really an apologetic fear, and not a theological or even biblical one. The fear for Ryrie is that if we don’t follow a wooden-literal, and positivistic hermeneutic, that we will end up denying the inerrancy of Scripture, and indeed, in the end, undercut any space for a rational belief in God. So this is one thing (a category confusion, and illustrative of the Fundamentalist reactionary mode that so dominates Ryrie’s approach, and how that reaction stands in as a touchstone and shaper of his hermeneutic, in general).

Secondly, for Ryrie, he believes that a “theological” reading of Scripture means that we have carte blanch for interpreting Scripture “spiritualistically;” we see this in his critique of Fuller. But this is highly problematic, for Ryrie, and his view, because what he fails to appreciate is that his “literalist” approach comes just as loaded with “theological” freight as does any other purported “theological” method. It is just that classical Dispensationalism, in general, and Charles Ryrie, in particular, operate from a theory of language and reality that, again, takes shape from a naturalist, empiricist understanding of reality; such that, in the end, the linear march of history, and the usage of language by people that shapes that, becomes determinative for how reality “just is.” In other words, for Ryrie, it is as if a ‘normal, plain, and literal’ engagement with observable reality (inclusive of language itself) can simply be read in a way that theological presuppositions are mere abstractions of language itself; as if language is not innately theological in its giveness; as if language itself does not come from the sustainer of creation itself — which would or should make one think that language is thoroughly theologically charged, in general (especially when we are dealing with the language of the Bible). Ironically, Ryrie, just prior to the quote I shared above appeals to this same thing; i.e. that language is given by God. But then he uncritically presumes that if this is the case, that biblical language, then, ought to be as simple as reading Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which, again, is to actually abstract biblical language from its rich Christian and theological origination; and instead, to locate it in the realm of a pure nature that is abstract from God, in the end.

To be “literal” for me, when it comes to biblical hermeneutics, is to follow the way the New Testatment authors consistently engage with the Old Testament and its application and reinterpretation in and through Christ as its ultimate reality (just as Christ is the ultimate reality and purpose for all of creation cf. Col. 1:15ff.). This is not to change or contradict the original intent or meaning of the Old Testatment, instead, it is to fully appreciate that the New Testatment authors (under inspiration) used the various heremenutical approaches available to them in their second Temple context. It is to appreciate that they applied things that would “naturally” appear to be applicable to the nation of Israel, and expand those out to their actual and always referent in Jesus Christ. To be literal for me is to follow the demands expected by the various literary realties that govern the Bible as a piece of special literature: i.e. types, genres, and forms. To be literal for me is to assume that whenever we read the bible we are engaging in a theological exercise, par excellence. The Bible, itself, as read by Christians through the centuries, is governed by the theological concept that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and that God speaks (viva vox Dei, ‘the living voice of God’).

If we start out reading the Bible as Christians, and thus Christianly, we will not end up being a classical or even a progressive Dispensationalist. And this is because, again, we will read the Bible in a way that starts with Christ (cf. Gen. 1:1 with John 1:1, which is a very theological gloss on Gen. 1:1 by the evangelist, John), the son of David. If we start out reading the Bible with the nation of Israel, and then do so through a wooden-literalism (as I have describe it above), then we will end up reading the Bible as if it is primarily about the nation of Israel (with Christ included in the discussion, but not primary to it). So either way, it is a rather circular venture; the difference between what I would call the Christ[ian] approach versus the ‘Israel’ approach, is that the Christian approach has the space for someOne outside of the contours of natural history to break in on its understanding, and thus serve as history’s point and reality; whereas, the Israel approach takes its orientation from the closed and immanent orientation provided by natural history and its linear and progressive unfolding alone.

Obviously, Christians are on both sides of this equation (and it is certainly possible to frame this in less polarizing ways); but of course, I think the side I am on is the genuinely Christian one, and I am hopeful that you all might join me here (if you haven’t already). Good times!


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 84.

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6 comments

  1. (Comment on Dispensationalism discussion) Enjoyed reading this. Wonder why Ryrie does not go after George Ladd rather than Daniel Fuller on this topic — Ladd had more to say about the Kingdom, etc. I have always thought that it was unfortunate that many of the groups doing the most in terms of evangelism do a great disservice to those newly “saved” individuals by loading them down with doctrines which they will have to unlearn later, especially if they do any graduate work in either theology or science, unless they go to a graduate school whose main purpose is to continue a tradition instead of search for which may be the truth. I am thinking of doctrines like dispensationalism, inerrancy, young-earth creationism, all Christians are Republicans, etc. As Wesley said “Think and let think” Why are evangelicals so afraid of thinking? (by the way, what did Ryrie do his doctoral dissertation on at the University of Edinburgh — I did not realize that school was committed to dispensationalism)

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  2. Hi Keith,

    My guess would be because Ryrie originally wrote this back in the 60s, and I don’t think Ladd’s profile was as high then (or at least not at the point that Ryrie wrote this), as it has become now. But his critique would equally apply to Ladd, as it does to Fuller, or any “non-dispensational” approach. Obviously, most of these churches you speak of believe that they are loading folks down with stuff the bible truly teaches and demands. Some of us move on from a lot of that, and some don’t. I think what can properly orient things is a focus on God in Christ. This is something that I appreciate about my pastor; i.e. that he realizes this.

    No, Edinburgh is not dispensational, whatsoever. I have no idea what Ryrie did his diss on at Ed. He also got a doctorate from Dallas, first, I believe. Obviously that stabilized him enough in his dispy faith to navigate through a PhD at Edinburgh that allowed him remain dispy–and even harden in it.

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  3. Bobby,

    Had a great time with you guys that night as well! It went a little too quickly though. As you well know, conversations that explore eschatological understanding, particularly the Church’s many layers of understanding, historically, have not been encouraged in our movement – apart from an apologetic in defense of classical dispensationalism. So to be able to do get together and discuss our differing views, and even have the chance to learn something and be challenged by other view points, is healthy and refreshing.

    And just so you know, my “baby with the bathwater” comment was said tongue-in-cheek. 🙂 I knew you would be familiar with that argument; thus the opportunity to address it, which you have done well to do here (if not that evening as well).

    I want to say how much I appreciate what you’re saying about an appropriately “Christian” literalist hermeneutic. I’ve learned much from you in this area. And I keep learning. I also think this is where my own move towards “progressive” dispensationalism has come. I’m certainly no spokesman for the group, but “progressives” do seek to orient their understanding of the Old Testament in light of what the New Testament reveals; particularly what is revealed in, thru, by, and about Christ. That’s why classic dispensationalists often criticize progressives as not being literal, and as moving towards (gasp!) amillennialism. They see a Christ-oriented hermeneutic as being an act of “spiritualization” of the Old Testament Scriptures. I would disagree with them, fundamentally.

    Perhaps it should be called “modified” dispensationalism. Or – to get a real kick – “reformed” dispensationalism. 😉

    And there’s also that little issue with the Gospel and how it removes the distinctions between Jew and Gentile: One Gospel for all people, and all people made one in Christ. That, too, seems to be at the heart of what has moved many from their classical roots.

    Anyway, great time altogether. We need to do it again soon!

    Daniel

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  4. Hey Daniel,

    I was a Progressive Dispy for about 10 years. I would argue that while they emphasize a more Christ centered approach than classic dispy (for sure), that they in fact are still moving “Progressively” (thus their designation) through the text; so they are very tradition-historical and salvation history driven (and thus less Christological in their hermeneutic). We can see this as they focus, heavily (like Blaising and Bock as well as Saucy) on the primacy of the Davidic Covenant, and Jesus as its fulfillment. I actually see there movement (and I think they do too; my profs at Multnomah who were Progressive Dispy help to substantiated this for me) as very linear, and very Old Testament —-> New Testament (and not vice versa). I actually think you are functioning more like a Historical Premil. Just given in, Daniel :-). That said, I have tension in my own view; moving back and forth between a salvation-history approach and a more dogmatically inspired Christ-centered approach.

    Yes, we do need to meet again soon!

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  5. You mean like seeing Jesus as the point and reality of Israel? Yeah, I struggle with that too ;-).

    It is my ‘elf theme’. Don’t worry, I’ll have one that is more theologically correct some time before Christmas hits (well, at least one 😉 ). I see blog themes like pairs of shoes, you can never have too many :-).

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