Interpreting the Bible ‘Literally’, in Christ: Considering Dispensationalism and Christian Hermeneutics
July 30, 2014
How should we read the Bible as Christians? And when we claim to read the Bible literally, what does this mean? These are two questions I want to broach (emphasis on broach) in this short post. In particular I want to engage with these questions from my own evangelical context, and even more pointedly to engage with a biblical interpretive framework I lived in, through, and under for many years (even including my formal training in both undergraduate and graduate studies); the framework I am referring to is known as Dispensationalism.
Charles Ryrie, famous dispensational scholar from Dallas Theological Seminary is known for his advocacy and articulation of the dispensational interpretation of Scripture. He writes of the literalist interpretation of the Bible:
If literal interpretation is the correct principle of interpretation, if follows that it would be proper to expect it to apply to all the Scriptures. This, as we have tried to show, is the reason the matter of consistency in the application of plain interpretation is so important. The nonliteralist is the nonpremillenialist and the progressive dispensationalist, and the consistent literalist is a dispensationalist.
Literal interpretation results in accepting the text of Scripture at its face value. Based on the philosophy that God originated language for the purpose of communicating His message to man and that He intended man to understand that message, literal interpretation seeks to interpret that message plainly. In the prophecies of the Old Testament, plain interpretation finds many promises that, if interpreted literally, have not yet been fulfilled….
As the first clause at the beginning of the second paragraph underscores, for Ryrie & co. to interpret Scripture literally means that we need to be ‘accepting the text of Scripture at its face value.’ In other words, for Ryrie Scripture should be able to be read in the same way a newspaper in hand can be read; that somehow the context of Scripture has less value in helping us unlock the meaning of Scripture than does the straightforward sets of words themselves. So, for Ryrie, whether or not Jesus Christ has come and fulfilled certain and all Old Testament prophecies in a certain way, and understood through a certain Apostolic and New Testament lens should really have no bearing on how we currently attempt to interpret prophecies, like in reference to the nation of Israel; we (according to Ryrie) should be able to go to Old Testament prophecies and read them as they were given in their original context without recourse to the context we have now been given as Christians to read all of these prophecies in light of Christ’s fulfillment of them. But this is not how the New Testament authors themselves read the Old Testament, in fact, they read the Old Testament in light of Christ, and with Christ as key for providing the broader framework through which these Old Testament promises and prophecies ought to be read (inclusive of the role and place the nation of Israel has in the economy of God’s life in salvation history).
In contrast to Charles Ryrie and the Dispensationalist hermeneutic (interpretive framework) in general, the New Testament authors, along with the Patristic church fathers interpreted the Old Testament in light of Jesus Christ, as if he truly had come and provided substance to the shadows of the Old Testament. For the New Testament authors (and the Church fathers following in their wake and tradition) to interpret Scripture ‘literally’ is not to presume upon a ‘face value’ meaning of the Text, but instead, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and through the very teaching of Jesus Himself, they understood the Old Testament promises and prophecies in certain Christ-concentrated/centered way. They did not presume that Scripture was like any other book that followed mathematically precise linguistic rules governed by the conventions of normal literary principles; no, they realized that Holy Scripture was sacred, as such, while working within the web of literary reality, what provided the cohesion and structure, and the broad context of meaning for Scripture was not a nation, but a person, and that person, of course is the Jewish man, Jesus Christ. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard have written:
Continuity and discontinuity mark the transition from Jewish to early Christian interpretation. As devout Jews, the first Christian interpreters–the apostles–regarded Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah and the small religious community he left behind as the true fulfillment of Judaism’s ancient hopes. They appealed to the OT Scriptures to support their beliefs, interpreting them by many of the same principles as other Jewish religious groups. On the other hand, they revered Jesus as the new Moses and the authority of Jesus as superior even to that of the law of Moses–a decisive departure from their Jewish roots. Also, they interpreted the OT from a radically new perspective–in light of the Messiahship of Jesus and the new age inaugurated by his coming.
Indeed, Jesus’ literal fulfillment of OT prophecy was their fundamental hermeneutical principle. In this they followed the example of Jesus himself. Jesus launched his ministry by claiming in a Galilean synagogue that he personally fulfilled Isa 61:1-2 (Lk 4:18-21; cf. Mk 1:15). Later, when John doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus appealed to his healing of the blind, the lame, and the deaf just as Isa 35:5-6 had forecast (Lk 7:21-23). Along those same lines, the apostles found the prophetic fulfillment of the OT in Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom of God. In other words, they understood the OT christologically. According to Paul, to read the law of Moses without Christ is like reading it through a veil (2 Cor 3:14-16; cf. Exod 34:33-35). The reader simply cannot see what it really means!
If the above is the case as delineated by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard to follow Ryrie and the Dispensationalist’s literalism is more akin to reading the Bible Jewishly rather than Christianly. It is to read Scripture as literalistic instead of in the ‘sense of literalism’ (sensus literalis); to read Scripture in the sense and within the context that it is given, for Christians, means to intentionally and rigorously read Scripture as if Jesus Christ is the ‘literal’ meaning and sense of all of the Old Testament promises and prophecies. If we attempt to read Scripture other than this, and under the terms laid out by Ryrie and Dispensationalists in general, we will miss the real point of Scripture, and we will misunderstand Israel’s important role in mediating the messiah to the nations.
To finish off this now lengthy blog post, let me close with a quote from Donald Fairbairn on how the early Christians in the early Patristic church interpreted Scripture in close following with the way the New Testament itself interpreted Scripture (i.e. the so called Old Testament):
At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.
Fairbairn is really just pressing what we have already sketched above, and reinforcing the idea that the New Testament itself offers the interpretive categories through which we ought to engage the Old Testament promises and prophecies; we ought to engage the OT as if Jesus has come, and as if Jesus is coming again, as if He is the context, as if He is ‘literalist’ reality of the Old Testament context. Even if some so called ‘allegory’ or other interpretive methods are deployed by the New Testament authors, we must, as the early Church did, understand that what it means to read the Old Testament literally is to do so in Christ as the fulfillment and reality of the Text. True, Jesus is Jewish, indeed that is the point, as Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck has written, “… Israel belongs to the human race, remains in relation to all peoples, and is chosen not at the cost, but for the benefit of the whole human race….”; even so, to understand Israel in isolation, and as if all of human and biblical history is shaped by its reality, would miss the bigger reality of which both Israel and all of creation is a part of in Jesus Christ.
In summary, I have introduced the way Dispensationalists, and in particular, Charles Ryrie understand what literal biblical interpretation looks like and results in. And then I have juxtaposed and countered the Dispensationalist understanding of what interpreting the Bible literally looks like for the New Testament and early Patristic church, and I have concluded that the best way forward is to follow the lead of the New Testament itself. I then finally concluded that the broad and narrow context for interpreting the Old Testament promises and prophecies is not through the nation of Israel in isolation (as if it is the sole barometer for biblical and prophetic history), but instead through the Jewish man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. I seminally suggested that if we follow Jesus as the key to interpreting Scripture that we will not follow a Dispensationalist understanding of interpreting Scripture literally, but instead that we will follow the way that the New Testament itself understands interpreting the OT literalistically; i.e. in Christ.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Mood Press, 1995), 90.
 William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 28-9.
 Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, Kindle loc. 2585.