Thoughts on Dispensationalism: Reading the Bible Through the Nation of Israel or Through the Person, Jesus Christ
July 31, 2014
*This post dovetails nicely with the post I just wrote below this one. I wrote this particular post back in November (2013), so it is a few months old, and I am reflecting, as you will see on my own view of things interpretive juxtaposed with the views of a few friend’s of mine.
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, about 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.
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!
 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 84.