Especially since the rise to prominence of dispensationalism in the late nineteenth century (about the same time as the arising of Mormonism), interpretive principles have become a major focus of eschatological discussion. One of the classic dispensationalist’s leading arguments is the claim to consistent interpretive literalism.
Charles C. Ryrie sets forth interpretive literalism as a sine qua non of this leading branch of dispensationalism: “Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. . . . The dispensationalist claims to use the normal principle of interpretation consistently in all his study of the Bible” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 80, 82). Thomas D. Ice declares: “Futurism . . . is the only approach that can consistently apply literal interpretation” (Thomas Ice in Prophecy Study Bible, 1312). Paul N. Benware calls it a “face value” form of interpretation (Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 20.).
Ryrie gives three arguments for the literalistic hermeneutic.
1. “Philosophically, the purpose of language itself seems to require literal interpretation. . . . If God be the originator of language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His message to man, then it must follow that He, being all-wise and all-loving, originated sufficient language to convey all that was in His heart to tell man. Furthermore, it must also follow that He would use language and expect man to use it in its literal, normal, and plain sense.”
2. “Prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ — His birth, His rearing, His ministry, His death, His resurrection — were all fulfilled literally. There is no non-literal fulfillment of these prophecies in the New Testament.”
3. “If one does not use the plain, normal, or literal method of interpretation, all objectivity is lost.”
Despite the dispensationalists’ vigorous assertions, “consistent literalism” is an impossible ideal, as even progressive dispensationalists admit: “contemporary dispensationalists are pointing the direction in which the discussion needs to progress” (see discussion below). To make matters worse, it gives rise to absurd conclusions. Vos well states: “Chiliasm is a daring literalizing and concretizing of the substance of ancient revelation. Due credit should be given for the naive type of faith such a mentality involves.” But it gives rise to “the resulting evil” that “lies largely in the deficit thus caused in the appraisal of other eschatological processes far overshadowing in importance, this one features, at least to the normally-constituted Christian mind. Its tendency towards eclipsing views more important than itself has done much harm.”
In the next few articles I will consider the problems for this Ryrie-style “consistent” literalism.