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DISPENSATIONALISM AND LITERALISM

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment

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.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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