Ryrie argues for a dispensational literalism on three foundations. The first is that literalism is rooted in the philosophy of language.
The immediately striking point about Ryrie’s first proof is that it is preconceived. This is quite evident in Ryrie’s statement that “principles of interpretation are basic and ought to be established before attempting to interpret the Word.” Does not his approach to language function disallow the possibility of a spiritual interpretation at the very outset? Why must we begin with the literalist assumption? May not so rich a work as the Bible, dedicated to such a lofty and spiritual theme (the infinite God’s redemption of sinful man), written by many authors over 1,500 years, allow a variety of literary approaches?
Even dispensationalists admit that biblical revelation often employs figures of speech. But this brings up the very controversy before us: when is prophecy to be interpreted literally, and when figuratively? Vern Poythress rightly suspects that dispensationalists “may have conveniently arranged their decision about what is figurative after their basic system is in place telling them what can and what cannot be fitted into the system. The decisions as to what is figurative and what is not figurative may be a product of the system as a whole rather than the inductive basis of it.” Ryrie’s statement appears to support this conclusion: “The understanding of God’s differing economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within those various economies.” In other words, you must have a dispensational framework (“understanding God’s differ-ing economies”) in order to do “proper interpretation”! Feinberg agrees: “Every prophecy is a part of a wonderful scheme of revelation; for the true significance of any prophecy, the whole prophetic scheme must be kept in mind and the interrelationship between the parts in the plan as well.”
For dispensationalists to presume consistent literalism is unreas-onable. “To assert, without express authority, that prophecy must always and exclusively be one or the other, is as foolish as it would be to assert the same thing of the whole conversation of an individual throughout his lifetime, or of human speech in general.”
In addition, Ryrie’s first argument commits the logical fallacy of petitio principii (begging the question). He argues that because God created language, “the purpose of language itself seems to require literal interpretation” on the basis that “it must . . . follow that He would use language and expect man to use it in its literal, normal, and plain sense.” “Language was given by God for the purpose of communication with humankind. Therefore, God would give His linguistic communication in the most understandable way — literally and normally.” This is not very convincing, given that he often communicates in Scripture through poetry, metaphor, parable, and other literary means.
Finally, as dispensational theologians frame the matter in the debate, they set out their hermeneutic practice as immune to criticism by its excluding countervailing evidence. As Vern S. Poythress demonstrates, dispensationalists apply prophecies in a non-literal way by calling them “applications” or “partial fulfillments,” or by classifying them as spiritual level fulfillments, or arguing that sometimes original prophecies contained figures themselves. Poythress queries, how can we know this in advance? His point is well-taken.