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DISPENSATIONALISM, INTERPRETATION, AND PHILOSOPHY

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  August 4, 2012 — 2 Comments

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.

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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 80 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.

2 responses to DISPENSATIONALISM, INTERPRETATION, AND PHILOSOPHY

  1. I know this is off topic but I notice you appear to be Calvinists and I had a question about predestination. Perhaps you could point me to an article that addresses this question regarding predestination: How can a Holy God create beings with eternal souls and predestine them to hell? This seems contradictory to the Holy nature of God. Is this what Calvinists believe about predestination?

    Thanks,
    Bryan Moore
    Dallas, TX

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. August 6, 2012 at 6:30

      Bryan:

      Thanks for reading and thinking through the issues. You are correct, I am a Calvinist.

      Be aware, thought, there are other, similar questions you should ask which parallel the one you do ask: (1) How can a Holy God create beings with eternal souls knowing they will end up in Hell? That is, why would he create such beings knowing that they ultimately will spend eternity in hell? Why not just avoid creating them? Or: (2) How can a Holy God create eternal hell at all?

      Nevertheless, God does all of this. According to Scripture:

      “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Rom 9:22).

      “The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov 16:4).

      “They stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed” (1 Pet 2:8).

      “All who dwell on the earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev 13:8).

      I recommend your reading my book Predestination Made Easy where I provide a positive argument for predestination and answer the leading objections to it. http://www.kennethgentry.com/products/Predestination-Made-Easy-%28book%29-%2830%25-off%29.html

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