Recently a reader named Joel wrote to me asking the following:
“I have a question. In trying to have integrity in our work, especially when critiquing another position, we should present the opposite view the way they would. Although I’m definitely not dispensational, I know some pastors who wouldn’t agree with saying that “literalism” is correct but rather “historical grammatical literal” interpretation. Do you think you are misrepresenting some dispensationalist? Or at least putting them all in one box?”
My response to Joel:
Thanks for your question and your concern. I hear this objection from time-to-time, though I must confess that it always surprises me. You are correct in noting that we need to accurately present an opponent that we are critiquing. And I believe that I have done so. Let me reply to your nice note just briefly:
First, my criticism of dispensationalism is of the dominant viewpoint, technically known as “Revised Dispensationalism” (as per Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock) but popularly known simply as “dispensationalism.”  The view that I critique is that which is presented in the multi-million selling works by Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, J. D. Pentecost, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and others. Very seldom do you see a “Progressive Dispensationalist” calling himself a “dispensationalist” without the descriptor: “progressive.”
Furthermore this form of dispensationalism is the dominant view held in thousands upon thousands of churches in America. Thus, please be aware that I am critiquing what is commonly known and accepted as simply: “dispensationalism.”
Second, dispensationalists of this dominant variety, constantly argue that they are literalists. This term is not being put in their mouths by me or others. Let me cite just a few samples from their own works ( will bold the relevant words):
J. Dwight Pentecost
On p. 1 of Dwight Pentecost’s massive work, Things to Come he states: ”When Allis acknowledges that ‘Literal interpretation has always been a marked feature of Premillennialism’ he is in agreement with [dispensationalist] Feinberg, who writes: ‘… it can be shown that the reason the early Church was premillennial was traceable to its interpretation of the Word in a literal manner….’”
Then on p. 9 he presents a centered heading to introduce a new section in his book: “II. The Literal Method.” His mains below that are: “A. The definition of the literal method” (p. 9). “B. The evidence for the literal method” (p. 9). “C. The advantages of the literal method” (p. 11). And so on. He continues such in the next chapter titled “The History of Interpretation.” His third key point in this chapter is: “III. Literalism in the Time of Christ” (p. 17).
John F. Walvoord
John Walvoord in his large work, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, makes an important argument early on, when on p. 10 he writes: “Because approximately half of the prophecies of the Bible have already been fulfilled in a literal way, it gives a proper intellectual basis for assuming that prophecy yet to be fulfilled will likewise have a literal fulfillment.” On p. 14 he reiterates this: “Fulfilled prophecy is an important guide in interpreting prophecy unfulfilled and generally confirms the concept of literal interpretation of a prophecy.” Then on p. 15 he states that “it may be demonstrated that most prophecy should be interpreted literally.”
Charles C. Ryrie
Ryrie has updated his important 1965 work (formerly titled: Dispensationalism Today). He now simply calls it: Dispensationalism (1995). His original version was widely acknowledged as the definition of dispensationalism.
In chapter 5 he considers: “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism.” In that chapter he presents a major heading: “The Different Viewpoints.” His first sub-head under that heading is “The Dispensational Position.” That section opens: “Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalist claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation” (p. 80).
Ryrie follows Walvoord (and others) when he writes on p. 81: “A second reason why dispensationalist believe in the literal principle is a biblical one: the 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. That argues strongly for the literal method.”
Robert L. Thomas
In Tim LaHaye’s Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy (2004) we find Robert Thomas’ article: “Hermeneutics.” He notes on p. 139: “Only the futurist approach to Revelation accepts the book’s self-claim of being a prophecy and interprets it literally. Embracing the premillennial return of Christ, it utilizes a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation.”
In that same book (PEBP), Elmer Towns contributes an article titled: “Dispensationalism.” In his encyclopedia definition of dispensationalism he states in part: “Because the Bible is God’s literal Word and His plan for history, we should interpret it literally” (p. 82). On p. 83 his first point under “Essentials of Dispensationalism” is: “First Essential: Consistent Literal Interpretation.”
These are just a few samples of the prevailing tendency in the dominant form of dispensationalism to call their system of interpretation “literalism.” It is certainly a mistake on their part, but it nevertheless is their mistake, not mine. Interestingly, the issue of literalism is one of the major distinctions that Progressive Dispensationalists make between themselves and the more popular form of dispensationalism. Progressives deny simple literalism.
 See ch. 9 “Progressive Dispensationalism” in Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (1995).